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New Indigenous Writers Lecture Series Showcases Contemporary Native Voices

February 27, 2020

A newly launched Indigenous Writers Lecture Series at Stanford will host readings by Native novelists, playwrights, poets, and other writers from the university and beyond.

The events will appeal to “anybody who’s interested in great writing,” including authors looking to improve their command of the craft, undergraduates seeking literary career path role models, or researchers interested in postcolonial and Indigenous topics, said Blakey Vermeule, the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature in the School of Humanities and Sciences and chair of the Department of English. 

It is particularly crucial to honor Native voices at Stanford, Vermeule added, given that Stanford University is located on land once inhabited by the Muwekma Ohlone people.

Some Americans tend to “‘museumize’ Native people and to think about them purely in the past tense,” said series co-organizer Jamie Fine, who is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature. The Indigenous Writers Lecture Series hopes to combat this tendency by focusing on the groundbreaking Native authors of today. “This is about recognizing that there is a current set of Native voices and that those voices have a lot to say.”

The series will also showcase the various ways in which “what began as a largely oral or visual tradition has become something that’s in writing, and printed, and in publication,” said Fine, who identifies as Chiricahua Apache and white and has previously served as the co-president of the Stanford Native American Graduate Students organization.

Vermeule hopes that the series will serve as a jumping-off point for incorporating more Indigenous literature and writing classes into the Stanford curriculum in general, adding that she welcomes suggestions from current students and from the wider Stanford alumni community regarding potential course topics and instructors. 

A paradoxical position

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, gave the inaugural reading of the new lecture series on February 4 at Margaret Jacks Hall. As an author who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, HolyWhiteMountain often writes about tensions between Native peoples and U.S. law.

Native people find themselves in a paradoxical position, HolyWhiteMountain noted. While the creation of art has a longstanding connection to political subversion, Native people face distinctly limiting restrictions. The U.S. government actively regulates the way in which traditional Native art is advertised and sold through the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), first passed in 1935 and revised in 1990.

The IACA was theoretically passed in order to prevent non-Native people from profiting off of long-established Indigenous artistic traditions. However, it has the harmful consequence, HolyWhiteMountain indicated, of allowing governments (both federal and tribal) to determine who can legally sell art classified as “Native.” Under this law, people who are found to be selling artistic products under the false impression that they are “Indian produced” can be fined or imprisoned, meaning that in such cases the government becomes the de facto arbiter of what constitutes both Native identity and art, traditional and contemporary, creating a host of potential problems for Native artists, particularly those who are not enrolled in a tribe. 

Native people “are so ensconced in these legal systems that are exclusive to us that, at a certain point, it’s just in the background of the American mind that, ‘Well, of course there are going to be special laws for Indians,’” HolyWhiteMountain said. “But we don’t talk about the ramifications of the existence of the laws in the first place.”

During his talk, HolyWhiteMountain, who holds a master of fine arts in fiction from the University of Iowa, highlighted the many ways in which the legacy of U.S. colonial conquest still profoundly shapes the lives of Native people today.

For example, the ongoing impact of European-Americans’ theft of lands from Indigenous peoples becomes starkly apparent in HolyWhiteMountain’s short story “The Education of Little Man False Star Boy.” In the excerpt he shared with the audience, two Blackfeet men drive toward and discuss the Sweet Grass Hills in Montana, territory that the U.S. government took from the tribe in a coercive sale in 1888. Although the Hills are a sacred site for the Blackfeet, they cannot easily access this spiritually important region today because it lies distant from the government-drawn borders of their reservation.

The history of unfair land treaties, as well as other issues that underscore Native people’s continuing lack of sovereignty, tend to make Americans uncomfortable, said HolyWhiteMountain. Such subjects “trouble … the American sense of self too greatly,” he read from his essay “Silence Itself,” because “we cannot discuss race without discussing the half-conscious need for Americans to justify their dominion here.”

At least two more speakers are planned for the lecture series between now and spring quarter of this year. The next event, a reading by Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Lecturer Gerald Vizenor, will take place on March 2, 5–6:30 p.m., in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall (Building 460 in the Main Quad).