Sherman Alexie perhaps said it best: “I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.” From claim checks to domestic violence, from growing pains to banishing the teepee stereotype, Native writers draw from a deep well of personal experience when they tell their stories. Yet much of their work never reaches the public eye.
Enter longtime journalist and Indian Country Today Media Network correspondent Adrian Jawort, a Northern Cheyenne writer who crafts both fiction and poetry. This year he delved into publishing as well, founding the Billings, Montana-based imprint Off the Pass Press and issuing its first work.
Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century Montana American Indian Writers, Vol. 1 presents nine short stories by five writers—Cinnamon Spear, Luella N. Brien, Eric Leland Bigman Brien, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, and Jawort himself. He said these particular stories struck him as bold, uninhibited and “beautifully bleak.”
Jawort’s drive to found his own imprint began with Spear’s “God’s Plan,” which he said moved him to tears. In this short story, the 14-year-old narrator struggles with an abusive, alcoholic father and a traumatized mother who is, in the words of the protagonist, “undoubtedly the strongest and the weakest woman I know, rolled into one.”
The parents’ “Friday night tornadoes” wreak havoc on the children, particularly on the young teenage narrator, who ultimately must make an awful choice—one her father won’t remember, but with repercussions that will haunt her for a lifetime.
“The prayer continued to flow from my mouth, but the meaning of the words suddenly disappeared,” she relates. “Held in secret from the crew, my devotion melted into disbelief. There were no angels. There was no God. It was all bullshit.”
“I read [her] work and basically cried,” Jawort said. “She has that ability, as many readers will attest, and I wanted it to be read by the largest possible audience.”
Another motivation for Jawort was Sherman Alexie’s book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The 2007 novel especially caught his attention last fall, when some Billings parents tried to get it banned from a local high school’s curriculum. Jawort attended one of the rallies and reported on the controversy for ICTMN.
“I saw people of all races and backgrounds passionately defending the book because it was like nothing they’d read,” he recalled. “I knew there was a built-in audience for a similar work.”
Inspired by that realization, Jawort formed his LLC and became an independent publisher. He said he felt it was the only way to ensure that work like Spear’s would reach the general public.
“The status-quo publishing industry moves at a glacial rate, and rarely do they accept people beyond their ‘velvet rope,’ ” he said. “They’re getting more exclusive, taking fewer chances on unproven authors, and only supporting established top sellers. So we took out the middle men and are forging ahead.”
According to Jawort, Off the Path gives a voice to younger Native writers who weren’t part of the 1970s and ‘80s “Native American renaissance.” And it introduces Indian Country to non-Native readers who may not understand what lies right next door.
“Although we do have, respectfully, writers like Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie representing us on bestseller lists, every tribe is unique,” Jawort said. “Just like the Germans, British and French aren’t all the same, Blackfeet, Crow and Northern Cheyenne are different as well.”
Spear, a Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, Montana, also contributed “Bloody Hands” and “Sweetheart” to the anthology. She agreed that collecting contemporary Native authors’ stories is important.
“The greater society knows little to nothing about Natives,” she said. “Having a voice is everything, otherwise people aren’t going to know the realities of our communities. There is positive change coming, but we need to stand up and speak. It’s hard, because we’re raised to be humble and not take the spotlight. We have to find a balance.”
The only graduate of Lame Deer High School to obtain an Ivy League education, Spear earned her bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and master’s degree in Arts & Liberal Studies, with an emphasis in creative writing, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. She drafted “God’s Plan” in her fiction class.
“My professor said, ‘This is so raw, so powerful,’ ” she recalled. “My work is fictionalized nonfiction. My professor told us to write what we know, so that’s my approach. I’ve lived my stories.”
That approach forced Spear to examine her entire life, searching for the drama in her real-world experiences. And she uncovered her powerful, passionate stories.
“The process really caused me to look at things you don’t think about when you’re in survival mode,” she mused. “My stories seem dark, and that would surprise people who know me! But writing is a release. It’s freedom. I always used writing to handle my experiences, and that’s a tool we can teach our kids.
“In rural, underprivileged schools, we don’t always identify with what we read or see on TV,” Spear continued. “Native writers can engage our youth, help them feel like they exist.”
And it’s not just about children.
“There’s too much shame,” she said. “I grew up with alcoholism and abuse, but it doesn’t define me, and I’m better for it. We need to tell our kids that they can be strong and brilliant; they just need the tools. Adults too. There’s a lot of pain. We have to look each other dead in the eye and tell the truth. We have to listen to our inner voice, and share our stories.”
Raised on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation, writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain contributed the short story “The Education of Little Man False Star Boy” to the anthology. He said he was happy to be part of the project because it showcased a variety of writers from different parts of Montana’s Indian Country.
“It’s not just one story, where a mainstream audience will say, ‘This is what Indians are like,’ ” he noted. “That’s its value. You get to see different people writing about Indian Country in their own way, and they’re doing it together.
“I can’t understate the importance of multiple voices,” he said. “You need a broader spectrum view, because in American society, one Indian speaks for everyone. It happens over and over.”
HolyWhiteMountain holds a bachelor’s degree in English Creative Writing from the University of Montana and a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. He said one of the greatest challenges that Native writers face is the lack of a mainstream audience that can work from a broader context.
Non-Native readers need to have an understanding of the history—and of contemporary realities in native communities, he observed. And in a short-story format, there’s no room to provide the background that Native readers would completely understand without explanation.
“This is a constant battle for Indian writers,” he said. “You struggle to communicate something that’s basic in your world, yet is unfamiliar to everyone else. None of my friends at school had that. You either have to generalize to the point of stereotyping, or you go into more detail and risk alienating non-Indians. It’s a level of complexity that other writers don’t have, and that makes it harder.”
HolyWhiteMountain intends to make “False Star Boy” a longer work. He said it’s based on a pivotal life experience that took place years ago.
“One of my best friends had a claim check,” he said. “We were probably the last generation to get them. You didn’t think about it; it was like the air you breathed back then. Then I figured out where they actually came from, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Young people viewed the checks as the means to buy cars or go party with friends, he explained, but the checks came from the 1886 claim that ceded the culturally significant Sweetgrass—or Sweet Pine—Hills.
In the short story, the narrator’s grandfather tells him, “So think of it like this—every cent you spend is you spending your piece of those hills. That’s what that money is. Pretty weird, enit… all you kids getting those claim checks when you turned 18, you’re spending those hills.” The narrator notes that the grandfather laughed, and “there was meanness in his laughter.”
“I found that situation so haunting, that we were spending the Sweetgrass Hills and didn’t even know it,” HolyWhiteMountain said. “And writers write about what haunts them.”
Jawort said he will continue “finding true beauty off the beaten path” with a second collection of Off the Path stories, to be published this winter.
“We should have it out by December,” he said. “I’m excited about it, because we’ve not only reached out to writers from places like South Dakota and the Southwest, but we’ve also gotten a talented young Maori writer from New Zealand. We aim to eventually get Aboriginal writers as well.”
Jawort’s vision includes additional volumes down the line, including an all-women anthology.
“We’re seeking out talent that otherwise would get overlooked by major publishers,” he said. “Our ancestors’ voices were first heard across this land, and we do have a unique voice, so why should we wait for permission from a major publisher to tell our stories?”