From the Desk of Siobhan Senier: Showing Readers Indigenous Writers

Siobhan Senier is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. She is the editor of Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (Nebraska, 2014) and author of  Voices of American Indian Assimilation and Resistance: Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah Winnemucca, and Victoria Howard.

I was very fortunate to work with Nebraska on a previous book, Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (Nebraska, 2014). Compiled with eleven tribal co-editors, it contains almost 700 pages’ worth of poetry, fiction, memoir, letters, petitions and other genres from the seventeenth century to the present. It’s been a humbling experience to work with so many Indigenous writers, and to see the excitement in tribal communities around their publication and re-publication. The anthology has a spin-off project, dawnlandvoices.org, which features new as well as established authors, plus visual art, video and audio. 

People sometimes ask me why I didn’t publish with one of the New England university presses; but the truth is that Nebraska has always gotten Native American literature. It publishes the flagship journal Studies in American Indian Literatures, of which I am currently a co-editor. Nebraska has also done an exceptional job of publishing work by and about contemporary Indigenous people. Just look at its wonderful American Indian Lives series, which now happily includes a memoir by Dawnland author Cheryl Savageau (Abenaki).

I was concerned, in both Dawnland Voices and Sovereignty and Sustainability, to show readers that Indigenous people—specifically Indigenous writers—are still entirely present in New England, despite whatever myths persist about Indians hosting the first Thanksgiving and then vanishing into thin air. This is an argument that plenty of people have made before me, including historians like Jean O’Brien and Lisa Brooks and, obviously, Indigenous New England people themselves, of whom Lisa Brooks is one. But most of the academic work in this area has focused on the early colonial period.

Scholars have generally not paid much attention to Indigenous people in New England after, say, the Pequot minister William Apess led a famous revolt at Mashpee, Massachusetts, in 1833. In Dawnland Voices the tribal editors and I wanted to remind people that Apess was hardly a lone survivor; he was only one of countless Native people who have been writing, for centuries, to reaffirm tribal sovereignty, to protect Indigenous lands, to re-connect Indigenous community, and indeed to revel in the beauty of the written word itself.

As the tribal editors kept bringing forward much more writing than we could publish in one book, I became fascinated by how, with zero outside recognition or support, their communities managed to sustain such strong senses of their own literary traditions and histories. As an English professor, I belong to a high-strung bunch: we’re always panicking about books going out of print, libraries being cut, and people generally reading less and less. In the COVID-19 era, you can believe, our fears are apocalyptic. But reading and teaching Indigenous literature puts the apocalypse in a different perspective. Indigenous people have already seen the destruction of their economies and ecosystems. They’ve already suffered countless epidemics. And they’ve experienced these things not just once or twice in the remote past, but over and over again, for 500 years.

The writers I discuss in Sovereignty and Sustainability are all too familiar with literary neglect. Prestigious mainstream publishers ignore or reject them, libraries and archives often omit them, school curricula (and even my own professional field, Indigenous literary studies) overlook them. Yet they keep writing, and their communities keep reading them, remembering them and sharing them. Authors like Cheryl Savageau and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Mohegan) have been determinedly publishing extremely fine literature with small presses, and reading for generally localized, appreciative audiences. They are doing such interesting work: Savageau is writing about being a Native woman with bipolar disorder, Tantaquidgeon is writing futuristic novels about tribes adapting and surviving long after the trees and casinos have started to disappear.

Other writers, like the Mashpee poet Mabel Avant, never saw publication outside of informal tribal pamphlets, yet their descendants can still recite their work generations later, work that helps them remember who they are and where they belong. Narragansett people, similarly, still share and read from their tribal magazine, The Narragansett Dawn, published briefly in the 1930s. Inverting the old formula whereby oral traditions allegedly die if someone doesn’t write them down, tribal communities are actually building new oral traditions to help keep literary history alive. They collect those old pamphlets in tribal offices, tiny museums and sometimes family homes, and they talk about them, quote them, and reprint them. In many cases, they take it upon themselves to publish and re-publish this literature, as Joseph and Jesse Bruchac are doing with their Bowman Books imprint of historic and new northeast Native writing.

The revolution, as the saying goes, will not be funded. Few of these writers would turn down an opportunity to make a better living doing this work; everyone appreciates a bit of recognition and prestige. But in the absence of a major market, archives or funding agencies that will support them—arguably, preceding and outlasting all such institutions—New England’s tribal communities have figured out how to create and sustain their own enduring literary traditions. This literature exercises an urgent, fiduciary duty of care to these communities and their lands; in turn, the communities care for that literature. In Sovereignty and Sustainability, I call this literary stewardship: the mutual trusteeship of tribal nations, traditional ecological knowledge, and writing. To this high-strung English professor, at least, these are inspiring, hopeful stories. I’m actually looking forward to seeing how these writers respond to our current global isolation, and how their communities adapt to and transmit new literary works and forms.

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