November is Native American Heritage Month so today we’re saluting Minnesota Native authors whose new books in several genres remind us that Native people are here and telling their stories, especially in our vibrant writing community.
‘A Song over Miskwaa Rapids’: by Linda LeGarde Grover (University of Minnesota Press, $21.95)
“Who could the dead man be?” was asked and wondered about in the Elders Club in the casino, at the tobacco shop in the gas station, and in the teachers’ lounge at the elementary school. Where might the dead man have come from, and where was he going? The most intriguing question of all: how did Michael Washington’s driver’s license come to be on the corpse of an unidentified young man from decades ago? How did this happen, and what might Michael’s involvement be? The story, now back in the media, grew like seeds planted in fertile soil as it intertwined with the histories of tribal dealings and relationships at Mozhay Point from a half-century ago. — from “A Song Over Miskwaa Rapids”
A spirit woman takes careful aim and throws a rock, starting a landslide at Half-Dime Hill that causes two tourists, illegally scattering human ashes on Indian land, to cling to a tree so they don’t fall. The silver urn they are carrying plummets to rest on the roof of a shack that hadn’t been visited in 50 years. That’s where the long-dead body of an unidentified man is discovered.
So begins award-winning Linda Grover’s fourth novel set in and around the fictional northern Minnesota Ojibwe reservation of Mozhay Point, close to the Miskwaa river rapids, also the setting of her previous multigenerational novels “The Dance Boots,” The Road Back to Sweetgrass” and “In the Night of Memory.”
Linda Legarde Grover and her novel, “A Song Over Miskwaa Rapids.” (Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press.)
In the new novel, Margie Robineau is fighting to keep the small piece of her family property the tribal council wants to buy for development.
Margie, though, is not the main protagonist. That would be mysterious Dale Ann, who holds her arms crossed tightly around her stomach. She’s the subject of much speculation in this gossipy community, because she went off to Chicago to be a telephone operator and came back a changed woman. Then, she left to become a nun but soon returned.
As the story begins, Dale Ann is married to Jack Minogeezhik, tribal chair of the Mozhay Point Band of Ojibwe. Her mother, Grace, is among spirit women who watch over the community. Even though they are dead, they arrive with lawn chairs each morning to comment on one another’s hairdos, ride with their living relatives who are going to the grocery store, watch movies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” drink coffee and eat cookies. They are wry and amusing. One of them observes she never thought she’d be eating Grace’s rock-hard chocolate chip cookies even after she passed away.
Things get really interesting when the narrative turns back 20 years, to 1972, when Dale Ann gets a cryptic message from her former Chicago roommate asking for help getting a young white man into Canada so he can avoid the draft. There’s an ugly vibe hanging over the relationship of Dale Ann and this sinister guy, but she agrees to help, aided by her friend Elliott. They get fake identification so the guy can cross into Canada as an Indian, but things go terribly wrong on the banks of the Miskwaa.
At its heart, this story is about deep family and friends’ relationships within the reservation community, wrapped in a mystery. The characters will be familiar to fans of Grover’s previous books and the author provides a cast of characters for new readers.
Grover writes with tenderness about Sweetgrass and all the people who live there. Underneath the mystery is the cruel story of how land was taken from Indigenous people, separated by the government into parcels (an unknown concept to Native Americans who believed everyone owned the land equally), and then bought back when it was again useful to white people.
The author is professor emerita of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. Her novel “In the Night of Memory,” about residents of Mozhay Point bringing home two lost daughters, was the 2023 One Book/One Minnesota book club title.
Grover will launch her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, at Birchbark Bizhew, 1629 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., event space for Birchbark Books bookstore. Free. Register at birchbarkbooks.com.
‘A Council of Dolls’: by Mona Susan Power (Mariner Books, $30)
Winona is wary throughout the trip that carries her girl clear across the country, but she is firm in herself, nothing scares her now. She has already witnessed several lifetimes of atrocities. Still, she isn’t prepared for what meets her at train’s end, and neither is Cora. How the children are photographed in their original garb as soon as they arrive, allowed to hold cherished items from home, only to have everything taken from them and ceremonially burned directly after. It is in this way that the doll, who survived the massacre at Whitestone Hill, is thrown into the fire. — from “A Council of Dolls”
The three Indian girls and their beloved dolls, who can communicate with their girls through some kind of magic, take us on a journey through Dakota people’s history of trauma and love in Power’s evocative new novel, long-listed for a National Book Award. The author, who lives in St. Paul, is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe whose previous novels are “The Grass Dancer,” “Sacred Wilderness” and “Roofwalker.”
Mona Susan Power and her novel, “A Council of Dolls.” (Courtesy of Mariner Books)
The story, which spans three generations, begins in the 1960s with Sissy, whose doll is a Black Thumbelina she names Ethel. The tiny doll is sometimes Sissy’s only comfort as the girl weathers her volatile mother’s moods brought on by the trauma of living at a boarding school where the Indian children are stripped of their culture and often abused.
In the 1930s, Lily’s father buys her a used Shirley Temple doll she loves and names Mae. But in Ojibwe culture people are expected to give something to a dying person. So Lily unwillingly gives Mae to a dying girl to be buried with the child. Mae somehow escapes the coffin and finds her way to a small, dark, cold basement closet at the boarding school where a hated nun has locked Lily. This section shows the worst of Indian boarding schools in the way Lily’s friend, Jack, is treated. He is a rebel who runs away often and is severely punished. Not that Lily is surprised: “We’re used to white folks telling us how lucky we are that they are in our lives, telling us that we didn’t know how to live until they came along. We’re used to being made to feel dirty, backward, feeble-minded, lax in our conduct, nasty in our manners — just one tiny hair from being a beast in the zoo.”
In the 1880s, Cora names her doll Winona. On the first day at boarding school the deerskin, beaded doll is thrown into the fire that consumes all the precious items the Indian children have brought from home, But Winona, too, is still with Cora in spirit through a stone found in the ashes that the girl considers her lost doll’s heart.
In the novel’s final section, the dolls are reunited by Sissy, now an introverted adult author called Jesse. In this chapter the dolls themselves tell their stories, but some of their thoughts/memories seem redundant. And this section has a different tone from the rest of the book when Power introduces some humor in the character of a self-absorbed, needy cockatoo, as well as conversations between Jesse and a girlfriend about men.
“A Council of Dolls” is sure to be on lists of 2023 awards finalists.
‘Songs, Blood Deep’: by Gwen Nell Westerman (Holy Cow! Press, $18)
Westerman, Minnesota’s Poet Laureate, is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and lives in southern Minnesota, as did her father’s Dakota people. Her mother’s family is from the Flint District of the Cherokee Nation, of which Westerman is a citizen. In “Songs, Blood Deep,” she celebrates her people and nature in English and Dakota languages.
Gwen Nell Westerman, Minnesota’s third Poet Laureate, and her book of poetry, “Songs, Blood Deep.” (Author photo by Melanie Zacek; book jacket image courtesy of Holy Cow! Press)
The title poem begins:
“My grandma told me
that her grandma told her,
that her grandma told her,
‘When we came over
the top of the world,
there were already people here.’ “
She writes of a wounded goose and comforting a mouse caught in a trap, of spring display when “Blackbird songs fill the ravine ..” and Winter Solstice when “… it seems to us,/the sun stands still/and we are in/transformation/a concentration of power/as we see/into the center/and know our place/in the stars.”
Westerman can be subtle, too. In the poem “For the Generations: December 26,” she is writing about the hanging in 1862 of 38 Indian men in Mankato following the U.S.-Dakota war. But she never mentions to whom she is paying homage.
The collection ends on a perfect note with “Breathe Deep and Sing,” a lyrical tribute to mussels: “We sing for the mussels,/we, the otters and beavers, the frogs and dragonflies,/the waterbirds and songbirds, the coyotes too./We breathe deep, and sing for the mussels/who are the lungs of the Mississippi River…”
This beautiful poem would make a lyrical choral piece. Composers, are you listening?
Minnesota Historical Society Press: Two works of non-fiction about Ojibwe customs and culture
“Gaa-izhi-miinigoowizid a’aw Anishinaabe” ($19.95), by Lee Obizaan Staples and Chato Ombishkebines Gonzalez, is subtitled “What We Were Given as Anishinaabe.” It tells of Ojibwe customs surrounding pregnancy and childbirth and ways of marking important moments in the child’s life, such as naming ceremonies and what happens when the child first touches the ground.
“Following My Spirit Home” ($29.95) by Sam Zimmerman/Zhaawanoogiizhik is made up of paintings and stories inspired by Zimmerman’s trip to Alaska and an epiphany at Mendenhall Glacier that sent him home to family and his Ojibwe culture.
“Gaa-izhi-miinigoowizid a’aw Anishinaabe (‘What We Were Given as Anishinaabe’) by Lee Obizaan Staples and Chato Ombishkebine and “Following My Spirit Home” ($29.95) by Sam Zimmerman/Zhaawanoogiizhik. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press.)
If you are a mystery fan, read Marcie Rendon’s novels featuring 19-year-old Ojibwe Cash Blackbear: “Murder on the Red River,” “Girl Gone Missing” and “Sinister Graves.” Award-winning Rendon didn’t publish this year, but early announcements on websites say her 2024 novel will be “Where They Last Saw Her,” a stand-alone thriller not in the Blackbear series.
Literary pick for Nov. 12
Literary calendar for week of Nov. 12
South St. Paul Library to close Dec. 1 ahead of new Kaposia Library opening
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Literary pick: John Halter’s memoir about driving his 96-year-old father cross-country