A lot of the work of being an author is the dull and dry sitting at a desk (even when that desk is in a tree) and writing day after day. But every now and then an event comes along that you know you’ll remember forever. The American Indian Cultural Festival in The Dalles last week was just such a moment. It was a celebration of literature and poetry and music and dance. It involved a group of books that I admire and authors I feel honored to share the stage with: Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Craig Lesley, acclaimed author of contemporary western literature, and National Book Award winning writer Sherman Alexie.
I was lucky enough to spend time with an adult book club and share a poetry reading with some truly outstanding young poets. I got to hear the culture club from Lyle school in Washington give their very first performance in the Sahaptian language with traditional dancing. They were simply amazing. I’m so proud of all they’ve accomplished in a year. I meet with some avid writers in the North Oregon Juvenal Detention Facility, and best of all I got to dance with the Taholah drum group from the Quinault Reservation. My favorite part of the whole thing was the series of classrooms who came to hear me and the Taholah drum group speak. They had all kinds of great questions about the culture and art of the Quinault and Makah and the practice of tribal whaling. It was the sort of mind-opening conversation that cultural festivals are made for. I am very grateful to Julian Peterson and Marko Black and all the tribal dancers from Taholah who shared their songs and prayers and dances so generously, and who invited the students to dance and drum along so whole-heartedly. I know those are memories the students will always cherish.
Thank you to Jim Tindale the librarian at The Dalles School District who made this all happen in conjunction with the great booksellers at Oregon’s oldest bookstore Klindt’s who sold all the books and hosted many of the events. Tina Ontiveros is the manager at Klindt’s and Joaquin Perez is the owner. The fundraising for this event was truly a community affair with donations coming from area schools and libraries, educational foundations, local congregations, Oregon’s poet laureate program, the Wasco County Cultural Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. It’s inspiring to see so many community members come together in support of literacy and the cultural understanding of our local American Indian communities. Thank you!
I am beyond thrilled to be included in the American Indian Cultural Festival held this week in The Dalles. I will be appearing alongside Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth Woody, the poet laureate of Oregon, and adult writer, Craig Leslie. We will be doing a poetry reading which is free and open to the public on Thursday April 13th at 4:00 in The Dalles Middle School Commons. There will be live music and a drum and dance group from the Quinault Nation. Each of the authors will read a new poem. If you happen to be in the area, I’d love to see you there.
Klindt’s bookstore will host a book signing party at 7:00 that same evening. Klindt’s has the distinction of being the oldest bookstore in the state. I am particularly grateful to the owners of the bookstore who purchased hundreds of copies of my book, Written in Stone to give away to the students I will visit the day following these events. I am also very grateful to Jim Tindale, Librarian extraordinaire who did the lion’s share of the work in coordinating this festival which includes coordinating readings and author visits in 7 locations over the course of two days. He also spearheaded all the fundraising that made this celebration possible.
In addition to the poetry event I will be attending a talk by Sherman Alexie at The Dalles High School. Hundreds of children will come in on busses from all over the county to hear him read from Thunder Boy Jr. which was illustrated by the amazing Yuyi Morales. This event will include drummers and dancers from the Quinault nation.
When my very first book Heart of a Shepherd came out back in 2009 I met Suzanne Morgan Williams from the Class of 2K9 marketing group whose book Bull Rider was astonishingly similar to mine. It was all the more surprising because they were western stories about ranching families with family members deployed to the Middle East. Not exactly the most crowded genre. It was very tempting to think of this as a disaster, a head to head competition, a diminishment of what I had worked so hard on. But my husband pointed out that selling a book is not like selling a car. It’s not like a person buys a book and then doesn’t need another for 5 to 10 years. A very helpful perspective. The beauty of the book business is that the more people read good books the more they want new good books.
And the really terrific thing was getting to know Suzanne and working together to promote our books because we’ve found that if a reader likes one of our stories, they will probably like the other. They aren’t identical books after all. The main character in Suzanne’s story is a little bit older. Heart of a Shepherd is about the experience of having a deployed parent. Bull Rider is about the experience of having a brother return from war with a traumatic brain injury. We’ve done joint book store appearances, spoken together on panels and in workshops at writers conferences, and even sold our books together at the Reno Rodeo. And much to our mutual delight these books have flourished side by side.
But I’ve also known people who’ve worked for months, years even, and seen a book published which is very similar to their own manuscript, and then decided to drop their own project completely. It’s such a shame because there is often plenty of room for multiple
books on a topic. I think of them as “book-alikes” and in some ways they can be an asset to your own work. If somebody has written a book similar to mine then it’s a great strategy to encourage my book to be grouped in with a similar book. Often teachers are looking for several books from a historical era so that there will be something to suit every reading level in her class. Many bookstores prefer to host multi-author events. The picture to the right is myself and Elizabeth Rusch (dressed as Nannerl Mozart) and Virginia Euwer Wolff. We are doing an event which drew dozens of vocal and instrumental performers and lots of families to a community center to celebrate our three music-themed books: Virginia’s Mozart Season, an absolute classic YA story of a girl preparing for a music competition, Liz’s picture book biography For the Love of Music about Mozart’s big sister, and my middle grade novel Second Fiddle.
I’ve learned to love my Book-Alikes over the years and have become good friends of people whose books are similar to mine. And in celebration of that here are four books who like my story Written in Stone are set in America in the early part of the 20th century. They are Crossing Stones by Helen Frost,A Whistle in the Dark by Sue Hill Long, Born of Illusion by Teri Brown and In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters.
In her review of Written in Stone Debbie Reese took issue with the work of Chief Lelooska. To be clear, Lelooska is not in the story and is mentioned only briefly in the author’s note. Lelooska himself died in the late 1990s and his work is carried on by the Lelooska Foundation. Here is a link to more information about him and the Lelooska Foundation, for those who maybe following the conversation and be unfamiliar with the work of this author, illustrator, carver, linguist and historian. And here is a picture of Chief Lelooska in his traditional regalia.
I’m well aware, as Debbie has mentioned, that Lelooska was adopted into one of the bands of the Kwakwaka’wakw (also known as the Kwakiutl) tribe of British Columbia. Not everyone enjoys his art and not everyone likes the living history programs that he has provided in Washington for almost 40 years. I’m not interested in changing Debbie’s mind on this point. However hers is not the only opinion on the topic. Native Americans are not monolithic in their views and some of them are very much in favor of sharing their traditional arts with the wider community.
Among the tribes of the Pacific northwest, the right to tell a traditional story with its accompanying song, dance, and regalia is conferred in a potlatch. Lelooska’s right to share the stories he does was given to him by Chief James Aul Sewide and witnessed and agreed to by all the tribal members and neighboring tribes present at the potlatch. If they did not wish for Don Smith to become Chief Lelooska they could have chosen not to come to the potlatch. But they came, which is all the evidence I need to determine that he is doing this work fairly and in keeping with the traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw. The tribe had the opportunity to deny the Lelooska Foundation the right to perform their living history programs after Lelooska died. But they came to the potlatch for his brother Tsungani and again conferred on him the ownership of the stories his family continues to present to the public.
I received an email just last week from the head of the planning team who was hired by the Quinault to relocate the village of Taholah out of the tsunami inundation zone. My book was recommended to him by somebody from the tribe as a vehicle for understanding them better. He’s aware of the weight of this project, to move a village site more than a thousand years old. He and his team want to make sure that what they design really serves the tribe well. Simply sticking in some local art at the end of the process isn’t what they want. They want to really think through with the community what their village needs in order to be a home to them. And so the book is a vehicle for thinking and talking about what the land and ocean and river and lake means to the community. Not because it’s a perfect representation of Quinault and Makah culture, they already have non-fiction materials aplenty for that purpose. It does what fiction does best, it invites reflection and conversation.
The bottom line for me is that each tribe gets to decide for themselves what is an acceptable representation of their culture. One of the reasons I chose the Quinault and Makah rather than one of the many smaller tribes in the area, is that they are well-accustomed to speaking up for themselves at a national and international level. If something about my book bothers them, I’m confident they will say so publicly. So far they’ve had no criticism of the book. The community in Taholah has invited me to come and celebrate it with them later this spring. The curator of their historical collection recommends the book to people who are interested in learning more about that tribe. That is all the endorsement I need.
Debbie Reese in her review of Written in Stone asked me about the petroglyphs in the story and why I invented them rather than using actual petroglyphs from the village of Ozette, where my story is placed.
In the story the petroglyphs play a key role in helping Pearl uncover and claim her vocation as a writer and historian for her tribe. The ownership of artwork is a matter I take very seriously and to use an actual rock carving done by a Makah artist and put it in my book with no way of asking permission or compensating that artist fairly for his work would simply be wrong. So instead I invented a group of rock carvings based the carving style and technique I’ve seen while hiking in this area but copying none of them. To my thinking this is the more just course. Taking what’s
not mine is wrong. Making things up is what a fiction writer does. When the cover team was meeting I sent them a bunch of photographs of the Olympic Peninsula so they could get a feel for the ecosystem. The pictures included one of a petroglyph which is on public land and which commonly appears in works of non-fiction. I was so happy to see Richard Tuschman, the cover artist, incorporate a few petroglyphs on the cover–inventing an element in the style of this art but not stealing what’s not his to copy.
The other major plot element which is made up is the natural gas vent at Shipwreck Cove and the stories the tribe uses to keep children away from a dangerous place. The accusation that I’ve made up stories that don’t exist is dead wrong. I’ve told no stories belonging to the Quinault or Makah, real or made up. I have pointed out something that is distinctive and interesting about their culture though. These tribes use monster stories to keep their children away from danger without having to hover over them constantly. I was struck by how much freedom young people in the community had during my time in Taholah. They walked all over town freely and without immediate supervision but still under the watchful care of the entire community. Places that might be dangerous, such as the ocean with it’s powerful undertow and the dump which attracts bears, were bounded about, not with fences, but with scary stories that kept kids from wandering into harm’s way. If there was a natural gas vent near the town (and there might be, there were places I was asked not to go myself when I lived there) then certainly there would be stories to warn children away.
As I say in the authors note the cove and its contents are my invention. Whether or not petroleum is present on the Quinault or Makah reservations is something you’d have to ask them about. Each tribe has a natural resources department and they are the ones to speak (or decline to speak) about their reservation lands. Natural gas is present all over the non-reservation areas of the Olympic Peninsula but it’s not abundant enough that anyone has drilled for it so far. Wildcatting in search of oil and natural gas was very common in the 1920s, and business men with an eye to a quick profit were often unscrupulous in acquiring mineral rights to land. This is not only an injustice directed toward Native Americans. Many white farmers and ranchers fell victim to their swindles as well. And frankly, I’m tired of stories that cast the Indian as the hapless victim. I wanted a story where the Native American kid won and did so, not in some wildly unrealistic battle or singlehanded act of heroism, but in the manner that most of life’s battles are won: with words, and community, and the hard work of many years.