Talking with Joseph Bruchac
What influenced you as a writer?
The stories I heard. For example, right outside this door is the building that was my grandparents' general store. There was an old stove in that store, and people came there at night and they'd sit around and they'd tell stories.
Now they didn't tell traditional American Indian stories. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying I grew up in a traditional family. I did not. Much of what I know of Native tradition, I came to from my teenage years on. And I had to seek it out. Because my family was very, very clear -- they would say to anyone outside the family that they were French Canadian. They wouldn't mention being Indian, except when my grandfather would say, "Well, I went to school until fourth grade. And then I got tired of 'em calling me a dirty Indian. So I jumped out the window and never come back again." Those were his exact words.
But I was influenced by the stories of the woods and what it was like when they were young. Stories of horses and working men and songs about log drives and tales about things that happened. Tall tales too. Those stories I listened to as a kid, hiding behind the soda machine where I was sure they couldn't see me. Even though a lot of times, those old men would sort of lean back and kind of tell their story toward the soda machine.
I think that really helped me understand the power of story, and made it possible for me as an older person -- as a young man in my late teens, in my early twenties -- to go out to places like the Onondaga Reservation, just sit around in the trading post listening to people tell stories. I mean, to this day, my ability to just sit and be quiet -- I know I'm talking a lot right now -- but I love to just sit and be quiet. And when you're quiet, stories will happen. But if you're always talking, no one's going to talk to you.
When I was in college at Cornell University, for example, I became involved in the antiwar movement. We felt -- myself and many others -- that the Vietnam War was very wrong; that we were bringing violence to a small country in a far-off place when we should instead deal with them in a different way.
I was also involved in the civil rights movement and took part in the Meredith march in Mississippi, and had a long-standing belief that we needed to see human beings as human beings and not as Other. And so I tried to put my feet where my words were and went to Mississippi and took part in that event.
From 1966 to 1969, I volunteered to be a teacher in West Africa, in the nation of Ghana. And the three years that I spent there taught me even more. For one thing, I remember very clearly one day when I was in my classroom and I looked out at these high school kids, all of them were African students, and I suddenly began to see similarities between them and kids I'd gone to high school with.
And yet the kids I went to high school with were all white; none of them were black. I was seeing beyond that -- that racial shield, that mask that sometimes blinds our eyes in this country, so that we see people only in terms of their color, rather than what's inside them. Rather than their intellect and their personality and what they do. The visible deeds of their life, as opposed to that costume of skin that each of us wears. And I think that was very important to me too.
What drives your prodigious output?
One of the reasons I've chosen to write so much about American Indians and American Indian subjects is that often you'll find the books that I write are dealing with a subject that's been covered in previous times by a non-Indian writer.
To me, representing yourself is a very important thing. I lived in West Africa in the 1960s. I got to know and, in fact, teach the novels of a very fine Nigerian writer named Chinua Achebe. In fact, Chinua became a close personal friend and was on my Ph.D. thesis committee.
Chinua wrote his first famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which presents a tragedy within an Ibo community and takes a character named Okonkwo, who is a great man who makes a mistake, and like other characters who make great mistakes, suffers and eventually dies for his mistake.
It's written in the context of Ibo culture. Storytelling, proverbs, even the way the English language is structured is based on an Ibo perception of the world, the Ibo culture in general.
I asked Chinua why he wrote that novel. He said that when he was in college, he was forced to read a book called Mr. Johnson by an English writer named Joyce Cary. In that book, which takes place among the Ibo people, Mr. Johnson is a pathetic figure, an Ibo man who wants to be like an Englishman but can never achieve that level. He dresses like an Englishman, tries to walk and talk and act like an Englishman. And he fails utterly.
And Ibo culture is just a background of this, is seen as savage and dirty and primitive and of little worth. Chinua said, "I had to write Things Fall Apart. To represent my people as they really are. As full human beings." Not perfect, because his main character has a tragic flaw. But "as full human beings in their own right."
I'm not saying that only Africans can write about Africa, only Indians can write about Indians, only Arabs can write about Arabs. What I'm saying is that you have to be within the culture very deeply to represent it fully. Most people don't have the time or the inclination to learn another culture fully enough to do this. It can be done, it has been done. But it is not as common as when you're representing yourself.
Now I know that knowing the complexity of American Indian culture helps me to understand the relationship to other cultures within the United States. And, by the way, to remember the links that exist. For example, what we call Chicano or Mexican or Hispanic American usually refers to individuals, men or women, who have a mixture of blood that is Spanish and Native.
There's a direct link between Chicano culture, literature, and life and American Indian culture, literature, and life. It's a very direct link. They're not the same, but they're directly linked. We share common ancestors. And also that link exists in many African Americans.
One of the very seldom talked-about parts of American history is that when African slaves escaped from slavery in the United States, they went to live in American Indian communities. They were fully accepted; they married in and had children. When the Trail of Tears took place in the early 1800s, when the five civilized tribes of the South were forced out of their land and sent to the far West, with them went a great many African Americans.
Given the history of misappropriation, how can we learn to be more respectful toward Native cultures, history, and literature?
I think it's also important to consider certain things that we might call intellectual property and cultural dispossession. In many cases in the past, ideas, objects, and aspects of American Indian culture have been taken by non-Indians. Museums, and in fact, putting the bones of American Indians into museums is perhaps the most shocking example of this.
One of the things that's happening now in many Native communities -- and myself and my family have been involved in this -- is repatriation. Returning the bones of ancestors to the earth; taking them from museums and often private collectors and returning them back to the soil they came from. That's a very big issue in many of our Native communities.
But also other aspects of Native culture, for example, what they call intellectual property, ideas, stories -- very often, traditional stories have been taken without permission from communities or individuals and then retold and published as books by non-Natives, and not one penny of the money they've earned has ever gone back to the individual or the community that story came from -- without permission in the first place.
One thing I do as a storyteller is to try to be always, always aware of two things: number one, permission. If you share a story, make sure if that story belongs to someone or to a community, you have permission to tell it. And I have occasionally told and retold stories, not just with the permission but at the request of friends who've said, "I want you to use this story in this book. This is a good one for you."
The second is acknowledgment. Always acknowledge your sources. I went through this battle many times with people who were publishing children's books. You have to have acknowledgment of source: Where did the story come from? Where did you learn it? How did you get it? So acknowledgment is very important to me.
There are stories I know, there are people I know that I never mention. That's because they don't want to be mentioned, they don't want their stories to be told. They told those stories to me; they want me to keep them in a certain way. And sometimes that way is not totally restricted.
So there is responsibility in storytelling as well as the giving of a story. And so, too, when we deal with multicultural materials, we need to be sensitive of the communities and the people that those stories, those traditions come from. And we have to use them in a way that we make sure we have, as I said before, permission and acknowledgment built into it.
What advice do you have for teachers and students who want to learn more about Native peoples?
The first, of course, is your own attitude: the way you see the world, the way you see Native people. If you see them as human beings and recognize the complexity and the diversity of Native cultures, you've made a large step in the right direction. And also, if you're the kind of person who can say, "I would like to know," and then listen to those who will tell you, you've made a very big step.
There's a lot of history of American Indian people waiting for someone to listen. And that listening is a very, very important thing. What you do as an individual with your life can make changes in very big ways.
I think one danger is sometimes teachers become gun shy. They think, "I can't present this at all. I'll just forget about even talking about Indians. Or I'll just give it a very cursory discussion." And I think that's just as bad in many ways as falling into the trap of presenting things in a biased fashion. Because when you make people invisible, that's yet another form of bias.
So what you need to do is have good tools. Fortunately, there are some very good tools out there for teachers. For example, there's a book that I recommend to everyone; it's called Through Indian Eyes by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin. And the little you begin to know step by step can become a lot. In fact, every step goes a long way. And as I like to say, it takes one step at a time to climb to a mountaintop. Don't expect to jump there in a big leap. Just take one step at a time. And that one step may make a great difference.