Lit festival gathered nation’s best Native writers

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain first read James Welch’s Winter in the Blood more than 10 years ago, but he remembers the effect it had on him so vividly that it’s like he just finished the novel yesterday.

“It was incredible for me because I had never read fiction that was so instantly recognizable to me,” said the native writer and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.

The 1974 novel follows a young Native American living on a reservation in Montana who searches for a connection to the land of his ancestors while grappling with a haunting personal tragedy. The story moved him. But HolyWhiteMountain was surprised that Welch, considered a founding author of the Native American Renaissance, and his work weren’t the subject of major conversations in the United States: Not when he was a student at the University of Montana, Welch’s alma mater. Not when he was doing his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa.

That is, until he started dating other native writers like him — including David Treuer, the writer, teacher, and editor of Pantheon Books, who also shared his love of Welch’s work.

A smiling man sitting in a chair at a desk.

James Welch at his home in Missoula, Montana, in 1989.

(Los Angeles Times)

“It made me realize that something very interesting is happening here, and that is that his work is valued [Indigenous writers] but behind closed doors,” said HolyWhiteMountain, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Paris Review, and others. “The conversation that takes place among and between native writers exists exclusively in private because there has never been a place where we could talk publicly about things the way we wanted to.”

He decided to change that — create a public space for local writers to talk to other local writers about writing, their work, and Welch, who died in 2003.

The first James Welch Native Lit Festival, believed to be the country’s premier literary celebration by and for Indigenous writers, began July 28 in Missoula, Mont. The three-day event, which will be held every two years, included Readings and panel discussions with some of the country’s most respected native authors including Louise Erdrich, Tommy Orange, Brandon Hobson and Truer. The next festival in 2024 will focus on poets and eventually expand to include creatives from television, film, theater and visual arts.

“It’s amazing to be in a time where there are so many Indigenous writers and artists that you can’t have them all at one festival,” HolyWhiteMountain said, “whereas 30 years ago you pretty much could have.”

In fact, the festival creates space for a community that has historically been stereotyped and underrepresented in the publishing industry and the literary world. in a (n ongoing survey by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center on representation of people of color in children’s books: 1.5% of the 3,183 books it received from US publishers in 2021 were written by Indigenous authors; 2% were about them. Between 2018 and 2020, books by native authors were lower at less than 1%.

“There’s a really long history at all levels of American culture where people think getting just one person is effective [from an underrepresented community] performing in front of an audience like an aborigine and consider it enough,” said HolyWhiteMountain. “But it is not.”

He recalled the predictable conversations that often arise at panels with a predominantly white audience: “The fundamental questions are always about identity. They’re never about what we actually do in our art, or how we do it, or what our process is, which is what all white artists ask,” he added, laughing. “All questions boil down to what it is like to be an Indian. How many times can you answer that damn question before you’re like, ‘There has to be another way?’”

The inaugural festival panel discussions, attended by an estimated 1,200 people at the Missoula Public Library and the Wilma, a local historic theater, aimed to counter these predictable conversations.

At a panel, local writers David Heska Wanbli Weiden and Rebecca Roanhorse discussed thrillers and speculative fiction. Another, titled “Two Spirit/LGBTQ Panel,” featuring Adrian L. Jawort, Taté Walker, and Raven E. Heavy Runner, focused on the experiences of being indigenous and LGTBQ, the colonization of Indigenous histories, and the oddness of the traditional indigenous, among other topics stories.

Tommy Orange sees the festival as part of a larger movement for Aboriginal visibility and representation, which includes hit TV shows like Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls and Dark Winds.

A woman sits at a table and speaks to an audience

Upper Skagit and Nooksack author Sasha LaPointe answers a question during a panel on nonfiction writing on July 30.

(Mike Huberman / James Welch Native Lit Festival)

Native representation in media and public spaces, including literature and festivals, does more than debunk harmful tropes and stereotypes, added Orange, author of 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist There There; It also sheds light on “the diversity and nuances of our communities and voices and who we are as a people.

“That’s one of the reasons this moment is so important… what’s exciting about visibility and representation is that it challenges the way we’ve been dehumanized.”

The range of diversity and experiences among the panelists really impressed high school student K Kipp.

“I thought it was really cool to see that the indigenous peoples who could be successful in this field of work were only indigenous peoples,” said the 16-year-old, one of five Upward Bound High School students who attended the festival. “They weren’t anything weird and fancy or the epitome of indigenous, and they weren’t really all white-passing either… so it was cool to see them be like, ‘Okay, I don’t have to play my cards in any way when it comes to my culture to be successful to be.'”

Wica-ta-wi Hoksina Brown agreed.

The 15-year-old referred to insights into identity that authors Sasha LaPointe and Kelli Jo Ford shared in separate panels.

During the nonfiction/memoir discussion, LaPointe recalled being called a “sellout” by some Native Americans when she sold her memoir, Red Paint. “People started criticizing her for her writing just because she got a good opportunity,” Brown recalled.

And Ford spoke on the We Talk, You Listen panel about how identity is a socially constructed box, and those who don’t fit into their assigned boxes are often shunned.

“So it was very inspiring to see so many people come out from seemingly similar backgrounds, but who are also very different and have been successful in their own way,” Brown said.

Katey Funderburgh, the students’ Upward Bound teacher, was moved to see the generosity of so many special guests over the weekend.

“The authors took the time to talk to the students, really listen to them, offer advice and encourage them to be their best selves,” she said. “Even in just three days, my students thrived a little bit more.” Lit festival gathered nation’s best Native writers

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