The Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art, and Thought has been publishing fiction, poetry, scholarly essays, and art from the perspective of pre-colonial peoples since the Spring of 2007. The cover art for the Spring 2011 edition provides a visual cohesiveness to the broad theme—the tradition of change in indigenous art and literature—addressed in its 256 pages. This issue contains works primarily from North American authors, with a smattering of writers representing indigenous peoples from other parts of the globe.
The journal’s reputation for opening the minds and challenging the self-image of its readers, especially Native Americans, remains intact. Its reputation is solidified with the excellent opening essay by Duane Niatum; and with breathtaking beauty, the poetry of Vivian Faith Prescott, Steve Meador, Kimberly L. Becker, Susan Deer Cloud, Denise Low, and em jollie sing with the unassailable strength of a great spirit that lives now, just as it did in pre-colonial times. There is also a powerful longing that can come only from the continuing incomprehensible loss of everything by which the self is created. In fact, the protagonists in the fiction of Ralph Salisbury and Zachary Benavidez question not only who they may become, but who they actually are.
In his essay, “The Tradition of Change in Contemporary Northwest Coast Indian Art,” Niatum lays out the rich history of the art of the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Heilsuk, making the case that the art, like the people themselves, is a dynamic and evolving reflection of a culture in a constant state of change. In ancient times, Niatum writes, it was “widely believed that a new design for a form would come to an artist in a dream. So what was produced was a combination of old pattern elements used in a new way.” Largely two-dimensional, the art of the Northwest Coast Indian, even after contact with white Europeans, continues a path to more modern techniques such silk-screening.
While Niatum speaks with a voice that is academic, the poets in this edition convey a tone that is urgent, and perhaps cynical, in its depiction of everyday lives of indigenous people. Take, for instance, the poetry of Vivian Faith Prescott, a fifth generation Alaskan of Sáami descent. Three of her four poems tell of having to learn English at the expense of oral traditions in her native tongue. In “Language Development,” Prescott writes of her daughter’s visits with a speech therapist:
They told me she had trouble saying her THs
and Ls correctly. LLLLLLLLLL–all that air moving
through, spitting her ancestors out from the sides of her mouth.
In “Talk-Like-an American,” Prescott continues her poetic assault, wondering why ESL classrooms are filled with children from her village “who speak with Tlingit accents” but whose first language is English. Finally, in “Tight Tongues and Open Spaces,” Prescott speaks of how the children of her village are shamed and confused:
Our faces are streaked
black, because we can’t yet tell
our elder’s cultural pause –
from the space where her grief resides.
Since 1960, writer Ralph Salisbury has garnered numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for Light from a Bullet Hole. Now, at the age of 80, his writing continues to break new ground, as evidenced by his short story, “Soldier with Silver Dollar Skull,” which is actually an excerpt from an uncompleted novel. In the story, a young Native American soldier’s helicopter crashes and explodes. Injured, the narrator is captured by Iraqi soldiers and taken to a hospital where a sympathetic Iraqi doctor says: “here it says that you are a Native American, an Indian. Your people suffered from imperialist invasion before oil lured armies our way. I’d shake your hand, but that might hurt.” The narrator reluctantly agrees to allow the doctor to surgically remove pieces of his skull off his brain. Soon, the hospital is overwhelmed with injured Iraqi soldiers and citizens and U.S. soldiers take over. Because of his dark skin and despite his telling them he is “an American Indian,” the soldiers suspect he may be “honcho, theirs or ours.” And so, Salisbury sums up the depth and scope of prejudice suffered by Native Americans, making the claim that the indigenous people of North America live in a state of constant occupation.
The tradition of change among indigenous writers and artists is at the heart of this issue of Yellow Medicine Review. Its pages are filled with writing that confirms the resilience of North America’s first people and their oral traditions, while giving voice at the same time to the ongoing struggle for identity and place. Readers may find themselves rethinking what they know about themselves and America’s indigenous peoples, but isn’t that what good writing is all about?