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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 09/10/2010

An unusual introduction to Native American YA lit

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is James Blasingame, associate professor of English Education at Arizona State University, and the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English.

By James Blasingame
I learned something the other day: Author John Irving has nothing on fellow author Joseph Bruchac when it comes to wrestling and actually a lot in common.

Irving, the author of several bestselling novels like The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules and 158-Pound Marriage, is a former wrestler and wrestling coach who loves to weave the sport into his plots. He even makes a cameo appearance as the referee in the movie version of Garp, officiating over a quick victory by a young Robin Williams as Garp. Irving was once infamous for coercing house guests into grappling with him or one of his sons on their home wrestling mat. Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992, which is no small accomplishment.

Joseph Bruchac, a three-time varsity letter winner at heavyweight for Cornell University, also knows his way around a wrestling mat, karate dojo, and jujitsu practice room and more. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with Joseph, author of more than 500 poems, novels and nonfiction books, at the Project Letters Summit at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Project Letters is a multiyear federal grant project to promote Literacy Education and Teacher Training for Excellent Reservation Schools. The summit had great speakers (and great food).

Bruchac, a member of the Abenaki Nation, is perhaps the most prolific author of Native American young adult novels, including Codetalker, Jim Thorpe, Original All-American, and March Toward the Thunder.

Bruchac’s alma mater, Cornell, is a school with a long and storied wrestling tradition. I looked him up at and discovered that he earned the varsity heavyweight position at Cornell every year and had an impressive record in a very competitive conference.

Since then, he has been a devoted student of several martial arts from various regions of the world, including China, Indonesia, Africa, and Brazil. His son Jim teaches karate now, and his son Jesse has a mixed martial arts gym in Lockport, New York. I suspect, like the Irving family, the Bruchacs have had a family rumble or two on the mats at their house.

Bruchac is tall and athletic looking and surprisingly soft-spoken, with a Garrison Keillor-like voice that draws listeners in as he tells stories about the history of Native America. He is well-known for the wealth of historical facts woven into the background of novels, well-researched facts that often fly in the face of popular myth about Native Americans and their history.

Bruchac and Sherman Alexie were the featured speakers for the Project Letters Summit, and they provided what was surely a once in a lifetime opportunity to those in attendance. This may very well have been the most enjoyable and enlightening conference I have ever been to.

I was there with Arizona State University doctoral student and Montana Flathead Reservation resident, Tim San Pedro, and also with Westwood High School (Mesa, Arizona) English teacher, Andrea Box.

After a two-year project to design and implement a Native American literature class at Westwood High School, headed by famous Acoma poet and ASU professor, Simon Ortiz, and yours truly, a large group of teachers, tribal members, and scholars created a Native American literature curriculum specifically designed to meet the Arizona Department of Education Standards for the English Language Arts while piquing the interest of students with some of the most engaging and interesting literature ever written in the Americas.

Andrea is now teaching the class every semester at Westwood High, the first purely Native American literature high school class we are aware of on or off the reservation in Arizona.

The Mesa Public School District is the largest in Arizona, and serves students from two Native American Nations, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation, in addition to Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Yaqui, Lakota and other Native American Nations, as well.

Andrea and Tim gave a presentation at the summit about the class and the students’ response to it, and I gave a presentation on Native American teen literature that is sure to get students reading.

Did you know there is Native American young adult novel with a vampire and a love story? Check out Night Wanderer by, Drew Hayden Taylor. It’s pretty good!

The centerpiece of Andrea’s class is Alexie’s 2007 National Book Award winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

After the Nobel and the Pulitzer (but not by much), the National Book Award is the biggest award an author can win, and Sherman was already extremely popular for his previous books, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, part of which was made into the movie Smoke Signals, which won the Filmmaker’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

There are autobiographical elements in a lot of Alexie’s work, but The Absolutely True Diary is autobiographical with only a few changes in the details.

The Absolutely True Diary has been very popular with readers of all ages. In September of 2010, as I write this, three years after it came out, a quick check of shows that it’s still rated No. 1 in three categories: (1) books about the social issues of teens, (2) children’s multicultural stories, and (3) children’s books about the United States. Another quick check shows that it is also still on The New York Times bestseller list.

Adults love this book as do young adults who don’t even like to read. This may have to do with Alexie's respect for young readers, which drives him to tell the story as close to the bone as he can rather than self-censoring the difficult aspects of his life. Its popularity may also derive from his humorous approach to tragic subjects, an Alexie trademark.

I asked Alexie about his use of humor to address painful experiences. During an interview I did with him that appeared in The ALAN Review, “From Wellpinit to Reardan: Sherman Alexie’s Journey to the National Book Award,” (2008, 35.2, 69-74), he said:

“Humor can be used both defensively and offensively. Sometimes life can be so bad that humor is the only way you can talk about it. The only option to humor is silence. Unfunny people scare me. Unfunny people are up to no good.”

He also explained why he doesn’t believe in censoring himself when he writes for young adults: “I believe censorship is really about condescension. It’s the notion that kids don’t have complicated emotional lives, don’t have complicated responses to a complicated life. Censorship is an attempt to make kids and their lives simple. Being accustomed to that sort of treatment, kids just respond well to anything that takes them seriously.”

At the heart of Alexie's book is the story of how Junior (aka Arnold), a stand-in for Alexie, chose not to attend high school in his hometown with all his friends and relatives on the Spokane Reservation, but instead, to travel 20 miles every day to attend school off the reservation.

Sherman quips that he was the only Native American at the school other than the mascot. He left his home school because he believed the quality of education he was likely to get there was unlikely to give him a fair chance in the world if and when he graduated. As he narrates the experiences he had at home and at school, readers will find them at-once heart rending and heart-warming but more often the former.

Of course, the ending of the real story is that Sherman Alexie went on to be one of the most beloved authors in America, but at what cost and why did it have to happen the way that it did?

Alexie’s very serious keynote at the 2010 Project Letter Conference may have been the most poignant talk I have ever heard. There were moments when he paused to reflect as he described painful moments in his life when the audience members were so quiet we could hear each other breathe.

He revisited a lot of the incidents from The Absolutely True Diary, which are mostly true stories from his life, always coming back to his talk’s theme: the psychological and emotional fracture created when someone is forced to live in two cultures. In such a situation, life becomes survival and even survival can be emotionally devastating.

Alexie’s keynote was highly moving. There aren’t many places where the people of these United States are all equal (regardless of what it says in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution), but one place where all people should get equal access to the same potential life opportunity is at school. All kids should be afforded the right to have a good school where all their potential as a human being can be realized and they can go out into the world with a fair chance at succeeding in life. How can young people succeed in the world if they are not given a fair start as they begin adulthood?

Joseph Bruchac’s books and his keynote at the conference are invaluable in explaining Native American history, how so many Native American nations were cheated out of their land, or exterminated.

Sherman Alexie’s books describe the consequences for young Native Americans as they faced an unfair and inequitable system. Both authors leave an indelible mark on their readers.

I'll close by recommending three books and a movie. The movie is "Smoke Signals," from Sherman Alexie’s The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Ond one of the books is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, which we’ve already talked about. The other two books are actually a pair that should be read together: (1) Joseph Bruchac’s Jim Thorpe, Original All-American, and (2) The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation, by Sally Jenkins.

Every Saturday and Sunday this fall, a majority of Americans will be watching high school, college, and professional football, but how much do they know about the origins of the game?

Football was loosely based on a Native American game, and much of what we think of as the system of modern football today was developed by the famous coach Pop Warner and his team of Native Americans, the Carlisle Indians almost 100 years ago.

Two of the most famous Americans of all time, Jim Thorpe and Dwight Eisenhower, once squared off on the football field, when Carlisle played West Point on November 9, 1912. The final score? Carlisle 27, West Point 6.

Oh, I need to put in a plug for a fabulous foundation, Kids Need to Read, co-founded by actor Nathan Fillion and author PJ Haarsma and run brilliantly by co-founder, creator and executive director Denise Gary.

Denise has turned what began as an effort to get a few books together for struggling libraries into a 501 (c) (3) foundation with a magnificent budget that provides thousands of books for young readers to under-resourced school and public libraries around the country. Check it out at: and be sure to take a look at the video of Haarsma and Nathan (Castle, Desperate Housewives, Firefly, Serenity) on the opening page. It’s hilarious.


James Blasingame is the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English; the 2008 Arizona State University Parents Association Professor of the Year; the 2008 International Reading Association Arbuthnot Award Winner; and the 2007 Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Distinguished Teacher for the Humanities. He is a past editor of the ALAN Review, the on-line journal of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, a Scholastic Professional author and a former high school English teacher who pursued his doctorate degree after nearly 20 years of K-12 teaching. He is the director of the Central Arizona Writing Project.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 10, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Literature, Reading  | Tags:  Sherman Alexie, absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, alexie sherman, john irving, joseph bruchac, native american literature, native american young adult literature, project letters, the world according to garp, ya literature, young adult literature  
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Great piece, Jim!

Parents, teachers, librarians looking for books by Native authors can visit my article in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL located here:

You may also want to follow American Indians in Children's Literature, a resource/blog updated weekly, located here:

I featured Bruchac's HIDDEN ROOTS and books by three other Native writers in a Google "Search Story" that has become the most-visited link on my page of late. It is here:

Posted by: ProfessorDebbieReese | September 12, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

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