A person of mixed ancestry
Well, I'm a person of mixed ancestry. I was raised by my grandparents, who were actually on the English and American Indian side. My grandfather, Jesse, was Abenaki Indian but was one of those people who in his generation did not talk about being Native American. About as far as he would go would be to talk about things like the fact that he left school in fourth grade because they kept calling him a dirty Indian and so he jumped out the window and, as he put it, never come back again.
His wife, my grandmother, was a highly literate woman, a graduate of what later became Skidmore College and had a house full of books. And her ancestry, she proudly traced it back to the Mayflower, although there's some interesting things about that ancestry too, which are uncertain, but really somewhat colored as you might say. On my dad's side of the family it's Slovak from a little place called – or not so little community called Trnava in Slovakia, not far from Bratislava.
And as a child I was aware of these ancestries, but wasn't really given a lot of information about them. I was kind of in a state of equi-distant ethnic denial because the Slovak side wanted you to be good Americans, and the Native American side wanted you to fit in with everybody else and not draw attention. And then the English side, which is sort of there and not really paying much attention to history. It was a period when I was born in 1942, during the war and after the war, of sort of American triumphalism and people wanting to think of the melting pot as really being a positive thing.
Native stories in New York
Well, native culture in New York State is very interesting because predominantly the focus has been on Haudenosaunee or Iroquois ancestry and Iroquois stories, Iroquois history, Iroquois tradition. However, the Algonquin peoples, in the North it would be Lenape to the south of Albany and then Abenaki to the north, were ignored in large part because they were often allies of the French.
Now, Abenaki people tended to keep their identity rather closely hidden in many cases for a couple of reasons. One is that in Vermont where there was a large population center of Native Americans in the northern part of the state, there was in the 1930s a very active campaign of actual what they called purifying the race, getting rid of through various techniques of sterilization, undesirable aspects of the population such as criminality, which they thought was inherited in those days.
And people who were of poor education were regarded as, and I use the word as they did, idiots. And often people who were of native ancestry fell in those classifications. And there's a lot of documentation of this. So, it was much better to pretend that you were just like everybody else, to say, as my grandfather would, that they were French Canadian. In fact, a friend of mine named Wolf Song, who was a Vermont storyteller, when he began to stand up and tell his stories, got a phone call – this is in 1978 – from his aunt, terrified, saying, "What are you doing? Now they'll know we're here and they're going to come and get us."
So, that was part of the mix that I grew up with, that kind of ethnic denial of their native ancestry. And yet if I looked around, there were native people everywhere, often visible as performers. Places like, oh say, Frontier Town in the Adirondacks always had an Indian Village. Lake George had the Indian Village. There was a place called The Enchanted Forest in Old Forge where Abenaki people were doing programs.
And all of these different places, we'd go there, I'd hear storytelling, I'd meet these people. And then later in life they would become real mentors and close friends of mine up until the time they passed on. People like [unint.], Maurice Dennis, who was in The Enchanted Forest or [unint.], Ray Fadden, who was in the Indian Village and then founded The Six Nations Indian Museum.
And those Mohawk and Abenaki elders were very generous because for whatever reason I always loved to listen to stories and would sit quietly and listen. And by showing my attention, in return they would tell those stories to me.
Reading (and eating) books at a young age
My grandmother was a person who loved books. Although my grandfather could barely read and write, there were books in every room in our house, classics, the Stevenson books, the Kipling books, the works of Shakespeare. So, from my earliest years on I would pull books off the shelves and try to read them and then eventually did read them. I wanted books of my own too. There were no book stores. The nearest book store was in Albany, which was 35 miles away or Glens Falls had a small book store.
Occasionally they'd have a few books in one of the local department stores. And it was a thrill when I could buy a book. But I had one kind of strange tick when I was a kid. I would get a book of my own like say Thornton W. Burgess books, the Smiling Pond books like and I'd be reading the book, and then as soon as I finished a page, I'd tear the little bit of the bottom corner off and eat it.
So, these books I have from my childhood all have the lower right-hand corner torn off on every page. You can see how far I'd read it at any particular time. So, I was really digesting literature at an early age.
Lack of Native literature
When I was a child, there really were no books about Native Americans or American Indians – you know, either term is okay – that were available. There was just nothing. There were historical books. There were books that talked about culture in terms of books written by anthropologists. And there were some books like oh say Two Little Savages where you had white kids playing Indian.
But as far as something that really reflected Native reality, I couldn't find anything. Maybe it was that lack of those books that spurred me on to write the books I would later write.
Writing in the university
I remember when I was at Cornell University, I would write poems that had to deal with my Native ancestry. And people kind of looked at me strangely at the time. There was no Native studies department at Cornell or virtually anywhere in the country at that time between '60 and '65. And even though there were people in reservation communities not far away, they were totally unknown to the university campus.
When I went to Syracuse University on a creative writing fellowship the next year from '65 to '66, I had an old Harley Davidson motorcycle. And several times a week I'd tool on out to the Onondaga reservation and just sit around in the trading post as it was called, listening to [unint.] and her mother, Jessie, tell stories and talk with me. And I would just go out there feeling like I was going home even though it wasn't my home. I felt this tremendous connection that was lacking in the university community.
I began writing short stories. And again, interestingly enough, a lot of them had Native American characters in them. I wrote as part of my creative writing thesis at Syracuse University a connected set of short stories. Grace Paley, by the way, was my advisor, one of the best, best writers in the world. And it was dealing with a character who was part Native and another character who was Native who went to Vietnam.
And the one young man was resistant to going to war, and the other young man had experienced it. And I remember in front of my thesis committee getting in an argument with them because at one point I had my character who was in Vietnam experiencing a massacre, experiencing the murder of children. And I remember the thesis committee said, "Oh no. Americans would never do anything like that." This was in 1966. And I had actually been talking with people I got to know who had come back from Vietnam and experienced those very things.
And I had friends I was in college with who died in Vietnam. I never went there. I was an anti-war protestor. Instead I went and taught in West Africa for three years. But those themes of a Native character trying to come to terms with a modern world that didn't recognize his reality was something that very early on was a big part of my writing. I remember a poem I had published that I joke with Sherwin [ph.] about – Sherman Alexie about having this title first was called "Notes of a Part-time Indian."
And it goes, "Sometimes I tell people I'm half Indian. A woman from Oklahoma said, 'But Indians are so dirty.' When people ask me which half and I point at the sun, no one understands."
Finding authentic connections to the story
Well, one thing I try to do with folk tales from other Native traditions than those of the Northeast is to make sure that I have gotten the story right, one. Two, that I acknowledge it properly. Where is it sourced? Where does it come from? Three, that I'm telling a story that people from that tribal nation will appreciate my telling and will not criticize me for doing it, not that there's not always the possibility of criticism. That could always happen, and I accept that criticism may come. But if by and large it's accepted and those who have shared the story with me want me to share it, then I feel that I'm doing the right thing.
I know of so many children's books – in fact, I would say virtually almost every children's book that is a retelling of a Native American folk tale has been told in the absence of any Native advice, of any living Native input. And that is the one thing I feel is the great mistake because it means that things may be misinterpreted or also that stories may be told that are inappropriate, that are stories that are restricted.
To give you an example, I did – some years ago I helped put together a series at Symphony Space in New York City called "Coyote Walks Around." It was performances of dance by Native dancers from different tribal traditions interwoven with traditional stories, and I did the storytelling. And the dancers were from various regions of the North American continent.
And in putting each one together I'd work with them. "What should I tell? How should I tell it? When should I tell it? Where should it be told?" And in one case a Cheyenne grass dancer, Mr. White Man, said to me, "I'd like you to tell the story of the grass dance." I said, "I don't know it." He said, "I will teach it to you, but you have to tell it right, and you have to promise me you'll only tell it when a grass dance is going to be done." And so I've only told that story three times in my life, and it's always been when a grass dancer has said, "I hear you know the story of the grass dance as we tell it. Could you tell it before I do the dance?" That to me is an example of a very, very real connection between the tradition, the story, and the proper telling of it.
Writing Native biographies
The form of biography really interests me I suppose because I read so many when I was younger and was very familiar. As a kid I remember walking into the new Saratoga Public Library children's room and saying I'm going to read every book in this place, and I just about did. It took me about seven years, but I just about did. And I loved true stories about people's lives. But I noticed that so often stories about American Indian people were highly inaccurate, often very biased, did not give the character credit for intelligence or emotional maturity or complexity or humor.
The lack of humor just shocked me because any time I was around other Native people, there was always joking and teasing going on even in some of the most serious situations. So, when I decided to write biography, I wanted to try to bring those elements to the table and to tell things from a point of view that reflected a tribal reality that people in that tribal nation would recognize.
And as I've written these books, I've never done them in isolation. I've never done it with simple research from texts. If I use text, I use primary material, but I go beyond that. I go to the actual tribal nation itself, speak with people, talk with descendants of these people, and try to get an understanding of how they would want the story told. So, if you take a book like my picture book, Crazy Horse's Vision, I worked very closely with S. D. Nelson who illustrated it because he himself is from Crazy Horse's people. And in doing his illustrations he and I made changes in my text so that the illustrations and the text would work together in a much more effective fashion.
Writing in Native languages
My son, Jesse, who teaches Abenaki all around New England, a very fluent speaker, even has a website called WesternAbenaki.com., he and I have begun doing bilingual texts.
So, it's English line by line translated from Abenaki and then a third version which is then sort of colloquial English. So you can see the process of moving from one language to the other. And I think it's very interesting because if for example I would say I live in Saratoga Springs, in Abenaki I would say [Abenaki].
I am of Saratoga or the medicine spring place. So, it's [unint.] I am of that place. And that gives a different sense than just living there. You are of that place, not just from that place. And there's a linguistic difference between the two.
Themes included in writing
There are a number of themes that I like to include in my writing. One is the theme of conflict resolution without violence or at least conflict resolution that puts things back into balance. I strongly believe in balance. In fact, I was taught by Haudenosaunee Iroquois elders that the natural state of humanity is health and balance, that when we're at war, when we are sick, we are out of balance.
And in fact in sign language this sign means anger, which is that your mind is twisting back on itself and this sign refers to clear thought, clean thought, which takes your mind upwards, not downwards. Among the Haudenosaunee it is said that we may be of the good mind or the twisted mind. And we have to really think clearly what are we in right now, how am I behaving, what am I thinking, what am I doing, do I need to change my mind?
And the belief is that you can do this, just as also a bad person, a person doing bad things can be changed, can change themselves into one who does good things. And we have so many traditional stories that talk about that process of transformation and change.
Writing about monsters
A lot of my books have monsters in them. And the reason for this is very complicated but also very clear. First of all, within traditional stories we often tell scary stories even to little children. The reasons are this: one, it reminds them life is dangerous. Two, it reminds them they may often be on their own and have to make life or death decision. Three, if they've listened well to traditional story, listen to the teaching of their elders, they may overcome or even escape or even destroy a monster. And fourth, if they don't do the right thing, the monster gets you. And I think those are teachings we all need in the modern world.
Writing about the natural world
I do a lot of writing about nature, and I suppose there are a number of reasons for that. One is that I lived in the country. I grew up in a natural setting in northern New York State. The Adirondack Mountains are in my backyard really truly. And my grandfather spent a lot of time in the woods. He was a lumberjack as well as being a Native American and would always take me into the forest.
So, I felt that connection from a very early age. I was writing little stories about animals. I was collecting plants and bringing in animals and keeping them as pets and then releasing them. And when I went to Cornell University, I went as a major in wildlife conservation. For three years, I was a wildlife conservation major and then I took some courses in creative writing and switched my major.
And I think that background has made it seem very natural for me to always have that as a component of my reality, that natural world. In fact, the 90‑acre property that belonged to my grandparents and great‑grandparents is now a nature preserve where my son, Jim, created something called the Ndakinna Education Center. Ndakinna means "our land" in Abenaki.
And on that nature preserve we teach animal tracking, wilderness survival skills, we do storytelling, we bring in Native and non-native speakers on nature and on our traditional culture, we do language immersion classes, and we do what we call the arts of life, which brings together body and spirit and mind and emotion to try to make a more balanced life.
The importance of rewriting
I think too that when you are a writer, if you want to be a writer, you have to write, but if you want to be published and to be legitimately published, you need to rewrite.
And that process of rewriting is not just putting words on paper, but often it's the preparation that you do before the words get down on paper. And I think a lot of people don't have the patience to do that because it takes time.
We Need Diverse Books
We need diverse books because life itself is diverse.
Choosing American Indian literature
When teachers and librarians are choosing books with Native stories or native themes or Native tales, there are a number of things they should do. One, they consider who the author is. What is the author's legitimate connection to this material? See what is cited in the book. What are the sources for this material? And sometimes they can turn to guides such as Through Indian Eyes, a book by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin or A Broken Flute by the same two authors, which are surveys of children's literature books by and about Native Americans.
I think that you owe it to yourself and to your school to be as informed as possible. And you owe it also I think to the community of humanity in general to see American Indian literature and stories not as separate, not as a little category to put off in a corner, but as something that's part of the body of world literature that should be inclusive and that we as human beings have so many things in common, we're part of the same circle, but every point on the circle is unique. And therefore, we need to recognize the uniqueness of the perspective from that point on that deeply connected circle.
Names we should know
There are a couple of Native voices I really think we should pay attention to. One is my friend Tim Tingle. Tim is a Choctaw writer who's just begun publishing novels. He started as a storyteller, and I kept prodding Tim saying come on, Tim, write it down, write it down, write it down. And finally he wrote down the Choctaw Road book. And then he wrote down his Bok Chitto book, Crossing Bok Chitto, which is a picture book. And now he's begun writing a series of novels. Tim is a very talented author and I think deserves attention.
Another person who is better-known but not as widely known as she should be is Cynthia Leitich Smith. And her blog, Cynsations, is something everybody should turn to. And Cyn has written on not just things about Native people such as Indian Shoes or Rain Is Not My Indian Name, but also vampire, werewolf, sci‑fi kinds of novels, which are quite popular. And again, there's breaking the mold, which I think Native people should feel free to do.
Of course everyone knows Sherman Alexie. I hope to God they do. And of course everyone knows Louise Erdrich, but her sister, Hyde, is also a very accomplished writer writing for young people. Now, that's just a few names. I don't want to overwhelm you. But there are many more coming, and you'll hear many more of them in the years to come.
What Thanksgiving Is All About
As Tom Porter [ph.], a Mohawk elder who's a good friend of mine, explained to me years ago, giving thanks is something that the Creator told us to do every day. Everything begins with giving thanks. So, there's no one time of year to give thanks. It is every day. When we think of it, we should say our thanks. [unint.] thank you for this air I breathe.
Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday. For one, it was only created as a national holiday in the Civil War to recreate national unity during a time of great strife. For another, the first celebration of a Thanksgiving in New England was done after the defeat of a Native nation by the Puritans. And it was to celebrate the wiping out or the destruction of that nation, the Pequot Nation.
The first Thanksgiving itself is a complicated story to write about. My sister, Marge, has co-authored a book called 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving they probably did not serve turkey. They probably served seafood. At that first Thanksgiving the Pilgrims did not wear the kind of costumes we see them wearing in the depictions. And what really troubles me is that this is the one time of year to celebrate Native Americans.
And everybody wants you to come to their school around Thanksgiving. And it's often you go to a school and you see kids wearing paper feathers and people playing Indian, which is not something I would recommend. So, to me, the idea of Thanksgiving as a holiday is a complex one. And although our family gets together then and they share a meal, we think of it as something which is part of an everyday tradition. But because we get a vacation day off, hey, take advantage of it.
Questions from children
I think one question I often get asked by kids, which is a very ironic one, is what was it like when Indians were alive or do you know any real Indians or do you have an Indian hat like Chief so-and-so who came through our school last month who was a re‑enactor and not really a Native American? The questions that I really find troubling but I always try to answer them with patience and clarity are those that display a lack of understanding of stereotype, a lack of progress in seeing American Indians as human beings, and a lack of understanding that Native people are still part of the present.
But I will continue answering those questions as long as they are asked, especially when they're asked by a child whose innocence is the result of a lack of information, not a desire to hurt someone.
Inaccuracies in Native children's literature
I think that one thing that you find, and I had mentioned this in a noon talk I gave today at NCTE, is that people love Indians, and we suffer from that love. They love us so much they use us as symbols for conservation, for sports teams. They use it inappropriately and often in a stereotype fashion. And then going even further they love Indians so much they want to be Indian. They take on an Indian persona like the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the Campfire Girls or authors who feel they can get into a Native American head and tell a Native American story.
And the result is often a story where it's purportedly a Native American character, but in fact they have a European sensibility. Even though they're supposed to be Indian, they don't feel, sound, or act Indian. And this happens time and again in storytelling where something is told in a way it would never be told in a Native tradition, and it is told inappropriately, inaccurately.
One of the worst examples of children's books I can think of that uses Native American text is a book called Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, a very popular, beautifully illustrated book. But if you look at that book from a Native viewpoint, you see several things that are truly objectionable. One is that each time a Native person is depicted, virtually every time, they're wearing a conglomeration of clothing and decoration that embodies not just one tribal nation but several.
It would be like, you know, having someone purportedly Dutch while they're wearing a kilt. And that kind of inaccuracy is common. Second, it shows sort of see-through transparent ghostly Indians at the beginning and the end as if Indians no longer exist. It uses the text of Chief Seattle's speech, but it uses a text that was not exactly what Chief Seattle said, and that text has been written and rewritten many times.
It was originally spoken in Snohomish – excuse me, Suquamish, Duwamish – Suquamish, Duwamish. And then it was written down weeks later by a white minister who heard it translated into first a trade dialect and then from the trade dialect into English. And then he didn't write it down until weeks later. So, there's one, two, three, four steps removed.
Another thing about that book is even the botany is wrong in it. It shows kids in one picture playing in a field of flowers which were actually California poppies, which is an invasive species. It's been crowding out medicine and food plants throughout the West Coast. It shows people in birch bark canoes when these were people of wooden canoes in the Pacific Northwest.
It has a picture of a warehouse clear-cut forest in the end when such forests are tremendously damaging to the ecology and counter to the way Native people would treat the forest. And then the title, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. Within Northwest Native traditions the sky is father, the earth is mother. So, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky makes no sense at all. So, there's an example of a book that's been very popular, celebrated as showing Native culture, which is full of real, real significant problems.
Myth of the disappearing Indian
The myth of the disappearing Indian or the vanishing Indian is something that's been part of the overall sort of purview of Native culture from the Western point of view for over 150 years. And it is something that is untrue, has always been untrue, will remain untrue. In fact, Native populations are increasing. In fact, there's a great growing awareness of our traditional cultures and our languages. Even though many are vanishing or in danger, people are attempting to restore and hold onto them.
And Native people are part of the present, not the past. It was mentioned today – I recall this very clearly that there were 94 books which focused on African Americans published last year, and of those 94, only four were not in the past. A similar statistic can be found in terms of books about Native Americans usually not by American Indians, that virtually all of them are in the past, not in the present.
And as a writer, I've written many stories about present-day Native people. And I've now written books about Native people in the future in a science fiction vein.
Women in Native literature
In virtually all the writing about American Indian people, men are always lionized and women are always secondary. And the image of the Native woman as sort of a beast of burden, a person with no power is a European trope.
It's not the reality within our Native cultures. Women are central and powerful. I remember my friend [unint.] of the Onondaga Nation. When I visited her one day in Syracuse, I said – this was back some decades ago, "What do you think about the Equal Rights Amendment?" And she said, "Oh, I don't know about it." I said, "What"? She said, "Yeah, I don't think men could ever be equal to women." But that sense of humor was making a really good point.
Another point, when I was at Onondaga, there was a reading being done of the wampum belts. The wampum belts are very significant. They maintain history and relationships between cultures, and they're a very, very important part of Northeastern tradition. And one of the chiefs was holding up a wampum belt and describing it. And I was sitting in the back with some of the clan mothers, and one of my friends, Audrey Shenandoah, who was a clan mother, said, "Uh, excuse me. Excuse me." And then she said, "You got it upside down." He goes, "That's why we got clan mothers," and he turned it right side up.
But there is a sort of image there that men often do get it upside down, and it takes the women to turn it right side up.
American Indian Heritage
I think that the whole question of American Indian heritage is a tricky one. I think that in one sense it's something that people who are Native don't necessarily think about. They think about their tribal identity. They think about their community. They think about their family. I think that people who have some native ancestry are fascinated by it and often try to find their way back to it and sometimes not exactly for legitimate reasons.
I have often gotten emails from people saying I want to send my son, daughter, whoever to college free and we have some Indian ancestry. So, how do we go about getting a scholarship to send them to college? And of course that's not what it's about. It's not about privilege for people who have a bloodline, but it's about a cultural connection that deserves support and educational opportunity that's been denied.
The Stories Behind the Stories
Telling Jim Thorpe's story
Well, I wrote a book which is called Jim Thorpe, Original All-American. It's written – framed as an autobiography because I take on Jim's voice, which I drew from recordings, from things he did write, and from things that were described that I thought could be things he would say or talk about himself. And I worked with Jim's children, Grace Thorpe for example.
When the book was done – and I'd show people along the way and talked with various members of the family – I sent her a copy of it. And I got a phone call from Grace. It kind of worried me because I thought oh dear, she's called me. I wonder what I did wrong. And she said, "Hello, Joe. This is Grace." It's kind of the way she talked. I said, "Hello, Grace. How are you?" "I'm great. You know that book?" "Uh, yeah." "My father's book." That made me start to feel better. Oh good, my father. "Yeah. Yeah."
She said, "Can you send me another copy? I want to put it in the local library." I said, "Grace, how many copies do you want?" And that was to me because she thought of it as her father's book made me feel that I had done the right thing. I want people to not see the book as my voice telling a story. I want them to hear the story. I want to be invisible. I'm not there, but the story is there.
Killer of Enemies
Killer of Enemies is a novel that takes place in the future. My main character is a Chiricahua Apache woman named Lozen named after a historical figure among the Chiricahuas, who was a warrior woman and a woman who had considerable medicine, could detect enemies coming from a distance, and was a very significant person within Chiricahua culture within the late 1800s.
My, Lozen in my story in the future, finds herself in the position of again having to help her people, having to protect her family by being a monster slayer. This takes us back even further to the beginning times when among the Diné, the Navajo, and the Tiné, the Apache people there were hero twins, monster slayer, child born of water, who had to destroy the monsters that threatened human life. And the monsters in the parallel future are somewhat like those in the past.
The story is much more complex than that, and I don't want to give too much of it away, but it is a story about the power of women, about the power of myth, and also looking at the present day and projecting forward that if things keep going, if they keep going in a certain way, we may end up with this future.
Writing Code Talkers
My novel, Code Talker, I first thought of decades ago when I first heard about the Navajo code talkers. And then interestingly enough my friend Philip Lee who was then at Lee and Low suggested it as a picture book.
And I began to work on it for several years. We went back and forth doing revisions. And finally after about the eighth revision, Philip said, you know, this really should be a novel, and we're not doing novels now. Why don't you take it somewhere else? So, I took it to another publisher and ended up doing it as a novel. That whole process took years. And in the midst of turning it into a novel, I sent the manuscript to the Navajo Code Talkers Association for them to review it, which they graciously did.
I sent it to a friend of mine who was the head of the Native museum at Diné College, and he reviewed it for me and sent it back to me. I sent it to several Navajo scholars who spoke the language to make sure the way I was writing it, the way I was using it was correct. So that by the time the book was published, we're talking about perhaps two decades of work to make it what it was.
And the fact that Navajo code talkers themselves have enjoyed the book and we've done programs together has made me feel very gratified about it. And I also have been making a practice of – in fact I need to do it again sometime soon – of sending money to the Navajo Code Talkers Association to support some of their scholarship efforts with young people.
Dragon Castle is a book that's very close to my heart. My family is of mixed ancestry. I have Slovak ancestry on my dad's side. And I always wanted to write more about that. I wrote poems about that and certainly had a number of them published, and I had the opportunity over the course of a number of years to meet people from Slovakia, what was then Czechoslovakia.
They were translating my work into Czech and Slovak and publishing it in their country. And they started sending me books of traditional stories in Slovak and English or Czech and English. And I worked with a friend of mine who was named – who is named Anna Vojtech, who is from Czechoslovakia and illustrated one of my books. And I just began getting more and more interested in telling some of those stories. And I did a little serialized novel for "Breakfast Serials," which is a newspaper series that has been out for a number of years called "Janko and the Giant," which was a series of traditional stories built around a character who encounters these various aspects of that Slovak culture and tradition.
It's full of proverbs and Slovak language. And having done that, I then moved on to do a longer novel, which is Dragon Castle that's based in the medieval period and again draws on Slovak history, Slovak culture, Slovak language, Slovak cooking. And again with the help of Slovak people, I made sure that I tried to be as accurate as possible in my depiction.
And I remembered my Slovak grandmother, [unint.] Bruchac, would say, "Joseph, we Slovaks, we was the Indians of Europe." And my father, well, married a person of Native ancestry. There was always that closeness in the family on the Slovak side to Native people from this continent. And the Bruchac family I later found out in Slovakia were known as a family for generations of woodsmen and foresters, people of the forest.
And my Slovak grandfather, for whom I'm named, Joseph Bruchac, said to me, "Joseph, I do not pray in the church. I pray in the old way, in the forest with the trees."
You know what's cool about this book, Buffalo Song? I first wrote a version of it for one publisher. And my editor then moved to another publisher and the name was changed of the book. It was originally called The Man Who Loved Buffalo. Then it became The Buffalo Orphans. Then my editor moved to another publisher and dropped the book. In the meantime, I had a time, an opportunity to work with the Salish Kootenai people and to get more information about the story.
So, when I wrote it the last time and it was published by Lee and Low, this is so much better than those two earlier books would have been. Although if you look at some bibliographies of mine, you'll see two books listed that don't exist, The Man Who Loved Buffalo and The Buffalo Orphans, actually Buffalo Song.
Buffalo Song: Excerpt
And this is a traditional story that was given to me by the Salish people that ties into the story of a man, a Salish man who tried to save the buffalo.
Long ago there were no buffalo on earth. Sun Buffalo Cow looked down from the sky and saw the humans were suffering. I will go and change into earth buffalo she sang. I will be meat for my Indian people. Her words were heard by the humans below. Then Sun Buffalo Cow ran along the trail that led to the cliff. She jumped from that high place to the foot of the cliff far below.
The people came along then and saw the dead buffalo. "Our mother has spoken truly," they said. "Here is food for us." Then they heard the sound of hooves rumbling like thunder. They looked out and saw great herds of buffalo covering the earth.
My name is Joseph Bruchac, and I'll be reading my poem, "Winter Counting."
"Winter counting." How many winters do you have? That's how we ask someone their age. The snow that fell, then melted away reminds us that we still are here. It's easy to count your age by years. We think winter counting is a better way. It makes us grateful for the spring when every bird and every flower welcomes us to a whole new time. Then sunshine is in every heart. And as we smile we ask each other, "How many winters do you have now?"
Windfall in the Andrews Forest
My name is Joseph Bruchac, and I'm going to read my poem, "Windfall in the Andrews Forest" from this beautiful book, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science.
The way the giant Douglas fir leaned after five centuries showed the way wind wanted it to go. Wide roots spread into the soil like hands were not enough to hold. It crashed down through the canopy, scattered branches over the stream. Needles and old man's beard lichen fluttering down like green rain.
The small trees below, yews, hemlocks, and alders, were not net enough to slow it. But the earth and its stones were stronger. For when the tree struck, its great trunk broke. Its bark was shed like an overcoat. And its layers of growth split to splinters.
"The Song of the Wind"
The instrument I'm holding in my hand is a Native American flute, although a musicologist would tell you it's actually a block end whistle. It has a pentatonic five-note scale, which goes like this: one, two, three. This thumb – finger held down. Excuse me, which goes like this.
Those basic five notes. And the flute it's said is made from the branch of a tree that was hollow, broken off at the end, and a woodpecker made holes in it. So, this part is called the branch. This is called the bird, the external block end, which is a fipple that connects the air, brings it down from one chamber to the other. And where it sits is called the bird's nest.
And that song I just played is one called "The Song of the Wind." It was taught to me by Swift Eagle, a Pueblo Apache elder 38 years ago.