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An Interview with Joseph Bruchac

by Eliza T. Dresang

Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) is the author of more than fifty books for young readers, including novels, picture books, traditional tales and autobiographical writing. This interview was conducted by telephone and transcribed by Eliza T. Dresang on October 22, 1999, to accompany the October discussion of Native American literature for children and teenagers on CCBC-Net. (Archived discussion)

ETD: On the CCBC-net, we are discussing the topic Evaluating Books By and About American Indians. I'll ask you first if you have any general comments about this topic for the participants in CCBC-Net.

JB: It is important to recognize that Native people are not locked into the past. That those called American Indian have living traditions. We need to recognize the fact that there is tremendous diversity from one tribal nation to the next as well as diversity between individuals. There are some commonalties that we can see around the American hemispheres, both North and South, for the term American Indian is not limited to the U.S. in my mind, but covers the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere prior to the late 15th century.

Some of those commonalties are the strength of oral traditions, an informed awareness of the process which is now called ecology and the place that human beings play within that circle of life. Cultures which tend to be oriented toward women rather than dominated by men, women centered in fact. So that something close to an equality of the sexes appears to have been common in most if not all of our original native nations.

There were also forms of government that appear to have been extremely representative in recognizing both community and individuality.

These are very big generalizations but still when you take it all into consideration you may find that there are some things that we now call American which have deep, deep roots in indigenous cultures. That said, perhaps it is not too great a leap to talk about Native cultures as sophisticated cultures, not primitive ones.

Another thing that I think is important to consider is the role that storytelling played and continues to play within our various cultures--storytelling in all its aspects from oral history to social commentary to spiritual awareness to humor. If we look at that it gives us something we can begin to define as Native American.

But once more we have to always go back to the individual tribal nation, to the specific tradition, and to the living human being who is neither stereotype nor cipher.

ETD: How do you bring your Native background to literature for children?

JB: One of the great stumbling blocks for non-Native writers is a lack of lived experience with regard to our Native cultures. All they know, in most cases, is from books and from the written record, not from words on the breath nor from visions they've experienced with their own eyes.

So, in my own case, I always go back to what I have heard, what I have seen, what I have experienced. And whatever I imagine or create new always comes out of that life experience. I am a good listener and I have a really good memory. Over the last six weeks, I've been in Canyon de Chelly and at Dine College with my friends Harry and Anna Walters. I've been in Cherokee, North Carolina, standing on the great Kituah Mound with my friend Tom Belt. And I've stood at the foot of Running Eagle Falls in Glacier National Park, after a day of working in the Browning schools with Blackfeet Indian children. In each of those places I was given stories and I hold the memories of those stories and those places, and I know that they will give me a certain balance when the time comes for me to write about any of those things.

The last thirty years of my life in particular have been blessed with so many of these experiences and by the generosity of so many Native people who have shared their stories and their understanding of their land with me that I know I can never live long enough to share everything I've learned. But I'll try.

ETD: You have written many different types of books for children, e.g., poetry, novels, biographies, and autobiographies. Do you find one type more important than another, or do you find that a variety of forms is best? What do you like best to write?

JB: As a general rule Native American literature is characterized by a blurring and a mixing of genres. We see this in the work of such important writers as Momaday and Silko. So, in my own way, I tend not to favor one form or another but to go wherever the story or poem or play or memoir chooses to take me.

ETD: One of the books that CCBC-Net members have been asked to read is Bowman's Store, your autobiography. Could you talk to us about that book and what it was like as an American Indian youth who did not hear his heritage spoken about?

JB: We need to remember that, by definition, any autobiography is always a work in progress . As an adult, when most autobiographies are written, we can begin to put pieces together and see a larger shape -- but as young people we are too busy living our lives to be that self-aware. So it is that in looking back I can now see how many things made me ready to go more deeply into my Native ancestry. But at the time of growing up, I wanted desperately to be just like the other kids and not different, and I was confused because I was different. That is a very human experience whatever your background is.

Before I go further, I should note that Bowman's Store and a lot of other books by Native authors are out of print or hard to find. (Note: since this interview was conducted, Bowman's Store has been brought back into print by Lee & Low Publishers.) This is a good time for me to mention a project that my son, James Bruchac, directs: nativeauthors.com, an online bookstore featuring only books by Native authors. It attempts to make available the widest possible range of works from U.S. and Canadian Native writers, including books from very small presses. Before Bowman's Store went out of print, Jim stocked a lot of copies, so it is available from him. The web site was designed by my other son, Jesse. My two son are both storytellers and writers and deeply involved with the Abenaki culture. They grew up with it as an absolutely visible part of their lives. www.nativeauthors.com is run on a shoestring with no funding and no backing, though I do help support it. It includes both adult and children's books.

ETD: Could you please comment on Seeing the Circle, your new picture-book autobiography?

JB: The Richard C. Owen biography series attempts to give the picture of a day in the life of a writer. It now includes more thirty writers and illustrators of children's book. In it I talk about my writing process and my background. One particular structural principle that was taught to me by a Mohegan elder, Harold Tantaquidgeon, teaches us to proceed through a circle: first to listen, second to observe, third to remember, fourth to share.

He and his sister, Gladys, who just celebrated her 100th birthday founded the Mohegan Indian Museum in Uncasville, Connecticut.

ETD: What about not knowing that you were American Indian when you were growing up? Does one have to be "born" into a culture to know it well?

JB: No one is born knowing a language or knowing a culture We are all constantly growing and learning. If I learn to speak French in my 30s, it does not mean I don't know how to speak French. Writers need real knowledge, a base of experience behind them. I don't care when they got the knowledge.

One way for a non-Native to gain this knowledge is by listening with care and respect to those who are within rather than those who view it from the outside. A wonderful story was told to me by Greg Sarris, a Native writer from California who also grew up without much knowledge of his ancestry as a child. Greg told me a story about Mabel McKay, a well-known basket maker and one very knowledgeable about the spiritual traditions of her people. One day Carlos Casteņeda went to visit Mabel McKay and knocked on the door of her little house. She opened it an inch and said "What do you want?" He responded: "I am Carlos Casteņeda. (and she knew who he was) I understand you know a lot about medicine and I would like to talk to you about spiritual things and about medicine. Without batting an eye, she said, "you are on the outside, I am on the inside," shut the door and locked it.

A lot of people who speak and say are not those who know. Those who know recognize that.

ETD: Can you speak some about The Heart of a Chief and Eagle Song?

JB: They are placed in the present day. Both are meant to be gifts to young Native people. I do a lot of work in schools with both Native and non-Native kids. Both of those books came directly from my experience of working with Native children --hearing their questions, listening to their concerns, and sometimes feeling their pain. Sometimes it is particularly poignant when we see what Native American children have to deal with on an everyday basis. Both of those books are meant to both present that hard edge that we run up against every day as Native people in a white majority culture. Visibly claiming our Native ancestry takes courage. We need to recognize the possibility of experiencing being Native in a way that gives us strength.

ETD: Are the protagonists of these books boys you have specifically known or a synthesis of various youth?

JB: I know a number of kids who would fit the bill easily. A few kids have said "That's about me, isn't it?" I have to say, "Sort of." These are generalized characters drawn from many young people I've known, but they also are me. Any writer worth his or her salt has a strong connection to the characters in his or her work.

I have also written books with young women as protagonists. My most recent one which draws on one of our traditional monster stories is called Skeleton Man. It is coming out next year from HarperCollins. The protagonist is a young woman whose parents have disappeared, and she has been given into the custody of her so-called uncle who is a very sinister person. It's a cliff hanger with a strong, clear-minded young woman at the center of the action, set entirely in modern times. It is a novel for young readers.

ETD: What would you say about stereotypical images in books, a subject of much discussion this month?

JB: One of the phoniest comments I have ever heard was made by a well-known American writer I will not name. He said: "I am not a man, I am a poet." To elevate the author's vision above common humanity seems false to me. As writers, we are responsible for what we write. As teachers and librarians, we are responsible for what we share with young readers. We need to exercise judgement and guidance. I think we can identify some books that, if we are winnowing out libraries for lack of space, I'd be delighted to see removed. I am not speaking for censorship, but with limited space, some books take up space that would be better used by other. If a school has a limited budget for book purchases, the librarian can benefit from guidelines. For example, such guidelines would make it possible to identify books filled with inaccuracies, such as My Heart Is On the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl.

Let's also talk about the books that are in the library and curriculum and have almost become icons. One of those books is The Sign of the Beaver, which I think has good intentions. It wants to create the picture of a non-Native boy on the frontier, a New England child learning positive lessons from Native teachers. However, its depiction of Abenaki culture is deeply flawed. The Native characters often speak in a stereotypical fashion. For example, when the white boy asks the Indian boy the dog's name, the Indian boy says, in broken English, he has no name, he is just called dog. Yet within Abenaki culture, dogs play a central role and have always been considered members of the family. The naming of our dogs is always done with great care and every dog has a name. Even the generic name for dog in the Abenaki language, alemos, means "the one who follows behind." That is a glaring contrast with the picture painted in The Sign of the Beaver, and that is only one very small example.

What I would propose is that if a book such as this is embedded in the curriculum, the teacher would do well to point out both the positive and the negative or inaccurate aspects of that story. There are many teachable moments. Rather than throwing it out the window, we can use it as a window. But, of course, all this requires knowledge on the part of the teacher and the librarian. That is one of the things that I'm trying to do as far as possible. I'm trying to help people find out those things to help teachers and librarians make their work more effective, more positive, more accurate.

I have to say, too, one of my biggest problems with these books is not that they are in the library on their own, but that they are in the library taking the place that could better be filled by more accurate books. Sometimes, in fact, a non-Native writer becomes the entire representative of a particular Native culture and the true Native voice is never heard.

ETD: You've spoken of "living the culture." How does this relate to the need to research what one writes about? JB: I haven't mentioned academic research because that is what everyone mentions first. I have a Ph.D in comparative literature and I've taught on the college level. It is part of my work. In most cases, each story I've heard, I've also been able to find recorded in various texts. So I do make comparisons and do a scholarly study of those stories. I am not saying that we need to exclude the component of research -- only that it is just half of the process, not the whole process of gaining the knowledge needed to do the writing.

ETD: Lately I have heard there is a controversy about being a card carrying Native America. It came up at the USBBY conference in Madison, Wisconsin, last week. Can you explain more about this and its implications?

JB: I belong to the Abenaki Nation which is a non-recognized nation in the United States. My great-grandfather came from the little village of Odanak in Canada. I do not have a card from a federally recognized Native American nation. However, if you were to go back a hundred years, no American Indians had cards.

It has reached the point where Native Americans have become something like pedigreed dogs, judged on our blood lines and our papers. I find it very strange. However, I understand the reason why we have come to this point.

First of all, we are dominated by a European based government that places great importance on paper identification.

Secondly, numerous individuals over the past seven decades have presented themselves as Indian but appear to have been entirely bogus.

Third is the issue of entitlement. Because legal agreements called treaties were made between Native nations and the U.S. government, being a card-carrying member of one of those Native nations entitles you to certain things. I know of numerous native communities -- more than 200 in the United States -- who are non-recognized Indian tribes. Among them, quite a few are seeking federal or Congressional recognition. In some cases, their own relatives in the states where they live (who are in a tribes that are recognized) are fighting that recognition for fear it will lessen the pool of money available to them. So you can see, it is a big issue. It is much bigger than I could ever hope to be qualified to speak about definitively.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Law that was passed a few years ago defines who can legally sell arts and crafts as an Indian. However, under that law, Native people in Canada or south of the U.S. border cannot called themselves Indian for the purposes of selling arts and crafts. The artificial borders have become the defining point. This is absurd. To make it even more absurd, Abenaki people were relocated on several occasions. The Abenakis in Odanak are originally from New England. Odanak is a refugee community formed around the Catholic church. There are many levels and layers of complexity. Some of these are addressed in Bowman's Store.

Quite frankly, some who are card-carrying Indians are not descended from Natives. In Oklahoma, when it went from Indian territory into statehood, oil was discovered. If one was on the tribal rolls, one was entitled to oil money. Non-Indians bribed officials to put them on the rolls. They weren't Indian before then. Many Cherokee were not enrolled and their children are not on any tribal roles because their ancesters were opposed to the federal policy of Allotment and refused to enroll. As you can see, there are many possibilities of corruption, misinterpretation, and disenfranchisement once we allow the federal government to define who we are.

If an ancestor was not enrolled at the time of enrollment, in many tribes there may be no way to get on the rolls.

There is another major problem for card-carrying Indians. Tribal ID cards ignore the fact that human beings have traveled from community to community by marriage and adoption. They may require you to prove that you have a certain percentage of ancestry to be eligible for tribal membership. But, what happens if your grandparents all come from different tribes? Michael Lacapa's book, Less Than Half More Than Whole, deals with this. "Pure blood may become inbreeding," Jack Gladstone, the Blackfeet song writer, said to me a few weeks ago. Jack says that his family was always "outbred" because they welcomed people from other Nations. The old Native way was to draw people in, not keep them out. We are Indian, not through blood quantum alone but also by cultural awareness and the maintenance of a distinct societal identity.

People get very confused. It is only Native Americans who must carry cards. No one asks you to prove that you are Hispanic or Jewish or Gypsy. We've become obsessed with this.

Who am I? Earth and Sky know who I am.

ETD: Is there anything else you'd like to share with the CCBC-Net community?

JB: We need to listen to each other. We need to remember we were given two ears so we can always hear in more than one direction. I think we also need to remember that every human being shares the drumbeat of the heart. As much as we need to recognize those things that are different between us and celebrate our diversity, we also need to remember that we all share the heartbeat of the earth.

ETD: You mention that you work a lot in schools. How can people contact you, in addition to through your publishers?

JB: Directly at my home and business:

P.O Box 308 Greenfield Center NY 12833

ETD: What excites you about the future?

JB: What I am most excited about is the work that my sons and my sister, Marge, are doing. Marge is working on her doctorate at University of Massachusetts, doing substantive research on Native traditions and histories. I am very excited about what they are doing and that it is not just me but also my family involved in these pursuits.

ETD: Is your doctorate from the University of Massachusetts also?

JB: It was from the Union Institute in Ohio. Don't say it is from Union College in New York. I once had a very funny thing happen. Someone in the Smithsonian sent around a memo saying that obviously Joe Bruchac is a fraud because Union College only offers a masters degree. I had to make photocopies of my diploma so people could see that it is what I say it is. I try to be absolutely straightforward about who I am, where I've been and where I hope to go. I don't want people to conclude that I'm trying to fool them.

ETD: How would you like to be remembered?

JB: If there is one way that I would want to remembered it would be as a voice for the people rather than as one who spoke for himself. Whatever gifts I've been given have been given to me for a reason. No matter how much I give back, it could never be enough.

Eliza T. Dresang has been a faculty member at Florida State University since 1996 and was recently named the Eliza Atkins Gleason professor. Her theory of “Radical Change” explains various aspects of information behavior in the digital world. Her publications include the books Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age, School Censorship in the 21st Century, and a forthcoming volume on outcome-based evaluation of children's technology use. Eliza chaired the 2004 Newbery Committee, and served on the American Library Association Council and the Association for Library Services to Children Board. She is currently an elected member of the Freedom to Read Foundation Board of Trustees.

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