The “Off the Path: An 21st Century Anthology of Montana American Indian Writers, Vol. 1” book all began with a phone call to fellow Northern Cheyenne and recent Dartmouth grad Cinnamon Spear of Lame Deer.
I was set to set to do a story on her documentary about reservation basketball called “Pride and Basketball,” which showcased some of the best of our unity as a tribe as we Cheyenne proudly supported one of our local teams, the Lame Deer High School Morning Stars.
Prior to our conversation, I’d noticed Spear’s masters degree was in creative writing. As a journalist and fiction writer myself, I was naturally interested in viewing her work as I’d long contemplated starting my own book publishing company, and she obliged.
As other readers of her stories can attest via the “Off the Path” book, the fearless, raw power of Spear’s words and stories about growing up amid abuse and alcoholism, among other personal topics, overwhelmed me with emotion, and I immediately knew this was something that needed to be published for the rest of the world and other young aspiring writers to see.
But, I thought, if she did get these published, how many Montanans would actually have easy access to reading her stories in a timely fashion? They might end up in a literary journal after a lengthy process, but even then it’d be difficult for the average reader in Montana to even come across them.
I’d already completed a novel, and theorized that between the two of us we could create a book of short stories, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I’d start my own publishing company just yet (which would eventually become Off the Pass Press LLC).
That is, until after I’d attended a Billings meeting where Sherman Alexie’s controversial book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” was being debated to see if it would be kept on the School District 2 high school curriculum.
Some 150 or so Native American and non-Native supporters showed up to the public hearing, but what struck me most was how passionate people of all colors were in defense of the book. Natives that other Montanans had lived next to for all of their lives but eyed leerily were suddenly introduced as genuinely relatable people who lived, loved and cried just like them through Alexie’s literature — thereby bringing them closer together.
“This book clears up and gets rid of a lot of prejudices and misconceptions people have,” noted a white Senior High student named Bryce Curry. “It’s not in the past, it’s in the present, and will remain in the future unless we openly discuss it in classrooms and show why it is wrong.”
I warn readers that “Off the Path” is rated “R” for language and probably shouldn’t be required for younger high school students – although I believe, with bias, that tribal colleges and universities should carry it! – Curry’s and others’ commitment to the book made a point to me: more accessible Native literature is much needed not only in Montana, but throughout North America.
People of all colors would crave our unique stories, but we still needed a consistent platform to tell them from. However, we couldn’t merely rely upon some back east publisher to endorse our words for us if the publisher didn’t understand where we were coming from in the first place, or if work was sought only from established elder writers. We’d have to do it on our own.
I had contacts and knew people who knew other potential writers, and along with the support of Ms. Spear and fellow writers that I featured in the book like Apsaalooke (Crow) writers Luella Brien and Eric Leland Bigman Brien, as well as Browning writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, we’d make and promote the book and bring it to the readers who’d appreciate it the most: you reading this.
Most of these writers are southeast Montana-based as you may notice, but HolyWhiteMountain came highly recommended by several up north contacts —including a major nod from a “Winter in the Blood” film co-screenwriter named Ken White.
When I heard that HolyWhiteMountain had graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, highlighted by The Atlantic magazine in a 2007 article titled “Where Great Writers are Made,” I immediately sought out whatever work I could find of his.
Just like Spear’s work, I was in awe of HolyWhiteMountain’s skills as he so brilliantly captured the hardships and essence of Browning/Blackfeet reservation life from a young man’s point of view - as he did in “Off the Path’s” “The Education of Little Man False Star Boy.”
Luella Brien – a beautiful woman whom I have a daughter with – I met seven years ago when she worked as a Billings Gazette reporter, but our relationship goes back further as I’d been in contact with her since about 2002 when the University of Montana started up reznetnews.org and I’d emailed her articles when she was the student editor.
She was hesitant to run her story called “Green-eyed Regret” because it centered around a cynical, half-white, half-Native young woman who looked white and grew up on the Crow reservation among prejudices with a meth- and drink-addled mother. I, of course, said that story needed to be read as someone would undoubtedly relate to it.
I’d come across Eric Leland Bigman Brien writings by observing how he’d often espouse insightfully honest musings that read wonderfully poetic on Facebook. He was just so honest about his feelings, and noted he’d written most of a lengthy short story. I gladly used an excerpt from it.
Since Bigman Brien started writing fiction recently, he was what one could call a raw talent. Still, he was exactly what I was hoping to discover: someone perhaps not as educated in the writing field as professional and published writers, but nonetheless just as passionate about the craft with a story that needed to be let out, as is the ultimate goal of the “Off the Path” book and future volumes.
Vol. 2 will feature writers not only from Montana, but the Southwest and other U.S. regions as well. Vol. 3 aims to publish writers not only from North America but places like Australia and New Zealand, where indigenous populations there have had experiences with colonization mirroring ours in the U.S. and Canada. I also must note that all of the writers in the book are under 35 years old, and that pertains to the “21st century” part of the subtitle.
Until the 1960s, people primarily thought of Native Americans as caricatures of the past. That perception would begin to change with N. Scott Mommaday’s 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a contemporary Native, “House Made of Dawn.”
This marked the beginning of the so-called Native American Renaissance, as throughout the 1970s authors like Blackfeet/Gros Ventre Montana writer James Welch gained literary eminence. Setting up a second wave of the Renaissance were writers like Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz and Louise Erdrich in the 1980s.
Although Erdrich and Sherman Alexie have won recent major book awards and have paved a continual inspirational path, some may ask, will there ever be a Third Renaissance of American Indian writers?
Perhaps, but I believe the spark igniting a 21st century third wave Renaissance prairie fire for the younger generation of Native writers to gain literary prominence must come from Natives themselves — and why shouldn’t it start in Montana?
The “Off the Path” anthology is available exclusively at Barjon’s Books downtown and via the www.offthepasspressllc.com website. The first public reading of the book at the Billings Public Library at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday, April 15.