Off the Path – A Review

Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century Montana American Indian Writers, Vol. 1, Ed. Adrian L. Jawort, 2014, Off the Pass Press LLC, Billings, Montana.

I feel a bit strange reviewing a book full of stories written about Native Americans by Native Americans. Mostly because I’m not Native American. I’m a white male descended from the colonists who caused so much of the pain contained in these pages. However, in an interview published in Indian Country Media Network written by Heather Steinberger, the book’s editor, Adrian Jawort said that this book is important because, “it introduces Indian Country to non-Native readers who may not understand what lies right next door. ”[1] So, I purchased the book and read it so that I could get to know my ‘next door neighbors’ a little better.

This volume contains nine stories written by five different authors. Each of them brought their own particular perspective to what it means to tell stories as Native Americans. They shared the raw pain that can only be experienced by people who have been marginalized…who have had their lives ripped open…who have had their culture and history nearly destroyed.

It was a difficult read for me. I have tried to educate myself about our Original Nations and what I found is not pleasant. Our country spent almost 500 years raping, stealing land, and cheating our Native sisters and brothers at every turn so that we could make a profit from the minerals in their lands. We have brutalized these people and tried to assimilate them into OUR culture. In 1879 Richard H. Pratt opened a boarding school for the expressed purpose to, “kill the Indian and save the man.”

I don’t want this to be a history lesson. But, it’s important that we non-Natives have an idea of what has happened as a direct result of our colonial treatment of the Native people in this country.

None of the stories have to do with non-Native violence directly involved. I say ‘directly’ because I think that indirectly we are responsible for everything written. The narratives reveal deep wounds that present in Native violence on other natives. Rape, alcohol and substance abuse, and dysfunction in relationships are all prevalent. The domestic and familial violence shocked me. While I realize that these stories are fiction, I can’t help but feel that they are birthed out of true experience.

I’m not going to review every story in this anthology. I only want to touch on one to give you an idea of what they say. Shoot! If I tell you everything you won’t need to buy the book!

The first story was written by Cinnamon Spear. She is a Northern Cheyenne writer and documentary film maker. In the above mentioned interview she stated, “The greater society knows little to nothing about Natives. Having a voice is everything, otherwise people aren’t going to know the realities of our communities.” Her story is entitled “ God’s Plan.” It reveals a life that very few outside of the Native community will ever hear. A life about which we NEED to hear.

This story tells about a young woman living with a Food Channel expert mom. While the Mom works hard to keep the family supplied with food, clothing, and other essentials, the Dad doesn’t appreciate it. Apparently, Dad had aspirations of becoming an attorney and Mom did something that had shot down that pursuit. At least in his mind. For that he was angry. That anger spilled over to physical abuse. The daughter stated that, while “millions of other American children are in their pajamas carelessly enjoying the aroma of blueberry pancakes while watching Saturday morning cartoons on CBS, [she was] in East Bumfuck, Wyoming unknowingly prepared to practice real life First Responder EMS training in her living room.”

The rest of the story followed this track. The Dad was kind one minute saying, “Good morning, my girl,” to her. The next he was beating her Mom to within an inch of death.

In the end, the Dad announced that he and their Mom were getting a divorce. He proceeded to pit the children against each other by asking who would go with him and who would stay. The daughter chose to stay with Mom while her siblings chose Dad.

In the last scene the Dad says, “I said good morning, my girl. Did you sleep well? Hey! Go wake up your mom and sister, huh?”

The pain and dysfunction in this family resulted in physical and psychological abuse that went beyond extreme. We outside of the Native community do experience dysfunction and abuse. But, within Native communities these appear to be systemic. And, a result of 500 years of mistreatment by colonizers.

If there is anything about the book that disappoints, it is the editing. Or, lack of editing. I’m a grammar geek. When I read a book and come upon misspellings or parts that are not cohesive within the plot I become distracted. And, there was a lot in this book to distract. Perhaps, this was by design. Maybe the editorial staff desired that the work be ‘raw’ and ‘natural.’ I don’t know. But, for me, it was problematic.

Would I allow this to keep me from reading it? No! As I wrote earlier, these stories must be read. They must be read widely. We, as non-Natives owe it to our Native sisters and brothers to listen to their stories. We owe it to ourselves to hear their stories.

[1] https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/culture/arts-entertainment/off-the-path-native-writers-in-montana-share-work-in-bold-new-anthology-2/, Accessed: June 20, 2017.

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