When I think about what is discussed when talking about Indigenous literature, I often think about what isn’t out there yet or what there isn’t enough of. What do we need more of? What type of stories will benefit us and those who are learning about us?
Last spring, we at Heyday welcomed some of our oldest friends and biggest supporters at our annual Heyday in L.A. event. Among them were two of the most enthusiastic California Native people I’ve come across when it comes to Indigenous literature: a Native bookshop owner and an American Indian literature professor. I had the privilege to engage in a very spirited discussion with the two of them, during which I asked them,“Do you know of any novels by Native authors that are not centered on trauma?”
They both pondered on this question. It was the only time in the conversation where there was silence. The three of us could not come up with an answer; there was not one book we could think of that didn’t deal with the ugly things that colonization brought to us, such as death, disease, grief, poverty, childhood trauma, sexual assault or abuse, drug use, alcoholism, missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, mental illness, or a long list of other things that plague many of our tribal communities.
What I find most upsetting about this is that there is a real possibility that a lot of our own literature is unwittingly perpetuating the narrative that tribal people are tragic, but there is much more to us than this. We are funny. We are resilient. We are smart. We are innovative. We are thriving. We have generosity and kindness in our communities. Many of us are very delightful. Where are these delightful stories of ours? And do people want to read about them? Well, regardless of whether people do, I believe these books should exist in the world.
A lot of my work in the Heyday Berkeley Roundhouse, which publishes books by California’s Indigenous peoples and the quarterly magazine News from Native California, I’ve found that there is a lot that tribal people are not asked about in terms of their lived experiences: stories about connection, growth, and triumph. And we are so lucky when authors come to us with these stories.
When our now editorial manager brought me the submitted manuscript for An Indian Among los Indígenas by Karuk author Ursula Pike, I couldn’t have been more excited. It’s a travel memoir about Pike’s experience in the Peace Corps while serving Indigenous communities in Bolivia. It was fantastic to address the parallel experiences of Indigenous peoples across the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere, as well as the differences. The story provoked a lot of introspection in me. I remember thinking that there are plenty of Eat, Pray, Love–type memoirs out there that explore self-discovery, but not many that center Indigenous perspectives.
As a Native person myself, I’m rarely asked about my experiences abroad, though many tribal people, like me, are indeed world traveled. This inspired the theme of an extended feature in News from Native California a few years back that focused on California Native people’s travels. Our contributing writers for this piece came from tribal groups across the state, including Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, Nomlaki, Paiute, and Payómkawichum, and shared rich and insightful stories about their journeys to Canada, Europe, Asia, and beyond.
At the Heyday Berkeley Roundhouse, along with publishing so much of the real (and often difficult) history of our region’s first peoples—as we did in Esselen/Chumash author Deborah Miranda’s award-winning Bad Indians—we’re also able to share evidence of the vibrance, beauty, and joy of tribal cultures and lifeways as expressed by California Native people themselves.
For instance, in 2019 we published Bird Songs Don’t Lie: Writings from the Rez by Cahuilla/Cupeño author Gordon Johnson. His book included his previously published Press-Enterprise columns, new essays, and short stories. His rugged and humorous writing gives the reader an inside look at Indian reservation life in Southern California. And in 2022, we published Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria chairman Greg Sarris’s memoir in essays, Becoming Story, about his coming of age in Santa Rosa and the forces that led him to his current work as a tribal leader, which was featured at the Literature Live Around the World program organized by the Bergen Literary Festival.
Such recognition indicates that readers in fact do appreciate stories that extend beyond the tragic narrative. And we’re fortunate to be able to help fill this void.
Terria Smith, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, is the editor of News from Native California and runs Native California publishing at Heyday.