-By Greg Ruth
Winona Nelson & Greg Ruth

Winona and I began a conversation at the IMC in Amherst a couple of years ago about our mutual passion for native stories. (Honestly some of the old Ojibwe tales she recounted to me still ring in my head like a bell- amazing stuff). I always wanted to go in deeper at a later date and we finally managed to coordinate our busy lives for a conversation about them, race issues, art and what it all means to be here and how to interact and participate in these incredibly rich traditions. We especially wanted to talk openly about how closed and nervous conversations on how to engage  with native stories and how important they are to us both, despite coming from of different sides of the conversation. Her work in delving into her native Ojibwe traditions and tales and my own “outsider” approach to the not too distant history of the Chiricahua Apaches seemed to frame up an interesting place to start. Plus on top of it all, I confess I was excited to get to showcase some of Nonie’s work here for entirely selfish reasons. She is a damned master of color and brush and narrative crafting even in a single painting, and long vast river of character and place.

“Cochise” by Greg Ruth

G. Straight off the bat, because I get asked this a lot as I’m sure you do. What do you personally prefer as a general term for native peoples… other than obviously, native peoples? We’re living in a time that is far more sensitive to the terminology we used to sling around haphazardly, and I guess that’s a good thing overall. “First Nations” is misused a lot to cover all tribal cultures on the continent when it’s particular to Canadian tribal communities and not meant for say. “Native American” seems to be our overall accepted term, but I gotta confess I wince at it for the same reason I do at “African-American” or “Asian-American” because it carries within it a back door assumption that the only un-hyphenated core Americans are white people, and the rest are dilutions. “Native” is the most definitionally correct term, but I’m a talker and writer so I like to have different words for the same thing to keep the dialogue interesting.

I often use the term “Indian” in conversation, and I find there’s a funny response I get depending on the crowd: White people shrink because I think given it’s essentially a misnomer, and it’s previous cultural history remains and when spoken by me, a white guy… (i.e. cowboys and indians), well it makes other white people nervous I think along the same lines as darkly archaic terms like “colored” or “negro”, terms I heard a lot down south growing up. The natives I have most often spoken to lately are fine with it. When I asked an Apache friend why it made him smile he confessed “Well Greg, I’ll be honest- I love the term because it’s not insulting to us per se, but it makes you the white guy, look silly for not knowing where you were when you named us this. There’s a part of me, and a lot of Indians who do delight a bit in white people looking silly and it puts them off balance”. But beyond that childish prankishness, I think when people are uncomfortable or off balance, they’re more ready to be receptive to something new. Confidence is the death of learning you know.” So I like that it has a Woody Allen goofy me culpa thing to it. And there’s some core truth in pointing to its ignorance as I think that particular quality, ignorance,  was what helped fuel the difficult relationship we’ve had and continue to have. It always starts an interesting conversation, and to me, that’s the best medicine: that we break all the silence by having a conversation.

W: I use Native most often.  I don’t really like saying Native American except for clarity, and only use Indian with other Indians and people I know well, to joke.  It *is* a silly name.  When traveling abroad or meeting recent immigrants I say “My people were here before white people” and that seems to be the most universally understood method as most continents have this demographic.

“The Last Ride of Victorio & Lozen” by Greg Ruth

G: Language is so consequential isn’t it? Okay, so let’s get this thing in gear… Maybe it was growing up in Texas, or maybe it was just growing up in the 70’s & 80’s, but native stories and culture were always something that really fascinated me as a kid and clearly still does today. Granted it was largely to paint them as some wild elemental evil that the pure and goodly white settler had fight against like they were the winds of sin itself, but for this little white dude growing up in Nixon’s America, it was the only place I had to start, and absent of any other exposure I remain grateful for it, despite it’s ridiculousness and terrible approach to showcasing these rich societies. America’s not an old country, particularly as compared to most others, so in many ways local Comanche or Apache tales were like a secret history of our true selves… but they were always kept behind a hushed curtain like an unwanted relative at a funeral. I remember finding arrowheads, in our yard, or out in our soccer fields. They were both a rare luminous thing and sort of walkaday normal like finding a stray $50 bill or a four leaf clover. For me though that tangible moment of discovery, holding this spent weapon in my hand made all of it, the soccer field, my suburban neighborhood, the city itself feel like a thin coat of cheap paint over a hidden kingdom buried by time. I remember showing it to my parents wide eyed as to how how cool it was as a thing and a moment, but also noting the dry swallow that quickly followed when we started talking about the tribal people that left it here. We have, as non-tribal Americans, a really soft and uncomfortable relationship with ourselves and the whole conversation itself when it comes to talking about tribal culture. We just don’t seem equipped on a basic level. I think it’s still tricky to start talking about them- especially as a white person.  Why is that? Guilt? Do we lack enough knowledge to know where to start? Is it simply a legacy of post colonial shame? And how do we get past it? Should we?

It somehow feels reductive to even have the axis of any conversation about tribal cultures hinge on its interaction with colonial displacement and violence. It’s like a song we can’t seem to get out of our head that keeps us from hearing other music, and yet it’s such a big definitive thing that needs discussing. I have a kind of  a schizophrenic attitude about all this myself, but not where the artist part of me is concerned. From that place of purchase is pure wide eyed innocent and pure interest. Art seems to be a proper bridge between the two to me. 

“Young Dancer” by Winona Nelson

W: I’m still learning just how lucky I was to grow up in my tribe’s land, surrounded by our culture even though I grew up in the city. Even in public school in Duluth, Minnesota, I had Ojibwe language as part of my elementary education.

I had a foot in each world growing up, since I’m mixed. I’m registered with the tribe, and went to an all-Native school for one year. I was faced with a choice, focusing on my Native side and going to a school that was terribly underfunded and full of kids who bullied me relentlessly, or going back to the big public school with so many more programs and teachers and all of the opportunities that represented. The latter was clearly the one that would give me a better chance of climbing out of poverty, so I made my choice.

I know there’s a ton of Ojibwe culture I’m clueless about, having grown up with my white mom and attended predominantly-white schools. However, contemporary life on the reservations does not necessarily reflect tradition either. Much of that knowledge is only available academically, through the state colleges’ Tribal Studies programs and the books they publish, because the traditional oral education was disrupted in the previous generations and is no longer passed from grandparents to grandchildren as it once was. Despite being Ojibwe and growing up in our own ancestral land, I didn’t learn that much of our past. I have to imagine that the gulf is even bigger for non-Native-people.

“Spirit Place #1” by Winona Nelson

To me, our stories are a mysterious secret history, yes, but it’s my own history, not simply that of this land. Each time I learn more about my tribe I have a different kind of guilt than a colonizer’s guilt – I have the guilt of realizing how much I’d internalized and believed stereotypes and narratives that told me my own color is inferior. I mourn the choice to move away from my tribe’s ways before I had even really known them, because I know now that that choice was based on valuing the white world more highly.

Being Native meant people assumed I would be bad at school, and would grow up to be alcoholic, and would get involved in gangs and violence. I distanced myself from those assumptions by being a total suckup to the teachers and going to predominantly-white public schools and getting good grades. In doing so I dug the gulf between myself and all the good things about my tribe that much deeper and harder to bridge. Coming back to the stories of my tribe now, as an adult, is painful at the same time as it is healing.

I don’t begrudge other people who don’t have my background being interested in our culture. I want it to spread far and wide, and that’s why I create art based on our stories. My tribe is epic and badass and amazing, but because our stories were more difficult to learn about as a kid I didn’t know that. I didn’t have a basis for self-esteem on my tribal side, not big enough to outweigh all the negative stereotypes and expectations I was exposed to. I want Native American history and legends and mythology to be a much bigger part of American culture, so that other kids won’t grow up hearing more negative narrative than positive.

“Old Naiches” Greg Ruth
G: That is one of the first hurdles Ethan and I hit right away when coming to laying out how we would both execute and talk about our book, INDEH: Do we have the right to talk about it at all? And I think it made us both realize that there was no possible way to sneak up on this subject without tripping the alarm, so we decided it did ourselves and the Apaches we were speaking to the best possible honor to straighten our backs and march in through the front door. The moment of revelation that fueled us forward was when we were on a research trip in New Mexico and Arizona, and we ran into a Navajo tribal policemen who at first was deeply suspicious and incredulous towards us, but softened greatly when after a short conversation he realized we weren’t the clunky stumbling tourists he was used to having to suffer. The conversation- ANY conversation, however fraught or hard or complicated, was a huge improvement over the choking silence that seemed to pervade. We came away from that moment energized both by having survived what could have been a catastrophic moment for us morally in looking to make this book, but also with some secreted key to how to make it and how to talk about it later. I think in many ways, meeting and engaging with tribal people always point to me at least, how young I am as a species and culture when faced with someone who can trace roots back a thousand years. Again there is something distinctly and typically American about this. But it always makes me a little envious of the draw of having an ancient home to point to despite the accompanying burden such a history also contains. In Houston we just don’t have that kind of connection to place despite the Texas pride that’s everywhere. The strip malls, endless freeways, and shiny buildings all seem so thin compared to the history it has paved over. 

“Ohukakan” by Winona Nelson

W: Your point about the draw of an ancient home is a good one. Being connected to the place you live is so important psychologically, and for many Americans whose families came here as immigrants more than one generation ago, there’s a feeling of placelessness. You no longer feel like you’re from Europe or China or wherever your family came from when you have grown up in the US, whether your family is one that spoke the language and ate the cuisine of the Old Country or was one that intentionally buried its cultural connections to assimilate and become American. But at the same time, there’s a guilty little voice telling you that no one can be truly, truly American except for Native Americans. No one else has lived here long enough to have actually evolved with this land, been nurtured and sustained by this land, learned the secret knowledge and magic of this land.

That feeling of needing to belong might be part of the draw for families who hand down a hereditary allegiance to one particular college or sports team. It provides a framework for belonging to a place and a tribe, one your parents and grandparents are connected to, one that has secret knowledge and rituals of its own. Everyone wants to be a part of a tribe, to belong to a people. In the US you can’t just join a Native tribe, so you create artificial ones, and the real tribes of this land seem mythical.

I think many Americans shut their ears to Native issues just because paying attention will open a floodgate of those feelings of not belonging here, in the place they live, the land they love. Part of them longs to learn all the Natives know, but part of them feels like doing so would require admitting they are invaders, occupiers, and no one wants to feel like the villain.

“Geronimo & Lozen” by Greg Ruth

G: I think that’s such a smart way of codifying the nervousness. And I can only speak to general white nervousness and fear of the conversations from my own perspective, but I have found the more I have come learn about the import and depth of feeling, both good and ill from the native perspective, the more nervous I am to address it simply because I now fully get how serious this is for tribal people. At the same time there’s an aspect of racial discussions like this that cause we of the anglo persuasion, to retreat fearfully for this guilt-fueld fear of fucking up. It’s sort of the inverse of the terrorist who only have to succeed once to be successful… white folk only need get it wrong once to undo any and all good will they have built up to that point- especially in their own eyes. And so the result is a fear to risk that and not engage. Which as hard and tricky as the conversation might be otherwise, the silence to me is the worst insult.

Not an excuse by any means- I come from family and a culture which harbors deeply ingrained traditionally flippant racist perspectives and there’s a sense of “holding one’s breath” when it comes to these subjects that build into a resentment that prevents learning. It forces a retreat into simpler lines of thought and undermines the kind of sharing I’d like us to see. I screw up this stuff far less than I used to, but as a white man who hasn’t had to feel the blunt force in my chest of racism directly, I still get it wrong, and am also more upset with myself these days now when I do, because the more I know the more I feel I should know better. The first instinct then is to retreat even though I know that’s the wrong response. I think this keeps a lot of people who I think could lend powerful voices to tribal stories from telling them, or even reading them. But for me it’s a choice- always a choice. I don’t have the weight of culture and history laying upon me in the same way and my privilege is that the conversation is a choice for me, where it is not for others. It’s easier for me as an anglo guy to screw it up because for me issues of racism are always intellectual/empathetic- and I think this is what lies behind most innocent instances of white people saying dumb things about race. For us it simply has never been experiential, and so we have to teach ourselves to come to it through learning rather than direct contact with its inherently oppressive nature. Likewise, this is why I think it‘s also important that as a white person I feel that I am required in some way to talk about race or do something honest and active about native issues because it is the legacy that has benefited me so that it is a choice that needs paying for as a debt. Not guilt mind you, but a simple responsibility to recognise that largely the root problem with race is white people being or having been, racist.

The result then seems to be, in our art, that as a white fellow and ostensibly more free to create and delve into any story, I am also less free to engage in native tales because of the history of appropriation and misrepresentation my race has so excelled at in the past. I wonder if there isn’t an inverse responsibility that you, as an Ojibwe feel you must carry as a banner of your tribal heritage regardless of where other interests may lie. This sound right? As a white fellow here I am brought up to be anything I want, to go anywhere I please, and there’s no underlying responsibility to attend to as a result despite the actual requisite responsibility to right the record on what our fore-bearers screwed up so magnificently and for so long. As a white artist I feel a much smaller sense of obligation to this that I would presume a non-anglo may, especially in there hyper polarized and explosively racial times we find ourselves in.

“Guardian of the Eastern Door” Winona Nelson

W: I’ve had many instances of people asking my opinion or asking me to participate in their project because it has a Native American inspired setting or theme, but it started only after I began promoting my own personal work focusing on my culture. In my case, Native American is never a curious person’s first guess about my race when they meet me.  But I am obviously non-white, and that affects how others speak to me and treat me whether they’re getting the nationality right or not.

It is very, very rare that anyone asks me to give a specifically Ojibwe opinion or flavor. We’re just not famous enough for that. I am more likely to be asked about Plains tribes, or the more iconic tribes of the Southwest. We Natives are still very much assumed to be all the same monoculture by most outside people. But I prefer to be asked at all, if it means stopping a gaming company from making a very insensitive choice of words or some other avoidable faux pas.
You must get a lot of people questioning your motives and your qualifications now, right? Is that a new position to find yourself in? To me it’s a relief to have one area in my life where I am assumed to be more expert than a white man.
“The Murder of Mangas Coloradas” by Greg Ruth

G: It is new in many ways. I mean I’ve done children’s picture books- two now, that deal directly with veteran’s issues and stories, whereas I am myself not one nor have any direct ties to military life. But the scale and import of that genre and world in terms of conversation are wildly less fraught than a white guy telling a native Apache story is. I don’t questioned nearly as much as I expected- I think Ethan was surprised by this too. We spent months prosecuting each other on this issue to make sure we really thought through how to respond in a way that was the most honest and sensible as we could be. The vast majority of occasions where this has come up, have almost been universally from white questioners who seem to be wrestling with their own white guilt, consciously or unconsciously. Which I find really curious. Reminds me of that old line about where white v black racism is rooted- which is obviously, with white people who started the cycle. In a perfect world it shouldn’t matter what racial background drives someone to tell a story. But the truth is it does to some degree and for different reasons. To question our qualifications is an inherently racist question on its face, but unlike most racism going the other direction, we recognize it comes from a place of deserved skepticism. When we were researching how to full authenticate the kind of racist hateful attitude of a character like John Ward in our story, or that of some of the soldiers in Gatewood’s camp in retreat that led to the horrendous murder of Mangus Coloradas, it was really damned easy to find a hefty pile of material on racist ideas about the Apaches and indians in general. I’m talking Atlantic ocean sized piles, and in comparison there’s barely a handful of authentically told native characters to balance that against. So I get it, but and surprised we didn’t also get it more so far. To us it’s an important conversation and one we’re happy to have. We simply came at this story, as we responded to one patron in the audience at the Barnes and Noble event last June, from a place of love. It sounds hokey, but we really did, but a specific kind and type of love that comes from approaching it from a  place of art rather than politics. I think there’s an incredible neutrality amongst creatives- a sort of universal club membership that allows us to share and toss around what might otherwise be political or socially dangerous grenades easily without too much fear of their detonating. It’s not always the case of course, but coming from that place, looking at these stories and people as people and stories of interest unto their own-selves, sort of dodges the racial minefield that usual exists with something like this. It’s a commentary on how low the bar is when its revolutionary to tell an Apache story from the Apache perspective and to make of them rich and knowable human people. I would hope that anyone going into INDEH might come away from it having those concerns evaporated. If we did our job right then they should. Ethan always likes to bring up how if Shakespear were alive during these times he’d absolutely write plays about the American Indians. Particularly about the Apaches because their tale is so dramatically epic and vivid in ways similar to a King Lear, Henry V or Macbeth and Hamlet.

But in truth I’m a little suspicious of the lack of controversy with INDEH. I hope it’s because we haved moved past the basic and initial assumption that anglos talking about native stories is inherently and always colonial. But I worry it’s because there just isn’t as much interest in this as a significant topic the way it might be if say, we had done a book about the Black Panthers in the4 1970’s. The strong and stinging backlash to JK Rowling’s clumsy misappropriation of native stories is a healthy thing to see, but I wonder if it’s not more fueled by a desire to tear down Rowling from her pedestal than defending native heritage. The clearest example of this might be the issue surrounding the Washington Redskins or especially the ridiculously racist cartoon of the Cleveland Indians mascot. If you superimposed a cartoon of Little Black Sambo over that thing, you’d be shocked to see it’s identical. I can’t imagine if a major league football team had Little Black Sambo on their helmets there wouldn’t be riots, and yet there’s a deafening silence and cultural shrug when it comes to this for native peoples who are absolutely and rightfully offended by this caricature. I think that speaks volumes right there.

“Geronimo & Son” by Greg Ruth

As an artist the terror of taking this on is a reason to do it. We’re made better by pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones creatively, but I’ll always be a voyeur because native realities were never a part of my personal life experience growing up or even nowadays. So that haunts after any confidence our years researching and drawing these characters might bring. The answer really is to do more of this- and not just us, but more everyone everywhere engaging with these aspects of our shared collective heritage in a way that brings a greater sense of understanding we now lack. Sherman Alexie makes an interesting case for chronic “Indian Bipolarism” which speaks to his notion that all natives in America lead bipolar lives standing between their American selves and their Tribal selves. Does this ring true to you? You seem to embody that in many ways, and for me at least it not only makes the work you do so fascinating to see unfold, but how you operate as an artist navigating between these two. Your tribal self is there and demands to be embraced in your work or ignored so you can freely chase other genres and subjects. That’s got to provide a baseline sense of self I lack entirely as a white artist, don’t you think? 

“Third Fire” by Winona Nelson

W: Sherman Alexie, man, I’m glad you brought him up. I wish I’d learned about him much earlier. When discussing my experience at Native school with a middle school teacher friend of mine, she sent me his YA book The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part Time Indian. I read it in one sitting, without even stopping to go to the bathroom, and it made me cry the biggest, ugliest tears I’ve cried in years. It uncorked a grief I had been holding inside since I was a kid. It’s ridiculous, I’m 32 and it was the first story I’d read told from a contemporary Native kid’s perspective. That book made me realize that choosing the white school was a survival move, and that someone else out there has made that choice too, and has written about it. I was so young then that I didn’t think of it in those terms at all, and hadn’t thought about it much after the fact except as a ghostly guilt that would pop up to ask me if I have the right to be interested in Native stories and issues at all, after making such a choice.

“NanaBoozhoo (in progress)” by Winona Nelson

The “bipolar nature” is definitely accurate in my case. My Native side was buried away for a long time. I feel like it’s been growing out with my hair now. In some way that was my plan all along, to go to white school and the wider white world and tap into a good living, become a famous artist and come back to my Native side when I could feed myself. It was a naive dream I didn’t tell others because it was so ambitious and arrogant that it was plain embarrassing, but I’ve covered a little ground now so maybe it’s okay to say it out loud.

The down side of this sense of self coming from my tribe is that if you take up your hereditary identity, you have to do something with all that baggage too. I think that’s part of why many whites choose not to be attached to their ancestral origins.
Reading Sherman Alexie ripped the bandaid off some of my deep cuts. That’s part of the purpose of art, to heal us and let us put down our burdens for a little while. And it’s why telling Native stories accurately is so vitally important. There’s a special and unique feeling when you finally see yourself reflected in art somewhere, and we all need it. The more specific, the more healing it is.
“Elvish Mystic” Winona Nelson

To approach Native American themes and treat it as a monoculture, for a Native American person it may not be the most offensive portrayal, but it’s incredibly annoying. The “gift” of being included at all wears thin pretty young. It’s like when you’re a kid and you get birthday presents from relatives, and they clearly know nothing about you because they’ve given you something you have no desire whatsoever to play with or own. Like when your grandmother asks your mom what to get you, and your mom tells her you like Disney movies so Grandma shows up with a badly animated version of Noah’s Ark. It’s a try, but so incorrect you’d rather she just not.

With J.K. Rowling coming out with new content about a North American school, it’s like Grandma got all your siblings and cousins really good toys too, and they’re all just telling you that you should be happy you got a gift at all, without seeing how messed up it is that they were given Legos and a Super Soaker and the stuffed toy rabbit you made yourself which she took from your room. Then you have to wonder why all your siblings and cousins think you don’t deserve an equally cool gift, or any gift at all, and it’s not even their birthday.

“Geronimo with the Nedni” by Greg Ruth

G: One of the things I discovered quickly and uniformly working on this book over the last six or so years, was how funny native people are as a baseline. There’s this Edward Curtis picture we have of the mountain faced indian staring into your soul that some of my friends can turn on with terrifying precision, but it is such a tiny corner of the character of a latter day native person overall. There’s a culture of humor there that seems in keeping with what you find in jewish culture and even black culture. A sort of passion for laughter as a response to oppression. We don’t immediately think of tribal people as funny people, but they really can be. Do you find this to be true- seeing this in your own experiences growing up?    

W:  Oh yes. My dad and his friends were all quick to joke and laugh, even about terribly painful things. It was as if they lived by the rule “If you can‘t make it funny, don’t say it at all”. In my studies I have learned that among the earliest documented encounters two hundred years ago, the main trait about my tribe that stood out to the traders  and explorers was that we were constantly laughing.

Focusing on my tribe’s stories is the most important work I can do. I’m learning more of our language and spending time traveling back to Minnesota to research. I’m working on a series of paintings which I’m planning to publish as an illustrated book based on the prophesies and history of the Ojibwe migration from the East Coast to the lakes of Northern Minnesota where I grew up. It’s an absolutely amazing story. I can’t just wait for others to make art that tells our stories correctly, because It’s very rare for someone outside the tribe to care so deeply and get it right. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to talk with you about these things. You and Ethan have created a book that is a gift to our cultural survival.

Lawrence W. Gross of Iowa State University, who is also a member of the Minnesota Chippewa (another name for the Ojibwe), has a theory that Native society is suffering generational effects of a Post Apocalypse Stress Syndrome. (You can read the article here: http://www.shiftingborders.ku.edu/presentations/gross.html ). He states “According to PASS theory, it takes about 100-150 years for a society to fully recover. If the date for the beginning of PASS for most Indian societies is taken to be the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, the time is ripe for healing.” Since the religious and mythological worldbuilding of a society is its primary method of continuing itself, telling our own stories is the most effective way we can heal. Over the course of my artistic career, I will contribute to that healing and perpetuating our society.

“Old Nana Chooses a Side” by Greg Ruth

G. That is so fascinating to read, and seems absolutely spot on. It kind of provides a great deal of hope in myself, especially as a creative that we get to be in a time of healing and growth like that. i hope we are and it continues to grow and gather steam. I am a bigger and better person for having delved so deeply in Apache culture these last few years. It’s been an entirely additive experience and has really helped me in my own clumsy climb out from Texas born racial dumbness and insensitivity overall as well. It puts a duty upon us as artists I think. For me as a mission, art requires of itself to do good. Good doesn’t have to mean lollipops and rainbows and hugs for all the lovely souls out there. It can mean fire and destruction and controversy as long as it really keeps us moving forward and evolving. For me personally as an artist, Native stories are so perfect I think because they are so visual and so poetically delivered as to inspire visual imagery. I don’t know if the largely spoken language and oral history tradition lends itself to this characteristic, but it’s there regardless and rich with inspiration and potential for any artist or writer from any culture. As a force for good it does that too- and foremost because this is art’s public face- the one everyone sees and the voice everyone hears that changes how they might see the world. Indian stories do that so powerfully and in many ways so much more than other indigenous or old world mythologies, perhaps because these are our stories. They come from here and speak to where we are. However terrible the interaction between the colonials, it feels to me like it’s time to bring that wound together and heal, and share and exchange these things with ourselves as a whole people in this melting pot of a place. The early Indigenous tribes took it on the chin at a scale almost unparalleled in human history. They’ve got some good coming to them by miles. There’s a lot of good in changing how we speak of them and to them and to each other. That kind of ethos is long overdue and I think art is a near perfect bridge to join us. Because through art we can get around the prejudices and go right to the heart. We can raise our kids on art that teaches them, before they even know language, what the world can be or should be.

Winona Nelson

W: The seventh prophesy of the 7 Fires of the Ojibwe told of a chance for all of us to choose again whether we will wear the face of brotherhood or the face of death. In order for either of our cultures to survive, we need to come together and learn from each other.

These stories have so much power because they provide a compass for choosing to live a better way. They’re deeply metaphorical. The oral tradition is so full of symbols that they become universal, but their specific origins here in North America are what make them feel especially powerful and true. The context is so much more applicable to us here than the stories of Europe or other parts of the world.

Native American values shaped American culture in fundamental ways, including what was at colonial times a radical expectation of personal liberty. Many tribal governments in North America were essentially democratic and functioned as mediators and protectors, not as rulers. The American expectation of personal rights is very close to the original lifestyle of many tribes, where one person would never presume to tell another what to do or infringe upon another person’s freedom. Native stories, as metaphorical and abstract as they might be, are much more focused on an individual perspective that includes the fundamental freedoms we Americans expect now, rather than the core feudalistic narrative of many European or Eastern stories. Nanaboozhoo or Coyote trickster stories reward ingenuity and resourcefulness, not the obedience and piety central to many European fairy tales. Which of those values are more quintessentially American?

The place we live shapes us and nurtures us, and is a part of us. The echoes of the generations makes us who we are. It‘s an effect that’s multiplied by the oral tradition, because stories were tools for disciplining and educating the listener. They were tailored to the situation and the individuals hearing them. The storyteller was never just telling us about the things in their story. They were telling us about ourselves. That essential, oracular purpose rings through the ages because it has already made us who we are. 

“Second Fire” by Winona Nelson

I want to thank Winona for taking so much time with me on this. 
We both feel an incredible passion for this subject from our different originating places and sides of the equation, and it’s a testament to that love in how long it’s taken us to complete this interview. I think as long as it is it represents about half the length of the original conversation. Seriosuly, it was insane. But together we tamed this Kaiju sized conversation into something you can digest more readily, but know that it barely covers a millionth of what we could and do talk about on these subjects. It’s tremendously important that we do have the conversation and keep having it, so please do yourself a favor and make a special effort to do so. There’s some amazing stuff hidden just under the surface of all the other stuff we talk about. Don’t forget to do a little digging- you’ll be vastly rewarded by the experience.
If you’d like to learn more about Nonie and her work, please visit:
Likewise, to find out more about my own work, and INDEH in particular, please head over to www.gregthings.com/indeh
AND… if you’re going to be attending NYComicCon, please come by and see Ethan and myself as we give a presentation on INDEH and the lasting importance of native stories in Room 1A06 @ 11 am on October 6th at the Javits Center in NYC. We’ll be at the Hachette booth directly following to sign books and say hello.