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Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America

by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird,eds.

Cherokee writer Betty Louise Bell says she writes “because [her] mother could not.” Reclamation – of individual voice and collective experience, the personal and political – is a central theme in this anthology of poetry, fiction, memoirs, and essays from 80 women writers representing 50 aboriginal nations. The best words in this collection use righteous anger to admonish and instruct, to document and redetermine, to abandon despair and embrace transformation.

Anger at those who falsely claim aboriginal ancestry is what fuels Lakota poet Lois Red Elk’s “For Thieves Only,” which builds from sharp dismissiveness to a supremely satisfying conclusion: “Meet me at my children’s feet,/I’ll show you what you never learned.” Mary Tallmountain’s poem “The Last Wolf” aches with loss as it describes the grief of one witnessing degradation.

The last wolf hurried toward me
through the ruined city
…Yes, I said.
I know what they have done.


Quinault writer Inez Petersen’s “Missing You,” a rare example of truly illustrative memoir, challenges non-aboriginal assumptions about normality. Petersen introduces her “ordinary” family as “the usual cast of characters: one mother, five sons, six daughters, and eight or nine
fathers.”

The absolute best of the bunch, however, is Emma Laroque’s essay “Tides, Towns, and Trains,” a meditation of origin and destination and a rigorous discussion of the place to which aboriginal women have been relegated in a colonial society that is not only systematically racist but rigidly patriarchal. LaRoque, a Cree/Metis from northeastern Alberta, is professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba and one of Canada’s most accomplished academics. It comes as no surprise that the best ideas in this book – ideas about decolonization and other “radical” notions that make many Canadians intensely uncomfortable – stem from the mind of a woman who refuses to be “nice.”

Transformation is central to the idea of language and storytelling for aboriginal peoples: worlds are transformed when stories are brought from the realm of memory and dream into the workaday world of human existence. The word has power. These women are indeed “writing North America.” They tell histories silenced by colonial mission, and they speak for contemporaries still unheard, those whose stories are written on this land.