Since Tahlequah, Oklahoma is only 30 miles from the Arkansas border, we relate mostly to U.S. Southern culture. Why do I mention my hometown? It’s not only the place where I live, work, and raise my family. It’s also home to two Cherokee tribal governments: Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. I personally work for Cherokee Nation in the Indian Child Welfare Department. Additionally, the third Cherokee government is the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina. All this to say, Cherokees are the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States and our governments are historically situated in the South. So why don’t we exist in the canon of Southern literature?
It looks like the American system has made us invisible once again. It amazes me how hard folks work to keep the “pristine myth” alive. While we are the smallest minority in the U.S., we are here. Don’t believe the lies. The land is not vacant. There are Indigenous people here and we’ve been here since time immemorial. We drive the same highways you drive, and often climb the same ladders. So there’s not a lack of Natives writing from the South. What’s missing is the amount of attention we receive.
If I were to ask you, who is the quintessential Native American author from the South? Does anyone come to mind? Now don’t go running to Google! That’s cheating. I can name several contemporary Native American authors with Southern roots, but I have a Master’s Degree in English with a concentration in Native American Literature from the University of Oklahoma. If I didn’t readily know any names that’d be a problem. But most American readers don’t know. Some might mention Joy Harjo because she was the U.S. Poet Laureate in recent years.
As far as fiction writers, there’s Leanne Howe, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, and Kelli Jo Ford. There are also contemporary poets, like Sy Hoahwah and Santee Fraizer. Those are off the top of my head. More names will come to me later. Historically, there’s no one with more publications than Robert J. Conley, who was not only an enrolled member of the Keetoowah Band of Cherokees but also wrote novel after novel about Cherokees in traditionally Southern environments. He not only wrote about Cherokee historical figures but also depicted the removal of Cherokees from North Carolina in his novel Mountain Windsong. While much of his writing was historical fiction, he won three Spur Awards in the Western genre. Conley was someone who should’ve received more recognition for his contributions to Southern literature. Maybe we could’ve honored him in the same way we honored Lee, Hurston, and Faulkner.
I’d like to commend the publishing industry for recognizing when there is a societal discrepancy, like lack of representation. In recent years there has been tremendous gains in this area. There are more BIPOC authors right now than there has ever been in American history. I’d also like to ask the publishing industry to consider the biggest issue facing Native Americans today: invisibility. We are the smallest minority in the U.S. with some of the highest disparity rates. Our communities are doing phenomenal work to end intergenerational trauma. Native people are resilient, hardworking, and proud. Give Southern Natives the opportunity to showcase our tenacity and strength. Recognize our contributions to the publishing industry. The canon of Southern literature needs Native voices–voices that not only advocate for tribally specific customs but can also represent historically targeted communities with a critical eye and genuine compassion.