Reading List: Spirituality of Indigenous People
Native spirituality and its journeys have inspired many books, from first person accounts of spiritual quests, to works of scholarship, to novels. We’ve talked today about Don Miguel Ruiz’ testimony of what happened to him when he went into a 9 week induced coma. Today I’d like to look at some fascinating novels that focus on the spirituality of indigenous people.
First up is a book by the talented science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s called Shaman, and it goes way, way back – 30,000 years ago, to be specific.
Shaman tracks the odyssey of a young man named Loon, who lived during the last Ice Age. Loon has been orphaned and raised by his tribe’s shaman and his wife. Eventually he is sent, as many young men are, on a journey to prove his manhood and his worth.
Needless to say, walking the wilderness during that time was fraught with danger. Loon is accompanied by another presence, called the Third Wind in the novel, who shows up to help Loon whenever he has run out of options.
Many books have been set during this time, including Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, but critics stay Shaman stands out for its believable and beautiful writing, particularly in the way that Robinson, who usually writes about the future, turns his talents to recreating the past.
Luis Alberto Urrea is a fantastically talented writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Born in Tijuana to an American mother and a Mexican father, he’s written both nonfiction and fiction.
His 2005 novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter is fiction based on history. It’s the story of Teresita, the half-Indian child of a wealthy Mexican landowner. Set in the late 19th century, it is a rich mix of actual events, colorful characters and a strong dose of magical realism.
Teresita, born with a red triangle on her head, is given the gift of supernatural healing. Eventually she is attacked and killed. Then she literally rises from the dead and becomes a sort of Mexican saint, and the story of her spiritual odyssey becomes the story of Mexico itself. It’s a huge novel, full of characters rich and poor, good and evil, and it’s based on a character from Mexican history, The Saint of Cabora, who inspired a 19th century revolt against a repressive government. .
Urrea wrote a sequel to The Hummingbird’s Daughter called The Queen of America. Teresita and her father have been exiled to the United States by the Mexican government. This book retains a strong central character in Teresita, a mix of “of deep mysticism and unpretentious common sense,” according to one critic. But the story’s location in America, instead of Teresita’s home land, made it a less compelling book.
There are even mysteries that feature Native American spirituality. Though many of our viewers are no doubt familiar with these books, I have to mention my favorite of this type, Tony Hillerman’s great mystery series featuring two Navajo policemen and set on the Navajo Indian reservation.
The two main characters are Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Leaphorn is the no-nonsense just-the-facts-ma’am part of the team; Chee, the younger man, believes in the traditional Navajo spiritual practices and is even studying to be a healer.
If you haven’t read any of these books, get busy! Start with The Blessing Way. Hillerman’s work combines a strong affection for the Navajo and Hopi cultures, serious research (Hillerman was a former reporter), and a strong supernatural element. A time or two, I have been almost scared out of my wits, reading about some of the spirits that stalk the reservation.
Finally, I need to mention a novel that was superb in its story of indigenous spirituality crashing into the realities of the real world – M. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969.
Momaday grew up in the pueblos of New Mexico, and House Made of Dawn drew heavily on his experiences to tell the story of Abel, a young man from the pueblos whose life is marred by alcoholism and violence. After Abel commits a murder, he serves time, is released and goes to Los Angeles, where his life devolves into a downward spiral, fueled by alcohol. Things seem bleak for him until he lands in the hospital after suffering a terrible beating – then he is partially revived by the telling of a Native American myth. He returns to the reservation to spend time with his dying grandfather, and that’s where he connects with the traditions of his people and finds the courage to move forward.
House Made of Dawn has been credited with bringing Native American culture into the world of literary fiction in this country, and today it is read in college classrooms as a landmark work of 20th century Indian literature, a field which has blossomed with the works of Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, David Treuer and others.