Alan R. Velie’s 1991 revised edition certainly lives up to it’s anthology subtitle. The book is divided into six sections: Tales, Songs, Oratory, Memoir, Poetry, and Fiction. Each contains what Velie presumably meant to be a representative sampling of these kinds of works.
A theme that runs through almost all of the works from the Oratory section on is the deep anger, frustration, and heartache of a half-conquered people. Looking beyond the Americas, history is replete with examples of conquering forces invading territories, initially overwhelming the people living there, sometimes quickly, sometimes only after a great struggle, but then never entirely wiping them out and replacing them. (Please note: I am not advocating for this!) What remains is a people struggling to maintain their traditional lives, identities, and ways in the face of ongoing pressure from their conquerors. These struggles can last for centuries, sometimes with the conquered culture finally fading away, sometimes with it returning to power or prominence but vastly changed from what it once was.
This is the situation American Indian tribes find themselves in the middle of—neither wiped out or assimilated nor able to return to their pre-conquest ways—and the pain of the status is clear in the works Velie chose. For the white reader, that makes for some pretty uncomfortable reading. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how much of the stories about life before the white man came are seen through rose-colored glasses, utopian visions of they ways the authors wished life had been, or want readers to believe they were.
Something else comes through: how little the Indian authors of these works understand white culture, just as so many whites fail to understand the many Indian cultures. A book like this has the potential to help to start bridging that divide, but the authors’ understandable anger and the reader’s likely defensive response to it make the bridge-building difficult.
Putting together any anthology is unavoidably an exercise in making choices of what to include and what to leave out, but this is where Velie falls down in this reader’s estimation. The tribes of the southern United States, from coast to coast, and of the intermountain west and west coast are almost completely left out. The farthest southwest Velie’s selections come from is Oklahoma. Also, it’s clear that Velie chose poets and novelists he mostly had worked with at the University of Oklahoma and elsewhere and/or knew. This failure to bring in other voices is the reason I’ve taken away a half-star rating where I can.
A thirty year old book cannot, of course, give any insight into the thinking and writing of Indian authors since its publication, but given the history of those decades, I can’t help but wonder if anything has changed in a meaningful way.
For the non-Indian reader, and especially for the white reader, this collection gives an insight into the hearts and minds of a people too often ignored and neglected, left in a cultural limbo with no resolution in sight.