Notable Native Americans recognized in new book
By Gerry Robinson
Native Sun News Today Columnist
This week’s column is a book review of the new book by Adrienne Keene, entitled Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present. The book was published in October, 2021, by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House.
When stories were told around the fire in the old times, it was often common that, along with cultural stories, history, or moral teachings, one would hear stories about certain individuals from one’s band or tribe who had performed laudable acts. Perhaps they honored their family, healed a sick person, showed great courage or led an overall exemplary life.
Every tribe has had people like this among them. Their stories were told around the fires not only for their own personal glory, but as being noteworthy examples of, and for, their people. They were considered individuals one might learn from, and who’s ways one might follow. Their stories were told to encourage those who listened to them to be respectful, to be just, and to help others. Sometimes, these people were chosen as leaders, but not always. Often, they were simply everyday people who were doing what they knew to be the right thing.
It is good to be reminded that, still today, we have people like this in our midst. It is reassuring that our youth have so many successful examples to look to for inspiration. Evidence of this comes in the form of a new book, Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present, written by Dr. Adrienne Keene. She is a citizen of the Cherokee nation and Assistant Professor in American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University.
Dr. Keene was aware that it would be a huge challenge to present a complete and comprehensive list of Natives who are worthy of being called out for their achievements. What she chose to do instead was to compile a remarkably diverse collection of accomplished Natives from different time periods who represent a variety of fields and an array of tribal nations. In true Native fashion, she takes time to lift up and acknowledge all those who helped her to compile this remarkable list of Native achievers.
It is my opinion that the two strongest features of the book ate the statement it makes about the diversity of Native peoples, and the fact that, regardless of their age, era, discipline or community Natives possess the capability to not only succeed, but to excel.
The fifty Natives selected for the book are colorfully illustrated by Chamoru artist, Ciara Sana, and one need only flip through the book to be struck by the truly diverse representations of Native Culture. Three current day examples of this diversity from the book are; Jessie Little Doe Baird (Mashpee Wampnoag) a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient who works to revitalize her people’s language; also Twyla Baker PhD, (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara) who is the President of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, She raises seven children and is a much beloved cultural influencer for tens of thousands of followers on social media; and Aaron Yazzie, (Diné) an Engineer at NASA who, among other accomplishments, served on the 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission to Mars and who coordinated between NASA and the Diné to use their language to name certain features on Mars.
In addition to recognizing each person’s achievements, the book takes short asides to discuss many current issues relevant to Native life in a direct, unflinching fashion. These are matters include, settler colonialism, blood quantum disputes, land acknowledgements, mascots and stereotypes, sovereignty issues, water and sacred site protections, climate change, language revitalization, and more.
In effect, what Keene does is show her readers those issues that Natives cultures face today alongside a diverse sample of the many Native people who have met, and who continue to meet, the challenges presented by those issues. She shows the consistency of ongoing cultural dilemmas as well as successes, both are addressed by resilient and resourceful individuals who practice both traditional and innovative methodologies for problem solving. Many use a blend of both the old ways and new ways to effect positive change.
For example, I doubt that Keene planned it this way, but it is interesting to note that the youngest person in the book, Water Protector, Bobbi Jean Three Legs (Standing Rock Lakota, Cheyenne River Lakota) and the oldest, Po’Pay, (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo) who lived around 1630-1688, both assembled a corps of runners to communicate messages intended to help Native people organize in opposition to threats against their culture. The threats were different but the traditional method of spreading the call to resist had not.
The purpose of Notable Native People, is to present a collection of Natives who are relatable across a broad spectrum of readers. In this laudable effort, Keene acknowledges that, “It is impossible to account for all of the Native people who have made a difference in the world, let alone to fit them in a single book.” While the book does overlook many worthy individuals, the simple, yet encouraging, fact is that there are many more examples of Native excellence and achievement yet to be acknowledged. Perhaps there is another aspiring author out there who may hear the calling to compile an additional or more comprehensive collection to share with the world?
(Gerry Robinson can be contacted at: thestoryfires@gmailcom)