Indigenous Writers and Kansas, May 29, 2019 Denise Low, Ph.D.
for the Kansas Literature Map Project of Washburn University
sponsored by Humanities Kansas, Washburn, and Haskell Indian Nations University
Kansas, in the center of the United States, is a crossroads in the history of Indigenous peoples. It enters settler history with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, between the 18th and 19th centuries. The region is geographically on the cusp of the “frontier” in that history: Kansas City is the gateway to the West. Kansas writers inherit complicated histories and landscapes.
The terrain varies widely. Parts of the state are western high plains and canyonlands, and in the southeast, at the other extreme, is a section of the Ozarks. In between are short-grass prairies, wetlands, and oak savannahs. Nineteenth century land trails are the Oregon, Santa Fe, Chisholm, and Pony Express; and each evokes a history.
Before the United States government colonized the region, nations that lived here included: Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kaw, Kiowa, Lakota, Osage, Pawnee, Otoe and Missouria, and Wichita peoples. As European settlement pushed west, all of these nations were deposed from their lands, but not without conflict.
The U.S. government designated this region as an Indian Territory at the time of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. About thirty Eastern tribal nations were relocated to reservations in Kansas, including Lenape and Munsee (Delaware), Shawnee, Miami, Kaw, Osage, Peoria, and Wyandot. Today, four federally recognized tribal nations remain from those times: Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, and the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska. In addition, federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma have land holdings in Kansas, notably the Wyandotte Nation, which has three casinos in the Kansas City, Kansas, area; and the Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma, which has a second tribal headquarters in Caney, Kansas, and eighty acres in North Lawrence, currently undeveloped.
Kansas is adjacent to Oklahoma, which was the reduced Indian Territory from 1834 to 1907, and migrations from one state to another are common. As the Civil War conflict spread into Indian Territory in the 1860s, tribal groups that sympathized with the Union fled into Kansas. Some returned after the war, and some did not. During World War II, many Oklahomans of all backgrounds migrated to Wichita to work in the airplane factories. Oklahomans and other neighboring states send large contingents of students to school at Haskell Indian Nations University. Haskell has, according to its website today, students from “150 federally recognized sovereign nations from 38 states.” Most of these return home, but some remain in Kansas.
Haskell has been an important center for Native education since 1884, and many students and staff have distinguished themselves as writers, from Ella Deloria to Stephen Paul Judd. Native Kansas writers come from this complicated map. They may identify as members of federally recognized tribal members from Kansas or elsewhere. They may be members of unrecognized remnant groups of Indian Territory when it included Kansas. Academic migrants form a substantial group of Kansas-related authors. They are often transients who spend some time as professors in the state and move on.
Perhaps the most distinguished writer with Kansas connections is Ella Deloria, Dakota (1889-1971), an early anthropologist who worked with Franz Boas, founder of that social science. She is aunt to the author Vine Deloria, Junior. Her publications include Waterlily and Iron Hawk, novels; Dakota Narratives, a collection of stories; and numerous other anthropological and narrative prose publications and papers. At Haskell from 1923 to 1928 she taught dance and physical education. In the summers, she worked with Boas with Lakota linguistics and other projects, often uncredited. In 1928, she published The Wohpe Festival (Multilith), and that early publication must have been a writing project from her Haskell days. Her extensive online archives, sponsored by the American Indian Studies Research Institute of Indiana University, include all of her books and articles.
Langston Hughes is another famous writer with Kansas ties. Although he was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1901, as a baby his mother moved him back to her mother’s home in Lawrence. He benefitted from the Lawrence school system for his early educational skills and also his grandmother’s schooling in oral traditions of her family. She had ties to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia, which finally gained federal recognition in 2015, and to Eastern Cherokees. Hughes describes her as a Native woman in his autobiography, “My grandmother looked like an Indian - with very long black hair. She said she could lay claim to Indian land, but that she never wanted the government (or anybody else) to give her anything." Langston never knew his grandfather Charles Langston, and his father was in Mexico. Often his mother was traveling to find work, so Grandmother Langston was the writer’s most influential family member. He opens The Big Sea with a description of his mixed identity:
You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word "Negro" is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown.
He challenges the idea that identity can be reduced to a simple formula, and he suggests some of his complexities in his positioning in the African American community. My Lawrence biography of Hughes, co-authored with Thomas Weso, gives some of his diverse background and connections to abolitionists in Kansas.
These two authors also illustrate the extremes of identity among Kansas writers. Enrolled Native writers reared in Kansas include Joshua Falleaf, Lara Mann, Pamela Dawes Tambornino, Gwen Westerman, Robert Warrior, and Daniel Wildcat. All of these Kansas natives have ties to Haskell except Westerman, who attended K.U. I am including writers of critical essays in this list, as well as creative writers—but not technical writers.
One of the more prominent Kansas-born writers is Gwen Westerman. Westerman is a quilter, an academic, a poet, and a storyteller. She has dual enrollment in very different tribes, Cherokee Nation and Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate. She studied with my mentor at KU, Bernard Hirsch, who taught English and American Indian Literature at KU in the 1970s. She is a faculty member at the University of Minnesota-Mankato. Westerman co-wrote MniSota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota, with Bruce White, which won a Minnesota Book Award. Her collection of poetry, written in Dakota and English, is entitled Follow the Blackbirds. Her poetry is receiving recognition, as Heid Erdrich included her in the important anthology, New Poets of Native Nations (Greywolf, 2018).
Pamela Dawes Tambornino is a prose writer whose collection of stories, Maggie’s Story: Teachings of a Cherokee Healer, is an authentic account of her experiences with her Oklahoma grandmother. She also has Osage tribal heritage through her father, and this is another example of complicated ancestry. Pam was former director of the Haskell library, when she won the national federal librarian award of the year, and she also taught in the English department for ten years. She has publications in Tribal College Journal, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, Summerset Review, and Yellow Medicine Review. She has been living in Linwood and just moved to Lawrence.
Joshua Falleaf, enrolled Lenape from Caney, Kansas, whose MFA is in poetry writing, has been a professor at Haskell since 2010. He writes poetry and essays, and his background and scholarship are assets to his teaching of Native students. He also has had responsibilities with his ceremonial grounds in Oklahoma.
Thomas Pecore Weso, my husband almost thirty years, came to Haskell from the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin, as did his mother, aunts, and uncles, and also the generation before that, his grandfather and great uncles. His Prairie Band Potawatomi great-grandfather may have been a student here as well. His family illustrates the deep ties to Haskell many Indigenous people have to this Kansas institution. His award-winning book Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir, has sold well and won national and international recognition. He is at work on his second memoir for Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Devon Mihesuah, enrolled Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma with Chickasaw heritage, has published, according to her website, over a hundred “refereed journal essays, book chapters, commentaries, editorials, and books.” These include award-winning novels, food essays, a biography of the Cherokee Ned Christie, and much more. She edited the influential American Indian Quarterly for nine years and has been at the University of Kansas since 2005. Her critiques of the field Indigenous Studies appear in numerous articles and important books.
Luci Tapahonso, Diné, is a prominent transient writer who lived in Lawrence. She taught at K.U. from 1990 to 1999, while her husband Robert Martin was president of Haskell. She is author of poetry, children’s books, and essays—the latter of which I believe are not recognized enough for their important insights about rhetorical differences between the Diné and English literary traditions. She writes in Diné and often uses a syntax that reflects her first language. Perhaps less well known is her activism while in Lawrence. She insisted on the establishment of an Indigenous Nations Studies graduate degree as part of her negotiations with KU, as well as a diversity fellowship. She served on the Kansas Arts Commission and received a Kansas Governor’s Arts Award. She has left her mark on the state.
Among writers who have heritage but are not enrolled, Diane Glancy deserves special comment. She recently has a member of the First Families of the Cherokee Nation, which suggests a new category for people with heritage but no tribal membership. She writes about her work:
My heritage affects my worldview. For years, I have written about Native history, and I have done research to uncover unrecognized and overlooked parts of that history. I have traveled to the places where that history happened. I have written about the importance of land, of being, of presence. https://passionpassport.com/native-american-visibility/
She grew up in Kansas City, where her father worked in the meat packing plants, and she lives in Prairie Village, Kansas. Since 1984 she has published poetry, fiction, essays, and drama. Her novel Pushing the Bear (Harcourt, 1996) retells the Cherokee Trail of Tears with historical accuracy and detailed maps. She has innovative approaches to literary structures in all of her writings. Her edited collections include Visiting Tipi Town: Native Writing after the Detours, an essential text of hybrid genre writings for me when teaching at Haskell.
Linda Rodriguez, born in Fowler, Kansas, graduated from high school in Manhattan. Her Cherokee heritage is the basis of her writings, including the most recent book of poetry, Dark Sister, nominated for an Oklahoma Book Award. She won a St. Martins Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition for her first Skeet Bannion mystery, which was also a Barnes & Noble Mystery Pick. She has published ten books, and more are pending.
These are some comments about writers with connections to this region, and all the writers deserve thoughtful readers beyond this annotated catalogue. To summarize some insights about these authors and their writings:
- · They reflect contemporary situations for Native peoples, even when writing about historic themes. None romanticizes or simplifies a complicated history. Pushing the Bear, by Glancy, is informed by deep geography as a structure. Mihesuah’s Ned Christie biography engages with issues of biased journalism and influence of mainstream stereotypes like the larger-than-life savage.
- · Careful research informs the works, so vague generalities about Native peoples, prevalent in the pulp Westerns of the 20th century, are not perpetuated. Tribal affiliations are specific.
- · They reflect the complexity of multiple viewpoints. As people of mixed heritages and/or histories, they balance multiple perspectives without one erasing the other, as Tambornino presents her Cherokee grandmother’s life in the Osage community of Pawhuska, for one example.
- · Forces of nature and land’s rights are essential.
Here are some thoughts about the future of Indigenous writers in Kansas.
- · We will see more writers of several tribes, either dually enrolled or with one official enrollment but other cultural influences. Gwen Westerman is one example of this.
- · Writers with three, four, and more tribal affiliations will create a new kind of diversity among Native writers.
- · Indigenous people from Mexico and other Latin American countries will find recognition as another category of Native writer, outside of U.S. government recognition. The current poet laureate of Kansas, Huascar Medina, is of indigenous Panamanian (and Puerto Rican descent). Xánath Caraza of Kansas City, Missouri, is an immigrant from Vera Cruz whose mother is Aztec. She has published trilingual poetry in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English.
- · The visual and written arts will merge, as in the works of Stephen Paul Judd, Choctaw and Kiowa; Thomas Yeahpau, Kiowa; and Tvli Jacobs, Choctaw—all former students at Haskell involved with film and text.
- · Indigenous people will continue to select media that will enhance their abilities to sustain and develop traditions.
The diversity of Kansas Indigenous writers reflects the central position of Kansas on the continent. It is midway in history of European settlement and also in geography, as Haskell and other universities continue to attract people from many nations. The attention of Kansans to education, even when in self-interest as in the founding of Haskell Institute, creates an environment that encourages writing and writing communities. These communities, within and across tribal membership lines, will continue the storytelling in genres that are simultaneously old and new.
Native American Kansas Writers
This annotated list is intended as a beginning point for further researchers. The emphasis is on literary writers.
Joshua Falleaf, Caney (Delaware), MFA, McNeese State University, Haskell faculty 2010 to present.
Diane Glancy, Kansas City area (Cherokee heritage), numerous publications about Native life and awards in all genres. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diane_Glancy
Langston Hughes, Lawrence (Pamunkey and other heritages), writes in his autobiography The Big Sea of his Native heritage and conflicted identity as a mixed-blood person. He lived in Lawrence from infancy to age 13. Wikipedia has the correct birth date and information about Hughes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langston_Hughes#Ancestry_and_childhood
Denise (Dotson) Low, Emporia (Delaware heritage), www.deniselow.net
Lara Mann, Valley Center (Choctaw), published Indigenous Game Theory (Chickasaw Press, with LeeAnn Howe), and poetry chapbook, “A Song of Ascents and Descents" Salt Publishing (UK) in 2014 in Effigies II https://laramann.weebly.com/
Linda Rodriguez, Manhattan (Cherokee heritage) with numerous publications including the Skeet Bannion detective series and poetry. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/linda-rodriguez and https://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com/
Pamela Dawes Tambornino, (Cherokee) https://mammothpublications.net/writers-m-to-z/tambornino-pamela-dawes-maggies-story/
Gwen Westerman, Wichita and did her PhD at K.U. (Cherokee and Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate) https://www.gwenwesterman.com/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Westerman#Life_and_career
Robert Warrior (Osage), Marion County, http://americanstudies.ku.edu/robert-warrior
Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi), Coffeyville, https://danielwildcat.com/
Native American Writers Connected to Haskell or KU
Christie Cooke, (Dine), MFA, University of Arizona, Haskell faculty 2008 to present
Ella DeLoria (Dakota, at Haskell 1923-28), born 1889. Her publications include Waterlily, a novel, and numerous other anthropological and narrative prose publications and papers. At Haskell she taught dance and physical education. https://commons.und.edu/theses/597/
Stephanie Fitzgerald ([Cree] Nehiyaw/Ininiw, at KU 2000-2019, director of Indigenous Studies, Arizona State University, 2019). Books include: Native Women and Land: Narratives of Dispossession and Resurgence (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), and co-editor of Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women's Theater (UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 2003). http://english.ku.edu/stephanie-fitzgerald
George Godfrey (Potawatomi, 1993-2001) http://potawatomi-tda.org/books/georgeg.htm
Tvli Jacob (Choctaw, former Haskell student), filmmaker from Oklahoma.
Steven Paul Judd (Choctaw and Kiowa, former Haskell student), , co-author with Thomas Yeahpah, The Last Pow-Wow (Create Space, 2016). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M0NHDPE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
Devon Mihesuah (Choctaw, at KU since 2005), author of award-winning books of fiction, history, and Native food culture, http://www.aihd.ku.edu/exercise/AboutMeMihesuah.html
Theresa Milk (Lakota, Haskell B.S.Ed., Ph.D. at KU, faculty at Haskell 2001-2016), Haskell Institute: 19th Century Stories of Sacrifice and Survival (Mammoth). https://mammothpublications.net/writers-m-to-z/milk-theresa-haskell-institute-19th-c-stories/
James Thomas Stevens, Aronhiótas (Mohawk, at Haskell 1994-2001), poet, published his first book in Lawrence with First Intensity Press, Lee Chapman publisher. Now faculty at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/james-thomas-stevens
Luci Tapahonso (Dine, taught in the KU English Department from 1989-1999), First Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, http://www.lucitapahonso.com/
Thomas Pecore Weso (Menominee, AA degree from Haskell 1993, BGS and MA, University of Kansas), resident of Lawrence 30 years. Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2016), and a second memoir completed www.tomweso.com
Diane Willie (Dine, AA from Haskell, B.Ed. KU, graduate studies at KU in creative writing and education), chapbook of short fiction, Sharp Rocks (Mammoth). She teaches at Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque. https://mammothpublications.net/chapbooks-fine-arts-editions-of-30-pages-or-fewer/diane-willie-sharp-rocks/
Thomas Yeahpah (Kiowa, former Haskell student), co-author with Steven Paul Judd, The Last Pow-Wow (Create Space, 2016) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M0NHDPE/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
See Washburn's literary map of Kansas: https://washburn.edu/reference/cks/mapping/index.html