Don’t Know Much About Indians
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This book of alternating short stories and poems by Gyasi Ross tells the stories of contemporary Native Americans who do not represent a stereotype. They don’t ride horses or get falling down drunk. They are not the stoic “crying Indian” from a commercial nor the flowing-haired warrior on the cover of a romance novel. The characters in these 18 stories and poems are “regular Indians” – people who have day jobs, college students, insecure folks, kids in love. These characters are just like the rest of America. The book is heartbreaking and life-affirming, controversial and heartwarming, funny and tragic. If you think you know about Indians or if you know that you don’t, step into the lives of these characters and you will come away enlightened, discomfited, entertained and inspired.
Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) was initially Gyasi’s attempt to create some modern mythology and/or archetypes for Native people. He was heavily inspired by the “Napi” stories that his maternal grandpa Percy Bullchild both told and wrote about.
He was also inspired by the big book of Greek mythology that the family always had on their old, warped coffee table. Finally, when he was in 5th grade, in Mr. Higgins’ class at Napi Elementary,
Mr. Higgins assigned the class to read The Brothers Grimm. All of those sources – Napi stories, Greek Mythology, and the Brothers Grimm stories – utilized morality tales and oftentimes simplified characters in order to teach valuable lessons. This book is Gyasi’s attempt to replicate that structure and those lessons without the very clear lesson at the end.
Many times, as oftentimes happened in Napi tales, Greek mythology and Brothers Grimm stories, contemporary Native stories are both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. Don’t Know Much About Indians captures that.
Of course, the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek; Gyasi knows plenty about Indians. In fact, he’s been Indian pretty much all of his life, and lived on several different reservations where he learned to play basketball, fight, skip school and to love. Still, Gyasi doesn’t “know” Indians the way his grandpa did – like many Natives nowadays, he’s a product of pan-Indianism, urban Indian survival instincts, community colleges, Saturday Night Live, MTV, hip-hop music, etc. His grandpa lived mainly amongst Natives his entire life; Gyasi walks almost every day primarily among non-Natives, even on the reservations. Demographics have changed, circumstances have changed.
Therefore, Don’t Know Much About Indians is about many of those experiences, both onreservation and off-reservation. There are experiences that every single Native person will be able to relate to; there are others that are Gyasi’s alone. Still, there is enough commonality that Natives and non-Natives alike will be able to learn about some of the very unique challenges, victories, tensions, and heartbreaks that Native people face. This book will teach you, regardless of your ethnicity, religion, tribe or worldview. Some of the lessons are heartbreaking; some are beautiful.
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