This little paperback book of stories and poems by Gyasi Ross is a gem. You will not find here lyrical trips into the past or the spiritual. Ross is all about confronting the present. He hits hard. As the image to the left suggests (image is from the book cover and the DKMAI website), the world of the book is rampant with stereotypes and abuses (of the body and the heart). It is also full of wistfulness, kindness, patience, and intelligence.
This book is decidedly not for middle schoolers – there is too much sex and abuse here. But with only a few exceptions, the “hard realities” of Native life, as portrayed by Ross, do not wear down the humanity of his characters, making it a great book for high school.
What is Ross’s message? From the end paper, “About DKMAI” (also found on the website): “Gyasi walks almost every day primarily among non-Natives, even on the reservations. Demographics have changed, circumstances have changed… Therefore, DKMAI is about many of those experiences, both on-reservation and off-reservation. There are experiences in DKMAI that every single Native person will be able to relate to; there are others that are Gyasi’s alone. Still, there is enough commonality in DKMAI 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…”
One central lesson is most wonderfully, and heart-achingly, contained in the long central story, “Trauma,” in which a successful and confident Native university student confronts a very successful and confident Native professor – about an essay grade. Suffice it to say that the conversation – the battle – is not at all about the grade. Ironically, it is the winner who is the loser in this story, making it a parable for many aspects of the Native experience. I would give that story to any high schooler as part of a Native studies unit – or just part of a short story unit.
The following short interchange from another story, “Half-Full,” also about a student-teacher interaction, illustrates a recurring “message” – it is a message about duality, misconception, identity, connection and lack of it, new v. old. In short, Unity and Diversity are wrestling in most of the short stories.
[Ms. Kills Enemy ("the young brown lady, dressed in full stereotypical 'city community college' uniform") says:] “Truthfully, I get a bit discouraged when I hear the ‘negative’ statistics. It seems like everyone – especially Indian people – love to emphasize how bad we have it. Almost like it’s a point of pride.”
[To which the professor (Mr. Smallwood) replies:] “It’s not Native America’s fault that it is in such a perilous position. It is high time, that mainstream America acknowledged the horrible situations that exist in Native American Nations. It is especially true, Ms. Kills Enemy, because it was America’s colonialist practices that helped create those very situations. Native Americans didn’t create these situations – they are mere helpless victims in this colonialist, hegemonic regime.”
[Ms. Kills Enemy thinks:] “He didn’t really mean to be condescending…but he couldn’t help it. He’s simply a victim of his skin color and the baggage that goes with it – always thinking people of skin color are incapable of controlling their own destiny. Always thinking that Indians needed white people to make the ‘bad’ things go away.” [She also thinks:] “She knew that Natives were not victims.” [And she says:] “We’re still here, and getting healthier every day.”
An ELA teacher can and will expect students to see the ironies, character differences, conflicts, etc. in the story – it, like “Trauma,” “Unworthy,” and “Village,” is very teachable. A History teacher, on the other hand, can approach each of these stories through its arguments and events. For example, in the last story, “Village,” an adult Native who makes it his business to notice the drug-dealing across the street “looked sad, wistful, and nostalgic” as he remembered the way the community was in his younger days – BC, or Before Casino. For the non-Native teacher, the stories open doors to discussion that are hard to open. Many of the “very unique” challenges appearing in these pieces are situations that the off-reservation community turns it back on. Students – and teachers – will need to confront themselves in many of these pieces.
I am not particularly taken with most of the poetry in the book, but it provides a grounding rhythm to the overall community portrait. The stories told in the poems, with the exception of the final piece, are of the harsh, desperate, frustrated lives of boys and men. Their raw honesty allows the reader to more fully touch the ideas contained in the short stories. At the same time, these poems are more universal in their themes than are the stories: jealousy, young love, growing up, the need to belong, the need to be loved, the need for music. These are the stuff of young adulthood everywhere. It is the poetry that will connect most with students.
Ross would, I think, be the first to say that the contemporary Native experiences portrayed in the stories and poems should not be universalized. But what students and teachers should take away from the collection is this: this is a loving portrait of a community of people by a member of that community – “both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time” (“About DKMAI”).
Use this collection to help students develop a better understanding of Native America – locally, nationally, globally – and to engage students in a discussion of what Gyasi Ross addresses in the stories: how to resolve the conflict between the historical idealism of the United States and “its heinous historical treatment of Natives” (“About the Author”). Students need to know that this conflict exists. Teachers need to compare themselves to the teachers in these stories. These stories need to be read.