Two years ago, on a cool October evening at Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Arts, Native author Eddie Chuculate read his story "Dear Shorty" aloud. He spoke with a rolling rhythm, peppered by alliteration. With his head cocked, glasses in one hand and the book almost touching his nose, Chuculate held his listeners entranced.
I was in the audience that night, caught up like everyone else by Chuculate's storytelling -- a mix of stark loneliness and buoyant voice. I'm Navajo from Arizona, a long way from Chuculate's Oklahoma roots, but his stories are filled with people I know: tribal cops who tell bad jokes, the loudmouth at the local fair, a gangster teenager who will never leave the reservation. The stories are based on his own experiences, ranging from his youth in the small town of Muskogee to his artistic awakening in Santa Fe.
"Dear Shorty" describes a young Creek/Cherokee man who wanders across the Southwest, in and out of trouble with alcohol and the law, all while writing letters to his dad. It's from Chuculate's first book, Cheyenne Madonna, a tale of Oklahoma grit and Native wanderlust. Creek poet Joy Harjo praised it, noting how the author "investigates the broken-heart nation of Indian men. The epicenter of action is the tenuous meeting place between boyhood and manhood, between fierce need and desire."
Chuculate, who is Creek Indian and Cherokee, first learned how to spin a tale at the family dinner table. "There were only three channels on TV. We'd spend the evenings acting out what happened that day, or we'd mimic how someone walked or talked." After high school, Chuculate worked as a local sportswriter for a few years, but eventually decided he would "die if I had to cover one more Little League tournament or trout-fishing competition."
And so, in 1994, after a friend told him about the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, he hopped a Greyhound to the heart of the Southwest. His love affair with the West began on that journey. "In the morning, the sun came up behind the Sandias -- that was the first time I saw mountains." At the Native contemporary arts school, Chuculate thought he'd be a museum studies major until he took a fiction class and discovered an outlet for his natural inclination for story. "Our first assignment was to write a story about a memorable character in our family," he says. "So I started writing 'A Famous Indian Artist' based on my uncle. Then I started writing about my dad, my grandma and grandpa. Their characters are all over (Cheyenne Madonna)."
After IAIA, Chuculate received a coveted Stanford Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a two-year program where promising writers study with renowned authors. "Here I am with these illustrious authors and people in my class way more advanced than I was," he says. "So I took my lumps in workshop." But eight years later, in 2007, he won the PEN/O. Henry Prize for "Galveston Bay, 1826," a story about Cheyenne adventurers who travel to the Pacific Ocean for the first time and encounter a hurricane. Now he's finishing up an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
In his writing, Chuculate pays precise attention to detail and landscape. In a moment of reverie on the Hopi reservation (where he's stuck in tribal jail), Jordan, the narrator of "Dear Shorty," says: "I was thinking how the sky and the high-desert terrain looked just like it did around Glorieta as you rode the train through the Sangre de Cristos heading toward Denver: clumps of juniper and sage underneath a magnified blue sky where everything was sharp and etched in clear lines." That Chuculate chooses to set his stories in places like Hopi, Ariz. -- a place both familiar (Hopi land is in the middle of the Navajo reservation) and foreign to me -- is exhilarating. I've seen the historical tensions between Navajo and Hopi -- old disputes over land and water -- play out today in local politics and even in high school athletics. As teenagers, when we made the three-hour bus ride from our hometown on the Navajo Nation to the land of mesa-top villages for basketball games and cross-country meets, we'd eat certain herbs for protection.
The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said that when she began to write stories, "all my characters were white and blue-eyed and played in the snow." So it was a revelation to her that she could write about people she knew in a Nigerian setting. From the beginning, Chuculate set his stories in places outside of mainstream America. But he gives the stories no special treatment -- doesn't artificially draw attention to their differentness, just gives them a writer's attention. He portrays a contemporary Native America unburdened by romantic mystique, or even by the Native writers who came before him.
His next book will be a novel about black-Indian relations in Oklahoma. Jordan will return, as will a few other characters from the pages of Cheyenne Madonna. Chuculate's first book took 15 years to finish, but lately, in Santa Fe, he's been more productive. "I feel I write my best out here. I feel more at home. I don't really write well in Iowa or Oklahoma anymore. The West somehow got into my blood."