Embodying sovereignty through Native stories

Chelsea T. Hicks’ new book, ‘A Calm and Normal Heart,’ illuminates complex lives resulting from generations of struggle.

 

Note: This story includes Osage orthography that might not display on some operating systems.

In March, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Cherokee citizen, at least nominally, appeared on Fox News, telling Tucker Carlson, “I’ve got my Indian card. … My six children with blond hair and blue eyes, they all have their Indian card.” The interview concerned the McGirt decision, in which the Supreme Court held that Congress had not disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Stitt, however, has been at war with tribes ever since he took office.

The governor simply exploits Americans’ ignorance about Native Americans. Meanwhile, Native authors from reservations in the part of northeast Oklahoma most concerned in the McGirt case are publishing vibrant fiction that fully embodies Native history and presence.  

In her debut, A Calm and Normal Heart, Chelsea T. Hicks, an Osage citizen, creates a geography of Osage life, a continuum of longing and belonging. Hicks’ characters manage their complex lives with toughness and aching vulnerability. Hicks illuminates the compressed, almost radioactively dense family dynamics that result from generations of struggle. 

In these short stories, young Osage professionals come and go from the Osage Reservation, seeking reconnection and grounding after generations of disconnectedness. To understand the pressures on Osage families, you need to understand the politics inside and outside the tribe, as well as the federal policies that, combined with the exploitation of oil and gas, devastated the social and political functioning of the tribe.

calm-and-normal-2-jpg
Author Chelsea T. Hicks.
Courtesy Unnamed Press

Speaking of her 2008 novel The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich once told NPR, “What I'm trying to do is tell a story that goes back and forth through time, and that shows the influence of history on the passions and decisions of people who live in the present.” Similarly, Hicks’ stories reflect the impacts of history — colonization, the forced removal of the Osage from Kansas in the 1870s, and the 1920s Reign of Terror, when Osages were murdered for their oil rights — on the everyday lives of modern-day families.

Past generations lie close to the surface. The collection ranges across time and place, from an Osage village before European contact in “The Good Medicine of the Light,” to “A Fresh Start,” when a divorced woman struggles to survive in mid-20th century Bartlesville without the oil revenues that sustained her parents and grandparents, to the thriving present-day crowds at the Inlonshka, a ceremonial gathering, in “Brother.” The stories don’t hesitate to tackle complex subjects, pondering sexism in the early Osage villages and the class slippage that occurred when the oil annuities of the early 20th century abruptly dried up.

Hicks’ stories aren’t overtly political; rather, they’re close-to-the-bone examinations of human connection, charting the flow of power and control in relationships of all kinds. She traces the fault lines in each character’s family, placing her fingers on the parents’ and grandparents’ pain. Young women ponder the costs of living authentically in the face of sexism, racism and colorism, and their decisions are refreshingly complicated. Hicks describes the subtle and overt manipulations in relationships, illuminating the inner world. In “House of RGB,” the narrator writes, “It was no wonder, my own fly-by-night behavior — given the coattails of these fleeing, desperate women.”

These are portraits of generational trauma; in poignant stories, characters search for help from sources as varied as Psychology Today in “Superdrunk,” or from ancestors in “House of RGB.”

Hicks plays with form, placing text-based ancestor paintings on the page in “Wets’a,” while “House of RGB” evokes a fugue state, with a dog named My Love and a series of ancestral visitations.

It’s a delight to see 𐓷𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 𐓣𐓟, Osage orthography, on the page and to follow Hicks’ transliteration of the language.
The Osage language and cultural references are woven throughout “A Calm and Normal Heart.”

This is a book for Osages, first and foremost:  The Osage language, along with cultural references — like 𐓲𐓟𐓸𐓪𐓬𐓟, the women’s spider symbol — are woven throughout. Readers will appreciate the milieu of the Ilonschka, the pressure to dress properly and the humidity at the Sonic after the dances.

Hicks laces her stories with humor and wry takes on tribal life. In “My Kind of Woman,” the narrator considers language preservation, “how we constantly had to show to the federal government that we had a language, without revitalizing it too strongly so that they would think we were a threat.” In “RGB,” My Love, the dog is “punitively silent” when the narrator wants him to bark.

It’s a delight to see 𐓷𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 𐓣𐓟, Osage orthography, on the page and to follow Hicks’ transliteration of the language; she uses orthography in chapter headings and Osage transliterations appear in conversation untranslated. In “Tsexope,” in fact, the characters are learning the language, navigating a possible relationship while simultaneously trying to decode each other’s Osage.

Using language this way reaffirms the very sovereignty that Gov. Stitt decries; it is a refutation of the federal policies that tried to erase Native languages.

While Stitt fans anti-Indian sentiment on national television, simplifying and distorting Native reality, it’s more than satisfying, it’s necessary, to have Native authors like Hicks creating complex and beautiful portraits of Native life, embodying sovereignty through their stories.

Ruby Hansen Murray (Osage) is columnist for the Osage News, with work forthcoming in Cascadia: A Field Guide (Tupelo Press) and published in Colorlines, Under the Sun, High Desert Journal and elsewhere. 

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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