Native Lit is more than a marketing term

Its use is just another fence, and we’re busting them down.

If you drive west from Bozeman and veer off the interstate a few miles after Echo Lake, turning down a mostly gravel road still lovingly called Highway 38, you see them everywhere: Fences. At every turn, almost every inch of the way until you hit the national forest, they lurk. Some wrapped with tightly wound barbed wire, others just a few posts leaning on each other like a pair of drunken uncles. Everywhere you look, they straggle, weathered enough to deceive you into believing they’ve been there as long as the majestic streams and fields and mountains they serve to keep you from. 

Fucking fences.


I followed them all the way to Missoula, to the James Welch Native Literary Festival in late July. The first Native literary festival organized by Native writers themselves, it aimed to gather the premier and promising writers of Indian Country without the masturbatory performances of white guilt or capital-r Representation that ooze from similar industry-sponsored events. The festival was the brainchild of Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a Blackfeet writer who loves to remind you that he is Blackfeet and that you are standing on his land. In this case, it’s actually Salish land, though in the span of the four-day fest, it also, kind of, felt like Sterling’s land, too. On the second day, we met on the third floor of the Missoula Public Library. As we spoke, writers floated past the couches we’d secured. Speculative-fiction writer Rebecca Roanhorse stopped by; poet and storyteller Taté Walker and I discussed journalism; essayist Chris La Tray marveled that he and Sterling both had the same limited-release Timex watch. And threaded throughout all of this was something resembling an interview with Sterling. 

If you knocked back a shot every time he used the word “profound,” you’d be drunk by the time his first thought ended. Still, you’d stay on the edge of your seat until he finished. I asked Sterling why he picked Missoula for the inaugural fest. “When art ends up on a reservation, it dies,” he replied. “Art needs to be in conversation with other art, all the time. … Everybody just thinks like somehow we’re only in conversation with other Native art. And that’s not true at all.”

Authors Brandon Hobson, Kelli Jo Ford, Tommy Orange and Chris La Tray (from left to right) participate in the final event of the festival.

To be clear, neither the rez nor the Indian is the problem here. The problem is that most non-Indians would rather plop us into a category than sustain a conversation with our art. If you’ll allow me the metaphor, the term “Native Lit” is just another fence, one that the publishing and media industries use to separate us from other horror writers and sci-fi writers and poets and modernists. In order to pay the rent and carry on our craft, we must perform behind the barrier.

“Everybody just thinks like somehow we’re only in conversation with other Native art. And that’s not true at all.”

Two weeks before the James Welch fest, I was in a Brooklyn bookstore listening to Morgan Talty read from his new book of short stories, Night of the Living Rez, a piece of work as tender as anything you’ll read this year. During the Q&A session, I asked him a question, which I’ll paraphrase: Your book is wonderful and heartfelt, and the character development is stunning — but in the program for your talk tonight, the publisher described your book as “a striking amalgam of stories about what it means to be Penobscot.” Your book is a lot of things, but I never once thought of it as an education in what it means to be Penobscot. How can Native writers wriggle out of this kind of packaging? 

Because he is kind and thoughtful, Morgan kindly and thoughtfully answered that he doesn’t let the performative nature of the book business prevent him from delivering the only art he knows how to create. But perhaps that fence metaphor doesn’t feel as strained now.

To me, Native Lit is not a dimly lit corner in a bookstore where the light flickers on each November. It’s what I experienced in Missoula in July. It’s drinking beer with a group of authors and Institute of American Indian Arts students and arguing about whether Native authors should collectively go the indie-publishing route. It’s getting surprisingly decent pizza with two New York Times bestselling authors and picking their brains about residency admissions and foreign publishing rights. It’s stumbling through Missoula at midnight with a dozen fellow writers, loudly arguing the merits of various ’70s and ’80s bands. It’s sitting at a cafe with another writer, lamenting how you overheard another kindly but deeply misguided white woman wait for the writer’s reading to end, in order to explain to them how she simply will not break up her 400,000-word opus, written entirely from the Native perspective, and then watching that same woman give the same spiel to the following night’s headliner. 

Festival attendees and authors gather in Lois Welch’s backyard.


Native Lit should mean community, is what I’m saying. And in Missoula, it did. But most of the time, for most of us, it’s a fence — a sales tactic and a barrier to conversation between our art and other art. Which makes it pretty funny that on the final day of the festival, I found myself happily enclosed within yet another fence. 

This one surrounds the home of Lois Welch, widow of James, the Blackfeet writer who walked on in 2003 after creating some of American literature’s most staggering works of fiction. On one wall of the passageway between Lois’ garage and her immaculately maintained back garden, a set of word-play magnets read, “Why do I still miss his broke ass?” In the backyard was a scene that a younger me could only have dreamed of — because until a few years ago, there weren’t this many published Native authors in the entire country, let alone within a single fence.

As we sat on the grass, swiping off spiders and eating hors d’oeuvres, we quickly formed what Northern Cheyenne writer and festival moderator Adrian Jawort called a “sacred circle” — short story savant Kelli Jo Ford, novelist Brandon Hobson, crime writer David Weiden and Pulitzer-finalist Tommy Orange huddled together, everyone shooting the shit. I looked up as Louise Erdrich shook what must have been her millionth hand of the day and slipped inside. Taté Walker and Sasha LaPointe cooled off by the creek trickling past the far gate. Community is a precious thing, and the Native Lit community, while a growing powerhouse, is an especially precious thing. A minority’s minority, as it was once described to me. 

Later that night, as the festival came to a close, Tommy, Brandon and Kelli read new pages from their forthcoming projects. All of their work was fantastic and moving, and all of it had that tinge of rawness that make a work in progress so enthralling. After Tommy read a scene set immediately after the mad-dash finale of his novel There, There — arguably the most deftly executed fart bit ever put to page — Brandon slid behind the mic, tossed his hands up and sighed, “Thanks, Tommy, that was … incredible.” And it was. All of it was. For a series of beautiful, fleeting moments, Native Lit ceased to be a category and instead became the community-driven, fence-busting force it is meant to be. 

The next morning, I took the interstate back to Bozeman to catch my flight. I flipped off every fucking fence I saw.  

Books on a table at the James Welch Native Literary Festival.

Note: This story was updated to correct a caption about the books shown. Not all authors are authored by Native writers.

Nick Martin is an associate editor for HCN’s Indigenous Affairs desk and a member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina. We welcome reader letters. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.