Monday, November 11, 2002


The following review appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Books section on Sunday, November 10, 2002, in a slightly edited version. That version is available on the Chronicle website ( at:
This is the full version of that review.

by William Severini Kowinski

The Dirt Is Red Here
Art and Poetry From Native California
edited by Margaret Dubin

The revival of California Indian cultures from close to the vanishing point to today's energetic resurgence is a profound and largely untold story, but now all of us can enjoy this anthology of art and poetry as a vibrant and revelatory expression of its success.

Quite simply, this is a beautiful book. Color reproductions are appropriately brilliant (Judith Lowry's "The Rescue," Henry Fonseca's "Creation 2001" for example) or delicate (Kathleen Smith's "My People's Home"), and two facing black and white photographs ("Lucy Lowry" and "Tuolumne MeWuk Rancheria Roundhouse") by Dugan Aguilar are alone worth the price of admission.

Editor Margaret Dubin (managing editor of the magazine, "News from Native California", which printed many of these writers and artists) has arranged texts and illustrations both for visual appeal and as delightful and sometimes subtle comments on one another. Printed on sturdy, glossy paper, this softcover book leaves more expensive coffee table tomes in the dust. This is a book to keep and revisit.

There's a dazzling variety of art, from work linked closely to ceremonial origins (the basketry of Linda Augilar and Linda Yamane, Bradley Marshall's regalia) to the abstract canvases of Fritz Scholder and Parris Butler, the sculpture and installation art of George Blake and James Luna, and the mixed media of Jean Lamarr, Brian Tripp and Frank Tuttle. The poetry (and two short prose pieces by Greg Sarris and Darryl Wilson) also demonstrates an impressive range of styles, from the heartfelt narratives of Sylvia Ross to the ritual rhythms of Frank LaPena and Stephen Meadows, and Richard Stewart's haiku inflections. There's a multiplicity of moods even within the work of a single artist or writer, evoking laughter, pain, meditation, mystery, sensuousness and wonder, and together comprising an eye-opening journey of rare quality and resonance.

I experienced one unifying thread in how this work illustrates and embodies the often-used but still indicative expression, "walking in two worlds." Grounded in cultures that grew here for thousands of years, these artists are also participants---often as far-flung students and teachers---in a demanding world dominated by very different premises and attitudes.

The clash is the occasion for the witty commentaries of James Luna's "High-Tech Peace Pipe" and L. Frank Manriquez painting of a pajama-clad Coyote in van Gogh's bedroom. But the complexities of this daily doubleness are also embedded in Janice Gould's meditations on family and being Lesbian, and in Wendy Rose's description of a "Literary Luncheon: Iowa City" where "I maintain/without willing it/an Indian invisibility."

It's there in Shaunna Oteka McCovey's satire on a huckster shaman who gives out a "Friends Drum Free" coupon, and her contrapuntal dialogue on creation stories-and in nearly every other poem and image in this collection. Even an evocation of nature suggests an aspect, like Deborah Miranda's "The Language of the Prophets" which ends: "Green pines take/what fog lets go."

"Indians evolve like everyone else," Deborah Miranda writes in another poem here. "Times change. We grow into/what comes next." As scholar and novelist Michael Dorris noted elsewhere, there emerged in the 1960s and 1970s a sizeable "new and maturing generation" of American Indian writers whose "primary language of expression is English, but an English accommodated to the special needs of their individual tribal histories and realities." Their work, Dorris wrote, both expands "the scope of English language composition and criticism" in form, and in content dispelled stereotypes by exhibiting qualities rarely found in Indians depicted by non-Indians: "humor, irony, intelligence, and stamina."

In 1994, Greg Sarris edited "The Sounds of Rattles and Clappers" (University of Arizona Press), the first major collection of poems and short fiction by writers with ancestry in indigenous California tribes. The distinction of ancestry, also followed in this anthology, is important, for California is host to more Native Americans than any other state, but most come from elsewhere. The immensely various California landscape fostered a hundred or more small tribes that developed complex cultures based on intimate relationship to their particular place, and its river or mountain, desert or forest. In this recurrently meaningful sense, their cultures are California.

This new book includes a succinct introduction providing historical context, and biographical notes on the artists that tell more of the story. Although they may live in distant cities for a time, many of these artists return to participate in traditional ceremony as singers, dancers, weavers and regalia-makers, activities which integrate artistic expression with utilitarian and religious purposes.

I would describe this work as contemporary art and poetry with extra dimensions: enlivening and enlightening differences from the mainstream drawn from not only complex personal experiences but from traditional cultures that evolved in close affiliation with the land and waters, flora and fauna of the places where we live. Those differences-subtle or bold, candid and ironic, found in form and content--- combine with familiar elements of shared culture to offer us the opportunity of insight into both another point of view and our common humanity. This book is itself a kind of ceremony and celebration. It belongs in the homes and hearts of every Californian.

quotes from Michael Dorris: PAPER TRAIL by Michael Dorris, HarperPerennial 1995, pp 250,-1.

No comments: