As an Indigenous Writer, I Push and Protect My Readers, My People, and Myself
Redactions can be both silence and explanation. They function purely on my own terms and for my audience, my community.
Indian as Myth Talker, Myth MakerYes, stories are very important to my culture, we remember them, we tell them, we honor them
Be silent; it’s been said before.
Native NativesmySay more.
Am I too late? Has my time finally expired? How could I have been so stupid?If my brother is at the table and eating, then there will be no food left for meit
wordsWe already have one of those, why do we need another?
Yeah, you talk about “your culture” A LOT
Oh. Oh. Well. It’s important to me.
I felt this most profoundly in an article I wrote for Atlas Obscura, “In Search of the Origins of Native American Grave Houses in Oklahoma.” I was very aware of the delicate nature of the topic and the ways in which I would have to be very careful to not reveal too much, a difficult task in an article meant to be illuminating (but again, illuminating for whom?). In preparation for the piece, I conducted a series of interviews with tribal members, elders, and the like. I focused heavily on the experiences of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a tribe historically connected to one of my own, the Yuchi. To write the essay responsibly, carefully, honorably, I made sure to be in conversation with other Native people.
My nonfiction writing is at its best when it is collaborative. However, collaboration for many writers, for many Native writers, isn’t possible. This can be for a variety of reasons: illness, death, closed practices, deep familial wounds, or a lack of understanding on why one would want to reveal when so much has already been taken. What, then, do we do when our modes of reaching out are cut off?
We turn inward, to our specific writing choices and the way these choices impact our work. In this case, the syntactic and stylistic decision that is most helpful for me is that of the redaction.
Redactions function in several ways in my work, but they often take on the modes of protection and pushing. In protection mode, they work to conceal the identity of people close to me, or people I would rather not pull through the mud with me, or people I would rather the reader not know about. In pushing mode, I use blacked-out text to make readers figure out the blank space for themselves and/or push them into an uncomfortable liminal space, spaces that I (as an author and a human being) must make my home. In other words, redactions can be both silence and explanation, but they function purely on my own terms and for my audience, my community.
Redactions are exemplified in my essay “Life and Death in Strawberry Land,” which deals with the death of my father, my hometown, and the people within that place.
In protection mode:
Once the Washington Post article goes live, however, there is pushback, there is outrage. From the community leaders, the tribe, my ………………. coworker’s sister’s husband. The study is flawed. The study is skewed. The Cherokee Nation works hard to correct the moniker, but it sticks. There are problems—pervasive, societal, systemic, influenced by race, and yes, the places we live—but they can’t be told by just numbers. Strawberry Land is still at the bottom, but not as far as they thought.
In pushing mode:
It’s my turn to tell this story, so you will listen. In this next dream, ………………. ………………. ………………. ………………. .
Both examples can be inferred upon, but protection mode is usually the easier to guess at, which makes it serve its purpose well. It is not my intention to confuse the reader, nor shock them, only to make them understand that what I reveal is my decision, and theirs, and that to keep something from the audience is not bad writing but simply a device, a tool to use and discard at will.
To be a ………………. writer is to hold oneself, and one’s culture, up to scrutiny. I lay bare what has been ignored, willfully misunderstood, or, sometimes, systemically repressed. My work is an attempt, like all writing, and it is one I must undertake with careful consideration and responsibility, something that is not always true for other writers.
However, this does not mean that my and other Native writers’ writing cannot be playful, fun, or free. It does not mean that we have to sacrifice or give more, causing ourselves more anguish for the sake of being published, recognized. It only means that this is where we are in the present moment, and we deserve to be read and heard and held, just like anyone else. And, until the day comes where structural inequities are undone, are spoken about in ways that aren’t conjecture, and reparations are given, we will keep writing. We will write for our cultures, people, tribes, and the like, but we will also write for ourselves.
Autumn Fourkiller is from rural Oklahoma. She is currently at work on a novel about Indigenous ghosts. A 2022 Ann Friedman Weekly Fellow, her work can be found in Scalawag, Atlas Obscura, and Repeller. You can follow her newsletter, "Dream Interpretation for Dummies," on Substack.