Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning: A Splendid Mirror for Indigenous Readers

Today we are joined by Dr. Debbie Reese,  founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, which since 2006 has provided critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society, to discuss Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, a remarkable debut fantasy novel arriving this week—and why it matters so much to Indigenous American readers.

In 1991, Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor of children’s literature at Ohio State University, developed a metaphor since often seen on social media, in articles in magazines, in research journals, and in books. Bishop posited that books can act as windows, offering us viewpoints into the world an author has created, or sliding glass doors, through we can walk to become part of that world. And sometimes, Bishop wrote, windows can be mirrors that reflect our own lives and experiences.

History being what it is, there are many mirrors and doors for some readers. For the rest of us, there are very few mirrors, as this graphic illustrates:

See the tiny mirror the Native child is holding? That could be any of the Pueblo children in my family at Nambé or Ohkay Owingeh. Books provide us with very few mirrors. A chilling fact: most of the mirrors that do exist show a grotesque reflection. Going all the way back to the time when Europeans began their invasions of the continent currently known as North America (my use of “currently known” is deliberate; in fact and fiction, time changes what places are called.), and created distorted images of the Indigenous people that called that continent their homelands.

Writers and illustrators—today—do that, too.

Indigenous people have been saying “no” to bad representations for a very long time. In A Son of the Forest, published in 1829, William Apess recounts his childhood. When he was four years old, he was taken from his Pequot family and spent the next several years with a White family. He started school when he was six, and learned to think it was “disgraceful to be called an Indian.” He wrote that he was so completely weaned from his own people that “a mere threat of being sent away among the Indians” was more effective in making him obey than corporeal punishment. Once, when he was out picking berries with the White family, they came upon a group of females with a complexion as dark as that of the Natives. Seeing them filled his mind with terror. “The great fear I entertained of my brethren was occasioned by the many stories I had heard of their cruelty towards the whites—how they were in the habit of killing and scalping men, women and children.”

Almost 200 years later, publishers continue to publish new books and reprint “classics” that give readers frightening and grotesque ideas of Indigenous people. Though a handful of Indigenous writers have been published by the Big Five publishers, the number is small, and easily overwhelmed by the flawed and best-selling books by writers who seem to prefer stereotypes to who we are in reality. Whether a story is set in the past, present, or the future, most depictions of Indigenous people—if we’re present at all—are ones that provoke a sense of shame, embarrassment, or rage over how we are depicted.

It need not stay that way. Publishers can make other choices.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is making an intervention in the status quo. When I first saw the cover, I was thrilled. It was as if the lightning had leapt from the image and touched my very being! Through the story Roanhorse tells, about a powerful Indigenous woman fighting an invasion of monsters in a post-apocalyptic future, she is interrupting the cycle of misrepresentation, and more important: she’s providing Indigenous readers—especially those who know the nations of the southwest—with a splendid mirror.

On the very first page, I read the words “Lukachucai Chapter House.” Most readers will read right past that, but seeing them was a jolt all its own. The affirmations of Indigenous peoples continue on the next page, where we read that the people in the story are “Navajos, or Diné as we call ourselves, whose ancestors have lived at the foothills of the Chuska Mountains for more generations than the bilagáanas have lived on this continent, who can tell stories of relatives broken and murdered on the Long Walk or in Indian boarding schools like it was last year.”

As I read, there were times I turned the pages quickly, caught up in the narrative, and others when I paused to linger with the characters Roanhorse introduced. Some non-Native writers include Coyote in their stories, in ways that turn him into a decoration or tokenize him. For that reason, you might think you know little bit about Coyote, but you have never met this Coyote before, clad in a red velvet vest! There’s no hokey flute music accompanying his appearance. This guy will scare you.

On one page after another, Roanhorse tells us stories that ring true to the knowledge, experiences and hopes of Native people. We persist and push back on the invasions of our lands, resources—and the theft of our stories, too—and we will most definitely exist in the future. Trail of Lightning is set in the future. It is that, perhaps, that is tugging so fiercely at my head and heart. If they’re not misrepresenting us, most non-Native people don’t include us at all. With her book, Roanhorse lifts Indigenous readers, giving us a brilliant mirror that made my Indigenous heart soar.

Trail of Lightning is getting very positive reviews from mainstream journals like Publisher’s Weekly, where reviewers are zeroing in on Maggie’s monster-hunting. I am thrilled that other readers love the story, and expect it will do well, but I close with some more indigeneity: because of its futuristic setting, people are calling it urban fantasy, or fantasy, or science fiction, but those labels won’t work as well for Indigenous people. For centuries, non-Native people have used labels to cast us and our ways as “other.” Christians have religion, for example, and Indigenous people have superstitions. With Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse is asserting something else entirely. I don’t have a word for it yet, but when it comes to me, I hope it is does justice to her writing. Trail of Lightning is the first in a four-part series. Roanhorse is also writing books for younger readers, and come 2019, she’ll offer a mirror to them, too. With her books, she is showing everyone what Native writers can offer—to all of us, Native or not.

Dr. Debbie Reese is a founding member of the Native American House and American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois. She is on the literature advisory board for Reading is Fundamental and the advisory board for Reach Out and Read American Indian/Alaska Native. She is the founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, which since 2006 has provided critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.

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