Summer of 2014. Early June as I recall, not too hot, not too humid. Greg Rodgers, Eman Ghanayem, and me. Two Choctaws and a Palestinian from Hebron, West Bank, out for a summer joy ride in Atoka County, Oklahoma, home to Choctaws. Eman and Greg were both graduates students at the University of Illinois. They’d come to visit me in Ada, Oklahoma. For some reason we decided to drag Eman to all the famous sites in Oklahoma. We took her to the Sonic Drive-in on Mississippi Street in Ada, Oklahoma. Then to the Choctaw Nation’s headquarters in Durant. Then out to the casino and all the food courts were closed. WTF?! Greg then directed us to Boggy Depot where he pointed out the graves of his kinfolks on the Folsom side of his Choctaw family.
Pictured below, Greg Rodgers and I are standing looking at the map of Boggy Depot. You can see Eman’s shadow, (left) as she snaps a picture of us studying the map of the area. We spent the afternoon looking at Choctaw headstones, calling out the names of ancestors. We walked around the site, mostly trying to steamroll Eman. Since she’d never been to Oklahoma we told her she was our “captive.” She yawned. Not a good sign. Next we decided to educate her with a piece of disputed history: Thanksgiving. She tried to change the subject.
“What is the history of awkwardness?” she asked. Clever girl. Greg intervened. “What is a “derivative” in the stock market?” he countered. “Touché,” I shouted. Seeing that we were deadlocked in a battle for our wits, we halted the chit-chat. Instead, we told Eman all the things Choctaw captives must do to become fully “Choctawized,”
1) Buy us lots of coca-cola.
2) Buy us lots of gasoline for the car — after all these sightseeing trips cost money.
3) Take pictures of us that make us look “wise.”
4) Listen to endless boorish stories about the “greatest red people of all: The Choctaws.” Did I mention that Choctaws are braggarts?
After joking around all day with Eman and Greg, I remember a profound sense of serenity came over me. That was truly a halcyon day last summer, one I will never forget.
Greg passed away quite suddenly on December 17, 2014, — he left us with nothing but good memories. He was just about to finish his MFA a the University of Illinois, where he was working on a great novel-in-progress. Illinois will grant him the MFA in Creative Writing posthumously in April 2015. He had written enough for two books.
On February 20, 2015, the Native American House at Illinois is hosting a memorial for Greg Rodgers and everyone is invited to attend. Check out the website: http://illinois.edu/calendar/detail/1534/32480945
Pictured above, standing, are Gwen Westerman, Eman Ghanayem, and Greg Rodgers. Seated, me and Susan Power.
It’s been hard to write about Greg’s passing, he was family and I dearly loved him. I’d recruited him to Illinois into the MFA program in Creative Writing in English where he excelled. We shared a passion for Choctaw history, culture and language. We liked to pretend we were the original “Choctaw chucklers,” always joking around about this, that, or the other. Greg, I know you’re watching us from the other side and telling the friends and family around you, “about the time . . . ”
You are so right. “In the end all you are is your Story.”
We miss you, chi kana.
Over the past four years I’ve been working on a new play coauthored with Monique Mojica (Rappahannock and Kuna). I say “co-authored,” but I should include our design team and especially the lands we’ve been working on as co-collaborators in the process of developing a healing ceremony, or play. Our team includes designers Dustin Mater (Chickasaw), Marcus Amerman (Choctaw), Tyra Shackleford (Chickasaw), James Wallace (Choctaw), composer Jerod Tate, (Chickasaw), costume designer Erika Isherhoff, lighting designer Michel Charbonneau, props Tim Hill, anthropologist and embodiment praxis scholar Brenda Farnell (University of Illinois), body movement specialist Danielle Smith (Toronto), dramaturge and literary scholar Chad Allen (Ohio State University), and theater director and dramaturge Ric Knowles (University of Guelph). The four-year project, “Indigenous Knowledge and Contemporary Performance” has been funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research of Canada (SSHRC) and is about the recovery of indigenous knowledge, not Native victimization stories, per se.
The project addresses research questions about the recovery, renewal, and use of Indigenous forms and epistemologies in the creation and annotation of contemporary Native theatre and performance. Our research methodology is located within an embodied research/creation (or practice-based research process), meaning we’re using our physical bodies to locate certain stories that tribes wrote into the land as they were creating mounds and Earthworks across Native North America. Since 2011, we’ve visited earthworks sites all across the continent from the Snake Mound in Peterborough, Ontario to the Bird Mound at Poverty Point, Louisiana and dozens of sites in between. We also visited Mai Don mound site in southwest England such as in the photograph above. Other mound sites include Nanih Waiya, (shown far below), and Newark, Ohio (below). We hope to have the new play produced in 2016. We also traveled to New York City’s Coney island Sideshow School in 2013 and learned how to escape from strait jackets, (pictured below) walk on glass, swallow fire. I didn’t attempt to swallow fire, I knew I would freak out, inhale, and die with collapsed lungs. All this research is going into the new play titled, “Sideshow Freaks and Circus Injuns.” It’s complicated, I know. Stay tuned for more updates on our progress throughout 2015!
The Modern Language Association’s awards ceremony was awesome! I want to thank the judges Penny Kelsey, Chad Allen, and Dean Rader for awarding Choctalking on Other Realities (Aunt Lute Books) the first MLA Studies in Native American Literature prize for 2015. This is a great honor for my book. My friends, poet and sound artist Tracie Morris, and fiction writer Tayari Jones came to the ceremony and hosted me on the town with champagne and a festive meal at the Four Seasons in Vancouver, British Columbia. Life is sweet! Thank you all.
Whew, almost 10,000 children came to my door this Halloween, (I was dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West complete with green face paint). And I’m happy to report that no one came to my door wearing an American Indian headdress, cheesy loin cloth, Chief Illiniwek t-shirt, or Atlanta Braves-t-shirt, it was all ghosts, bumblebees, football players, Spiderman costumes, Grim Reapers, and okay, someone was dressed up like Ted Nugent . . . they probably thought he was dead. Here are some of the adorable characters that visited my home in Athens, GA.
After a ten-day stint in San Francisco, California giving readings and hanging out with friends at Berkeley, Oakland; I’ve returned to Athens, Georgia. Wow, the weather in San Francisco is so different from Athens. The air in the San Francisco is as dry as the monumental redwoods, and the air of Athens is wet and heavy with mist. I am glad to be mentally in two places at once.
I gave readings at the University of California, Berkeley; Galeria de La Raza, and at the Inter-Tribal Friendship House in Oakland, three workshops on writing to Native teens and elders. Next week: Mr. Peabody reads Blessed Harve and other stories of adventure.
Mr. Peabody likes to travel as well as any other bird. He also likes to read books on planes, in cars, or on the train. He’s my 6 foot tall Pink Flamingo friend, but since I’m Choctaw, I spell it Pink Flamiko. Get it?! This week he’s reading the Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, edited by Daniel Justice and Jim Cox. It’s chockfull of grand tidbits about American Indian and indigenous literatures. Stay tuned next week for more great books in American Indian literature; about my move to Georgia, and other personal news.
- A novel set in the Middle East and Oklahoma in 1913-1917, & 2011 with a Choctaw protagonist, or two.
- A chapbook of poems on Mary Todd Lincoln.
- A new play co-authored with actress and playwright Monique Mojica titled, Sideshow Freaks and Circus Injuns. (In rehearsals this summer in Toronto, Ontario.)
- A couple of scholarly books.
- That’s hard to say because I write in different genres. The novel I’m working on is composed of many different genres woven together. In a way its a continuation of the work I began in Miko Kings: An American Indian Baseball Story, 2007, Auntlute.com.
- I’m afraid I can’t do anything else.
- Well, there are a couple of other things I can do.
- Maybe I would rather live inside of books. See the above paragraph.
- Seriously, I began writing about Choctaws because I am Choctaw and so few were writing fiction and poetry about our tribe. Happily that has changed. And as an artist I have changed too, and my writing is developing in new directions that I could not have imagined even five years ago.
- The story tells me what I’m working on. I let the voice develop the form I’m writing. Sometimes it’s only a line that I begin with, and frequently I don’t know what I’m working on until the body begins to take shape. I also think I become a new writer with each book I finish.
Up Next is the Fabulous Heid Erdrich
Here’s another book that sits on my taxicab-yellow bar. I frequently grab Cell Traffic, 2012, first thing in the morning for an eye-opener. This amazing book gets me off to work and I teach it in my classes. Heid and I have been friends for many years even after the time I nearly ran her down in the middle of the street in Austin, Texas, sometime after 1 am. We were in Austin for the AWP conference and I was driving my brother’s big old Ford truck and couldn’t find the brake pedal as quickly as I would have liked. Whew, was that a close call.
Now for the serious stuff: Heid E. Erdrich is also the author of National Monuments which won a Minnesota Book Award in 2009. Her new non-fiction book is Original Local: Indigenous Foods Stories and Recipes from the Upper Midwest, 2013. Heid is Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain. She engages the world in many forms, most recently through short poem films which you can see at heiderdrich.com.