Next Monday is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and this week and next, Seattle Public Library will celebrate Seattle Reads with this year’s selection, Tommy Orange’s “There There.” Audiobook listeners can enjoy a growing body of titles featuring Indigenous authors and narrators, stories that range from tundra to tropics, the Great Plains to the Australian outback.
In the opening chapter of “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America,” Thomas King remarks that “history is the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories.” Given this, one could be forgiven for favoring novelist and satirist King’s irreverent, bracing overview of Indigenous history and culture over the more studious, footnoted works of licensed historians. Not that King doesn’t take plenty of license: A born literary trickster, his working title for the book was “Pesky Redskins.” Cree narrator Lorne Cardinal adopts the perfect tone, unstintingly laying forth detailed and often sobering events, while enjoying every wry turn of King’s sly, tongue-in-cheek wit. The result is an informative Own Voices history that is entertaining and persuasive.
In Cherie Dimaline’s highly original supernatural thriller “Empire of Wild,” Joan Beausoleil’s husband Victor, having walked out on her almost a year ago, suddenly reappears preaching at a revival tent in a Walmart parking lot using the name Rev. Eugene Wolff. Has he lost his mind, or has he been possessed by the Rougarou, the legendary wolf-man woven out of the hybrid Indigenous and Catholic traditions of her Métis community in rural Ontario? Canadian actress and documentarian Michelle St. John gives a compelling performance as the intrepid and passionate heroine Joan, expertly conveying that mixture of stark grittiness and haunting poetry that makes Dimaline’s prose read aloud so beautifully.
The stark upper reaches of Ontario loom over every page of Waubgeshig Rice’s taut “Moon of the Crusted Snow,” narrated with pitch-perfect authenticity by Cree actor Billy Merasty. Winter is coming, and the tenuous lifelines connecting Evan Whitesky’s remote Anishinaabe village to the rest of the world seem to have suddenly snapped. Merasty captures not just the accents but the laconic gallows humor of Rice’s native villagers, a people who may have become used to modern conveniences, but who are no strangers to privation, nor even to apocalypse. Even as the townsfolk begin to understand that their new normal may be a very old normal, the arrival of a white intruder from the south threatens to shatter the band’s solidarity. Both Dimaline and Rice deliver heart-stopping suspense that seamlessly incorporates the unique challenges and strengths of contemporary aboriginal communities.
No voice of the far north is so unique or striking as Inuk performing artist Tanya Tagaq’s, as she speaks and intones “Split Tooth,” the fictionalized story of her coming of age in Nunavut. The traumas of sexual and substance abuse too commonplace in the lives of Indigenous girls serve as the catalyst for a triumphant shamanic journey, conveyed through Tagaq’s visceral poetry and prose, punctuated with her powerful interpretations of Inuit throat singing. The resulting marriage of fiction and fact, words and sounds defies easy categorization, revealing sublime and startling internal and external landscapes. A brave, enthralling performance unlike any other, it will draw adventuresome listeners to Tagaq’s genre-defying music as well.
At the other end of the poetic spectrum are the traditional verses of Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday in “The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems,” narrated in the author’s own magnificent, rolling baritone. These varied works owe as much to such poets as Emily Dickinson and his mentor Yvor Winters as to Indigenous traditions and his own upbringing on American Southwest reservations. Nowhere is this poetic syncretism more evident than in the title poem, an honor song to the Kiowa warrior and chief laid forth in elegant iambic hexameter. It is a sumptuous recital.
August Gondiwindi returns to the New South Wales town of Massacre Plains in an attempt to save her family’s land and language in Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel “The Yield.” Her grandfather had been compiling a dictionary of the Wiradjuri language, lovingly and painstakingly articulated by aboriginal actor Tony Briggs in passages rich with humor and story, an act of cultural preservation destined to outlast the onslaught of missionaries and tin miners bent on forcing them from their home — their Ngurambang — and erasing them from the map.
Any audiobook listener with ties to the Hawaiian islands will feel a sense of homecoming listening to the diverse voices of Hawaiian-born author Kawai Strong Washburn’s gritty fable, “Sharks in the Time of Saviors.” Narrators Jolene Kim, Kaleo Griffith, G.K. Bowen and Tui Asau all have ties to Hawaii, lending authenticity to the book’s polyglot melting-pot gradations of dialect, anchored by Hilo-born actress Kim’s voicing of the matriarch Malia’s warm, flowing pidgin. This magical realist tale of a boy rescued by sharks feels as vivid as plumeria and rotting mango on warm trade winds.