Saturday, December 11, 2010

Brenda Stanley's I AM NUCHU

Several weeks ago a reader wrote to ask if I'd seen Brenda Stanley's I Am Nuchu. I hadn't, and that reader sent me a copy. I've read it and am sharing thoughts today. I apologize up-front for the disjointed qualities of this review. I had a hard time reading the book, following threads, making notes...  That difficulty is evident in my review. The book itself feels very superficial. And it feels like I'm reading a movie script (kind of like when I read Crowley's Starfish) or when I read a student paper... the ones that feel like a rush-job... Leaps, gaps, mistakes.  Anyway... here goes. I've tried to put description in regular type and my own thoughts/comments in italics.

The cover and design

On the front cover is a photograph of a young man who, I presume, is meant to be Cal, the protagonist. He's got long brown hair and is wearing a white t-shirt. He appears to be leaning on something that is chest-high because his arms are crossed in front of him, up high. On his wrists are several beaded bracelets. Behind him is a beautiful, sweeping vista. Overlaid on that vista is what I think are two layers of an artists rendering of petroglyphs. One is in brown, the other is in blue-gray. Layered on that in large white letters outlined in black is the title of the book I AM NUCHU.

There are 21 chapters in the book. The text for each one begins partway down the page. The upper portion of the page has the chapter number (in the same font as the title) and six petroglyphs.

My thoughts: There's too much on the cover. The petroglyphs only clutter the scene. I think they're meant to signal that this is a story about American Indians. I guess the publisher/designer decided the photograph of the guy wasn't enough of a signal. "Nuchu" is the spelling Stanley used in her book. The book doesn't list sources, but I found that spelling in the 1907 Handbook of American Indians, published by the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. Tribal members use "Noochew". Both would likely be pronounced the same and some might say its a small detail. I think it does matter and would have liked to see Noochew. 

The characters
The protagonist is a 17 year old boy named Cal Burton. He's got two younger teen sibs: Doran and Rachel. Their mother is Mona. She's Ute, born and raised on the "Fort Duchesne reservation."  She's married to David. He's white and lived in Roosevelt, a town near "the Fort." Mona's father, Raymond, is an elder.  His wife, Dorothy, is long-dead and so is Raymond's other daughter, Jackie.  The non-Native characters include teenager Mitch, who Cal gets into a couple of fights with, and Mitch's dad, the sheriff. Cal calls him "Silver Hair" because of the way he wears his hair (slicked back, shiny gray). His actual name is Franklin Grayson.

The Native characters are teen boys: Fly, Johnny, Puck, and Jackie's older son who has fetal alcohol syndrome.

My thoughts: Stanley's character's say "on the Fort" a lot. I don't know if people who live there say "on the Fort" or "on the reservation" or something else entirely. I called out to the library there to ask about it and librarians I spoke with couldn't recall anyone saying "on the Fort." My conclusion: It is possible, but not probable. 

In chapter one, we read "It was the fall of 2009, and the war in Iraq was entering its seventh year" (p. 7). In terms of place, the family in the story has moved from "the crystal clean, lush foothills of the Spokane Valley" to "barren, insipid" (p. 7) Eastern Utah, specifically, the "Fort Duchesne Indian Reservation." To get to their grandfather's house (where they're going to live), they turn at a large cluster of triangular shaped adobe buildings" that "bore an obvious semblance to a gathering of teepees."

My thoughts: Based on photos I've seen, I don't think its barren or insipid, but, those sorts of judgments are relative. Stanley is trying to make a stark contrast in Cal's life before this move, and she is using geography to help with that contrast. 

I don't think the Utes call it the "Fort Duchesne Indian Reservation." From all that I've seen, it is the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Fort Duchesne, an old army fort, is on the reservation, and its the location of the tribal offices.

I was surprised to see "adobe" in Stanley's description of the buildings. I think she was referring to the Bottle Hollow Resort, which was torn down in 2009. Some of the buildings looked like teepees, but I don't think they were made of adobe. They were wooden structures, built in the 1970s. The photo at left is from a March, 2009 news story about the demolition.

There is an interview of Stanley on Bethany Hegedus's LiveJournal. There, Stanley says that she wrote the book nearly thirty years ago when she was 17 and living near the Fort Duchesne reservation. Reading that helped me understand why Cal and his friends would be listening to "More than a Feeling" by the rock group Boston---- a song I recall from my teen years. It seemed a little odd that Cal and his friends would be listening to it.  Reading about the demolition of the resort's history in the 70s and 80s makes me think that when Stanley revised the manuscript for publication, she added the Iraq war and year in her opening pages but didn't go through the rest of the manuscript to update things like music and place.

They drive into "town" where the street is lined with "paltry little homes." In the yards, "Indian men and women sat on mismatched patio furniture, each of them with a tall bottle of beer resting somewhere close by" (p. 16).  The next morning, Cal and Doran head into Roosevelt (that's where they meet "Silver Hair") and when they return at 10:00 in the morning, there are three "shiny new pick-ups" in the driveway. Inside are an Indian man and two Indian women in the kitchen with Mona. When Cal walked in, Mona turned toward the sink, trying to hide a beer from him.  Cal yells at her for drinking in the morning. On page 48, Cal and Doran are talking about their mother and Cal says that she's different and that she "never drank back home" (p. 48).  His first morning at his new high school, his first-hour teacher (subject is not specified) assumes that because he's Indian, he's behind academically. The students giggle and whisper about him because he's Indian. We read:
It embarrassed him to think about the pride he used to feel in his dark skin and black hair, his Indian blood, how the girls had loved it. The images of fierce warriors, their bodies sculpted and strong, were what he'd always pictured his ancestors to be. Not the unemployed alcoholics he saw around his kitchen table every night.

My thoughts: Alcohol is referenced many times in the book. Beer cans are everywhere, the Indian teens drink, the adults drink, and eventually, Cal drinks, too. There is a lot of alcohol in Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, too, but not as much as Stanley works into her book. To me, Alexie's references are more contextualized and sad, while Stanley's are superficial and judgmental. 

I think that observation applies to the way poverty is presented, too. 

I'm also not sure that the people who actually live in those houses would call it a "town." It sounds to me like a subdivision much like the one at Nambe---or on many reservations. The houses are, in some cases, run-down. Though Stanley tries to blame the Indians for the condition of the houses, the fact is that too many of them are poorly constructed HUD houses that are hard to maintain no matter who you are. This housing is part of treaty obligations that the U.S. government fails to adequately fulfill.

When they first drove into "town," Cal and Doran saw brand new cars and trucks and wonder why, if the Indians can afford those cars, they stay in their "diseased looking houses" (p. 48).  Later, Cal tells Doran that Mona told him they "get money from the oil that comes off the reservation. So they buy all these killer cars and let their houses turn into slums."

My thoughts: I did a bit of research and found that there's a lot of oil and gas on the Ute's land and in the Uintah Basin and that there was a boom period in the 70s and 80s.     

I Am Nuchu is being characterized as a mystery because everyone seems to be keeping something from Cal. If you pay attention, you'll know part of the "mystery" pretty early via some not-so-subtle foreshadowing. Cal's father is not actually David, the man Mona (his mother) married when she left the reservation. Instead, Cal's father is the sleazy, racist sheriff who, as a young man, had sex with lot of Native girls and got three different ones pregnant. That bit of info is revealed near the end of the book. Throughout the book he utters ugly racist statements about the Utes.

Because of those statements, Cal is convinced that Silver Hair killed Mona and her near-term baby. An investigation at the time of her death came up empty, which Cal attributes to a corrupt sheriff's department.

We eventually learn that Mona killed Jackie because Mona wanted the sheriff to marry her, not Jackie.

In the final chapters, Mona, having confessed to Cal that she killed her sister, manages to run off to the lake where she killed her. Cal finds her there with a gun and persuades her not to commit suicide.  Later she runs away from the courthouse where she's gone to give a statement. They find her again at the lake, but this time, she's dead, having driven her car into the lake.

My thoughts: All the high drama throughout the story reminds me of some of the celebrity TV programs people watch today. Like Keeping up with the Kardashian's! The Wikipedia entry for that show reads 
Tabloid protagonist Kim Kardashian and her colorfully blended family, which includes step-dad Bruce Jenner, are the subjects of this reality series that chronicles their often chaotic domestic life together. Although the family members frequently are at odds, especially Kim and sisters Kourtney and Khloé, they always support one another in the end.
That paragraph could be about the Burtons! Cal storms about, declaring loudly what younger sister Rachel can and cannot do, making judgments on her makeup and clothes. Mona is always yelling or shouting. And she must be drunk most of the time because at one point Cal notes that at least she is sober. All the sexual activity that sets the plot in motion... All the beer.... Flashy cars...   

It was quite a surprise to see this word appear on page 144. Cal is worried that the sheriff will come after him on "the Fort" but Fly, one of the Ute teens, tells him that the sheriff has no power on the reservation because "We're a sovereign nation." Fly goes on to tell Cal that the sheriff has no jurisdiction on the reservation, and that the B.I.A. (Bureau of Indian Affairs) enforces laws on the reservation.

My thoughts: That's accurate but I imagine readers might wonder why the Utes (or any tribe, for that matter) is sovereign. Sovereignty is at the heart of our standing as Native Nations. It is very important. The BIA website has an accessible definition explanation:
The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities as provided by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, court decisions and Federal statutes. Within the government-to-government relationship, Indian Affairs provides services directly or through contracts, grants, or compacts to 565 Federally recognized tribes with a service population of about 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives. While the role of Indian Affairs has changed significantly in the last three decades in response to a greater emphasis on Indian self-governance and self-determination, Tribes still look to Indian Affairs for a broad spectrum of services.
Later on Cal, Doran, Fly, Johnny, and Puck drive out to Bitter Creek to hunt "Deer, elk, whatever" (p. 146) they want to, Puck says, because Bitter Creek is part of the reservation and because they're a sovereign nation. Johnny says "On the reservation, we have the right to hunt whenever we need the food" (p. 147). Johnny tells him a Ute creation story, and where he learns that they prefer to be called "Nuchu." On their next hunting trip out there a few days later, they see Mitch and his friends down in the valley painting the petroglyphs there. Cal shoots to get their attention and make them stop, which makes Mitch climb up to the ridge, where he shoots and kills Doran.

My thoughts: Again, Stanley is correct. Native people do have hunting and fishing rights on our lands, but it isn't quite the "whenever" she suggests. We do have hunting seasons, too, that we observe. Mitch and his friends have guns, too, though Stanley doesn't say they're there to hunt.

In the first chapter, Doran asks Cal why he isn't curious about "the Indians" especially since, growing up in Spokane where they stand out as not-white, the boys have been asked about their identity all their lives.  As the book progresses, however, we learn that Mona told them a lot about their Ute heritage.  For example, on page 21, there's this:
"When Cal was a child, his mother sat in his room at night and told him stories about the tribe and the teachings of the Creator. [...] And while his interest in the Utes teachings faded, the appeal of being Ute was exciting. Cal's distinctive dark skin and hair made him different and he liked it. He often talked about his Ute blood as a way to draw even more attention to his unique characteristics."
And this is on page 23:
"He'd heard Mona talk many times about the ceremonies and beliefs of the Ute people. Her dark eyes sparkled as she told about the Bear Dance and the summer night rituals."
The family moves to Utah during the fall. On page 23, Mona tells Cal that Raymond is an "Elder of the tribe" and that he is goes to meetings "to make decisions about the reservation and stuff." That evening he's going to be at a meeting "to prepare for" the Bear Dance which they will do the next day.  I think that is an error.  Information provided by the tribe says that they do the Bear Dance in the spring, as shown on this 2009 poster. In one of the last chapters, several months have passed. It is winter again, and Cal is back from college. He told the school he needed to be back on the reservation for the Bear Dance. (Again, wrong season!)

Some closing thoughts
I could keep going...  But I think I'll stop. As I said to a colleague on Facebook, I wish with all my heart that this was a book I could recommend, but I can't. I said to another colleague that it screams outsider perspective. Stanley tried hard, and having spent her teen years there, she could have given us something really well-informed, but she doesn't.


MissA said...

I should have talked about how I was really pleased to learn about the BIA and sovereignity. I dind't know much about either so I was glad the author included those terms and explained them.

Too much drama and inconsistency make it very hard to get through this book.

I should have done more research on the Noowchew. I hope people who read my review see the link to yours and follow it because you explain why this book is so problematic in such a polite and well-thought-out manner. Very informative, thank you!

Kim said...

Like the author of this book, I too was born and raised not 30 miles from Fort Duchesne in the town of Vernal, Utah.

On your first comment, if this is a work of fiction, what does it matter if the author chooses the spelling of NUCHU and whether it is correct or not?

On your second comment, I don't know which library you spoke to, or whether the librarian was a native to the Uintah Basin but people who have been their most of their lives do say "on the fort" or "on the rez".

Third comment: It is very barren on the fort. The government chose the drabbest, dullest land to give to the Ute Indians and the housing the government built for them is the cheapest, ugliest boxes possible.

Locals do call it Fort Duchesne Indian Reservation. Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation doesn't describe it as well as the previous. There are also other places that are named Ouray and the whole area is called the Uintah Basin.

As for Bottle Hollow, this was supposed to be a resort which turned out to flop horribly. There are adobe style teepee like housing on the reservation. You are right about the housing being HUD housing.

As to the comment about the alcoholism, it can never be written in kind or sad terms. Even in Alexie's book, which I have read. There is a rampant and nasty disease in Fort Duchesne and the government is blamed a lot for giving the Ute Indians "per capitas" and other monies. They purchase new cars which are treated poorly, driven in drunk, and, as a result, there are many drunk driving fatalities in the Uintah Basin. The garbage on the reservation is a choice the Ute Indians make.

You are probably right about the season they dance the Bear Dance. I only remember 2 dances growing up that we attended every summer. One was during the 4th of July and was call the "Fort Duchesne Pow Wow", the other was in August and was called the "Sun Dance".

As a librarian, I would urge you to do more than one reference search if your going to review in this manner. One librarian may or may not know what the local jargon is or even what local tradition is. As a half blood Ute Indian and a person who was raised and spent 24 years in the Uintah Basin, I don't know of any two books based on the Ute Tribe that have been written that are consistent with each other. So finding true and accurate history on the lives of the Utes may be hard. The problem is, the Ute tribe just didn't keep good records. But this is beside the point.

The author of this book probably needed a writing class if we are to believe what your review says about it. I have no doubt. But most of the happenings, history, and crimes that occur are very real. It ashames me to admit it and it is also a huge reason I don't live there anymore although my family still do and I frequently visit them.

Anonymous said...

I read this book because it was sent to me as a gift. I looked at it as fiction, so I guess I'm more forgiving than Debbie. The small details of time and place ceased to be a factor, once I got into the story.

One thing that struck me is that this story could have taken place anywhere racial tensions are high and living conditions are poor.

Cal Burton is every kid who had to grow up bi- or mixed racial in a town that had no soul. I liked the book and will recommend it to others.

May Blueotter said...

Yes, we do spell it Nuchu, but one can spell it various ways depending on preference when using English. I have not read this book, but from reviewing this review, I am am irritated by the inaccuracies. It's really not surprising though. I am an enrolled member, and was raised on the U&O. It's interesting how some can attempt to create something when the actual story is much better. Sounds like if one wants to know how it feels to be a young person any reservation, in general, stay away from this book. Beardance is always in spring. Not everyone sitting on their porch is drinking, some are enjoying the outdoors, and the law-enforcement information is very misleading. I will have to read the book to give full details, but it's definately not factual. Also, the nick-names are weird. Read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I loved it and couldn't put it down until I read the entire thing. It was so realistic, including the humor. :D