Monday, November 17, 2014


Pukawiss the Outcast by Jay Jordan Hawke is an unusual book. The protagonist--Joshua--is a 14 year old teen who is gay. Because his mother is a fundamentalist Christian, he has not shared that identity with anyone. The story is set in the June of 1999, when President Clinton issued a proclamation naming June as Gay and Lesbian Pride month.

What makes the book unusual is not that he is gay, but that Joshua is Native.

Joshua's mother is white, and his father is Ojibwe. They met when his mother went to his father's reservation to do missionary work. They fell in love, but she was sure he was going to hell for his Ojibwe beliefs. He had to choose between her and his Ojibwe identity. He chose her, but struggled with that choice. He eventually became an alcoholic.

Joshua wasn't raised Ojibwe, nor did he visit the reservation, which is an hour from his mom and dad's house.

But when his dad leaves and his mom needs time to sort things out, she drops him off at the home of "Gentle Eagle" -- his grandfather -- on the reservation.

Joshua meets several teens who work at Wiigwaas, a recreated village Gentle Eagle established to help the Ojibwe people remember and learn their heritage.

Among the teens who work at the village are "Mokwa" and "Little Deer." Mokwa means angry bear, we're told in the book. Information shared about the names of the characters follows pop culture ideas about how Native names are given. Pop culture, I hasten to add, that doesn't reflect how Native names are given. "Gentle Eagle" is a gentle elder who everyone turns to for guidance. "Mokwa" is called that because he fought some older boys who were bullying "Little Deer" who is quiet and skittish. Later in the book is a new character, Black Crow, who is a loud-mouthed bully.

Naming figures prominently in the story. Joshua wants an Indian name. He's got a crush on Mokwa, who he hangs out with a lot at the village. Mokwa gives him a nickname: Pukawiss.

According to Mokwa, Pukawiss is a manitou who was an outcast because he didn't do what was expected of him (hunt and fish). Instead, he watched animals and mimicked their movements. His mimicry gave birth to "the art of dancing." He also gave the people Fancy Dance and powwows. The latter is definitely not accurate. Both are contemporary or modern in nature, rather than traditional ceremonies/dances that have been done for a very long time.

Later, Mokwa tells Joshua that he thinks Pukawiss was gay because when he went from village to village teaching the dances, women threw themselves at him and he ignored them. And, because he "loved bright-colored clothing." Mokwa's says "I think he was gay. It makes sense to me." Those two sentences function as a disclaimer, I think, for what the author is telling us via Mokwa.

I haven't found anything from Ojibwe writers or scholars that says Pukawiss was gay. It seems to me that the author--an outsider to Ojibwe culture--is putting this interpretation onto Pukawiss. I find that rather troubling, given that the author is not Native. He is also using markers (colored clothing) that fits in the framework of gay-people-as-flamboyant that Malinda Lo notes as a mixed blessing in terms of characters who are portrayed that way.

There are other problems... Mokwa does the Fancy Dance at powwows. He's taught Joshua how to do that dance. Joshua practices it and does it at the village for the tourists. Near the end of the book they all go to a powwow at Bay Mills where Mokwa is competing. During the dance, Mokwa sprains his ankle. He finishes the dance well enough to be selected as a finalist who has to dance again. He tells Joshua to take his place. He quickly takes off all his regalia and Joshua puts it on. That doesn't sound plausible. Regalia doesn't go on and off quickly. There's a lot of parts, each one requiring care in terms of the item itself but also regarding how it is put on.

Joshua is worried everyone will know he isn't Mokwa because he is shorter than Mokwa, but Mokwa thinks nobody will notice. They grab a porcupine roach and put it on Joshua to hide the fact that he doesn't have a Mohawk haircut like Mokwa does. Off he goes to dance, and, nobody notices the substitution. I found that switcheroo troubling, and, taking of the roach, too. That sort of thing just isn't done.

Another point that didn't ring true for me was the use of the word "chanting" to describe the drumming and singing. There's a lot more in my notes but I think I'll stop and say this:

I wish Hawke's book didn't have these problems. We need books about Native youth who are gay. Though a gay identity is shown as positive in this book, that positive note is greatly overshadowed by the amount of misinformation about Ojibwe people that is in this book.

Within children's and young adult literature, a book like this is about intersections of two or more identities. We need those books, but it is unacceptable for one identity to be misrepresented. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Pukawiss the Outcast. It was published in 2014 by Harmony Ink Press.

Note: November 17, 4:45
There is a great deal of LGBTQ writing in Native Studies. A recent book is Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti.

1 comment:

Gabriele Bianchetti said...

The premise of the story was nearly perfect! So bad there were also all this stereotypes!
Is the author Native? I don't think so...