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Required Reading: Karenne Wood

Karenne Wood Jack Looney

Karenne Wood is director of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and a lecturer at UVA. She published a book of poetry, Markings on Earth, and is the editor of The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. Is there a particular book that changed your life?

I read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1971, when I was 11. It was the only book I’d encountered that presented American history from a more-or-less indigenous perspective, chronicling injustices experienced by various Indian tribes at the hands of the U.S. government. In the 1970s, American history was almost always crafted as a glorious epic of westward expansionism and “progress.” This best-selling book woke people up and educated me about perspective. Including American Indian perspectives creates a more complete and complex historical narrative, one that shows what’s been gained and lost along the way, and by whom.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film edited by Rollins and O’Connor, because I’m fascinated by the pervasive stereotypes that Americans have about American Indians. Most of those images have been conveyed through newspapers, films, TV and popular music: grunting or “warlike” savages, princesses and squaws, characters invariably stuck in the past. Those iconic Indians haven’t changed their clothes or learned to speak English in 400 years! The early silent films were somewhat more sympathetic toward American Indians than later, during the John Ford/John Wayne era. In the 1970s, sympathetic films emerged, such as Little Big Man and, later, Dances with Wolves. But they’re problematic, too, because Indians aren’t all environmental stewards, warriors or wise elders. And we haven’t all “vanished.” Most Hollywood films have featured non-Native actors in makeup and wigs portraying Indians. They’re fun to watch because they’re ridiculous. Today, Native people are more often cast in Native roles, but films still focus the story around a white hero.

What book have you read over and over?

Dwellings by Linda Hogan is a collection of essays imbued with such lyrical reverence for life, for the earth and its creatures, that I return to it regularly. It explores some of the mysteries of our relations to other species and to special places—not with a New Age or hocus-pocus approach, but in language that makes sense. It reminds us that we inhabit a wondrous but fragile world, that our ecological choices have far-reaching consequences, and that we are responsible to one another. Hogan is a Chickasaw poet, and her reflections on nature are both healing and powerful.