First-time author Gyasi Ross has assembled a collection of his writings into a book that once opened, will be hard for any reader to put down. Through narrative short stories, vivid poetry and creative illustration, Gyasi Ross makes it easy and inviting to step into a world that will be new to some readers, and all too familiar to others. These are simple stories that pack a punch – sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully – and always with one foot planted firmly in the realities of life for Indian people today.
Told through the lives of fictitious Native people, each chapter focuses on one moment in time for each character – where laughter and tears, victories and disappointments, love and heartbreak reside. But no matter your tribe or race, your religion or worldview, there is much to be learned from “Don’t Know Much About Indians” – and readers will be enthralled from cover to cover.
A practicing attorney and graduate of Columbia Law School, Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Tribe and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe. He currently practices law representing tribes for Crowell Law Offices-Tribal Advocacy Group, and he is co-owner and vice-president of Red Vinyl Records. Of his book, Gyasi Ross states in the introduction that he did no study or research to write it. Rather, he relied on his own personal experiences, his observations from living among tribal peoples his whole life, and most of all his imagination. He writes, “It is not a ‘troubling’ and/or ‘poignant contemplation of the Native American experience.’ I do not contemplate. I speculate.”
With all due respect to the author’s humility, readers will find that the magic of his writing transcends such modest intent at every turn. From chapter one, “Unworthy,” Gyasi Ross jumps right into a subject that perhaps every oppressed person has felt about himself or herself – that they are somehow not good enough to deserve to have their dreams come true. In this story, Thelma wants to have a baby but she doesn’t understand why God won’t let her have one. She feels persecuted, singled out for maltreatment …unworthy. However, Thelma’s story shows that when we call out for help, the Creator hears us. God is always there when no one else seems to be.
“Unworthy” is a comforting and uplifting message that offers hope – the author’s way of starting things off on an up note before getting into the more serious stuff later on. This story also shows Gyasi Ross’s gift for crafting tragically humorous tales, the kind that can make readers laugh with pained sympathy for a pure spirit like Thelma.
In chapter two, “Cousins,” Gyasi Ross moves into more personal territory and, fittingly, uses poetry to express himself. This is a funny/sad tale of unrequited love and innocence lost, but with an ending that will leave readers with a wry smile.
Gyasi Ross shifts into stories of Indian lore in the chapter “Willow,” about the magical tree, and the poem “Gee-sus,” about the impact Christianity has had on Indian people. “Michael” touches on alcoholism, domestic violence and teen pregnancy – all issues that can hold Native people back from reaching their full potential.
Chapter seven, “Trauma,” is perhaps the most shocking part of Gyasi Ross’s book, as it deals with a terrible subject familiar among all Indian tribes – suicide. This is the story of a young Indian college student named Michael First Rider and his book smart/street stupid professor Richard Hed (or Dick Hed for short). In this chapter, Michael is the altruistic freedom fighter and bringer of truth to the ignorant. Hed is the pious egghead who thinks he knows everything considering the size of his bookcase. Both are Indian yet both are completely different in every other way. Professor and student get into a heated debate over why so many young Indian men kill themselves, and the outcome reflects a tragic fact of life in Indian country.
“Half-Full” takes a deserved jab at “educated” white liberals who think they’re hip to what Indian people face in their lives because they’ve read the statistics, a cold and arrogant view that ultimately preserves ignorance and stereotyping.
“48” deals with the average years that most Native men are expected to live.
“Special” is about the ways in which the tone of one’s skin color can dictate how their lives may go.
There is so much more in “Don’t Know Much About Indians” that could be written in this review, but that would spoil the surprises. Chapter after chapter, much like peeling an onion, Gyasi Ross peels back the layers of whatever question or issue he chooses to focus on to reveal its heart – its core essence. Even in the more lighthearted chapters, he has a knack for leaving readers with something to think about, revealed by the light bulb Gyasi Ross will turn on within anyone who reads his book.
“Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways)” is published by Cut Bank Creek Press and is available at www.dkmai.com and will soon be available as an e-book.