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Stories told by an Indigenous ‘I’

- an interview with Tony Perry about Indigenous writing

A good story is gripping. It starts somewhere, it tells you what is about to be lost and what is about to be gained. They show you a world that you can relate to. If you can’t understand it yet, you will soon. Because you know what the character’s favourite food is, what they think about themselves and the world that they’re living in, what they’re afraid of, and then you can imagine that world. You sense the depth of it, the people, the customs, the culture, and much more.

This is why stories are so significant, especially in regards to the portrayal of Indigenous people within history. Ever since the process of colonisation began, Indigenous stories, treaties, languages and cultures have been suppressed or even erased by European settlers, determined to ‘civilise’ Native peoples by assimilating them into Euro-centric ways of life. The clash between cultures created an imbalance in societal standards, beliefs, mindsets, and changed the overall lives of Indigenous people. The prejudiced reports, journals, articles and essays of the early European Settlers have played a huge part in how Non-Natives and their Governments view and treat Indigenous people. Their actions alienated many Indigenous people from their own heritage, erasing their stories and silencing their voices.

Tony Perry is an author from the Chickasaw Nation, a tribe based in Oklahoma, USA. He lives in the UK and works with the National Health Service as an analyst. His literary work showcases the importance of Indigenous stories written for and by Indigenous writers, and centres around children’s literature.

Tony’s journey in writing Indigenous literature started in 2009 with the sudden death of his father. ‘My father died and it was through him that my Chickasaw ancestry runs. Suddenly the questions that you always think you’ll get around to asking will never be asked. The questions became more pressing and I had to find answers on my own. As I began my research, I was surprised by how little I knew. American history is taught in the US from an early age, but the history of Native peoples, not so much. I started reading books around Native American history, trying to grasp what was happening on the continent and using that as a frame to understand my ancestors’ history and experience. Doing that research showed me the broad strokes of what happened in their lives, like treaties they made or burial artifacts left behind. I couldn’t get a sense of who my ancestors were as people. I had lots of questions. How did they view the world? What were their goals in life and the challenges they faced? Did they believe in a god, and how did that shape their lives?’

‘Around that time, I was watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’, with my wife who is from a rural country in Eastern Europe. For all its flaws, I saw how those characters were brought to life and became a big part in how Americans saw themselves. I realised then the power of story, how much stories can connect us to other people, as people. That‘s what brought my own book, Chula the Fox, to life.’

Tony’s book centres around a small boy, Chula, and his journey to adulthood. This story cleverly showcases Chickasaw customs, traditions and lifestyle contemporary to the early 18th century. Chula the Fox received two awards - the Independent Publisher Book Award for Multicultural Fiction (Juvenile-Young Adult) and the Gold Ben Franklin award from the Independent Publishers Book Association in 2019 - and received a starred review from the School Library Journal.

For Tony, his book became more than a personal project. ‘The drive that I had grew stronger still when I had my first child in 2013, and then my second one in 2015. It became about more than connecting to my own past. It was about connecting that past to the futures of my own children and, hopefully, others. It became something I could pass down to future generations. Making that happen was far easier said than done. How do you actually pass down traditions, when you are so far from home? How do you build a sense of connection with children who live in an entirely different world? For me, the answer came as Chula the Fox took shape. I decided to set Chula the Fox in the early 18th century because it was the earliest period where I could find (relatively) reliable information. It gave me the clearest view of where the traditions we have today came from, and how our ancestors lived before there was even a ‘United States’. It gave me the best chance to connect to my ancestors and help others do the same.’

‘I am very fortunate in the sense that my Nation has its own publisher, the Chickasaw Press. Very few tribes do. The Chickasaw Press helped from both an editorial point of view as well as understanding the ways of life of our 18th century ancestors. You need to know more than what you find through researching primary sources. You also need to know the collective knowledge of the Nation and the stories that have been passed down. For example, primary sources described how warriors prepared for battle but not things like how they interacted with each other on a mission or what they ate. Writing a book compelled me to think about that kind of detail. These are issues that needed tribal knowledge to fill in those gaps.’

‘As a Native writer, there’s an additional responsibility, especially when writing about the past. This isn’t just about Native peoples, but about the lives of my own family. If I get it right, I honour them. If I get it wrong, I risk perpetuating harmful stereotypes that could make lives harder. Working with the Chickasaw Press helped me achieve that goal.’

‘The whole idea of this book was to tell a meaningful story to people, that connects people today to how Chickasaw people lived their lives in the past. It also shows their humanity and the fact that the human story in so many ways doesn’t change over time. Chula the Fox talks a lot about coming to terms with death, as a boy loses his father in an enemy attack. At that time, revenge was a big part of the culture. However, the Chickasaw view of justice revolved around reciprocity - an action would yield a proportionate response. Chula vowed revenge for his father’s death and set out to prove himself as a warrior. He achieves that goal but finds himself making a difficult choice. He finds that revenge has a price of its own and that there are other paths to peace. These are things that I think people are dealing with today.’

Tony is currently working on an exciting and historically changing project: ‘I am working with two other writers to retell the American Thanksgiving story from an Indigenous point of view. Many Americans grew up seeing Thanksgiving as the triumphant story of Pilgrims who dared to dream of a life of freedom. They don’t see the hospitality of the Wampanoag people who saved the Pilgrims, and the high price they paid, and still pay,for that choice.’

The lead writer, Danielle Hill, is a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors saved the Pilgrims 400 years ago. The third writer, Alexis Bunten is an Alaska Native (Unangan and Yup’ik) and a cultural anthropologist. The story will be brought to life by the renown Ojibwe illustrator, Garry Meeches Sr. Their picture book, Keepunumuk, will be published by Charlesbridge in Autumn 2022.

When asked about the differences between writing Keepunumuk and Chula the Fox, Tony said: ‘These are very different books. Chula the Fox is a historical fiction novel, carrying a story over 150 pages for middle grade readers, and a reader has to commit to reading through a book that long. Picture books also have to carry the reader across the story, but they don’t have the luxury of words that novels have. Words and pictures come together to tell a story that readers will read over and over again. Every word matters in a picture book, every illustration matters. Both stories bear the burden of getting the story right, celebrating Indigenous culture and informing readers. Keepunumuk in some ways goes further, it challenges a story that has for so long shaped a newer nation, the United States, which now has over 300 million residents. We have to get it right.’

More information on Chula the Fox, including reviews and a trailer, can be found on the following link:

You can buy Tony Perry’s Chula the Fox from Blackwells and Amazon.

Written by Tímea Koppándi. Images, courtesy of Tony Perry.

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