For those eager to experience a fresh take on literature, pay a visit to the Native American studies conference from May 11 to 13. Officially titled “Discursive Practices: The Formation of a Transnational Indigenous Poetics,“ the free event gives people an in-depth look at Native American writing, and provides a personal look into intellectual dialogue among American Indian fiction and non-fiction writers.
The conference begins Sunday night with an opening reception and a few readings at the Buehler Alumni and Visitors‘ Center. It begins at 6 p.m. with a blessing by Bill Wright, a Patwin elder, as the university sits on land originally owned by the Native American Patwin people. A welcoming by William Macy, Vice Provost of Outreach and International Relations, precedes a performance by the California Indian Maidu dancers and traditionalists. A few readings by various authors will follow.
Each of the following days begin with a plenary, a facilitated discussion on certain topics of interest, followed by sessions with formal readings by various writers. These sessions will be held in either Freeborn Hall, the Garrison Room in the Memorial Union or the Wheeler Room in Hart Hall. The conference will then end each day with 10 to 15 minute readings by other writers. Much of the reading presented will be poetry.
Stefano Varese, professor and chair of UC Davis‘ Native American studies department and anthropologist specializing in American Indian and Native American people, is participating in this event. Also one of the main organizers, he is happy that UC Davis is hosting the event. He said that his team took a hemispheric approach in an effort to initiate a dialogue among indigenous writers, poets, essayists and literary critics across national borders.
“There’s a tradition in this [Native American studies] department to be hemispheric, and we are keeping it alive,“ he said. “We want [it] to be oriented toward the international community. There’re 800 million indigenous people in the world. About 40 or 50 [groups] of them are in the Americas, so we want to academically reach all these people,” he said.
Professor Ines Hernandez-Avila, another member of the Native American studies department, is also participating in this event. As another of the official organizers of the event, she is participating in a plenary discussion Monday and giving a reading Tuesday.
She also said that the hemispheric approach is important because it allows the writers and artists from these areas to have conversations about how their work contributes to the intellectual projects of the indigenous people. She encourages students to come and learn more about this and the indigenous people of the Americas in general.
“The United States has a media blackout about what’s going on in the Americas,” she said. “People who want to know what’s happening there should come.“
Translation is also another prime reason why people know so little about the American indigenous people, Varese said. He talked about how book companies frequently refuse to publish works in languages other than English because of cost, and also claim that there this no available market for such languages. He said that this prevents indigenous writers from creatively expressing themselves, and sees this conference as a way of overcoming this obstacle.
“We want this to project as far as we can in the academic world so that there will be more understanding and more open-mindedness to these writers,“ he said. “Otherwise they will remain these encapsulated, marginal academic people.”
Native American studies professor Victor Montejo is also participating in this event. An established indigenous author himself, he has personally experienced the pains of translating his work.
“This conference is important,” he said. “We want to see how writers write from inside their culture and tell the world what is important to them.“
Originally from Guatemala, he fled to Mexico as a young man to escape the political violence at the time. It was in a refugee camp in Mexico that he got a typewriter and began to write his first novel.
He then moved to the United States, where he has continued to produce many indigenous literary works, such as poetry and children’s stories. Recently, he managed to get one of his novels, El Q’anil: Man of Lightning, translated into three languages: English, Spanish and his native Mayan language.
Montejo uses his story as an example of how this conference can enable indigenous people to share information that they can’t share under normal circumstances.
“[When I lived in Guatemala] the world didn’t really know anything about what was going on,” he said. “There was nothing in the news about it. People were dying in the thousands. The army was reporting that they were killing communists and guerillas, but in reality, they were massacring the indigenous people.“
Montejo is giving a reading on Sunday, and will be in a plenary discussion on Monday, as well.
Varese sees this conference as an educational experience and hopes it will “open a different window” in students and inspire them.
“We hope there will be positive repercussions from this,” he said.
For more information on the conference, visit irca.ucdavis.edu/discursive-practices.
DANAI SAKUTUKWA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.