2010-08-04 / Headlines

Oak Lake Writers’ Society

BROOKINGS, S.D. — What is not on the page is just as important as what’s on the page, in the view of Kimberly Blaeser, a professor in the College of Letters & Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. “You need to leave space for the reader to participate in the creation of a story, much like traditional storytelling,” she said.

Blaeser, a published Anishinaabe Ojibwe author who grew up on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, spent time with members of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society during its 17th annual gathering of 10 to 15 Dakota, Lakota and Nakota writers. In addition to having authored three volumes of poetry, two edited books and an academic study on the oral tradition, Blaeser teaches creative writing and literature at UWMilwaukee. She has also presented and led workshops around the U.S. and in Canada, France, Spain, the U.K., Germany, Norway, Indonesia, Taiwan and this fall, Bahrain.

But she especially enjoys working with fellow Native American writers to help them begin a dialogue with those outside of their cultures by looking at existing representations of native people and countering stereotypes.

“I help them figure out how they carry their cultures,” she said. “A lot of native literature wants to come off the page and be a face in the world; it needs to be both affective and effective.”

“Ekphasis,” she said, “illustrates a piece of art in a way that enlarges or enhances the piece by framing it in cultural beliefs.” For example, the title poem for her volume entitled “Apprenticed to Justice,” uses interactive and ekphrastic writing to respond to a 1938 study of housing conditions of 150 Chippewa families in Minnesota. Blaeser showed retreat participants how to link their writing to paintings, photographs, tribal arts and other written works by embedding descriptions with cultural understandings.

Blaeser said oral tradition is full of signals that point out what is important to a story. She encouraged the writers to use what she called “gesture” as a way to awaken readers by explaining cultural significance, presuming the reader should know something or encouraging the reader to find out the meaning of a reference.

“Native writing helps others understand the practical as well as the philosophical in our culture,” she said.

Kim Tall Bear, an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe in South Dakota who teaches at the University of California in Berkeley, served as both a participant and mentor for the retreat.

“Tribal writers need to melt the line between academic writing and researching by democratizing research,” she said. “I got that from this group.” Acknowledging the dynamics of a society and all the voices that are part of it came from her participation in the Oak Lake Writers’ Society from 2001 to 2005.

In addition to teaching and writing academic articles and commentary, Tall Bear does research on humanities-oriented environmental texts and deconstructs writing about Native Americans. Writers and researchers cannot be both objective and neutral, she said, if they pull data from a community without hearing all the voices. In her view, “democratizing research,” opening studies to all community voices prevents writing that co-opts cultures.

Tall Bear co-edited, This Stretch of the River: Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Responses to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Bicentennial. The book of poetry and prose by the Oak Lake Writers’ Society members expressed cultural perspectives that were not part of the Lewis and Clark commemoration sequence.

In the College of Natural Resources at Berkeley, Tall Bear teaches and researches origins, race and governance of Native American and other indigenous populations. She looks at potential conflicts between methods of writing from Western or modern scientific practice and indigenous traditions. Her presentation encouraged the writers to be part of research about tribal people.

The 5-day retreat closed with a potluck and reading by participants Wednesday evening, July 28, at the Oak Lake Field Station near Astoria.

This year’s participants included: Marie Giago and Tasiyangunpa Livermont, both of Brookings; Craig Howe, Martin; Florestine Kiyukanpi Renville, Peever; Kateri Bird, Lois Crawford and Darren Renville, all of Sisseton; Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan, Waubay; Austin Keith, Lucy Keith and Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, Rosebud; Mabel Picotte, Chamberlain; and Joel Waters, Sioux Falls.

The Oak Lake Tribal Writers’ Society posts information about the group on its blog at

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