Author Features / Features / Fiction

Louis Owens: Story in the Blood

By Jane Hammons

It’s a common term now. It even has a hashtag: #mixedblood.


Before reading Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (1992) by Louis Owens (1948-2002), I faltered when describing my heritage. Part Cherokee, I’d say, knowing that the first reaction of most would be to comment on my fair skin, blonde hair and green eyes. Learning to identify myself as mixedblood from an academic text was an odd experience, but it speaks to the clarity and power with which Owens articulated the dilemma of the mixedblood.

What is an Indian? Must one be one-sixteenth Osage, one-eighth Cherokee, one-quarter Blackfoot, or full-blood Sioux to be Indian? Must one be raised in a traditional “Indian” culture or speak a native language or be on a tribal roll? To identify as Indian—or mixedblood—and to write about identity is to confront such questions. The fact that, as D.H. Lawrence clearly recognized, at the heart of America’s history of Indian hating is an unmistakable yearning to be Indian—romantically and from a distance made hazy through fear and guilt—compounds the complexity . . . woe to him or her who identifies as Indian or mixedblood but does not bear a recognizably “Indian” name or physiognomy or life-style

Mixedblood politics course through Owens’s writing. His life story illustrates why.

Born in Lompoc, California in 1948—to a Cherokee-Irish mother who told stories about her family and a Choctaw-Irish-Cajun father whom Owens described as a silent man with little interest in thinking about himself as an American Indian—Owens grew up in extreme poverty, moving back and forth between California and the Yazoo River country of Mississippi, the home of his father’s family. Eventually the family settled in California, and Owens would spend much of his youth in the Salinas Valley. Later, he would put words to this connection with Steinbeck’s landscape and politics in academic articles and his first book, John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America (1985).

Though relatively little of his writing is actually set in Mississippi, those years on the Yazoo in a crowded cabin with no electricity or running water nourished his fiction as well as the personal essays. In a detailed interview with A. Robert Lee, Owens described his childhood in Mississippi as a “phantasmagoria”:

[. . .]my brother and I were allowed to run wild. We would swing on the muscadine vines, climb trees, catch snakes . . . and do whatever we wanted from daylight to dark. . . . The world was rich with smells from the dense odor of fermenting mud and dead fish along the river to the kerosene and carbide in our cabin. The river itself was deep and dark, impenetrable to sight with a hungry current, or many currents. There were alligators that we’d sometimes see and always hear at night, along with snapping turtles and water moccasins and catfish reputed to devour careless dogs and children.

Neither of Owens’s parents had more than a third grade education, and despite high SAT scores, Owens hadn’t planned to go to college, working instead for United Can Company after graduating from high school as he waited for a younger friend to graduate so they could enlist together in the military. Fortunately, he tired of the job and enrolled in community college where his English teacher praised his writing. He won several awards as editor of the Cuesta College newspaper. His advisor encouraged him to apply to a four-year college, which he did. When a letter arrived in the mail informing him of a scholarship to UC Santa Barbara, he threw the papers in the trash, mistakenly assuming the offer was a loan. He had no desire to accumulate debt, which he feared would put him on the same path as his parents, frequently on the run from creditors. The same advisor helped him re-apply, and he graduated in 1971. It is easy to imagine how this experience helped make Owens the committed and beloved professor he became, winning awards for his teaching from both the University of New Mexico and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Though he would go from graduate student at UC Davis to tenured professor at UC Santa Cruz in eight years, Owens was sometimes a reluctant student. He frequently left graduate school to work on trail crews and for the U.S. Forest Service, valuing his job as a sawyer on a hotshot crew in the Prescott National Forest of Arizona and a wilderness ranger in the Cascade Mountains. Owens was proud of the fact that his daughters had been backpacking with him since the age of five. Given the love and admiration he often expressed for his wife Polly and their two daughters, his death from suicide in 2002 came as a shock to all who knew him.

It was in the 1970s while working as a ranger in the Cascades that Owens began writing Wolfsong, his first novel, which would not be published until 1991 (by West End Press; reissued by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1995). In this novel Owens combined his wilderness experience with issues of identity in the character of Tom Joseph, who is “headed inland up the Willamette Valley”:

Tom’s thoughts drifted in the liquid air, settling finally on the approaching peaks. MacBride had tried to talk him into joining the Sierra Club in Santa Barbara, but he didn’t like to join things. MacBride, an eighth Flathead but enrolled, with pale skin, light-brown braided hair, and a beard, joined everything.

With the exception of two academic works on Steinbeck, Owens did not begin publishing books until he was in his early 40s. But the decade between 1991 and his death 2002 is filled with an astonishing number of publications.

Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family Place (2001) is a collection of essays that blurs genres in a way that illustrates the deep connections between Owens’s identities as academic, author and family man. I Hear the Train (2001) is a poignant book of revealing personal essays. In 1993 he won the PEN-Oakland Josephine Miles Awards (dubbed “The Blue-Collar PEN”) for the critical work Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, as well as for his novel The Sharpest Sight (1992). He was awarded the Julian J. Rothbaum Prize (given to the best book of the year published by Oklahoma University Press) in 1994 for the novel Bone Game (1992) and an American Book Award in 1996 for Nightland. His final novel Dark River was published in 1999. All remain in print thanks to the University of Oklahoma Press.

Owens’s novels have been translated into Japanese, German and French. Especially popular in France, he traveled there frequently for readings and television appearances, which he wrote about with great humor. In the essay “In A Sense Abroad: Clowns and Indians, Poodles and Drums—Discoveries in France” (I Hear the Train) Owens described a TV appearance in which he was accompanied by young Ute and Blackfeet dancers:

In the monitor, I watched as the camera panned across the stage and back again, strafing me and the beautiful and urbane hostess on our stools in the middle of the stage. The guy behind the camera looked to be salivating at the exotic vision of les indiennes in the TV studio . . . I knew I looked too much like a professor and not enough like an extra from Dances with Wolves to suit French television audiences.

In 1995 the French awarded the Roman Noir Prize for the outstanding mystery novel published in French to The Sharpest Sight, Owens’s second novel. Much to his surprise, said Owens, “It turned out I had written a book that had something significant in common with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s work, which is well beloved in France. Without realizing it, I had written a noir Indian novel.”

That the noir qualities of The Sharpest Sight are unintentional is not surprising. While crime—from robbery to murder—appears in each novel, it is not the mystery of whodunit that interested Owens. Rather he explored the violence endemic to the history of conquest.

In an interview with John Purdy, Professor of English at Western Washington University, Owens discussed Bone Game (sequel to The Sharpest Sight) as the novel “in which [he] took the most risks,” desiring to “convey the fabric of violence” he felt upon moving to Boulder Creek, a small town in the Santa Cruz Mountains. In his research Owens found an interview with the Ohlone who murdered a Spanish priest at the Santa Cruz mission in 1812. That story, woven throughout, inspired the novel in which headless bodies of young women wash ashore along the Santa Cruz coastline.

Owens used the body in explicit ways to connect the murders to issues of gender and identity, always with a wry sense of humor. Early in the novel Cole McCurtain, a Professor at UC Santa Cruz, reflects on the graffiti he’d seen near the History of Consciousness building: “I am not a woman. I am not a female. I am a gyno-american”. Later in the same chapter, his office hours are interrupted by a phone call from the vice chancellor’s secretary who urges him to help out with “a situation involving a Native American faculty member.” He replies, “’You must have me confused with an Indian.’”

The “faculty member” is Professor Alex Yazzie, a transvestite Navajo, “wearing only a black pleated skirt and running shoes with no socks” who is field dressing a buck he accidentally hit with his truck.

McCurtain intercedes, telling the vice chancellor, “’We have to be very, very careful. By the way he’s painted himself, I can tell that this man is a Navajo heyokah, a sacred warrior-clown . . . You should also be aware that once a Navajo has completed his deer dance, he’s bonded with the animal spirit. And Navajos are well-known in the Indian community for becoming insanely violent if separated from their meat once they’ve bonded. We could have a very politically incorrect situation here.” Yazzie offers to donate the deer to a homeless shelter and avoids arrest.

In his final novel Dark River, Owens created an almost surreal setting. A Jewish anthropologist proposes turning the fictional Black Mountain Apache reservation into a theme park. The protagonist, Jake Nashoba, a mixedblood Choctaw Vietnam vet, encounters a paramilitary group—made up in part of men he served with in Vietnam who believe him to be dead—playing war games on the land he patrols as park ranger. Jake describes the evolution of the cattle as though they could appear in a scene from Jurassic Park:

Herefords after a few generations in the back country, developed lean muscles and intelligent eyes . . . Mountain lions and coyotes turned mush-brained domestic cattle into smart, tough survivors very quickly, sculpting deep chests and narrow hindquarters out of blocky meat producers. Those cattle ran like deer and swam the flooding river like otters.

The relationship between predator and prey also recalls that of colonizer and colonized, a relationship borne in the body of mixedbloods.

In analyzing patterns of American conquest, historian Patricia Limerick, Director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, concludes

We live on haunted land, on land that is layers deep in human passion and memory. . . . In truth, the tragedies of the [Indian] wars are our joint national property, and how we handle that property is one test of our unity or disunity, or maturity or immaturity, as a people wearing the label “American” (“Haunted America,” Something in the Soil).

There is no American writer who claims this property, embraces these haunted lands, more fully than Louis Owens.


Bloom Post End

Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley where she is the recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award. She has a story in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W. W. Norton) and an essay in The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change (Seal Press). She is the recipient of a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Her writing has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals: Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, Verbicide Magazine, and Word Riot.

Print source: Lee, A. Robert “Outside Shadow: A Conversation with Louis Owens,” in Louis Owens: Literary Reflections on His Life and Work, ed. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2004

Source used but not quoted from:

Homepage photo credit: markchadwickart via photopin cc

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