Book talk examines nationhood in early 20th century Cherokee writing

Kirby Brown, UO associate professor of Native American literatures

Kirby Brown will be the second faculty member featured in the upcoming UO Authors, Book Talks on Feb. 12.

A citizen of the Cherokee nation and associate professor of Native American literatures, Brown will discuss research from his book, “Stoking the Fire: Nationhood in Cherokee Writing, 1907-1970,”in the Knight Library Browsing Room at 5:30 p.m. 

The event is designed to recognize University of Oregon faculty members and their books. The series is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, UO Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Raised in a working-class, West Texas oil field family with ties to the Cherokee Nation on his mother’s side, Brown’s parents emphasized education for him and his sisters as a pathway to opportunities outside of his community. His father was a refinery worker for 37 years and his mother retired from a 25-year career in crop insurance.

“My family is deeply embedded in the two major industries of West Texas: oil and agriculture,” Brown said. “Like most families, we didn’t own any oil fields or ranches. We were squarely working class.”

He began his academic career at San Angelo State University, pursuing a degree in biology with aspirations for medical school. After two years, he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and completed his bachelor’s degree.

Unsure of whether science and medicine were his calling, Brown took a three-month break in the Bay Area and got involved in the theater and film scene, acting in community theater in the evenings and doing video editing during the day. Three months turned to three years, during which he met his wife Katharine, before moving back to Texas to explore literature and teaching. While working full time for an education-based publishing house, Brown enrolled in night classes in English at San Antonio Community College. It was there, he says, he fell in love with reading and with the imaginative power and political force of literature.

After he received his master’s degree in English at the University of Texas in San Antonio, he was admitted into the school’s PhD program in Chicana/o studies. In 2008, an opportunity opened for him to transfer to UT Austin to work closely with faculty in Native American and Indigenous literary and cultural studies. After earning his PhD in 2012, Brown moved to Eugene to become associate professor of Native American literatures in the Department of English at the University of Oregon. 

Q: Since you’ve been at the UO, what have you noticed the university does to acknowledge and aid Indigenous communities?

A: As a public educational institution in the state of Oregon situated in Kalapuya Ilihi, the Indigenous homelands and political territories of the First Peoples of the Willamette Valley, we have a special responsibility to Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribal nations, to support Native students and work to ensure their success and to work with local communities on initiatives such as language revitalization and cultural and natural resource protection. Since I’ve been here, I have seen the UO take steps to do more of this work, but much more remains to be done.  

Q: What are some ways the UO has built bridges with native communities?

A: We’ve had Northwest Indian Language Instituteat the UO for over 20 years, the Tribal Climate Change Projecthas been functioning for over a decade and in 2013 we implemented our Native American studiesminor, which we’d like to transition into a major with community support in the near future. 

We have a tribal liaison in the president’s office who works to bridge relationships between tribal communities and the institution. We also have the Many Nations Longhouse, which is the epicenter of all things Indigenous on campus, and are in the third year of the Native American and Indigenous Studies ARC, which serves first-year Native students. 

I can’t imagine the last eight years of my career without the Native and allied colleagues, students, community members and partners I have on campus. They’re the reason I do what I do. 

Q: Going back to your book, what was your path toward writing “Stoking the Fire”?

A: In the mid-late 2000s, there was a move in Native American studies away from looking at Native American writing as an ethnic tradition in the American canon and toward considering them “national” literatures in their own right. 

The more I read in the literature, the more I realized I could do an entire study on Cherokee writing from this period, and that I could draw upon a host of Cherokee and Indigenous scholars to inform that work. As I got further into Cherokee literature, I noticed a huge gap in the scholarship from the breakup of tribal governments with Oklahoma statehood in 1907 to the sovereignty movement and tribal reorganization in 1971. 

During this period, the Cherokee Nation as a government was more or less dormant, leading many scholars to assume that Cherokee nationhood—or how Cherokees continued to understand ourselves as a national community—was also asleep. In the literature, that was far from true. There are Cherokee writers writing about their history, culture and ongoing nationhood throughout the early 20thcentury. My book is an attempt to begin to excavate and revisit that archive.

Q: What’s something you hope shines the most from this story?

A: I would say the writers’ profound commitments to family, community, nation and place. Whether they’re traveling internationally or writing from home, whether participating in World War II or teaching in northeast Oklahoma—they’re always writing and thinking about their home in Cherokee Nation. For them, Cherokee nationhood traveled; they took it wherever they went and it informed almost everything they wrote. 

Another important takeaway is how diverse these writers’ understandings of history, family, community, culture and place actually are. There’s no single understanding of Cherokee history, no definitive idea of Cherokee identity that emerges in the book. Similarly, though writing across this really horrific moment of Cherokee and American Indian history, these writers were staking claims to the present, refusing to vanish and daring to imagine futures they were consistently being told didn’t exist for them. It’s an incredibly beautiful story, and humbling, and, most importantly, ongoing

— By Jessica T. Brown, University Communications