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How to Say I Love You in Indian

Jan 7 • ARTS & CULTURE, LiteratureNo Comments


Love is survival. Love is about not going away even when you should, even when all signs tell you that you should go away and die. Logically, Native people should have died off a century ago, when great forces fought mightily and evilly to exterminate us from the U.S. consciousness.

But we didn’t die off. We never know when to quit.

Native people know desperately clinging to life better than anybody else - we’re like roaches, but in a good way. We survive circumstances that would have killed a less adaptive species. Love is survival. Ergo, Native people know love better than anybody else because we survive better than anybody else.

Book CoverHow to Say I Love You in Indian by Gyasi Ross is a collection of short stories and poems, fictional work born from real experiences. This is Ross’s second book, Don’t Know Much About Indians (but I wrote this book about us anyways) being his first. The fact that it was his second book made me skeptical to pick it up. The first one was so great, there was a part of me that was worried he wouldn’t be able to top it, even though I’m an avid reader of his works in Indian Country Today Media Network, and he is without a doubt one of my favorite writers. But I digress … skepticism aside; I dove face first into its pages, and wound up reading it in a single go.

I was unable to put it down, because in these words I found, no, rediscovered love. Real love. Not the fairytale gag worthy love found in princess stories, but real love. Love of family, traditions, prayer, and above all, flawed love. Taking place between the rez, grocery store, and sprawling cityscapes, Ross sheds light on a topic we ought to talk about more often, Indigenous love.

In the opening poem ‘Opium’ Ross transports you to the checkout line at the grocery store, dancing with a familiar scent we all recognize as our grandma. In two simple pages his picturesque wording had my senses going crazy as I was sure I could smell my Grandma’s food, perfume, and see the crooked smile she would give me when I asked if I could lick out the mixing bowl.

‘Everything That I Need to Know I Learned in Front of the Warbonnet’, my favorite of this collection, follows a young boy, Arlen, as he uses love to not only care for his family, but to better himself. Set between school, the bar, and the basketball court, his love for his mother leads him to the last person he would ever suspect to teach him anything about, well, anything … a homeless wino called Wishy. Between late nights waiting in the car for his mom outside the Warbonnet, and braving the freezing cold to shoot hoops, a friendship is formed between Arlen and Wishy. One where a seemingly good-for-nothing wino would not only teach Arlen how to play basketball, but to never sacrifice his love for anything.

A bittersweet ending, reminding us of the power of our medicines, prayer, and love. Perhaps the most important love of all is focused on in this story, self-love.

‘Sutro’ … this story had to grow on me. Perhaps it was the length in comparison to Ross’s other works, or maybe it just moved too slowly for my liking, but I read it again, and again, and again. By the tenth time, I understood what Ross was getting at, and fell in love with a story I thought could be a dud. Set in Nashville, you follow Delilah, an urban Native who has an unhealthy obsession with social media, and moreover, vanity. Delilah didn’t grow up Native, she was adopted, and had never been to ceremony, a reservation, or even another Native’s house. Her only connection to her Native roots was her friend, whom she met on social media, Lisa. Lisa welcomed her with open arms. Telling her everything she could about the culture she was disconnected from, even sending her sweetgrass and teaching her how to pray. Lisa also tells Delilah about the power of our medicines, and how we must be careful with them. We must think of others, and not ourselves, and if we fail to do so, the spirits would remind us otherwise. Delilah may or may not have realized this too late, but it depends on what ‘too late’ means to you. A bittersweet ending, reminding us of the power of our medicines, prayer, and love. Perhaps the most important love of all is focused on in this story, self-love. Because without love of self, you cannot truly love.

This book brings something to the Indigenous literary world we have failed to focus on, Native love. Without a doubt, it is love, and love alone, that kept us back from the brink of extinction, and pushed us through hundreds of years of oppression when everything and everyone told us to give up. Everyone should read this book, Native and non-Native alike. I hope I come across this book twenty years from now on a coffee shop table. Held together with duct tape, stained with frybread grease and coffee, and worn with love as it was handed down from person to person.

I love the idea of a love which is forgiving, allows for redemption, and calls us to love with greater depth – our children, and our earth. I love that we are still here in all of our courage, and we don’t give up on ourselves and on love. And I love this book.

Winona LaDuke


Order the book from Cut Bank Creek Press online here and from Amazon online here

Follow Gyasi Ross on Twitter @BigIndianGyasi

Cover art by Steven Paul Judd

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