Writing and Publishing from the Source
The Growing Success of Diní College Press
By Steve Devitt
JULY 26, 1999: Five years ago, I heard the Navajo poet Rex Jim read at the Newberry Library in Chicago. After a flowery introduction by a Newberry official, Jim smiled at the assembled Ph.Ds and other spiritual seekers and read a 10-minute poem -- in Navajo. At the end of it, somebody asked him if he could translate the poem. He smiled again and said, "No."
The following winter, I took my daughter to dinner at the Busby, Mont., home of my old friend, Henry "Hank" Real Bird, the cowboy poet of the Crow tribe. We dined on boiled dried meat and greens, a traditional Crow meal. Before dinner, Henry said grace in Crow. On the way home, I asked my daughter what she thought of the Crow prayer. "It was long," she said.
In Indian Country, you do not speak the names of the dead, so I must tell you a story without a name of an old woman, who was 75 and dying of cancer when I knew her. We worked together on a project, uncomfortably because she didn't like me. She didn't like me because I was white, and she didn't like white people.
"Everything is different here," she said. "You are in another world."
She was right.
As another friend once told me, "I have never really experienced anything remotely spiritual," he said, "at least, not away from the reservation."
Breaking Down Barriers
It is the spiritual aspect of Indian life that has attracted so many people from other cultures, but those who venture out into Indian Country often get a comeuppance of sorts. They discover many of the Indians they meet in border towns are looking for a handout, or trouble, or both, and many of the Indians they meet on the reservation are taciturn. It's hard to find a way in, because these people have every reason to distrust non-Indians.
Many non-Indians who live closest to Indians cling to some of the most incredible stereotypes. A man I know who has made his living for the last three years covering sporting events on reservations told me emphatically that every single person recognized by the federal government as a Native American gets a check every month.
This is a person who spends many of his working hours with Native Americans. If he can't see the public myths, how about the rest of the people who live in reservation border towns and who try to avoid associating with Indians, except to do business?
Still, thousands of people want to find a way to understand Native American culture, because they sense something of value there. Often, this sense is stronger far away from Indian Country, away from the ingrained prejudices of the border towns and the familiarity that breeds contempt on both sides.
And now there is a way "in," thanks to the Internet, the major players in the retail book market and one of the smallest, but most unique, publishing companies in America.
Filling a Niche
Ed McCombs is a white guy, but for the last 15 years he has lived in Tsaile, Ariz., dead center of the Navajo Nation. For the past five years, he has been the director of Diní College Press, an extension of Diní College, the first and the largest of the 30 tribal colleges in the U.S.
McCombs also functions as the public relations officer of the cash-strapped school. For all the misconceptions that Indians have a free ride, the fact is that while the federal government subsidizes individual black students to the tune of $9,000 per year, and directly or indirectly subsidizes white students with $6,000, the institutions of higher education chartered by Indian tribes receive about $2,900 per student. Faculty and staff at tribal colleges are also generally overworked and underpaid.
Still, there are rewards. McCombs, however, takes little credit for the success of Diní College Press.
"This is a Navajo-run operation," he said.
He echoed a sentiment expressed in one of the first books published at the school. Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period, originally published in 1973, is still in demand. That book, according to McCombs, was a collaboration among students of the fledgling college who did tape recorded oral histories of elderly Navajo.
"The book is unique," McCombs said, "because it is the only history of the Long Walk taken exclusively from the Navajo perspective."
The book was written by Navajos about Navajos, and it was intended to be read by Navajos, but like most of the books published by Diní College Press, it has found a readership far beyond the Navajo Nation.
Non-Indian readers will certainly discover that different cultures do not share the same sense of story. The Navajo stories recorded of the Long Walk -- when, in 1864, the U.S. Army forced thousands of Navajo to march several hundred miles south and east -- are not endowed with Shakespeare's fictive curve. Even though there are enough atrocities revealed in the book to make non-Indians uncomfortable, many of the Navajo do not place the blame on the soldiers. The Navajo had become too comfortable, many of them said, and did not appreciate what they had. It took something like the Long Walk to bring them back to the right spiritual path.
Some of the other books can also be real eye-openers for non-Navajos. Navajo Livestock Reductions: A National Disgrace, compiled by Ruth Roessel, recounts from the Navajo point of view the consequences of the federal government's decision to reduce the number of livestock on the Navajo reservation in the 1930s and 1940s. Thousands of animals were slaughtered, and the act is still remembered by the Navajo, but few people off the reservation are even aware that it happened.
It wasn't a singular incident: In the 1920s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs killed thousands of horses on the Crow reservation because white ranchers wanted the land to graze cattle on.
Another book from Diní College Press -- this one with a slightly gentler theme -- has also found its way across the U.S.: The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life, by former Diní College faculty members Peggy V. Beck, Anna Lee Walters and Nia Francisco. Originally written in 1990 as a textbook for high school students studying Native American religion, it quickly became one of the most popular college textbooks for Native American Studies classes nationwide.
The Sacred is a good example of the kinds of problems that Diní College Press faces that mainstream publishers do not: Among the Navajo and every other Native American group, there are things that can be told outside of the community, and things that can't.
"Sometimes it's difficult to separate what is sacred and what is basically traditional knowledge that is available to anybody," McCombs said.
The school relies on both faculty members and tribal elders to determine what information can be shared, and what should not be. McCombs pointed out that some manuscripts had been turned down because Navajo advisors believed the material was inappropriate for publication.
This is the same group of experts who make the decisions concerning adaptation of the works.
The school was once approached by Broadway producers who wanted to turn The Myth and Prayers of the Great Star Change and the Myth of the Coyote Chant into a musical comedy.
"They were turned down for obvious reasons," McCombs said.
There are 26 different books currently available from the press, housed in an office in the first floor of the six-story Ned Hatahli Cultural Center, which looms over the cedar hills at the Tsaile, Ariz., Diní campus. The two-room office, crammed with boxes of books, is actually becoming an international operation.
The press has sold its books, ranging from those on herbs used by the Navajo to official reports from the Navajo Supreme Court to novels and poetry by Navajo and other Native American authors, to a world market.
"We fill a niche," McCombs said, "and we saw a surge in our sales when the people began using the Internet to order books."
He noted that Diní College Press books are often ordered through the Internet services of Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com, and many of the thousands of books sold to buyers outside of the Navajo Nation were going to Europe.
Not bad for a two-person operation. McCombs is assisted by Susie Jim. They job out most printing and typesetting, but have done desktop publishing for some of the smaller books.
The profits go back into the school's general fund, and the Diní College Press has to go through the same budgeting process as other departments. Still, it has managed to publish an average of two titles a year, McCombs said, and there has been talk of earmarking a percentage of the profits for future publications.
This spring, Diní College Press added two more books to its catalogue: a pocket dictionary of conversational Navajo and The Navajo Political Experience by David Wilkins.
The second book is sure to gain nationwide attention and will become required reading in many Native American Studies classes, as well as a standard reference in the offices of lawyers who practice Indian law. Wilkins, a Lumbee Indian from North Carolina who teaches political science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, originally wrote the book as a handbook when he taught at Diní College in the 1980s. Prior to its publication, there was no written reference to the Navajo tribal government, which governs the largest Indian reservation in America.
Few people really understand tribal politics, Wilkins said.
"What they don't understand," he said, "is that the tribes have sovereignty. They were the first sovereign nations of this continent, and, for the Navajo, the treaties of 1848 and 1868, confirmed -- they did not create -- that sovereignty."
McCombs pointed out that those treaties, and other significant documents, would be included in the appendix of Wilkins' book. A former Speaker of the House of the Navajo Nation reviewed the manuscript and predicted it could help tribal politicians do a better job.
It may take non-Indians interested solely in Native American culture a while to discover this particular text, centered as it is in the fields of law and political science. But the Indians themselves will gobble up the first printing, because they see their culture stemming from their land, and that is wrapped up in their right to govern it the way they choose.
Catalogues are available from Diní College Press, Tsaile, AZ 86556, or by calling (520) 724-6635. Books published by Diní College Press are also available through major bookstores and online retail booksellers.
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