Review: How We Go Home edited by Sara Sinclair

Book cover for How We Go Home by Sara Sinclair. Photo of a pole covered in arrowed signs pointing in various directions.

Title: How We Go Home: Voices from Indigenous North America
Editor: Sara Sinclair
Genre: Non-fiction | Essay collection
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Format / source: Paperback / library
Purchase: Haymarket Books
Own voices: Indigenous (Gitxsan / Wet’suwet’en First Nations, Cheyenne River Sioux, Rosebud Lakota, Snuneymuxw First Nation, Lipan Apache / Ysleta del sur Pueblo, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Métis / Saulteaux, Peguis First Nation, Santa Clara Pueblo, Tsartlip First Nation, Métis / Ojibwe / Saulteaux, Mohawk / Tuscarora)
Content warnings: colonization, racism, police brutality, sexual violence, abuse, alcoholism, miscarriage, death, grief
Rating: ★★★★☆

I was so pleased to find this one at my local library! I’ve had in on my TBR since the summer and it’s a fairly new release but I highly recommend it if you can get your hands on it!

In myriad ways, each narrator’s life has been shaped by loss, injustice, and resilience—and by the struggle of how to share space with settler nations whose essential aim is to take all that is Indigenous.

Hear from Jasilyn Charger, one of the first five people to set up camp at Standing Rock, which kickstarted a movement of Water Protectors that roused the world; Gladys Radek, a survivor of sexual violence whose niece disappeared along Canada’s Highway of Tears, who became a family advocate for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; and Marian Naranjo, herself the subject of a secret radiation test while in high school, who went on to drive Santa Clara Pueblo toward compiling an environmental impact statement on the consequences of living next to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Theirs are stories among many of the ongoing contemporary struggles to preserve Native lands and lives—and of how we go home.

Last summer, I participated in the free workshops offered by Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program in their Anti-Oppression and Oral History series, and the author of this collection was one of the workshop leads! Sinclair’s workshop was on Amplifying Oral Histories of Resistance and she talked about her process in putting together this (at the time, to-be-published) book.

This workshop series was one of the best parts of my summer and I learned so much. Oral histories are a common project in archives so I thought it’d be relevant from that perspective but some of the things we talked about over those months have a much broader application, even as simply as understanding that each person comes with their own knowledge and experiences and a reminder to make room for those to be heard.

As a quick introduction for those potentially unaware of oral histories, in this context it means “individual, community and institutional histories” gathered through recorded interviews (Columbia OHMA).

Each workshop in this series, including Sinclair’s, had an ‘anti-oppression’ foundation, which can be seen to be necessary when the traditional interviewer/interviewee set-up has the potential for an imbalance in power over the narrative, with the interviewer controlling the questions, format, transcription, and final use of the interview.

Sinclair broke down her approach to conducting oral histories and her ways of fixing this power imbalance, with a focus on empowering these storytellers. Ultimately, these stories are the interviewee’s so how do we ensure their voice is the one that’s heard the loudest?

One of Sinclair’s points that really stuck with me, and was something I could pick up on as I read her book, was her purposeful inclusion of context. The people who consult oral histories are only getting a little slice of the storyteller’s life, and if you’re reading the transcript rather than listening to the recording there are even subtler parts of the conversation from the intonation that you may miss out on.

In Sinclair’s book, she provides context by including a short write-up at the beginning of each interview and sometimes throughout that paints the scene – describing the storyteller, their career and their community, where they live and where the interview takes place, their values and hopes from their activism work. She also includes footnotes throughout with historical context and definitions to describe, for example, why reserves are divided up the way they are and the government acts that led to their creation. We still won’t be able to learn everything there is to know about each person but it helps to place their story and to start to build a picture of who they are.

The collection itself is a series of interviews with Indigenous people from across North America, each with different stories and perspectives to share. Many are involved in activism for their communities and beyond, and I was really pleased to spot a few folks from Winnipeg (James Favel from Bear Clan Patrol and Althea Guiboche known as the Bannock Lady).

It’s a very emotional read as many of these storytellers share some harrowing experiences but it provides a personal look at the discrimination and abuse that Indigenous peoples have had to endure for many years and it’s a great opportunity to learn more about this history.

I want to finish off with some quotes from the interviews that really stood out for me.

“When I lost him, it kind of snapped me out of my depression. He became my motivation. I have something to protect. Now my son’s buried by the river. Now it’s my turn to fight for him. I attended ceremonies and I laid him to rest. I vowed to him that he’s going to be safe, that no oil was going to touch him. He’s in the ground now, so it’s my duty to protect the earth.” (Jasilyn Charger, activist in pipeline protests, p. 53)

“The benefits of working for your tribe far outweigh any other job that you can imagine. You’re a part of something that helps another little girl or boy keep building. By being there, being different, it’s letting people know that it’s okay to be Indian. It’s okay to be educated. It’s okay to know how nontribal people live and to help use those best practices to help us live better. And that doesn’t mean that you’ve assimilated. It just means that you can speak someone else’s language, and you can translate it to a world that doesn’t have quite as many interpreters, a world that doesn’t have quite as many people listening from the outside.” (Ashley Hemmers, tribal administrator for the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, p. 132)

“One of the things that I’ve experienced myself is that as a stakeholder, certain things are more important. So I’ve been trying to convey that to the larger community – that you may not own anything, but you’re a stakeholder because you’ve got to walk these streets every day. So that’s what I’m focused on when I’m on patrol. We’re trying to rebuild that feeling of a village. We’re trying to reconnect our community members.” (James Favel on his vision for Bear Clan Patrol, p. 167)

“But I tell people that if trauma is in our genes, then so is surviving. And so is resilience. And so is healing.” (Johnna James, tribal liaison, p. 303)

Columbia continues to offer free workshops and talks online so you can check out their site (linked above) if you’re interested in learning more about oral history and its applications!

About the Editor: Sara Sinclair is an oral historian of Cree-Ojibwa, German-Jewish and British descent. Sara teaches in the Oral History Masters Program at Columbia University. She has contributed to the Columbia Center for Oral History Research’s Covid-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive, Obama Presidency Oral History, and Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project. With Peter Bearman and Mary Marshall Clark, Sinclair edited Robert Rauschenberg: An Oral History, published by Columbia University Press in spring 2019. Prior to attending Columbia University’s Oral History Masters or Arts, Sara lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she conducted an oral history project for the International Labour Organization’s Regional Office for Africa. Sara’s current and previous clients include the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of the City of New York, New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Exit Art Closure Study, a research project on the closure of New York gallery/artist’s space Exit Art (1982-2012). For Sara’s thesis at Columbia she conducted a series of interviews exploring the narratives of university-educated, reservation-raised Native North Americans on returning to their Nations after school. Sara expanded this project, How We Go Home: Voices from Indigenous North America, through Voice of Witness’ Story Lab.

Editor links: Website

What non-fiction have you read this year?

Own voices identification based on information made public by contributors.
Cover image and blurb from Goodreads, author info from author site.

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