Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a Blackfeet writer from Browning, has won a prestigious fellowship at Stanford University.
The Wallace Stegner Fellowships are a dream for writers. The fellows are given a living stipend (and health insurance) for two academic years. They don't teach or attend classes. Instead, they're expected to write, go to a weekly workshop and attend some events and readings.
HolyWhiteMountain said he wants to write about contemporary reservation life from the perspective of someone who’s lived there, a rarity in fiction.
"It's so hard to find fiction from Native people that are from Indian country that portrays the internal dynamics of these communities honestly. It's really hard," he said.
"I feel this overwhelming need to get Indian country out there in a way that represents the kind of complexity and nuance that I know, because I've spent most of my life there," he said.
The fellowships are awarded each year to 10 writers, five in fiction and five in poetry. According to Stanford's website, there were 1,200 applications last year.
He joins a small group of Montana authors who have been accepted for the fellowship. Callan Wink of Livingston was a fellow in 2015-2017. Other Missoulians include Caroline Patterson (1990-1992), Fred Haefele (1988-1990) and Neil McMahon and (1981-83). Going farther back is William Kittredge (1973-1974).
Some other authors who call Montana home are the late William Hjortsberg, 1967-1968, and Thomas McGuane, 1966-1967.
HolyWhiteMountain has published short stories in the two volumes of "Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st Century Montana American Indian Writers," edited by Northern Cheyenne journalist and fiction writer Adrian Jawort. In 2016, ESPN published his essay about Cleveland's mascot Chief Wahoo titled, "The great failure of the Indians mascot debate? Thinking of it only as racism," and his work has been included in Montana Quarterly. He has an article on The Atlantic this week, "The Blackfeet Brain Drain," about the difficulty college graduates can have finding work back home.
While he's at Stanford, he plans on completing a book of short stories that he's been working on for the past four to five years. He also has a novel in progress.
The Stegner fellowship application process is shockingly minimal: They ask for biographical information, contact information for two references, a statement of plans, and a manuscript. He was accepted on the strength of the first 30 pages of a short story called "Blood Sport," about the issue of "blood quantum," in which tribes require a certain amount of "Indian blood" to enroll, and the way that perceptions on and off the reservation affect two young people.
HolyWhiteMountain, 40, grew up in East Glacier and attended high school in Browning. While he's spent most of his life on the Blackfeet Reservation, he falls under the one-quarter requirement to enroll in the tribe.
"If we're going to talk about who I am and my identity and where I'm coming from, that's one of the most salient facts of my life, is that I'm not enrolled and I can't vote," he said. That means he can live there but can't participate politically, yet still can be tried as an Indian if he commits a crime. "This creates a lot of problems on reservations for tribes that use blood quantum," he said.
He was part of a 2012 effort, that ultimately failed, to lower the requirement. He considers it "a kind of success" in that it created conversations about the issue and “people can’t ignore it anymore.”
"The thing about blood quantum is that … blood quantum doesn't exist. Most people don't really understand that, but it's a colonial fiction. It's an idea that was developed in Europe hundreds of years ago. It bears no relationship to DNA or genetics. And it was brought over here and it was applied to tribes through treaties and it, it was a system that was used to limit the amount of money that the federal government owed to tribes for treaties and land acquisitions," he said. "The thing that’s important to remember, though, is tribes that use blood quantum laws can do away with them. Most just choose not to."
He said the the laws engender "lateral violence" and xenophobia against the several thousand people like him who live on the reservation but are ineligible to vote, participate in government, or apply for programs from the tribe and state and federal government.
He said "for whatever reason, whenever Indians talk about blood purity, nobody calls them on it, because it's romantic," and that "we only talk about horses, dogs and Indians this way." And he believes the arguments can resemble anti-immigration talking points, with fears that widened enrollment will result in a wave of "outsiders" moving to the reservations.
"But the truth is, no one is going to move to a place with a nonexistent economy," he said, arguing that "for this reason, people are far more likely to move away from reservation than they are to move there."
To him, the debate needs to be re-framed around what Indian identity means under the law, and that Indians have to start thinking in terms of politics, law and sovereignty, "and not just culture and tradition, because 'culture and tradition' doesn't save the land, it doesn't maintain the tribal government," he said.
He said writing about Native life and issues this way can create internal debates about representations of negative aspects to outside audiences, with potential for writers to be ostracized.
"Art can't be good unless it's really honest, and if you're going to be honest about Indian country, you have to talk about things like blood quantum and how negatively they affect communities," he said.
He wonders, "How many of our problems actually come from the way our tribal governments work, you know, as opposed to the 'white man?' The vast majority of problems at this point in time on reservations are the result of incompetent councils and the common practice of nepotism."
Yet another influence looms over his desire to write about contemporary Indian life in his stated fashion: Sherman Alexie. He recalls reading Alexie's work and thinking, "This just isn't the Indian country I know" and that he couldn't find it "almost anywhere" in fiction.
"That's not why I write, but it's a huge part of the reason that I write the way that I do." He didn't feel Alexie's representations were complex enough, and that his later work was likely written that way to make it more accessible to non-Indians.
At age 19, HolyWhiteMountain read Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," and inspired by the "ecstatic language," "elegiac tone" and the life that it described, knew he wanted to become a writer. As an undergraduate, he studied creative writing at the University of Montana, graduating in 2005. He said those courses were the only thing that kept him coming back to school.
He said the UM Creative Writing Program gives undergraduates access to professors, not just graduate students, and he was able to work with writers like Kevin Canty, David Allen Cates, Deirdre McNamer and Debra Magpie Earling. That experience prepared him for his next step: the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the the University of Iowa, whose notable alums include Raymond Carver, Ann Patchett, Denis Johnson, Daniel Woodrell and Charles D'Ambrosio.
"The Creative Writing department when I was at UM was so good that I was more than prepared for workshop when I got to Iowa, and a lot of my peers there were not," he said.
He describes his time there as "transformative, because I got to dedicate so much of my mental energy to writing. That was when I really became a different kind of writer."
After finishing up in 2010, he did a postgraduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. After returning to Montana, he's spent the past four years as the director of Blackfeet Community College's writing center.
HolyWhiteMountain cites among his favorite recent books Laszlo Krasznahorkai's "Sieobo There Below," C.E. Morgan's "The Sport of Kings," and Chekhov's short stories.
To him, "there's nothing more important than being able to write," he said.
The demands of the job, though, didn't leave a lot of room for his own work.
"There are a lot of unmet needs in a community like mine," he said. That means that "if you have any kind of conscience, you end up taking on multiple responsibilities and it was just really hard for me to get any writing done, the kind of writing that makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing," he said.