Learn more about Native American author Joseph Bruchac with videos interviews, and find lesson plans and extension activities to teach with his books.
Joseph Bruchac Interview Transcript
How did you become interested in writing Native American stories?
My interest in Native American stories comes from a number of what I consider to be logical sources. First of all, it is part of my own cultural heritage - my family is Abenaki on my mother's side. Second, I've always been fascinated by the natural world. Many American Indian stories and traditions help us understand and relate to nature. And third, the lessons found in our traditional stories seem to be even more meaningful today.
Do you consider yourself somewhat of an authority on Native American cultures?
There are more than 300 different contemporary American Indian cultures in the United States alone. No one person could be an expert on all of them. My own special knowledge is about the Abenaki people and to some degree my Iroquois neighbors. But whenever I write anything about another tribal nation I always get a lot of help. Not just from books, but from people who belong to that tribal nation.
Are there special skills necessary for being a storyteller?
The special skills necessary for being a storyteller are really very simple. I actually talked about them in a book of mine called Tell Me a Tale . Those basic skills are to listen, to observe, to remember, and to share.
Do you travel to other tribes? How often?
Every year I travel extensively in the autumn and the spring. I set most of the winter and summer aside for my family and my own tribal relatives. But during that traveling time, I often find myself visiting other native communities around the continent - perhaps a dozen or more each year.
What are the most important thing American students today should understand about the Trail of Tears?
They need to understand that what happens to one person could just as easily happen to another. The Trail of Tears should teach all of us the importance of respect for others who are different from ourselves and compassion for those who have difficulties.
How has your heritage influenced your daily life?
When I was a child, I wasn't really aware of my heritage even though there were things in my life that I would later discover to be "Native American." As an adult, I am very aware of the teachings of my culture and my ancestors and I try to live as much as possible in a way that is balanced and respectful towards the earth and all living things.
What are the characteristics of the Abenaki tribe?
The Abenaki people speak a language that is similar to that of many other Native people belonging to the larger Algonquin family. Like the other Algonquin peoples of the Northeast, our traditional culture before Europeans was based on hunting, fishing, a small amount of agriculture, and utilizing the many gifts of the forest, such as birch bark that was used for our houses and for our canoes. In the old days, we lived in relatively small communities and followed a seasonal round of migration. Going to each place where a certain activity had to take place at a certain time, such as catching fish when the runs of fish were coming up the rivers, or going to the places where the berries grew when they were ripe. Today, many Abenaki's live, dress, and work just like other Americans. However, quite a few of us, still practice traditional crafts, gather food from the forest, have festivals together, and retell our old stories. Like other tribes, the Abenaki have no ancestral lands. What will happen to their people now? We actually do have ancestral lands, but at present none of them are owned communally on a reservation in the United States. Many Abenaki families, like my own, personally own pieces of land that we try to preserve and share with other people. The land will always be here, no matter who's name is on a deed.
Have you visited with any tribes in California?
Yes, I have. I have been to various rancherias around Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and to Native communities in Northern California. And I have some really good friends among California Native Americans, such as my friend Frank LaPeÃ±a, a poet and artist who has illustrated some of my work. If you are interested in California Native people, you would really enjoy a wonderful magazine I subscribe to called News From Native California .
The illustrations for your books are beautiful. Do you get to choose the illustrations? Do you work together to write the books?
Every book I have done is different and the way I have been given or chosen an illustrator for each book is different. Sometimes my editors have chosen the illustrator. Sometimes the illustrator and I have worked together even before finding an editor. Both cases are true for example, with my friend Thomas Locker. In almost every case I do not tell the artist what to do, but I am always happy to make suggestions if they ask me for advice.
How long have you been writing?
I remember writing poems when in was second grade. But I became serious as a writer and thought of it as my profession only after I went to college at Cornell University.
Do you have to do anything special to get the ideas out of your head onto paper?
Sit down and start typing. One suggestion I have for any writer is to forget about writer's block. Just sit down and start writing and sooner or later you'll say something worth saying.
What was your most memorable childhood experience?
I have to say that my childhood is so full of things that I remember that my answer would change probably from one hour to the next. My advice to everyone is to cherish the memories of childhood, even those that may be painful or difficult. For as an artist, or as a writer, those memories will always serve as a source of inspiration.
Do you have you any brothers or sisters?
I have two sisters, both younger than myself.
Which book was your favorite to write?
My favorite book is always the one I'm working on right now.
How many books have you written so far?
I don't really know because I've written many books that have never been published (thank goodness).
But I would guess, that I have complete over 100 books. And had about 70 published.
Are you working on any new books?
I'm working on several. One is a book about American Indians and the national parks and the stories that we tell traditionally about those places. Another is a book about Geronimo, and a third is a book about Pocahontas.
Who are your role models?
I have many role models. My grandparents to begin with. My grandfather could barely read or write, but always had great patience with children and a deep connection to the natural world. My grandmother was a very strong woman who loved to read and her example as always reminded me to respect all women.
What did you want to be when you were little?
When I was a child I had no doubt in my mind about what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a professional naturalist, and if not that, then a zookeeper.
Do any of your family members carry on the tribal tradition?
Yes, my sister Margaret is an advisor on tribal histories for such places as Sturbridge village and Plimoth Plantation and she also works closely with a number of the Native nations of New England. She's also a writer and storyteller. My two sons, Jim and Jesse, have also worked as storytellers carrying on Abenaki tradition. And Jesse has been a language instructor, teaching people how to speak Abenaki.
What do you think about controversial issues such as naming sports teams after Native Americans and celebrating Columbus Day?
One of my novels is called The Heart of a Chief , and a main theme of the novel deals with that issue of naming sports teams after Indians. My own opinion is that this issue is a complicated one and we need to listen more closely to what American Indian people say about it. As far as Columbus Day goes, I urge people to think of those who were here before Columbus, as well, as honoring our immigrant heritage.
How long did it take you to write Skeleton Man ?
Skeleton Man is the fastest novel I have ever written. It took me exactly 14 days to write my first draft.
However, rewriting it, took another year, with the help of my editor.
What advice do you have for people who have Native American roots but who have lost their traditions?
This is a very common experience. Some people were adopted, some come from families where there was confusion or even shame about being Indian. I would urge people to learn as much as they can, but to always remember whatever your heritage, you are a human being.
What can you tell us about Crazy Horse?
Crazy Horse has always been one of my heroes. He was, as the Lakota people say, one of the bravest in a nation of amazingly brave people. My Lakota friends tell me, he kept nothing for himself, but always kept his mind on the good of his people. We need more people like this in all our nations.
What about Sacajawea's life inspires you most?
Sacajawea is one of the great stories of America. The fact that a young woman only in her teens with a small baby to care for could prove to be so good natured, resourceful, and intelligent under some of the worst conditions imaginable is truly inspiring.
Where did you get most of your information on Sacajawea?
My information for Sacajawea came from many sources and many years of seeking. I was lucky enough over the last two decades to personally travel many parts of the trail followed by Sacajawea and Louis and Clark. I also read and reread and read again all of the journals from the expedition. A distinguished scholar named Gary Moulton has recently re-edited these journals. I also was able to obtain help from different tribal nations, who assisted me in making my work as accurate as possible. One person to credit here is Wayland Large, tribal historian for the Shoshone of Wind River.
Do you prefer writing longer books or shorter ones?
I've written long books, as long as 600 pages, closely typed. And very short books. It is like the difference between writing a haiku and writing an epic poem. Neither one is more important than the other, if they are done well. And I let each story tell me, what it wants to be in terms of length.
What advice would you give to students writing their own stories and poetry?
When you write your own story, put everything you know into it. When you write a poem, keep writing as long as possible. And remember, as my Slovak grandfather, on the European side of my family, always used to say: "It is easier to cut a board too long and then make it shorter."
What is your favorite holiday?
I have to say that when I was a child, my favorite holiday was always Christmas, not just because of the getting, because of the giving, and the bringing together of family. Today, and I hope this doesn't sound corny, but it sometimes feels like every day is a holiday because there is always so much being given, and always so much to give.
Do you play any instruments?
When I was in elementary school, I was forced to play the clarinet. I was never a great musician in elementary school, but I'm so glad I had that experience because later on, I would begin to teach myself other instruments. Today, I play the guitar and the American Indian flute. And I have a lifelong love of playing music.
What was your favorite subject in school?
My favorite subject in school changed from grade school to high school, but it was usually either history or science - if that science dealt with animals. It was never math.
What's your favorite animal?
My favorite animal is the bear.
Do you like to go on the computer?
I have to say that if it were not for computers I would never be able to write as much as I do. However, computers are very different for me than for many young people I know because I only use my computer to write, to answer mail, and to do research. I never play computer games.
What's it like being known around the world?
I'm really not. But a few people around the world know my work, and hearing from someone who appreciates something I've written makes me feel very good indeed.
Where can we get more information about what life is like on Native American reservations?
One way to find out about American Indian reservation life is to visit museums. Some of which are located in American Indian communities. Two museums that I love are the Pequot Museum in Connecticut and the Museum of the American Indian at the Old Customs House in New York City. You can also find a lot these days on the Internet. Many tribal nations have their own Web sites and are happy to share information.
What are a few Web sites for learning about Native people from their perspective?
I'm not as informed on Native Web sites as I should be. But I would like to caution people because in doing research on the Internet, for example on Sacajawea, I found that the majority of Web sites dealing with her contained at least some inaccurate or misleading information. I would urge people, when searching for Web material about Native Americans, to go to the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian Web site, and to any Web sites that come directly from a tribal nation or a reputable museum.
Do you like to read? Who is your favorite author?
I love to read so much that I am always involved in reading at least a dozen books at any given time, and I average completing one or two books a day. Because I read so much and so many different kinds of literature: history, poetry, science fiction, fantasy, novels, children's literature, travel stories, it would be hard for me to say one person is my favorite writer, but let me suggest two wonderful authors who are very different and interesting. One is a Native American woman; her name is Louise Erdrich. Her novel for younger readers is called The Birch Bark House . The other person I would recommend is for those of you who have read everything about Harry Potter and may be ready for something a little more challenging. That author is J.R.R. Tolkien, and his Lord of the Rings trilogy really began the modern popularity of heroic fantasy.
What is the most special tradition in your tribe?
To my mind the most special tradition among the Abenaki people is the tradition of giving thanks at regular times of the year and at other times when it seems right. Thanks not just to other people, but also to those gifts of the natural world such as our harvest of food crops, medicinal plants, good water to drink, and the rising of the sun on a new day.
Does your tribe make any arts and crafts? What are they?
The best-known arts and crafts of the Abenaki people are done with birch bark and the wood of the ash tree. Making canoes, baskets, and carvings are very old traditions still practiced today by Abenaki people.
Will you ever stop writing books?
Only when they pry my cold fingers from the keyboard.
How many books do you have in your personal collection?
There is no way of counting because I have bookshelves surrounding me everywhere I go in my house. I know I have more than 20,000 books, but how many more, I don't know.
How long did it take to write Between Earth and Sky ?
Between Earth and Sky , unlike a novel or a short story, is a collection of individual poems. And each poem deals with a particular sacred place, so it was not possible for me to sit down and write it as I would write a piece of fiction, doing five or ten pages a day. As a result, I'm not really sure how long this book took me to write. But I do know that Thomas Locker, the artist, and I proposed it to a publisher two years before we completed it.
Do you have any other advice for young people trying to make their way in the world?
It is always important to remember, as my grandmother once told me, that life is not supposed to be easy. Therefore, take heart from this, if you are having problems you are not alone. And as my grandfather also said, remember that even when it is cloudy and you can't see it, the sun comes up every morning, just as sure as can be.