William Penn is not an imagined Native American stereotype

March 8, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

William Penn, author of "The Absence of Angels" (Permanent Press, 1994), doesn't look like an Indian. His life would be so much easier, and so much less interesting, if he did.

Penn is a Native American writer and professor of English at Michigan State University in Lansing, Mich. He likes to use the term "mixblood" to describe his own background, which is a mixture of Nez Perce, Osage and English. He's a human reminder that America is the place where mixed blood is the norm.

"I'm not an imagined stereotype," he says.

Penn is a big man with brown hair and green eyes. His skin is, well, pale. A graduate of UC Davis, he came back to Northern California recently and gave several public talks at UCD. When he was introduced to an English class as an important Native American writer you could almost see the mental balloon appearing collectively over the heads of the students in the classroom: "Gee, he doesn't look like an Indian."

But, as Penn points out, there are relatively few Native Americans today who are 100 percent Indian. Instead of counting drops of blood as a measure of authenticity/ethnicity, he prefers to look at a person's identity and culture.

"Who determines the authenticity of a Native American?" he asked. "That identity depends on imagination and fantasy, on upbringing, culture, language and the continued process of being. I don't think that anyone can say: 'You are and you aren't.'"

Penn celebrates the oral tradition of his grandfather's Nez Perce family and teaches a class on storytelling, but he also appreciates the written tradition of the Anglo culture.

"I am very connected to Native American writers," he says. "And when I say Peter Blue Cloud is as great a poet as John Donne I'm not trying to erase John Donne but to bring others in."

Penn said he would like to teach a cross-cultural class that swirls different ethnic identities together focusing on stories from North America and South America told in the oral tradition. "Coyote and Christ can exist side-by-side in stories and myths," he said. "Fighting is a waste of time."

Penn (who carries the extraordinarily WASPy name of the English Quaker who founded the state of Pennsylvania) was raised in Southern California where he attended Claremont College. He earned his undergraduate degree at UCD and stayed on for three years of graduate school, from 1970 to 1973. He later earned his doctorate at Syracuse.

"Bill is living proof that there are jobs for English majors," said Jack Hicks as he introduced his former teaching assistant to a UCD class.

Penn is a novelist, essayist and editor as well as a teacher. "Angels" was his first novel and it tells a fictional but autobiographical coming-of-age tale. The story's hero, Alley Hummingbird, adores his Nez Perce grandfather and has a less straightforward relationship with his own father who married an eccentric white woman.

In fact, Penn's father, William S. Penn Jr., lives in Davis and his sister, Anne Hamilton, lives in Woodland.

"All My Sins are Relatives" (University of Nebraska, 1995), a collection of 10 essays, was his first nonfiction book and was nominated for seven major prizes. "As We Are Now: Mixblood Essays on Race and Identity" (1998, UC Press) is his most recent book. It is a collection of original non-fiction by writers of mixblood North and South American heritage, commissioned, edited and introduced by Penn. He also is the editor of "The Telling of the World: Native American Stories and Art" (1996, Tabori and Chang), an illustrated collection of contemporary Indian art and classic tales.

His inclusive attitude toward mixblood writers makes you wonder who is on the other side. Who is insisting that the only good Indian is the fullblood Indian?

The answer comes when a woman asks Penn about Native American writer Sherman Alexie, author of "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." Alexie is a proponent of essentialism, says Penn.

"The essentialist is the person who comes along and makes a bigger blood claim than you and says: 'I'm more Indian than you are.' Essentialism is a game and one that is not worthwhile," says Penn.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

To Order "As We Are Now: Mixblood Essays on Race and Identity" from Amazon [ Click Here ] links.
To Order "The Absence of Angels" (hardcover) from Amazon [ Click Here ] links.
To Order "The Absence of Angels" (paperback) from Amazon [ Click Here ] links.

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