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Decolonizing the Choctaws: teaching LeAnne Howe's Shell Shaker.

Shell Shaker (2001) by LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) is a novel that gives students an opportunity to learn that the history and culture of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma are alive today. Winner of the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 2002, the novel deals with two parallel stories that converge in the present, one about the eighteenth-century murder of Choctaw warrior Red Shoes, and the other about the 1991 murder of corrupt Chief Redford McAlester. The novel illustrates how history continues to impact the present-day Choctaw characters and how those characters exemplify the process of decolonization. This article deals with how I teach Shell Shaker in the context of a course on American Indian literatures, but the strategies are useful for the novel in any course.

Although other Native novels responsibly and effectively represent the history and culture of Native nations, particularly those of the "Fab Five"--N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), James Welch (Blackfeet), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), Louise Erdrich (Ojibwe), and Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene)--Shell Shaker not only excels in its rendering of the historical and contemporary Choctaws, but the writing also depicts the characters with great warmth, intelligence, and humor. Scholar and critic P. Jane Hafen (Taos Pueblo) praises the novel as a fine literary read: "Howe seamlessly integrates a history of desperate and gruesome fights for survival with modern Faustian pacts with materialism and wealth. At the heart of the story are generations of Choctaw peoples who persevere with ritual gestures of 'life everlasting'" (Hafen 2002). Howe's novel is among the wave of contemporary Native authors whose work focuses on issues of sovereignty and the decolonization process as a means of survival.

The opening chapter, "Blood Sacrifice," is just one example of the strong impression the novel leaves with readers, as Shakbatina, a Shell Shaker, narrates her own death as she is bludgeoned by a war club as a sacrifice to maintain peace among the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Detailing every physical sensation, image, and sound as she dies but lives on in spirit is an example of the Choctaw philosophy of "life everlasting," a motif that appears throughout the novel: "the people are ever living, ever dying, ever alive!" (Howe 2001, 5). As the second blow strikes her head, she sees the spirit of an animal: "Mother Porcupine walks into view and takes me by the hand. I open my mouth to speak but my thoughts escape into the wind" (16). Shakbatina's thoughts will find their way over space and time to the contemporary Billy women and help them to solve the mystery of Chief Red McAlester's death. In addition to restoring peace and harmony among the Oklahoma Choctaws, the resolution also renews ties between them and the Mississippi Choctaws, as the Billy family decides that the body of Chief Red McAlester must be returned to traditional lands, the Mother Mound at Nanih Waiya in Mississippi, so his troubled spirit will rest in peace.

A return to traditional Indigenous cultural values as a means to reconstruct social and governmental institutions is a theme in Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred's Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (1999, xvii). Alfred writes about Indigenous identity: "[W]hat makes an individual 'indigenous' is his or her situation within a community.... our people's reality is communal" (xvi). The narrative of Shell Shaker perfectly captures a sense of community in the way that the characters come together to support one another and solve the challenges facing their families and tribe. Alfred goes on to say, "To know indigenous people, those seeking knowledge must interact with indigenous communities, in all their past and present complexity" (1999, xvi-xvii; emphasis added). Within the scope of Shell Shaker students see how an Indigenous community negotiates life's challenges in both historical and contemporary settings, thus coming to a better understanding of the complexity of Choctaw culture and history. Further, Alfred uses the Rotinohshonni ritual of condolence as the metaphorical framework for the "crucial role of indigenous traditions in alleviating the grief and discontent that permeate [their] existence" (1999, xi). Although Howe writes about a different tribe, she also uses a similar framework of Indigenous traditions to heal wounds and restore peace among the Choctaws, including dances, chants, a bone-picking ceremony, and sacred funeral songs.

Howe's fictional treatment of Choctaw history decolonizes the "usual" version that readers might have learned because the story is told from the perspective of a Choctaw author. Ken McCullough notes, "Although there has been significant scholarship on this historical period in the southeast, between the arrival of DeSoto and Removal, no one has written a work of the imagination (of this magnitude) set in this period" (2003, 61). Howe's imagination creates historical and contemporary women in the Billy family who solve their own problems with the help of the men, such as Shakbatina who sacrifices herself for the welfare of the tribe and Susan Billy who pleads guilty to save her daughter--acts of sovereignty that empower the Choctaw Nation. Journalist and scholar Jose Barreiro (Taino) describes how the study of Native peoples "grounded in Native self-interpretation" should "contribute to the improvement and strengthening of positive community life" (2001, x). In Shell Shaker Howe accomplishes Barreiro's suggestion in the way that she constructs the narrative to restore peace and harmony to the Billy family and Choctaw community.

The sequential syllabus in my survey of American Indian literatures course provides several opportunities for students to work with the ideas that they will come to understand by the end of the course. Although numerous topics concerning American Indian literatures are addressed over the course of the semester, the objectives that the students are tested on in the final exam are the following: (1) storytelling in American Indian literatures; (2) literacy and orality; (3) survival humor; (4) the nature of geographic place in regard to tribal societies; (5) communal structures over individuality; (6) gender complementarity; and (7) forgiveness and reconciliation. Before reading the novel the students read two essays by Howe and listen to an interview with her, which provide biographical information as well as background on how she wrote the novel. Four to five students give a group presentation on the culture and history of the Choctaw Nation to provide additional context and the critical lens through which the students will critique the novel. After reading the novel they write a position paper, and the students who did the group presentation write a longer research paper.

When the class cannot go to the Choctaw community to ask questions, they go to the official Choctaw Nation Web sites to learn about the people, their culture, and their history. They also can go to Howe's essays, which provide more information about not only her life but also the Choctaws. The first is an autobiographical essay, "My Mothers, My Uncles, Myself" (2000), which gives the students a sense of the writer's life and how her experience informs her writing philosophy:
   When I write fiction, poetry, or history (at least the kind of
   history I'm interested in writing), I pull the passages of my life,
   and the lives of my mothers, my mothers' mothers, my uncles, the
   greater community of chafachuka ("family") and iksa ("clan"),
   together to form the basis for critique, interpretation; a moment in
   the raw world. My obligation in that critique is that I must learn
   more about my ancestors, understand them better than I imagined.
   Then I must be able to render all our collective experiences into a
   meaningful form. I call this process "tribalography." (Howe 2000,

Prefacing the study of Shell Shaker with these insights into the author's objectives helps prepare the students to focus on Choctaw history, ancestors, and the contemporary community that they will encounter in the pages of the novel. In Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism critic and novelist Craig Womack (Muskogee Creek/Cherokee) argues for self-determination in discussing Native American literature, a Native perspective that allows Indian people to speak for themselves. As he says, "Native literature, and Native literary criticism, written by Native authors, is part of sovereignty: indian people exercising the right to present images of themselves and to discuss those images" (Womack 1999, 14). In creating tribalography Howe exercises her right to present images of the Choctaw and to discuss those images in ways that nonNative readers might not have seen before. For example, the contemporary Billy sisters in Shell Shaker are "real" Indian women, exercising autonomy in successful careers as a history professor, a stockbroker, and an actor, not oppressed and marginalized figures without power or romanticized Indian princesses, as Indian women are sometimes portrayed by non-Native writers.

Howe goes into more detail about her term "tribalography" in the second essay students in my class read, "The Story of America: A Tribalography" (2002). She explains the dynamics of how the different parts of a worldview come together in literature:
   Native stories, no matter what form they take (novel, poem, drama,
   memoir, film history), seem to pull all the elements together of the
   storyteller's tribe, meaning the people, the land, and multiple
   characters and all their manifestations and revelations, and connect
   these in past, present, and future milieus (present and future
   milieus mean non-Indians). I have tried to show that tribalography
   comes from the Native propensity for bringing things together, for
   making consensus, and for symbiotically connecting one thing to
   another. It is a cultural bias, if you will. (42)

Howe connects the historical family to the contemporary family in Shell Shaker, a perfect example of"bringing things together." To help students see the connections, I give them genealogy charts so they can keep track of the historical characters and their contemporary counterparts (see figures 1, 2, and 3). They need to understand the importance of ancestors and how they continue to be part of contemporary life, and seeing the visual representation emphasizes how the generations are remembered among the Choctaw characters.


In addition to the two articles, the class listens to a Native America Calling Book of the Month interview with Howe (2003), in which she talks about how she researched and wrote the novel. Explaining her objective in writing the novel, she says:
   I wanted to tell a story about a Choctaw past and as accurately as I
   could tell it. I came up with a lot of loving people. They love each
   other, they love their community, they love their families; and they
   were ever diligent and ever mindful of that, so while there's a lot
   of murder and mayhem and problems, the thing I wanted to say is our
   community is full of people who sacrifice themselves but who also
   provide a living foundation in our lives as Indian peoples.

Although Shell Shaker is about murder, war, corruption, greed, and death, it is also a love story. Howe emphasizes that point in her description of what she hoped to achieve in the novel. There are many different love relationships between the characters: eternal love between Shakbatina and Koi Chitto; betrayed love between Anoleta and Red Shoes; violent love between Auda Billy and Redford McAlester; delayed love between Adair Billy and Gore Battiste; marriage love between Tema Billy and Borden Beane; and unrequited love between Delores Love and Isaac Billy. Howe creates complex characters whose lives illustrate the many facets of men and women loving one another, loves that endure, fail, and renew. Perhaps the greatest love affair is among Howe and her ancestors and the Choctaw Nation in the way in which she brings these disparate elements together to create consensus, as she says in her definition of tribalography.

After reading the essays and hearing the interview, four to five students give a group presentation on the history and culture of the Choctaw Nation. The students' research must include library reference materials in addition to information from Web sites in order to present on the following topics: an origin myth; the traditional tribal name; a summary of tribal culture, including social structure, dwellings, traditional foods, and traditional arts; a description of the tribal geographical location; significant tribal historical events; and the current tribal status. Howe's Shell Shaker lends itself so well to this approach because of its historical element. Howe comments on what she believes is the most important event in Choctaw history:
   In writing Shell Shaker, I wanted to remain faithful to some of the
   historical events in the eighteenth century that continue to
   influence the Choctaw present. Daniel Boorstein has labeled these
   kinds of events as "pseudo-events," meaning that there is agreement
   that something happened in history, but a disagreement as to its
   significance, or how it plays out within a specific cultural group.
   The event I considered most important, historically, for the Choctaw
   was the assassination of war chief Red Shoes in June of 1747. He is
   murdered after the sun goes down on the evening of the summer
   solstice, his head is taken, and soon afterwards a Choctaw civil war
   ensues. (Sargento 2002)

Howe exercises her intellectual sovereignty in deciding which historical event has the most importance for the Choctaw present. Using the historical and cultural contexts prepares the students to connect what they will read to the contemporary lives of the Choctaw characters, to see adaptation, continuance, and survival.

In claiming the right to speak for herself, Howe engages in an act of decolonization. She tells her story, not the colonizer's version of Choctaw history. In discussing how scholars should work with tribal communities, historian Angela Wilson (Wahpetunwan Dakota) quotes Winona Wheeler (nee Stevenson, Cree) on the goals of decolonization:
   A large part of decolonization entails developing a critical
   consciousness about the cause(s) of our oppression, the distortion
   of history, our own collaboration, and the degrees to which we have
   internalized colonialist ideas and practices.
   Decolonization requires auto-criticism, self-reflection, and a
   rejection of victimage.
   Decolonization is about empowerment--a belief that situations
   can be transformed, a belief and trust in our own people's values
   and abilities, and a willingness to make change. It is about
   transforming negative reactionary energy into the more positive
   rebuilding energy needed in our communities. (Stevenson 2002, 212;
   qtd. in Wilson 2003)

Shell Shaker is Howe's response to decolonization. There are many examples of decolonization in the novel, and several passages in the novel make this process clear. Adair says to her Aunt Dovie:
   Auntie, you're describing internalized colonialism. If you think
   foreigner's things, ideas, and religions are better than what your
   own culture has, then you're colonized. Then you don't care about
   your own things, culture, or land. In Delores' vision, one Indian
   can't do anything alone, but needs the help of ancestors and young
   people to build the future. (Howe 2001, 162)

Howe educates the reader about internalized colonialism and observes how much more important culture, land, ancestors, and community are to the well-being of the tribe.

In another example, Auda challenges the colonizer's version of history: "Auda looked directly at her interrogator: 'I only have one question for you. How would you know whether America was sparsely populated at contact, unless that was the propaganda you'd been taught in the colonizer's schools?'" (Howe 2001, 44). Students coining to American Indian literatures for the first time are often surprised by the histories that they learn regarding first contact, exploration, genocide, and conquest in the Americas. Usually they have learned histories that support Manifest Destiny, and for the first time, as they do their own research, many read historical accounts that they have not seen previously. Students generally come to their own conclusions about American Indian histories, realizing that the perspective changes according to whoever tells the story.

In the author note to Shell Shaker Howe lists the primary archival documents and secondary sources that she used in her own research for the novel (2001, 225), and she explains why she decided to alter any of the information that she used. For example, Howe discusses liberties she has taken with the Choctaw language:
   I use the verb Itilauichi, meaning "to even," as a noun for
   "Autumnal Equinox." After studying the historical Choctaw calendar
   names in Byington's dictionary and in his papers at the Smithsonian,
   as well as Henry S. Halbert's articles on the Choctaw language and
   culture, I reasoned that there may have been phrases used by early
   eighteenth-century Choctaws for the equinoxes that have fallen out
   of use. (225)

Again, she offers her own interpretation and analysis of the historical resources that serve as the basis of her fictionalized account.

As a history professor Auda understands that history is a narrative, and who tells the story will determine what people believe. She understands that history can be distorted, just as Father Renoir intentionally misleads people with his lies. Father Renoir "has no way of knowing if his countrymen will be able to pass on his documents, his lies to history and the French Province of Louisiana" (Howe 2001, 179). Finally, Auda engages in acts of decolonization as she rewrites history: "She wrote about Choctaw history as a way to correct misinformation about the tribe" (113). Like Auda, Howe rewrites history by telling her version of Choctaw events in Shell Shaker.

Reading Shell Shaker as the first text of the course helps students understand the importance of historical and cultural contexts when reading American Indian literatures and frames the approach for the rest of the semester's reading list. Reading a great story also engages the students with subject matter that they might not otherwise encounter. After the class finishes the discussion of the novel, the students write a formal position paper in which they choose a topic of their own design and develop that idea into a concise two- to three-page essay. They can elect to write about one of the course objectives, which have been discussed throughout the reading, or they can choose a specific idea in the novel, such as "life everlasting," the trickster, humor, history, the past/present, storytelling (all the voices), land, sovereignty, Mississippi and Oklahoma Choctaws, rituals (warrior ceremony, swallowing the stone, execution, bone-picking ceremony, and funeral songs), matrilineal tribe, male characters, "good guys vs. bad guys," the sacrifice to save the tribe, and the traditional canon of literary allusions read from a Choctaw perspective, just to name a few.

The students who present on the history and culture of the Choctaw Nation write a seven- to nine-page research essay in which they correlate the information from their individual research to the book and/or address critical issues of the book. Traci Logan was a member of one group who presented on the Choctaws, and she was quite successful in incorporating her research into her essay. The following is the introductory paragraph from her essay, "Historical Fiction Contextualized by the Choctaw Universe," and one can see that she has a solid sense of how history plays an important role in the lives of contemporary Choctaws:
   In the novel Shell Shaker, LeAnne Howe seamlessly intertwines
   Choctaw history and present-day fiction in the creation of a story
   that considers modern issues in the illuminating light of the past.
   Mythic time is the vehicle through which Howe binds the skeleton
   of historical fact, including events and prominent figures, to her
   cultural beliefs in matriarchal tradition and the paramount
   importance of family. (Logan 2002a, 1)

When students have completed assignments in a sequential syllabus with a cultural and historical approach to American Indian literatures, they come to important understandings of Native peoples more readily and are prepared to take the in-class final exam. Logan was one such student.

For example, Logan addresses the topic of gender complementarity and uses Shell Shaker in her answer to illustrate the concept: "In Shell Shaker, LeAnne Howe expresses her views on gender complementarity by assigning the women characters to powerful roles of leadership. Shakbatina, for example, gives political speeches to encourage her people towards peaceful reconciliation with the Chickasaws through her execution" (Logan 2002b).Logan goes on to discuss how the male characters' roles complement the females, depicting the lack of a hierarchy in gender relations, one in which each individual's role is important to the well-being of the community. Shell Shaker focuses on the central role of women in the lives of the Choctaw Nation, and students learn about their importance through Howe's tribalography approach.

Teaching LeAnne Howe's Shell Shaker inspires and advances empowerment and decolonization of Native peoples because the Choctaw author offers her own version of history and demonstrates how Choctaw characters can remain sovereign and solve their own problems through their connections to their land, families, ancestors, communities, culture, and history. Alfred argues that today's concept of sovereignty is "incompatible with traditional indigenous notions of power" (1999, 55). He proposes this solution: "We need to create a meaning for 'sovereignty' that respects the understanding of power in indigenous cultures, one that reflects more of the sense embodied in such Western notions as 'personal sovereignty' and 'popular sovereignty'" (54-55). In Shell Shaker Chief Redford McAlester is not Imataha Chitto, the greatest giver and the standard by which the tribe measures the success of a great leader. He has succumbed to the dirty politics of non-Natives, and his administration has colluded with "double-dealing outsiders" (Howe 2001, 22). The women of the tribe "collectively breathed Redford McAlester into existence as a warrior chief" (21), and they are the ones, along with the spirit of Shakbatina, who remove him. The women practice traditional Choctaw notions of power in the way that they work together to free Auda from the charge of murder, an example of empowerment. Although they hire Gore Battiste, an "Alabama Conchatys lawyer" (48), to help them, they also rely on Choctaw traditions, voices of the ancestors, and elders such as Divine Sarah. The women believe that they can transform the situation by trusting in their own people's values and abilities rather than those of outsiders.

In Shell Shaker the Choctaws survive the Osanos, the bloodsuckers who because of their greed want to suck the very life out of the people. McCullough writes, "LeAnne is always complaining that we teach the same old books in Indian Lit classes--I suspect she'll soon become part of the problem" (2003, 67). With such a memorable story that tells the reader who the Choctaws are through the lens of a Choctaw storyteller, McCullough's prediction should happen soon. Howe's work rests firmly in the ideologies that contemporary Native critics propose as the objectives of American Indian literatures: sovereignty, decolonization, and survival.
FIGURE 1. LeAnne Howe's Shell Shaker: Genealogy

 1) Onatima (Maternal Grandmother)
 2) ?(Mother)
 3) Shakabatina + Koi Chitto
 4) Anoleta (1st Daughter) +            Neshoba (2nd)     Haya (3rd)
 5) Chunkashbili (Bill[right arrow]
    Billy) "Heart Wounder"
 6) Marie
 7) Noga
 8) Pisatuntema
 9) Nowatima (b.1825) "She who works
    and gives"
10) Laura + George Billy (4th Cousin)
11) Callie + John Miko (Married 1914)
12) Six Stillborn Daughters             Susan + Presley   Isaac
                                        War Maker
13) Auda (1st Daughter)                 Adair (2nd)       Tema (3rd)
14) Hoppy

Auda can name family members through 14 generations, signifying the
importance of ancestors.


I would like to acknowledge the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute for College and University Teachers, Working from Community: American Indian Art and Literature in a Historical and Cultural Context, directed by Gail Tremblay (Onondaga/Micmac), Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington, June 23-August 1, 2003. I presented an earlier version of this essay, "Teaching Shell Shaker: A Tribalography Approach," while a participant at the Summer Institute and also at the Modern Language Association Convention, San Diego, California, December 27-30, 2003. I am grateful to the NEH participants for their positive feedback and suggestions.

I am also indebted to P. Jane Hafen (Taos Pueblo) for shaping my critical approach to American Indian literatures and to Susan Taylor for my approach to teaching students how to write.


Alfred, Taiaiake (Kanien'kehaka). 1999. Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto. Don Mills ON: Oxford University Press.

Barreiro, Jose (Taino). 2001. Foreword to Native American Voices: A Reader, by Susan Lobo and Steve Talbot, viii-x. 2nd ed. Saddle River NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hagen, P. Jane (Taos Pueblo). 2002. Review of Shell Shaker, by LeAnne Howe. MultiCultural Review 11, no. 2 (June). Accessed January 15, 2004, from

Howe, LeAnne (Choctaw). 2000. "My Mothers, My Uncles, Myself." In Here First: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. Ed. Arnold Krupat and Brian Swarm. 212-28. New York: Modern Library.

--. 2001. Shell Shaker. San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

--. 2002. "The Story of America: A Tribalography." In Clearing a Path: Theorizing the Past in Native American Studies. Ed. Nancy Shoemaker. 29-48. New York: Routledge.

--. 2003, January 29. "Book of the Month."

Logan, Traci. 2002a, Summer. "Historical Fiction Contextualized by the Choctaw Universe." Paper for ENC, 457: Native American Literature, taught by Patrice Hollrah. University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

--. 2002b, Summer. "Final Exam." For ENG 457: Native American Literature, taught by Patrice Hollrah. University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

McCullough, Ken. 2003. "If You See the Buddha at the Stomp Dance, Kill Him!: The Bicameral World of LeAnne Howe's Shell Shaker." SAIL 15, no. 2 (Summer): 58-69.

Sargento, Golda. 2002, August 8. "An Interview with LeAnne Howe."

Stevenson, Winona Lu-Ann (Cree). 2000. "Decolonizing Tribal Histories." PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley.

Wheeler, Winona (Cree). See Stevenson, Winona Lu-Ann.

Wilson, Angela Cavender (Wahpetunwan Dakota). 2003, June 30. "Working with Community." Talk given at Working from Community: American Indian Art and Literature in a Historical and Cultural Context, NEH Summer Institute for College and University Teachers. Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington.

Womack, Craig (Muskogee Creek/Cherokee). 1999. Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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Author:Hollrah, Patrice
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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