LAWRENCE – For Devon Mihesuah, a University of Kansas professor and enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, fiction is a way to get at some of the deeper truths she explores in her award-winning nonfiction writing on Indigenous people’s issues. Or at least it’s a chance to write about them in a compelling and inspirational way, with supernatural characters and role models.
She does exactly that, exploring current themes like the repatriation of Native American remains and preserving native foodways — adding in her affinity for horror and suspense — in her already acclaimed new novel, “The Hatak Witches” (University of Arizona Press).
Following protagonist Detective Monique Blue Hawk, the book takes readers from the scene of an animal mutilation in a fetid swamp in Oklahoma to the equally creepy “Room of Secrets” in a museum, where a murder has taken place.
Mihesuah is the Cora Lee Beers Price Teaching Professor in International Cultural Understanding and part of KU’s Humanities Program. She has written or edited nearly a dozen nonfiction books, including the award-winning “Ned Christie: The Creation of an Outlaw and Cherokee Hero” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018) and “Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness” (University of Nebraska Press), whose revised edition won the 2021 Best in the USA Indigenous Book from Gourmand International. Gourmand also cited “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the U.S.: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), which Mihesuah co-edited, as the Best in the World University Press Book in its 2020 World Cookbook Awards.
Mihesuah is also a prolific fiction writer. In addition to the award-winning “Roads of My Relations" (University of Arizona Press, 2000) and “The Lightning Shrikes” (Lyons Press, 2004), about an American Indian coed professional softball team, she has written two young adult novels, “Big Bend Luck” and “Grand Canyon Rescue” (Booklocker, 2008 and 2004, respectively) – featuring protagonist Tuli Black Wolf.
And now “Hatak Witches” follows “Document of Expectations” (Michigan State University Press, 2011) as Mihesuah’s second novel to feature Choctaw detective Blue Hawk.
“I write and teach about a lot of heavy topics: violence, stereotypes, racism, health disparities, boarding schools, repatriation and bias in the academy,” Mihesuah said. “The next project focuses on violence and Native women in Indian Territory. These are issues that either I, my family or my tribe has experienced. I’m honest about reality for Native people, even if some don’t want to read or hear the truth. I need to write fiction sometimes so that I can create the dialogue, and to create happy endings, because I want heroes.”
Mihesuah said she often thinks, when writing nonfiction, of how to address those issues in a fictional way.
“You still have to do research for both,” she said. “I'm a staunch believer that Native fiction should be written by Native people. Those are the writers who have lived experiences. They know their community, and they understand their culture. You have to be true to your culture when you write Native fiction. Otherwise the audience that I write to – who are Natives primarily — are going to know if the writer has fabricated something or doesn’t understand some cultural nuance. That's easy to spot.”
Mihesuah said she has been gratified by the initial response to “Hatak Witches” from some Native American readers. They appreciate the allusions to tribal cosmology.
“It captures in a modern context what are ancient ideas,” Mihesuah said. “I write about creation of the tribe and what many believe happens after Choctaws die.”
For the author, that’s part of keeping it real.
“I want it to be entertaining, and I want it to be a compelling story that has a positive role model,” Mihesuah said. “Monique does not wallow in mixed-blood angst. She has her faults. She likes her beer and she has a short temper, but she manages to save the day. And she's very determined. She has a strained relationship with her husband. He wants her to quit, because her job as detective is dangerous, but she doesn't want to resign, so they constantly bicker.
“I also include the issue of repatriation, because many people don't know much about it, or they have no idea how many Native skeletal remains and cultural items are still in museums and university archives, and they can't get back home.”
Image: Devon Mihesuah with a copy of her new novel, “The Hatak Witches.” Credit: Joshua Mihesuah