Snuggled in the Kenwood neighborhood near Lake of the Isles, Birchbark Books and Native Arts serves as a vital hub for Native literature and art. Owner and renowned author Louise Erdrich opened the independent bookstore to “nourish and build a community based on books.” But this is not your average bookstore. Situated in a city with the largest concentration of urban Native people in the United States, Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, sees it as a space for “locus Indigirati – literate Indigenous people who have survived over half a millennium on this continent.” Seventeen years later and just as resilient, Birchbark Books continues to be an integral resource for Native literature and community conversation.
The independent bookstore prides itself in its uniqueness. “As the malling of America continues, it is our mission to be other,” their story exclaims online. Upon walking into the comforting, peaceful environment, I was immediately enveloped in books lining the walls from floor to ceiling. The internal space reflects its name – reclaimed, weathered wood defines the space; the room professes an openness despite its small square footage.
Carolyn Anderson, store manager and an artist of Navajo descent, became involved with Birchbark Books after taking courses in American Indian Studies and reading Erdrich’s book, Tracks. She visited the store often to purchase her course books. When walking into the store she “fell in love with the space.” Now, she describes her colleagues and the Erdriches as family.
Anderson believes the role of Birchbark Books is first and foremost to “help educate and provide the community with culturally sensitive, ethical and appropriate Native American literature.” While the bookstore is renowned nationally for the strength of its Native book offerings, they also offer a full range of literature. “Most folks who walk through our front door are looking for a good novel,” explained Anderson, “so we also have a very well developed fiction section.”
Ann Bauleke, a local writer and regular patron of Birchbark Books remarked how much she appreciated the extensive collection of Native American literature and history. “I love supporting this rare, independent bookstore, a quiet place. It has culled good titles from the riffraff that clutters chain stores. The staff have read the books, and notes of interest to prospective buyers pepper the shelves.”
A space to preserve language
While working to cater to multiple audiences through this wide selection, Anderson emphasized the intentional effort to provide Ojibwe, Jakota and Lakota language materials to sustain language revitalization initiatives.
Recently while sharing tea at Pow Wow Grounds on Franklin Avenue, Jack Theis, staff member at Birchbark and a Pembina Chippewa artist and barista from south Dallas, described to me how his interest in language revitalization efforts led him to Birchbark Books. Theis spent time studying abroad in Europe and was one Native student out of about 10,000 in the program. He described this experience as a defining moment in his growth. “That was the time that I realized I’m not just white, I’m Native, but I’ve never done anything about it.” In an effort to connect to this part of his identity, he also picked up Tracks by Erdrich and, after additional research, learned about the existence of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. The bookstore particularly impressed him given their commitment to providing books in Ojibwe.
“I really need to learn Ojibwe,” he remarked, “because it’s going to take years to learn it and maybe decades to master it. [The language] is really at a make or break point.” Ojibwe in Minnesota is on the list of “severely endangered” languages in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. With his great grandfather as the last person in his family to speak the language, Theis proclaims that he needs to focus on reclaiming the language “to bring it back to my family.”
Birchbark features books by Wiigwaas Press, the “publishing arm of Birchbark Fund House,” which publishes Indigenous language literature, and specializes in Ojibwe language. Theis described the importance of this press, “Wiigwaas Press is incredibly vital to the language. We need monolingual text because more and more children are learning Ojibwe. We have many Ojibwe books [at Birchbark].”
Martha Meyer, who has been on staff at Birchbark Books for seven years echoed this need, “Our scholarly books on Native history and current issues and culture are guaranteed to be accurate and of the highest quality. For native children and non-Native, our materials feed self-image, teach the wisdom inherent in culture and educate about history past and present.”
Continuing these widespread efforts to advance Native literature is not without its challenges. Currently, Birchbark is expanding to a storefront at the end of the block to provide more workspace for the staff when there are larger orders of books. “[Another] part of our business, which seems to be growing and becoming a more significant part of what we do is fulfilling orders from public schools as well as for tribal schools and libraries,” Anderson stated. “We are the place where they know they can find quality American Indian literature that is difficult to find anywhere else.”
When I spoke with events manager at Birchbark Books, Prudence Johnson, she described the collection as “tightly curated” mostly due to space limitations. But she added that this also means there is no room for “mediocre books.” The staff at Birchbark curate the collection of books offered to the public through a combined effort of outreach to Native writers and word of mouth. Book buyer Nathan Pederson explains that selecting books for the collection “is really more of an art than a science. It has to be good. It has to be sellable. And we have to believe in it. As it is our mission to support Native American language and culture, we take special care to find quality books by and about Native American.”
Anderson explained that Native writers often reach out to the store, and Birchbark Books strives to support them by providing a platform for them to sell their work while also involving them in events. “I think that just by existing, we are encouraging Native American writers because they know that they have an outlet where not only is their book going to be stocked but the booksellers will read it, talk about it and recommend it to their customers,” Anderson shared.
Johnson organizes intentional programming that centers on showcasing artists and writers of Native and non-Native descent around relevant issues affecting the region. Asked how Johnson determines who to put on events for she explained, “We have some criteria, and we probably present more Native American authors than anything else. They get precedence.”
Birchbark Books also sponsors extensive programming from a regular reading series, for local emerging and established writers of Native and non-Native descent, to book drives such as one in support of Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa-Defenders of the Water School at Standing Rock. Last week, they sponsored a talk featuring Winona LaDuke in celebration of her new book, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles: Stories from the Front Lines in the Battle for Environmental Justice. Estella Yeung, a visitor and supporter of Birchbark Books that I met at this recent event appreciates “the bookstore’s emphasis on Native culture in the books and the support they provide artists.” Yet, she believes it “goes beyond just being a bookstore” by also facilitating these important public events and gatherings.
A space to cultivate movements
The importance of spaces that champion Native voices in research, criticism and literature cannot be understated. As Anderson pointed out, “We want to tell our own stories, our own histories, through our own experience and perceptions, which is why Birchbark feels it is absolutely necessary to deeply critique and vet books that are written about Native Americans from a non-Native perspective. I feel like I am speaking for myself right now, but I know other Native people feel the same.” Anderson commented that she sees Native writers, artists, historians and journalists challenging narratives that “romanticize” Native communities or portray them as “a people of the past.” Birchbark plays an integral role in combating these reductive assumptions.
Theis cites the pervading problem with media coverage of Native-led movements. Reporting often neglects to center Native voices and narratives in the storytelling. “Even in stories about Standing Rock that were ‘for’ the water, if they were non-Native media sources, they tended to lack an understanding of Native and tribal cultures, politics and history,” he asserted. Theis continued by referencing examples of articles in major news sources, including the New York Times, that failed to even interview Ojibwe people when the issue being reported directly impacted them. “They’re still there and you can talk to them. Don’t just talk about them,” he emphasized.
Theis contends that this oversight is not for a lack of strong, active Native journalists. “There are so many Native reporters and academics who contributed articles [about Standing Rock] (Winona LaDuke, Tara Houska, Jacqueline Keeler and more). They’re not being given the same opportunities.”
A connecting thread amongst Birchbark staff was a conviction that their work at the store was also an integral part of their life’s work. At a time when language revitalization, land sovereignty and environmental issues continue disproportionately impacting Native communities, each member of the store responds to social and political movements in myriad ways. Anderson explained, “Our involvement in these movements vary based on the individual. Many of our staff members went out to Standing Rock to show their support for the water protectors.”
Theis went to Standing Rock in North Dakota last winter to support efforts to resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The company is constructing the pipeline to transport crude oil across 1,172 miles of the Midwest. Following the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval of a permit to build in July 2016, a grassroots resistance movement employing non-violent direct action on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation began drawing thousands from across the nation and the world. Theis shared, “I went to Standing Rock because I want to tell my kids and my grandkids one day that I didn’t just sit and do nothing.”
Just before departing to join the movement, Theis happened to run into Erdrich at their local grocery store. After sharing his plans, he described how his impetuous and audacious declaration was met with encouragement, but also caution from Erdrich who wanted to know if he was prepared. She immediately offered him all the supplies he needed. “I didn’t even know what wool socks were, I’m from Texas,” he admitted with a smile. “I went to her house and she gave me all the warm stuff I needed.” In addition, she encouraged him to interview fellow water protectors and document his own experience in writing, which he did.
The store also contributes to conversations surrounding Native-led resistance movements through an active social media presence as well as a responsive blog written by Erdrich. Ultimately, Anderson emphasized the importance of maintaining a welcoming environment for all in the bookstore, especially during such uncertain times.
“I think that having a big heart and showing a lot of compassion to others can go a long way,” she noted, “and I think that is a really important aspect of Birchbark Books that makes us very special. We really believe it is of utmost importance to create a warm and welcoming space. It doesn’t matter who you are – all types of people are welcome in our store and you will be treated with kindness and respect.”
When asked about how the staffing is structured at the bookstore, both Anderson and Theis responded in earnest that it was peerless and collaborative. “I wouldn’t say we are hierarchical,” Anderson said. “I see us as more of an organic, informal entity that changes its structure based on its needs.” Theis affirmed that the store’s structure is collaborative. “We have staff meetings where we gather in a circle. It’s very intergenerational.”
To Theis, Birchbark is now his family too. He contends working at Birchbark is the best job he’s ever had. “Incredibly transformative conversations have taken place – conversations about indigeneity and borders and Native causes and ancestors.” When he walks in he expects Birchbark to be a safe space. “It’s just nice to know that I can go to Birchbark and be myself and be Native.”