At Shaw Lecture, author entertains with humor and history

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

“When we remember, we are doing something very powerful and sacred”
- Joseph Bruchac

Over 200 alumni, staff, faculty, students and friends of the University of Washington Information School attended the 2022 Spencer G. Shaw Lecture. Professor Shaw’s career spanned nearly seven decades and included service as a public librarian, an educator, and a world-renowned expert on storytelling and library service to children.

A group of librarians from six library systems selected Joseph Bruchac as this year’s speaker. Bruchac joins an esteemed group of speakers who have given the Shaw Lecture, including Maurice Sendak, Laurence Yep, Yuyi Morales, Jason Reynolds, Jane Yolen, and Kadir Nelson.

Bruchac is a writer, musician and traditional storyteller. An enrolled member of the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation and a member of the Nulhegan Abenaki Elders Council, Bruchac is the author of over 170 books in a variety of genres.

In his talk on October 20th, Bruchac shared sly jokes, personal reflections, and wisdom gained from over 40 years of writing and sharing stories. He noted that the lecture was days after his 80th birthday, and drew on the lessons he has learned over the decades. Bruchac shared experiences such as practicing martial arts, studying Indigenous ways of approaching the world, spending three years in Ghana, teaching people who are incarcerated, and making efforts to preserve the Western Abenaki language. This varied background informs Bruchac’s prolific writing practice.

With a jovial attitude and generosity in sharing his knowledge, Bruchac spoke in particular about the importance of listening and of knowing your heritage. “Throughout my life I’ve always loved listening to stories,” he said. Connecting with Abenaki culture guides his work:

“In our tradition, we say there are four steps we need to take: The first, of course, is to listen with two ears, to both sides of every story. The second step is to observe with our two eyes to see things in depth. The third is to remember. For when we remember, we are doing something very powerful and very sacred. We are ensuring that the past will be part of the future that we, as we continue onward, will not forget. Then the fourth step is to share. That is the job of the storyteller, of the writer, of the elder,” Bruchac said.

The step of sharing knowledge has been pivotal to Bruchac’s writing journey. “I think what inspired me to become a writer was that desire to share things I cared about,” he told the audience. “Writing is about sharing. And when I was a kid, and even into my teenage and young adult years, I was constantly reading books about Native people that were full of prejudice, actually even out and out racism, and certainly deep inaccuracy.”

This commitment to accuracy and thorough research is also a key part of Bruchac’s work. He shared a story about taking part in actions with the civil rights movement, and of how Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Marlon Brando marched for hours in Mississippi — only for the media to make it seem as though the actor appeared briefly, took a photo, and left. This inaccuracy rankled Bruchac, and drove his insistence on accuracy even within creative writing.

When telling Native stories outside one’s own tradition, writing ethics become more complicated. Bruchac spoke of the importance of having permission from the nations and tribes whose stories are being shared, and following their guidance in how these histories are represented. For example, some stories are traditionally only told during certain times of the year, or only by certain elders, and those traditions should be respected.

It is also important to give back to those whose stories are shared. Bruchac said that in the process of writing “Code Talker,” he consulted extensively with the Diné (Navajo) people and with the code talkers themselves. “I was showing them what I’d written. I was asking them about their stories. I was doing research for over a decade before the book was completed,” he said. The book was not published until it was vetted by Diné members, historians and linguists. After the novel’s success, Bruchac committed to sharing financial support with the Diné people, including contributing to the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund.

Significant lessons in fours came up again in the lecture:

“There were four questions I was taught by a Seneca medicine person named Twylah Nitsch. Four questions to always ask yourself. Those guide me as a writer, and also in my journey as a human being.”

“The first is, How do you feel about what you’re doing right now? The second is, What are you doing to add to the confusion? The third one is, What can you do to bring peace and balance? And the fourth one is, How will you be remembered after you have gone?”

Asked about authors he recommends, Bruchac mentioned the work of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Traci Sorell. Bruchac called “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe (who was on his Ph.D. committee and was his friend) one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

As a writer, a teacher, a musician and a publisher, Bruchac has worked with many other creative people over the years, and he emphasizes that the process is unique to the individual. “Rez Dogs,” Bruchac’s novel in verse, was written through dictation while he walked his dog each morning.

Bruchac provided the following advice for writing through periods of struggle: “First of all, even when it’s hard, just keep writing. That’s the most important thing to do… If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want anyone to read you, you’ve got to revise.”

Joy in the process can ease the difficulty of writing, Bruchac said. “I don’t know why it is, but I really love writing, and I think I get the same kind of endorphins I get when I’ve done a hard workout in the martial arts. I feel like I’m uplifted by it and not drawn down by it.

“Everybody’s writing process is different, though. So whatever works for you, works for you, and it’s your journey as a writer to find it.”

You may view the 2022 Spencer G. Shaw Lecture online for a limited time.

If you would like to make a suggestion for a future speaker, contact the Beverly Cleary Endowed Professor for Children and Youth Services in the Information School, Michelle H. Martin.