The Stillwater Public Library’s “Let’s Talk About, It” (LTAI) program meets to discuss the book “Plague of Doves” by Louise Erdrich on Thursday, July 20 at 6:30 p.m. The speaker, Russ Tallchief, will be presenting information on the book’s background and author.
The LTAI program this summer features books that highlight civil rights issues. “Plague of Doves” is the third book in the series, but readers do not need to have read each of the books to attend. Each LTAI program includes a presentation by an Oklahoma scholar, small group discussions about the book and refreshments.
Tallchief is Director of Student Engagement, Inclusion, and Multicultural Programs at Oklahoma City University. He teaches leadership in the OCU Leads President’s Leadership Class and has taught various courses in literature, writing, and public speaking at Oklahoma State University, Rose State College, Oklahoma City Community College and Bemidji State University in Minnesota.
Tallchief earned his Master’s Degree in English from Bemidji State University in Minnesota and a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication from the University of Central Oklahoma. His graduate work also includes specialized studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the University of Toronto.
Tallchief is also the nephew of Maria Tallchief, an Osage tribe member who was one of America’s first prima ballerinas, dancing for the Paris Opera Ballet and New York City Ballet. Maria Tallchief died in 2013, but for Russ Tallchief, the dancer was the model for the direction he wanted to take his life in the arts.
“She gave me my mission in life, in a sense,” said Tallchief. “She didn’t often visit Oklahoma, but I was privileged to spend time with her. When I was young, I didn’t appreciate the impact Maria made on the ballet world. She was a Native American in a position of power in the world of ballet traditionally set in Russia and France.”
His aunt’s influence led Tallchief to become a playwright, artist, actor and writer. He is currently working on a manuscript of his discussions with his aunt. He is also lending his expertise to projects like LTAI, helping readers get a better understanding of books such as “Plague of Doves.”
“Plague of Doves,” published in 2009, is set in a small North Dakota town and tells the story of the long-lasting effects of the 1911 murder of a white family and the hanging of innocent Ojibwe tribe members wrongly accused of the crime. The tragedy continues shaping the town and nearby reservation as, over generations, their members’ lives become more intertwined.
The novel highlights Erdrich’s talent in telling stories with huge skips through time and by relying on several narrators, techniques that Tallchief says are practiced in Native storytelling.
“The multi-perspective structure of ‘Plague of Doves’ reflects the Native storytelling tradition,” said Tallchief. “When you have traditions within the same family, people often interpreted, remembered and told things differently. The non-linearity of the story is like those of (Kiowa writer) N. Scott Momaday.”
Given the dark nature of the novel’s content, Erdrich employs another surprising writing element.
“There’s humor in the book,” said Tallchief. “The story in ‘Plague of Doves’ is so tragic that you have to be able to find humor in it.”
Tallchief also thinks Erdrich chose the right time period to include in the book.
“The novel is a timestamp,” said Tallchief. “The civil rights movement for Native cultures was occurring during the time in the book. Native people were struggling to be enrolled in tribes, struggling for their right to treaties and struggling for their land.”
One of the most powerful moments in “Plague of Doves” occurs when Mooshum, one of the Ojibwe men accused of the murders, asks how has everyone allowed the great thievery of Native land to become acceptable? How can Native people live alongside others knowing what was taken and how they took it?
For Tallchief, that question represents a universal theme for many Native cultures, including his own.
“A lot of Osage land was stolen during the ‘Reign of Terror’ in the 1920s,” said Tallchief. “When I visit that area today, I have to see that land every time I’m there, knowing that it was stolen. There is no answer of how we can reconcile the loss of land. That feeling is still fresh and is always there.”
The theft of Osage land is documented in the current bestseller, “Killer of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann. The Stillwater Public Library has chosen the book as its next community reading series which will be held over six weeks in March-April 2018.
In the meantime, community members who did not attend the first two LTAI sessions are invited to pick up a copy of “Plague of Doves” at the Help Desk and explore many of these questions at the July 20 program.
Through reading “Plague of Doves” and engaging in discussion, Tallchief hopes there is at least one idea readers can take with them.
“The convergence of cultures can be a beautiful thing,” said Tallchief. “Especially in the United States with its potpourri of cultures. The convergence of different cultures coming together creates a new flower. Open minds and open hearts.”
Books, services, and other materials for this series are provided by Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma, a project of Oklahoma Humanities. Funding for this series was provided by grants from the Inasmuch Foundation and Kirkpatrick Family Fund. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of Oklahoma Humanities.
The Stillwater Public Library is located at 1107 S. Duck St. (the corner of Duck and 12th Ave.).