“Cowboys and East Indians”
By Nina McConigley
In “Dot or Feather,” one of the stories from Nina McConigley’s excellent collection “Cowboys and East Indians,” a young Indian girl tries to explain to the white girls she’s babysitting that she’s a different kind of Indian:
“I’m sorry we took your land.”
“You didn’t. I’m not that kind of Indian. Your mother showed you. I’m from a different place.” Mari nodded and went to her room, bringing back another limp headband, the feather split in places. She handed it to Cindy.
“White people were mean to you. What tribe are you?”
Throughout this collection, McConigley explores the complicated issue of living in a place where her race causes constant confusion, not only for Euro-Americans, but also for those from other places. Her stories are especially adept at showing how the tension between whites and Native Americans spills over into every aspect of life in the West.
McConigley’s approach to this subject matter is brave and compelling. The protagonists of her stories each give a slightly different perspective on the issue. In “Reserve Champion,” we meet Delia, the struggling single mother who has her sights set on winning a local doll competition, only to lose to a new woman in town, an Indian woman married to a doctor. The title story takes us into the life of Faith, an Indian woman who has never been to India, and who tries to befriend a group of women who have moved to Laramie for school. It’s a poignant story of not fitting in even with people who look more like you than anyone you’ve ever known. And “Curating Your Life” is about the experience of a young Indian woman who has decided to do an internship in India to try to get in touch with “her roots.”
Each of McConigley’s stories delves into the topic of being an outsider with a complete absence of bitterness or self-pity. Her characters are much more overwhelmed by confusion at the occasional show of outright hatred and violence that comes their way than by the lack of effort to know or understand them. This is an unflinching but even-handed look at how racism lives in the hearts of even the best of us, even those of us who really think we’re trying. But despite their confusion, McConigley’s characters always seem to find a way to make their presence known or to express what’s tamped down inside them.
Perhaps what is most admirable is how deftly McConigley shows that even those who never quite feel as if they fit in somehow develop just as strong a connection to the West as anyone else.
In addition to being named a finalist for the High Plains Book Award, this collection has been shortlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award and has received rave reviews. My only hope is that McConigley’s next book will get the editing she deserves, as this book was filled with errors that would have been caught with the kind of attention from an editor that a book of this quality should have received.