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Baseball novel explores role of the game in American Indian life

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

book jacket
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LeAnne Howe weaves fact and fiction into her new novel, "Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story."


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The World Series may be over, but the echo of baseball’s deep past is very much in the air in LeAnne Howe’s new novel, “Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story” (Aunt Lute Books).

Yet Howe, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and an English professor at the University of Illinois, delivers more than echoes in her heavily researched work of fiction. She makes the turn-of-century games in Indian Territory vivid, palpable.

Indeed, Howe, the interim director of Illinois’ new American Indian Studies program, fast-pitches the sights, sounds, feel, taste and even whiff, of the real thing, the big-bang of American baseball as it was in the beginning and as it was played on the dusty Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw diamonds in its heyday, 1895 to 1915.

The book is Howe’s homage to the game’s role in Native American life. Readers will learn from her American Indian characters that “playing ball is in the blood,” that Native Americans played variations of the game “all over North and South America long before white people ever arrived in the New World,” and that playing ball at the turn of the 20th century had an urgency well beyond game and sport: It was both a form of resistance to the dominant culture and a form of survival.

“This is where the 20th-century Indian really begins, not in the abstractions of congressional acts, but on the prairie diamond,” says Henri Day, the Miko King’s Choctaw owner, who dreams of starting an all-Indian league. Such a league – in the midst of allotment chaos – would allow “Indians from the Five Civilized Tribes to begin investing in themselves. To hold something in common, even if it was just baseball.”

To be sure, Howe aims to recover more than Native American baseball history within these pages. With her multiframed, multilayered set of narratives she restories and restores a virtually undocumented time in American history. She writes about the people who cohabitated uneasily during the worst part of the federal allotment era; about the tough-love Christian boarding schools Native American children were forced into; the lawless towns and prairie homesteads; the prejudices and stereotypes; and about Native American storytelling, lore, tradition and history.

Howe won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award in 2002 for her first novel, “Shell Shaker.” The French translation, “Équinoxes Rouges” (Broché), was the 2004 Prix Medici Award finalist in France. Her poetry collection, “Evidence of Red,” received the 2006 Oklahoma Book Award. Howe’s latest novel is picking up early praise as she travels cross-country reading and lecturing from the book.

Author Sherman Alexie said he was “stunned by the beauty, humor, and originality” of Howe’s latest work. And Bookcriticscircle, the blog of the National Book Critics board of directors, suggests “Miko Kings” for fall reading. The blog described Howe as “a Native American writer of aggressive politics and stylized prose. (Her) narrative defies easy categorization but her mission is clear: to elevate this sports footnote into the position of prominence it deserves.”

English professor LeAnne Howe
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
English professor LeAnne Howe has devoted her writings to the Native American experience, whether in fiction, poetry, non-fiction or filmmaking.

Howe weaves fact and fiction, future, past and present, water and light, fire and earth, world traveling and time traveling, multiple names and multiple identities, conscious states, dream states and morphine-drip states, and Christian and traditional religions.

Her story is built with structural oddments, as well, and again, both true and fictive: diary entries, newspaper articles, photographs, historical records, poems and songs, and several major narratives. Some of the characters are based on historical figures, but once again, fact and fiction are so tightly woven, that the threads can’t be separated.

Ada, Okla., “Indian Territory’s queen city,” is the book’s main setting, but the author cuts back and forth through several time periods there and elsewhere: from 2006 to 1896. Ultimately, all the major players come together, sharing endings and beginnings that surprise, disturb and awe. They are “intimately linked by the motion of story,” Howe said.

1907 is the key year, the pivot of all of the narratives, at the height of baseball fever – the nine-game series for the Twin Territories championship. Pitted against each other are the Native American Miko Kings – the winners of the Indian Territory League – and their arch rivals, the Seventh Cavalrymen from Fort Sill – winners of the Oklahoma Territory League. Indians vs. Soldiers, an epic battle that involved baseball. And much more.

For on Nov. 16, 1907, in fact, Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory would be “legislated out of existence,” Howe writes. With the creation of the state of Oklahoma and “the privatization of tribal lands, everything changes. Indians will be written out of Oklahoma’s picture. And history.”

Whether in fiction, poetry, non-fiction or filmmaking, Howe has devoted her writings to the Native American experience. Deep research always plays a critical role in her work, she said, but she also listens to her dreams and allows them to inform her fiction.

Howe said that the idea for “Miko Kings” came to her in a series of dreams when she was finishing “Shell Shaker.”

“An elder man showed up in my dreams one night,” Howe said. “I couldn’t figure out what he wanted.”

The man reappeared the next night, “but this dream derailed me,” she said. “This time his hands were cut off, but he kept trying to catch a baseball with the stumps of his hands. How did a baseball player get in so much trouble that his hands were cut off? I had to find out. That was the first question.”

The man who appeared in the dream became one of the book’s main characters, Hope Little Leader, the fastest pitcher in two territories, the Choctaw hurler who had “the most contorted windup in Indian baseball history” and the only Miko King player who had the power to beat the Cavalry.

Howe’s dreams also brought her the other main character in the book, Ezol Day, a genius Native woman who had lived and died in Ada in the early 1900s and, as postal clerk and experimenter with time and space, held all the town’s secrets and a power of her own.

When the “woman-ghost” showed up in Howe’s dreams, “she began narrating stories about time and baseball – a game without time,” Howe said.

Day reappears in 2006, but now as an apparition. She returns to Ada in future time to reveal her truths to the book’s narrator, Lena Coulter. Coulter, a world-traveling Choctaw writer, moved away from Ada in the 1960s, but had recently returned from Jordan, her home base for several years. Called back home by a power she did not understand, Coulter would swap her threadbare knowledge of her people’s history for a quest for answers, and Ezol would serve as her guide and healer.

Throughout the book, much also is gleaned about the process of fiction writing.

“I knew Ezol and I were going to write the story of the Miko Kings together,” Coulter said.

“She is the narrator; I the medium, intermediary, stenographer, and servant to the story. My work as a translator feeds this apparition in my house. To be any good at translation, you have to do a kind of disappearing act. Teach yourself to become invisible by breathing life onto the page, and then exist there, side by side with the words and images. At least for a time.

“Such is the sacred made manifest in the flesh of the page.”