The Pulitzer Prizes are a hundred years old. This year, like last, one of the winners has a topic that focuses on Native people. This year it’s the book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Or, as was written in the citation, Pulitzer jurors described Custer’s Trials as “a rich and surprising new telling of the journey of the iconic American soldier whose death turns out not to have been the main point of his life.” Last year was the remarkable history of the Mandan people, Encounters at the Heart of the World.)
To be clear, Native Americans have won Pulitzers for works in fiction; but the prizes are rare for Native Americans, especially Native American journalists, who produce nonfiction works about America’s tribal communities.
Custer’s Trials tells the story, in part, of a man who helped free slaves but opposed civil rights laws. A man who fascinated Native Americans, a group of people he did not see as “fully human.” To be sure, the book tells a highly nuanced story of a complex, complicated figure in American history. But it also raises many issues, especially the framing of Custer’s death (rather than the way wars are usually chronicled, by the victors). And what about prizes that are given for authors who write “about” Native people rather then celebrating stories that come from Native people themselves?
After a hundred years the question of “when?” ought to be front and center for Pulitzer jurors. When will there be a winner who tells the story from a different point of view, both for historical works and journalism?
When? How long will it take? Two hundred years? Three?
A hundred years is long enough.
I see so many talented people from Indian Country doing really great work, telling stories that are worthy of celebration and honor. I’d start my own list, but I’m sure to leave someone out.
Mark Neil Trahant is the Charles R Johnson Chair in Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, and a former president of the Native American Journalists Association. Trahant is the former editor of the editorial page for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he chaired the daily editorial board as well as directed a staff of writers, editors and a cartoonist.