New book by Cambridge author Phillip Brown highlights the plight of Native Americans
Circle Walker, a new work by Cambridge author Phillip Brown, features the pandemic plight of Native Americans in general and of the Lakota Sioux of South Dakota in particular.
It was also written as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, insofar as it raises important questions concerning ethnic identity, racial inequality and discrimination on grounds of colour.
The book’s main character, Luke Benson – aka the Circle Walker – is given a white upbringing and education but comes to learn painfully of his ‘red’ lineage and an emotional tug-of-war ensues.
Written during lockdown and the culmination of more than three decades of reading around the subject of Native Americans, the book is designed to stimulate further thinking about the whole issue of colour and racial prejudice.
Phillip gained his doctorate at St John’s College and is the author of several books, both fiction and non-fiction. He says: “I’ve been interested in Native American culture for about 35 years, so obviously that has helped.”
The conditions of life for many Native Americans, especially the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota, are “pretty rotten” according to Phillip, who says: “Their plight has recently been, to a limited extent, observed in the media through the resentment felt by Native Americans and the government’s alleged neglect in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
He continues: “The other strand is the Black Lives Matter movement because as important as that is, it’s easy to forget that black and white are not the only colours, and that prejudice has existed for a long time not only against black people but also ‘red’ people, let us say.”
Phillip describes how the novel looks at the Unites States government’s repeated attempts at “integration and assimilation between ‘red’ and white, and the difficulties that this involves for cultural identity”. A real-life example of where these two identities collide features in the form of Quanah Parker, a Comanche leader born of a Native American father and an Anglo-American mother.
“The main character, Luke Benson, is born of Native American parents but his father gets killed in the Second World War. He is abandoned by his mother and he is adopted by white parents – and his true identity is hidden from him.
“And it would have been hidden forever, except that his white parents die and he comes to learn, from a letter written by his ‘dead white mother’, his true origins, because she thinks that by now, and on her death, he has a right to know.
“This produces a tension in him, between his ‘red’ heritage and his white upbringing, which mirrors the tension between on the one hand the American establishment’s attempt to integrate and assimilate Native Americans into white culture and the potential loss – or threat – to cultural identity and ethnic authenticity.”
Phillip felt it was important to highlight the issued faced by Native Americans. “The world has become a smaller place and I think we ought to give some attention to this issue because for them, it’s extremely important. They suffer the same kind of hangups, the same kind of prejudices and discrimination and so on as black people do.
“The book tries to draw attention to the whole problem of colour and colour prejudice on a wider scale, on a wider, broader canvas.”
Circle Walker is available now. Visit alumni.cam.ac.uk/benefits/ book-shelf/circle-walker.