Joseph Bruchac ’64, BA ’65, Explores the Native American Experience

"I remember writing poems in second grade and my teacher reading them aloud in class and the other kids being very jealous; actually, I got beat up by a couple of the bigger kids,” Joseph Bruchac ’64, BA ’65, admits, then adds with a laugh: “As I always say, that was my first experience with hostile literary critics.”

More than seven decades later, Bruchac is still writing—and he has become a highly prolific author in a dizzying variety of genres. He still pens poetry, but also science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, nonfiction, children’s books, young adult (YA) novels, plays, short stories, and more.

A member of the Abenaki tribe (whose population is primarily located in New England and southeast Canada), Bruchac often explores Native American themes—such as in Code Talker, his 2005 novel about Navajos serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II that Time included on its list of the 100 best YA books of all time, putting it in such august company as Little Women and The Catcher in the Rye.

“I’ve been a prolific reader ever since I can remember; I read very early, and voluminously,” says Bruchac, who’s based in the Adirondacks and also performs traditional music and storytelling. “And when you read a lot in many genres, it can inspire you to work in many genres as a writer.”

An English major and varsity heavyweight wrestler on the Hill, Bruchac earned a master’s degree in literature and creative writing from Syracuse University and spent three years teaching in West Africa; he later earned a PhD in comparative literature from the Union Institute.

He notes that when he was growing up, there was little in the way of mainstream literature by and about indigenous people, and “not a bit” of the kind of books for kids and teens he now creates.

“Images of American Indians tended to be negative,” he says, “or very stereotyped and romantic.”

Book covers in a row
Provided Bruchac’s many young adult books include (from left) a “memoir” written in the voice of Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe; a tale set during the current pandemic; and a historical novel whose two protagonists are on opposite sides of the Red River War of 1874.

The Abenaki—who sided with the French during the French and Indian War—have historically suffered from discrimination in the U.S., he says, including a notorious eugenics program in Vermont in the early 1900s for which the state didn’t formally apologize until 2021.

“People wouldn’t call attention to their Native ancestry; they kept a low profile and tried to blend in,” Bruchac says of past generations. “My grandfather used to visit his relatives in Vermont, but never talked about being Native. He’d tell everyone he was French Canadian.”

As recently as the 1970s and ’80s, Bruchac says, “in identifying as Native and drawing attention to Native issues, I was very much out of the mainstream.”

Today, by contrast, he’s a frequent invitee for author visits and storytelling performances at schools and elsewhere—virtually or in person—and one of his two sons runs the Abenaki immersion program at Middlebury College’s renowned language institute. (Both brothers have also followed in their father’s footsteps as authors and traditional storytellers.)

Bruchac’s dozens of published works include historical looks at Pocahontas, Sacajawea, Crazy Horse, and athlete Jim Thorpe; The Trail of Tears, a children’s book on the forced exodus of the Cherokee; middle-grade thrillers based on folklore, like Bearwalker and Skeleton Man; a post-apocalyptic YA novel, Killer of Enemies, whose female protagonist is a teenage Apache monster-hunter; and a murder mystery series starring Jacob Neptune, an Abenaki private eye.

“I love writing; I feel like I’m being taken on a journey,” says Bruchac, who won a lifetime achievement award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas two decades ago. “Sometimes, I honestly feel I’m taking dictation. And I finish and I think, ‘Did I just remember this from someone else?’ But it’s always original.”

Book covers in a row
Provided Bruchac’s acclaimed YA novel Code Talker recalls how the Navajo language was used to thwart the Nazis, while his children’s book My Father is Taller than a Tree celebrates the bonds between dads and sons. Padoskoks, one of his most recent releases, continues the adventures of an Abenaki detective.

Bruchac published several titles in 2021 alone—including Padoskoks, the second Jacob Neptune mystery. He also put out two middle-grade novels: Peacemaker, about the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, and Rez Dogs, which follows an eighth grader staying on her grandparents’ reservation during the COVID-19 lockdown.

(School Library Journal calls the latter “a contemporary novel in verse that deftly handles weighty issues and provides readers a story they can connect with during a pandemic, with a dose of hope for the future.”)

“I’m always working on several projects at once. Right now I’m working on four different books; well, actually, five,” Bruchac says, going on to tick them off: a nonfiction book about the 1969–71 occupation of Alcatraz by Native American activists; a collection of Haiku poems and photographs for young readers; a fantasy novel; a look at national parks by indigenous storytellers; and a collection of poems about famous Native Americans.

Oh—and he’s also working on a sixth project, his third Jacob Neptune mystery.

“I try to write the same way I tell traditional stories,” Bruchac observes. “It should be interesting; that way people will listen. But there should be something meaningful within it—a message, an important thought. So that’s what I believe is significant: to teach, and also to entertain.”

Read the story in Cornellians.

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