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NONFICTION : THE GOOD RED ROAD: PASSAGE INTO NATIVE AMERICA by Kenneth Lincoln with Al Logan Slagle (Harper & Row: $17.95; 271 pp.).

May 24, 1987|Louis Owens

In the summer of 1975, Prof. Kenneth Lincoln and four UCLA students drove out of Los Angeles into the heart of Indian country. The goal was an off-campus seminar based at Jamestown College in North Dakota, a loosely structured course Lincoln would "teach" for his four students in contemporary Indian realities. From the base in Jamestown, Lincoln and his wards fanned out across the heartland, talking with Indian political leaders and healers, watching, listening, participating in ceremonies, taking notes, taping.

"The Good Red Road" is Lincoln's account of this experience, an account that details in often splendid prose a journey to the interior, a penetrating, disturbing, profound, and, at times, embarrassing quest. With co-author, Al Logan Slagle, Lincoln serves up a taut celebration of landscape and a hard-edged portrait of the complex world of today's Indian, not only the too-familiar poverty, alcoholism and early death, but also a stubborn resilience and carefully nurtured spirituality.

"The Good Red Road" is as much a remembrance of an America past, however, as it is a passage into Native America. The prose here waxes nostalgic for a time when young America lit out for the inner territories full of Waldenesque fancies, when to be Indian was a very romantic and very vague concept in the American imagination. Of one student, Lincoln writes: "She seemed a confused child of Los Angeles who sought a tribal family and a deeper identity of her own." He might have written the same for each member of the group, including the teacher.

Indian readers are certain to follow this sentimental journey with respect and amusement; the quest is romantic, the sincerity of the questers never in doubt. For those curious about what it means to be American and to be Indian in the United States, "The Good Red Road" is essential.

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