Steve Russell. Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from Dropout to Professor.
Miniver Press, 2020. 350 pp. ISBN: 9781939282446.
first encountered Steve Russell back in the early aughts, when I stumbled onto
the forums on Indianz.com, one of the first online Native communities. I was a
recent escapee from small-town Mississippi who had somehow washed up in Europe.
And I was unexpectedly homesick. Looking back, it wasn't any different from any
other internet group I've ever joined where what supposedly bound everyone
together was a shared identity as opposed to a personal interest. That is to
say, there was a lot of mud wrestling over issues both minor and major. From
Bush's (at the time) ongoing "War on Terror" to the even more contentious
subject of how to make corn bread, one's kin, quantum, and education always became
fair game. Russell, however, tended to stay out of the dirt, and instead dealt
with everyone on equal terms, even with an undocumented nosebleed like me who
was clearly out of their weight class and generally considered an irritating
wannabe. It was some time before I learned that the avuncular gentleman who
looked vaguely like my dad in his profile picture (and whom I thought of as a
bit of an old fogey as a result) was an accomplished author and scholar.
fact, Steve Russell, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, could crush most
arguments if he wished merely by dropping a printout of his curriculum vitae on
top of his opponent. A retired Texas judge and professor emeritus of criminal
justice at Indiana University Bloomington, his academic output has been extraordinarily
diverse. Russell has written and co-authored dozens of articles and chapters on
such topics as the jurisprudence of colonialism, the politics of Indian
identity, gender and sexuality norms, the racial paradox of tribal citizenship,
the practice of law, domestic violence in the court system, corporate crime;
the list goes on. But as the title of his memoir indicates, Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from
Dropout to Professor does not reflect the cursus honorum of academics in American
book has all the sad hallmarks of a Native autobiography. Poverty, abuse, and
no small amount of heartbreak and loss, and--of course--overcoming. However, Lighting the Fire is actually a deeper
exploration of the paths taken and not taken over the span of Russell's seventy-two
years. Numerous possible futures play out in the book, but Russell establishes
clearly, at the onset, that he was "born a writer" (23). In addition to his
achingly familiar childhood dream of someday having a reliable car, a house
with no holes in the floor, and regular hot water, eleven-year-old Russell's wish-list
included the luxury of a typewriter (24). Now, Russell is an award-winning
journalist, with numerous op-eds to his credit in (among others) Indian Country Today and the Cherokee Phoenix, some of which have
formed the basis for published collections of essays such as Ceremonies of Innocence and Ray Sixkiller's
Cherokee Nation. Currently, he is a regular columnist on Medium. And
he has indeed always followed the fictional Mr. Dooley's advice that newspapers
should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" (204).
his eventual career as a journalist began not with writing for papers, but rather
with delivering them on a Mitsubishi Silver Pigeon scooter, a form of
employment that may soon become a thing of the past if digital media outlets
continue their conquest of the news (32-34). As someone who loathed being
shaken from feigned sleep at three in the morning to help make paper deliveries
along a rural route in my father's pickup truck (an ancient Toyota, I seem to
recall), I cannot say I have any nostalgia for it nor the stench of warm ink
that followed me to school. Yet the historian in me appreciates the much broader
sweep of history that contextualizes Russell's life. Political events and
social movements are as much a part of the flow of the story as his modes of
transport. Things to which he was not a witness, such as the start of the
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the state of Sequoyah that never was, are
concisely and informatively incorporated (9-10; 187-88). But it's the detailed account
of his own participation in the past that resonates.
particular, 1968, an especially dark year in American history, marked the
turning point in Russell's political awareness. At that time, Russell explains
that his "idea of politics still centered on elections" (192). But after the
double gut-punch of MLK's and RFK's assassinations, and then the violent chaos
of the Democratic Convention, Russell became a full-time activist and--as a
result--part-time jail bird (192-93). His life story encapsulates many of the social
and political protests of the second half of the twentieth century, both the
legendary and the nearly forgotten. For example, as a young journalist, Russell
covered the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, and their fight for
improved working conditions; interned with the organization as a law student; and
became one of César Chavez's bodyguards (236-40). His autobiography is of
immense historical and contemporary value. Writing this review on the eve of the
2020 US presidential election, I hope people follow Russell's example and adopt
what he calls his "life of crime," whatever the outcome (215).
struggles in Lighting the Fire are far
more personal and focus on the entanglements of family and identity. Raised in
the Muscogee Nation, Russell was blighted by the sporadic presence of a
neglectful, if not abusive, mother and haunted by the absence of his Cherokee
father. At start of the book, the existence of the latter can only be surmised
from the "hearsay" of the author's own birth (1). But as he got older, Russell hoped
his father--whom he knew from pictures "of a big Indian in a Navy uniform" and a
small handful of vividly disturbing memories (65-67)--could help him feel "more
Cherokee" (75). He was ultimately disappointed. The only things Russell
learned from his father were some small skill with hand tools and a singular
expression: "useless as the teats on a boar hog." Unfortunately, it was
directed at him (79). And despite the connections later made with his
community, Russell remains keenly aware that his upbringing makes him "error
prone in Cherokee practices" (302). However, his experiences with people from
other tribes and an American society which sees no difference between them
changed his sense of self. Russell concludes: "I was born Cherokee and I knew
it, but I had to discover that I am Indian" (334).
Lighting the Fire also
tells the more profound story of how Russell became the man and father that he
wanted to be, outgrowing the example that an accident of biology had provided
him with. And that tale begins and ends with his elderly, maternal grandparents,
Bessie and Jud Russell. They fed him newspapers and books and provided him anything
within their limited means if it was "needed for school" (6-7). They form the
thread in his story, and Russell often circles his way back to them, whether
during his youthful peregrinations or in memory. Their loss meant that having a
family would require his "own acts of creation" (326). Determined not to pass
on whatever illness his father carried, he eventually had four children, "none
of them children of my body unless you count my heart" (313). They are all the
evidence he needs that his father was wrong. That he knows what is right, he
credits to his actual parents, Bessie and Jud. And it is only when reflecting
on them at the end of his book--and quite possibly at the end of his life--that Russell
displays the talent for poetry that won him accolades for Wicked Dew:
still cannot tie a necktie, Grampa,
but I have taken your name. (331)
of Russell's work will not be everyone's cup of tea: his frank discussions of
sexual matters. His description of his first time--as a sixteen-year-old in a
house of ill repute, no less--was quite explicit concerning both his
understandable nervousness and his partner's justifiable boredom (91-93). My own
profession entails reading a great many private diaries very carefully expurgated
by some long-gone Victorian prude, so I was surprised to see such things in
print. But I'm not unused to hearing about them thanks to my own Indian
relatives. Certainly, my dad thought my attitudes about sex (i.e. young people
invented it, and old people shouldn't do it or talk about it) hilarious and my
blushes amusing. In fact, Russell presents sex as ideally as you could wish: as
a thing people do, with varying degrees of intimacy and maturity that hopefully
increase over time. The only thing that struck me as inherently disagreeable
was his offhand opinion that drinking gin is akin to siphoning gasoline (90). And
as for readers thirsty for the intimate details of Native lives--well, they can
hardly complain when their cup runneth over.
so, some academics will no doubt be disappointed by Russell's memoir. It will
not be counted among the class of artificially delineated "traditional"
narratives as described by Mick McAllister in his 1997 survey of Native
American autobiographies. Anthropologists looking for an "authentic Native
source" and an endless litany of information on spiritual beliefs and ceremonial
life will have to look elsewhere. And scholars of Native American literature searching
for Gerald Vizenor's richly descriptive Interior
Landscapes will probably also be left wanting. Russell's reporting
background and his principles as a journalist, which may earn him "geezer"
status in post-truth America, are reflected in the straight-forward writing
style to no small degree (200). On the whole, I suspect that his most lauded
contribution to academia will remain his 2010 volume, Sequoyah Rising.
think that Lighting the Fire will
become his most widely read work among Indians, regardless of official tribal
affiliation (or lack thereof), and for two reasons. First, it is testament of
survival and then some. As a kid, Steve had Will Rogers to show him what Cherokees
can do. And now, kids have Steve to show them what Indians can do if they can
avoid the "spirit-killing garbage" strewn in their path (336). Second, it is
just a good story. The kind of storytelling I grew up with, and the kind I
miss. The kind where the teller always mentions the motorcycle they rode or the
car they were driving. Who was there and the arcana of their family ties by
blood, marriage, or adoption. Narrow escapes from
petty authority, whether teachers or the police. Battles with greater injustices
and illness. Some history. Lovers. And at the end, grandparents' memories and
the memories of grandparents.
Donald Jacobs, Ghent University
Mick. "Native Sources: American Indian Autobiography." Western American Literature, Vol. 32,
No. 1, 1997, pp. 3-23.
Steve. Ceremonies of Innocence: Essays from
The Indian Wars. Createspace Independent Publishing
Cherokee Nation: U.S. Elections 2012. Dog Iron Press, 2014.
Sequoyah Rising: Problems in Post-Colonial
Tribal Governance. Carolina Academic Press, 2010.
Wicked Dew. Dog Iron Press, 2012.
Gerald. Interior Landscapes.
Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors. U of Minnesota P, 1990.