Authors: Jamake Highwater

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and critic

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey, 1977

Journey to the Sky, 1978

The Sun, He Dies, 1980

Legend Days, 1984

The Ceremony of Innocence, 1985

Eyes of Darkness, 1985

I Wear the Morning Star, 1986

Kill Hole, 1992

Dark Legend, 1994

Rama, 1994

The Ghost Horse Cycle, 1997 (includes Legend Days, The Ceremony of Innocence, and I Wear the Morning Star)

Nonfiction:

Rock and Other Four Letter Words, 1968 (as J. Marks)

Europe Under Twenty-five: A Young Person’s Guide, 1971

Mick Jagger: The Singer, Not the Song, 1973 (as Marks)

Indian America: A Cultural and Travel Guide, 1975

Fodor’s Indian America, 1975

Song from the Earth: American Indian Painting, 1976

Ritual of the Wind: North American Indian Dances and Music, 1977

Many Smokes, Many Moons: A Chronology of American Indian History Through Indian Art, 1978

Dance: Rituals of Experience, 1978

The Sweet Grass Lives On: Fifty Contemporary North American Indian Artists, 1980

The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America, 1981

Arts of the Indian Americas: Leaves from the Sacred Tree, 1983

Native Land: Sagas of the Indian Americas, 1986

Shadow Show: An Autobiographical Insinuation, 1986

Myth and Sexuality, 1990

The Language of Vision: Meditations on Myth and Metaphor, 1994

The Mythology of Transgression: Homosexuality as Metaphor, 1997

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Moonsong Lullaby, 1981

Rama: A Legend, 1994 (adaptation of The Ramayana)

Songs for the Seasons, 1995 (illustrated by Sandra Speidel)

Edited Text:

Words in the Blood: Contemporary Indian Literature of North and South America, 1984

Biography

Jamake Highwater first gained fame as a leading advocate of American Indian culture, as his works exemplified the painful cultural gulf confronting American Indians in the twentieth century. In the mid-1980’s, however, Highwater’s life and works were called into question as his claim of American Indian ancestry was challenged by journalists, scholars, and some Indian activists and writers, such as Vine DeLoria, Jr.{$I[AN]9810001053}{$I[A]Highwater, Jamake}{$S[A]Marks, J.;Highwater, Jamake}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Highwater, Jamake}{$I[tim]1930;Highwater, Jamake}

Until that time, Highwater maintained that he was descended from American Indians on both sides of the family, while the details of his childhood remained sketchy. He said that he was born in Glacier County, Montana, on February 14, 1942, and that his mother, Amana Bonneville Highwater, was part French Canadian and part Blackfoot Indian. His early years were said to be spent on the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana and at the tribe’s summer encampments in Alberta, Canada. His father, Jamie, was an Eastern Cherokee born in the South who worked as a rodeo, circus, and carnival hand and as a stuntman. When he was eight years old, Highwater accompanied his father to Hollywood, where Jamie Highwater died in an accident. One account said Jamake was about six years old when the fatal accident occurred. About four years later, his mother placed him in an orphanage, from where he was adopted by Alexander and Marcia Marks, a white family living in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. A different story said that he stayed at the orphanage until his mother remarried and that Alexander Marks was his stepfather.

When these versions of Highwater’s early life were questioned, Highwater eventually suggested that some of the details had been invented. He was probably born between 1930 and 1933, place and exact date unknown. He was given up for adoption by his mother when he was about five years old and lived most of his childhood in the San Fernando Valley. His adoptive parents were named Marks, and he was known as Jay or Jack Marks. In his youth, he became acquainted with a number of writers, including James Leo Herlihy and Anais Nïn, who encouraged his writing ambitions. He also attended good schools, which prepared him to earn degrees later in cultural anthropology, comparative literature, and music.

Highwater moved to San Francisco and formed a modern dance company. In 1967, he relocated to New York City. His first two books, published under the name J. Marks, Rock and Other Four Letter Words and Mick Jagger, were on rock music. As a senior editor for Fodor Travel Guides between 1971 and 1975, Highwater traveled extensively in Europe. His interest in American Indian issues and culture grew, inspired in part by the American Indian rights movement and by his travels to reservations. He said that in the mid-1970’s his adoptive mother and foster sister revealed that they thought he had at least some “Indian blood.” Around 1974, he changed his name to Jamake Highwater.

His first book on American Indians was Fodor’s Indian America. Embracing Indian culture helped him tap into new creative energy, and he produced an impressive series of nonfiction works to explain the ceremonies, dances, art, music, and literature of American Indian culture. Of these, perhaps the most important is The Primal Mind, which expounds the American Indian view of reality. The Primal Mind makes it clear that Highwater’s work was informed not only by a fervent sense of identity but also by a comparative cultural awareness. The work was made into a 1985 television documentary. He wrote Native Land as a companion volume to a television documentary of the same name. Highwater lived primarily in the Soho section of Manhattan during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and he founded the Native Land Foundation to promote world folk art.

Highwater’s early fiction is generally aimed at the level of young adults and above; his first novel, Anpao, won the 1978 Newbery Honor Award and the Best Book for Young Adults Award from the American Library Association. Subtler than it at first appears, Anpao meshes traditional North American Indian tales into one story; violating categories of time, place, and being, it provides a demonstration of the Indian view of reality and the unity of nature. The more straightforward Journey to the Sky calls attention to the monumental achievements of one American Indian society. Highwater retraced the steps of the two nineteenth century white explorers on whom the novel is based, so as to be able to experience some of the same hardships and indignities.

The three novels forming the Ghost Horse cycle–Legend Days, The Ceremony of Innocence, and I Wear the Morning Star–are loosely based on Highwater’s embellished family history. The novels trace the painful dilemma of three generations of Northern Plains Indians caught between their traditional culture and the dominant white culture. The same dilemma is treated in Eyes of Darkness, which is based on the life of an American Indian who became a doctor. Kill Hole is a complicated tale of a gay artist whose Indian heritage is questioned and whose world is upturned by a plague resembling acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Dark Legend takes the reader to a world of gods and demons, gold and power, which is loosely based on a Norse myth. Rama weaves a graceful connection between Indian themes of environment and peace and the Hindu epic Ramayana.

In 1992, after the controversy surrounding his ancestry, Highwater moved to Los Angeles and relocated the foundation there, and his writing began to move away from specifically American Indian topics. In The Language of Vision: Meditations on Myth and Metaphor, Highwater employed Tarot cards to consider transformation of art from sacred to secular. The Mythology of Transgression is a wide-ranging study, mostly based in anthropology and mythology but also drawing on biology, physics, psychology, and political science, investigating why homosexuality is labeled as deviant in Western culture and turning the tables on the negative value often assigned to homosexuality to examine homosexuals and other “outsiders” as those who test and expand boundaries. Highwater died in 2001 following a heart attack.

BibliographyAdams, Phoebe-Lou. Review of Song of the Earth, by Jamake Highwater. The Atlantic Monthly 240 (March, 1977): 117. Adams’s short review of this book’s American Indian paintings and the commentary that accompanies them is somewhat condescending toward contemporary American Indian art. She mentions several remarks by Buckbear Bosin that she says indicate a reluctance on the part of Native American artists to acknowledge white culture, an approach that Adams finds less than realistic.Churchill, Ward. Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of the American Indians. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1992. An intriguing exposé of the business of pretending to be American Indian. Highwater receives ample attention in the book, and Churchill disputes his claim of North American Indian heritage.Grimes, Ronald L. “To Hear the Eagles Cry: Contemporary Themes in Native American Spirituality.” The American Indian Quarterly 20 (June 22, 1996): 433-451. This lengthy multiple-participant discussion focuses on educating American Indians in religious precepts. Highwater serves as a source for several of the concepts discussed in the debate.Katz, Jane, ed. This Song Remembers: Self-Portraits of Native Americans in the Arts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Katz’s work includes essays from many different American Indian artists who are active in the visual arts, poetry, literature, and dance. Highwater’s self-portrait centers on the importance of myth and Indian culture to his life and art.Lee, Michael. Review of Kill Hole, by Jamake Highwater. National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1993, p. 38. Lee presents a perceptive critique of Highwater’s 1992 novel.Stott, Jon C. “Narrative Expectations and Textual Misreadings: Jamake Highwater’s Anpao Analyzed and Reanalyzed.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 18 (Fall, 1985): 93-105. Highwater’s award-winning book Anpao is given a thorough critical analysis.
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