Authors: Louis Owens

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and critic

Identity: American Indian (Choctaw, Cherokee)

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Wolfsong, 1991

The Sharpest Sight, 1992

Bone Game, 1994

Nightland, 1996, Dark River, 1999


John Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America, 1985

American Indian Novelists: An Annotated Bibliography, 1985 (with Tom Colonnese)

The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land, 1989

Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, 1992

Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place, 1998

I Hear the Train: Reflections, Inventions, Refractions, 2001


The works of Louis Dean Owens, a novelist and cultural critic of mixed Choctaw, Cherokee, Irish, and French ancestry, express observations from his mixed-blood perspective about contemporary American culture, with a particular focus on ethnicity and class. He was the son of Hoey Louis and Ida Brown Louis, who had nine children. Hoey Louis worked at various jobs, including farm labor, managing a chicken ranch, dowsing for a well-driller, working in a laundry, and driving a truck. Ida Louis sometimes worked as a waitress. The family moved back and forth between Mississippi, where they lived in a two-room cabin on the Yazoo River, and California, where they lived in the Santa Lucia mountains, the Salinas Valley, San Leandro, and finally, Atascadero. Owens wrote autobiographically of his working-class childhood and his family history in Mixedblood Messages and I Hear the Train. He worked at various places from the age of nine, including in fields, a chicken ranch, a mushroom farm, and a can factory.{$I[A]Owens, Louis}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Owens, Louis}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Owens, Louis}{$I[tim]1948;Owens, Louis}

Gene Owens, Louis’s older brother, was the first member of the extended family to graduate from high school, and Louis Owens became the second. He attended community college for two years, then was admitted to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), under an equal opportunity program. He worked summers fighting fires for the United States Forest Service. While at UCSB he met Kiowa novelist and professor N. Scott Momaday, who influenced Owens to pursue his study of American Indian literature. Owens received his B.A. in 1971 and an M.A. in English in 1974. In 1975, he married his wife, Polly, whom he had met while a student at UCSB; they would have two daughters, Elizabeth and Alexandra.

Owens began and then dropped out of a graduate program at Arizona State University. He then worked as a forest ranger. Eventually he entered graduate school at the University of California, Davis, and received a Ph.D. in 1981. He spent a year at the University of Pisa, Italy, on a Fulbright scholarship in 1980-1981, then became an assistant professor of English at California State University, Northridge, in 1982. In 1984 he moved to the University of New Mexico. A brief stint as professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz (1989-1994) served as the inspiration for the novel Bone Game. He returned to the University of New Mexico in 1994. In 2001 he moved to a professorship at the University of California, Davis. He held a New Mexico Humanities Grant (1987), was a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow (1987), and won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1989).

As a scholar, Owens addressed the failure of the American Dream in the works of John Steinbeck (Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America) and carried out a project of recovery of American Indian writers, both in a coauthored (with Tom Colonnese) reference work, American Indian Novelists: An Annotated Critical Bibliography, and in his work of criticism of American Indian fiction, Other Destinies. His scholarship, autobiographical nonfiction, and novels are intertwined in that they deal with themes of mixed-blood identity, place, humans’ relationship to the natural world, social class, familial relationships, and disillusionment. His first novel, Wolfsong, focuses on the natural world and the question of American Indian identity. A young American Indian man who has left his home in Washington State to go to college returns for his uncle’s funeral, takes a job as a logger, and discovers a plan to strip-mine in a wilderness area. The Sharpest Sight focuses on family and mixed-blood identity. Owens borrowed many details from his own family for this work, including the names of his father and grandfather and the story of his older brother, a Vietnam War veteran.

Bone Game makes a connection between a historical murder in Spanish colonial times and a series of murders of students taking place on a university campus (suggested by, but not based on, serial killings that took place in Santa Cruz in the 1970’s). Nightland continues Owens’s themes of environmentalism, the destructiveness of money and capitalism, family relations, the questionable value of higher education, and mixed-blood identity in a plot set in motion by the discovery of a sack full of (drug) money. It is in Dark River, however, that all of Owens’s themes and his literary theories are brought together, combining humor and tragedy in a postmodern narrative. On July 26, 2002, Owens died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

BibliographyDaniel, G. Reginald. Review of Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place, by Louis Owens. Biography 23, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 572-578. Mixedblood Messages examines issues related to American Indian identity in literature and film; this review shows how, more importantly, Owens’s telling of his own experiences challenges “all humans to articulate . . . messages of individual and collective survival.”Lalonde, Chris. Grave Concerns, Trickster Turns: The Novels of Louis Owens. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. A study of Owens’s fiction.Owens, Louis. I Hear the Train: Reflections, Inventions, Refractions. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. Autobiography covers Owens’s family history and childhood.Studies in American Indian Literatures 10, no. 2 (1998). This special issue of the journal is dedicated to Owens’s work.
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