shell shaker by leanne howe book cover

Toward the end of Pushing the Bear, one character reflects that the women of the Cherokee, in their “behind-the-scenes” way, would probably assign the new lands and enforce the laws in the Territory.  The Choctaw, another tribe displaced from the Southeast, have a strong tradition of women participating in important decisions.  LeAnne Howe, an enrolled Choctaw, focuses her novel on a family of women, peacemakers, and visionaries known as shell shakers.

The novel weaves stories of two generations of the Bili or Billy women:  The Bili are involved in conflicts taking place within a culture newly entangled with different white interests (English versus French) in 1738; in the 1990s, the Billys become embroiled in intra tribal conflict over the use of profits generated by very successful casino operations, a conflict complicated by secret agreements with white interests.  The first group must work within and sometimes violate the traditional limitations of custom; the second group, dispersed in modern white culture, must relearn traditional ways even while building a case that will hold up in a modern courtroom.  Old and new means of negotiation, resolution, and passage into adulthood or death are set side by side.  In addition, both generations of women must work out their moral visionary imperatives in a culture led by strong males.  Both learn that the process of healing often involves violence or loss, as wella s peacemaking.

Pushing the Bear raises the question of what displacement and a traumatic journey will do to family and tribal groups.  Shell Shaker explores whether a family and a people, who underwent a similar historical process of displacement and who have since accommodated to modern culture, can unify by recapturing some of their old traditions.

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