Searching for Healing in a Darkening Land

April 16, 2021   •   By Chelsea T. Hicks

The Removed

Brandon Hobson

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to heal as a Native American? Brandon Hobson’s new novel, The Removed, asks this question as it follows a Native family, the Echotas, 15 years after the loss of their son Ray-Ray to police violence. Shot at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, mall on the same day as the Cherokee National Holiday, Ray-Ray’s death coincides with the commemoration of the end of the Trail of Tears. These coinciding dates highlight the long, ongoing history of betrayal of Native peoples in American life.


The location of the shooting is an urban area (not a reservation), so identity markers such as skin color factor into Ray-Ray’s death. Police records default to white if a victim’s race is not explicitly marked, as the Indigenous research organizations Sovereign Bodies Institute and the Urban Indian Health Institute have reported. In Ray-Ray’s death, the officer did note his race, instinctively firing at “the Indian” although a white kid was the one with a gun.


Over a decade after Ray-Ray’s death, racism still affects his family. Ray-Ray’s sister, Sonja, faces racialized violence while dating a white man who hits her after she refuses him sex. The grief of Ray-Ray’s loss accelerates his father’s aging with early-onset Alzheimer’s. His mother, Maria, struggles to find hope until the family takes in a foster child, Wyatt. She writes in her journal, “I feel so guilty for wanting to die when I have Sonja and Edgar who so desperately need me.” Edgar, her youngest, hangs out with a group of white friends who want to film him for a live-action video game; they lie, telling him it’s a one-on-one sports game (because he looks like the legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe). In fact, it’s a first-person shooter game in which the player hunts down “Indians.” Confronted with all this everyday racism, healing for Ray-Ray’s family seems out of reach.


Yet Hobson gives the characters a measure of healing anyway, with intensely quiet, small moments. The tale employs elements of fantasy: parts of the novel are set in the American Southwest while other sections seem to enter alternate dimensions, including a vividly depicted realm of the dead. The descriptive prose is at once brooding and funny, surreal and absurd, but the cumulative effect is of genuine spiritual weight. Like N. Scott Momaday, Hobson blends material and immaterial experiences in his characters’ minds. Hobson has noted Momaday as his biggest influence, and that influence is most keenly evident in descriptions where the visible and invisible worlds intersect. Modes of perception — spiritual, physical — are layered in certain scenes, as when Maria observes birds who seem to embody the spirit of her late son, and the spirit Tsala drinks water from a creek. The narrative is studded with many such affecting and thought-provoking moments.


As the family prepares for an annual bonfire to remember Ray-Ray’s death, Sonja tries to reach Edgar, her estranged brother who suffers from a meth addiction. She calls and calls, but he doesn’t answer. Edgar is now living in Albuquerque, slowly descending into a life of petty crime. After his girlfriend, Rae, tired of his lies, breaks up with him, a despondent Edgar succumbs to an overdose in a motel. He enters the realm of the dead — a place called “The Darkening Land” — a half-light world with a dusty downtown.


Though Edgar narrates these scenes as a spirit, these chapters feel continuous with his life in New Mexico. Indeed, one could argue that all the narrators of The Removed are both physical and spiritual, but the one that stands out as truly otherworldly is the ancestral spirit Tsala. Like Ray-Ray, Tsala died at the hands of the American justice system: in 1838, he and his family were executed for refusing to walk the Trail of Tears. As a spirit, he aids the living, both on the Trail in the past and in contemporary time. Like Ray-Ray, Tsala often speaks in Cherokee, and he may be based on the figure of legendary Cherokee prophet and martyr Tsali, who was killed by federal troops in 1838. (The novel is filled with such echoes, the family name of the main protagonists evoking the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which provided for the forced removal of the Cherokee people.) In my favorite chapter of the book, Tsala meets and aids Edgar, helping him find a way out of The Darkening Land via a path of cherry trees.


Hobson grounds his characters — even the most fantastic ones — in the mundane world of eating, drinking, reading, and loving. There are small moments of solace, as when Sonja sits in a coffee shop and enjoys a bowl of soup while watching kids play near the edge of the water, or when Maria buys a cream puff for Wyatt and cries behind her sunglasses at the boy’s happiness. Such scenes provide a momentary balm, countering the endemic racism that pervades Native life today. There are also striking moments of hope, as when Wyatt suddenly starts speaking Cherokee and his family becomes convinced that he is a reincarnation of their lost child Ray-Ray.


In interviews, Hobson has noted that his writing is partly motivated by the fact that the Native youth suicide rate is 2.5 times the national average. This is the grim reality that The Removed works to counter. To alter the norm of Indigenous erasure, to combat the forgetfulness and the violence, stereotypes must be addressed. If Hobson’s depictions of racism strike some as extreme, I would note the prevalence of the slang word “savage” in contemporary youth culture, which simply echoes the language of the Declaration of Independence, with its reference to Native Americans as “Merciless Indian savages.” Such ugly stereotypes continue to circulate in our culture, complicating life for Native people today.


Hobson confronts these stereotypes in scenes of domestic violence involving Sonja and her white boyfriend, Vin. Vin castigates Sonja, calling her “a crazy Indian woman” and “an old slut,” then hits her. Sonja’s experience is not unique. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported, 48 percent of Native women experience stalking or violence from an intimate partner. A traditional consultant with the Native Wellness Institute, Theda NewBreast, told me that the majority of women she counsels are victimized by non-Native men, and a 2008 report from the US Department of Justice has shown that most violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women is committed by whites. In the face of this reality, Hobson’s representation of Sonja is healing: she responds to Vin’s violence with ingenuity and resistance, luring him down to the basement and locking him in there. She then uses his phone to embarrass him via social media:


Fuck him, I thought. On his phone there were several photos of other women. I deleted them, along with all his other photos, except for the ones of [his son] Luka. I deleted his phone numbers and contacts, and then I posted on his social media accounts: “I hit a woman tonight. I hit a woman. I hit an Indian.”


Sonja’s encounter with racist misogyny highlights the failure of contemporary American culture to allow human dignity for Native women. Sonja wants to be “the type of woman who could read in solitude while [her] lover worked outside, coming into the house to ask for [her] help.” Yet this domestic idyll is shattered by violence, not just physical assault but also the wounding done by stigma and stereotype. The need to make art that addresses racism and sexism endures because inequity persists, but The Removed works to counter the commonplace horrors it depicts. Hobson powerfully elucidates modes of surviving and healing that will leave thoughtful readers with provocative questions.


The Removed is a funny, sensual, realistic, thoughtful, horrific, and ultimately truthful account of the ongoing scourge of racism in American life. Hobson’s intelligent and compassionate treatment of the subject gives his readers space to ask what it would take to correct endemic bias and inequity, and the resulting damage to Native families. Most of all, his intense concentration on small moments of healing, even amid ancestral trauma and grief, shows the way toward a more peaceful life for everyone. I hope someday to give this book to my children, as a before and after picture of how much can change in 15 years.


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Chelsea T. Hicks is a recent graduate from the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her first book is a collection of stories, The Spiders, forthcoming from Unnamed Press in 2022. She has published work in McSweeney’s, Indian Country Today, The Rumpus, Yellow Medicine Review, The Believer, and elsewhere. She is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation (Pawhuska District) and belongs to the Gentle Peacemaker Clan.