Osage author and Oklahoman Chelsea T. Hicks debuted her first book to rave reviews. C&I talks to her about writing and her fight to preserve heritage languages.
At first glance, it’s impossible not to see the heritage in writer and Tulsa Artist Fellow Chelsea T. Hicks’ entire countenance. Her dark eyes swim with sincerity when she describes growing up in Virginia away from Oklahoma’s Osage Nation, of which she is a member. Her long, dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail, showing off the long red and white beaded earrings by Moira RedCorn that dangle from her earlobes, one of the subtle clues to her connection with her tribe and her history.
Hicks won the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honor, which recognizes writers from around the world, under the age of 35, who have published their first and only book of fiction within the last five years. The honorees were recognized at a ceremony in May 2023 and presented with a $1,000 prize.
“It’s a huge shock, and an even bigger blessing — like a kiss on the forehead from the universe. At the celebratory event in May I got to give some remarks to a big crowd at the Brooklyn Museum — it was very exciting! When I had felt crushed, creatively speaking, by the struggle, receiving this award made me want to keep going as a writer,” she says. “I hope this award might mean a translation of the book into other languages.”
The National Book Foundation honor is just the beginning of an auspicious and varied career, if the packed summer that followed is any indication. Hicks is in a documentary called Un Pont Au-Dessus de l’Océan (A Bridge Over the Ocean), which follows two women (one of whom is Hicks) who compose in their own ancestral languages — of Occitan and Wahzhazhe — and draws attention to the interconnection between language and land.
“The film, which is by Francis Fourcou, tells the story of an unlikely connection between two places, Occitania, an ancient region in the south of France, and the Osage reservation. Osages share their culture and language story in their own words with the Occitan visitor; and then an Osage writer learns more of Occitan language and culture, ultimately showing the inspiration we can provide to each other in carrying on our own work.” The documentary was confirmed to debut as an official selection at the 33rd International First Peoples’ Festival in Montreal in August 2023.
Her sincerity when discussing her prose, which focuses on the modern and ancient struggles of Native women and her work to help preserve the heritage language of the Osage people, is only enhanced by an unearthly calm beauty that she exudes.
Although she grew up in Virginia, Hicks never let go of her Osage Nation roots. She spent summers in the Oklahoma “rez border town” of Bartlesville near the Osage Nation with her iko, or grandmother, and began studying the Wahzhazhe ie, or language, of her tribe as a tribute to her iko.
After living in the Bay Area in California, where she earned a master’s degree at U.C. Davis and a master’s of fine arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in creative writing, Hicks’ debut book, A Calm & Normal Heart, was longlisted in 2023 for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection, which honors “an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut book, a collection of short stories, represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for a second work of literary fiction.” The stories focus mostly on Osage women, exploring themes like their relationships with men, their sense of belonging, how they perceive themselves, and how they are mistreated and ignored by society and those around them.
“It’s wild,” she says. “It’s not just a distinguished, respectable award. It’s one of the major ones. For me, being longlisted for this ... establishes this way for me as a writer. And it’s cool from the Native perspective because PEN is all about free speech and equity.”
Hicks is a Native Arts & Cultures Foundation 2021 LIFT Awardee and a past Writing by Writers Fellow, a 2016 Wah-Zha-Zhi Woman Artist featured by the Osage Nation Museum, and a 2020 finalist for the Eliza So Fellowship for Native American women writers. In her stunning debut book, Hicks created the first book of contemporary literary writing to incorporate the Wahzhazhe ie orthography and Latinized characters, in addition to English.
As a former staffer at Daposka Ahnkodapi, the Osage Nation’s educational facility helping Osage children learn the Osage language, and a host of Indigenous-language creative writing workshops, Hicks — who is currently at work on a novel based on two stories from A Calm & Normal Heart — talked to C&I about her journey as both an author and a student of heritage languages. In an exclusive conversation, she spoke in her quiet and insistent voice about her experiences as a Native writer and as a Native woman striving to be seen as a modern person and not just an anachronistic idea.
C&I: You are a member of the Osage Nation. How involved were you with Osage Nation and your heritage when growing up?
Chelsea T. Hicks: I stilI feel in between places with my involvement, which I didn’t realize until I later moved to California, and I met the Northern California Osage and Southern California Osage. I remember going to those meetings and dressing myself like I would if I were hanging around the elders in Oklahoma, like wearing penny loafers and my little button-down shirt and being respectful and bringing a shawl.
Some people who stood out to me [in California] were tatted-up and modern. Of course you see Osages with tattoos in Oklahoma, but it was not as common to see women with short hair and an arm sleeve. That person turned out to be an Osage cousin of mine I met while living in San Francisco. I didn’t realize how much of a privilege I had had in dancing and being named and having an elder I could ask questions of, like Dr. Mongrain Lookout, who created the Osage Orthography and who I met as an adult in language classes, and the elder Myron Redeagle, who I’ve known since childhood and who I quote in the beginning of the book about spellings in our language.
I felt growing up I was not that involved because there wasn’t that much of a way you could be involved when you were not living there, you know? I grew up in Virginia, but I spent summers with my iko in Bartlesville, which was kind of a rez border town. There was this in-between level where certain people knew me, but I didn’t know everybody the way that you do when you grow up in Osage County and you go to school there.
So I’ve found that it is definitely a journey of reconnection, but it’s also this ability to kind of welcome and encourage those of us who are more disconnected to come home and learn and to be able to provide a little bit of guidance. I think I got more involved once I moved back to Oklahoma to be with my tribe.
C&I: When did you move to California?
Hicks: I moved to California in 2014, two years after I graduated from undergraduate, and then I lived in California until 2019. I moved to Pawhuska [Oklahoma] to work at our Osage-language school, Daposka Ahnkodapi, which means “Our School.” And then I moved back to California for a little bit. I kind of just moved around from place to place for a while because I was transitioning from finishing my MFA degree and looking for work, and I didn’t have a job. So I was just staying with people for a while. Finally I got back to Oklahoma again, which is where I went to be with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship.
C&I: You’re living in Tulsa. What drew you back to Oklahoma?
Hicks: When I was doing my MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe — that’s when it lit up my eyes for the first time that, Oh, people on the rez really think differently of those who don’t live there. In our culture, there are certain aspects you can’t learn if you don’t live here. And I didn’t really realize that before because I was treated with respect by those who knew me. It just made me realize I have a responsibility if I’m going to carry on my heritage to do more and learn more. I didn’t realize at the time it was also causing me mental health problems, which I had always had. I had a really, really intense feeling of not belonging. When I’m here in Oklahoma, that just went away. These are my people. I felt like I was home, and it was so powerful. But there was another aspect as well. I had taken this class — a Native poetry seminar — when I was at U.C. Davis because I did two master’s. I had done an MA and thought I wanted to teach, but you couldn’t teach with an MA at the time. A lot of Native people I knew were like, “You have to come do an MFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts.”
C&I: How did that experience affect you as both an Osage and a writer?
Hicks: It changed my life. I had this teacher, Inés Hernández-Ávila, who is Nez Perce and Tejana. She challenged us — because we were Native seminar students — to write in our own languages. It was a challenge she was passing along to us from Indigenous poets she translated for in Chiapas. She asked, “Why are you not writing in your languages?” With Osage, first of all it’s an oral language; historically it was not formally written, ever, until very recently in this century and that’s entirely new for us. But that question planted the seed in me and I started studying the language. The Osage Nation had just released a language app that year in 2017.
C&I: You talk about that “blink moment” where your teacher said, “Why aren’t you writing in your own language?” Did you know any of the Osage language at the time?
Hicks: No, because almost nobody living that was my age knew much of it, and today we still consider that we have no fluent speakers, except for some of our elders being closer to fluency and a small number of people who had been taking classes for years. It is still a small number of people. Our classes were not offered to citizens who couldn’t attend in person at our language department until the pandemic happened. Now, all ages are learning our language.
The Osage Nation had just released an app, and that was a big deal because you can start learning the language on it through little games and vocabulary words. You can record yourself and repeat after speakers, and I didn’t know that you could learn like that.
My iko and my aunts told me that they weren’t fluent in our language because of going to boarding school. My iko’s mother was murdered and my iko was raised by her aunt Blanche and her own iko after her mom died. Her aunt Blanche didn’t speak it fluently either. Only her grandma Julia Arena Tayrien did, but she was very traumatized by her daughter, my iko’s mother, having been lost and who died young in suspicious circumstances during the Reign of Terror, and didn’t speak much. So many of us were really cut off from access to our language.
C&I: You write about the unique experiences of being Native in Oklahoma and the United States. Tell us about your book, A Calm & Normal Heart.
Hicks: I really wanted to show that Native American women are more diverse than people’s image of Native women, and that some of these ideas may be accurate, but some of it may be way limited and way off. I just get so frustrated with these stereotypes, and so I really wanted to write a collection that would create this visibility of Native people.
When I was growing up, I remember I would stare in the mirror for hours with this sense of, How can I exist and how can I be Osage and how can I be here when no one says this is a thing? No one acknowledges us. It’s not taught in school, and no one except Natives knows what it is to be Native. It was just kind of this tragedy of, How am I this thing that doesn’t exist? It was so horrible.
But my mind opened up to that when I read N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain. It echoed this feeling I had. I felt like the plants and the trees that I had seen when I was growing up in Virginia — that I had a weird sense of kinship to them and that they had kind of gotten me through different experiences I had had. And I thought, I better not tell anybody or they’ll think I’m just crazy. But Momaday’s book was basically saying that, so I took this big risk and wrote a paper on it for my little thesis. The professor gave me an A, and that made me realize I shouldn’t spend all my energy trying to present this colonial version of what I’m supposed to think, and there is a truth to the way I felt innately.
In the book, I try to make it as diverse and inclusive as possible, even though I mainly stick to Osage characters. I just want to show different types of Osage people the best I could. I don’t speak for anybody in my tribe — I only speak for myself. But people told me they wanted me to win the [PEN] award because it comes back to us as an Osage community and highlights the ways that we’re strong with our language.
Our culture, and those who have kept our culture, as well as our ability to welcome people back to reconnect to our land, is the other thing I was wanting to show with this book. I wanted to draw attention to the effects of disconnection from ancestral lands and not being able to access something that you identify with ancestrally, which, for us, is really land.
C&I: How does that disconnect from ancestral lands still affect you and others?
Hicks: For the book tour, I did the ancestral land tour, and I spoke to people. I went to all these different cities, and I spoke to Native people about their experiences with their ancestral land, or lack thereof, and their feelings about that. Our tribe today is working really hard to buy back our ancestral land, and we have a sacred site visit coming up with the Historic Preservation Office. We’ll get to go visit some of our sacred sites in Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma that we wouldn’t [otherwise] be able to access because they’re like part of a military base in Missouri or something. When you look at the map of the original Osage Nation land, it spans even bigger than Missouri and Arkansas, because we were just loud and proud and very around.
C&I: Let’s talk about the PEN. Just being nominated for that prestigious award had to be an honor.
Hicks: The PEN is one of the major literary awards, so it’s shocking. The Osage have never had a book written in Wahzhazhe ie except for the Bible, published in the 1800s by the French Jesuits. And that wasn’t in our orthography, and it wasn’t formally written, so mine is the first book that includes Wazhazhe ie in it.
I definitely don’t and can’t speak for my entire tribe and my people, but it means everything to me to do everything I can to just honor and respect and support my language and my people. Winning [awards] brings more visibility to our language and to the many incredible Osage poets and writers that we have.
I think when there is more understanding around a culture and a language, that helps editors and publishers have that point of reference to be able to understand and promote and include the work of other Osage writers and Native writers, especially writing in Native languages.
I want it to definitely inspire our youth to feel like there’s another reason to learn the language.
C&I: Why is it so important for you to promote and preserve the language?
Hicks: There is within the language a worldview that is very healing to Native people. It allows anybody who’s living on that land to understand their relationship to the land. It provides a humongous comprehension of our deep interconnection between ourselves and the land. I think that language goes hand in hand with land protection and responsibility.
As for art, I think that it helps with the worldview and the positionality we have as Native people. In Oklahoma, we have gone from forced boarding schools to contemporary schools, and with critical race theory being nearly banned in Oklahoma, now you don’t even have access to an ancestral way of thinking. It’s limited in how much we can think and learn. So learning the language allows the possibility of making art that has our experiences and orientation. In this worldview, that’s totally different.
C&I: Could you talk a little more about visibility for Native people and culture?
Hicks: There’s so many Native people in Indian Territory, or what used to be Indian Territory in Oklahoma, but there is a newer visibility of Native art, Native works, and Native TV. As a Tulsa Artist Fellow and as an Oklahoman, I get upset when I see Native people still being overlooked. And that is so habitual because that’s what federal policy was for Native people — to make sure with assimilation that we were not visible and that we were not talked about and that we were not part of the conversation.
I want to encourage people: Reading Native books, especially by Native authors, has the power to get into your subconscious. You start thinking of Native people as contemporary and present and not just a piece of interesting history. I want to thank the constellation of people who are making it possible to think of Native people as here and now.
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.
Photography: Mike Dennis / Courtesy of Chelsea Hicks
When she’s not writing and modeling, Chelsea T. Hicks might be found facilitating Indigenous language creative writing workshops with Words of the People. For more information, visit wtpgathering.org.