Jamake Highwater

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1010

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.{$S[A]Marks, J.;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.

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