Jamake Highwater

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,822 words.)