By Caitlin Monday
Sitting in my fifth-grade history class in west Texas, I read a chart in my textbook that listed surviving members of Native American Texas tribes. It was the first time I saw the words Lipan Apache in print but the number next to it—zero—sent an ache to my chest that I didn’t quite understand.
I wondered, “How can it be zero when I’m sitting right here feeling the pulse of my heart and air flowing through my lungs?” Why was my existence not included here? These were questions that wouldn’t be answered for many years. Through oral storytelling, my tribe, the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, was kept alive. We were often told of traditions and stories from our tribe but they must be kept secret. We assimilated into other cultures to survive but the stories kept our souls alive. Now, for the first time, our tribal members can see our culture, our beliefs, reflected in print thanks to the young adult novel Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. We were never extinct, we were always here. Us, the Light Gray People.
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger is a magical story about seventeen-year-old Elatsoe, or Ellie, living in an America very much similar to our own except that Ellie’s town has been shaped by magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its people, both Indigenous and not. Ellie has the skill to raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through the generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her seemingly charming town wants no prying eyes into the recent murder of her cousin. However, Ellie—using her skills, wits, and with help from friends—will do what she can to dig deep and protect her family.
In this exceptional debut in YA speculative fiction, Little Badger has brought attention to a once thought to be extinct tribe. Elatsoe made TIME’s list of “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time,” accompanying authors such as Sabaa Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, and N.K. Jemisin.
I recently spoke with Little Badger to discuss intersectionality, themes of family and justice, and the importance of seeing our tribe in print.
Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.
There are some differences. This America been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.
Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered, in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.
Our tribe is unique in the fact that some of us didn’t know we were Lipan Apache. What is your story of connecting with the tribe?
I was fortunate enough that my mother and I grew up knowing that we’re Lipan and I grew up being raised in these cultural elements that have been passed down. On the other hand, they had to be passed down in secret so there are some incomplete things there. For example, our language—we’re trying to revive it. I’m certainly not a fluent speaker of Lipan Apache; nobody is though.
We’ve had to rent land in our own homeland [Texas]. It’s a fight to survive as the most important parts of you, to keep that alive for your children. What people don’t realize is this is a whole way of living. We don’t wake up in the morning saying, “I’m going to make breakfast the Lipan way,” we just make breakfast and often if we’ve learned it from our elders. Reconnecting is such an important part of our survival.
How do you hope people better understand better the intersectionalities of Native American tribes?
I was hoping through Ellie, who’s kind of a tough, nerdy character who enjoys comic books and is fairly fearless, but also I was trying to create a character who is human. A character who is more than just stereotypes. I think that a lot of times in any component of a character’s identity that deviates from what is considered the “norm”—especially if you are more than one [marginalized identity]—is considered by some people “too much.” I wanted to make a character who is human, who is Lipan Apache but she’s also asexual and they exist. We exist.
There are so many [intersectionalities] within the Apache people alone, there is so much diversity. Within the Apache tribes, they don’t have the same association with ghosts or death that Lipan people do and that does play a large role in Elatsoe. This is a Lipan book and not a Mescalero book because we are not a monolith. There’s so many variations among cultures, the hundreds of tribal nations that are indigenous to this land.
Why do you think it’s important for us to see our tribe, Lipan Apache, in print?
Texas doesn’t make our tribe’s historical impact known in the school curriculum. So where else are you going to learn it? I, fortunately, learned it from my mother because she is aware of our historical impact. But I didn’t learn about our people from a textbook. As big of a reader I am, when I was a teenager I never read books that had one part of my identity that was very important to me. I never read a character who was Lipan. I didn’t really read main characters who were Native American.
Talk about the importance of family in Elatsoe.
Family is a very important part of Elatsoe and although Ellie is really the driving force behind this investigation, she receives a lot of help from her parents and her friends plus her ghost dog. It’s not common in literature to see a supportive Native family, even though in my experience and with many Native people, family really is the reason we are where we are. There is a very strong support system in this that includes both bio and found family.
My parents read to me as a baby and inspired this joy of storytelling within me. I wrote my first book when I was seven. A forty-page book that my father, who was a grad student at the time, edited and explained the edits then helped me send it to a publisher. When I got the inevitable rejection, he framed it because he said, “This is a part of being a writer: You’re a writer and someday you’re going to want to see this and be proud of how far you’ve come.” I’ve been fortunate in my life to have parents who accept me not just professionally but personally and that’s not always the case, especially queer children like me. I do consider myself very lucky. That’s the type of relationship Ellie has with her parents and her extended family including cousins, aunts, and uncles. It’s something I don’t encounter often in literature with young Native adults.
That’s one thing I want to inspect in Elatsoe, is this relationship the character has with her mother and also with her sixth great-grandmother and how these generational differences might affect their viewpoints in life I thought that would be cool to explore.
How do you correlate the theme of justice present in Elatsoe with today’s issues?
That is an important theme in Elatsoe. Something I say a lot is the seed that originally inspired this book was my desire to write about animal ghosts but the real heart of the story is the question of how does a teenager like Ellie seek justice for somebody she loves in a world that is often stacked against her and other people like her? It is one of the biggest questions this book tries to answer in its own way. I hope the book provides comfort in some way but also there’s a lot we need to do as a society to improve things to make this a better world for the next generation.
As an adult, we often hear people say our future will be saved by our children, but honestly, we shouldn’t put all that on their feet. You know everyone should be working to find justice. It’s a really complex and important issue that I personally think about a lot in my life. The odds are really stacked against people who don’t have a lot of, for example, economic power or social power. I was thinking about that and other issues of injustice when I wrote Elatsoe and it’s something I’m not only going to continue to write about but hopefully continue to fight towards a more just future.
You said you were first inspired to write about animal ghosts—why?
The earliest kind of moment of that idea is I used to really love reading horror stories—I still love reading horror stories—so when I was a teenager, I thought it would be really cool to write a book or a short story about a house haunted by the ghost of a parrot. From there I just thought how wild can I get with this? It evolved from there and I thought, let’s find a way to put all these together, all these animal ghosts.
What research, if any, went into the story?
The one thing I did have to research and got help with was the language. We are in the process of revitalizing and restoring. We have an actual linguist. I didn’t know how to spell them (Lipan words) in a way that will be accepted in the future during this language development, so I did have to ask our linguist for help. [I asked] the linguist just to review the Lipan language I used and to make sure it was correct in the text so I didn’t accidentally spread misinformation. Other little things I researched were elephant behavior, trilobites, trying to refresh my memory because animals do play a big role in Elatsoe.
What do you hope young adults gain from the story of Ellie and our tribe?
Growing up, especially when I was a teenager between sixth grade and twelfth grade, reading was one of the few joys that I could always escape to. I didn’t exactly have friends in high school; I was a shy, kind of nerdy kid. The positive impact books had on me during that time—I really don’t think I can overstate it.
I want my book for all young readers, not just Native American or asexual readers, to provide a source of joy, a sense of seeing yourself. If you are a Native reader, seeing that part of your identity that is so often overlooked in mainstream media. Or if you’re non-Native, finding a source of empathy for a character that is different than you but that you hopefully still enjoy reading about.That’s what I would like this young adult book to accomplish.
What do you hope the adults gain from this story?
I’ve actually heard from some parents, “I’ll give this to my children after I’m done,” which makes me laugh. But hearing from adult readers who enjoyed it does make me happy. The more people who enjoy my book the better. It is written in a way that I hope appeals to fans in general of fantasy/dark fantasy. I hope that at its heart readers of all ages can find a sense of excitement, mystery, fantasy, but also that they can feel a connection with a character even if they are not necessarily an asexual Lipan Apache teen.
Who was this book written for?
First, everything I write I have to enjoy writing for myself otherwise it’s just too difficult to get words on the page. There was that sense of selfish joy at first but then later, when going through edits and trying to shape this story into a finished form, I did have in mind readers about Ellie’s age. I did feel it would be important for Native readers to see a representation of themselves in this book but also it was written for other young adults. It’s the kind of thing I hope that many people will enjoy.
For more information on the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas visit here.
Caitlin Monday is a freelance writer with a background in Publishing and Marketing. She attended Kennesaw State University where she received her B.S in Journalism and Emerging Media. Originally from El Paso, Texas she grew up reading and writing under the bright sun. She has worked in blog writing for six years. She is currently receiving an MA in Publishing from George Washington University. Caitlin is Latinx Lipan Apache. She is a part of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her family and dog, Buddy. Visit Caitlin online on Instagram and Twitter @mondaysshelf.
Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. Her debut novel, Elatsoe, is both a New England Book Award finalist (young adult category) and a BookExpo 2020 Young Adult Buzz Finalist. Darcie is writing a Dani Moonstar story for ‘Marvel’s Voices: Indigenous Voices’ #1 and co-wrote Strangelands, a comic series in the Humanoids H1 universe. Her short fiction, nonfiction and comics have appeared in multiple places, including Nightmare Magazine, Strange Horizons, and The Dark. She currently lives on both coasts of the United States and is engaged to a veterinarian named T.