“Our mother doesn’t have a regular way of thinking,” says Chelsea T. Hicks’ character Lora, “but she is still a beautiful person, because she never stops trying to change, and get her family what we need.” Lora’s words about her mother can be used to describe Hicks’ debut collection A Calm and Normal Heart. Hicks, a member of the Osage Nation, captures moments of change in the lives of Osage women who don’t follow everyday routine. She starts her stories when her heroines are at a turning point, whether leaving a relationship or beginning a new one, fleeing a city or returning home, and shows that changing their situation gets them to where they need to go. Often her characters look to their heritage to lead the way, and a strong part of their heritage is language.
In the Author’s Note, Hicks states that she incorporates Wazhazhe ie throughout her twelve stories in hopes of revitalizing her language. In the past, the Osage People lived on lands spanning from Missouri to Oklahoma, but due the violence of European settlers and treaties made with the United State government, many were killed, the survivors relocating to Oklahoma along with many other tribes forced to leave their homes. Children were stolen from their families and placed in boarding schools in hope of “civilizing” them into Western ways. But despite America’s attempts at erasure, Hicks reminds us not all is lost. She encapsulates Wazhazhe ie in dialogue between her characters and the ways they interact with their surroundings, often viewing the world through the words of Wazhazhe ie. These occurrences of the language ground her characters, especially when they’re in uncertain places.
For instance, in “By Alcatraz” Mary repeatedly calls on her belated Osage grandmother to help guide her around simmering social dynamics at a “friendsgiving.” Towards the end of the story, Mary recalls a Wazhazhe ie word that has multiple meanings, including “person who can provoke change.” She realizes that “she changed everything, and being here has changed her.” It’s through the connection to her grandmother and language that Mary comes to an understanding of herself, her shifts in need.
Similarly, Anne, a reoccurring protagonist in several of the short stories, arrives to her turning points through dreams and having inner dialogue with her ancestors. And Florence and her daughter Lora, who also appear in two of the short stories, continually remind themselves that they are descendants of Wazhazhe People and recall their words as a way of helping them through confrontation. Whatever diverse circumstances Hicks’ women find themselves in, their connection to the Wazhazhe ie language remains a constant.
The last story “The Good Medicine of the Light” is set in the original days about a medicine woman named The Light who loses her Ka, “the sacred force behind the growth of plants and the flow of blood”. Throughout the story, Hicks repeats the phrase ““Da^he ni^kshe tsi wihko^bra” I want you to be alright,” as said by various characters, to show how The Light’s community cares about her and ultimately brings her to her Ka again, how hearing her language is like a flow of blood keeping her alive.
Hicks’ collection brings to mind Gerald Vizenor’s “Custer on the Slipstream,” where Crazy Horse comes back to confront Custer in modern day, saying, “We will not be talked into defeat, because we know the secrets of mother earth, we talk in the tongues of the sacred earth and animals.” Likewise, Hicks’ women show they won’t be beat, although unlike Vizenor’s Crazy Horse, Hicks’ women aren’t speaking to Custer or whiteness; they are speaking to themselves, for themselves, a celebration of the complexities of being an Indigenous woman. But regardless of identity, anyone can be drawn to the way Hicks embodies her characters, how they exuberate their heritage while changing their situation.
Her collection joins a growing number of fiction works like Rites by Savannah Johnston (Choctaw), “Featherweight” by Sterling HolyWhiteMountain (Blackfeet), Moon on the Encrusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (Wasauksing) and Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead (Oji-Cree) who challenge assimilation and build on their heritage. This isn’t to say they aren’t modern in their writing, their characters often on social media, taking selfies with iPhones, and meeting at fancy coffee shops. But if anything, what’s more modern than knowing your roots, understanding who you are and where you came from? There’s a power in heritage, in raising a community of support around it, to thrive for future generations. A Calm and Normal Heart leaves us with the sense that, no matter the changing times, Hicks’ women and the language, culture, and Wazhazhe People will continue undefeated.