Gods and Monsters on the Rez: Rebecca Roanhorse Puts Navajo Culture Front and Center in Trail of Lightning

In Trail of Lightning, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Rebecca Roanhorse draws on Navajo culture and history to tell a gripping future-fable about gods and monsters.

The book launches The Sixth World, a planned four-part series set in the near future. The series title refers to the Navajo origin story, which says that our current world—the fifth—emerged after floods destroyed the previous ones.

In Trail of Lightning, the six world is wrought from similar devastation, a combination of earthquakes and rising seas. The Navajo Nation survives thanks to a protective wall and a shot of magic, which transforms the barrier into four culturally resonant materials: turquoise, abalone, jet and white shell.

The wall seals the nation off from not only the apocalypse but from white Euro-centric colonialism. Roanhorse considers her work a form of indigenous futurism that tells “a sovereign story, a story that exists on its own, on native land in native thought with native characters’ stories and processes that don’t have to acknowledge the larger, white western world. This is not a story that even has any white folks in it. This is a Navajo-centric story, and that’s on purpose.”

In creating a magic system, Roanhorse decided not to draw on Navajo spirituality. “There’s already a mess in New Age thinking about Native American spirituality as magic and yet somehow other spiritualities are not,” she says. Still, she wanted to make the magic “distinctly Navajo” so she turned to the concept of clans, which imbue her characters with unique powers.

For instance, the clan powers of the book’s protagonist, Maggie Hoskie, make her ideally suited to be a monster hunter. She is Honágháahnii, which means Walks-Around, giving her lightning speed. And she is K’aahanáanii, which means Living Arrow, making her, as Maggie herself puts it, “really good at killing people.”

Maggie’s powers emerge spontaneously in response to a devastating incident from her childhood.

“The clan powers answer your need,” Roanhorse says. “In Maggie’s case, her jumping off traumatic event was the murder of her grandmother, so what she needed then were those two powers … But often the coping skills that we learn in dealing with trauma—especially childhood trauma—may serve us in the moment but don’t necessarily serve us as we grow. And overcoming those and the baggage that comes with it is part of Maggie’s journey.”

The novel is a gripping action-adventure that all readers can appreciate but that holds particular resonance for Native Americans. Some readers have told Roanhorse that “they’ve never seen some of the things I talk about on the rez in a book… I had one reader say she cried the whole way through because she’s never gotten to see that.”

A Yale graduate and lawyer specializing in federal Indian law, Roanhorse didn’t get serious about writing until 2013. But she’s quickly made a name for herself. A couple days before we recorded her interview in August, she was honored at the 76th WorldCon with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™.” (The story also earned the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in May and is read by Lavar Burton on his podcast.)

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