Jamake Highwater, prolific award-winning Native American writer and host of educational television shows rooted in the culture of his heritage, has died. Although his precise birth date is unknown, he was believed to be 59.
Highwater, perhaps best known for his books “Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey” and “The Sun, He Dies: A Novel About the End of the Aztec World,” died Sunday in his Los Angeles home of a heart attack, said his friend Ruth Schwab.
A self-taught expert on art, dance, music and history, Highwater wrote widely on all those topics, sometimes scarcely aware that he was writing from a Native American viewpoint. His more than 30 books include novels, nonfiction, poetry and even travel books for Fodor’s.
Although he disliked being labeled a children’s author, Highwater won some of the most prestigious awards given for young people’s fiction--including the Newbery Honor Award for “Anpao” in 1978 and half a dozen Best Book for Young Adults awards from the American Library Assn. and the School Library Journal.
“I simply consider myself to be very fortunate to have found it possible to cross that great barrier that publishers and critics normally construct between writing for children and writing for adults,” he once told an interviewer. "[I try to create] a book that sings. If there is a song . . . it lasts and people listen.”
Highwater gained wide public exposure through his several documentaries for PBS, including “The Primal Mind” in 1984. The film was based on his book “The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America,” which a Times reviewer lauded as a “sensitive book, a rare volume . . . to catalyze the mind.”
Shot on Southwestern Indian reservations, the documentary was written and hosted by Highwater and contrasted American Indian culture with European American traditions. It earned both the best film of the year award of the National Educational Film Festival and an ACE Award from the National Cable Television Assn.
“I have been credited with bringing a lot of attention to American Indians, but I’m not sure this is my purpose,” Highwater told The Times shortly before the program aired on KCET-TV Channel 28 in April 1984. “I would not presume to be a spokesperson for Indians, but, as with any other reporter, who and what I am as a person reflect [in] my work. I represent me and what Indianness means to me.”
He had taken years to understand that “Indianness” himself.
About all Highwater knew of his early life was that he was Indian. He was born, perhaps on Feb. 14 and perhaps in 1942, maybe in Montana, to an illiterate Blackfoot mother and a Cherokee father who was a rodeo rider and stuntman from “Virginia, Tennessee or North Carolina, depending on his memory and mood.”
The impoverished parents soon deposited the boy in an orphanage. The young Jamake was adopted at about age 7 and brought up in Southern California by Alexander and Marcia Marks. For years, he used the name “J. Marks” and even wrote his earliest books--on such subjects as rock music and Mick Jagger--under that name.
“When I was growing up in the 1950s, what I thought didn’t seem to belong anywhere,” Highwater once told The Times. “I never did think the way everybody else seemed to be thinking.”
He embraced the counterculture of the 1960s, educating himself informally in Los Angeles and then San Francisco, where he founded a modern dance and theater group and created its choreography.
He moved to New York and became so steeped in art, architecture and music that he spent much of his life lecturing at such institutions as the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and writing for such authoritative tomes as the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, as well as alternative publications, including the now-defunct Los Angeles Free Press.
It was Arthur Fodor, the travel guide magnate, who focused Highwater on his own Native American culture--by commissioning him to write a travel guide to “Indian America” in 1974.
“I realized,” Highwater said, “that a lot of other books had not been written.”
So in the 1970s he began to write them--"Song From the Earth: American Indian Painting,” “Ritual of the Wind: North American Indian Ceremonies, Music and Dances,” “Anpao,” “Journey to the Sky: A Novel About the True Adventures of Two Men in Search of the Lost Maya Kingdom,” “Many Smokes, Many Moons: A Chronology of American Indian History Through Indian Art,” “The Sun, He Dies” and “The Primal Mind.”
Among other works in the 1980s, Highwater turned out a noted “Ghost Horse” quartet of novels: “Legend Days,” “The Ceremony of Innocence,” “I Wear the Morning Star” and “Kill Hole.”
Moving into his final decade, Highwater delved into mysticism and spirituality with such books as “Myth and Sexuality,” “A Myth of Our Own: Adventures in World Religions” and “The Mythology of Transgression: Homosexuality as Metaphor.”
Highwater once explained what he termed the “Indian concept of reality and identity” that laced his writing in an interview with Publishers Weekly: “To the Indian mentality, dead people walk and things go backward and forward in time, and these are absolutely real and vivid ideas to my head, our heads.
“And more than that, the Indian world is one of the few worlds where human identity is not a major issue. In this [Western] society, you’re not permitted any kind of personal transformation. In ours, it is expected.”
Schwab said memorial services will be private.