BOOK REVIEW: Steve Russell, Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from Dropout to Professor (McLean, VA: Miniver Press, 2020), 340pp.

Steve Russell is a big man, physically, intellectually, and morally. He’s also a great writer and storyteller. His recent memoir, Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from Dropout to Professor, tells the story of his life through overlapping and intertwining tales. The overall structure is chronological, but the chapters often take a step back or to the side, opening a new perspective on something we’ve already learned in order to build on it and add detail, nuance, and the ground for a following tale that will do the same thing. It’s an adventure book, a journey through space and time that becomes full of many people’s lives. We gradually realize, even if we don’t know Steve, we are part of his community—the community of people working against adversity toward realization. 

The energy of the stories and their direction is impelled from the start by Steve’s urges to grow in every dimension—upward, outward, inward, and downward. Up from poverty and parental dysfunctions manifesting intergenerational trauma from the Trail of Tears; outward and inward with the love of nurturing grandparents who encouraged his native curiosity about the world and especially his curiosity about his Native identity; downward into his Cherokee roots while growing up in Muscogee Creek lands and finding his way into a career that included being a judge and a professor. The stories spiral around these movements and intentions, told with honesty, courage, and increasing wisdom. We are fortunate that no matter where he was in this journey, Steve wrote, and his writing is good. 

The book title reveals the arc of the story, so we know where we’re headed, which helps cushion the shocks of so many episodes that would overwhelm a weaker, less determined person. Steve’s talent shows repeatedly in his ability to relate survival stories with grace, evenhandedness, compassion, and humor. His coming-of-age stories are often delightful, even as they hang out all the laundry; in not sparing himself, he demonstrates how it is possible to work through adversity. He doesn’t pretend trauma simply goes away, but rather, as he says at one point, that “you will, in your own time, learn to park it somewhere that allows you not to trip over it.” The stories all lead to insights like this. They are teaching stories, expanding through and beyond the telling of Steve’s life into the reader’s life.

Beyond being stories of Steve’s life, each chapter illuminates history, politics, and psychology. He accomplishes this cleanly, without becoming didactic, simply tying his personal experiences into the experiences of his people and the American people, past and present. His struggles are intergenerational struggles, and his survival is the survivance of the Cherokee and other Native peoples from the ravages of what he calls the North American Holocaust. But not only Native people: He insists again and again his is a story of being human. He reminds me of what Muscogee Creek Medicine Man Phillip Deere said: “We are not talking about an ‘Indian’ way of life; we are talking about a human being way of life.” Steve digs deeper into his Native heritage with each chapter, but he does so in a way that sets an example for any person trying to figure out who they are and where they come from and where they’re going.

Steve and I trod parallel career paths on our way through law school and into what is conventionally called US “Indian law,” but is really US anti-Indian law. We also shared an interest in journalism in college and beyond, which culminated in us both being columnists for Indian Country Today Media Network when it was owned by the Oneida Nation. He has musical talent I never developed, despite my closeness to musician friends. Our academic trajectories intersected at conferences and in shared teaching methods. Although I read his book against the background of this personal involvement, I am sure readers who have no personal connection to this man will engage with him through his writing and enrich their lives by the fire he tends.