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An ASU student's frightening story is featured in new Indigenous dark fiction anthology

“I think a lot of Indigenous people are really drawn to like, spooky things,” says Anishinaabe author Amber Blaeser-Wardzala of the White Earth Nation in Minnesota. “It comes back to the idea of oral storytelling.”

She’s one of 26 authors from across Indian Country who contributed to “ Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology,” and is now based in the Valley. The collection of spooky short stories was released by Penguin Random House in September.

But long before that, Blaeser-Wardzala didn’t begin reading until age 10 or 11. She still loved stories, though, especially oral ones that her mother told her.

“I used to tell my mom made up stories already,” says Blaeser-Wardzala, “so it was like, inherently in my blood, I guess you could say.”

Storytelling, even the sharing of scary stories, is vital to Indigenous cultures, mostly in the oral tradition. So long as those frightening tales aren’t attracting any negative energy in the form of evil creatures toward them.

“My tribe, the Anishinaabe, have a belief that there are certain stories you can only tell when there's snow on the ground,” Blaeser-Wardzala explained. “We would start to hear those stories again.”

Snowfall arrives right around Halloween in the Midwest. She says the creatures are mostly sleeping during the winter, “and so by saying their name, they're not going to be drawn to you.”

Among the Anishinaabe, it’s the Wendigo. For the Diné, it’s Skinwalkers. Both of them share similarities, according to Blaeser-Wardzala. But “the most specific one is that you’re not supposed to speak the name out loud.”

However, her short story is about a young English major seeking a recommendation letter from a white professor.

“And she discovers that the professor is collecting human heads on her walls of past people that she has helped,” Blaeser-Wardzala added.

It’s called “Collections,” and she workshopped the piece in late 2021 during her first few months as a MFA student in the Creative Writing program at Arizona State University in Tempe.

“It was my first story that I was working on. I wanted to submit, meet this deadline and try to be a part of this,” according to Blaeser-Wardzala.

Although her work has been published in literary magazines, she had not previously been featured in a book publication.

Now, she’s getting ready to graduate from the program, and last month’s anthology launch bookends her beginning and end at ASU.

She says being a Native undergrad at an Ohio liberal arts college made her feel tokenized: “So, I wanted to kind of play off that feeling, and write a story where people are literally being collected just for like one aspect of themselves.”

And while her story draws upon personal experiences, Blaeser-Wardzala insists while laughing: “I have not been to a professor's house where they're collecting human heads.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.