Friday, September 25, 2015

Writers: Do not do a Peter Nabokov! Please respect tribal nations and our protocols.

In several places, I've written about the 1800s, when white ethnographers began going to reservations--uninvited--with the intent of documenting our stories. Those ethnographers were outsiders. Did they understand what they were writing about? Were their informants reliable? There are a lot of questions about those archived stories, and yet, present day storytellers use them to "retell" Native stories that get presented to children in classrooms as authentic. Some of those stories are ones tribes want to protect from outsiders.

To protect their stories, Native Nations developed protocols that researchers--and that means writers, too--are expected to use.

Dr. Peter Nabokov, a professor and author of several works of nonfiction about Native peoples, chose to violate those protocols with the publication of his newest book. In an interview published by the National Geographic on September 23rd, 2015, he was asked about the project:
You’re a white man yourself. How did the Acoma tribe regard this project?
They didn’t know about it. [Laughs] There was some concern about the republication of the Acoma’s Origin Myth. When it was published in 1942 by the Bureau of American Ethnology, it sat under-appreciated for a number of years. Later on, it appeared in excerpted form in anthologies. With the coming of the Internet, various people put it out in the public domain, including the pictures, the kachina masks, the maps and depictions of sacred altars.
I thought this publication of the Origin Myth deserved a second, more dignified shot. So I didn’t allow any pictures of the sacred altars or kachina masks to be republished, just the text. I feel this story deserves inclusion alongside the Bible, the Koran, and all the other great texts of world literature. 

See that? He knows there are concerns but he laughed that Acoma didn't know he was publishing the book. He tells us he wanted to be "more dignified." What he chose not to include in his book suggests that he is more dignified in his treatment. That he wants the story to be alongside other texts of world literature suggests that he is aware and sensitive to the place of Native story in a global context.

Sounds good, but is it? The short answer is no.

Here's an excerpt from a statement Acoma's Governor, Fred S. Vallo Sr., published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on September 23, 2015 (the same day as the interview at National Geographic). I am using bold text to draw your attention to protocol and Nabokov's disregard of those protocols:

Nabokov agreed to submit the manuscript to the pueblo for review and to appear before the Acoma Tribal Council to discuss possible publication of the book. Virtually every other modern scholar and professional working with the Pueblo of Acoma has sought this permission when seeking to disclose sensitive cultural information. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Acoma has approved of disclosure in the past. Some examples of published work with permission of the Pueblo of Acoma include publications by Dr. Ward Allan Minge, Dr. Alfred Dittert, Dr. Florence Hawley Ellis, Dr. Kurt Anschuetz and others.
While a manuscript of The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo was submitted to Acoma Pueblo at the pueblo’s insistence upon discovering Nabokov’s planned publication, and was being reviewed by traditional leaders, Nabokov did not follow through on any of his other promises prior to publication. Nabokov holds himself out as a scholar and “friend” of Indian tribes. His actions suggest otherwise, as he does not exhibit basic respect for tribal beliefs and practices.
I think it is fair to say that Nabokov is exploiting Native people for personal gain. There's no integrity in what he did, none at all. And his treatment of Acoma's wishes gives me pause. What, I wonder, about the rest of his books?

Are you planning to use a Native story in a work of fiction or non-fiction? Find out if it is ok to use it. Do not assume--as the author of a recent children's book did--that those protocols only apply to academic researchers. They apply to anyone. Don't assume a visit to a tribe's museum and a chat with a docent counts as authorization. It doesn't. Don't assume your friendships with people of that tribe are sufficient. They aren't. Do it right. Respect the wishes of the tribal nation from whom the story originates. Not doing so could mean you'll be written up in the news, exposed as someone with no basic respect for tribal peoples and on AICL, too.

Update, 7:30 AM, September 25, 2015
Read Governor Vallo's full statement in The New Mexican
Read the Public Statement issued by the Pueblo of Acoma


  1. Such a violation. White privilege -- that mistaken belief of 'knowing best'-- is so very wrong, so immoral. Thanks for bringing attention to this.

  2. Thanks so much for writing about this, Debbie. Thankfully, we are seeing fewer of these sorts of stories published for children than we used to, but I would hope every author (or would-be author) will find and follow your sound advice.

  3. Hi, Debbie. Late last night, I read Governor Vallo’s statement in The New Mexican and the public statement issued by the Pueblo of Acoma. Then I read Nabokov’s introduction to his new book (online). What Nabokov—professor of American Indian Studies and World Arts at UCLA—has done is an extension of colonialism, an extension of Manifest Destiny. Whatever they want, they take. I’m glad that you and the people of Acoma are pushing back against this latest iteration of white privilege and white power.

  4. There is no excuse for Nabakov. As a prof of Indian Studies, he knew what he was doing. Even the title of his book is insulting. Does he refer to the Christian's origin story as a "Myth"? Of course not. This guy is a bigot. Boycott the book.

  5. I think you misunderstand Nabakov. He is republishing something that is all ready published, not exploitively, but in respect. I do Free he should have waited for Aroma review, but as a historian, Nabakov is one of the best and one of the most respectful and he has been doing this a very long time.

  6. Nabokov started off his career with interest in Native American History but as he got older and bounced from one University to another he simply started grabbing for anything. This is someone who openly rejected his own history at a book-signing as "not important" with his signature condescending hand gesture and laugh. As a tutor at the college he had his book-signing at I was embarrassed, especially since the question about his own background was asked with genuine interest by a Native American . Native Americans have kept Mr. Nabokov employed for most of his life in one way or another as he pulled endless amounts of grant money from various Universities to go gallivanting around the world under the pretenses of "work". He spoke very openly about his scam as a source of amusement over the years. I'm not at all surprised he did this toward the end of his career as he is a supremely arrogant man. I'm sorry the Acoma have to go through this violation.



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