Thursday, November 15, 2018

Open Letter: "Trail of Lightning is an Appropriation of Diné Cultural Beliefs." Does the Letter from the Diné Writer's Collective Mark a Turning Point?

On November 5, 2018, Indian Country Today published Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs. It is from the Diné Writer's Collective and is signed by Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, Chee Brossy, Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, Tina Deschenie, Jacqueline Keeper, Dr. Lloyd Lee, Manny Loley, Jaclyn Roessel, Roanna Shebala, Jake Skeets, Dr. Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, and Orlando White.

All the people that signed the letter are Diné (Navajo). They write poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Some are professors or teach writing. As far as I know, this letter is the first of its kind. These writers are telling everyone not to appropriate Diné culture and beliefs.

Although their letter is specifically about Rebecca Roanhorse and her book, Trail of Lightning, they name others, as well:
There are other examples of literary appropriation of our culture by non-Navajos. Notably Tony Hillerman and his "mystery" books that appropriated and continue to profit off Navajo culture and stories without shame — all while portraying us inaccurately. Once again, there was no Diné "board" or "intellectual property committee" that denounced Hillerman’s use of our property (in the 1970s-90s when he published the bulk of his books) for his gain and it has gone largely unchecked. We think of other non-Navajo writers such as Oliver LaFarge, Scott O’Dell, the infamous Nasdijj aka Timothy Barrus, who constructed Navajo people and our stories from an outsider’s perspective. 
Hillerman, LaFarge, O'Dell, and Barrus aren't Native. Though Hillerman and LaFarge did not write specifically for children or teens, O'Dell did. His Sing Down the Moon came out in 1970. Published by Houghton Mifflin, it won a Newbery Honor Medal in 1971. I have not read Sing Down the Moon but can see that O'Dell brought what he thinks of as Diné spiritual beliefs into his novel (p. 44):
"Jesus Cristo," Rosita said, "is like all our gods if you put them together. He is Falling Water and Spider Woman. But he is not cunning like Falling Water, nor is he vengeful like Spider Woman."
The Diné writers go on to say (I've highlighted a few words):
In doing so [constructing Navajo people our stories from an outsider's perspective], a disservice was done to the Navajos, as it also reinforced old and new stereotypes. Furthermore, Roanhorse’s appropriation, especially as an in-law who married into and lived on the Navajo Nation homeland and as an Indigenous relative, is a betrayal of trust and kinship. We do not want to let such breaches of faith and cultural contract slide any longer. So we write this letter objecting to the book.
Are the writers going to speak up about other books and writers in the future? It sure sounds like it to me, and while it makes me nervous for writers, I also welcome the letter because I think it can have a positive impact on writing.

During Twitter conversations, someone asked if other Native writers have been challenged for writing stories of a Native people that is not their own. Two people came to mind: Joseph Bruchac, and Tim Tingle. Bruchac's Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two came out in 2004 from Dial Books. There are passages of ceremony in that book. More recently, Tingle wrote a series about the Long Walk. Published by 7th Generation, it featured a teenager named Danny Blackgoat. In the third book, there is a chapter called Grandfather's Healing during which Danny recites a prayer.

Did Bruchac or Tingle do what Roanhorse did? The fact is, I don't know. I am of Nambé Pueblo. I don't know what is appropriate regarding the use of Navajo spiritual or cultural ways. When Trail of Lightning came out, I promoted it on social media because I believed Roanhorse had the guidance necessary to share what was ok to share. But then I started to hear from Navajo readers who had concerns over its content. After much thought, I withdrew my recommendation of Trail of Lightning, and as best as I've been able to do, I've inserted a note to that effect on social media in spaces where I had recommended it. That may strike some as an extreme act on my part. Why did I do that? Because Native spiritual ways are so horribly misunderstood and misrepresented in books and films. Instead of the respect that ought to be accorded to our belief systems, they often get characterized as folk or fairy tales rather than sacred stories that guide our lives. The Nov 2018 Scholastic book club flyer is a recent example (red x and words to the left of the image are mine): 




I've shared the Diné letter in several places because I think what they said is important. Some have responded to the letter (not necessarily to me, specifically) by asking questions like 'who gave the Diné writers authority to write this letter?' As the writers indicated, the Diné Nation does not have a committee that has oversight over this but they are--as citizens of a sovereign nation--defending that sovereignty and acting to safeguard their spiritual beliefs. We could turn that particular question onto a writer and that writer's cultural advisors: who gave them authority to write/endorse the book's contents?! Indeed, who gave me (Debbie Reese) authority to review books, at all? Clearly, some of these conversations go nowhere but other ones can help us with our work.

What does the letter mean, for AICL, and for me as a critic and scholar of representations of Indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books?

For now, it means that I will be even more careful in what I do in my review and analysis of children's books. This is where I am, today:


  • when I use the #OwnVoices tag, I will only use it for a book by a Native writer who is writing of their own nation. And I will take care to identify the nation of the writer who is writing outside their own nation. Joseph Bruchac's newest book, Two Roads, is about a Creek boy. We have not yet reviewed it on AICL but when we do, we'll note that Bruchac is Abenaki. Earlier this week, I saw an announcement that, in 2019, Tim Tingle will have a Choctaw detective book out for middle graders.  He's Choctaw; the character is Choctaw, so that would be an #OwnVoices book.
  • when I see any references to the spiritual or religious ways of Indigenous people in a not-own-voices book I am reviewing, I will include a note that I cannot speak with authority about that particular content. If there is a note in the book about a sensitivity reader, I will note that information, but also note that there is a continuum of what people think regarding what can and cannot be shared. Roanhorse's Trail of Lightning is a good example of that. She's not Diné, but Diné readers disagree in their determinations of what can and cannot be shared. 

At this moment, I am most concerned when the content is about religion or spiritual practice. I don't think that other subject matter (like events of the Long Walk) is as problematic but for sure, I'll be paying closer attention than ever before.

One thought is this: how to enforce any of this? Well, the fact is--nobody can enforce anything. This is not a question of a body or bodies of people forcing something to be undone. This is a question of ethics and decision making.


I think that scholars of Indigenous literature will be citing the Diné letter in the future. I don't know what that will look like. Will they embrace it? Or will they reject it, in parts or in its entirety? What do you think about it? If you work as an editor in a major publishing house, has anyone brought this letter to an editorial meeting? Will you take it to the next one you attend? Have you seen the contents of the letter being discussed as a conference yet? Has it been discussed in your social media networks? If you have any thoughts to share, or, if you have seen things said that you'd like to bring to this post, please submit them in a comment.

4 comments:

Ava Jarvis said...

I think this is a good turning point. It reminds me of similar things that went on with regards to East Asian writers and #ownVoices. Just as Vietnam, China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, and more, are separate nations and very separate, distinct cultures, this means we can irresponsibly appropriate and distort other cultures not our own. A Chinese writer could not claim being #ownVoices when writing a Japanese main character, even if they're married to a Japanese spouse.

Additionally, generalizing #ownVoices to apply to a disparate set of cultures due to how a colonialist nation groups them, further distorts and misrepresents the vibrancy of different countries, different cultures. It feeds into what is often called the "Pan Asia" stereotype, where everyone with epicanthic folds and dark hair and tan skin are considered the same. This homogenization feeds into racism and bigotry.

It must be said, also, that life is very different between Asian Americans and those who remain in their home countries or thereabouts. Asian Americans face different struggles than Asians outside of America, to the point where white supremacists often point out, say, a Chinese national's indifference to racism against Asians propagated in the West as being "evidence" that racism doesn't exist or doesn't matter.

In other words, someone who has never left Vietnam has such vastly different experiences from Vietnamese diaspora that this vast cultural distinction also an avenue for distortion and appropriation.

Additionally, every Asian nation has its own indigenous populations who aren't treated well. So there's that, too.

To me, the Diné letter makes sense and is important. Native Americans are as much a conglomerate as Asian Americans are, which is to say, not at all. Native Americans are made up of people from different nations and cultures. Asian Americans are made up of people who left different nations and cultures, and whose roots still affect them in different ways.

And there are other differences between Native Americans and Asian Americans as well, of course, but in this instance the echoes and parallels are very strong.

E. Ternes said...

The link to the letter at the top of the post seems to be broken. This one worked for me: https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/opinion/trail-of-lightning-is-an-appropriation-of-diné-cultural-beliefs-4tvSMvEfNE-i7AE10W7nQg/

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, E. Ternes. I corrected the link.

Val O. said...

Sometimes I have to wonder if people even read the book before putting headings like, "folk tale" on books. And, if they aren't reading the book, how can they give it a heading? It's definitely realistic fiction. Scholastic just doesn't think sometimes.