Thursday, August 09, 2018

Concerns about Roanhorse's TRAIL OF LIGHTNING

Editors note, Oct 1 2018: At the bottom of this post, I will add links to articles/videos where Native writers or scholars discuss Roanhorse and/or the concerns I raised below. Today, for example, I will add links to videos from the Institute of American Indian Art. One is titled "Cultural Stakes," it is dated Fall 2018. The other is by a student, Rose Simpson. In her lecture she talks about this issue specifically as it relates to her and people she knows. She is a Pueblo woman. Her talk is shorter than Cultural Stakes. I recommend you start with hers. AICL's post on this issue is dated August 9. Her talk was uploaded to the vimeo site on June 6, 2018. --Debbie

Editor's note, Oct 10, 2019: Sometime in 2018, Roanhorse removed Ohkay Owingeh from her website. She was adopted. Through an investigator she found her birth mother, who told her that she was from Ohkay Owingeh. I do not know why Roanhorse removed that information. On October 5, 2019, Adrian Jawort published a defense of Roanhorse. I disagree with Jawort's conclusions but am including a link to it below with the others. --Debbie


I want Native children to have books that respect who they are, as Native children. I want Native writers to experience success in the publishing world, because that translates to opportunities for more Native writers. And I want Native writers to be successful in every genre--including science fiction and fantasy!

But, there are things that don't belong in books. Let me explain.

I was raised with a deep respect for our ceremonies and our religious ways of being. Wrapped up in that respect is a commitment to protect that knowledge. I can easily see and hear elders telling us, as children, “don’t tell your teacher or your friends ...” Their instructions are based on hundreds of years of experience with exploitation and misrepresentation that were--are--harmful to us as individuals, as people of a community, and as a tribal nation.

Our elders, in essence, drew a curtain. A curtain between what can be disclosed, and what cannot be disclosed. It protects us. That instruction is a guiding principal that I bring to my study of children's and young adult literature. I lost sight of it, recently, and am addressing that failure with this blog post. And I am apologizing to friends and colleagues who are Navajo. 

Whenever I pick up a book, the first thing I do is look at the author. If the author is Native, I relax because I assume that the author is knowledgeable about their nation and that they will only disclose what can be disclosed. If the author is not Native or not of the nation the book is about, I look to see if there’s an indication that the book was looked at by someone with the expertise necessary to spot factual errors--and problems of disclosure, too.

Back in February of 2018, I read and reviewed Legends of the Lost Causes by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester (they are not Native writers). I questioned their use of religious aspects of Osage and Abenaki people. So, I did not recommend the book. I noted that the book was blurbed by someone from the Osage Nation but that I had concerns and questions, nonetheless. Then in May, 2018, Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal, published Sensitivity Readers, Cultural Considerations, and Legends of the Lost Causes. In it, she posed some of my questions to Jessilyn Hudgins of the Osage Nation's Cultural Center. Hudgins replied that McLelland was willing to change or take out anything that she wasn't comfortable with. Because Hudgins is of that nation, her feedback is important. It gives the authors and the publisher a green light to continue with the Osage content in the other books in that series. 

I still have questions, though, because I know that Indigenous people fall on a continuum of what is or is not ok to share. Where any one of us falls is based on the teachings we were given, and where we were raised. Many of us do not grow up on our reservations, and even if we do, some of us make different choices about how we will speak (or not) about our religious ways. In other words, within our nations, we don't all come out at the same place with respect to what we think can be shared. In that continuum, I'm over on the end that says 'do not talk about this at all.' 

I started talking with Rebecca Roanhorse on Twitter about three years ago. In those conversations and on her website, I learned that she is Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) and Black, and married to a Navajo man. (Update on July 19, 2019: Roanhorse no longer lists Ohkay Owingeh on her profile.) I also learned that she is a writer, working primarily in science fiction and fantasy. 

Somewhere along there I learned that she was working on a book with a Navajo protagonist. I learned the book was meant for the adult market, but because of the age of the protagonist, I wanted to see it. Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar wasn't marketed for teens. Neither was Louise Erdrich's The Round House or Marcie Rendon's Murder on the Red River. But--I'd hand those books to an older teen in an instant. So, I wanted to see Roanhorse's Trail of Lightning. I also learned that Navajo people were working with her on the Navajo content. Because of that, I assumed that she did not have anything in the book that should not be disclosed. When I got the book, I liked what I read and said so, on Facebook and on Twitter. When invited to do so, I wrote a review of it for Barnes and Noble's website.

For that review, I began with the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. I find her metaphor -- that books can be windows, mirrors, or sliding glass doors -- tremendously useful. White children have many mirrors. Native children have very few, and some of them are cracked and more like those fun house mirrors at carnivals. This graphic (credit for the infographic is to Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin, and David Hyuck) makes the point quite well:

See how many mirrors the White child has? Over seventy percent of the books received at CCBC in 2015 featured White characters, and only .9% featured Native characters. Even worse--the books included in that .9% are ones with stereotypes and otherwise bad representations! So--not only is the mirror the Native child holds small, it is one that distorts who Native people are.

In recent writings, I've begun adding a curtain to Dr. Bishop's metaphor. It is similar to the line of disclosure. For some things, we draw a curtain on our windows. There are things we do not share and do not wish to share. (See, for example, an excerpt of an article I wrote for Language Arts in 2018).

As I read Trail of Lightning, I recognized the places Roanhorse was writing about. The way she wrote about the setting struck me as a mirror. A splendid one, in fact. That's what I titled my article at Barnes and Noble: "A Splendid Mirror for Indigenous Readers." I was wrong. 

Roanhorse's book is published by Saga Press--an imprint of Simon & Schuster--which is significant. Simon & Schuster is one of the "Big Five" publishers in the United States. Most Native writers are published by smaller publishing houses. Getting published by one of the Big Five means way more visibility than is otherwise possible. 

So, I was happy on several counts. It looked like what I--as a Native woman and scholar--want to see! As evident on Twitter (update on July 19, 2019: Charlie Scott's supported it on Twitter and in October of 2018, wrote an article about it), there are Navajo readers who are taken with it, too. In some ways, the representations Roanhorse offers to readers of this genre are terrific. In most books set in the future, Indigenous people are completely missing. Roanhorse centers this story in Native spaces and features Native people. 

But, I started to hear directly from Navajo friends and colleagues. They are not at all happy with Trail of Lightning. From what I understand, Roanhorse crossed their lines of disclosure. If she had done this book using Pueblo religion, they said, she'd be called out for doing that. They're right. In fact, I'd be one of the people saying no to that book. And I'm grateful to them for, in essence, calling me out about my recommendation of Trail of Lightning.

This situation is uncomfortable for them, for me, and I am sure it will be uncomfortable for Roanhorse, too, when she reads this post. From her interviews online, she said that she knows that there are things within Ohkay Owingeh that she would not share. This is a concept she understands. It'd be easier to just ignore this whole thing and keep disagreements amongst Native scholars, critics, and readers behind that curtain, too, but that kind of silence does not help writers, editors, and readers grow in their understanding of who Indigenous people are and how some of us feel about the ways our stories are used--even if the person using our ways is Native.

There are many conversations taking place within Navajo circles. Some may write a letter (or letters) about Trail of Lightning. When those letters appear, I will add links to them (update on July 19, 2019: see the links at the bottom of this post). In the meantime, I invite you to submit comments or write to me directly with your thoughts or questions about what I've written above.

A quick note on some of the conversations I've had, that I'll summarize here as a Q&A. If they don't make sense, let me know.

Question 1: "What about other writers who have done this, like Tony Hillerman? Are people upset with him, too? And will they talk about his books?"
My answer: Yes, I've talked with Navajo people before about Hillerman's books, and yes, they object to what he did, but I don't know if there are plans to talk about his books within the context of Trail of Lightning. 

Question 2: "Are some of these people jealous of Roanhorse's success?"
My answer: That's possible, but the concerns are from a wide range of Navajo people, and I think that attributing the objections to jealousy rather than as serious concerns about the content is not fair. 

Question 3: "Are people being racist because she's Black?"
My answer: That's possible, but attributing objections to racism is also asking us to ignore the serious concerns about the content. 

Question 4: "What about the Navajo people who are really liking the book? Are they wrong for liking it?"
My answer: No, I don't think they're wrong for liking it. They may not know that traditionalists within the Navajo Nation do not think this content should be shared. They may change their minds later--or they may reject the idea of keeping some kinds of information private. 

Question 5: "What exactly is the problematic content?"
My answer: I would not point out the specific problematic content if the book had violated Pueblo lines of disclosure, because doing that would do precisely what the author has done. I do not know how Navajo people will describe their concerns with it. When I see them, I will link to them. 

Links to sites (arranged by date) where Native writers and scholars discuss or write about this issue. Also includes links to videos or articles where the topic was discussed by Roanhorse.

June 6, 2018. Video. Institute of American Indian Art, Low Rez MFA. Rose Simpson Craft Lecture. (Link added here on Oct 1, 2018.)

June 25, 2018. Video. Institute of American Indian Art, Low Rez MFA. Panel discussion, Fall 2018: Cultural Stakes with panelists Santee Frazier, Toni Jensen, James Thomas Stevens, and Kimberly Blaeser. (Link added here on Oct 1, 2018.)

July 1, 2018. Video. Q&A at the Jean-Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, NM, on June 26th, 2018. Rebecca Roanhorse Reads from Trail of Lightning and Takes Audience Questions. (Link added here on Oct 1, 2018.)

November 6, 2018. Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs, by the Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ (Diné Writers' Collective), published at Indian Country Today on Nov 4, 2018.

November 15, 2018. Does the letter from the Diné Writers Collective Mark a Turning Point? by Debbie Reese at AICL.

November 23, 2018. Guest column: New novel twists Diné teachings, spirituality by Jennifer Rose Denetdale, published in Navajo Times on November 22, 2018.

April 30, 2019: Muscogee writer, Michael Thompson, on interactions with bookseller when he shared concerns about Trail of Lightning

October 10, 2019: The Dangers of the Appropriation Critique by Adrian Jawort, in The Los Angeles Review of Books. (As noted in the editor's note at the top of this post, I disagree with Jawort.)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

A Native Perspective on the Intro to Christopher Emdin's FOR WHITE FOLKS WHO TEACH IN THE HOOD... AND THE REST OF Y'ALL TOO

Below is a twitter review of Dr. Christopher Emdin's For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of Y'all Too.  Once in awhile, I'll tweet as I read something. And sometimes, I bring those tweets into a blog post, as I've done here. 

First, some background. 

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood was published in 2016 by Beacon Press. Dr. Emdin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He's been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. That is a lot of visibility for an education professor! That visibility is why I know who he is, and why I think it important to share these thoughts about the introduction to his book. It was his use of the word "neoindigenous" that caught my eye when his book came out. I didn't read it when it came out because I am not working as an Education professor. 

Here's my tweets, compiled with an app called Spooler, which puts tweets into paragraph form. To preserve their integrity as single tweets, I manually inserted paragraph returns to match what I did on Twitter. I started the thread on August 3, 2018 at 7:19 AM. To distinguish the tweet thread from what I'm writing today in this blog post, I'm indenting the tweets:

Looking at Emdin's FOR WHITE FOLKS WHO TEACH IN THE HOOD and wondering if anybody has read it and felt his use of children at Carlisle in the Intro is off base? 
Right now, it strikes me as problematic. Emdin begins with an account of having spent a day with mostly White teachers in Wyoming who teach mostly Native children who are disinterested, underperforming, not adjusting to rules of the school. 
The teachers, he writes, had questions, and in "an effort to not offend" he steered clear of the fact that these are White teachers, teaching Native children. He offered strategies that he knew, from experience elsewhere, that might help. 
Later, he reflected that the teachers might have gotten insight about the profession of teaching, but wasn't sure if they knew or cared abt divide between schools and unique culture of the students. 
Then, he remembers Luther Standing Bear's MY PEOPLE THE SIOUX and starts to make connections between "Indigenous Americans and the urban youth of color in my hometown." 
This is where Emdin tries to make connections between students at Carlisle in the 1870s--specifically drawing from the writings of Luther Standing Bear--and his own days as a youth in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and in the Bronx. 
And that's where things really start to feel... off. 
Standing Bear wrote abt a Sioux elder's actions to commemorate a death. It reminds Emdin of men in his urban neighborhood who would lift liquor in brown paper bags to the heavens, to commemorate someone. 
Rdg what Standing Bear wrote helped Emdin understand what those men were doing. It was, he writes, a powerful community practice around sorrow and healing. 
I understand how he got there but was that lifting of liquor in brown paper bags rooted in a system of religion? 
Then, Emdin shifts to Carlisle and Pratt and teachers who went there. 
The teachers, he writes, believed in Pratt's vision: "For them, it was because of Pratt's genuine concern for the Indigenous Americans that he had found it in his heart to give them a better life through education."
Emdin takes care to be critical of methods at Carlisle, like when he uses quotes around "tame the Wild Indian" where he writes that the school was an experiment to "tame the Wild Indian."
He writes that the school used a militaristic approach (it did) to help "the Indigenous Americans assimilate to white norms." This meant stripping them of their culture and traditions. He's right about that, too, but it is a VERY incomplete way to think of the schools. 
There was a lot more going on--and Emdin ignores that. Or maybe he doesn't know? Assimilation programs had the goal of undermining our status as sovereign nations. You can spin it (as he did) as mis-guided efforts to educate children, but...
I think Emdin is wrong to use Luther Standing Bear and Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a launching point for his book. Without any mention of sovereignty and treaties, he's inadvertently doing what Pratt did. 
I think Emdin must not know about our status as sovereign nations. That is a huge problem throughout the US. People generally don't know. They see us as peoples with cultures, or one of the "multicultural" populations in the US. 
I wrote about that sometime back: (……)
At the bottom of page 7 is a new section in the intro, titled "Connecting the Indigenous and Neoindigenous."
Emdin starts by talking abt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and hones in on geographic location prior to colonization/invasion. He says "unique knowledge" but nary a mention of our status as nations. 
UNDRIP references our political structures and treaties. Did Emdin see that? 
Then he focuses on "Indigenous American students" at Carlisle. I think his use of that phrase signals a lack of understand of what it means to us to be sovereign nations. Students who went to Carlisle were citizens of their nations. 
Some Native peoples--then and now--foreground their status as citizens of their Native nation. If a nation doesn't have citizens, it ceases to exist as a nation. 
On page 8, Emdin says that if you remove the geographic location from the UN Declaration, "it can be applied to marginalized populations generally." Again--I see what he's doing but this does not work! 
He says "Because of the similarities in experience between the indigenous and urban youth of color, I identify urban youth as neoindigenous." It is the way he wants to use that word -- Indigenous -- that gets very messy. 
Indigenous children are citizens of Indigenous sovereign nations. Urban youth and urban communities do not have that political status. 
It might be helpful to download/read NCAI's "Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction." (…)
It might also be helpful to think of where Indigenous Studies departments are located, within universities. Usually, they are part of ethnic studies configurations but placing them there obscures that nationhood status. 
Someone---Dr. Duane Champagne, maybe--made the point that perhaps it would help if Indigenous Studies departments were housed with International Studies, instead. 
I'd have to look for it to be sure, but I think he made that observation in "Native American Studies in Higher Education: Models for Collaboration between Universities and Indigenous Nations (Contemporary Native American Communities) published in 2002. 
Hmm.. the photo I took today of my nation's flag makes that point. Our neighbor is flying the flag of the US. I'm flying the flag of Nambé, which is a nation, too.

I'll also pause my reading of the intro to say that the word Indigenous should be in caps, not lower case, when you're referring to us. I'm really glad to see style guides about that... here's one: (…)
I'm also curious about the binary that Emdin seems to be working with. If I understand what he's saying, neoindigenous means black urban youth. 
But... I know for a fact that many of them are citizens of Indigenous nations, too. 
And within cities like Chicago, Los Angeles... you'll find sizable Indigenous communities, there because of one of those govt assimilation projects. That one is Relocation, of the 1950s. Some info here: American Indian Urban Relocation.
Back to Emdin's intro. On page 13, where he writes "the indigenous, who have been relegated to certain geographic areas" -- well, why say "relegated"? That carries a less-than connotation. Some of us are on our homelands. We didn't get "relegated" to them. 
For sure, Emdin is making good pts abt how youth are treated in schools and I understand his goal is to get teachers to think abt the cultures their students have as a plus--not a minus--but along the way, he's kind of passing along errors re Indigenous peoples. 

End of thread on August 3rd.

I picked up the thread again on August 4th, 2018 at 6:56 AM:

I understand the error on first page of chapter 1 (Emdin says that Bigger Thomas is in Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN, but Bigger Thomas is in NATIVE SON) is being corrected in subsequent publications. I think there's an error in Emdin's...
... use of Luther Standing Bear, too. On page 3, Emdin writes abt Sioux use of a pipe as marking a death... 

... but Standing Bear describes use of that pipe as the start of the day:

Now I know some people out there are reading this thread and think I am being picky. Some think that Emdin's overall message is more important than these problems with the ways he using Native people, culture, etc. BUT...
If you think I ought to be quiet about these problems, then, you're asking me to be complicit in the misrepresentations of Native peoples. I won't do that. My ancestors fought for our existence. Because of that, I am here, today. We are here, today. As nations. 
Emdin could have built his concept of reality pedagogy without using Indigenous, or neoindigenous.

At one point in the thread on August 3rd, @arcticisleteach replied to me, tagged Emdin, and suggested I include Emdin in the twitter conversation because they are sure Emdin would be open to the dialogue. Emdn replied, saying "Absolutely. Always here to discuss the work. Let's get it!!"

I figured he was reading through the thread to catch up, but after a few hours when he did not reply, I replied that I had read the intro. The day next (Aug 4), I tagged him when I added those tweets to my thread. He replied:

To my "Emdin could have built his concept of reality pedagogy without using Indigenous or neoindigenous" he said (Aug 4, 9:03 AM):
Appreciate your perspectives & thoughtfulness. I certainly could have avoided neoindigenous framing. It was intentional not to. 

And then at 9:29 AM on Aug 4, he said:
Aware & respectful of sovereignty but my focus is on connections & paying homage to the indigenous in a world/field that erases

Today, August 5 at 6:33 AM, I replied:
Paying homage? Homage and honor .... that's the sort of thing that got mascots on sports fields. And our "but my focus" sounds a lot like white folks who defend the mascots with "but you don't understand! I'm trying to honor you!"

And he responded at 8:01 AM, saying "Elders I spoke w/ for permission & blessing before moving forward with my work would disagree w/your perceptions of my intention"

I replied. Below are my tweets, started at 8:08 AM (gathered using the Spooler app):
Ah. Invoking elders. That's kind of messed up. It is a given that you have the very best of intentions. But lets be real, ok? Some elders are ok with mascots. You and I are working in Education. We know what representation is all about. 
I am pointing out problems that I see in your use of boarding schools and Luther Standing Bear and the term "neoindigenous". 
Because you're very successful with this book, it is influential and shaping the way that teachers are thinking. That they're getting wrong info about Native people from you is not good. At all. If the shoe was on the other foot, I think you would agree with me. 
You said: "Elders I spoke w/ for permission & blessing before moving forward with my work would disagree w/ your perception of my intention"
I would like to know more about what precisely you said to these elders. 
What did you need permission and blessings, to do? I'm pushing pretty hard, and I know that seems mean to some and uncomfortable to others. 
In my look-see at what you used from Standing Bear, you have it wrong. But maybe I'm wrong. Can you tell me what page to look at in his book?

Dr. Emdin has not replied. When he does, I'll be back to insert his response. And maybe it doesn't feel right to him to try to use Twitter for this conversation? If that's the case, he's welcome to say more, here. I'll let him know when I share this post on Twitter. 

Part of why I have chosen to turn that Twitter review into a blog post that incorporates his responses is that I think it is helpful to students--whether they're young children or adults in college--to see scholars talking to each other, wrestling with ideas, and maybe revising our own in the process. I don't know if what I've said above in the tweets makes sense to you. If not, let me know in a comment or on Twitter. I could turn the questions into a Q&A that I can add to this post. 

[Note at 5:33 PM on August 5: If you submit a comment and it doesn't show up, please write to me directly. I continue to have problems with the comment interface.]