Tuesday, November 14, 2023

My Thoughts on Claims to Cherokee Identity -- and Art Coulson

I've been reading, studying, and writing about children's books for over thirty years. The ones I write about are those about Native people, and those written by Native people. 

How do I know if someone is Native? 

For most of those thirty years, I've taken a person's word. In some cases, they were circulating with people I know to be Native. My assumption is that a person that claims to be Native and hangs out with other Natives is who they say they are, but as I reflect on that assumption, I see it as naive. 

When I find out later there's no substance for a person's claim, I go through a range of emotions: humiliation, embarrassment, and dread. Dread, because now I have to withdraw my previous support or recommendations of their work. And I try to remember editors to whom I've said "work with this person" to let them know. I hate all of that. It feels awful. 

From past experience, I know the author will be upset and may write to me and have their friends write to me, angry, or pleading with me not to withdraw my support. 

The bottom line for me is this: I recommend books in which Native kids see themselves. Native kids are at the center of my work. I imagine myself, back in a classroom, handing a child a book and saying "this author is from the same tribe you are from!" And then I imagine myself trying to figure out what to tell that child when I learn the person is not who I thought they were. I could ignore it but that wouldn't be ethical. 

I agonize over saying anything at all, here on AICL, but I know that AICL creates ripples. What I say here is cited in book chapters and articles. What I say here is used by acquisition editors looking for books by Native writers. 

So here's where I am with respect to writers who say they're of Cherokee descent. 

In 2020, a group of Cherokee scholars, writers, and educators launched "Think Tsalagi: A Cherokee-centric place by Cherokee scholars." On their site is a statement called Cherokee Scholars' Statement on Sovereignty and Identity. I'm noting key parts of it here:
  • In 2008 at a joint council meeting of the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a resolution was adopted that opposed non-citizen self-identified Cherokee individuals. 
  • In bold, they write "Only individuals recognized as citizens of the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians should claim a Cherokee identity as part of their professional or personal identity."
  • They encourage individuals who believe they are Cherokee to contact the appropriate Cherokee government to inquire about citizenship. If that government determines they do not have a right to Cherokee citizenship, they should immediately cease identifying as Cherokee. 
The Cherokee Scholars' Statement also says:
Any person who publicly identifies as Cherokee has initiated a public discussion about their identity. It is appropriate to ask such persons to explain the verifiable basis upon which they are claiming a Cherokee identity.
So, I think that's what I'm doing with this blog post. I'm initiating a public discussion with Art Coulson about his claim to being of Cherokee descent. 

Since 2013, I've been talking about his books. I often include information about them in collection and curriculum development workshops I do with librarians and teachers. Two weeks ago, I was developing a presentation. In recent years, I've included a sentence that suggests how a teacher or librarian could introduce an author's book. I talk about that sentence and what it does, educationally. One: it has present tense verbs, which interrupts the idea we no longer exist. Two: it names an author's tribal nation, which interrupts the idea that we're all the same. 

So with Art Coulson, I was going to say "Art Coulson is ... " 

When I write those sentences, I often go back to an author's webpage to make sure I use what they say. I went to Art's page and clicked on the "About Art" tab. Not a word, there, about being Cherokee. I went back to the home page and there, I saw "Art Coulson is a writer of Cherokee, English and Dutch descent..."  

I was taken aback. I had been sure he was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I've met Art. I've talked with him online and in person. So I wrote to him to ask about the information on his website. He said it is correct and that he is ineligible for citizenship because his grandmother's family is not on the Dawes Roll, which is what the Cherokee Nation uses to determine who its citizens are. That did not sit well with me, and so I did not recommend his book in that presentation. 

With the Cherokee Scholars statement and the 2008 resolution in mind, it is important to respect their request and withdraw my recommendations of Art Coulson's books. If you're a person who asserts that you are Cherokee, I think it is important that you respect the Cherokee Nation, too. If you think you are a citizen of Cherokee Nation, get that figured out before you start using that information in your professional work. If you think your ancestry is from one of the other two Cherokee Nations, check with them.  

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