You are seated at a mass signing as part of a midwestern book festival. A celebrated author sits at the table adjacent to you. His most famous book is about a white man’s journey of self-discovery guided by a Lakota elder on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
You can’t help noticing that the “action” at your table is significantly less compared to the author’s, not that you’re keeping count. His many fans stream to him, queue up to his table carrying armloads of books for him to sign. You overhear them asking things like, “What are Native Americans like?” And “how are your books being received by the Lakota?” Clearly, you are invisible, and you think that maybe you’d attract more attention if you wore a jingle dress.
You resolve to write an essay about this experience. But not because it is unfamiliar to you — white writers co-opting Native stories and profiting off of Native culture is as commonplace as the sun setting in the evening — but moreover because you are amid this particular intersection at this particular place and time. The irony is both unsettling and hysterical.
You are a little-known Lakota writer situated in your people’s traditional homelands, a spiritual “epicenter,” which was illegally overtaken by gold miners and gunslingers, who writes about her various experiences, first-hand lived experiences being a Lakota woman; not fictional odysseys of white saviordom, not being tutored by shapeshifters and time travelers riding into the desert on a horse with no name, but because here you are, seated and on full display in proximity to a non-Lakota writer who receives wide acclaim, who is considered representative, and an “expert” of your people. You laugh at that last thought. Because it suggests the author is an expert of you too, and that strikes you as ridiculous and even perverse.
You think of another acclaimed writer, who came to notoriety in the late sixties with the publication of “The Teachings of Don Juan.” The book was the first of many describing his training with a Yaqui medicine man in shamanism and sorcery. Millions of copies of his books have been sold. His webpage boasts of magical teachings from shamans of ancient Mexico. His books, originally touted as real-life accounts, have since been regarded as fiction. He was an expert flim-flam man who knows how to wrangle a narrative. And he didn’t accomplish his feats single handedly.
Just two months following the book festival, “Chicana AF” writer Myriam Gurba published “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.” Her takedown debated the validity of Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt,” and brought the publishing industry under scrutiny. Gurba stated that “American Dirt” followed in “the great American tradition of doing the following: 1. Appropriating genius works by people of color. 2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and 3. Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.”
You cheered Gurba’s article. It inferred volumes when applied to the practice of Indigenous co-option perpetrated by non-Indigenous scribes. You hoped it would open a conversation about white writers who breezily help themselves to cultural content like it’s an all-you-can-eat-buffet from marginalized communities not their own. Such books have been an industry staple for decades if not centuries. These books have a lot in common with “American Dirt,” in that they are also authored by cultural outsiders, and too often these writers are privileged over voices of “authority” — Indigenous authors who are actually representative of the communities they write about.
Gurba’s critique soon catalyzed into a multi-pronged media kraken: The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, NPR, Oprah Winfrey and more. You agreed with everything those in opposition to “American Dirt” were voicing. How could you not? You’ve been bitching about misappropriation and misrepresentation with regards to books and literature since forever, specifically, books reflecting Indigenous culture written badly by non-Indigenous people. Books that could have benefitted from a committee of sensitivity readers.
You read three or four pages of one such novel before figuratively throwing it across the room in disgust. The novel, set in contemporary times, is about Oglala characters living on Pine Ridge — a popular setting for white writers to mine material from, due to its poverty and shock value, apparently — the grittier, the better. A type of exploitation coined as “poverty porn.”
In the opening scene a mute Indian kid is shot in the leg with an arrow by one of his cousins — his “rez cousin.” The boy limps home where his grandma yells at him for bleeding all over the floor. You force yourself to keep reading but stop after a character refers to himself as a “red ni****.” The New York Times raved, celebrated authors lauded it, and the former president of the American Indian College Fund wept.
Another novel that came to your attention a few years ago followed the trials of a “half Apache” boy who had a weird attachment to a urinal cake. In the book’s first page the boy describes being run over by a truck, and you recall having read somewhere that a character from “American Dirt” was also run over by a truck. This would appear to be a trend (or trope) in literature from the margins, because Luis Alberto Urrea’s nonfiction book By the Lake of Sleeping Children, published in 1996, describes a scene about a boy crushed to death by a garbage truck. You wonder if the other two authors “copied” from Urrea’s book. You weren’t aware that brown kids getting mowed down by trucks was a thing.
While there are many non-Native authors — too many — who leave audiences worldwide enthralled with their invented and stereotyped Indigenous characters and stories, from buckskin historical romance novels to gritty westerns, from supernatural werewolf tales to reservation detective mysteries, these authors aren’t in the practice of impersonating Native identities and inventing Indigenous personas whole cloth to better establish themselves in the literary marketplace. There must be a special circle of hell reserved for those cons.
In 1991, an autobiography climbed to the top of The New York Times best-seller list. The book The Education of Little Tree, sold more than a million copies around the world, was lauded by Oprah Winfrey and was adapted into a feature film. The book relayed the “true life” of an orphaned Cherokee boy, Forrest Carter, who was raised by his Cherokee grandparents in the woods of rural Tennessee. The author’s actual story, however, is slightly different. The Education of Little Tree was written by anti-Semite and white supremacist Asa Earl Carter, who had no familial ties to Cherokee people — the book was all made up, taken from hollow, stock-impressions of Native wisdom and Hiawatha-inspired communions with nature.
Timothy Patrick Barrus, whose “memoirs” were published under the name Nasdijj — an entirely made-up identity, sold his first memoir, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, in 2000 to Houghton Mifflin. The “memoir” described the life and death of his adopted Navajo son, Tommy Nothing Fancy, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. The book launched Barrus’ career and other books followed: Geronimo’s Bones and The Boy and the Dog are Sleeping, which garnered a PEN Award. For a discerning reader, Barrus’ writing would likely raise red flags. His books read like a checkoff list for the Tragic American Indian Plight: impoverishment, alcoholism, fatality, suffering, all the classic trappings of trauma and poverty porn.
You continually ask yourself if an Indigenous story can even exist if it doesn’t have an emotionally cathartic narrative that is resolved with a strong message of hope and redemption?
Speaking of hopeful redemption stories, in 2007 Margaret B. Jones published Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival. The memoir detailing Jones’ gang-banging, drug-dealing life in South Central L.A. as a Native and white girl received the highest praise in the New York Times review. But two days later, Margaret B. Jones was exposed as a fake. Her real name was revealed to be Margaret “Penny” Seltzer, and her story along with her Cherokee identity, was also fabrication. Seltzer was not abandoned at birth and raised in harrowing circumstances facing danger at every turn running drugs for The Bloods, but was raised in Sherman Oaks, a well-to-do suburb of Los Angeles.
It would appear that both writers and publishers remain unaware as to the reasons why writing about Indigenous cultures is insensitive at best and damaging at worst. There are innumerable examples of misrepresentation, currently and historically, in literature ranging from newspapers, magazines, novels, children’s books, school textbooks, television and cinema, advertising, etc… and misrepresentation is only the tip of the iceberg. When non-Native writers publish and appropriate Indigenous content and themes for their own aims, it furthers the colonialist project, continues acts of theft and dispossession, usurps authentic Indigenous voices. It’s one thing to steal Native stories, it’s another to write those stories badly.