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…