“But the commercial success of Native literature proved to be a double-edged sword. After the mass-market success of the 1990 film Dances with Wolves, a memoir by Cherokee author Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree, was rereleased in 1991, becoming a best seller and even garnering the praise of Oprah Winfrey. Except there was no Forrest Carter: the name was the pseudonym of KKK leader Asa Earl Carter, credited with writing segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 line, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Stories of whites appropriating Native American stories and identities are all too common; ironically, Carter’s feel-good memoir became a bellwether for what was expected from Native writers and poets. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a white writer named Tim Barrus wrote under the pseudonym Nasdijj and racked up numerous literary commendations. Such imposters created suspicious and defensive conversations about who is or isn’t a Native writer. As such, what does or doesn’t count as Native art is sometimes defined by a narrow anthropological lens and a pressure to produce something “authentic.” Conversely, those imposters created a track that many Native artists used to become more commercially accessible.
So it’s about time the unique and diverse viewpoints, ways of being, and humor of Native people were transferred to a popular genre like science fiction. What happens when one goes, as Roanhorse does, beyond the safe and comfortable zone of 20th-century Native literature, into a place where a character’s strength is a propensity for killing and violence via a dark power bestowed upon her? When guarded artistic representation becomes challenged, the wall erected to protect tribal peoples from what they deem as discouragement and condescension from outsiders gets built taller. Distinctions between traditional and modern art styles becomes blurred, critique becomes defensive with politicized motives as primary, and the artist’s aesthetic vision is dismissed.
Because Roanhorse is of mixed African-American and Native (the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo tribe) descent, Storm of Locusts caused a stir among a collective of Navajo writers and academics regarding who should be allowed to write about tribes and cultures beyond their own. And while legitimate concerns about potentially harmful stereotypes should always be raised, the framework for what’s considered appropriation has grown significantly broader and wider in recent years, casting a shadow over the YA fiction world, where Roanhorse’s book has also been placed for marketing purposes.
For instance, the Chinese-American writer Amélie Wen Zhao’s novel Blood Heir faced a firestorm of criticism by fellow YA authors (and a “Twitter mob”) for alleged racism because sci-fi slave characters were described as “bronze.” As such, it was also deemed appropriation for a Chinese-American writer to include implications of African-American slavery in her book. Zhao clarified that the slavery in her book was meant to “represent a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country.” Eventually, however, Zhao relented to the intimidation: though Blood Heir had been scheduled for a June 2019 release, the author pulled her own book in January. The book’s fate is at this point uncertain; as one literary agent told Vulture, “No one wants to be called a racist, or sexist, or homophobic. That stink doesn’t wash off.” The case is the same in Native art circles: being deemed a cultural appropriator is a mark generally reserved for bilagáana people and is considered on par with being a plagiarist.
There have always been grumblings against white writers like Barrus and the late Tony Hillerman, who wrote a long-running, award-winning Navajo Tribal Police mystery series (which his daughter Anne Hillerman has continued) and was honored formerly by the Navajo tribal government as “Special Friend” of the tribe. As a Native American writer who lived on the Navajo Reservation for several years, is married into the Navajo tribe, and frequents the area often, however, Roanhorse seems an odd lightning rod (pun intended) for accusations of appropriation.
While there are cross-cultural similarities among the 573 federally recognized America Indian tribes and Alaskan Native Villages within the boundaries of the United States, it must be understood that indigenous identities are not of a one-size-fits-all, pan-indigenous nature but have diverse cultural, geographical, and language differences.
While no work is immune from critique, the Native American art world is witnessing a dangerous trend of “appropriation” arguments escalating toward de facto censorship. Many people will outright agree with and defend the statement by Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek and US poet laureate, who wrote in a 2017 blog post entitled “Erasure,” “What about enlarging the purview of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 to include the literary?” This act was initially proposed to prevent forgeries of Native arts and crafts. The penalty for a first-time offense is a fine of up to $250,000 in addition to a five-year prison term; a business could face up to a $1 million fine for producing counterfeit crafts. Suggesting that the IACA apply to literature would put potentially controversial art under the government’s microscope. Unenrolled tribal descendants who don’t appease the colonized concepts of blood quantum requirements would fall under this act — unless they catered to political pressure to appease cultural committees like Saad Beez Hózhǫ́’s propaganda-like definition of art should be.
While Harjo’s suggestion was made with the best of intentions — whoever thinks their intentions are meant to hurt? — her proposal could theoretically ban Roanhorse’s books from being produced: under those rules, she wouldn’t have the authority to write about Navajo culture. While it’s unlikely this suggestion would ever be deemed constitutional, it must be noted that on most Indian reservations there are few legally coded free speech rights, so attitudes like these are not an anomaly. (For instance, a Blackfeet man once sat in jail for five days after a post on Facebook complaining about tribal corruption.) Moreover, consider the optics of the US poet laureate advocating government control of literature-as-crime, while those nodding in agreement or condoning it by silence are not right-wing fascists but academics and fellow Native American writers. This is not only failing to see the forest for the trees, but also setting a wildfire to burn it down. “