Appropriation and Art As Political Pawns

Be cautious about stifling young writers for fear of toeing the appropriation line.

Last Autumn I organized a panel for the 2016 Montana Book Festival addressing questions like “How does one go about writing a Native character when one isn’t Native? How should Native authors themselves respond if a reader says they’re ‘making Natives look bad?’”

What had partially spurred the idea was the backlash J.K. Rowling received from the Native American activist community for her four-part series of short online essays called the History of Magic In North America. In her imagined universe, the opening paragraph stated, “Various modes of magical travel – brooms and Apparition among them…” were how the first wizards from Europe came to North America.

I throw “brooms” out because many Rowling bashers acted as if she needed to write an actual historical textbook, all while espousing “damned if you do or don’t” catch-22 impasse complaints: “A white person, she shouldn’t write about us or our beliefs, period!” versus “She should have done more research and been more specific!”

Go figure, if Rowling hadn’t mentioned Natives at all in History of Magic In North America there’d be criticism about whitewashing us from fictional history. While it’s not a masterpiece, it’s as if acknowledging Rowling’s fantasy world went out the door in favor of bandwagon outrage even if the complainers themselves had never written fiction.

Admittedly, I’ve never read or watched Harry Potter apart from the North America-based writings, but I’m not naïve to Rowling’s immeasurable impact in modern literature. Still, the vehemence of complaints against Rowling essentially veered into wanting her censored under the notion that only Indians should be able to write about Indians.

And this isn’t to say there aren’t “pretindians” falsely claiming indigenous identity, or that appropriation isn’t real or not damaging. And yes, “free speech” will always be used as an excuse to be an ignorant inconsiderate jackass, like some Canadian journalists actually currently supporting an ultra-patronizing “Appropriation Award” regarding First Nations people.

When I first heard of this, it was so outrageous I assumed it was satire. Would they call it the Asa Earl Carter Award after the KKK member who wrote the popular The Education of Little Tree novel under the claim he was Cherokee? Write whatever you want and I have the right to tell you how stupid it is, but can you imagine the backlash if a “Negro Appropriation Award” was created?

Renowned Cherokee scholar Dr. Adrienne Keene noted about indigenous representation in fiction:

…I know it can be done, and it can be done right and done well. But it has to be done carefully, with boundaries respected (ie not throwing around Skinwalkers casually in a trailer), and frankly, I want Native peoples to write it. We’ve been misrepresented by outsiders every which-way, and it’s time for us to reclaim our stories and images, and push them into the future, ourselves.

Several years ago a movie-like music video for a song called “Alive” by the UK-based duo Chase & Status was filmed on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Although most of the community blessed the script dealing with issues such as violence, drugs and ceremony, Natives not of the tribe lashed out against it.

Blackfeet and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumni Sterling HolyWhiteMountain assisted with the video. Although he strived to make the content respectful, it was “naïve” to assume artistic representation could ever be fully controlled. He recalled when the late (fellow) Blackfeet writer James Welch was asked about non-Natives writing about Natives. “His response was that anyone should be able to write about anything—but if you’re writing about something you don’t know anything about, be ready to be told your work isn’t any good.”

Of those supporting controlling artistic narratives, he said, “While I know their intentions are good, and while I very much agree with some of their sentiments (while sympathetic and even agreeable to their concerns and complaints) I also hear the distant echoes of fascist thought in relation to art—i.e., only the art with our stamp of approval can be produced. Such thinking is the death of art, or at least the beginning of that death.” (My emphasis added.)

For my part, I’ve personally worked hard and aspired to create a platform publishing realistic indigenous-based literary fiction to let people know there are writers beyond Sherman Alexie in order to combat what some outside editor assumes how Native literature should read. Although reviews are generally positive of the “beautifully bleak” bluntness of the works, what later struck me as peculiar was a newspaper review that didn’t exactly bash an anthology, but did conclude we needed to add “more positive aspects of being Native American.”

I can’t imagine a white reviewer telling a black, white, Latino, or Asian writer what their subject matter ought to be regarding their ethnic backgrounds and experience because they know they’d rightfully be deemed condescending. And not to single out a reviewer, but I mention it because this type of refrain is common even amongst Natives leery of other Native writers “making us look bad,” as if we need to pretend to be blind to our own surroundings in order to hone a rose-colored-glasses perception ironically geared towards white people.

As the prolific Native horror writer Steven Graham Jones, author of the recent werewolf book Mongrels, told Westworld, “I think my trajectory as an author is a marker of me getting tired of people who only read the Indian in my work. That is to say they’re not engaging it as either good or bad. With American Indian lit, so many people don’t come at it thinking, ‘Is this good or is this bad?’ They come at it thinking, ‘Ooh, this is Indian. Let me use it as a lens into their culture.’”

To combat prejudices and appropriation, many thinkers become trapped in combative political bubbles as liberals unwittingly become illiberal. In this politically divided society fueled by kneejerk reactions, serious conversations regarding artwork get bogged down and stymied by buzzwords and #hashtags with negative connotations.

As Salmon Rushdie said, “Here in America the dangers of free expression are beginning to be greatest when it should be most defended; that’s to say within the wall of the academy. And the people most willing to sacrifice or limit this fundamental right are young people.”

In trying to control the very essence of arts, even much of Native academia becomes guilty of inadvertently veering from controversial intrinsic matters for the sake of political expedience and worries about said outsider perceptions, whereas art doesn’t need to circumvent truths.

While continually reading about what artists should or should not say or do from louder reactionary public voices, rising authors may soon start cowering from what they really want to express as the fear of crossing supposed political boundaries negates art to a political pawn in the ongoing culture wars.

Adrian Jawort is a poet, freelance journalist, writer, and founder of Off the Pass Press LLC which aims to find “true beauty in literature off the beaten path.” Titles from Off the Pass Press include the fiction anthologies Off the Path Vol. I and Off The Path Vol. 2: An Anthology of 21st Century American Indian and Indigenous Writers which includes up and coming writers from North America, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia.

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