Saturday, 23 January 2010

Cultural Appropriation and the Writer's Responsibility

One of the issues I’ve been grappling with since I began my research about a year ago is my concern (some might say my obsession) with cultural sensitivities. When she was at college in the 1960s, my mother, a blue-eyed blonde of Anglo/Celtic descent, was elected as the first historian of the newly-formed ‘Indian Club’. I grew up with many Nez Perce friends, and we attended the occasional powwow at the Nez Perce reservation at Lapwai. My mother was involved with civil rights politics, and with her, I waved my little fist at marches and rallies and demonstrations – on the rare occasion when these were held in north Idaho. In this ‘lefty’ household, cultural sensitivity was paramount, and my mother’s concerns about both centuries-old injustices and those of the present day became my own.

At some point, however, our thoughts on the matter diverged. While I learned to carry a sense of inherited responsibility (inherited guilt?) for the poverty and social ills afflicting many Native Americans today, I did not succumb to the New Age predilection for burning braids of sweetgrass or participating in ‘ceremonial’ sweats. I believe, whole-heartedly, that this adopting of cultural practices is meant to show reverence and respect for the culture from which they are taken, and that the vast majority of those who do so, do so with good intentions. But I also believe, whole-heartedly, that adopting the spiritual and cultural traditions of a group of people distinct from one’s own, is seldom more than mimicry.

While many would view these New Age practices (this mimicry) as harmless, many others argue that there are some very serious implications for the communities from which these practices are taken. Cultural appropriation often involves a ‘pick and mix’ approach by those doing the appropriating: a dreamcatcher here, a Native mascot there, a sweatlodge, a decorative totem pole, t-shirt images of Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse or Chief Joseph. In the vast majority of cases, the appropriator is doing so innocently, either by showing an admiration for an aesthetic, a person or a spiritual quality, or on a deeper level by attempting to identify themselves with, or aspire to, qualities associated with the thing they appropriate.

In its most benign form, cultural appropriation can be mistaken for multi-culturalism, the co-existence of and appreciation for multiple ethnic cultures. Cultural appropriation, however, invariably reinterprets the thing being appropriated. Away from their traditional contexts, the original meanings and significance of religious practices, such as the use of sweat lodges in ritual cleansing, can easily be lost, and new meanings attached. Over time, these reinterpretations can mutate into something quite different from the original, and as they become more familiar to the dominant culture, these new interpretations can mistakenly be seen as being ‘authentic’. It is when these new interpretations remain linked to the original culture that real problems arise. Incorrect cultural renderings, I believe, can be highly destructive, undermining – or even replacing – traditional beliefs and practices.

With these concerns in mind, I am attempting to write a novel in which a little-known but historical Nez Perce figure is represented. Many fiction writers would rejoice at such a find – an intriguing ‘character’ who, because there are so few documented accounts of his life, can be manipulate to suit their own ends without worry of being criticised for historical inaccuracy. Like New Agers wafting sweetgrass smoke, fiction writers are too often guilty of cultural appropriation and the misrepresentation of historical events and personas for their own gain. I am particularly aware that the written word (at least once it has been published) acquires an authority which it may or may not deserve. One need only look at the frequency at which student researchers use Wikipedia (a practice I ban), and the way that ‘information’ from Wikipedia is disseminated throughout the web. As soon as something is written down, regardless of its factual content, it achieves a sense of permanence. And as that ‘information’ is transferred to conversations, student essays, web pages and books, that permanence, and its perceived authenticity, is strengthened. A lie told often enough becomes truth.

It is partly for this reason, I believe, that Sherman Alexie is so critical of non-Native writers, including Larry McMurtry, Tony Hillerman and Barbara Kingsolver, who write about Native American characters. He is quoted in numerous interviews as saying that these writers are ‘colonial writers’ and ‘outsiders’ who possess neither the cultural knowledge nor the experiential insight to accurately portray Native American lives. Alexie, however, defends portrayals of white characters in his own writing by saying ‘I know a lot more about being white—because I have to, I live in the white world. A white person doesn't live in the Indian world. I have to be white every day’ (Fraser, 2001). The difficulty with Alexie’s ‘rules’ is that they limit people to writing only about those things with which they have direct experience. It follows then, that ‘fiction’ would be reliant solely upon strictly autobiographical content. Such a situation would be an anathema to the creative community.

So we are back to where we started. Cultural appropriation. Does my role as an imaginative writer give me licence to write what I please, regardless of its accuracy or effects? No. I don’t believe it does. I believe very strongly that I have a moral duty to my characters, and the communities from which they come, to portray them as honestly, accurately, and authentically as possible. To do otherwise would be irresponsible and potentially harmful. Fiction writing, in my view, is not about the fabrication of falsehoods, but about the reinvention of truths.


Connie NC/AZ said...

Well--after typing this response to you and having a browser failure just as I finished typing it, I sure hope this shorter second version will work as well :)

First of all, I think you very discussion here serves to illustrate that you are on the right track, relative to cultural sensitivity and to being concerned with how key figures in Indian Country might view your intended contributions to discourse about Indians. As someone who works in American Indian literature as a teaching and critical discourse field myself, I understand these concerns and deal with them in my own work. All writers who dip into issues of the American Indian should do so, whether the particular writer is Indian or not. So--my point is that you're on the right track.

The downside of that is the inevitable fact that you won't be able to please or accommodate all Indian critical voices that may rise in relation to your work. That's an unavoidable reality of being a non-Native who intends to write about Native things, particularly in a creative/imaginative sense. It's a bit of a no-man's land, and there will almost certainly be both those who applaud your efforts and those who cry out against it. For that dilemma, there is little more you can do than to be as ethical and sensitive as possible and simply shore up your backbone for any negative fallout.

That said, there *is* a particular answer to your overall dilemma concerning this character. The overwhelming consensus in Indian Country is that any writer who sets out to complete a project such as yours should do several things:

1. Speak to tribal elders. That's always the first thing. It's one thing to analyze a piece of literature that is written BY an Indian--it's another thing entirely to be non-Indian and writing an Indian character. The most culturally appropriate way to handle that type of process is to go to the horse's mouth. Explain to them your project and ask for a bit of cultural guidance. Be prepared to be told certain things cannot be written down--but you'll likely find plenty of information to replace those areas that should be avoided.

2. Offer to contribute a small portion of your proceeds from the sale of the book to the tribe. And that's the big one. There is a deep sense in Indian communities, particularly intellectual ones, that non-Indians who profit from the use of Indians in their written work should pass a percentage of their financial benefit to the tribe represented in that work. It's the way Indians themselves would approach such a thing, so the willingness of the non-Indian author to do so, while it cannot prove that the writer hasn't crossed any lines, will at least show that the writer has the Indian community's interests and concerns in mind in the writing of the work.

Good luck with your project :)

P.S. And Sherman, despite his thorny presentation at times, can be warmly approachable at others. It's worth a try to bounce some of his off of him. He may ignore you altogether, but what do you have to lose, eh? Check out his website and email his personal assistant--she'll pass your request on to him. Good luck!

Connie NC/AZ said...

P.S. The more I read this, the more I like it. Would you consider being quoted in an upcoming publication? I'm writing a chapter for a Praeger Publishers three-volume set on popular culture and American Indians. My chapter focuses on cultural appropriation. I would love to include some of your comments from this blog posting. Let me know what you think. You can contact me at

Loree said...

Many thanks for your interest and your comments, Connie. I will contact you about your project.

This whole subject of cultural appropriation has been something I've been very much aware of from the start, but which many UK writers simply do not understand. I've tried to explain the sensitivities involved to a number of British writers, but their attitude has been that the subject is 'fair game' and that I'm writing a novel, 'not a history textbook'.

And yes, I've been in touch with one NP elder so far, who has agreed to look at my work and make comments on the content. I'll also consider your suggestion about contacting Sherman Alexie... I've just reviewed his latest collection of stories for WAL.