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.