The Dangers of the Appropriation Critique

By Adrian L. JawortOctober 5, 2019

The Dangers of the Appropriation Critique

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

IN REBECCA ROANHORSE’S stunning debut novel, Trail of Lightning, oceanfront property in Arizona has become a reality as climatological transformation results in rising waters slowly swallowing continents. The story transpires in the canyon-filled, mountainous terrain harboring the Navajo land of Dinétah, where pristine lands have been continually guarded by desert elements and where hardy indigenous peoples flourished long before the coming of bilagáana (white) colonizers. Dinétah’s boundaries are protected by a physical and supernatural wall to protect the Diné (Navajo) people within from the worst of what has transpired outside. Helpful and harmful preternatural entities — many based on Navajo stories — become animated too as we follow the path of the young Diné woman Maggie Hoskie, an antihero whose special heightened “clan powers” allow her to hunt and kill with ruthless efficiency but who is also an outsider among fellow tribal members, who remain fearful but respectful of her. As Maggie notes early on, “I’m the person you hire when the heroes have already come home in body bags.”

Since Trail of Lightning’s publication in 2018, fans have anxiously imagined what lies beyond Dinétah’s walls; they’ll not be disappointed by the adventure that awaits in Storm of Locusts. In a post-apocalyptic world dominated by rapacious capitalism, a harsh, fanatical, Taliban-like religion reigns supreme. Those tempted with lustful transgressions are dealt death, while commerce is considered “sacred.” At a slave auction, one character exclaims, “Every need, every want, every pleasure once forbidden in the old world has been reborn in the new!” Similarly, when a startled Maggie returns to find her transportation undisturbed, she wryly notes, “I guess when the punishment for stealing is getting fed to the dogs, people become lax about guarding their stuff.”

Roanhorse excels at connecting readers with the land itself as a character. Her prose is not sappy or overwrought, but it nevertheless captures the smell, heat, and sights surrounding Maggie with a tension and flow that feels completely alive:

Pine trees scent the air, their fallen needles crunching softly under my feet. Insects drone happily in the cooling evening, buzzing near my ears, attracted to my sweat. There is a beauty here, a calmness that I savor. I will savor the bloodshed, too, no doubt, but this balance between earth and animal and self feels right. Feels true.

The novel is full of fresh, fascinating human and preternatural characters, each drawing readers further into Maggie’s world. Roanhorse’s depiction of Diné “trickster” Coyote as a shapeshifting human, for instance, is spellbinding, as we’re struck by their calming presence, yet never sure of their intentions, and consistently curious about Maggie’s casual (if guarded) rapport with them. The novel even features a shapeshifting cat woman, Mósí — whose name, of course, is the Diné word for cat. Despite a somewhat choppy narrative style and Maggie’s blunt first-person narration, Roanhorse succeeds at creating empathy for her main character as her motives gradually evolve away from anger, grief, and abandonment. In surviving the genocide of Native Americans, an ingrained resilience and toughness among characters only seems natural. Maggie remarks that her “ancestors have lived at the foothills of the Chuska Mountains for more generations than the bilagáanas have lived on this continent, who can still tell stories of relatives broken and murdered on the Long Walk or in Indian boarding schools like it was last year,” referencing the infamous forced 300-mile march conducted in the dead of winter where hundreds died on their way to a desolate concentration camp. Cultural genocide via boarding schools began thereafter, but the Diné persevered to become the largest Native American nation in North America, both in land base and population. Thus, for Roanhorse, they are well equipped to rise again after a worldwide apocalypse. As Maggie says, “This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth.”

Understanding the historical and contemporary situation of Native American literature is essential to appreciating Roanhorse’s achievement. As a Native American tribal member, it’s hard not to feel a tinge of excitement when seeing representations of people who resemble you. Too often, Natives see themselves represented in art as stereotyped caricatures or tokenized “others,” not people whose lives you can feel as flawed humans for better or worse. Until the 1960s, people primarily thought of Native Americans as characters of the past, people whose artistic representation was limited by the perception of how whites wanted to portray us — mostly in Westerns.

That perception began to change as Natives collectively lobbied for their constitutional and treaty rights with the Occupation of Alcatraz 50 years ago, proudly displaying their tribal heritage on prime-time TV as both modern and traditional people. In the arts, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, a novel about a contemporary Native man, won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize. This marked the beginning of the so-called Native American Renaissance, as throughout the 1970s writers like Joy Harjo, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Simon Ortiz gained prominence, setting up a second Renaissance wave of writers like the late Paiute author Adrian C. Louis and National Book Award winners Louise Erdrich (for her novel The Round House [2012]) and Sherman Alexie (for his oft-challenged The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian [2007]). While the outspoken Alexie reigned as the go-to Native literary figure, Native fiction writing has otherwise seemed to stagnate since those Renaissance days.

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.

Kosoko Jackson, a black and queer writer and a “sensitivity reader,” was also a loud critic of works like Zhao’s that he deemed insensitive, but he ended up canceling the release of his own novel, A Place for Wolves, after readers lambasted his teen gay love story for a supposedly inappropriate setting during the late 1990s Kosovo War. While it’s tempting to scoff at the serendipity of Jackson’s novel being eaten by the very monster he helped create, for creative types who witness writers being bullied into conforming to what’s deemed safe, alarm bells should be going off. This is de facto book banning and censoring of literature by mobs applauding themselves for having torn down works of art while often not even having explored those works themselves. The message is clear: you will write what we deem socially and politically acceptable, or else. And even then …

In an interview with Aesthetics for Birds, Blackfeet fiction writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain notes that “[t]he appropriations critique — because it doesn’t start from a place of appreciation, because it views art merely as a political tool, because it erases artists’ perspectives from the conversation — is anti-art.” Several Native writers and academics have told me in confidence that they feel accusations of appropriation against Roanhorse are unwarranted. Seeing as the Native literary world is small, however, they feel that coming to her defense may place crosshairs on their own backs, opening them to the critique of supposedly condoning appropriation while they focus on networking and expanding their own audiences. As HolyWhiteMountain says, “When artists are becoming afraid to speak, that’s something we should be deeply concerned about, and we need to take a close look at the social conditions that are causing this fear.” So, the question becomes: Who shall counter the monstrous excesses of the appropriations critique? Roanhorse’s fearless protagonist Maggie Hoskie, whose very occupation has led her to be dubbed “Monsterslayer,” seems the obvious choice.

Dr. Debbie Reese, the founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature, was initially thrilled after reading Trail of Lightning. As she wrote in a review for Barnes & Noble, “Roanhorse lifts Indigenous readers, giving us a brilliant mirror that made my Indigenous heart soar.” Along with the book’s positive attention, however — and like clockwork — came the negative, as 14 Navajo writers from a Diné Writers’ Collective, Saad Bee Hózhǫ́, signed a November 2018 Indian Country Today statement lambasting the novel in a piece titled, “Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs.” Most of those who signed the letter do not publish fiction, it must be noted, as generally fiction writers hope to draw ideas from aspects of all people, lives, and places if need be without inhibition. After this letter came out, Reese recanted her initial judgment and rescinded her recommendation. Such is the social power of the appropriation issue.

Many of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́’s complaints about Trail of Lightning stem from the styling of the book itself and even seem ignorant of the frequent violence of post-apocalyptic literature, where a general commonality is that most of the world’s population has died off and fierce struggles for remaining resources by survivors ensue. The criticisms exhibit a paternalistic attitude toward art and literature insofar as the collective believes words should only be used to “heal, transform, and bring us together,” as opposed to challenging readers to go beyond idealism. In an early scene from Trail of Lightning, Maggie must commit a mercy killing upon a suffering young girl she was paid to find who was badly infected by a monster’s bites. She brings the girl’s head back so the family has something to bury, as well as the monster’s head to be scientifically studied by a knowledgeable elder. Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ flatly misrepresents this scene as a grandmother’s decapitation before dismissing it as “clearly a plot point that comes from a mainstream writer’s attempt to shock her readers, but in reality is much more damaging because of its subversion of Navajo beliefs of peace, prayer and harmony in the home.”

After misconstruing basic facts in such a poignant scene, one wonders how many of the 14 writers who signed the statement actually read the work — much less considered the context. When Roanhorse describes a decimated town inhabited by ghosts, Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ claims it is “mocking and derisive,” a “mean-spirited stance toward Navajo people by the writer herself.” They also “caution Diné readers who want to read this book to do so with discretion, as there are very graphic and violent images that can cause spiritual harm.” While one could make a point-by-point argument against such a narrowly defined and literal approach to speculative fiction, the collective’s primary complaint is alleged appropriation. Should Roanhorse have confined her writing to what she knew about her own Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo tribe, as the letter suggests? Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ flatly writes, “Because Ms. Roanhorse is not of Diné ancestry, she does not have the authority or experience to write about our people and culture.”

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. For instance, presuming a tribe like the Crow is the same as its neighboring Northern Cheyenne or Lakota tribes because they are on the same North American continent is akin to equating a French person with a German because they are both European. But while Native Americans have long been misrepresented in literature and the arts as two-dimensional characters with little depth and empathy, when a flawed, humorous, antihero character like Maggie is introduced to a world where imagined happenings like superhuman “clan powers” exist, literalist interpreters seemingly want it viewed strictly through a traditional anthropological lens instead of fast-paced modern fiction. Seeing an imagined Native world with places they knew presented differently was irksome, ergo it must be wrong if it’s not an exact replica or a comfortably safe trope. But isn’t the essence of fiction itself to inhabit someone you are not? Or in this case, to create futuristic versions of an area and culture you love and know well?

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.

When Maggie Hoskins describes her unease after leaving the boundaries of her homeland in Storm of Locusts, it no doubt mirrors real-life anxieties many Natives recognize.

Leaving Dinétah feels like ripping something vital from my body, something I need to keep breathing, keep my heart beating in my chest. Maybe it’s sentiment, but all my life I’ve believed that the Diyin Dine’é put us between the four sacred mountains for a reason. That we Diné are part of this land as much as any mountain or valley or stream. We are it, and it is in us, and out here, in this wasteland, none of that feels true. Mósí said being Diné is a constant, something that cannot change. That one cannot stop being Diné, even in a place where Dinétah cannot be reached.

It can also be read as a metaphor for the kind of constriction facing Native Americans as Native literature moves forward. Do we want to continue evolving and making art despite our anxieties? Or are we content to stay, as the late poet Adrian C. Louis writes in “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” (the poem that Sherman Alexie says inspired him to become a writer), “in the reservation of my mind”?

In 2015, I predicted in a Montana Public Radio segment that there would be a “third wave” Renaissance of Native American fiction writers who’d ride to “literary eminence.” This has so far rung true, illustrated by the massive success of Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange’s novel There There, a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize that racked up a long list of awards; Cherokee fiction writer Brandon Hobson’s recognition as a 2019 National Book Award finalist; Harjo’s appointment as US poet laureate; the success of Blackfeet writer Stephen Graham Jones, who has won numerous horror genre awards; Nlaka’pamux nonfiction writer Terese Mailhot’s best-selling Heart Berries: A Memoir; and the steady flow of award-winning poets, like Lakota Layli Long Soldier.

Perhaps gatekeeping publishers have caught on that readers yearn for works outside of what is comfortably (and perhaps even boringly) relatable or “authentic” and have found that freshness in Native voices. With this momentum, Native writers and artists must take a cue from Maggie Hoskins and move fearlessly forward, striving to expand beyond reservations of the mind, creating what they wish to create, and standing up to the excessive trend toward censorship that would see art enshrined as a political pawn in the culture wars.


Adrian L. Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne Two Spirit journalist and fiction writer based in Billings, Montana.

LARB Contributor

Adrian L. Jawort is a proud Northern Cheyenne journalist and fiction writer based in Billings, Montana. They are founder of Off the Pass Press, which aims to promote Native American and indigenous literature.


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