Opinion: “Trail of Lightning” and the Impact of Misrepresentation, Diné Writers’ Collective

By Deborah Svatos

You may have seen the book cover. A young Navajo woman, armed and clad in black, boldly stares into the distance, the strike of lightning illuminating the desert sky behind her. At first glance, it may seem innocent enough. After all, representation is often rightfully considered a valuable thing in popular culture. However, in the case of this book, “Trail of Lightning”, by Rebecca Roanhorse, the representation comes from an author who is not of the tribal affiliation she is capitalizing on. The misrepresentation and cultural appropriation resulting from this has prompted Saad Bee Hózhǫ to write a letter responding to this non-Navajo instance of profiting off of their culture.

Roanhorse, hailing from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, is not Navajo, but an in-law. Her decision to attempt representation is inauthentic, resulting in a portrayal of the culture that insults and disregards the tenets of its spiritual beliefs. “Trail of Lightning” has since gained popularity and more books in this series are set to be published. Because the first book has gained much attention, the Diné Writers’ Collective addressed the issues that have arisen from “Trail of Lightning’s” publication in a letter, originally published in Indian County Today on November 5, 2018.

In their open letter, the Diné Writers’ Collective, formerly known as the Navajo Writers’ Association, say that the appropriation, offensive inaccuracies in the portrayal of Navajo spirituality and culture is a resulting breach of trust with potential to cause untold damage. Members of the Collective include Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, Tina Deschenie, Jacqueline Keeler, Dr. Lloyd Lee, Manny Loley, Jaclyn Roessel, Roanna Shebala, Jake Skeets, Dr. Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, and Institute of American Indian Arts alumni Chee Brossy, Sherwin Bitsui, Orlando White, and Esther Belin.

The letter makes it clear that the misrepresentation of the Navajo people, their culture, and values is doing a disservice to both the Diné and the many writers of this tribal affiliation who can accurately portray their culture in the literary landscape. I feel that by making their voices heard, they can bring attention to the misrepresentation and advocate for future literary works involving Indigenous tribes to come only from people who are affiliated with the tribe itself.

The letter discusses not only the misrepresentation of one tribe, but the impact appropriation can have as a whole. “Trail of Lightning” is far from the only novel to have used Indigenous cultures for gain without being associated with them, but, looking at the bigger picture, there is an importance for accuracy and representation to be portrayed in the correct way. The brave step being taken by the Diné Writers’ Collective of publishing this letter sets a precedent for advocating for a future where Indigenous tribes are represented properly and accurately.

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