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, â€œTrail of Lightningâ€, 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 HÃ³zhÇ« 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. â€œTrail of Lightningâ€ has since gained popularity and more books in this series are set to be published. Because the first book has gained much attention, the DinÃ© Writersâ€™ Collective addressed the issues that have arisen from â€œTrail of Lightningâ€™sâ€ publication in a letter, originally published in Indian County Today on November 5, 2018.
In their open letter, the DinÃ© Writersâ€™ Collective, formerly known as the Navajo Writersâ€™ 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 DinÃ© 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. â€œTrail of Lightningâ€ 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 DinÃ© Writersâ€™ Collective of publishing this letter sets a precedent for advocating for a future where Indigenous tribes are represented properly and accurately.