April 8, 2018KR BlogBlogEthicsLiteratureWriting

Wooden Indians: Prescriptive Roles in Publishing

Performative narratives that minority writers are expected to follow are both bountiful and brutally constrictive. Many authors find themselves in situations where, in order to complete projects or be included in a publication, they are required to fit themselves into one of these existing performative roles. In order to qualify for the crown and title of “Native American Writer” you have to fit the mold built decades ago. You must be prepared to talk a lot about identity, authenticity, history, politics, feathers, buckskin, headdresses, buffalo, reservations, horses, casinos, cowboys, poverty, trauma, suicide, alcohol, mascots, oil, water, corn, powwows, and all other writers already holding the title of “Native American Writer.” Have poems and essays on hand that focus on these things whether or not they all pertain to you or your tribal affiliation. Have a short speech about blood quantum, DNA tests, and the Dawes Act prepared for business dinners and group meetings. Know the most recent population numbers of your tribe and how to translate every common word from English into your tribal language when requested. Make sure your hair is long enough to braid, that you’ve been out in the sun a great deal, and you have the right bead work for your professional author head shot. Just accept that you will have to air brush over any part of you that isn’t necessary to complete the image of the “Native American Writer” as it was trademarked in the 1900s.

Photograph of James Luna wearing a jacket with "All Indian All the Time" screen printed on its back.
James Luna, a Payómkawichum, Ipi, and Mexican-American performance artist, photographer, and multimedia installation artist

I’m not the first one to complain of these antiquated structures in publishing. There’s nothing more frustrating than someone in an authoritative position (editor, publisher, agent, board members, etc) telling you how to be an “authentic representation of your people” or what is mandatory to “reach a larger, more academic [read white] audience.” If your writing is already academic, it’ll be academic in the wrong way, or too academic for a regular audience. If your writing isn’t academic at all, then that’s a problem too—unless it fits into those stereotypical lyrical odes to nature or elegies of childhood trauma that outsiders believe to be strong examples of authentic “Real Indian” life. These are the things Indigenous writers commiserate about with one another when we’re together, sharing tales of tokenism, microaggressions, the outright aggressiveness of gatekeepers when confronted, and our heavy disappointments. It would be easy to dismiss these complaints as vindictiveness or exaggerations of the truth except that so many of us have them. So many Indigenous writers with varied publications and clout working with different authorities and presses. So many problematic projects over so many decades.

How has this forced tokenism gone on for so bloody long? Assimilationist policy in publishing is constant and consistent. From arguing against multiple translations of a single work, specifically refusing to publish tribal languages at all, rejecting innovative elements that require no additional resources or time from the publication, or arguing that all critical writings should focus on specific “Great Native Authors.” Do other writers constantly have to battle the large shadows of their group’s chosen giants? Is every white male author required to beat the image of Bukowski or Hemingway’s work in order to be published? How obvious is the answer to that question?

This need for performative Native authors always reminds me of those cigar store wooden Indians– stoic, stiff, antiquated, unreal, and yet so comforting and nostalgic for non-Native consumers. This clip from Seinfeld seems a most appropriate visual representation of this common occurrence:


Here we have a white male pushing an antiquated stereotypical representation of a Native “to dance” in order to perform an entertaining apology in front of an audience that feels uncomfortable due to the gesture, ultimately trying to make him to stop. How many Indigenous authors have been pushed to dance in this way? With or without the uncomfortable audience members? Why do so many of the publishing industry gatekeepers claim to want our writing when what they seem to want is a facsimile of what they have already been exposed to and decided is authentic/good/worthy, their version of what we’re supposed to be? Why continue to publish the same model book/anthology for decades and pawn it off as new? It cannot be that lucrative. Innovative Indigenous writing and project ideas are plentiful. The audience exists for those uncoerced dances–ones that may or may not happen to the beat of your favorite powwow song.