June 6, 2018KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsLiterature

Stealing Stories, part 3

In the recent literary news, three examples popped up (two in Canada, one in the US) of writers utilizing Native stories without doing adequate research or asking for necessary permission. I’ve highlighted all three in separate installments. This installment focuses on Blood Moon by John Sedgwick.

John Sedgwick is the author of thirteen books, including War of Two, an account of the duel between Hamilton and Burr. Blood Moon attempts to follow in War of Two’s pattern by focusing on the rivalry between Cherokee leaders John Ross and The Ridge. Problems with the book abound—for brevity and my sanity’s sake I will only be focusing on a few elements. Trust me, there’s more.

First, let’s look at the language in the press release/book description and the book trailer (yes, I realize this may not have been written by Sedgwick, but it shows the same types of problems as ones from book excerpts we’ll be discussing later). While summarizing the text, this passage appears:

At first, the two men are friends and allies. To protect their sacred landholdings from white encroachment, they negotiate with almost every American president from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln. But as the threat to their land and their people grows more dire, they break with each other on the subject of removal, breeding a hatred that will lead to a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation, the tragedy and heartbreak of the Trail of Tears, and finally, the two factions battling each other on opposite sides of the US Civil War.

Yes—I’m sure it’s only these two men in leadership who brought the downfall of the Cherokee tribe [sarcasm button]. They brought the Trail the Tears and two whole civil wars upon the tribe all by themselves because they couldn’t agree. Glad we have the villains of the story identified early on. Continuing on to next paragraph, we get to this:

Through the eyes of these two primary characters, John Sedgwick restores the Cherokee to their rightful place in American history in a dramatic saga of land, pride, honor, and loss that informs much of the country’s mythic past today.

Lovely. I’m so glad the Cherokee people have such an amazing white savior in Sedgwick. Without all of his historical research to teach us, who knows where we would be. We (and the Cherokee specifically) are truly indebted to him. Sedgwick obviously wins the coveted Kevin Costner White Savior Award for this one.

White saviors run freely through a great deal of media, but so so many live in the historical novel/nonfiction realm that I rarely tread through that particular landscape. If Dances With Wolves can teach us anything, this is it. The statistics on the historical nonfiction reader skew toward the older white male category significantly and with such obvious problems in the subject matter for nonwhite, female or nonbinary gendered readers it’s not surprising. Between being up to my elbows in white savior characters and all the Columbusing that goes on, historical writing can leave me quite unhappy. Speaking of Columbusing—let’s take a look at that book trailer.

Who knew that any Native Americans fought in the Civil War, let alone 30,000 of them?” [Shauna, most Native people, and anyone who’s studied the Civil War in the land formerly known as Indian Territory raises their hand] *I can’t speak for the rest of y’all, but it was an often discussed part of my high school history classes in Oklahoma.* How surprising indeed. . . .

On to the actual book. First, a controversial move. Before publication, Sedgwick requested that two Native Studies scholars (Colin Calloway and Jace Weaver) read the text and make suggestions. That is not abnormal. Both readers were furnished with galley copies from Simon and Schuster a few days later, which signaled to both scholars that very little of the text would be changed. It is not a common practice to hire readers so late in the publishing cycle. Both readers found significant needs for revision—factual errors, lack of knowledge of tribal culture, reliance on outdated source material or questionable secondary sources—not to mention quite a bit of stereotyping. Most of their criticisms were not addressed. Let’s look at a few excerpts.

Of all the mysteries of the white settlers—their gunpowder, whiskey, diseases, and God, among many others—the most potent had been their “talking leaves,” the papers lined with pen scratchings that held meaning here and then proclaimed it, verbatim, there and there and there.

Mysterious talking leaves–oh my.

More than a Gutenberg, Sequoyah was a Leonardo, an inventor who created not just an invention, but modernity. It is hard to find in all of recorded history as dramatic a transformation of a people in such a brief period of time. It unleashed an outpouring of notes, letters, essays, records, reports, newspapers, Bible translations, books. It was remarkable, a miracle.

The Miraculous Sequoyah Creates Modernity–this title must be utilized somewhere . . . perhaps the children’s book version.

The Ridge was typical of the rising class of mixed-bloods, as his fortunes rose in the new economy. Farming might have been women’s work, but he threw himself into it. Other Cherokee men raised livestock like the game of old, letting their cows and pigs roam freely and then hunting them down like bear and deer. The Ridge fenced his in, and bought African slaves to tend them. No simple country farmer, he sought to become a planter like the refined white gentlemen in light cotton suits he’d seen sipping lemonade on front porches at their plantations farther to the south in Georgia.

I wonder who else was typical of the rising class of mixed-bloods, out there doing women’s work and buying slaves, seeking refinement and lemonade. This paragraph alone can tell you why historical nonfiction/novels readership skews the direction it does.

While the Indians were skilled as scouts, trackers, horsemen, and sharpshooters, their greatest value may have been their fighting skills. Shaped by a warrior culture, most were used to violence, and they took to battle. Their long black hair spilling out from under their caps, their shoddy uniforms ill-fitting, their faces painted in harsh war colors, they surged into battle with a terrifying cry, equipped not just with army-issue rifles but also with hunting knives, tomahawks, and often, bows and arrows. Even when mounted on horses, they exhibited a deadly aim, and their arrows sank deep, leaving their victims as much astonished as agonized. They’d close fast, whip out a tomahawk to dispatch their man, then pounce on the corpse with a bowie knife to shear off a scalp to lift to the sky in triumph.

I’m just going to point you to what Debbie Reese had to say about this paragraph–she covers it well. Though a big part of me hopes you can already spot the issues held within.

Although Jace Weaver has been very vocal about his disapproval of the published work and how his name was utilized, neither Sedgwick or Simon and Schuster have responded to date. Not surprising.