Recently, I received the following comment on my website:
I am concerned that nowhere in your statement about your work does it say that you worked closely with the Tribal people about whom you are writing their history to ensure accuracy and their perspective is represented. Have you sought out the advice and consultation with Tribal governments? If not, you should state that the Tribes you write about in no way endorsed or were consulted in your work. If not, why not? Do you realize how damaging it is to Native people when their history gets appropriated and mis-represented? If yes, you have collaborated with Tribal governments, tribal communities, and elders who know the oral history about which you write, that would greatly strengthen confidence in your writings and should be included for transparency sake. A lot of people are going to read your books and assume you consulted with Tribes, but from what I’m reading, it doesn’t sound like you did.
The commenter raises important questions regarding the telling and retelling of history. When a person from one culture, background, or viewpoint, tells a story about people from another culture, background, or viewpoint, it is likely to create a conflict of representation. If the storyteller in any way misrepresents or claims ownership or authority over the history of which he or she tells, it is known as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation has a way of distorting the past. When the distorted history is proliferated, as it often is, it becomes so entangled with the truth that it can no longer be separated from the original history. This, as the commenter points out, is damaging to the people and cultures from which the history and stories originated. Sometimes, the damage is irreparable.
First, in response to the commenter, I’d like to acknowledge that I have no Native heritage. I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to white parents. My great grandparents immigrated to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Norway, Ireland, Germany, and Turkey. Second, I would like to acknowledge that, while I have and will continue to reach out to Native communities in order to collaborate on this history, my work has not been endorsed by nor received specific feedback from Native people or communities. That is not to say I have not been in contact with numerous Native peoples about this history, but that my published works do not specifically reflect their direct insight. Rather, I have relied on a variety of published source materials whether they be Native authors, white authors, or otherwise. Thirdly, in response to this commenter, I will post a brief statement to my “About the Author” page in order to be completely transparent about who I am and the influences and perspectives that are reflected in my work.
Finally, I would like to state that this person’s comments do not diminish the value of my work or my perspective. Nor does it diminish the value of anyone’s perspective. Every person’s voice, feelings, perspectives, opinions, thoughts….have value and ought to be included in our ongoing historical dialogue. From my perspective, I am an educated, careful researcher, who, with utmost sincerity, has sought to convey a complicated past that has meaning to me as a Minnesotan, a historian, and a human being. I wish to incorporate the stories of all those for whom I write, seeing them as equal participants, whether they be considered moral or immoral, just or unjust.
I do not claim ownership over this or any history. Rather, I invite you to participate with me. What is your perspective? How has history affected you and your family? What obligations do you carry with you because of the past and how will you manage those obligations?
Contribute to history. Be honest about who you are and what drives your story. Do not appropriate the past, be a part of it.