By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
After securing the film rights to The Boyand the Dog Are Sleeping and negotiating the deal with FilmFour, in early 2004 Dowaliby was finally ready to get down to the business of making a movie with Nasdijj. What Dowaliby didn’t know at the time was the controversy that nearly derailed his new partner’s burgeoning career four years earlier.
When he received his galley copy of The Blood and determined the book was fraudulent, Sherman Alexie not only refused to blurb the book but openly accused Nasdijj of both manufacturing his identity and plagiarism at a private lunch with Nasdijj’s editor, Anton Mueller. Alexie says he begged Mueller to reconsider releasing the book.
“I said, you’re going to pay for this later — this is not real,” Alexie says.
According to Alexie, however, Mueller was unmoved by their conversation. “Basically his attitude was that it’s a great book and the art is more important than the truth.”
“I know I may sound like Tipper Gore here,” says Alexie, “but we have to hold our art to higher standards.”
Mueller acknowledges he spoke with Alexie but says that he found the allegation of plagiarism to be an “odd claim” and unjustified. Regarding Nasdijj’s supposed Native heritage, he says, “I think even Nasdijj would tell you his own biography or parentage is something he has never been entirely sure of.”
After his unsuccessful meeting with Mueller, Alexie sent a letter to Houghton Mifflin, asserting that the author was a fake who had borrowed heavily from several Native writers, including himself. But his accusations were dismissed, and the publication went forward. “And every time I bring it up, I’m ignored,” says Alexie.
Alexie’s allegations did have some apparent effect, though. After The Blood came out, Nasdijj’s then-agent, Heather Schroeder, dropped him and Houghton Mifflin declined to publish his next book. Mueller credits Nasdijj’s erratic behavior as the reason: “To be honest, Nasdijj is simply not the most stable person in the world. It showed up in the editing process. His instability wore me down. Sending inappropriate e-mails to people like Ted Conover. His blog. I couldn’t deal with it.”
Did this unstable behavior lead him to suspect the veracity of Nasdijj’s story? “Well, I didn’t publish a second book with him, so that indicates something. But I would say that it was mainly because of his instability.” Yet Mueller still regards Nasdijj as “one of the most, if not the most talented writer I have ever worked with.”
Nasdijj found a new agent, Andrew Stuart, and eventually secured a multibook deal with Ballantine. The Boy was published with the specter of The Blood hanging over the proceedings.
By the time Dowaliby began trying to make a film version of The Boy, he was stuck with a giant toad standing in the road in front of him. Following a few weeks of discussions, FilmFour and Dowaliby agreed to solicit a prominent British screenwriter, who had previously scripted a film about Navajo code talkers, to adapt the book. The writer had spent significant time on the Navajo Nation researching his film and had acquired a great deal of knowledge and respect for the Navajo culture. Immediately after reading The Boy, however, he called Dowaliby with his concerns.
The writer pointed out several inconsistencies in Nasdijj’s story that he found suspicious, particularly Nasdijj’s mischaracterization of Navajo clanship. “What did I know about clanship?” says Dowaliby. “I had taken Nasdijj for his word.”
For both creative and liability purposes, Dowaliby was already fact-checking the book and he promised the writer he would look into the matter further. Dowaliby then began the almost daily routine of trying to draw honest information from Nasdijj about his past. He had little success. Dowaliby needed specifics; Nasdijj gave him none.
“He just kept recycling the same story about sheep camps and migrant work,” Dowaliby says.
The producer intensified his background check of Nasdijj and found out about the Alexie incident. His doubts grew, and Nasdijj’s responses to his queries only raised more questions. As the deadline for hiring the writer neared, Dowaliby concluded that Nasdijj was either unable or unwilling to confirm the details necessary to back up the truth of his story. He briefly considered simply billing the project as “inspired by true events” or the weaker “based on the book by Nasdijj” and not offering it as true in any fashion. “But admitting it was fiction would have ruined the emotional truth — the core of the book.”
Dowaliby refused to go forward with the film until he got answers. Nasdijj refused to speak with him, claiming that he had moved back to the Navajo reservation. Dowaliby did, however, get a response from Nasdijj’s wife, Tina. Though Dowaliby will not repeat what they discussed in confidence, he admits that she came clean about a number of things. Shortly thereafter it became apparent to him “that this wasn’t just a fraud against the intellectual community, but against the entire Navajo Nation, and that Nasdijj needed to apologize.”
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