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Did a struggling white writer of gay erotica become one of multicultural literature’s most celebrated memoirists — by passing himself off as Native American?

Monday, Jan 23 2006
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“Indian identity has nothing to do with blood quantum,” counters Harjo. “You hear that from the phony baloneys trying to attach themselves to some 1,000th particle of Indian blood.”

For Harjo and many Native Americans, the issue of identity extends well beyond the existential or racial question of “Who am I?” It is a legal issue of citizenship. As sovereign entities, tribes have laws that govern who is and isn’t Native. “Someone who’s Italian doesn’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way,” Harjo explains. “They are Italian by virtue of being an Italian citizen. The same is true in Indian country.

“If I go to Italy and say, ‘I think the world of you people. I speak a little Italian, I love spaghetti, so I’m going to be voting in your next election. Give me preference as an Italian citizen as opposed to noncitizens. Give me a job. Give me grant money. And maybe I’m going to carry on your diplomatic relations with other nations,’ people would lock me up. But that’s what happens. The people that step into our world don’t do so in a respectful way. They rush right in and say ‘I’m your leader, I’m the articulator of your culture.’?”

click to flip through (7) Illustrations by Ronald Kurniawan
  • Illustrations by Ronald Kurniawan
 

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But given the response of many, including prominent publishers and Oprah Winfrey, to the James Frey affair — that his message of redemption is true and so who cares about literal untruths — is it possible that Tim Barrus is using the Nasdijj persona as a vehicle for social justice? After all, AIDS and FAS on the reservation have been themes of his for more than six years. Though his methods are misguided, could his intentions be genuine, and if so, what is the problem with that?

“It’s crazy,” says Harjo, “that’s the problem with it. Why can’t you be who you are, a non-Native person, supporting the same things Indians care about? Why do you have to be one of us to support us? That’s a little loopy, isn’t it? So you have to stand back and say why is that person lying about that? And the answer is because people like that don’t do it for altruistic reasons. It’s about profit. They think pretending to be Indian will help them sell more books.”

And provided the complicity of a publisher, they may be right. On many issues, preachy whites simply lack the political and cultural cachet of someone perceived to be Native American.

“My stepfather once told me, if you want anyone in the world to like you, just tell them that you’re Indian,” says Sherman Alexie. “For some reason we are elevated simply because of our race. I’m so popular I could start a cult. I could have 45 German women living with me tomorrow.”

Indeed, the world has had an Indian fetish since the days of P.T. Barnum. Certain steps have been taken to protect cultural integrity — the Native American Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, for instance, makes it a federal crime for anyone not enrolled in or associated with a federally recognized tribe to sell their art as “Indian.” Yet literature, strangely enough, is not covered under the Arts and Crafts Act, leaving it vulnerable to exploitation.

“The backbone of multicultural literature,” says Alexie, “is the empathy of its audience — their curiosity for the condition of a group other than themselves. Nasdijj is taking advantage of that empathy.”

If Nasdijj is not Native American, he’s not only misinforming his audience, he’s making it harder for genuine work to come forward. The PEN/Beyond Margins Award is given annually to a Native American writer to help spread “racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities.” When Nasdijj accepted the award in 2004, he accepted money and prestige specifically earmarked to help Native Americans share their story.

“The last act of colonialism is for the dominant culture to completely supplant the Native one,” says Alexie. “Nasdijj is disappearing people. With every book he writes he makes Indians disappear.”

In the end it is, ironically, Nasdijj who sums up appropriation most eloquently. In an essay on Louis L’Amour titled “The Saddest Book I Ever Read,” Nasdijj writes, “The accumulated weight of fictions (like L’Amour’s), when added up, form a place that never was and a time that never happened. Fictions like this are murderous. They pass off illusion as fact, stereotype as portraiture. .?.?. Counterfeit comes to be seen as the genuine article. It kills people. It kills culture. It kills even the shadow of truth.”

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