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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Morris has suspected for years that Nasdijj is not who he says he is. A full-blooded Navajo and a professor of literature and Navajo studies at Dine College in Tsaile, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, Morris is among the world’s foremost authorities on Navajo culture. Shortly after The Blood was published, he saw Nasdijj’s name listed on the national index of Native writers. Under the author’s bio, it said Nasdijj claimed his name meant “to become again” in Navajo Athabaskan. This came as news to Morris, who is fluent in Athabaskan. “There is no word ‘Nasdijj’ in the Navajo language,” he explains. “It’s gibberish.”

Not long thereafter, Morris got a call from Sherman Alexie asking if he would take a look at The Blood. After reading the book, Morris felt certain Nasdijj was not Navajo. “He seems to know some facts aboutthe culture, but he has no sensibility of it.”

“Every Navajo he meets seems to live in a hogan,” Morris jokes. “No one has really lived in hogans since HUD housing started being built on the reservation in the ’60s. Only people who are extremely traditional live in hogans.” Traditional people who would not make the kind of cultural errors that Nasdijj depicts them making. Navajo Rose, for instance.

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Navajo Rose is a character in The Blood who, Nasdijj writes, lives in a hogan near his on the reservation. Navajo Rose is illiterate and, though Nasdijj says she graduated from high school, she somehow has never seen the inside of a library.

“You have to be really traditional to have never even seen inside a library,” says Morris.

Nasdijj takes it upon himself to teach Navajo Rose how to read and drives her off the reservation to “White People Town” to see her first library. “She was impressed with all the books,” Nasdijj writes.

Morris bristles at the condescending tone. “We do have libraries here.”

But the error that really made Morris crazy was a culinary one. To thank Nasdijj for his lessons, Navajo Rose routinely brings him Navajo tacos made of mutton. “Now that’s just disgusting,” says Morris of the tacos, which are traditionally made with beef. “We love our mutton but no one would use it in a Navajo taco; the spices just don’t mix.” (Indeed, in my experience on the reservation, the suggestion of a Navajo taco with mutton induces a nearly universal crinkling of noses in distaste.)

While a non-Navajo may see these gaffes as minor, Morris asserts they add up to a character that doesn’t exist. Like a rabbi eating pork or a Hindu beating his cow, they are culturally incriminating, and the book is littered with them, he says. Nasdijj writes that when he was a boy, his mother used to have religious sings for him to familiarize him with his culture. “That’s a communal activity,” Morris says. “To have a sing by yourself is highly aberrant behavior. Like holding a church service for yourself.”

Most startling and offensive to Morris is Nasdijj’s depiction of Navajo clanship, which plays a vital role in tribal identity. In Geronimo’s Bones, Nasdijj claims his mother was a member of the Water Flowing clan; no such clan exists, however. “There’s a Water Flowing Together clan,” explains Morris, “but the difference isn’t insignificant. If I was going to claim my mother’s clanship, I would at least make sure to get the name right.”

Nasdijj also writes that because his father was white and without a clan, Nasdijj had no clan and was therefore treated as an “outcast bastard” by other Navajo. This, says Morris, is misrepresentative in that it wrongly portrays the Navajo clan structure as an authoritarian caste system. It is also factually incorrect. “Our lineage is passed on through our mother. If his mother had a clan, he has a clan.”

Immediately after reading the book, Morris contacted the Native author registry and asked them to take Nasdijj’s name off the list. Without specific information about Nasdijj’s true identity, however, the registry refused, and Morris let the subject drop.

“I have always been bothered by the false claim to the Dine identity by Nasdijj,” Morris says, “but if I spent my time tracking down every white writer pretending to be Navajo, I’d have no time left to do anything else.”

Indeed, in the long history of Indian appropriation by whites, the Navajo have become the primary target. Of particular ire to the Navajo is mystery writer Tony Hillerman. For the past several decades Hillerman has written detective stories from the perspective of his Navajo protagonists Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Though not actually claiming Navajo ancestry, Hillerman infuses healthy doses of Navajo spirituality into the story through his characters — sometimes accurately, sometimes not. Hillerman’s appropriation is well-known and disliked across tribal lines and was the subject of parody in Sherman Alexie’s book Indian Killer. But despite the criticism from Alexie and other Native writers, Hillerman’s success has sparked imitators. So much so that Morris claims the existence of at least 14 white authors living in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, writing Navajo murder mysteries.

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