Traditional Teachings Are Not in the Public Domain

(Originally published in Indian Country Today, October 9, 2014)

by Darren Bonaparte

Whether it’s a pop star wearing a headdress in a music video or a sports team fighting to keep a racial slur for its name, cultural misappropriation seems to be a national past-time. The iconic Indian chief, warrior, and princess have been part of Americana before there even was an America, showing up in crests and emblems of the early colonists. For living Native Americans, the proliferation of it can wear you down.

There are other forms of cultural misappropriation that go beyond the surface imagery and to the heart of our existence. Take for example the novelists and screenwriters who mine our traditional stories for material, hardly caring that what they dig their picks into are still in use and an intrinsic part of our daily lives. I encountered one of these miners recently. What follows is an open letter to this anonymous author and to anyone else who falls in love with our narratives and decides to make them their own.

Dear Sir,

I hope you will forgive me for leaving your name out of my salutation. I was a fellow presenter at the Iroquois Research Conference this past weekend in western New York. I listened to most of your presentation about the historical novel you have written about the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and thought you should know why I did not listen to all of it.

You told the audience that you have consulted many of the standard published accounts of this story by authors that the conference attendees would know well: Morgan, Parker, Fenton, and Richter; as well as various Haudenosaunee like the late Leon Shenandoah. You also explained your method and the challenges of writing historical fiction, such as creating additional characters, scenes, and dialogue where none exist in the sources.

Your mispronunciation of almost every name you mentioned, including Haudenosaunee, stood out to me as a red flag that you had not spent much time talking to actual Haudenosaunee people, because your pronunciation was so radically different from the accepted mispronunciations by scholars we know and work with all the time. Maybe you did talk to some of our people and mentioned it later. I don’t know because I had to leave the auditorium to get some air.

Had I stuck around for the Q & A, I probably would have asked you one simple question: what gives you the right to take the traditional teachings of another culture and attach your personal copyright to it?

You were there when one of our men gave a presentation about our story of creation and the strength and durability of oral tradition the day before, followed by one of our women who examined the way plant life evolves throughout that epic. Then you heard another of our young women relate creation to the revitalization of language and traditional diet. These people showed how important our traditional stories are to the way we view the world today and serve as our guide as we try to restore some balance to our lives. They are living, breathing traditions, as alive as we are.

Who are you to think you can add to this? Who are you to make up characters and give them names with letters that we did not pronounce? The people I know who have spent most of their lives as students of this rich body of knowledge, and who live and breathe it on daily basis, would probably never even consider writing a novel about it.

You spoke of how magical the story was, and that it fell more into the realm of fantasy than history as far as literary genres go. So does that mean the events in the story which were probably really only symbolic—yes, our ancestors knew all about the power of metaphor—were to be presented in your novel quite literally? The subtle tricks of language that my Haudenosaunee friends have fun with in the story go totally out the window with this approach, but then they were none of your business to begin with.

Written accounts of these stories have been published for centuries and are now, technically, in the public domain, and even given away for free on the internet, but that does not mean that the stories themselves belong to you. They are not up for grabs. They continue to be the cultural property of the people from whom they originate and we do not, sir, grant you the right to take them, eat them, digest them, and regurgitate them for the general public.

You pointed out how Longfellow borrowed the name of one of the characters, Aionwatha, and made him a character in his epic poem, the Song of Hiawatha, which had nothing to do with the Great Law. Even Disney had fun with that character. There have also been other authors who have attempted the same novel you have written, and there will surely be others in the future. The story does not belong to them either.

I was two speakers after you at the conference, and I seriously considered not giving my own presentation knowing you were in the front row scribbling furious notes. I now live in dread that you will take the story I told, a story about the life and struggle of one of my ancestors, and write your next novel about it. If that were to happen, I would probably just give up being a storyteller for good and call it a career. There would be no point in saying another public word.


Darren Bonaparte