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Harjo: Credit where credit's due

A minister in one of the most prestigious churches in Washington, D.C., is in the news these days for downloading other people's sermons and delivering them as his own. In so doing, he joins the company of a host of historians and professors who neglect to cite original sources of information in books they continue to sell.

These practices mirror and closely follow the news scandal where a reporter made up quotes and put them in the mouths of others, filing stories from places he hadn't been and hotel rooms he hadn't left.

Offenders in these situations often get fired or otherwise humiliated, dragging innocent relatives and supporters into the muck with them.

In Indian country, the practices of copping quotes, making up stuff and withholding or grabbing credit are widespread. Few get called to account for them and even fewer are disgraced by them.

Since the point of this column is to shine a light on certain egregious practices, rather than to call out individuals, no offenders' names are used here.

I once had a teacher who said that the highest compliment one could pay a book was to steal it. Non-Indians have been complimenting Indian histories, stories, songs, artworks, symbols, prayers and prophesies for generations, and all without shame or compensation of any kind.

People aren't to be faulted for admiring or being inspired by ancient cultural treasures, wisdom and eloquence. However, a halfway decent sense of propriety should lead all but the most obtuse to leave cultural expressions to people of the culture. At the very least, admirers should use quotation marks, attributions and contextualization for cultural appropriations.

It is the serial complimenter, especially the profiteer, who deserves to be exposed as a parasite.

Some non-Indian writers have complimented so much copyrighted Indian work that it's amazing their Indian-themed books and movies aren't owned outright by the Indian authors or their estates. I saw an interview with one screenwriter who praised Indian poets and songwriters (unnamed, of course) who contributed to his movie, which neither credited nor paid for those contributions.

Many anthropologists have made their reputations by publishing knowledge and elegant articulations of ancient cultures under their own names. Sometimes they even allow their "informants" to have an identity, but not as co-authors and never to share in fellowships, teaching appointments or prizes resulting from their joint products.

Musicians and artists are notorious for presenting Indian music and art as their own. When called on it, their excuses usually run this way: it's a tribute to the original; it's being introduced to younger audiences who would miss it otherwise; and the material is old and in the public domain, so there's no stopping it anyway.

Even more jarring is the spectacle of Indian people engaged in these unsavory practices. There is one Native writer who incorporates other Native writers' work into his patter between readings. Rather than crediting another writer, he introduces a favorite line in this way: "As Indians always say ?" He actually did this with something I had written when we were on the same panel. I wanted to shout out, "No, Indians don't always say that; this Indian wrote that."

As a general rule, a specific Native person or nation or both should be appropriately credited, but the nuances and spherical relationships are easy to miss from outside the cultural context. Simply put, it is not generic "Indians" who make art - artists of particular Native nations do that.

Some imaging or articulation becomes tribal cultural property over time because it captures a Native nation's character, event, being, goal or values. When subsequent people of that nation use those images or articulations, they reproduce, recount, sing or interpret them in the context of the original focal point and in homage to the first interpretation.

"The Nation shall be strong so long as the hearts of the women are not on the ground." No matter who first put that statement in just that way in Tsistsistas or in English, it can be said, "This is what the Cheyenne People say."

That mighty statement is a saying in the nature of a religious instruction given to the Tsistsistas People. It provides multi-layered instructions to Cheyenne women to be optimistic and joyous for the health and well-being of all the People and to Cheyenne men to settle the spirits for the women for the good of the Nation.

Within the past year, I have met three Native writers who used this Cheyenne instruction without understanding its origin or context. The first was a young Cheyenne man who said, in all sincerity, that it was something his mother said. He was right. She did say it, although she did not originate it. She made it her own because it was an instruction to all Tsistsistas People.

The other two are Native women, who are not Cheyenne. One of them heard the other repeat this instruction and, assuming it was an original statement, lavished praise on her for it.

While these incidents speak to the value of listening and the need for careful research, it is refreshing that these three people were giving credit to others, rather than taking it for themselves.

Increasingly, Indian people are passing off the ideas and works of others as their own. This seems to be some mass perversion of the oral history, healing and storytelling traditions, where words, symbols and gestures are presented in the same way and sequence as they have been for generations.

At pow wows and Indian conferences, MCs and tribal leaders seldom use an attribution when something can be said in the first person. The most quoted and least acknowledged are chiefs Joseph, Seattle and Sitting Bull, and our most prolific writer today, Vine Deloria Jr.

Writers in several centuries have found it hard to improve upon Shakespeare's descriptions of certain human traits and ways of being. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" or "The lady doth protest too much" are quoted the world over by people who cannot identify the author, let alone the play, character or context. The people who think of these as common truisms are blameless, because they simply don't know better.

Likewise, many Indian people do not know that some things they say as universal truths actually were said and written by our great Native thinkers. Those of us who do know better have an obligation to those who don't to share that information, so that we all can take pride in our great Native people and nations.

We owe it to our future Seattles and Shakespeares to acknowledge the past and living ones, and to honor our Native national cultural legacies.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.