Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs
Saad Bee Hozho
In July of this year, Rebecca Roanhorse published Trail of Lightning, the first of a proposed trilogy of novels that feature a Navajo (also known as Diné) woman as hero and takes place on Navajo Nation lands. The novel has been praised, awarded, and shared widely. But there are grave problems with the book.
Because Ms. Roanhorse is not of Diné ancestry, she does not have the authority or experience to write about our people and culture. To do so is cultural appropriation, the act of taking and using things from a culture that is not your own.
To an audience uneducated in Native American history, it might be easy to conflate one Native identity (Roanhorse’s Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo background) with another (Navajo identity).
Indeed, several early reviewers of the book have done this. This conflation is inaccurate and dangerous as it undermines the sovereignty of the tribes in question. Each of the 573 tribes in the United States are their own nations with their own identities, languages, and cultures and have the right to define themselves. So when we object to and denounce a non-tribal member’s appropriation of a culture not her own, it is a matter of defending and defining our sovereignty as an Indigenous people.
Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs. Furthermore, as a writer who is not of our culture, Roanhorse appropriates Navajo culture inaccurately and without understanding the
gravity of her actions. The novel has caused much concern among the Diné writers in this collective both because of the act of appropriation and the inaccuracies. One core tenet of sovereignty, one that our families and ancestors fought (and fight) for, and often paid for with their lives, is the right to define our own spiritual beliefs and safeguard those beliefs. These beliefs are foundational to Navajo identity.
Roanhorse often mischaracterizes and misrepresents Diné spiritual beliefs. Specifically, characters in her book use sacred corn pollen as weaponry to do violence, which is completely contrary to our belief system. Roanhorse turns deities into caricatures. Our ancestors did not fight for our land nd culture so that our deities, figures of profound spiritual import, could be commodified, cheapened, and turned into “superheroes.” Roanhorse writes graphically of a Diné grandmother being butchered, then she has a decapitated head brought into a hogan (a traditional Navajo home and often a place of prayer) to be inspected by a Diné medicine man. This is clearly a plot point that comes from a mainstream writer’s attempt to shock her readers, but in reality is much more damaging because of its subversion of Navajo beliefs of peace, prayer and harmony in the home.
Also troubling is the protagonist’s mocking and derisive tone toward the Navajo community, as when she describes a town of trailers, sheds, and hogans as a “booming metropolis in Dinétah standards.” One might argue this is “artistic license” and true to the protagonist’s character, but because of the writer’s inability to accurately portray the Navajo community throughout the book, it is hard not to interpret this passage as the mean-spirited stance toward Navajo people by the writer herself.
The belief in protecting cultural stories is not new. In America this idea is adjudicated under intellectual property law. For example, many of our neighbor Pueblo communities safeguard their cultural stories and property vehemently. They have boards and committees that oversee publications of sensitive cultural materials and stories. We think of Dr. Alfonso Ortiz of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, and how he was ostracized from his community after the release of his book The Tewa World: Space, Time, Being and Becoming in a Pueblo Society. It is hard not to wonder: Why did Roanhorse not take as subject of her science fiction novel her own Ohkay Owingeh culture?
This would be her most natural subject and setting for her Native American sci-fi novel. Yet she did not. She chose to appropriate another culture. One reason is the sure, swift, and definitive response that would have come from her own tribe if she were to publish such a novel about that culture without their permission.
The Navajo Nation does not have such a board or committee. In the time-honored tradition of our culture, we have shared our knowledge with outsiders when they have become our guests. This has left us vulnerable to many publications, often by non-Native anthropologists and writers, of our cultural stories, ceremonies, sacred songs, and other cultural material that should never have been published for a non-Navajo audience. Indeed, Roanhorse has acknowledged sourcing some of the material for her book from these kinds of publications.
There are other examples of literary appropriation of our culture by non-Navajos. Notably Tony Hillerman and his "mystery" books that appropriated and continue to profit off Navajo culture and stories without shame — all while portraying us inaccurately. Once again, there was no Diné "board" or "intellectual property committee" that denounced Hillerman’s use of our property (in the 1970s-90s when he published the bulk of his books) for his gain and it has gone largely unchecked. We think of other non-Navajo writers such as Oliver LaFarge, Scott O’Dell, the infamous Nasdijj aka Timothy Barrus, who constructed Navajo people and our stories from an outsider’s perspective. In doing so, a disservice was done to the Navajos, as it also reinforced old and new stereotypes. Furthermore, Roanhorse’s appropriation, especially as an in-law who married into and lived on the Navajo Nation homeland and as an Indigenous relative, is a betrayal of trust and kinship. We do not want to let such breaches of faith and cultural contract slide any longer. So we write this letter objecting to the book.
One must ask critical questions of what is being reflected in these appropriated stories about our community, land, culture, and history. Is the reflection an accurate portrayal of our community and culture? Is the reflection a genuine and true portrayal of Navajo people? Our answer is no, it is not. Who can write about Navajo people, who can set their stories in Navajo lands, in Navajo hearts and minds? Our ancestors fought to keep our land, so we could define ourselves and live as we saw fit. Our answer is, the right to define us belongs to Navajo people.
We invite you to read Diné writers who have been publishing their work for over 50 years. Search them out, include them in your reading lists and syllabi. Make their voices ring louder by reading them. Counter the flawed, inaccurate, and harmful narratives that have been written about us by outsiders with Navajo authors who use Diné words, Diné voices, and Diné stories.
Our collective concerns about Trail of Lightning deal with authority and with safeguarding Diné spiritual beliefs. The book is becoming widely read and reviewed. We are concerned that this book attempts to convert our true ancestral teachings into myth and legend. We caution Diné readers who want to read this book to do so with discretion, as there are very graphic and violent images that can cause spiritual harm.
Founded in fall 2016 as the Navajo Writers’ Association, Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ brings together Diné writers to develop literary culture on the Navajo Nation, to discuss issues in Diné literature, to share our work with one another, and to mentor the next generation of Diné writers. As a collective group of Diné writers, who believe in the beauty and power of words, stories, songs and prayers to heal, transform, and bring us together, we cannot support this book.
Dine Writers’ Collective, Saad Bee Hozho, is a collective of Navajo writers from the Navajo Nation. Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ members in support of this letter include: Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, Chee Brossy, Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, Tina Deschenie, Jacqueline Keeler, Dr. Lloyd Lee, Manny Loley, Jaclyn Roessel, Roanna Shebala, Jake Skeets, Dr. Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, and Orlando White.