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'The Elizabeth Warren of the sci-fi set': Author faces criticism for repeated use of tribal traditions

A popular author is facing renewed accusations of cultural appropriation after repeatedly using tribal stories and traditions without consent.

In her latest work, Rebecca Roanhorse describes herself as a being Native American from Ohkay Owingeh, one of the 19 Pueblo communities in New Mexico. But she is not a citizen of the federally recognized Indian nation, whose homelands are located in the northern part of the state.

Additionally, no one under the name Roanhorse, her married name, or that of Parish, her maiden name, is a citizen, Indianz.Com confirmed. And in public settings, she has told people she has never lived in the tribal community.

Despite the lack of formal or community ties to Ohkay Owingeh, whose leaders are regularly recognized for their contributions in arts, education and national policy, Roanhorse centers herself as a representative of the tribe to readers of science fiction and fantasy. In an author's note for A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy, which is up for a literary award this month, she said she repurposed a traditional Pueblo story in the hopes of inspiring others to "learn more about Native cultures and peoples."

A scene from a feast day at Ohkay Owingeh in New Mexico. Photo: Larry Lamsa

But Pueblo citizens instead see a troubling, yet familiar, pattern of artists, academics and outright frauds utilizing Native identities for personal, professional and financial gain. They are immediately reminded of a long history of cultural appropriation, one which stretches back to the days of the genocidal Indian boarding school era, perpetuated by individuals who lack direct and meaningful connections to the people they claim to honor and celebrate.

"She's like the Elizabeth Warren of the sci-fi set," Elena Ortiz, a citizen of Ohkay Owingeh, told Indianz.Com, comparing Roanhorse to a more recent example of a prominent political figure whose prior claims of a Native identity have often detracted from otherwise well-grounded efforts to advance tribal causes.

In New Mexico, Ortiz has long been active in dismantling the harmful legacy of colonialism on tribal lands. Just last week, amid a reckoning over the nation's racist history of police officer killings of African-Americans, three monuments that commemorated violence against Pueblo and Navajo peoples were taken down in Santa Fe, the state capital. A fourth also came down in a community next to Ohkay Owingeh.

The efforts occurred in solidarity among Pueblo, Navajo, African-American and other allies, and are directly connected to eradicating cultural appropriation, Ortiz asserted. She believes Roanhorse's 2019 work -- which is subtitled with the English name of a Tewa language story -- arises out of an exploitative practice where tribal traditions are taken by others without a complete recognition of the people who originate, maintain and care for such knowledge in order to pass it on to future generations.

In an author's note accompanying A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy, Rebecca Roanhorse identifies herself as Native American from Ohkay Owingeh. From: The Mythic Dream, Simon and Schuster (2019).

Roanhorse, in her author's note, appears to take pride in "retelling" such knowledge to readers whom she acknowledges may not be familiar with Pueblo culture. But Ortiz grew up hearing the story directly from her Tewa speaking ancestors and, despite understanding the attempt to place it in a futuristic setting, she doesn't feel it will help outsiders learn anything about her people.

"What she wrote," Ortiz said, "bears no resemblance to that story, what the message is, what it's trying to teach us about Pueblo people and about our communities and ourselves."

Ortiz thinks a different motivation is at play. She said Roanhorse is using her claim of Pueblo heritage to make sure she stands out in a crowded literary space, where few other Native Americans are able to achieve recognition in a medium largely controlled by non-Natives.

"She's trying to use Indigenous stories to market her work," Ortiz said. Yet, she added: "There's no resemblance to what she's writing and what the stories actually are."

Such criticism isn't the first time Roanhorse has been questioned for utilizing tribal traditions. Since 2018, she has faced numerous complaints for basing her award-winning debut novel, Trail of Lightning, largely on Navajo cultural and spiritual knowledge -- some of it considered taboo.

Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who was the first among her people to earn a doctorate in history, said the novel takes her ancestral teachings and "appropriates them violently." She's talked to medicine healers in her community who are upset with unsanctioned depictions of their culture, including creation stories that are meant to be told in the Dine language.

"The way she does it is such desecration," Denetdale told Indianz.Com.

And like Ortiz, Denetdale argues that Roanhorse's appropriations expose how little she knows about the people she portrays in print.

"For her to present to a larger audience that she knows what she's talking is just ridiculous," said Denetdale, who serve as chairs of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, whose role is to protect the well-being of the Dine people. "And it's harmful and it's violent."

Emily Mah: Rebecca Roanhorse Reads from Trail of Lightning and Takes Audience Questions, June 26, 2018

Denetdale has previously documented her concerns with Roanhorse's work. She also belongs to Saad Bee Hózhǫ́, a collective of Navajo writers who published a widely-read critique in Indian Country Today about appropriation of their cultural beliefs.

But even before the commentaries surfaced, Roanhorse was confronted about her decision to set the book on the largest reservation in the United States. During a book talk at Jean Cocteau Cinema, a historic theater in Santa Fe that's currently owned by George R. R. Martin, a giant in science fiction and fantasy genres, she said it was appropriate to use Navajo traditions in her work because they appear to be more publicly accessible than ones from Ohkay Owingeh.

"I didn't want to be telling stories I shouldn't be telling or working with stories I shouldn't be working with," Roanhorse said in June 2018, seemingly accepting the idea that some cultural traditions are off-limits.

"Pueblos are a little more private about their stuff and I didn't want to upset anyone," she added.

Roanhorse also pointed out that she has lived on the Navajo Nation, whose reservation spans the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Additionally, she is married to a Navajo citizen and their child is Navajo.

Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is a professor in American Indian Studies at the University of New Mexico and chair of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. Courtesy photo

But Denetdale doesn't accept Roanhorse's justifications. As an in-law in Navajo society, she shouldn't overstep boundaries by claiming ownership of knowledge to which she has no right, the professor in American Indian Studies at the University of New Mexico said.

"She doesn't understand the traditions, the teachings and the practices," Denetdale told Indianz.Com. "And one of them is that an in-law keeps their place. Navajo in-laws know that."

Denetdale stressed that such beliefs apply to all in-laws, regardless of their status as a citizen or non-citizen. With a laugh, she noted that her father, who is Navajo, always knew to stay out her mother's family business.

The underlying issue, however, is very serious, according to Denetdale. Roanhorse is capitalizing on non-Natives' limited understanding of such traditions in order to appeal to them and sell books, she said.

"It's the same as what a White person does and that's not acceptable either," Denetdale told Indianz.Com. "We have to deal with people who think that [being an in-law] gives them some license and it doesn't. They should be respectful and leave well enough alone and leave the stories alone. It's not for them to appropriate."

"As an in-law, you should know your place," she added.

Suzan Shown Harjo. Photo: U.S. National Archives

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, has been at the forefront of every major Indian Country battle, whether it's protecting sacred sites or getting rid of racist mascots. She views Roanhorse's repeated use of tribal traditions as yet another example of cultural appropriation by individuals who fail to see the negative consequences of their actions.

"That's it," Harjo told Indianz.Com via phone on Sunday as she endures a lengthy bout with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. "She has no connection and she doesn't know."

What's more, she said people who lead mainstream institutions -- whether in literary, educational, artistic or other settings -- hire, promote and engage with appropriators because they too lack a connection to Native Americans, whose histories and sovereign rights continue to be challenged and undermined by the larger society.

"The reason the non-Native people embrace these pseudo-Indians is because they are them," Harjo said. "They're embracing something that's very familiar to them, and that's a facade of a Native person."

And when Native voices finally speak up -- just like Pueblo and Navajo people are doing with Roanhorse -- their complaints go unheard by the non-Natives who dominate mainstream institutions, she said. The pattern repeats itself over and over again because the underlying issues of racism, supremacy and colonialism remain unaddressed, despite efforts by tribes and their citizens to overcome them, according to Harjo.

"They're rejecting what the Native people say because they feel superior to us," Harjo said, emphasizing how control is maintained in these arenas.

New Mexico PBS: Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People

In contrast, Ohkay Owingeh is about community, citizens and residents say. In that spirit, Dr. Matthew Martinez, said he welcomed Roanhorse to the tribe when he met her two years ago, as she was beginning promotional efforts for Trail of Lightning.

At the time, Martinez was serving as lieutenant governor of the tribe. He told Indianz.Com he was eager to connect with someone who claimed ties to Ohkay Owingeh, even if he did not personally know her.

During the April 25, 2018, event, Roanhorse read from the forthcoming novel, and from an essay that appeared earlier in the year in Uncanny Magazine, which describes itself as a science fiction and fantasy publication. In it, the author shares her story of being adopted and of meeting her birth mother.

Roanhorse writes that her birth mother's "family comes from the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo of Northern New Mexico." Though Ohkay Owingeh is indeed a Pueblo community, the tribe's name is simply Ohkay Owingeh, which means Place of the Strong People in the Tewa language. Pueblo can mean people, place or village in Spanish, and it's a term used to describe a diverse group of Indian nations located in present-day New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

Upon hearing the story, in which Roanhorse said her birth mother gifted her a copy of a PBS documentary called Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People, as well as a "CD of the Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie," it became clear to Martinez that the writer's actual ties to the community were tenuous.

"That was her connection to being Ohkay Owingeh," Martinez recalled -- a copy of a documentary that aired on public television 25 years prior.

Eagle dancers and singers take part in a presentation of a statue of Popay, a leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, at Ohkay Owingeh. Photo: Einar E. Kvaran

Amid the doubts, Martinez was more than happy to invite her to the tribe's annual feast day, which takes place on June 24, though this year's event has been canceled in order to protect residents from the coronavirus. He stumbled onto more disconnects during their conversation.

"She was unaware this was taking place," Martinez said.

Ohkay Owingeh's feast is one of the largest in northern New Mexico, typically drawing huge crowds for dances that occur in the center of the main village. The big turnout of friends, family and tourists, besides the hundreds of community members who take part in the dances, was a driving consideration for canceling it due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the tribe is featured prominently in Surviving Columbus, whose production crew taped numerous segments on the reservation with leaders and scholars from Ohkay Owingeh.

According to Martinez, Roanhorse "had already planned a series of upcoming book tours," implying some sort of conflict, or at least an inability to attend the feast.

A statue of Po'Pay, the leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, represents New Mexico at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A calendar still available on her website, however, shows three empty weeks following an appearance in New York City at the beginning of the month. She had to return to New Mexico in time for her June 26 talk in Santa Fe, the one where she signaled that she respected and understood Ohkay Owingeh's traditions, despite apparently not knowing about one of the tribe's most important cultural celebrations.

Still Martinez said he was open to ensuring Roanhorse felt welcome, having direct experience with the trauma and hurt that comes when tribal children are taken from their homes without the consent of their sovereign nations.

"I recognize that adoption is an emotional experience for families and communities and especially those who have been adopted out with no real connection to home. I personally have dealt with these sensitive issues at home," he said.

But following their conversation, Martinez questioned why Roanhorse failed to bring her book tour to the place she was claiming to be from.

"Later, I wondered why  P’oe Tsawa Community Library at Ohkay Owingeh Library was not on that list of stops, especially since we run an active youth summer reading program," Martinez said of a reading space named in honor of his late grandmother, a linguist and educator whose name means Blue Water in Tewa, the language she taught to generations of students.

Esther Martinez's dedication to preserving the Tewa language in fact led to the passage of a national bill in recognition of her decades of work. Congress renewed the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act just last year.

"I recalled that she had not been aware of our largest annual community feast, and thought that the library would perhaps be even further out of sight and out of mind for Roanhorse," Martinez told Indianz.Com.

Dr. Matthew Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh) is seen at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he serves as deputy director. A sculpture of an Apache Mountain Spirit Dancer by Craig Dan Goseyun (San Carlos Apache Tribe) stands outside the facility.

Though the conversation took place two years ago, Martinez's efforts to welcome someone to the community were not out of character for him. He said he was living up to the tribe's ideals in reaching out to Roanhorse.

"At Ohkay Owingeh, we come from a place of welcoming by supporting individuals who wish to establish a connection with the tribe they come from and are claiming," Martinez said. "Being Tewa is continuous. This is practiced through a myriad of community values systems such as being present when there is a need to help with village activities, ditch cleaning, taking food or checking in on your elders, to name a few."

The spirit of cooperation has continued through the pandemic, with residents adhering to stay-at-home orders ad observing social distancing, the outcome of which has been no local COVID-19 cases even after widespread testing. Mindful of the cancellation of feast, during which the sharing of traditional food plays an important role, the tribal administration spent Tuesday delivering hundreds of food boxes to the community.

"To be Tewa means that we claim you and value you as a member of our nation and way of life," Martinez observed. "This goes beyond a feast day. This is lifelong."

Rebecca Roanhorse. Photo: ktbuffy

With about 3,000 citizens, Ohkay Owingeh is the largest Pueblo in the region near Santa Fe. But to people who live and come from there, it's easy to find a common connection.

"We know everyone's family groupings, lineages and even each other's nicknames," Martinez said.

Still, Martinez said he and other leaders don't always recognize everyone, which explains why he went out of his way to ensure Roanhorse felt included.

Of younger people who may not have grown up at Ohkay Owingeh, he said "it is common for them to come up to a community member or tribal officers and introduce themselves and the family they come from. This simple act means something. It means respect. It acknowledges your family relations."

"It affirms that I see you and welcome you as a Tewa person," Martinez added. "In addition to these cultural ways, one can also claim formal citizenship through enrollment."

"Roanhorse is not an enrolled member," he said.

Despite the lack of a formal tie, numerous media outlets continue to identify Roanhorse as being from Ohkay Owingeh. With publication of her essay last September, she again claimed to be from the tribe.

But sometime in 2018, when complaints of cultural appropriation first surfaced, she deleted all references to the tribe from her website, according to several Pueblo and Navajo citizens who noticed the change and wondered what motivated it.

"At Ohkay Owingeh, our current enrollment process privileges family lineage and not blood quantum," Martinez told Indianz.Com.

In other words, anyone who descends from an Ohkay family -- as Roanhorse has publicly claimed -- can become a citizen. But Martinez said the author has chosen a different path.

"Through the formal process of being an enrolled citizen and by not engaging in any form of cultural and community acknowledgement, Roanhorse has failed to establish any legitimate claim to call herself Ohkay Owingeh," he said.

"It is unethical for Roanhorse to be claiming Ohkay Owingeh and using this identity to publish Native stories," Martinez concluded.

Today was healing, today was medicine, today was herstory, we just getting started ✊🏽❤️ edit: reminder that the obelisk...

Posted by Three Sisters Collective on Thursday, June 18, 2020

Two other people with direct ties to the tribe also confirmed to Indianz.Com that Roanhorse asked them for help in establishing some form of connection. Both said she declined to follow through on their attempts to bring her into the community. One incident occurred about a decade ago, while the other was prior to the meeting with Martinez in 2018.

Roanhorse did not respond to a request for comment placed by Indianz.Com by phone on Monday. A message left on a number that's available on the State Bar of New Mexico, a publicly accessible site, asked if she would respond to criticism of her work by Pueblo and Navajo citizens.

Indianz.Com also solicited comment by email on Tuesday. In the message, the website asked if she was a citizen of Ohkay Owingeh, or whether she had ever attempted to become a citizen.

The request also inquired about potential efforts to secure permission from the Navajo Nation prior to publication of Trail of Lightning in 2018. A similar query was placed with respect to her use of a Tewa language story for A Brief Lesson in Native American Astronomy. Besides Ohkay Owingeh, five other tribes in northern New Mexico are keepers of the Tewa language.

Native Media Network: SANTA FE NATIVE AMERICAN COMMUNITY CELEBRATES THE REMOVAL OF RACIST SYMBOLS - Eagle Song Opening

Shortly before publication of this story, Roanhorse blocked Indianz.Com on one social media website. On Sunday she had used the same platform to air a grievance about an unnamed "Native journalist" whom she said was "asking questions about my 'authenticity'", saying it was someone who appeared to be "friends with my vocal critics," whom she did not identify either.

Her post triggered a slew of supportive and sympathetic messages, a repeat of a familiar pattern on her social media profile. On June 11, for example, she went to the site with a grievance about receiving low ratings for her works, imploring people to be "honest" about their actions.

On Monday, she engaged in a similar tactic. She told her 25.4K followers that "it is NOT OK to call me after hours on my personal cell phone (however you got it)," She also implored others to be "professional" after utilizing an expletive.

"And I'm sorry for tweeting angry - I try not to do that - but this is too much. It's too much. But I'm going to get off Twitter before I say something I regret," Roanhorse wrote late in the day on Monday. "Sorry. I'm just done."

Just hours later on Tuesday, she was back on the platform, reposting supportive and sympathetic messages, the kinds of which her grievances appear to regularly attract.

And on June 24 -- the day of Ohkay Owingeh's most important cultural celebration -- she emerged again. It was a post telling her followers about her forthcoming book.

Note: The author of this story is Ohkay Owingeh, Cochiti and Kewa.

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