Thursday morning I posted about an article containing an “Indian Legend” I had found to be disturbing. Mr. Eastman (the author of the blog containing the history article in question) has communicated with me in personal e-mail to express his feelings on the subject, but he has chosen not to publish my comments or his own comments on his blog. That is his choice, but I must say I am disappointed. I feel it is a topic that needs to be discussed openly among researchers, genealogists and writers of fiction and non-fiction. Until it is properly and widely addressed, the cycle of disrespect to Native People will continue.
The number of fake “Indian Legends” will continue to grow exponentially if we do not stop treating them as fair game to be used and abused to suit the whims of non-Native People. When I saw a respected professional in the genealogy field contribute to the problem, I felt obligated to speak up.
What I find disturbing is how easily folks include “Indian Legends” in their writing without considering the consequences. These stories are the history of a People, not mere fantasy or bed time stories told to children. These stories contain important cultural and historical information for the People they belong to. These stories should be reproduced in a manner respectful to the people they belong to or not reproduced at all.
Novelists are a great danger to Native stories. They point to the fact they write fiction, so don’t need to be accurate. They don’t even need to be based in anything real. This is certainly true. However, they fail to see the long term consequences of their actions. A successful novelist makes their stories come alive for the reader, absorbing the reader into the characters and events. When an “Indian Legend” is included in the story, the reader has a tendency to feel it is real, just like they feel the characters are real. A few days, months, or years down the road they repeat the story to others, forgetting to add that the story was fiction created by a non-Native Person. The next thing you know someone has posted it in a blog or e-mailed it to friends. And now we have a new “Indian Legend” circulating which is not an “Indian Legend” at all - it is nothing more than non-Native fantasy. Something the writer included to add interest or spice to the novel. Everyone loves a good “Indian” story.
When professional genealogists, researchers, and writers of nonfiction include “Indian Legends” in their writing without providing an appropriate source it is just as bad, if not worse. First off, we should know better. Would we write about our own family history (or whatever subject) without researching it? Hopefully not, so why do we include “Indian” stories without giving them the same attention? For the reader, they remember some well known person wrote about it so why be concerned about the accuracy of it. They easily forget or fail to mention the writer warned them it was only “a legend”.
- Is it right to call it an “Indian Legend” if no Native Person every told the story? We (American culture in general) certainly seem to think it is.
- Is it time to try to make it right? I believe it is the only appropriate and respectful thing to do.
- Can we fix the whole problem? No, we can not, because it has been going on for at least two centuries now.
- Does that excuse us from doing the right this from this point on? Not in my book.
I see this issue as no different from those questionable online family trees that contain no sources, lots of errors, and some just plain ridiculous claims? We can’t get them all removed or cleaned up, but we certainly should not be contributing to the problem. We should not be trivializing the history and culture of a People to suit our own whims. Professionals have a responsibility to set a proper example for others to follow.
Most writers make no attempt to determine if their “Indian Legend” really is a legend told by Native Peoples. I don’t expect everyone to have the skills or take the time to do in depth research, so the next best thing is to convince folks to cite their sources. Then, at least a reader could look at the source and perhaps form their own conclusion about the reliability of that source. This really should apply to any cultural stories or legends from any place in the world. Labeling them as legends should not get us off the hook for writing responsibly.
Mr. Eastman suggested legends are by nature “unsourced” oral history and they come in many versions. This is certainly true. He went on to suggest that since the Gluscabe stories are the oral history of an “illiterate” People there is no definitive source, so we as writers have no source to cite. He even referred to the book “Cite Your Sources” saying that it has no entry or description that covers legends and traditions - they are simply unsourced by nature. He went on to suggest that by declaring it was a “legend” he had covered his bases properly. He also pointed out that he had treated the legends of other cultures in the same manner, by declaring them “legend”.
My opinion on the matter is this.
Gluscabe stories (and other oral Native stories) are part of the history of the Wabanaki People. Certainly one group may tell the story different from another. Certainly the stories have changed with time, creating a number of versions. It is the history of the Native People and it is their right to tell their stories in any manner they wish.
The Gluscabe stories have been recorded and published by a variety of Anthropologists, Folklorists, and Native People themselves. Not all published versions agree because the verbal source varies. However, any person willing to makes a little effort should have no problem finding an appropriate, published source that recorded the oral stories as heard directly from a Native Community. Native People are the SOURCE of their own stories - and the only source that should ever be used by non-Natives! Anything else is extremely disrespectful to Native People.
Stating this particular version of a Gluscabe legend can be found “dozens of places” or all over the web is not very helpful and certainly not responsible research. Do any of these dozens of places provide information about where their version originated? Very doubtful. Finding something in 20 places or 100 places does not make it reliable if the origins are still undeclared or obviously non-Native. Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t make it right. Research guidelines teach us that we need to find our information in an appropriate and reliable source before we spread it around.
Now let’s take a minute to look at the “Indian Legend” that got me so fired up.
"Micmac Indians of the 14th century told legends of a blond haired, blue-eyed god who they called "Glooscap," ..."
Does anyone see the problem! I see three, but one stands out and should be obvious to anyone who knows even a little bit about world history. I saw red and I am not Native. I can only imagine how a Wabanaki might react, but what I imagine is based on my experience with Native People.
First, Gluscabe (lots of different spellings and pronunciations) is a culture hero of the Wabanaki People - not a god. Big difference! But not everyone would know that, so readers might think it’s accurate.
Second, I have never seen a version of any Gluscabe story describe him as blond haired and blue eyed - not in any published or oral source coming from within a Native Community. The internet and novel don’t count! Again, not everyone would know that.
Third, (this is the easy one!) how does anyone know what kind of stories were told by “Micmac Indians of the 14th century”.
Who was here in the 1300s to record their stories? Oh ya, I forgot, those Scottish Knights were here, right ;) Did the original writer of this statement even think about what they wrote? Did any of the people who have copied and used this statement ever THINK about what it was saying?
I’m sorry folks, this is crap!
Is it right for non-Native people to adapt Native stories to suit their needs? I say no, we have no right to use Native stories for our own purposes.
The problem is complex and the solution is not simple but there is one simple truth - nothing will change until someone cares enough to start doing the right thing.
Please, if you did not hear it directly from a Native Person or find it in an appropriate resource that clearly states it is a record that comes directly from Native People, don’t use it. If you feel you just have to include an “Indian Legend” then at least tell your reader where you found the version you are repeating and that you did not verify the reliability of the source yourself.
Please, weight in on this subject. I would especially like to hear what Native People have to say. Am I off my rocker or is my concern valid?