Patricia Grady Cox
February 5, 2018
I wanted to have a character in my novel who told the story of the Navajo Long Walk from a native perspective. But how? I am not Native American. I had never done more than exchange a few words with Native Americans. I’d spent a lot of time at Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, but that hardly authorized me to represent their history and culture. I was afraid of being seen as presumptuous at best, a cultural (mis)appropriator at worst.
Thus was born Juan Rubén Tellez de Santiago, a main character in my novel Chasm Creek. Rubén is Navajo, but raiding Mexicans stole him at a young age, took him to Mexico, and sold him to a Spanish family. Indoctrinated into the Roman Catholic faith by this family, he embraced their religion, and came to be treated as a member of the family. They allowed him an education, but they also told him lies about his heritage that he believed. So, he enters the story as an elderly man, and serves well as a Navajo character who wasn’t culturally Diné. Rubén allowed me to share the story of The Long Walk through his eyes as he himself learns of it (and struggles with the knowledge).
For those not familiar, The Long Walk began when Kit Carson, under the command of Major General James H. Carleton, Commander for the New Mexico Military Department, “defeated” the Navajos in the winter of 1863/1864. The army rounded up thousands and marched them 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory (Bosque Redondo). There they were incarcerated, mistreated, and starved for five years before signing a treaty in 1868 which allowed them to return to a much-diminished homeland. I felt it was a story as compelling as the more well-known Cherokee Trail of Tears, and I felt compelled to share it. The backstory of another main character, Morgan Braddock, also touches on this period of Diné history.
My question to readers: What are your thoughts on authors presenting characters of a different culture/race/ethnicity/etc.?
My question to writers: Have you faced this issue in your work, and how did you address it?
Please visit my webpage – here.
For more information on the Navajo Long Walk, here is a link to the Bosque Redondo Memorial. https://www.bosqueredondomemorial.com/