Last year, as I was working on a manuscript of a novel built on the last 150 years of Northwest Salish history, a Salish teenager shot and killed four friends in his Marysville high school gym. At the time, I was enrolled in an American Indian Studies class at the University of Washington because I had been concerned about my role as a writer. I am not Native American—Midwestern Jewish—and, while I wanted to finish my manuscript, I wanted to avoid appropriation and, what my professor would have called, psychological colonization.
When there was no land left to colonize, no settlements left to plunder or animals left to hunt to extinction, the descendants of those first Europeans turned to Native culture as a resource. In the same way we once took their land, Americans have, for decades, happily taken Native religion, narratives, dress and, even, rituals. Nothing is theirs and theirs alone anymore. So, while depicting other minority cultures may not always, necessarily, be an act of appropriation, so many Native American populations have lost so much else that the use of their image only echoes a trauma that began when the first ships landed.
It so happened that my professor, Stephanie Fryberg, was the shooter’s aunt. She’s a respected member of the Tulalip tribes who doubles as a research psychologist and spent her time that quarter, when not in class, as an unofficial tribal representative and trauma counselor. I wondered whether it was at all possible to use, as in my case, native culture—characters, history, imagery—without it being an act of psychological or cultural appropriation. I looked for successful examples to try and emulate or learn from. I found one: Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, published just months before the shooting and with an eerily similar cast of characters to the ones involved in the Marysville shooting.
Almost a year after the shooting, the victims’ lawyer petitioned to have the shooter’s cell phone records released. When they were, the story seemed unfortunately familiar—a deeply repressed and hurt individual torn up about a recent breakup. The gun had come from his dad’s house, where it should never have even existed because of a standing domestic abuse conviction that barred him from owning firearms. To be sure, the shooter was acting out of some kind of anger or desperation. But, most other school shootings are perpetrated by almost exclusively white males, so it would discount this shooter’s own unique, emotional context to assume that this was the result of similarly simple teen angst.
It is hard to consider the shooter, himself, as some kind of victim. But it is important to remember that, as a Native American, he was colonized. No one can convincingly argue that what was done to him subconsciously is nearly as heinous as what he did to his peers, but the shooter was, nonetheless, exposed to a certain kind of psychic agony that may have manifested itself in physical violence.
In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois called it a “double-consciousness,” the potentially unmoored sense of self in nonwhite, non-European communities brought about by the dual identities minority individuals often feel beholden to uphold. The image of the Native American has been, for so long, defined by non-Native Americans that it, now, looks nothing like the actual thing. So, when an actual Indian is confronted by a cartoonish or inaccurate representation of a made-up Indian, that could result in someone like the Marysville shooter—potentially wondering who the hell he actually is.
After a young, beautiful girl arrives in town to work in the dining hall of a logging camp at the same time a strange man takes up residence in the local motel, the teenagers at the center of Harun’s novel are, one by one, tempted in their own ways, toward violent catharsis. The teenagers, like the Marysville shooter, start like most other teenagers: they are angsty, but happy to vent it with sports, sex and—in one character’s case—story-telling. They spend their time, for the most part, teasing each other, wandering around town and, like the shooter, simply messing around to the point of, but not beyond, maliciousness.
Over time, though, the characters come to see themselves as victims of an active attack by society instead of, simply, the luckless inheritors of their parents’ race, caste and failures. In other, less truthful novels, this would translate as a heroic call to action. In Harun’s skillful hands, though, we can see how misguidedly optimistic that can be. Harun shows us just how deeply informed by trauma her characters are and, therefore, how impossible it is to escape it.
The man, therefore, that comes out of a door of Harun’s mountain—the mysterious stranger—is personified evil; He represents and, indeed, causes the slow corruption of the mind when it is subjected, over and over, to physical and emotional injustice. The last act of the book doesn’t include a school shooting, but the book does offer another irreparable act of violence. By following the seed of psychic pain through to its inevitable, brutal conclusion, Harun gives us a full picture of the lives of Native American teenagers; teenagers not at all unlike the Marysville shooter.
I had initially approached the problem of appropriation in my own work like this: if my research was exhaustive and my information accurate, how then could I possibly be offensive, dehumanizing or regressive?
Consider, though, Stephanie Fryberg’s own study in the wake of the shooting. While much of her career has revolved around considering the long-term emotional effects of historical trauma on Native American adults, the shooting inspired her to ask that same question of Native American teenagers.
In contrast to white teenaged shooters who all seem to have, as their cultural beacons, violent, sexist and racist memes, the cultural isolation Native American teenagers feel is, often, a complete lack of role models altogether.
This isn’t to say that no Native Americans have healthy parents or successful brothers and sisters to look up to (remember, the shooter himself had a successful academic for an aunt) but, rather, all that is blurred by the much more vocal majority of external images.
“A role model is viewed as self-relevant if the role model’s defining characteristics (e.g., ethnicity, gender, social class background) are shared by and are important to the person the role model inspires,” Fryberg’s study says. “Exposing underrepresented Native American students to a self-relevant role model significantly increased school belonging relative to role models that are self-irrelevant or ethnically ambiguous.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter how historically accurate my white-born representation of a Native American might be. Historical images are infamously cherry-picked to reinforce an image of The Native as we like to believe they once were: noble, savage mystics. It would be no different for me to depict the most historically verifiable medicine man than it would for me to depict the most realistic Indian alcoholic. Both are equally typecasting.
This is the result of colonization of the psychic kind. Whites have, through our books, movies and mascots, taken the Indian identity from the Indians and repurposed it to fit our needs—whether it be as plot devices, religious misappropriation or marketing headdresses for Coachella.
(Side note: headdresses at Coachella are not a way honor Native Americans. Why not just publically put your pants on one leg at a time? They do that, too.)
The irony is not lost on me: I am perpetrating just this type of colonization by writing a novel about a Native American and then using that experience to write this essay about writing about Native Americans. Is there a way, though, for a white person to write about Native issues without being appropriative? To be a part of this ongoing conversation? Because of our ancestors, we do, after all, share the same parcels of land. If it’s possible, Adrianne Harun has gotten the closest we’ve seen.
The job is to depict Native Americans as they were, completely, and as they are, now. The shooter, for instance was, no doubt, a troubled kid. But he was also, it turns out, a good football player, a good student, apparently charming. He was skinny and had the kind of face that made it seem he was going to be handsome when he grew up. He, like any teenager, could’ve been straight, gay, bookish, athletic, mean, nice, sexually active, chaste, nervous, loyal, hungry, religious, shy or boisterous. What makes a Native American narrative accurate, therefore, and not appropriative, is not its historical details, but rather its contemporary framing.
I can’t speak to Harun’s accuracy in her novel because I didn’t grow up as a Native American on a reservation. In fact, I shouldn’t speak to its accuracy.
I can, however, speak to its multi-dimensionality in plot, theme and scope. What’s most notable about Harun’s Native American characters is that they are not only Native American characters. They exist both within and without that identity. Harun shows her characters’ Indianness in both relation to and in contest with their many other facets.
In so doing, though, Harun also shows just how hard it may be to live as both a teenager and a Native American—to reconcile an inherited identity with the world’s false perceptions. Because this is the central conflict of much of the novel, it is, itself, an indictment of what lesser authors have done to these communities.
Perhaps Harun’s novel’s greatest success is not in its depiction of psychological trauma at all. Perhaps its power lies in its dual role as witness to and, in its very existence, proof of, the continued cultural appropriation that still afflicts these communities.