Electric Grandmother

Maggie Croft's Personal Journal young spirit, wire-wrapped
spark electric grandmother
arc against the night

-- Lon Prater
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writing ethics

I've been thinking about writing ethics and cultural appropriation and other such things lately. Mostly this is because of the story I just wrote and Haddayr Copely-Woods' recent article. (And yes, I know she was talking about people taking the Ankh and the fairy circle and the dreamcatcher and mixing it all up, etc., etc., but it still got me thinking.)

My geneology is the following: Welsh, English, a drop of Mohawk and a drop of African, Jewish (but a very long way back), Chippewa, Pennsylvania Dutch and maybe German (it depends on who Grandma's dad was, sometimes it's questionable). But that's blood.

Culturally, which I believe carries more weight, my geneology is: Mormon pioneer, Western American, Chippewa, German Catholic, Midwestern America and Sioux (Lakota).

My father's family came across the plains to Utah and eventually ended up in Idaho. The town I grew up in was very much like the old west in a lot of ways (though I think it's less so now). But as far as I know, the cattlemen and sheep ranchers still carry a grudge for one another. My mother is Chippewa, Crow Wing Band of the White Plains Reservation. She has a laminated ID with her picture and gets a statement from the tribe every month notifying her she is receiving no money for being a tribal member. (It's a very poor tribe and reservation.) I don't get a statement -- I wasn't born on the reservation. Her mother, who was also Chippewa, was reared by Catholic nuns at a convent and at Haskall (a Native American boarding school). My mother's mother's family also spent a lot of time at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. I grew up surrounded by both Sioux and Chippewa beliefs, and a great deal of Sioux cultural pieces (a God's Eye, pots, blankets, a Medicine Kit). My mother's father was from Iowa, and his family was once Pennsylvania Dutch.

The stories that come out of me come from these foundations. Last year I wrote a story about a Sioux girl. I wrote about her again last week. I am not Sioux. But there is still an intensely strong tie there I can't break.

My Great Uncle Clive was about as white as they come. He ran the store out at Wounded Knee. But in his heart he was Sioux. He practiced the religion and the life. The Indians called him "Black Coffee". His wife was Chippewa. He would go from Saturday all night religious practices where he would smoke and ingest whatever substances were part of the ceremony, and then maybe he'd make it to Mass the next morning, just like the other men on the rez. He sold Black Elk Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup and told my father some things about Black Elk and his place in literary history that I probably shouldn't repeat here. Maybe another time.

I grew up reading books about the Sioux. In a weird way, they have had more of a cultural influence than the Chippewa have had on me. But that doesn't mean I don't have Chippewa beliefs deep within me.

I spent one year getting a minor in American Indian Studies, particularly focusing on health issues and beliefs. It was a surreal experience. I have a lot of, um, magical thinking practices that are almost innate that when I rationally think about them don't necessarily hold up with modern science. Where did they come from? After the minor I knew -- the came from the syncretization of my grandmother's and mother's Catholic and Chippewa heritage.

I could write so much here. I could write about going out to Wounded Knee and seeing the Black Hills. I could write more about my family or the way I've been influenced. So many things.

But instead I wonder this...

When my stories come from me, wanting to be written, and they're full of the Lakota and Chippewa influences, what do I do? Technically, I'm not either, particularly Sioux. Am I ripping off another's culture by writing about Ta Tanka and the White Buffalo Woman? Should I stop and start writing about King Arthur instead? Or I'm from the West, so maybe Brigham Young and Diamondfield Jack. (Which wouldn't make a bad story, btw.)

But as an anthropologist, I believe a person's bloodline is a very small part of who they are. When Rice and I got our marriage license I refused to list a race. Race is an artificial construct in terms of biology. (This is a long argument, so maybe another time.Absolutely there's human variation, but there's more variation within one "racial" group than without. ) When my features are analyzed, I'm 100% Negroid. When I meet people, I'm often asked if I'm a "tribal member". According to blood quantum, I'm almost Native American, according to the One Drop Rule I'm African American. Culturally? I'm white middle-class Magic Valley Idahoan, with some central Idahoan thrown in. What did they want me to list?

So I write my stories and hope I'm not offending someone somewhere. And wonder that if I write someone's else's story in a way that appeals to me, in a way only I can, is that ethical?

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