Who owns a story?

by Tracy Barrett

There’s a lot of debate these days about whether authors should write only about the culture that they’re from, or whether the need for diverse books is more important than the need for diverse authors, which would leave members of any group free to write about anything important to them, regardless of ethnicity, religion, socio-economic class, gender orientation, etc. I once got caught up in that debate.

When I was offered the chance to write a nonfiction book on the Indian Removal Act (the Trail of Tears), the forcible and brutal removal of Native Americans from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma under orders of President Andrew Jackson, I leaped on it. My interest in this shameful episode started long ago, when I learned that an ancestor of mine named Elizur Butler had been imprisoned at hard labor along with the better known Samuel Worcester, for defending the Cherokees’ rights. They refused their pardons in order to force the case to the United States Supreme Court, which declared their imprisonment illegal. Butler then accompanied the Cherokees on foot to Oklahoma, where he settled. The pardons finally became effective in 1992.

My editor liked my manuscript—except, she said, that I had been too hard on Andrew Jackson. She said that the Indian Removal Act wasn’t out of line with the standards of the day, and that Jackson had merely been a man of his times. I sent her documentation making it obvious that this was untrue; the American public in general and Congress in particular were horrified by it. The editor still told me to soften my portrayal of Jackson. I refused, saying “genocide is genocide.” I canceled the contract and returned the advance.

That was very, very hard. That publisher produces beautiful books that win awards and sell well, and this was a story I was eager to tell. But I knew I couldn’t do what she asked.

I was lucky enough to find another home for the book. The manuscript was sent to a publicist at the Cherokee Nation for fact-checking. The publicist was complimentary about my research and how I had told the story, but then she said that I had portrayed the Cherokees too negatively.

Déjà vu all over again!

I reminded my editor that when describing pre-conquest Cherokee culture, I had to present the bad with the good (“bad” and “good” being defined in modern terms). The pre-conquest Cherokees were, to our eyes, brutal in warfare, burning captives alive and having their children pour water on the flames if the victim was dying too quickly. In at least one case, members of another tribe committed mass suicide rather than face these fearsome enemies.

Apparently the reader wanted me to cut out everything that looked bad to modern eyes and leave the impression that the Cherokees inhabited a kind of Garden of Eden, living in peace and harmony with nature and with their neighbors.

I refused to perpetuate this patronizing, “noble savage” view of the Cherokees and told my editor I wouldn’t make those cuts. To her credit, she agreed, saying that she had merely wanted me to be aware of the concerns of the outside reader and that as long as I had good documentation, I was free to present this view.

Then she told the person who had criticized my handling of the Cherokees that I was descended from Elizur Butler, and the objection vanished.

I was thrilled to have the book published, but a part of me was uneasy about the reason for the dropping of the objection. As far as I know, I’m 100% European-American. Of course, I’m proud of Butler, but I don’t think that courage and standing up for the right thing is inherited through the genes. In any case, he was a small part of the story I told. Does something my ancestor did almost two hundred years ago give me the right to tell the Cherokees’ story? Does this story belong to me, who grew up in comfort in the majority culture, as much as it does to the Cherokees (and other Native tribes) who continue to suffer discrimination?

I stifled the interior critic and went ahead.

Most nonfiction books for young readers go out of print quickly. The Trail of Tears: An American Tragedy has been in print with Perfection Learning since 2000. I’ve never heard from any reader, Cherokee or Andrew Jackson fan, that one side or the other was presented unfairly, and no Native American has taken me to task for telling this story.

But I still feel conflicted.


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