Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Soapbox aka I'm Thinking of Writing an Editorial . . .

A couple of weeks ago, the editor of a popular and high-profile organization that publishes a book series asked if I would be interested in contributing a chapter on the Arctic. I don't want to name who she worked for - primarily because my purpose here is to let the rest of the world know about this issue and not necessarily to point fingers at this particular institution/organization. I may do that at a later date, but for now, let's just say that I respect this organization, for the most part. I also would like to give that organization a chance to respond.

Below is the text of the email I wrote to this editor, declining the opportunity to write this chapter. I have edited out the organization, but it's more or less the same text. I also wove in some text I wrote in an email to a friend and colleague. I feel strongly enough about this issue that I thought I should pass it on.

After some careful consideration over the past week, and reviewing various materials to make sure I have my story straight as well as thinking about my current work load, I have decided that I honestly do not have time, nor the inclination, to write this chapter on the Arctic for [xxx]. I am respectfully declining this opportunity. I was quite flattered to be asked and I do appreciate your time in working with me.

I decided to review Tiger Burch’s book “The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska” as a starting point in order to figure out whether or not I could actually name a “tribe” in Alaska. After reading his list of nations, I came to believe that when you started giving me names last week on the telephone that you might have been using Tiger’s list of nations. Thus, when you mentioned one name, such as “NuataaGmiut”, I answered that that was a “village” today, not a “tribe” in the same sense as the word “tribe” is used in the Lower 48. However, in the 19th century, it was an alliance of about 20 or so villages or bands that had from 1 to 6 houses, with each settlement holding from 8 to about 40 people. The people in these 20 settlements referred to themselves as belonging to that unique settlement but also belonging to a larger alliance that they referred to as “NuataaGmiut”.

Today, however, such “nations” do not exist in the same sense. Because of disease and then colonization by the U.S., these settlements were congregated into one spot for ease of dispensing government services such as a school or health care. These aggregations of many settlements into one village often exist today as an IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) tribal council, which is a “tribal” structure imposed by the United States government upon the Inuit peoples in Alaska. Thus, when you asked me what a “tribe” looked like among the Inupiat, I answered that each village was “tribe” because of its past history – a group of settlements banded together in the past and referred to themselves by a unique name, but often these settlements were forced to come together into one place by federal Indian policy. And, there were times when this policy forced groups who were traditional enemies to congregate together in one place – forcing groups who were stewards of particular places to live in another group’s place.

Hence, there is a dilemma here that I cannot and do not want to artificially resolve for the sake of selling a [xxxx] book. In the past week, as I thought about how to resolve the issue of how to define a “tribe” in the Arctic, I frankly found myself getting frustrated and pissed off. It just won’t work. I got angry because I felt that another western idea of “tribe” was being imposed on indigenous peoples yet again. That’s not how the Arctic works and unfortunately, based upon our conversation, it does not seem that [xxx] is willing to be flexible in the structure of this book. By imposing this artificial structure, for the sake of each chapter looking exactly the same, on the Native Nations of North America, the [xxxx] is obscuring the richness and diversity of Native America.

This morning, as I reflected on this whole issue during an acupuncture appointment, I remembered something that you said in our conversation last week. In particular, you said that in the process of developing a book, the [xxxx] “market tests” the structure and content. I assume they do this in order to figure out what books [should] look like and what they say in order to sell as many of the books (and therefore make money) as they can. Now, I understand that this is the prerogative of the [xxxx] and I am not questioning the freedom of the [xxxx] to do this. However, it occurred to me that what is happening is that [xxxx] is giving the American public exactly what it wants: THEIR OWN VIEW of the Indian Nations of North America, not what ACTUALLY EXISTS. In other words, [xxxx] is playing into the stereotypes of Native Americans.

Ethically, I cannot be a party to this process. If, however, [xxxx] wants to put together a volume that describes what actually exists, rather than what the unknowing American public THINKS to exist, I would be happy to contribute something.

For an example of the flexibility that can be brought together in a volume, Mark Nutall edited the “Encyclopedia of the Arctic” several years ago. While I haven’t read all three thick volumes, he does say in his introduction that he refused to put artificial ideas of how to define the “Arctic” but instead allowed varied definitions, whether it be based on the treeline, the Arctic circle, geopolitical boundaries, etc. He stated that he wanted the diversity of what is considered the “Arctic” to be represented in these volumes.

Quite frankly, I am dismayed that the [xxxx] is going this direction. It means that there is a lot more work that indigenous scholars need to do in order to educate the general public about our lives. With that said, I do want to thank you very much for this opportunity. I was flattered. Unfortunately, however, I do not feel that I can contribute the Arctic chapter under these circumstances.
Thank you,


Carver said...

Dee I think your email is excellent. That would upset me too the way they are artificially and incorrectly labeling. You did a great job expressing why you were declining their offer.

Dee said...

Hi Carver,
That editor didn't necessarily think so! She told me that I had a "surprisngly profound and comprehensive misunderstanding of the project" - that was her reply. I sent another long email in which I explained how scholars have discounted the idea of "tribes" and asked her what definition would she like to use - would it be the federal government's definition where they only used federally recognized tribes? Or, would they use a list of "tribes" from 1890? Or from today? It's very problematic and by not allowing any flexibility (for instance, in not using the term "tribe") or allowing the "tribes" to define for themselves who they are, I think this organization is doing a disservice.

Anyway, thanks for reading it! I do still think I want to write an editorial somewhere ...