Petroglyphs and other made up elements of Written in Stone

Debbie Reese in her review of Written in Stone asked me about the petroglyphs in the story and why I invented them rather than using actual petroglyphs from the village of Ozette, where my story is placed.

 In the story the petroglyphs play a key role in helping Pearl uncover and claim her vocation as a writer and historian for her tribe. The ownership of artwork is a matter I take very seriously and to use an actual rock carving done by a Makah artist and put it in my book with no way of asking permission or compensating that artist fairly for his work would simply be wrong. So instead I invented a group of rock carvings based the carving style and technique I’ve seen while hiking in this area but copying none of them. To my thinking this is the more just course. Taking what’s

written_in_stone260not mine is wrong. Making things up is what a fiction writer does.  When the cover team was meeting I sent them a bunch of photographs of the Olympic Peninsula so they could get a feel for the ecosystem. The pictures included one of a petroglyph which is on public land and which commonly appears in works of non-fiction. I was so happy to see Richard Tuschman, the cover artist, incorporate a few petroglyphs on the cover–inventing an element in the style of this art but not stealing what’s not his to copy.

The other major plot element which is made up is the natural gas vent at Shipwreck Cove and the stories the tribe uses to keep children away from a dangerous place.  The accusation that I’ve made up stories that don’t exist is dead wrong. I’ve told no stories belonging to the Quinault or Makah, real or made up. I have pointed out something that is distinctive and interesting about their culture though. These tribes use monster stories to keep their children away from danger without having to hover over them constantly. I was struck by how much freedom young people in the community had during my time in Taholah. They walked all over town freely and without immediate supervision but still under the watchful care of the entire community. Places that might be dangerous, such as the ocean with it’s powerful undertow and the dump which attracts bears, were bounded about, not with fences, but with scary stories that kept kids from wandering into harm’s way. If there was a natural gas vent near the town (and there might be, there were places I was asked not to go myself when I lived there) then certainly there would be stories to warn children away.

imagesAs I say in the authors note the cove and its contents are my invention. Whether or not petroleum is present on the Quinault or Makah reservations is something you’d have to ask them about. Each tribe has a natural resources department and they are the ones to speak (or decline to speak) about their reservation lands. Natural gas is present all over the non-reservation areas of the Olympic Peninsula but it’s not abundant enough that anyone has drilled for it so far. Wildcatting in search of oil and natural gas was very common in the 1920s, and business men with an eye to a quick profit were often unscrupulous in acquiring mineral rights to land. This is not only an injustice directed toward Native Americans. Many white farmers and ranchers fell victim to their swindles as well. And frankly, I’m tired of stories that cast the Indian as the hapless victim. I wanted a story where the Native American kid won and did so, not in some wildly unrealistic battle or singlehanded act of heroism, but in the manner that most of life’s battles are won: with words, and community, and the hard work of many years.


7 thoughts on “Petroglyphs and other made up elements of Written in Stone

  1. Debbie Reese

    Maybe it would be wrong to use an existing petroglyph, but that depends on what you did with it.

    What you did instead is definitely problematic because, to use your word, you invented something and labeled it as being Makah. What you invented is based on existing petroglyphs. What you (and Richard Tuschman) have done is inject your thinking and your ideas into Makah ways of viewing the world. You’re labeling that invention as Makah. If this was art that you or Tuschman wanted to sell on the open market as “Makah” art, you’d be in violation of US law that prohibits non-Native people from labeling their work as Native (or in this case Makah). That law does not cover literature, but the principles have broad application.

    Technically, you are correct in saying that you did not make up and tell a “monster story” about natural gas vents in the place you made up (Shipwreck Cove). A reader will not find that story in the pages of your book. However! You did make up a “monster story” and put it into the minds of your characters. You made up that story to motivate your characters.

    You created the existence of the oil and gas so that you could tell a story about exploitation of Native people. To explain how Pearl would not know about that area, you created a story in her mind that would keep her from going there. For those who haven’t read the book, here’s that part:

    Mr. Glen (the oil man who is masquerading as a collector) asks Pearl to take him to Shipwreck Cove. She doesn’t want to go there, saying “It’s dangerous up there.” He replies, saying “Your demon stories don’t scare me” (p. 144). On page 146:
    When I was younger and I passed the trail to Shipwreck Cove, I wanted to sneak down and discover its secrets. Charlie and I made a game of guessing what sort of unnamed monster lived there and the vengeance he would take if we disturbed his home. But now, as I set out on the forbidden trail, even with the solid company of my oldest cousin, I felt dread grow.
    See? The story is there, even if you haven’t put it on the page itself. On page 148, Pearl asks Henry (Pearl’s oldest cousin) what makes the awful stench in Shipwreck Cove. He tells her “Grandpa would call it a power of the earth.”

    In your last paragraph above, you say that you’re “tired of stories that cast Native Americans as the hapless victim” and that you wanted “a story where they won and did so, not in some wildly unrealistic battle or singlehanded act of heroism, but in the manner that most of life’s battles are won: with words, and community, and the hard work of many years.”

    There are–as you’ve pointed out elsewhere in this conversation–examples of the Makah doing just that! They’ve won many battles. But you’ve chosen not to tell those stories because you think that they should tell those stories. With that in mind, you made up a story where they win, but in making up that story, you commit several wrongs.

    I know you mean well, and that you meant well in creating Written In Stone. As I hope this extended conversation shows, a lot can go wrong if you have an insufficient understanding of Native people and sovereignty.

    Today, tribal nations have developed/are developing protocols describing what they will agree to, and what they expect from researchers who wish to do research on that particular nation. On a global scale, the United Nations issued the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

    In short, good intentions are not enough.

  2. Rosanne Parry Post author

    Debbie, I’d love it if you’d include the title of the US law to which you are referring and a link to the text of the law if it’s available.
    Here is a link to the text of the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations.
    I think both will be valuable to those following the conversation. Article 11 of the UN declaration is most pertinent to our conversation here, although the whole thing is useful reading.

    I think it’s worth thinking about why literature was left out of the US law Debbie has referenced. It’s also important to bear in mind that the tribes involved in the story were consulted (as the UN declaration recommends) and had ample opportunity to object to the publication of the book. They did not object prior to publication or after. They did offer valuable information and support.

    Being an member of the Nambe Pueblo in Arizona does not give Debbie the standing to speak on behalf of the Quinault and Makah who live in Washington. Nowhere in her remarks has she referenced the wishes of the tribes involved, Nor have I seen any indication that she’s ever spoken to somebody from the tribe, let alone lived and worked there and consulted with them over a period of many years as I have in the writing of Written in Stone. They are well able to speak for themselves and in presuming to speak for them Debbie has overstepped her role as a book reviewer.

    However, since I believe she also has good intentions I’m willing to engage her in this conversation and in particular because I believe her methods are undermining her goal of increasing books for young readers by Native American authors. It’s an important goal. I’d like to see lots of young Native American writers nurtured all the way to publication by a major publishing house and also publication by their own tribes. One of the major factors in deciding whether a book will be acquired is the comparison to similar titles. So if a Makah or Quinault author would like to publish a book (probably a better book than this one) the publisher will, after making sure its well written and carefully researched, look and see how my book sold before deciding whether to publish their book and how much of an advance to offer. Whether or not that’s fair is a side issue. It is how publication decisions get made regardless of the race of the author. It’s an important consideration for anybody working in the area of multicultural fiction to bear in mind. Future publishing decisions are made on past sales performance.

    If you are a librarian who wants to see more books with non-white characters then you need to buy those books with non-white characters which are currently in print. If you are a librarian who wants to see more books with a brown child on the cover, you have to buy the books that are available now, not because they are perfect, but because they are a step down the path you want to go. You might never get a seat in the committee that decides what goes to print and what doesn’t, but your purchase is a vote they can hear loud and clear.

  3. Debbie Reese

    A short response for now…

    The law you asked about is the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. I’ll see if I can find out why it does not apply to literature. Why do you think literature was left out?

    I’d like a bit more information about who you consulted with. Did you go before the tribal council of the Makah or Quinault?

    Nambe is in New Mexico, not Arizona.

    We’re absolutely at odds, Rosanne, in the ways that we view this book.

    You find that I’ve overstepped my role because I point out the sorts of things that Native critics say, and have been saying, for a long time. My work is widely respected, by Native and non-Native people and organizations, too. John D. Berry, long-standing and former president of the American Indian Library Association, currently has my site as the featured page at the Native American/First Nations Facebook page, saying “it does not get any better than this blog.” A few weeks ago, one of the most acclaimed Native writers, Simon Ortiz, invited me to give a lecture in 2016 at one of the most prestigious lecture series in the country.

    More later…

    1. Debbie Reese

      Continuing my earlier comment:

      You’re right–future publishing decisions are made on past sales performance.

      Because I think that buying books by Native writers is important, I encourage people to buy Joseph Bruchac’s Hidden Roots, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out Of Here, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer, Tim Tingle’s How I Became A Ghost, or any of the books I recommend on AICL.

      I also encourage people to buy books by non-Native writers that have written excellent books. Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name Is Not Easy is one example. Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and her Native mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, is another.

      Of the Native writers I listed, Bruchac and Tingle have stepped outside their own nations and written books about Native people of other nations. They do so from a space that is thoroughly grounded in an understanding of Native people and history. When I read their books, sovereignty and treaty rights are at the core of what they write. They aren’t influenced by people like “Chief Lelooska” and the don’t say “civil rights” – they say Native rights, or treaty rights.

      The problem you and I are having, Rosanne, is that we approach this discussion from two very different positions, traditions, and histories.

      I was born at an Indian Hospital. I was raised on a reservation. The land my home is on is land that has always been Nambe land. I taught Native children for many years in Oklahoma and New Mexico. In graduate school, I was a key figure in the movement to get rid of “Chief Illiniwek” — a mascot created by white fans who maintained that we (Native people) should feel honored by it.

      My identity and activism aside, I am steeped in Indigenous scholarship that looks critically at issues of representation and appropriation. I’ve taught and studied the works of our most esteemed Native scholars, including Vine Deloria Jr., Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Geary Hobson. I’ve read the literature written by the most powerful Native writers, including Simon J. Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko.

      Within children’s literature about American Indians, I studied and learned from the work of Native scholars like Lisa Mitten, Naomi Caldwell, and Lotsee Patterson, and non-Native women like Beverly Slapin, Kathleen Horning, and Ginny Moore Kruse, who have studied this body of literature and offer tremendous insights as well.

      Right now, I’m reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Recognition, Sovereignty Struggles, and Indigenous Rights in the United States, edited by Amy E. Den Ouden and Jean M. O’Brien.

      I could go on.

      The point is, I read and evaluate children’s literature from a specific perspective that is grounded in Native Sovereignty and Native Nation building. That means I want the very best for Native and non-Native readers.

      I think you do, too, but we disagree on what “the very best” looks like.

      I encourage you (and any writers who are reading this conversation) to go to Native Studies conferences. There are many. I gave a keynote at the Native American Literature Symposium a few years ago. You would likely gain a lot by going there, given that it is literature-specific. You could go to the conference of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. Or, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association’s conference. There are many options.

  4. Rosanne Parry

    Well I do think we are at odds on the issue of who can write a book with Native American characters and who can speak on behalf of a tribe. But I also think we have many objectives in common including increasing the number and quality of books with Native American characters in them. If I had no respect for your work or your objectives, Debbie, it would be simple enough to ignore you. I am here and engaging in this conversation because I think that the issues you raise are important ones, well worth a serious author’s consideration.

    For example, I think an author does well to consider the ownership and purpose of art used in a story. Before I wrote the chapter in which Pearl finds the petroglyphs I spoke to many neighbors and parents of my students. Those conversations tended to be more general about how old the petroglyphs were and why they were made. I wasn’t a writer at the time, just a curious hiker and a teacher wanting to understand her students and their culture as fully as possible. Later when I was thinking about the book I spoke to people at the Makah Cultural Research Center and learned what I could about what the carvings meant to them historically and in the present. I also learned a truly heart-breaking story about a stretch of cliff face with hundreds of petroglyphs on it which was dynamited away without notice to the tribe in order to make a civil defense highway. Later still when I was vetting full drafts of the story I went back to the Quinault language and culture teacher and the Makah and Quinault historian who agreed to help me with the work. They gave me unpublished doctoral research and other materials held by the tribe which answered many of my questions and rounded out my understanding of many of the issues surrounding my story. I read everything publicly available in print on petroglyphs and spoke to some folks at the Burke Museum in Seattle about archeological dating of the Olympic coast petroglyphs. They also had a perspective to share on how those carvings are similar and different from other petroglyphs of North America. I went to a symposium on petroglyphs in Portland which drew academics, and artists both Native American and not. I learned about ancient tools and how the carvings were most likely made. I was particularly interested in the comments of Pat Courtney Gold, a Wasco fiber artist of considerable reputation. She has used motifs in her work from the Columbia River petroglyphs.

    Pat Gold was encouraging people to think of the petroglyphs not so much as long dead artifacts to prove the existence of some facet of a tribe’s ancient existence but rather as living works of art. The carvings are not signed, the original carvers are long gone and their original purpose is not in the current oral tradition, but what is knowable is the artistic choices of the carver: color, style, placement, subject and so forth. That can be known and studied just as you would study any other artist in the world.

    In all my research I found nothing to indicate that petroglyphs had a sacred or set aside purpose beyond being works of art. They quite naturally became way finding markers over time. But there was nothing to suggest that I’d be using them unfairly in the book. In all my conversations, nobody acted uncomfortable or evasive when discussing the petroglyphs. If they’d turned out to be in current or historical use as a sacred object or shrine, then I’d have left them out of the story as I have left alone other elements of Quinault and Makah culture which are not mine to share. My sources were not at all shy about telling me where I was searching for information that didn’t belong in the public sphere. I kept the story element with the petroglyphs and had Pearl respond to them, as Pat Gold suggested, as works of art which inspire her to reflect on her life and her purpose and which are a source of encouragement and connection. I think Debbie is correct in encouraging authors to think carefully about the content of a story and research things thoroughly. But she is not correct in assuming that I haven’t done my research or that I am incapable of understanding cultural and spiritual nuances. Her experience in working with the issues is impressive and her advocacy is vital. But all of her scholarship in the broader issues of Indigenous people does not make her an expert on the particular tribes in my book nor does it make her their designated spokesperson.

    When I was growing up my grandfather lived with me. He and I spoke German together and he had much to teach me about his childhood in Berlin. When I moved to Bavaria shortly after his death I couldn’t understand a word my neighbors said at first. Their accent, turn of phrase, and vocabulary was completely different from what I’d learned at home and at school from my Berlin born and educated German teachers. The food and many of the social customs were equally foreign. It would have been easy to say, they aren’t speaking “real German” and converse only in English which they were all capable of and willing to do. But I’m glad I did the work of listening and learning the Swiss and Italian-influenced vocabulary that infuses Bavarian German. I had a richer and more interesting time there than I would have otherwise. I’m not surprised that elements of Written in Stone didn’t ring true to Debbie. Her tribe belongs to a different ecosystem, and a different language group. Being a white person doesn’t make me an authority on all white people. When I wrote a Soviet soldier character from Estonia in an earlier book I did just a thorough a job of researching his cultural, political, spiritual, and historical background. Even when I am writing well within my own culture I have other people vet the details because my perspective on my own culture is a limited one.

    That I’ve made up a petroglyph in the story does not harm or diminish petroglyphs currently in existence. Nor does it prevent a Quinault or Makah writer for publishing their own books. It’s my hope that many of them consider writing and that many more stories set in this region are published. Among the excellent recommendations Debbie made there is not one person writing from the perspective of the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest. I’d like to see that change. If my book and this conversation about it can be a vehicle for that change then it’s effort well spent.

    1. Debbie Reese

      I did not say you can’t write a book with Native characters, so we’re definitely not at odds on that. Anyone can do that. Many have. Some do it well, others don’t.

      In my review, I pointed you to an article describing protocols for doing research on Makah people. Here’s what the article, written by the director of the Makah Culture and Research Center says:

      The Makah Tribal Council has authorized the MCRC Board of Trustees to screen and oversee the non-Makah research that takes place on the reservation. Prior to any fieldwork on the Makah Reservation, researchers are required to submit a packet to the MCRC Board of Trustees which includes a resume and a detailed account of the nature and objectives of the proposed research. After reviewing proposal materials, the MCRC can (and has) refuse research on the ground that the subject is culturally inappropriate. The board or staff may decide to assist in retooling the research design (for example, such that it includes the participation of Elders or alters the approach to Elders), or they may choose to advise or direct researchers toward rich resources of which they are unaware. The MCRC staff is also responsible for advising researchers that they must follow the MCRC protocol for gathering oral histories.

      Approval from the Makah Board dictates that a final copy of the research needs to be deposited at MCRC and a report made before the Makah Tribal Council. In this way MCRC acts as a repository for research that takes place on the reservation, ensuring community accessibility. In part, this ensures against what a former board member described to Erikson as “the helicopter effect.” He asked, “Do you know what the ‘helicopter effect’ is?” You, and the information you gather, get into the helicopter and fly away. That’s it.”

      Did you do that?

      When I objected to your creation of petroglyphs that you labeled as Makah petroglyphs, I did not say anything about them being sacred. As you said above, your sources told you petroglyphs aren’t sacred. Your research said as much, too. You tell us that Makah petroglyphs are art that “has no purpose beyond being works of art” and that later, they were used as wayfinders.

      For a lot of tribal nations, petroglyphs do have sacred qualities and access to them is restricted. They aren’t talked about because experience shows that collectors will try to take them. This was the case last year in California.

      I did an Internet search using “Makah petroglyphs” and “sacred” and got several hits about the Wedding Rocks. The same language is used across the sites: “Respect these historic and sacred artifacts.”

      Based on your research, however, that is an incorrect statement. I’d like to see your source.

      You’ve indicated you have a strong relationship with Makah people and you want to see more books about them. I do, too. You’re published by a major publishing house and you give writing workshops. Are you currently mentoring any Makah writers? Or Quinault writers? Or introducing them to your editors?

      1. Debbie Reese

        If you followed the protocol, and your book was read before publication, and then after publication, that would demonstrate Makah support for your book. Do you have those documents?

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