Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Guest Column: New novel twists Diné teachings, spirituality

By Jennifer Rose Denetdale

One of my childhood memories includes my love of books and writing. My formative years were filled with books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and Weekly Readers, all of which my parents supplied.

Book cover of “Trail of Lightning,” by Rebecca Roanhorse.

Raising a family of seven on his bi-weekly paychecks didn’t allow for extravagances. My father nevertheless gave his children access to books as a means of an advantage in the public school education system on Navajoland.

My parents were born during the livestock reduction era and were the first generation of Navajo children to enter boarding schools on a large scale. Their exposure to boarding schools led them to not actively teach us our own language, even as they spoke it every day of their lives. But they also ensured that traditional ceremonies and prayers were part of our lives.

Like many young people of my generation, in the 1970s, college was my introduction to Indigenous literary and intellectual traditions, an intro that has remained foundational to what I do as a writer and an educator.

My parents offered a respect for Diné ways of living that are embedded with the Diné creation narratives. Many of us Indigenous writers may not be fluent speakers of our language, but nevertheless we are guided by our ancestors’ knowledge and offer support to our respective Indigenous nation in our struggles to realize sovereignty and self-determination, elements which include the power of our stories to remind us of the integrity of our values, reminders of our k’é relations to Mother Earth, to the bounty of the land in the form of water, trees, plants, and animals. Our values also include freedom from bodily harm and violence.

Diné writers have expressed alarm and concern with Ohkay Owingeh/African-American writer Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Trails of Lightening (The Sixth World),” a sci-fi novel that has received national acclaim.

Set in Dinétah, the sci-fi novel features a young Diné woman, Maggie Hoskie, who is Monster Slayer and tasked with ridding Dinétah of evil as the monsters told of in the creation stories are returned and all manner of witchery is unleashed.

Roanhorse mixes Diné beliefs of the sacred with the evil of which we would never speak, for as one Diné writer said of Roanhorse’s depiction of Diné sensibilities on evil and witchery, “It is a calling into being.”

An appreciation of the power of words to create community and connect one to the past has been a hallmark of Indigenous and Diné writing, but not one that Rebecca Roanhorse has honored.

“Trails of Lightening” is characterized as “Indigenous futurism,” a genre that purports to extend creative Indigenous ways of being in a devastated present, especially in light of catastrophic climate change. Maggie as the major character who reflects our Holy People’s qualities of warriorship, benevolence and compassion becomes an element of consumption for an audience that cannot get enough of violence, no matter that the very history and culture of a people it purports to value becomes distorted and made bizarre.

As Indigenous scholars, we have offered our intellectual and creative skills to revalue land-based genealogical connections and remind of our obligations to humans and non-humans in bonds of kinship. As writers, we have drawn upon our creative imaginations to resist and refuse the violence done to us and to the land. In doing such work, we remember our ancestors’ will to live and offer our narratives as sources of empowerment.

In no way does “Trail of Lightening” offer such a vision of the future, for there is a difference between resurgence, abundance and resilience, and a desecration and violence to the sovereignty of spirituality and cultural knowledge.

If “Trail of Lighting” is meant to create Indigenous/Diné protagonists and storylines to empower readers and remind everyone to resist colonialism, it shouldn’t come at the expense of harming the very culture that it supposedly honors.

Jennifer Denetdale, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and the chairwoman of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. She is the author of “Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Chief Manuelito and Juanita.”

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