Open Letter to Cons From the Indians No Longer in the Background of a John Wayne Movie

Indians Aren’t Furniture. You don’t have to put us all together over in the corner like a set. And understand that “corner” here means the All-Native panel you think makes perfect sense. Conventions like to group like writers together for better discussion, we know—all you second-world fantasists, over here, all you splatterpunks, over there. Talk amongst yourselves, yes, go, go. But those groupings are significantly different than grouping writers by cultural heritage. In fact, it’s just a step away from organizing by skin color. And? Herding us onto a little postage stamp in the big, big program is…I have to say it…it’s putting us on a reservation. Just, this one feels more like a petting zoo.

We’re Here to Talk Books and Writers, not representation and diversity. So, if you can resist that urge to put us all on the same panel to talk about “The West” (we’re not all from the West…) or “The American Myth” (myth being what the big religion calls the little religion), that doesn’t mean that the big change sorter has to deposit us on the representation and diversity panels. And, anyway? Listen to the Q&A of most of those panels. The subtext is always a request to validate parking, to give some sort of tacit permission for people to cosplay as us for a story or two. Never mind that none of us are authorized to give that particular permission. What to pay more attention to is that that’s asking us to cut out construction-paper feathers for people to wear home from school, because being Indian is fun, harmless dress-up—it’s a way of honoring us, really. Or, you know: “honoring” us.

Who is Our Favorite Native Writer. This isn’t a groaner of a question, please don’t misunderstand. If not for the Native writers who came before, a lot of us might never have found our way to the shelf. We probably do have a favorite Native writer—the hard part’s saying just one name, and not fawning over all of them. But? What if the question were . . . “Who’s your favorite writer?” This allows the audience to suspect that…Hey, these cats read all kinds of stuff, don’t they? Isn’t that wild, that Indians don’t have to only read Indians? That even, like, legal? Wonder what else they might do that, you know, the rest of the world also does? Do they get cold sandwiches from that vendor in the hall like everybody else, or do they bring a beaded parfleche of pemmican in with them, so they can eat all traditional, not have to sully themselves with this modern world?

The Trauma Question—which is a groaner. But asking it, man, it must be just super tempting, it must be natural in some way we don’t quite understand. What’s weird about it is that, no matter how it’s phrased, it’s basically asking us to perform some trauma drama, maybe some poverty porn if we’re feeling especially vulnerable, which only serves to other us to the audience, to make us exotic, and maybe even pitiful. Or, it can explain our so-called indignant attitude, anyway. It can explain feeling the need to write lists like these. That trauma question is basically asking us, “So, how rough is it being Native in today’s world?” Know what might be great, though? And pretty unprecedented? To get the same questions non-Native writers get. What else might be pretty all right? For panels to not have to become therapy sessions just because there’s an Indian at the mic.

These Are the Issues that Haunt Me. How about if we want to talk about the Trail of Tears or the massacres or the broken treaties or all the mascots or the bad laws and worse history, you let us bring it up? Some of us are great at it, have our research all racked, our quips already chambered. But a lot of us don’t. Removal? The American Indian Religious Freedom Act? Allotment? What, is this a quiz—or, no, no: is this an authenticity test? Are we no longer Native if we don’t answer these questions in an insightful way? Granted, we get that the market commodifies us best by reducing us to talking points, that’s just the bad dynamic of the violent machine, but that doesn’t mean you have to engage that same violence, does it? And, anyway, there’s not a period of every Indian kid’s coming up where, before going out into the big bad world, they have to first memorize all the dates, all the names, all the occupations and protests. Really? Maybe you know them better. Go have your own panel, then, where you recite them all, and get many gold stars for it. Just, don’t use us as a prop for that, please. We probably just want to talk about Spider-Gwen and Star Wars and hobbits anyway.

There’s Not a Bounty on Indians Anymore, Thanks. So, maybe don’t try to collect on us? Sure, show us off in the program, on the posters, but…show us off as writers, please. Please please please? It’s so uncomfortable, thinking about you pointing us out in the listings like, “There’s one, and, yeah, yeah, right there on the next page, we got another,” emphasis on the got. As in, this one’s hair’ll be worth something at the trading post. Or, in the court of good opinion. We’re not proof that this con is doing good work. We’re nobody’s good work. So, if we want our nation or tribal affiliation or heritage listed in the program, we’ll let you know, cool? If it’s not there, though, it’s not because we forgot—we know who we are—and it’s not because we’re not proud. It’s because we kind of hate how proud you are, to have pulled in this example of a rare-to-you, supposedly endangered breed.

It’s Getting Pretty Sacred in Here. You know that tone a panel can get—especially when we’re on it—where the moderator signals to the audience that we’re on holy territory here, that we’re now about to do the serious talking, the important and worthwhile work? That kind of casts us as some version of the medicine man you see in movies, who dispenses ancient wisdom, and…really? We probably just pushed the wrong button in the elevator, then pushed an even more wrong button after that, and we were already late for the panel anyway, since schedules are really hard to understand, so you’re probably not finding all that much wisdom here. Though we can probably confirm that the stairs are faster.

“All Indians Are Serious Indians.” Yeah. But? Don’t be surprised if we cut up and have fun up at that mic, instead of being all sad and hostile. You want us to be tragic and noble and stoic, we know, we know we know we know, and…maybe that’s why we aren’t? This isn’t a John Wayne movie, after all. Those days, man, they’re good and gone, and that’s right where we want them. Or, they’re good and gone to us, anyway. If your invitation to this con was actually a casting call in disguise, though, if you’ve got a loincloth waiting for us, then…I don’t know. Prepare to be disappointed? We’re not movie Indians. We are fast, though. Try to make us out to be like that, and we’ll shimmy and shake, we’ll slip away. And we might just take the audience with us.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. If you’re walking through the lobby at two in the morning and see a bunch of us huddled around a table, then what we’re probably doing is whispering scary stories to each other. Maybe from that day’s panels, but hopefully not. Hopefully you’ve thrown a different con, a better con, so that the stories we’re whispering to each other now, they’re the same ones that always scare us, that don’t have anything to do with you, except as a temporary presence on our land. This is just one moment of many, though. And there’s many more to come. We plan to be here for all of them.

Stephen Graham Jones
Boulder, CO
4.25.21

Further Reading:

“Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—and Maybe to Myself” by Stephen Graham Jones (+ video version)
How Did This Get Played? – “Custer’s Revenge (w/ Joey Clift)”
The Atlantic, “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” by David Treuer

Stephen Graham Jones is the New York Times bestselling author of The Only Good Indians. He has been an NEA fellowship recipient, has won the Jesse Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, four This is Horror Awards; and has been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. He is the Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder. His next book My Heart Is a Chainsaw will be available wherever books are sold in August 2021.

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