Learning to Listen

Here’s the short version:

I have an RP entry ready to post, but I’m waiting to hear back from the Mescalero Apache Tribe before I do so, out of respect.

Here’s the longer version:

I got into a fight with my friend the other day.

She’d been advising me over the last two weeks, as she is part Native and I was working on an entry for an Apache woman. I was struggling pretty hard with how to portray the woman’s story, which was deeply intertwined with Apache spiritualism. Not being Apache herself, my friend advised me to get in contact with a tribe member.

And I tried – but I didn’t have high hopes. In the past, I’ve tried contacting experts to advise on other RP entries, and it’s never worked well. Most of the time they wouldn’t get back to me – and when they did, it was often months later… an eternity when you’re trying to post regularly on the web. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, I had left messages with two tribes and sent emails to three personal contacts. Followed up a day or two after, and nothing.

Unable to progress past a certain point with that entry until I heard back, I put it on the backburner and started work on the story of a related Apache woman, whose story was more straightforward. More than straightforward – it was all laid out by one of the Apache storytellers, whose telling had been transcribed verbatim into a book. It was a powerful story, beautifully told. All the details one could want were already there. I couldn’t wait to get the entry online.

And then I got into that fight.

My friend had continued to nudge me, saying that if I was worried about representation, then perhaps do an entry on a tribe without living members. I retorted, that would rule out virtually every story out there – then, realizing she was getting upset, I backed down and apologized. She replied:

It’s just that it seems to me that there is an attitude here that access to these stories is something you are due because you want to tell them. And I realize that you want to do these women honor, it’s just that’s not how it works when you have no tribal affiliation.

Which was something I hadn’t thought about.

I mean, intellectually, of course I knew that many peoples held storytelling as a sacred part of their culture. But I had been coming at it from the Western perspective, the one I was raised with – the one that’s about Fair Use and Free Speech and libel laws. But that’s Western law, something many cultures were forced to adopt at gunpoint. And just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should.

Even still, part of me argued, the story’s in a book! Anyone can go read it! But, I realized, that story is told in the exact way of the Apache – my version was an adaptation. I’d read how the Apache would remember exact details and recite them verbatim decades later, keeping an unbroken oral tradition. Would my Jewish ancestors be cool with me making an adaptation of the Torah and it possibly being passed off as the original? No, that would be sacrilege.

Bottom line: this isn’t my story to tell.

That doesn’t mean I won’t ever tell it, per se. It does mean that I want to get the blessing of the Mescalero Apache to tell that story before I go any further. That goes for both the original entry (let’s drop the guessing game – it was Lozen), and the “stopgap” entry (Gouyen). I sent them the PDF the other day, and am waiting to hear back. Maybe it won’t be a big deal and I can post it up today. Maybe it will and I’ll never post it online. I don’t know.

(proof I actually have it done!)

Thank you for understanding. It’s the goal of this project to be respectful and always punch up, not punch down. I try and take that pretty seriously, realizing where I’m in the wrong and correcting myself going forward.

Will regroup and figure out what to do for the next entry, and announce a hint soon.


A reader wrote in to ask what sources I’d used for these entries:

  • Mel V.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I like learning about the women, but I also really like learning how to be a better ally for minority cultures. Watching you grapple with that is making me think.

  • D.S. Ryelle

    My attitude is that if you don’t want a story to be retold, either don’t put it out in the world or lock it down with copyright so it can’t be altered until a hundred years after your death (or whatever it is). I get the idea of respect, but the people we’re supposed to be respecting need to remember to do the same for us.

  • Jason Porath

    Respectfully, copyright is a Western invention that was forced onto other cultures at gunpoint – moreover, it wouldn’t apply in this case, as it’s a life story.

    I would also argue that there is a large difference between showing respect and agreeing to let other people alter and manipulate your cultural practices for their own ends.

  • D.S. Ryelle

    It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. –Grace Hopper

  • Joie Broin

    That is not an attitude of respect. It is an attitude of steamrolling.
    Also of note: Those are the words of a woman who was operating in a male-dominated space. In other words, those are the words of a person without institutional power on how to deal with institutional power that will not listen. Jason is NOT in that position. Jason has institutional power as a while male in US society. While it may be appropriate for someone in a marginalized group to steamroll members of the majority who have proved unwilling to listen or help, it is wholly inappropriate for a member of the majority to steamroll someone in the minority. That is merely adding to the heaping pile of oppressions that already contributed to the status today.
    Admiral Hopper is someone to emulate, no doubt. But in this case, Jason is doing the exact right thing.

  • Joie Broin

    Jason, this put me strongly in mind of Mary Robinette Kowal’s post on when to pull a project. I think you did this just right. Thank you for respecting your friend and the culture of the person whose story you are telling. (For reference and if you’re interested, here’s that post: http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/sensitivity-readers/)

  • I really respect your decision to do this. I don’t know if I would have ever thought about the right to tell someone else’s story in that way. You and your friend are both very brave for thinking through these tough issues and being honest. Thanks for being awesome!!!

  • Cyran

    Guess a lot of my people don’t grasp that if we want our story told, we need white men to tell it, because hell if white men actually listen to it when it comes from our own tongues.

    And anyways, Lozen’s story is already romanticized in the TV show on Netflix “Warrior Women”.

    As someone who’s part Apache and part Comanche: TELL IT. That’s the only way the tasii taiboo are ever going to hear us.

  • Pingback: Gouyen: Wise Woman of the Apache()

  • Besides, copyright laws, as far as I know, apply even to works that do not specifically claim to be copyrighted. Which is why reposting images online is an iffy issue. So even in Western culture, it’s better to err on the side of caution.