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Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Spirit Tree--Can Cherokees Be Portrayed Authentically in a Paranormal Romance?

I've said in previous reviews of Kindle Press books that they've had a great track record so far.  All of the prior books that I've nominated through Kindle Scout which have been selected for publication have been excellent. I've reviewed The Lost Tribe, Melophobia and The Eagle Tree on this blog.  The reviews can be found at the locations that I've hyperlinked.  All three of these books were original, provocative and well-written.

The Spirit Tree by Kathryn M. Hearst was a Kindle Scout nominee of mine that was published last year.  I received a free copy in return for my nomination.  I didn't find the time to review it in 2016.  I had the same problem with my Goodreads giveaway wins in 2016.  I've decided to establish a permanent slot in my reads rotation for my published Kindle Scout nominees and GR giveaway wins which will be reviewed in the order that I receive them.  I am reviewing The Spirit Tree first because I received it before The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin, my first GR giveaway win of 2016.  I hope to get to it soon.

I nominated The Spirit Tree because the central character turns out to be a figure out of Cherokee legend.  This is not a spoiler.  The revelation that protagonist Tessa Lamar is a Nunnehi is included in the description.   I need to point out that I knew nothing about the Nunnehi before reading this book.  I knew something about the Cherokee from my reading, but less than I know about some other Native American nations--most notably the Dine peoples (the Navajo and Apache).  So I had to do some research in preparation for this review.


I have to say that this book breaks with my history of amazing Kindle Scout nominees.  It's the first of those nominees that I've read which I now regret nominating.  That's a pretty strong statement, but it's an honest reflection of my opinion and I stand by it.

Let me say that this isn't about the quality of the writing.   Judged as a piece of fiction, The Spirit Tree is competently written.  I would probably have given it three stars on Goodreads if  I hadn't started to feel very uncomfortable with Hearst's portrayal of the Cherokee.

OK, this is a paranormal romance.  Some readers will be saying to themselves that a high degree of scholarly veracity isn't really necessary in a romance.  It's entertainment, not a textbook.  Yet there are attitudes reflected in fiction that impact the way Native Americans are viewed.

 This isn't about minor inaccuracies.  My most important objection is that the author seems to imply that there are very few Cherokees left in existence. One example is a meeting in which a small group of Cherokee elders gather around a single campfire to select the shaman for the entire Cherokee community.   It doesn't take much research to discover that there are hundreds of thousands of Cherokees.   Just go to  The Official Cherokee Nation Website where I learned on the About The Nation page that there are 317,000 Cherokees who definitely would have a great many elders who wouldn't all know each other.  This page also states that "We are the largest tribal nation in the United States."  I typed that in bold for emphasis, so that readers will understand that this is a significant population with a government and territorial rights.   The worst misconception that is perpetrated in popular films and literature dealing with Native Americans is that there are very few of them left.   Some even imply that they all died out in the 19th century.  This means that European Americans don't need to be concerned about the needs of contemporary Native communities or violations of their rights.  I hope that my readers can see why I consider the minimalization of the Cherokee in The Spirit Tree  troubling. 

The above paragraph may make my criticism of the way the Nunnehi are portrayed seem like academic nitpicking.  I admit that I have a master's degree in Library Information Science, and that I enjoy doing research for this blog.  

Although the Nunnehi are characterized as the Cherokee equivalent of  the Fae among the Celts, the stories that are associated with them never involve changelings, or Nunnehi who become part of human families.  For examples of Nunnehi stories see The Nunnehi.  They are shown in the legends as living separately from humans with their own villages or enclaves.    The only content that I found which does portray Nunnehi in the similarly unapologetically Celtic manner that I saw in this novel is related to a role playing game called White Wolf .  There are striking differences between the concept of Nunnehi in White Wolf and Hearst's concept in The Spirit Tree, but what they have in common is the idea of Nunnehi living among humans which I didn't encounter elsewhere.  So my problem is that a Native American legend is being conflated with a European legend when they aren't the same.  This reduces cultural diversity which impoverishes our common human heritage.

I had another issue which didn't arise in this book, but on some online websites dealing with the Cherokee and bottle trees.  The title The Spirit Tree refers to the bottle tree that Tessa creates in this novel.  The bottles are supposed to contain spirits.  The most reliable sources state that this practice comes from the Congo where it relates to some very ancient traditional beliefs that have spread wherever descendants of slaves from the Congo are found in far flung communities throughout the African diaspora.   Cherokees originate in the American Southeastern region.   African Americans and Cherokees were neighbors.  So there was cultural exchange between the two groups.  Some Cherokees adopted bottle trees.  There are websites which state that bottle trees originated with the Cherokees, and that African slaves copied the custom from them.   The reason why I didn't find this view persuasive is that glass arrived in North America with the European colonists.   Ancient Cherokees had no glass bottles to hang in trees.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I really wish that Hearst hadn't decided to write about mythical beings that are regarded as sacred by the Cherokee. Most paranormal entities in the romance and fantasy genres are monsters that aren't regarded as sacred such as vampires and werewolves.  Hearst probably didn't intend to offend. She just wanted to have a different kind of paranormal creature that would stand out.  She probably latched on to a Cherokee myth because, like Hearst, Cherokees were Southerners.   Yet from a Cherokee standpoint, European Americans took their land in the South and forced them on a genocidal march called the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.  The Cherokees who remain in the South believe that the Nunnehi concealed them in a secret refuge.  The Nunnehi are sacred to them because they are the saviors of the Cherokee bands in the Southern states.  They probably wouldn't look kindly on a contemporary European American writer taking their myth and using it for her own purposes.




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