In 1999 a Native American writer, born fragile and poor on a destitute Indian reservation, published an essay, "The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams," in Esquire. It earned a National Magazine Award nomination and was later expanded into a memoir of the same title that became a finalist for a PEN/Martha Albrand Award. That rez-to-riches tale of courage and redemption sounds like a Horatio Alger story, doesn't it? It should be a movie. Or at least an episode of A&E's Biography. Of course, I'm biased, because, well, it's my story. Kind of.
I did not write "The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams." But raised fragile and poor on the destitute Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State, I published a story, This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, in Esquire in 1993. My story, which features an autobiographical character named Thomas Builds-the-Fire who suffers a brain injury at birth and experiences visionary seizures into his adulthood, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and the basis for the film Smoke Signals, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in 1998.
Nasdijj, the one-name author of The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams, claimed to be the son of a Navajo mother and a white father. His memoir features a child named Tommy Nothing Fancy who suffers from and dies of a seizure disorder. Quite the coincidence, don't you think?
Of course, after reading Nasdijj's essay and book, I suspected that he was a literary thief and a liar. As a Native American writer and multiculturalist, I worried that Nasdijj was a talented and angry white man who was writing as a Native American in order to mock multicultural literature. I imagined that he would eventually reveal himself as a hoaxer and shout, "You see, people, there is nothing real or authentic about multicultural literature. Anybody can write it."
Angry, competitive, saddened, self-righteous and more than a little jealous that this guy was stealing some of my autobiographical thunder, I approached Nasdijj's publishers and told them his book not only was borderline plagiarism but also failed to mention specific tribal members, clans, ceremonies and locations, all of which are vital to the concept of Indian identity. They took me seriously, but they didn't believe me.
And how do I feel now that the author of an investigative story in L.A. Weekly believes that Nasdijj is a fraud and actually a white writer named Timothy Barrus? Vindicated? Well, sure. I dream of leaving "I told you so" messages on many voice mails, although unlike James Frey's publisher, who initially supported his lies and moral evasions about his exaggerated memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Nasdijj's publisher dropped him because of personality conflicts even before the L.A. Weekly story came out. Of course, Frey has sold millions of books and will probably sell a few million more. Nasdijj hasn't sold millions of books, and he will probably fade into obscurity. In response to the L.A. Weekly story, Nasdijj posted a rambling statement on his blog saying that people should pay attention to "real scandals" like poverty.