Saturday, October 12, 2013

Indian 101 for Writers. Part Four: Aargh!

Alison DeLuca, purveyor of Fresh Pot of Tea, and Kara Stewart, part-time post pusher at Kara Stewart Art in Photography, have collaborated on a new five-part traveling blog series! This series takes a look at writing about American Indians and gives resources to accurately and respectfully do so.

Alison DeLuca is the author of several YA steampunk books. She is committed to adding characters with different ethnic backgrounds to her works, and is always looking for authentic, realistic ways to do so. 

Kara Stewart is Native, an enrolled member of the Sappony, and white, and is a full-time Literacy Coach in the public schools, as well as serves in several Indian organizations, and has a passion for art, writing and Indian education. Her disclaimer for this series, "The views I express in this are my personal views, brought about by my own experiences and many years in literacy and education. I do not claim to represent the views of all Indians, but I do hope writers will find helpful resources and perspectives."

Today we host Indian 101 for Writers, Part Four: Aargh! 
See Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Alison DeLuca: As someone who has visited Ireland quite a bit, I see misrepresentations and stereotypes about that country. What stereotypes about your culture make you cringe, and how can writers educate themselves about them?

Kara Stewart: The article Myths and Stereotypes About Native Americans by Walter C. Fleming speaks to a few of them. And be sure to check out this awesome list of Basic Indian Stereotypes from Blue Corn Comics. But what makes me cringe the most in books is what I said previously - stereotypes of the noble, nature-loving, ritualistic, spiritual Indian. Hey, I love nature as much as the next guy, but the portrayal and assumption that that somehow is an inherent characteristic because I am Indian is what rubs me the wrong way. The same with the spiritual and ritualistic things. Fair enough, some Indians do practice those things. And many do not. Assuming, as a writer, that those things are inherent because a person is Indian is the mistake.
Tobacco Spicify by Kara Stewart. Don't know why this
picture is here? Research time! Use the resources in Part Two
General stereotypes that many Indians find offensive (again, I say many, not all - I do not pretend to speak for all Indians, what I offer here are my personal views and the views of a number of Natives I hang with - and thank you to Randi Byrd and others for these contributions):
  • Indian-themed sports mascots (noooooo, you are NOT honoring us! And if you don't realize that, you shouldn't be writing a book about us).
  • Calling a female a squaw.
  • Calling Indian women exotic. Compared to what? We don't think we are unusual or 'exotic'. We think we're pretty normal. It's the uncomfortable Eurocentric viewpoint again.
  • Dressing up as Indians for Halloween.
  • Wearing feather 'headdresses' at sporting events, concerts and the like.
  • "Christopher Columbus discovered..."  No, he was lost. If anyone discovered anything, it was Indians discovering this lost person. If you took Part One seriously, you probably have an inkling that written "Indian history" is Eurocentric. Even the first-hand accounts listed in Part Two that are standardly accepted were written by Europeans, and therefore from a Eurocentric perspective.
  • Having ingrained thoughts that Indians are lazy and that there must be a reason for that stereotype. Challenge yourself. There are many average weight people who are happy. Many Hispanic people like watermelon. Many white people cheat on their taxes or eat meatloaf or whatever. Why aren't those the stereotypes? It's not a numbers game. Stereotypes aren't accurate representations; they are simply inaccurate labels applied in brushstrokes. Stereotypes maintain an 'otherness' to distinguish from the 'norm'.
  • Lumping all "Indians" together instead of realizing that there are as many different Native cultures as there are tribes, each with their own particular culture. Don't refer to "Indians", but to Kiowa, Tohono O'Odham, Penobscot, just as you wouldn't refer to "Europeans" but to Germans, Italians, Swiss, etc. The same applies to teaching about 'Plains' Indians or 'Eastern Woodlands' Indians. There are  no such tribes. Those are geographic regions that hold within them very different cultures from tribe to tribe. 
  • Shaman. For many indigenous societies, such an individual is referred to as a person of medicine (may be man or woman). A person who is valued and respected by their community as a person of medicine does not market themselves as such. A true medicine person is known by the community, with no need to advertise or receive money for their services. Anyone claiming to be a shaman or medicine man should be questioned, especially if they are requesting money. This is exploitation. Cultural traditions and spiritual practices are also sacred and specific to the members of those tribes and are not for sale or for open adoption by non-Indians seeking a new experience. Thousands of Indians have died so that their descendants today may have their cultural practices and ways. Respect present day Indians and the blood that has been shed by appreciating our culture, but not by trying to adopt it as your own.
  • Just because your great-grandmother was 1/4 Cherokee 'princess', that doesn't make you Indian. Everyone says the "my grandmother was 1/4 Cherokee" line to us. but what do you do for your tribe? What committees do you serve on? How do you give back to your Indian community? What Indian issues are you passionate about and do you give to with your time and effort? In other words, what do you do about being part Indian? Or is it just lore you repeat?
  • Thinking of Indians as something of the past instead of being aware of the people who make up the thriving, contemporary Indian Country (which is not a geographic location but a nod to race) in America today.
  • Thinking that you don't know any Indians or there aren't any around you. You'd be surprised.
  • And I have to say it again, ix-nay on the noble, nature-loving, ritualistic, spiritual Indian
Another big stereotype about Indians centers around physical appearance. American Indians can look all different ways, just like other races. You shouldn't assume an Indian has long, straight black hair. Your high cheekbones aren't necessarily proof that an ancestor was Indian any more than my wavy, curly hair is proof that an ancestor wasn't  Indian. In my personal case, my mother's side of the family (white) is the side with stick-straight hair. My father's side (Native) is the side with wavy, curly hair. 

Stereotypes wrongly apply labels and treat all individuals of a group the same. Stereotypes can be both negative ("lazy Indian" "cheap Jew") or positive ("Asians are good at math", "Mother Earth attuned Indian" "happy fat people") but the effect on the individual is the same - a wrongly applied label stings and has further repercussions such as identity issues, anxiety, frustration and anger that carry over into social, academic and professional arenas. Writers can buy into the stereotypes or they can rethink their characters to create real individuals - your Indian or Irish character doesn't have to be drunk, your Asian boy doesn't have to be good at math, your overweight character can be smart and brooding, your Mexican character can hate beans, your gay woman character can be feminine, not butch. Being a person of color or a member of another sidelined group is complex. You can choose to have your characters reflect that. 

Stay tuned tomorrow for the final post in the series, Indian 101 for Writers, Part Five: Walking in Two Worlds! 

Powwow Bustle by Kara Stewart


  1. Thank you! I tend to get one of two responses when I tell people I'm Native. I'm also white and it has actually been the white side of my family who has tended to "exoticize" me and make ignorant comments about how my dark hair and eyes must be from "the Indian blood". Yet others outside of my family will tell me about how I don't look Indian. My sister has blonde hair and blue eyes and doesn't even tell people she's Native because of the ignorant responses she has received. Blogs like this are a great way to further the conversation about race in America and as one of my biology teachers used to say "Fortunately, ignorance is a curable condition." ;) -Chelsea

  2. Thanks for your comment, Chelsea! I think many of us have had similar experiences and can relate to what you are saying. And I love your bio teacher's quote! :)