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 series 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 Two: Know Whereof You Speak.
Look here for Part One.
Alison DeLuca: What advice would you give to writers who wish to include Native Americans in their books? For example, suppose someone wishes to set a book in pre-Columbian society in the Northeast. How should they begin? How about someone writing about present-day Native life?
Kara Stewart: My advice would be to educate yourselves about the culture you wish to write about and to also interview people of that culture. Just as you would research detective work and
|Dog and Cabin by Kara Stewart. This cabin is similar|
to those inhabited by many rural residents of all races in the
Southeastern U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ruta Sepetys, author of the phenomenal Between Shades of Gray, talks about the importance to her book of actually interviewing survivors of Stalin's assault on the people of Lithuania instead of just writing from her research. If she had not taken the time to speak personally with survivors, she would not have captured much of the emotional impact of the events in a way that those survivors feel is accurate and respectful. By interviewing them, she was able to portray their strength and resiliency with powerful impact, and in a way they agreed with. The same is true of writing about Indians.
As far as where to start, after you educate yourself about your place in race in America, one of the best articles I have read that I'd recommend for writers, teachers, and anybody really, is Myths and Stereotypes About Native Americans by Walter C. Fleming (2006). Although written for an education audience, all of the points are salient to writers and good general information. This article addresses a number of general misconceptions and is not tribally specific. An update to this article is that in 2010, 22% of American Indians and Alaska Natives lived in American Indian areas or Alaska Native Village Statistical Areas. This means that the commonly held belief that today's Indians live mostly on reservations is untrue. We're all around you. Don't blink.
I'd also recommend reading the online Native newspaper Indian Country Today as well as subscribing to Native Peoples magazine and reading things like Urban Native Magazine and
|Men's Fancy Dance Colors by Kara Stewart|
And then, obviously, you need to determine what specific tribe and time period you are interested in writing about. The caveat here is that I would strongly encourage writers to choose a tribe that is either federally or state-recognized for the purpose of accuracy since there are many (not all) non-recognized tribes whose representatives are generally what Indians refer to as 'wannabees' and your chance of getting accurate information is far less. Many states have a commission or department of Indian Affairs which has a listing of the state's recognized tribes and federally recognized tribes. In North Carolina, it is the NC Commission of Indian Affairs. In Montana, it is the Office of Indian Affairs.
North Carolina is also fortunate to have an online curriculum guide, Teaching About North Carolina Indians with the tribal information written and/or contributed by the tribes (which is a rarity - usually a non-Indian cobbles together information, many times to the chagrin of the tribes). The curriculum guide, a product of LearnNC and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's American Indian Center, has a lot of good information on North Carolina tribes. Most universities have some sort of outreach to Indian people or organizations to help Indian students that can also be sources of information.
Once you know the recognized tribes, you can contact the tribe you are interested in or browse their official website where there may be some history listed. Using that information, you will then need to do a good amount of research to learn about the particular time period you are interested in writing about in order to make tribal politics, interactions and daily living accurate. These research sources will, then, obviously be location and tribe specific. For my geographic area of Virginia and North Carolina, some accepted first-hand accounts are William Byrd's History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina.
If you intend to write about Indians in a contemporary setting, I would
|National Museum of the American Indian by Kara Stewart|
In sum, my best advice to writers who wish to write about or include Native people in their books is to narrow down the specific tribe and time period you wish to write about and then research, research and research some more. This includes speaking with people in the tribe about whom you are writing, whether you are writing in a historic time or contemporary. Many times, contemporary people in tribes will have opinions on historic events or time periods which will give added depth and perspective to your writing. Remember, while you are striving for accuracy and respect, respect doesn't necessarily mean taking the stereotypical 'noble Indian' route or assuming we're out smoking a peace pipe somewhere. Respect also means telling it like it is.
More on telling it like it is with great examples of Native characters in the next installment of Indian 101 for Writers, Part 3: Keep It Real, People, coming to Fresh Pot of Tea tomorrow. Stay tuned!
|Dance Fan by Kara Stewart|