Thursday, October 10, 2013

Indian 101 for Writers. Part Two: Know Whereof You Speak (a.k.a. Don't Make It Up or Rely on What You *Think* You Know)

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 Native Americans 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 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.
forensics if you were writing a crime novel, you should research (beyond the normal media) the particular Indian culture you want to write about (realizing that there is no such thing as 'Indians' per se - there are the Hopi, the Choctaw, the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the Sappony. "I'm from the Indian tribe," said no Indian ever. We say, "I am Sappony" or "I am Hidatsa"). And then also, you should take the extra step of actually speaking with people of that culture. You can only gain so much from reading and research, and if you are not intimately familiar with the culture you are writing about , you will have no way of knowing if what you read is accurate, or if it is inaccurate and offensive or something that tribes may take exception to.

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
her blog. These are all ways to educate yourself about contemporary Indian life so that you are able to write in a way that is accurate and respectful. You should come away with a sense of the issues that are 'hot topics' today in Indian Country (such as the mascot issue, the Indian Child Welfare Act and cultural appropriation, for example). You don't have to become experts on these issues, but you should be aware of why they are issues.

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
absolutely recommend accessing all the resources I listed above to acclimate yourself to contemporary Indian culture in general (hopefully also picking up on what is acceptable/offensive/controversial) and then doing further research on the particular tribe you'd like to write about and their current day status - what are their main concerns as far as education of their children, care of their elderly, jobs, housing, how they are represented in mainstream society? What other issues are at the forefront of their culture? Talk with their young people, their elders.

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

1 comment:

  1. Oh, nutz. Maybe 3rd time's a charm? I praise your educational efforts, bow down in unworthiness to Kara Stewart's great skill in photography, and have renewed my interest in learning about local tribal bands (Odawa, Ottawa, pick one) because of your (plural) kind and generous approach toward wordsmiths everywhere. Please, do rock on!