View Full Version : How to Avoid Stereotypes When Writing About Native American Characters & 1st Exercise

October 5th, 2009, 06:41 AM
There is so much misinformation about NA’s that it’s not surprising that many people believe that certain stereotypes are actually facts. Take the idea of stoicism which I mentioned on the list of NA stereotypes, many non-Indians believe that that is a fact rather than a stereotype. Oh, and my other favorite one, which I need to add to the list, and this is my all time favorite. The stereotype that says if you can prove you’re NA on paper that this means you’ll be guaranteed a huge chunk of money. This is an absolute falsehood, but there are many people who have some Indian heritage that believe it, and their sole reason for proving this portion of their ancestry is because they want their piece of the financial pie so to speak.

So, how do you tell fact from fiction when it comes to writing about NA’s in your books? That’s the big question, and unfortunately, there are authors that really don’t care if what they write is factual or not, and that’s really sad. Not only do they do themselves a disservice when they do this, but they do a disservice to those who read their books, because they are spreading the stereotypes they write about as truth to another generation of readers who then pass it on and so on as fact. In addition, they really tick off those of us who do our best to write factually about NA’s, because for every step we take forward in abolishing stereotypes when we publish a book that has realistic NA characters, their book forces us to take another step backwards. This can be super frustrating. I hate it when I purchase a book that on the surface appears to have realistic NA characters and then twenty pages into the book I realize that not only did the author not bother to do any research, or if she did, she consulted the wrong sources, but she bought into all the stereotypes that she grew up with and threw those into the book too.

So, how do you write realistic NA characters in your books and avoid the stereotypes? Here are some tips to get you started.

• Take the time to experience NA culture first hand. Go to a powwow or other cultural event and participate as much as you can. We often invite those who come to dance with us during Intertribal dances. Once you’ve experienced the culture first hand, you will be in a much better position to create and write about NA characters.

• Talk to and interview real NA’s when you’re given the opportunity to do so. Be aware there are some things that we aren’t allowed to talk about so if an elder or another NA refuses to answer a question you have, this may be why. This is especially true when it comes to some ceremonies and spiritual topics. However, this is rare, and if you are sincere then in most cases any questions you have will be answered.

• When researching for your NA characters, pick a specific tribe for that character to be, and then doing your research choose sources written by members of that tribe whenever possible. After that choose sources that the members of the tribe say are reputable and accurate.

• Don’t believe everything that you read, whether online or offline. Remember anyone can put anything on their website, and there are lot of books written about NA’s that are completely, totally wrong. Non-Indian anthropologists and archeologists, as well as, historians mean well and they try, but at least part of the time they are flat out wrong. For example, my husband is Nez Perce and there is a book titled War Chief Joseph, and it has a lot of incorrect information, but there are many authorities that swear by it.

Keeping all of these things in mind will help you to avoid adding stereotypes about NA’s into your books. Honestly, experiencing the culture firsthand through a cultural or spiritual event if you’re fortunate enough to be invited, is bar none the best way to write realistic NA characters because you have experienced what you are writing about; you’ve been there.

Exercise #1:

Create an NA character. Then if you don’t know anything about the tribe of your character, do some research and see how much factual information you can find. Then write a paragraph describing him or her based on the information you uncovered. If you’re comfortable doing so, post your paragraph to the discussion for me and others to take a look at. Keep in mind that if you’re writing a historical character this will be a bit different than if you’re writing an NA character for present day. You might have to do a bit more research.

October 5th, 2009, 11:57 AM
Hi Regina, I have a character who is half NA and it affects her thoughts and background, but it's not the focus of the story. I did want real touches to add to the book and one source I attempted was to write to one of the NA councils for accurate information. His reply was that I should put my character in the outside world. That was it, so I haven't tried that again. My character is in the outside world. She lives in MA and is a dance teacher and so on. I was left wondering if he was offended by my quest for a few true details.

I have a touch of NA ancestry, and my husband's great grandmother was part of the Trail of Tears as a child. My uncle has done a ton of research and has attended pow wows through the years. I attended the two I was able to make. So my character is meant as a tribute of sorts, as well as a cultural study.

But I'm wondering if it's normal for Native American council members to be offended by "non-NAs" writing NA characters?

October 6th, 2009, 11:30 PM
Hi LK,

It's unfortunate but some NA's are prejudiced just like some non-NA's are. I'm not saying this is the case with this council member, but it sure sounds like he or she is trying to discourage you from writing an NA character, or that he just couldn't be bothered to really answer your questions.

I think it's great that you want to know more about your NA heritage, and that you wanted to write your character realistically. Don't let one person change your direction with regards to this, or put you off. There are plenty of NA's out there who respect and appreciate those who ask questions and are sincerely interested. You're welcome to post whatever questions you asked the council member here, it's possible that I or someone else may have the answers you were looking for. If not, then I'll see what I can do about helping you find them. :-)

October 7th, 2009, 12:23 AM
Hi Regina- I am Creek and I have such a hard time finding books in the romance and mystery genres (with maybe one or two notable exceptions) with realsitic AI characters and I commend you for putting on this workshop. First thing: there is not ONE American Indian culture, but MANY American Indian cultureS. First thing I tell my students is that everything most non-Indians know about Indians come from Hollywood and I tell them just throw that knowledge out the window, because it's 99 percent inaccurate, at best.

I also appreciate your advice to other writers how to create believable characters. I always write what I know, and I think that by encouraging folks to attend a pow wow or another cultural event is a good idea. November is Native American Awareness month, so there will be lots of opportunities for folks to attend events both online and in person.

Again- thanks for doing this, and good luck! I hope to drop in.

October 7th, 2009, 12:54 AM
Hi Caroline,

Welcome! Yes, I totally agree with you, and I think I did a pretty good job of pointing out that there are many Indian cultures, not just one NA culture in the handouts I've posted so far. Feel free to call me on it and post it here if you think I've missed anything like that, I'm human too! LOL Glad to see another NA who gets it! :-)

And yes, you're correct in that many stereotypes come from the movies and most have the wrong information. The two exceptions that I'm aware of are Dances with Wolves, although even that one had a problem, all the guys were speaking like the women because they were taught by a woman. Some of us about laughed ourselves silly the first time we saw the movie, and we heard those guys talking with the women's dialect/language! LOL The other one that I think does a real good job of accurately portraying NA's is Thunderheart. Of course I think Val Kilmer can play just about anyone, and he really played a guy who was NA, but had no clue very well! Also, most of what was in there as far as how things went down in the 70's between the FBI and reservation NA's is pretty accurate historically speaking. :-)

Oh, that's right, thanks for reminding us all about Native American Awareness month!

I look forward to chatting with you, please do drop back in when you have a chance.


Carolina Valdez
October 22nd, 2009, 11:09 AM
I attended a powwow and interviewed some of the young male dancers. They would tell me what dance they performed but not its meaning. The powwow was fascinating, but I left eventually because of the danger to my hearing.

Oral tradition in my family says I had Cherokee ancestors four generations back on both sides of my family. I think that counts for nothing as far as NAs are concerned! However, my family was proud of this and I like the idea. My only NA trait is high cheekbones.

Carolina Valdez

October 22nd, 2009, 08:08 PM
Hi Carolina,

It just depends on the NA's you're talking to. We're all different. Some NA's do have an attitude when it comes to people saying that GGGG grandma was Cherokee mainly because the Cherokee integrated much sooner than a lot of the other tribes, and in their minds the blood has been diluted a lot. This doesn't make their attitude right, and I certainly don't share it, but that's their reasoning.

I have both types on both sides of my family. Some of my Lakota relatives have certain attitudes such that they believe that if you are not an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, then you are white. That's it. They don't care if you are as brown as you can be, with coal black hair and black eyes, and can show them on paper that your grandma was a full-blood. You don't have that piece of paper from the tribe saying you've got a number, you don't exist as an NA to them. It's sad, but that's just the way some are.

Then there are people like my husband and his Nez Perce relatives who believe that it's what you identify with that matters. So, if you identify with being NA and you go to powwows and other cultural events and you "hang" with other NA's, and that's what you feel you are, then that's all that matters. It just depends.

I wouldn't let one experience with a few NA's cloud your perception of NA's as a whole. You also need to take into account that these dancers didn't know you. You can't expect NA's to just hand over information to you that they may consider to be sacred just because someone says they're NA. You have to hang with them for a while and get to know them, once they see that you're serious and sincere most likely you'll get the answers you are looking for, providing it's not something that isn't discussed. There are some things that we don't talk about because of their spiritual nature, but if you are around enough, and sincere, you will eventually learn these things by observation.

If you're identification is NA, then that is something to be proud of. :-)