Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I Am Not An Indian

It's true. I'm not. I'm about as white as they come. My mom's side is strictly German heritage (although, if you press my Gram, she will admit to the fact that part of her branch came from--brace yourselves--Lichtenstein); my dad is all sorts of European mutt, including whatever branch of the Welsh settled in the Missouri Ozarks a century and a half ago.

The family folklore is that, just like everyone else in this great nation, we're part Cherokee. And, sure, you can look at pictures of my Pop and various uncles, tilt your head to one side, squint lightly, and say, "Yes, I think I see the Cherokee."

Or they were just 'swarthy.' Hard to tell.

But the fact of the matter is that, for all practical purposes, I am as white as your everyday loaf of Wonder bread.

So what the hell am I doing writing about Lakota Indians?

Well, I was fascinated as a kid. Something about Indians and horses grabbed a hold of my imagination and never really let go. I don't know a whole heck of a lot about any individual tribe, but I do know more than most middle class white women.

But here's the trick. I know enough about various Native American Indian cultures to know that there are a lot of ways to screw up representing them, a lot of ways to feed into offensive stereotypes, and a whole hell of a lot of ways to piss off a group of people that really don't need me adding insult to injury.

But I'm a big fan. So what to do? Some people might say, well, it's not that different than J.K. Rowling--she's not a boy wizard, after all. Which is true--but (depending on what you believe) wizards aren't real. She got to make her world up. Lakota Indians are real people.

What can you do if you are writing for a different race?

First, do your best to keep it real. This involves research--you've got to put in your due diligence. Make contacts in your area of interest, and ask questions early and often. The first woman who replied to my oh-so-clueless questions, Stephanie Schwartz, was wonderful. She killed two ideas I had because they used two sacred topics. But she also made suggestions for revising my ideas to be more general.

Second, write what you know. And what I know is 'clueless white woman.' That's why one of my characters is always a clueless white person. Technically, that makes my work 'interracial.' I don't think I could write a really good novel between two American Indians who had always lived on a rez. That's not what I know. But I can do 'outsider trying to understand' real well.

Third, know where the line is, and (this is important) do not cross it. I don't write stories about the deeply religious rites the Lakota hold sacred. I don't want to write a book about a white woman who is spiritually bereft and made whole only by undergoing a Ghostdance, because that crosses the line between 'respectful' and 'exploitive.' If I do that, I will get those things wrong; I will insult the Lakota tribe. Why would I want to piss off the people I respect and admire? Stephanie helped me see what that line was. Instead of specific rites, I focus on things common to everyone's experience--falling in love, caring for children, and good-looking men on horseback. You can't go wrong with good-looking men on horseback.

Fourth, be a part of the community. Tony Hillerman wasn't a Navajo; however, he treated the tribe with dignity and respect and contributed to the community; for this, they made him a Special Friend of the Dineh. Contribute to the schools; give to the charities that help the most, like Pathways to Spirit, who use contributions to help keep tribal elders from freezing to death every winter.

Fifth, and finally, realize that Abe Lincoln was right. You can't please all the people all the time. No matter what you write, someone's going to find fault with it. If you're a woman writing male characters, someone's going to complain. If you're an adult writing kids, someone will find fault. I'm a white woman who writes Lakota Indians. I'm sure that there are going to be people inside and outside the tribe who are not going to be happy with me.

But to those critics, I say this: I write fiction. I write romance. I do the best I can with what I've got, and I like what I'm doing.

Mostly because of the good-looking men on horseback.

1 comment:

Blythe Gifford said...

This is good and thoughtful advice. Well done.