3

(Similar question can be found here, but I think mine is broader in scope, as that question only asks about names.)

Background

I've been tinkering away at a few of my short story ideas with a friend of mine to warm myself back up from a long period of writer's block, and one of these stories, which was originally concepted by my friend and that I really loved and wanted to flesh out with her, features a character with American Indian heritage as the protagonist's close friend. (I will use the word "Indian" in the body of this question because it is the word adopted by people on reservations to most sharply and accurately describe their peoples and heritage, despite its mixed and confused origins, as opposed to the less distinct and over-inclusive "Native American," as presented in this excellent CGP Grey video. If you do not feel I should use this word, please tell me so, because I am not an expert on this area and would like to learn.)

The character is an aspiring teacher who grew up in the Navajo Nation in Arizona with her parents, and later moved away from the reservation at the age of seventeen after getting a scholarship to attend college, resulting in a culture clash and a pseudo-magical adventure with the protagonist that is the main focus of the story. We only catch up with her after she has moved away from the reservation and is already attending college with the protagonist, but her childhood and upbringing is obviously a big part of her character and something that makes her unique, and I'd really like to make sure I portray it accurately when she discusses it with the main character and talks about her family and heritage.

I am an outsider to the culture and am aware that there are many important nuances for writing this kind of character that I don't fully understand yet, hence my decision to do some research and ask for help before doing so.

The question

I am aware that many authors who attempt to portray American Indian characters like this tend to fall back on harmful stereotypes, or have an overly simplistic understanding of their culture, heritage and history and fail to portray them in a sensitive way. Because of this, I would really like some advice on how to accurately portray this character, the research I should do, and things to avoid and things to include. What areas of research should I focus on in order to accurately portray this character and her heritage, and what are some guidelines you would recommend for writing an American Indian character in general?

Some of my specific sub-questions that I'd like to be addressed if possible are:

  • The character has an Americanized name that she uses most of the time, but she also has a name given to her by her parents, a dichotomy which from my research is common among American Indian people. How should I choose this name to be accurate to her Navajo heritage, and are there any stereotypes/pitfalls to avoid? (This article and this database has been very helpful, but I would still appreciate more viewpoints.)

  • What cultural stereotypes should I avoid? What are some indicators that you would notice when this kind of character is being written by somebody who didn't do enough research?

Any other advice, links, or useful reading that you can offer is very helpful and appreciated!

5
  • This is part of the reason I prefer science fiction - sure, you have to create a culture from scratch, but it can be simultaneously authentic and completely artificial! It's not an answer, but if the character themselves has vague memories or an incomplete/inaccurate understanding of their culture, this helps to cover inconsistency. I had a pastor who was adopted out of the tribe, and had to go back to learn about her roots. She had many misconceptions about her native culture and traditions. Just be sure people know it is because of ignorance by the character, not you.
    – DWKraus
    Sep 19 '21 at 4:52
  • 1
    @DWKraus This is a really interesting perspective, thank you! Sort of a play on the "Watson" trope, where instead of existing to be infodumped on and coming in as a complete fish out of water, the character has some pre-existing knowledge but also expresses misconceptions and gaps in knowledge that just so happen to be in line with the author's own gaps in knowledge.
    – Sciborg
    Sep 19 '21 at 5:00
  • Just don't have her talk to dead ancestors. That origin is Christian mythology that believed any/all non-christian ancestors would be blocked from heaven, hence they are now all ghosts (a bad thing, romanticized). Also the cliché 'good wolf/evil wolf' – Christian mythos strikes again, not many wolves in Arizona…. You've done research, and have a character with an excuse not to know her cultural history. Current HUGE controversy is about Canadian/US schools force-programming kids to 'save' them (complete with mass graves). Your 'scholarly' Navaho is already loaded from a native POV.
    – wetcircuit
    Sep 20 '21 at 12:00
  • 2
    This might be the type of thing you want to engage a sensitivity reader on--someone actually part of the culture you're trying to portray. See here for example.
    – Kitkat
    Sep 20 '21 at 16:06
  • @Kitkat That's great advice and I had considered finding a sensitivity reader to look it over, since I've used a friend of mine as a sensitivity reader in the past to look over a story about a character with a mental illness that I don't personally have. I don't know anybody in my friend group who could serve as a reader for this specific topic, however, so maybe I'll look online.
    – Sciborg
    Sep 20 '21 at 19:59
0

I have not gotten a definitive answer on this question, but I have received a lot of great advice in the comments section since asking this question, so I'm going to paraphrase that advice here as a self-answer to help future writers. If anyone has a more definitive answer or can write from their own perspective on this issue, please still feel free to post.

Have the character express knowledge gaps of their own

@DWKraus made an excellent suggestion about how to cover up your own gaps in knowledge by expressing them through the character:

It's not an answer, but if the character themselves has vague memories or an incomplete/inaccurate understanding of their culture, this helps to cover inconsistency. I had a pastor who was adopted out of the tribe, and had to go back to learn about her roots. She had many misconceptions about her native culture and traditions. Just be sure people know it is because of ignorance by the character, not you. (@DWKraus, Sep 19 at 4:52)

This is a great way to write a character from a culture, religion, background, etc. that you don't personally know much about or have experience with, because you can disguise your knowledge gaps with the character's own. As I responded in the comments:

Sort of a play on the "Watson" trope, where instead of existing to be infodumped on and coming in as a complete fish out of water, the character has some pre-existing knowledge but also expresses misconceptions and gaps in knowledge that just so happen to be in line with the author's own gaps in knowledge. (@Sciborg, Sep 19 at 5:00)

Avoid the "talking to dead ancestors" and "inner wolf" stereotypes

@wetcircuit pointed out a few common American Indian stereotypes to avoid, and the historical and cultural reasons why:

Just don't have her talk to dead ancestors. That origin is Christian mythology that believed any/all non-christian ancestors would be blocked from heaven, hence they are now all ghosts (a bad thing, romanticized). Also the cliché 'good wolf/evil wolf' – Christian mythos strikes again... (@wetcircuit, Sep 20 at 12:00)

This is actually some excellent historical background knowledge on why the "dead ancestors" and "good wolf-bad wolf" tropes are so harmful, and presents a factor that I was completely unaware of, meaning that it's a great thing to mark down as something to research further and avoid.

Find a sensitivity reader

@Kitkat gives the sensible advice that I usually fall back on when writing a character who isn't like me:

This might be the type of thing you want to engage a sensitivity reader on--someone actually part of the culture you're trying to portray. (@Kitkat, Sep 20 at 16:06)

Sensitivity readers are excellent, and I've used them in the past for similar topics - this is definitely another great one to employ a sensitivity reader for.

Thanks to everyone who gave me great advice! Any more help would be appreciated, but until I get further perspectives or a more comprehensive answer I will be marking this as a self-answered question.

0

If you want to write about anything from an inside perspective, you have to familiarize yourself with whatever it is. If you write about sword fighting but have never held a sword; if you are a childless woman but want to write about fatherhood; if you want to write about a different culture than your own – you always need to do what ethnologists do and live with the people you want to understand. The deeper you delve into your subject matter, the truer your voice will become.

What writers do to achieve this is:

  • read first hand reports / novels / essays by native writers / experts
  • get to know persons who are a part of the community you write about
  • speak to them to understand how they live, how they view the world etc.
  • accompany them and observe the lives they lead
  • do the things that you can do yourself: learn sword fighting, change diapers, visit a powwow etc.

Also, you need to understand your own motivations and goals in writing this character. Do you intend it as a portrait of a member of a certain community? I.e. do you want to show outsiders an inside view of that community, in the way a documentary film maker might?

Or do you intend to use a type of character to illustrate a certain aspect of human nature? Is the American Indian in your story a vehicle to illuminate aspects of your own culture? In this case, it might be perfectly valid to use your culture's stereotype of an American Indian or your personal idea or ideal of an American Indian.

The old man in Hemingway's novel isn't a realistic portrait of a Cuban fisherman at all, but a parable. I haven't yet heard any Cubans complain that he misrepresented them ;-)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.