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


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!

  • 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 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 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 at 12:00
  • 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 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 at 19:59

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