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Now what?

Here is the big question, the one everyone wants somebody to answer:

Who can write books about Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Indians, Eskimos…

… Abenaki , Acolapissa, Acoma Pueblo, Athabaskan, Alabama-Coushatta , Algonquin, Aluutiq, Anishinabe / Ojibwe / Chippewa, Apache, Apsaroke / Crow, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Atikamekw, Bannock, Beothuk, Blackfoot, Caddo, Cahuilla, Cayuse, Chaco Canyon Pueblo, Chehalis, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chickasaw, Chinook, Choctaw, Chumash, Cochiti Pueblo, Coeur D'Alene (Schitsu'umsh), Colville, Comanche, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe, Cree, Creek, Delaware Lenape , Eyak, Flathead, Goshute- Haida, Gwich'in, Haida Hidatsa, Han, Hoopa ( Hupa ), Hopi, Houma, Huron / Wendat, Innu, Inupiaq, Iroquois, Isleta Pueblo , Jemez Pueblo, Kansa, Kikapoo, Kiowa, Klamath Tribes (Klamath / Modoc / Yahooskin), Klallam, Koyukon, Kuaua, Kumeyaay, Kwakiutl, Laguna, Lummi, Lushootseed, Mandan, Mahican, Makah, Maliseet, Menominee, Miami, Mi'kMaq, Mohegan, Mojave, Muckleshoot, Muscogee, Natchez, Nambe, Narragansett, Navajo, Nez Perce, Nisqally, Omaha, Oneida, Osage, Ottawa, Paiute, Palouse, Pawnee, Penobscot, Picuris, Pojoaque, Potawatomi, Pueblo, Quapaw, Quileute- Quinault Nation, Sandia Pueblo, San Filipe Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo, San Juan Pueblo, Santa Ana Pueblo- Santa Clara Pueblo, Santo Domingo Pueblo, Seminole, Shoshone, Sioux, Shoalwater Bay Tribe, Skokomish, Spokane, Squaxin Island Tribe, Taos, Tesuque, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Tulalip, Umatilla / Wallawalla, Ute, Yakima / Yakama, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, Yupik, Zia Pueblo, Zuni Pueblo?

I don’t have the answer to that question. I can’t even point out all the errors or omissions made in the above list. I do know it’s incomplete. Even so, it’s one heck of a list, don’t you think? I use it to make a point—a rather obvious point, I think. There are commonalities among indigenous people everywhere, but these names represent distinct people with distinct cultures and widely varying customs. Their histories are likewise unique. I’ve lived for thirty years in an Inupiaq community but I could not write with any authority at all about our neighbors the Gwich'in, nor would I try.

A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but I agree with Metis author Maria Campbell, who said, “if you want to write our stories, be prepared to live with us.”  

I heard Maria speaking on National Public Radio years ago and these words struck a very strong a cord with me. Why?  I  never really thought about it before, other than to say, she’s right. But now, in the context of this conversation, it occurs to me: audience. It has to do with who you imagine as the audience for your books.

My book Blessing’s Bead was released yesterday and in a local interview, I was asked who I thought of while writing it.  This made me think of Stephan King’s advice in On Writing, to write for your Ideal Reader. Your Ideal Reader is the person you imagine reading your work, the person whose opinion counts. Your I.R. influences what you chose to write about and how you write it—even the words you use.

This brings me back to my beginnings as a children’s writer because my I.R. is an Inupiaq child. My main goal was to have young Inupiaq readers be able to pick up my books and say, Hey, I know these guys! None of the books my kids were reading at the time I started writing were written from this perspective. I figured if i could get that perspecitive right--or even sort of right--the white readers would relate to it just fine. It wasn't quite that easy, but that's another story.

I can totally relate to what Nancy said in response to Debbie Resse yesterday: “I was teaching a class of teachers, all Navajo and teaching at schools on the Navajo Reservation. We were working on lesson plans based on experiences and knowledge of the students and using complimentary resources. Several teachers wanted to develop lesson plans about the seasons and months of the year. I could not believe that there was not one book available written about the Navajo cycle of seasons.”

Amidst a plethora of holiday books, I could not believe there were no children’s books written about the many holidays surrounding the Inupiaq whaling culture, so I wrote one, a very small one, about only one of the many events that define the Inupiaq connection to the whale. I didn’t write it because I thought the world needed to know about it. Don’t get me wrong—I think it’s wonderful if this book shows people something important about Inupiaq culture, but that’s not why I wrote it; I wrote it because I thought Inupiaq children deserved an Inupiaq holiday book.

And the thing I love most is that in reading it to a group of young Inupiaq readers they get things other readers don’t get. And I get to be the one who says, hey guess what, guys—you know things other kids don’t know. When it comes to reading books, they don't get that message much. I get to point to the flag in one of the pictures in my book and ask: Why is there an A on that flag?

The Inupiaq kids say Amiqqaq, right away—they’ve listened to the story. They know whaling crew is the Amiqqaq crew. There’s an A on the flag. Duh. Then I tell them what kids in Anchorage say when I ask them that question. They say that the A stands for Alaska, or America.

My point is that I think you will be less likely to go in the wrong direction, when writing outside your culture, if you imagine the children of that culture reading your words.

But make no mistake, there is a need for more books written by Native writers. I am not Inupiaq. I know what it means to walk two worlds, but the first world I walked in was not a Native world, I am an immigrant. It's a valid perspective. In terms of bridge-bilding it may even be a valuable perspective but, as Bahe Whitethorne, Jr. said yesterday, “I would imagine that that group of people would like to hear it from their own culture’s voice, if it’s about them, with no filters or outside perceptions.”

This makes me think of something Vera Williams said. You guys must be starting to think that Vera is my hero or something. In truth she spoke at VCFA when I was a student there and said some really good things. Appropos to this conversation, she remembered reaching a point in her art career where she didn’t want to see any more nude women painted by men.

I went through a period like that in my reading. I only wanted to read books written by writers of color. I know, I know, weird thing for a white woman to say. Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was my comfort reading. It was a book where I could find Native people alive and well, living on the page with no outside filters. It warmed my heart to see them there like that. 

Cyn Smith in an interview at Tu Publishing remembers her reading habits as a kid, “Honestly, I tended to avoid books with Native characters. They didn’t ring true to me, and often made me feel embarrassed. Avoidance is my defense strategy,” she said. 

Same thing.

And finally, there is a need to take Native writers out of the writing-about-things-Native box. (Take me out of that box too, please. I’m just writing about things I know in my my own way with my own filters. What else would I write about? What else would any of us write about?)

As Bahe said, “If there were more great stories about Native fiction or Native type fairy tales, or Action packed comics with Natives, or Science Fiction of “Natives in Space!” that would be kind of neat.”


As Uma Krishnaswami said: “We need to get that word ‘multicultural’ off the table, first thing. It's done its work, and really, we should be past it now.”

So I am going to end with Sherman Alexie, from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I could waste a lot of words telling you how this relates to everything I’ve just said. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You’d rather hear Sherman's voice, believe me.

'I'm not nomadic,' Rowdy said. 'Hardly anybody on this rez is nomadic. Except for you. You're the nomadic one.'


'No. I'm serious. I always knew you were going to leave. I always knew you were going to leave us behind and travel the world. I had this dream about you a few months ago. You were standing on the Great Wall of China. You looked happy. And I was happy for you.'

Rowdy didn't cry. But I did.

'You're an old-time nomad,' Rowdy said. 'You're going to keep moving all over the world in search of food and water and grazing land. That's pretty cool.'

I could barely talk.

'Thank you,' I said.

'Yeah,' Rowdy said. 'Just make sure you send me postcards, you asshole.'

'From everywhere,' I said.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 12th, 2009 08:00 am (UTC)
A postcard? OK and
Send me a story.
Nov. 12th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
Natives in Space
Yes! I would love to see more books starring kids with diverse/minority/multicultural backgrounds which are not about their ethnicity or difference but just about being a kid. And more funny books! Yes, non-white people have a sense of humor! That's why I love THE STORIES JULIAN TELLS and the Mr. Chickie books by Christopher Paul Curtis, for example.
Nov. 12th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks Debby :) I think that was very well put.
Nov. 13th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)
Ok.... so I'll dive in and say the things I've been holding back.

I've been holding back to be nice, to be gracious to the not-Native authors writing Native stories. I don't actually know the first story that Debby wrote, but, I do know that Oyate recommends it, so I suspect I would like it, too. I've seen what Debby has written on listservs, and it is clear to me that she understands the issues in a fundamental way. I always look forward to reading what she has to say.

Now, diving in...

I really hate the titles for some of these discussions.

The first one "Get the Indian out of the cupboard." Who is the sentence directed to? Who has to "get the Indian out"? And, who is "the Indian" in that cupboard?

Remember---I'm reading these words as an Indian woman and mother and scholar.

That was followed by "Indians in the Cupboard? What were you thinking? Get them out!"

Again, who is the audience for those words and actions?

Both titles are catchy. Both are clever. But both annoy me immensely precisely because you are using toy Indian imagery that is offensive and derogatory in order to make a point that again "get them out" objectifies Indian people, putting them in the hands of non-Native people.

Of course, I know that you're riffing off of the books by Lynne Reid Banks, but, I guess I'm just a stick in the mud, because that humor doesn't work for me at all.

Many of you probably know the BROTHER EAGLE SISTER SKY picture book that was a best seller. It is similar, but the other side of the coin. Using Indian imagery to make a point. Clever, smart, gets a lot of mileage, but, at the expense of Native people? Native children?

Am I laying this out in a way that you can see my point? I know some will see this as nitpicky, but, I think this sort of thing is part of the bigger picture of what-is-wrong with the way that American Indians have and are misrepresented in children's books. The issues are deep. Mind you, I'm not calling anyone racist, because I don't think people ARE being racist. It is simply that American society is so blanketed with this love/hate-Indian imagery and activity, that we don't realize when we're contributing to it. I'm not saying that I never do that.... I'm pretty certain I could go through things I've said and written and find examples of it, too... Though I was born and raised on a reservation, I still was socialized in the American schools. That socialization is powerful. VERY powerful.

Nov. 13th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
And again, that post above about the titles is from me, Debbie Reese.
Nov. 13th, 2009 03:18 pm (UTC)
A response to "Now What" question
I've been posting a lot to the threads on each of the days that Nancy or Debby posted something.

Debby has some terrific things to say in her post above. She's married to a Native man, and together, they have several children. I don't know what Inupiaq spirituality involves, so I'm posing a couple of questions for Debby.

At Nambe (my pueblo), my husband cannot participate in a lot of things we do. He cannot enter certain spaces. He cannot know what we do in those spaces. Is it that way for you, Debby, with the Inupiaq? Does your new novel have Inupiaq ceremony, dances, etc?

I think I've said it already on this site, but just in case not, I do not think that non-Native people cannot/should not write about Native people. It is the WHAT they write that is of utmost concern to me.

You all are writers interested in Native people. Hence, one of the things you absolutely must do is to buy books by Native writers. I know you want us to buy your books, but, your expressed interest is in helping Native people. As Nancy said, the Navajo women she worked with do not have time to write stories. Nancy does have that time. I'm guessing Nancy also has an earning power that they do not have. I really really think that one response to helping Native people is for you to buy ten copies of books by Native writers and give them to your local libraries and schools. Get ten copies of Smith's three books. There are nine of you running this blog. Think of the splash you'd make! For the Native kids, for the non-Native kids! I know---I'm making an assumption that you can bat down. Writers make little money, too. But if you can do it, DO IT!

Nov. 13th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
Re: A response to "Now What" question
Debbie, thanks very much for contributing to this conversation. Your input is immensely valuable.

First--before I continue--let me get one thing on the table. I, too, find the Indian in the Cupboard phrase highly offensive.(I said this in my Tuesday post) We used it, yes, to grab attention. We are speaking here, largely to our non-native writing colleagues, a group of really talented people who desperately want to understand these issues. It was used to make a point about stereotyping, a point that is painfully obvious to Native peoples but not always so obvious to others. Nancy can speak more to this, if she would like.

As you know, there is this really powerful Indian myth that our country seems to have been in part founded on and we are trying, here, to address it head on.

To answer your other question, I am not, as a non-native, bared from any Inupiaq ceremonies. But there are indeed portions of these that are not for public consumption and people have gotten in trouble over this. I have a long story about this that involves a friend that I will not get into here. The short of it is that he was asked by several elders in high positions to document something and did so, but there were many who had not been asked and did not give their consent and were very very angry.

I think I would say that this offers a lesson for writers: know where the limits are, stay away from them and do not be seduced by a few people who say, but you would be doing everyone a favor if you did this..or whatever.

This is why I say I will not do re-tellings, even though Inupiaq people have told me that I should. These things do not belong to me and are not free for the taking.

And buy children's books by Native writers: Joseph Bruchac, Michael Doris, Louis Erdrich, Cynthia Lietich Smith, Sherman Alexie, Velma Wallace and many many others....

I will address more in a few minute when I post my last...
Nov. 13th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
Last post
Oops. The last anonymous one was me.
Nov. 13th, 2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Nancy and Debby, for this week's posts, and also to Debbie and others who have added significantly to the discussion. It has been informative, eye-opening and thought provoking.
Jul. 19th, 2012 02:11 am (UTC)
Um - there is a Latino Harry Potter. His name is Kit Rodriguez, from Diane Duane's awesome Young Wizards series. One of the things I love about this series is that it is Multicultural, in a completely natural and unselfconscious way. The kids are late 2oth-early 21st century Long Islanders, so they are quite naturally from all ancestries and cultures, not to speak of all the aliens in these books.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we couldn't use more Latino Harry Potters, etc.

I am here from the TU books website, and I hope you don't mind my commenting. This is a fascinating blog! As a White woman, I would not dare write about the Native experience from the POV of a Native child. I don't think I have the authority. And there are a lot of wonderful Native American authors out there. My sister and I are both fans of Cynthia Leitich Smith and of Sherman Alexie.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )