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.
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.”
'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.