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I know it’s unorthodox, but I am going to add one final mini-post on an issue that won’t let go of me. Debbie Reese said, “There are some things that I think non-Native writers ought to stay away from: religion, spirituality, worship.”

She also said something very provocative: “Most Native writers don't even put that in their books. Why do non-Native writers feel the need to do it?”

The question you, as a non-Native writer, should ask yourself is this: why don’t Native writers put overt references to Native religion, spirituality and worship in their books? Take a minute to think about it. This is important.

Okay. Time's up. Let’s be totally honest here. We all know that if we as writers are, say, Christian, it is not okay to preach in our books, not even obliquely. It’s not even okay to mention religion except in passing, very casually, in a nondenominational sort of way. Unless of course it’s a problem novel in which religion is the problem. These are the rules and we all know that if we don’t follow the rules we will not sell our books, except maybe to Christian niche publishers.

In fact, what Debbie said about Native writers not writing about their religious beliefs is also true for most Christian writers—writers like Katherine Patterson, for example, or Madeline L’Engle. They do not take us into their inner sanctuary of their own spiritual world. CS Lewis has been soundly criticized for sliding his Christianity in sideways.

So now, in the non-Native context, ask yourself the same question again: why don’t Christian writers put overt references to Christian religion, spirituality, and worship in their books? Sure it is partially market driven, but isn’t it also a question of—what shall we call it—respect? Etiquette? It’s not acceptable. We all understand this.

We all also know, again, being totally honest, that if we want to write a book that celebrates “Native American” spirituality we are free to take it as far as we can. Make it a beautiful picture book full of dances and sacred chants and let it wear its ideology in bright colors right up front. If it is well written, publishers will welcome it with open arms. No one will cry foul play, quit preaching at my kid—no one except the most fundamentalist parent, who will ask that it be banned for promoting witch craft—but we all know that those guys are just plain crazy, right?

Actually, I would submit to you that the fundamentalist parent is the only one who believes in the reality of Native spirituality because he thinks it could have power over his kid—a negative power, mind you, but power none-the-less. The fundamentalist is like the early missionaries in this part of the world who convinced people that Eskimo dancing was evil, which they did because they knew the dancing had power, spiritual power of a distinctly non-Christian flavor. The rest of the modern day folks think it’s okay to brandish this Native spirituality in books because it isn’t really real Religion. Not with a capital R. It has something to “teach us,” in a new-age sort of way, but we aren’t being be asked to convert. No one will come knocking on our door in a headdress. The shaman isn’t going to really leave his body and fly to the moon while the kids are watching. This stuff is not real. It’s a cultural relic. That, it seems to me, is the underlying assumption here (correct me if I am wrong.) Think about what this means. It’s another kind of stereotyping, isn’t it? A really ugly kind.

I don’t agree with Debbie about staying away from spirituality in writing about Native peoples or any people. Spirituality is a large part of that which makes us human. We can’t write living, breathing, human beings if we amputate their spiritual natures. I can’t write a book about the Inupiat that refuses to allow the reader to see them dancing, where appropriate (and I didn’t write that kind of book when I wrote Blessing’s Bead.) And I can’t write a book that refuses to acknowledge that whaling and the whale are at the spiritual core of what it means to be Inupiaq (and I didn’t write that kind of book when I wrote Whale Snow.) But the point is, I think, that if your character has a specific spiritual belief, it’s part of who they are. You don’t have to lecture about it until everyone suddenly remembers they have someplace else to be. If you are writing about a character who has a deeply felt spiritual belief—one that you understand completely, whether or not you yourself share it—the spiritually will come out in your writing, through your character and the way he or she acts. You don’t have to follow him into the synagogue or the sanctuary or the kiva and explain everything he’s doing and why he is doing it. That’s rude and intrusive and probably really boring for the reader. You don’t have to take it upon yourself to give your reader a theology lesson—you don’t have to say, “and now Cindy was Christian and she knew that in order to get to Heaven she had to believe in Jesus Christ as her one true savior and say her prayers at night…” That’s preaching. If you understand them well, your characters' spiritually will come out in how they act, what they do, what they value--and it will come out whether you think about it consciously or not.

You can substitute any religion in the above sentence and comes across as either preachy or superficial and yet this is what a lot of people do when they write Native books. They think they have to explain it, like tour guides. The problem with this, other than the fact that it makes for bad writing, is that most of the people writing this stuff do not understand the this brand of spirituality on the deep wordless level where authentic spirituality resides and the way it is written is thus often insulting to those who do.

That’s my take.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 15th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)

Thank you for this post.

I especially like what you said about spirituality. When I asked people to stay away from religion, worship, spirituality, I didn't articulate what I meant. You've said it so well!!!

Linking to it from my site today...

Nov. 15th, 2009 09:52 pm (UTC)
Debby- What a wonderful post. You've made many, many important points.

We live in a world where the spiritual is often absent, so it's no surprise it's absent from most contemporary children's literature- at least trade books. I'm not a strictly religious person in the traditional sense, but it seems to me that we're all poorer for not recognizing there are greater things than we can understand and, in books with stories where that is appropriate, presenting worship and spirituality to children.

Thank you for facing this complicated but important issue head on. It won't be an easy topic to tackle (both from a philosophical standpoint, and practically, in terms of researching, interviewing, and writing the posts, which we take very seriously at the Tollbooth) But I hope to have a special series of posts about religion, spirtuality and children's books with several guests posters and interviews next spring.

Edited at 2009-11-15 09:54 pm (UTC)
Nov. 16th, 2009 04:34 am (UTC)
Beautifully articulated.
Well said, Deb. Heartfelt, earnest, respectful, and wonderful.
Nov. 16th, 2009 07:04 am (UTC)
Re: Beautifully articulated.
Thank you, both Debby and Debbie, you have both asked the questions and articulated the replies important to me and to my writing: "If you are writing about a character who has a deeply felt spiritual belief—one that you understand completely, whether or not you yourself share it—the spiritually will come out in your writing, through your character and the way he or she acts." For myself, I cannot claim that I understand completely in Warrior my character's spiritual beliefs and their expression, but I hope that I understood deeply and accurately enough to express through his actions that his spirituality which connected him to his father, family and culture enabled him to survive war. I also belief that this spirituality is a nonverbal, nonreligious strength that is universal to the human journey. Nancy
Nov. 17th, 2009 09:45 pm (UTC)
Additional thoughts
I think the trait of spirituality, or whatever you want to call what a person believes in the way of deities and the like, should be so basic to the personality, that the things they do are just a natural response to what they have been taught, experienced, and witness as Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever and the immediate culture and political environment from which it comes. Just like a person's emotional make up will be composed of the emotions, life experiences, family connections etc, that make up their emotional life. (And of the course in some ways all of these are inseparable.)

To further make your point, it would make as much sense for Cindy to say, "Well, I want to be a writer/artist/craftsperson, but I know I won't succeed because these are professions that only middle children, who have been raised in families with disinterested parents can enjoy. Oh, well, I guess I'll have to be an accountant-steady and responsible just like my nature."

(Deleted comment)
Nov. 18th, 2009 07:39 am (UTC)
in fantasy...
Yes, exactly. The same rules apply. The writer will know much more than he or she will reveal, and that knowledge will manifest itself in the way the characters act, the things they do. It's what breathes life into the story, yes?
Nov. 24th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
Obviousness versus sideways.
Not sure if you're exactly right about Christians not putting their religion into their work. The real question is whether or not they preach and lead you to an altar call. Madeleine L'Engle's books are full of her Christian+quantum physics spirituality. But she isn't preaching or doing an altar call. In fact, folks like L'Engle, Stephen King, Tolkein are the ones who put their religion into their works "sideways." C S Lewis was criticized not because he was sideways but because he was so obvious.
Nov. 25th, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Obviousness versus sideways.
I'll give you that one. Both L'Engle and Lewis do consciously put their Christianity into their work; with Patterson it is organic not overt. But the point is that, not only do they not preach; they do not feel compelled to explain. The references overt or otherwise are just there, a part of who they are, take it or leave it, which is as it should be. It isn't singled out as a "look at what makes this special" kind of thing that draws attention to itself in an inorganic way as spirituality is often used in Native themed books.

L'Engle actually uses Biblical verse in A Wrinkle in Time. Not that I am making a direct correlation, here, but isn't it interesting that this book is in the top 100 of the most banned books and that those pushing the ban are Christian?
Dec. 3rd, 2009 05:57 pm (UTC)
Writing about others
There's an interesting article in the current AWP journal about ethics in poetry that isn't specifically about writing about other ethnic groups by a particular ethnic group, but does mention a quote by Leslie Marmon Silko that states one Indian objection about writing about Native groups by others is that so much good writing by Native Americans goes unpublished and a lot of bad writing about Native Americans by whites gets published. She also cited a recent book about Crazy Horse written by a non-Indian historian that she describes as wonderful - so obviously, what matters most is that you can get your stuff right. I think getting it right may be easier for historians writing historical pieces than for novelists who both research and create from thin air.

There are some pieces of Native kid lit written by outsiders that are considered to be of quality by white organizations and white critics, and yet are looked down upon by Indians as being inaccurate and laughable.

For the most part, I think that people born into a particular group have more authenticity and do a better job of describing their lives in writing than people on the outside looking in. Not to diss anyone - I also have a children's manuscript with a native slant, inspired after much study in Anthropology and Museum Studies with emphasis on SW tribes, and also working with a youth group of a particular tribe. I've had tribal members also check out points in the story, but still have the heebie jeebies about publishing without also donating proceeds to the tribe. Seems fair nuff and there's a great need among the tribal youth programs even though this tribe has a casino. After all, they're required by AZ state law to front some of their money to state coffers, and before that law was voted in, this tribe was very generous to the community and supported many non-Indian projects.

I imagine millions of words could be tossed back and forth about the subject. It does seem a bit presumptuous of us to tackle a world we know little about, and yet as writers, we are also free to imagine whatever it is we want to portray. There's a fine line between the ethics and the fantasy world we wish to create. I think Christian-oriented people have a hole in them when it comes to indigenous spirituality - we have thrown our own indigenous roots aside - and so we're seeking to complete ourselves through our fascnation with indigenous spirituality.

Jan. 3rd, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
This was a very full thought why people don't look at Christianity. I would take it further to say that most people who do write about Christianity as a plot device, most often use Catholicism because it has a lot more concerete imagery, ceremony, and history involved. Harder to use material from a Baptist church or minister.

The same with Native religion, it is exotic and is replete with imagery. But writers have been continually asked not to write about it, but writers do not believe in restraint. The sad part is the logical extention, readers gets more familiar and comfortable with they think they know about Native religion. An extreme example is the recent tragedy in a Sedona sweatlodge. A more common outcome is tourists thinking that every facet of Native life or tradition is available for their curosity. Which causes tension because the tourist thinks he is doing no harm (his tresspass doesn't effect him) but takes away from the Native people what cannot be regained- the secret and sacred.
Oct. 22nd, 2012 02:05 pm (UTC)
Native Spirituality
A good reason Native writers don't write about "religion" is because in Native traditions it is not separate from living life. Relidgion is not something we do or attend one day of the week. It is a way of living, the road we travel "it" is life.

Oct. 22nd, 2012 03:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Native Spirituality
Exactly right. True human spirituality is never separate from the person. One does not have to discuss it, either in fiction or in real life, one lives it.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )