November 15th, 2009


Native American Spirituality in Children's Books

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.