Friday, October 11, 2013

Indian 101 for Writers Part 3: Keep It Real, People

Alison DeLuca, purveyor of Fresh Pot of Tea, and Kara Stewart, part-time post pusher at Kara Stewart Art in Photography, have collaborated on a new five part traveling blog series! This series will take a look at writing about Native Americans and giving resources to accurately and respectfully do so.  

Alison DeLuca is is the author of several YA steampunk books. She is committed to adding characters with different ethnic backgrounds to her works, and is always looking for authentic, realistic ways to do so. 

Kara Stewart is Native, an enrolled member of the Sappony, and white, and is a full-time Literacy Coach in the public schools, as well as serves in several Indian organizations, with a passion for art, writing and Indian education. Her disclaimer for this series, “The views I express in this series are my personal, brought about my own experiences and many years in literacy and education. I do not claim to represent the views of all Indians, but I do hope writers will find helpful resources and perspectives.”

Today we host Indian 101 for Writers, Part Three: Keep It Real, People.
See Part 1 and Part 2.

Alison: Which novels represent, in your opinion, Native culture in a fair and accurate way? Which novels would you recommend that writers read before they write Indian characters into their novels?

Kara: I love Sherman Alexie’s novels. He is Spokane/Coeur d’Alene and his writing exemplifies the Native sense of humor* about the world (which is the one thing I’d generalize as far as ‘India
ns’). His novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a must read for anyone thinking about writing about an Indian character – or just for a great, hilarious read. The movie, Smoke Signals, based on Alexie’s novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, has become an Indian Country iconic cult film, and will also give writers insight. Also definitely worthy of mention is his novel Reservation Blues, and the soundtrack of Reservation Blues, which  is one of my soul touchers with the tracks deeply embedding parts of certain tribes’culture and overarching themes common to many tribes.  Another film of his particularly germane to writers is The Business of Fancydancing (scroll down), which speaks to identity. One thing to keep in mind is that Alexie portrays what he knows (or knew at the time) – reservation life. It is important to realize that the majority of Indians in America do not live on reservations (22% as of 2010).

Those novels, and the films, have Indian Country front and center, but his characters are people first, who just happen to be Indian. I think that is the key: their ‘Indianness’ doesn’t define them. For a read on how Alexie incorporates an Indian character seamlessly, accurately and respectfully into a crime novel, read his novel Indian Killer. It’s just as important to incorporate one Indian character well (not coming across as a token Indian without any reason for being in the novel other than an attempt at diversity – although an attempt at diversity is better than no attempt at diversity).

What I appreciate most about Alexie’s novels is that he keeps it real. His characters have humor as well as in-depth emotion, they are current, they care about issues, they have grandmothers and fathers they feel ambivalent about, like many people - they are real people who happen to be Indian. They are not whooping warriors, New Age mystics or (my personal peeve) the “noble Indian” who reveres or worships nature and whose every action is some sort of ritual. That makes me want to scrrrreeeaaaammmm! Just get real. We (Indians) are no more noble than white people, black people or any other people. If there is some sort of accurate, legitimate, researched ritual you feel is integral to your story, okay, have the character just do it and then go eat their fry bread and turn up the radio!

I’d also recommend that authors read Louise Erdrich’s books The Birchbark HouseThe Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year for examples of writing realistically and respectfully about Natives in a historic setting. Her characters are also touching, real, and while they are Indian, that is not the reason they are in the story – they are people first. I read part of The Birchbark House sitting in a faculty meeting and cried for a good portion of that meeting while I read! Couldn’t put it down. Okay, and yes, I missed the info I was supposed to be paying attention to in the meeting. But hey, bibliophiles can relate.

DebbieReese’s great blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, has Indian point of view reviews of books involving Indian characters. I’d recommend checking it out to see some examples of issues with writing Indian characters. 

*For other examples of Indian humor and an inside peek at our 'real', see Powwow Comedy Jam, Charlie Hill on the Comedy Network, 7 Ways to Tell if a Native Girl Likes You, Ernie Tsosie III, Tatanka Means and my favorites, 1491s. and here and here or just google 1491s. Slapping Medicine Man cracks me up every time. Why? I don't know. But it does.

Take away: Find out about real Indians - Indians who are alive today and working in all professions, who live in all cities and around the world, who laugh with their kids, get mad at their uncles, love their family traditions, hate their family traditions, read themselves to sleep, run out of gas, screw up at work, excel at work, try to make the world a better place, and are generally people.

Stay tuned for Indian 101 for Writers, Part Four: Aargh! tomorrow on Kara Stewart Art in Photography
Dagger Blanket Piece by Kara Stewart


Delicate Flower said...

Fellow bibliophile here and I can certainly relate!

I too love Slapping Medicine Man and also this film:
which critically examines the romanticized idea of the "noble Indian" that one woman has of her Native girlfriend and which comes to a head when she visits her family on the rez.

I'm really enjoying this blog Kara--thank you for speaking truth to power :)


Whittler said...

Love this helpful information. Also love Birchbark House and cry every time.

Loved yesterday's post, too!

karastewart said...

Thanks so much, Chelsea and Carolyn for your thoughts and comments! And I will have to check out that film, Natives. Sounds like it might deal with that identity issue. Thanks for the link!

Jessica ( frellathon ) said...

I love Sherman Alexie!