Sunday, March 6, 2016

Writing About Native Americans

Today's post is lengthy. I created it first not as a blog post, but as an addition to the online MG writing course I am currently taking through the Children's Book Academy. I noticed that a number of writers in the course with me had some form of American Indian content in their books or planned books. To address that, I wrote the following guest post, which I hope will be sent out with the other course materials. I'd love it if Mira Reisberg would use it as a part of all of her courses going forward. She has a wonderful opportunity to educate writers on diversity as part of their craft education. I would also love it if agents and editors would seriously consider these points when evaluating manuscripts.

(And in other Indian news this weekend, the Carolina Indian Circle Powwow).

Writing About Native Americans
by Kara Stewart

By way of introduction, I am Kara Stewart. I am an enrolled member of the Sappony tribe, one of the eight state-recognized American Indian tribes in North Carolina. Tribes can be federally recognized or state-recognized. There are 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, located in North Carolina, being one of them and included in the count of North Carolina’s eight tribes.

I have been a Reading Specialist and Literacy Coach in the public schools (elementary level) for 18 years. I am currently serving my 4th term on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education. Although I am not currently serving on the Sappony Tribal Council, I have served 3 terms previously and plan to again. I am involved in our tribal activities and events, as well as Native efforts at the state level.

I’d like to give you some thoughts and suggestions for writing to and about American Indians. Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation, attorney and Indian Country Today Media Network columnist, who has been in recent news, says that 87% of American Indian content in schools today is pre-1900s. She doesn’t just mean textbooks.

Here are some images you may have seen of American Indians. They have become so ingrained in American culture, that most non-Natives don't give them a second thought.


 Some more statistics:
     At 16.93%, the suicide rate for American Indians/Alaska Natives of all ages was much higher than the overall U.S. rate of 12.08. Suicide was the eighth leading cause of death for American Indians/Alaska Natives of all ages and the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10–24 (2013 CDC statistics for period 1999-2011).  **I have actually seen higher numbers in more recent years, particularly among youth.
     The reported rate of binge alcohol use over the past month was higher among AI/AN adults than the national average (30.6 percent vs. 24.5 percent) (Aspen Institute, Center for Native American Youth).
     Federal government studies have consistently shown that American Indian women experience much higher levels of sexual violence than other women in the U.S. Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that Native American and Alaskan Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general (5 vs. 2 per 1,000).  (Steven W Perry, American Indians and Crime- A BJS Statistical Profile 1992-2002, Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, December 2004.)   

Here are just a few of hundreds of images from books:

 And lest you think this is all in the past*:


*For more about cultural appropriation and Natives, please familiarize yourself with the fabulous Dr. Adrienne Keene’s blog, Native Appropriations

I am not saying by any means that books are to blame for the crazy high Native suicide rates, crazy high assault rates on Native women or addiction problems. Generational trauma, genocide, poverty, institutionalized racism - these all contribute. But a thread that holds all these together with literature is identity. Identity (along with institutionalized racism) is at the heart of these issues. Books contribute to identity. Books are these images in words. Let me say that again. Books are these images in words.

Children’s literature is one area where we, as writers, parents and educators, CAN make a difference to Indian children (and ALL children). Books are a HUGE part of school from whole class instruction and read alouds to guided reading book sets and media center choices. We can learn to write, purchase and read books that are accurate and authentic about Indian people instead of those that promote the stereotypes we just saw.

The images I just showed you are blatant stereotypes. I know you would recognize that you do a disservice to Indian children (and all children) by textualizing these blatant inaccuracies. But if you are a non-Native writer, would you recognize inaccuracies if you think you have done your due diligence, have researched your Native subject for years and spoken to some members of the tribe you write about? Or even know them in real life?

Consider Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose. It has been highly acclaimed. But what happens when we actually look at it from a Native perspective? Debbie Reese, of American Indians in Children’s Literature, has reviewed it.

If you are non-Native, I’d like to give you some resources and suggestions for writing about American Indians. First, it is not enough to research the tribe and the history you intend to write about. Certainly, you need to ground your writing in a particular tribe and a particular time period - and when you consider Tara Houska’s statistic on how little contemporary Native cultures are portrayed, I’m assuming you will decide you should probably write about a tribe set in the contemporary world since there is already an overabundance of historical (and inaccurate historical) writing about Indians and you would be contributing to the identity issues in living, breathing Indian children by writing yet another historical book about Indians (an exception might be something along the lines of if you are a Native writer and know details about an event in your tribe’s history that need to be told and your tribe wants them told).

So researching is certainly part of it. But it is not enough. If you are not Native, you may not be familiar with the thriving world of Indian Country today. Make yourself familiar with it. If you are not a member of the tribe you intend to write about, you need to find a way to immerse yourself in their culture. This could be tricky if you don’t know them. But it needs to be done. You need to tell them who you are, why and what you intend to write about them. Do not expect them to welcome you with open arms. You need to learn all you can from them. And you need to respect what they say. Even if you have one Native character in your book, that character needs to be presented accurately.

I have written two picture books, one of which won the 2014 Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award, both about various aspects of my tribe. Even as an enrolled tribal member, I never would have dreamed of writing them or seeking publication if I had not gotten approval by the tribal council, and equally as important, approval of the people or representations of the people in the stories. As a writer, I owe it to the people I represent to show them my final (not first draft) intention with my story and ask them if this body of work represents them in the way they want to be shown. Not one person. Not two people. Not just an Indian friend, who may or may not be clued in to the larger issues in Native America today. Ask the people themselves, “Are you comfortable being represented this way?”

And if they have suggestions or objections - I listen. I change my story. I owe this to the people I will be making money off by the sale of my work, little as the money may be. I do not deny or claim that my research showed me otherwise. I change my work. You do know that much of ‘history’ that you research is not accurate, right? You do know who writes history, right? The victors. So the Native voice of what we know happened in history has not, in most cases, been recorded. When you Google or go to the library or any of the standard research tools we use today, you must be aware that these are the Eurocentric versions of history.

One way to combat that is to go to the tribe’s official website. But even here, be careful. Indian politics is very tricky to navigate. There are official websites of official tribes, and then there are ‘wannabee’ tribes (not state or federally recognized) that pop up and have websites and misleading information.

Let me give you a list of resources to start with:

Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature is amazing. If you want to see what kinds of things are offensive from a Native perspective in children’s writing, you can read any of her reviews. She also has fabulous articles listed down the right sidebar. I wrote an article for her years ago that is still linked there, Children’s Books About Thanksgiving. A very valuable resource to writers, agents and editors is her article, Dear Writers and Editors: Some Cautions About Selecting Beta Readers. That article is PACKED with resources for how to double check your manuscript for accuracy. Debbie, a renowned expert in the field, is also available to give feedback and critique on your manuscript. Her fee will be well worth it, I assure you. She is honest, knowledgeable and thoughtful in what she says. She tells it like it is.

As part of the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education, and Chair of the Culturally Responsive Instruction Committee, we have come up with these Culturally Responsive Instructional Resources, which are helpful to writers as well as educators. If you look down the orange left side-bar, you will see Text Resources. You may want to read the books on the Recommended list as well as the Non-Recommended list to get a feel for why they are on the list they are on. Another helpful resource under Text Resources is the Criteria From How To Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias (adapted from Although intended for analysis of published text for bias, it would be an excellent tool for writers to learn to use to analyze their own writing for bias.

A third resource I recommend, Indian 101 for Writers, is something I wrote a few years ago explicitly for writers in collaboration with my author pal, Alison DeLuca. We wrote this because there seemed to be no other resource like this to address writers who are thinking of writing about Native Americans. It is a 5-part traveling blog series (between my blog at the time and her blog), in interview format. There are many, many links and resources in it. If you take the time to read through them, it should give you a better idea of what is involved in presenting Native people accurately. The first post opens with many links to articles about white privilege and institutionalized racism. The following posts deal more specifically with Native content.

Another great resource is author Cynthia Leitich Smith's (Muscogee) blog post, Writing, Tonto and The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is Always the First to Die. She has listed out specifics for authors who wish to write cross-culturally about Native people.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly for non-Native writers, ask yourself, “Why do I want to write about Native people?”  What is it about us that you think is important enough to step outside of your culture to write about - especially knowing the loaded history and contemporary issues with our people? Is there a story you could tell about your own culture that would be equally compelling? Are you perhaps looking for a hook for your audience? Do you just feel an affinity for Indian people or have always found us fascinating? If so, is there a way to better serve, such as volunteering or working with Native authors? 

I know why I write about my people. I have Navajo and Dine friends, Lumbee, Cherokee and Choctaw friends and more. And we hang. And I love them. But would I feel comfortable writing about their culture? No. I would not. I would be very out of my element. And their culture is not mine for the taking. Food for thought.


  1. I entered this territory in curiosity and due to a character of a story I have written. I changed the character from native american ancestry to african american. Since I've never published, it is really not a strong concern.
    I know native americans abhor wannabees. In the Southeast, everybody and their brother has a family story of native americans in their family tree.
    This is too much to ask one person I know. But how should whites and blacks go about discussing this topic tactfully. For some it is a story. For some it is true.
    I guess I am asking for a list of native american consultants. I have followed Debbie Reese's blog and it is informative. However, there is a huge difference between different native american tribes.
    My mother is from DeKalb County Alabama to give you a frame of reference.

  2. Hi Ann, thank you so much for reading my article and for your thoughtful comment. First, I'd say your observation "For some it is a story. For some it is true." is really the crux of the whole issue. We are trying to get people to see that it IS life and does have enormous impact on living people. As for your question about how should white people and black people discuss the topic tactfully, I'd say the first step is to make friends outside of your race. Make African American friends. Care about them. Get to know them and their families. Have the discussion. Many times, the white person is afraid to bring it up, but the person of another race welcomes the frank discussion as a way to share information and feelings. As far as a list of Native consultants, the best I can do is to ask you to take full advantage of Debbie Reese's article about beta readers, which will mean some investigatory research on your part. And yes, tribes are very different. Not just very different but a good analogy would be that you wouldn't expect a French, a German and a Spanish character to be the same because they are all European. Tribes are like that. So very different. In language, customs, traditions, people, looks, regions, norms, etc. So you wouldn't expect to find a 'European consultant' who could guide you through writing all characters of European descent. You'd have to do some investigating and immersing yourself in each culture and getting to know the people and being aware that they may be suspicious of your intent. It's the same for Natives. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment. "For some it is story. For some it is true." This one line could have replaced my entire blog post! :)

  3. Kara, I'd be delighted to include a link to this on all of our writing courses! As you know, making the world a better place through kid lit and anti-racist education is my life's work, hence all the scholarships that we give and group discussions of these issues. Really happy to know you and be part of each others' journeys.

    1. Thank you, Mira! Our life's missions are aligned. :)

  4. Wonderful, informative blog, Kara! This needed to be said.

  5. thanks so much for this thoughtful and enlightening piece. Sharing on facebook and twitter.

  6. Keep speaking up for accurate storytelling and representation of Native Americans.

  7. A friend and fellow winner of the 2015 Emerging Voices Award from SCBWI sent me the link to your post... And I'm glad she has because this is exactly how I feel. I am a member of the Northern Arapaho and write about our tribe because it's what I know best. Ask me to write about the Bronx and I would be lost! Research can only cover so much and it's thru my conversations with our elders and my own experiences that have breathed life into my story. I have just started blogging again on my site - - and have been amazed by the encouragement I've been getting from my tribe. One of the things I always say is that we need to be the ones telling our story and it's been exciting to see people listening to our side... Thanks again for sharing your blog and a shout out to Judy Allen Dodson for sharing it with me!

    1. Hi Jackie! Nice to meet you. Thank you for your kind words and insight. Perhaps we are kindred spirits. I subscribed to your blog!

  8. Thank you, Kara. Thank you for encouraging writers to breathe cultural truth into everything we write. This is a wonderful piece. Congratulations!

  9. Great post, Kara. I will definitely check out the resources you've listed.
    In terms of the categories/reasons you listed for wanting to write about Native Americans, I definitely fall into the last category you mention. I am a non-Native who feels an affinity for Indian people and has always found them fascinating.
    I'm not necessarily thinking of writing about Native Americans right now, but I might in the future, and I'd have your resources to help if and when I do. In addition, I would love to find other opportunities to "serve," as you say, such as volunteering or working with Native American authors. If you have ideas/know of opportunities for doing that, I would love to hear them.
    Again, great post. I look forward to reading more of your posts.
    Take care.

  10. This is an absolutely great post!!!!! Thank you for all of the information and resources. i will never buy Land O' Lakes butter again.

  11. This is an absolutely great post!!!!! Thank you for all of the information and resources. i will never buy Land O' Lakes butter again.

  12. This is an absolutely great post!!!!! Thank you for all of the information and resources. I will never buy Land O' Lakes butter again.

    1. :) You made me smile, Caroline! So glad you found the post helpful.

  13. Thank you for this excellent post and the wealth of resources listed. I am one of those writers who have written outside of my own Anglo culture and I hope I am also an author who had followed each part of your advice and instruction. Every single part. I strongly agree about your voiced concern regarding stereotypes, about not being specific regarding honoring and recognizing specific tribal identification, and also the "past-tense" and historical misrepresentation of American Indians. I have written a contemporary middle-grade novel that is set on the Navajo Nation where I have been teaching and living for the past sixteen years. If you are interested, I would be pleased to send you a copy for comment. Again, thank you for this excellent article.

    1. Hi Nancy,
      So glad you found the post informative. I think if you dive deeply into each of the 4 resources I listed, you will see that they are each chock full of further reading and research points. I'd recommend diving into Indian 101 for Writers, all 5 parts, first, then going through the SACIE text resources, particularly training yourself with the Criteria tool I mention in the post. I am not currently set up to professionally culturally-beta read as I am working full time teaching and working on my own MG novel. My best suggestion would be for you to take advantage of the link in my post and have Debbie Reese culturally beta read for you. She has reasonable fees and is very thorough and knowledgeable. She won't steer you wrong.

  14. SHARED. Great post. Lots to chew on and consider. Thank you for sharing your heart and all the great resources!

    1. Thank you, Donna! The more eyes we can get on this post as a gateway to the 4 resources I have listed, the better! I appreciate your sharing it.

  15. What a wonderful blog. Thank you, Kara, for writing it and thank you, Mira, for linking it. My academic training is as a cultural anthropologist and while it doesn't make me an expert in anything, it does make me incredibly aware of how much I DON'T know. I'm working on a chapter book that takes place in Portland, Oregon and includes classroom scenes. To accurately approximate one of Portland's public school classroom, I've included a Native American child. He's of the Klamath tribe and, at this point, is a minor character. Thank you for opening doors to me to thinking more about him.


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