Once again I got the increasingly common question from a white writer about how to write non-white characters (in this particular case how to write Native American characters) without getting it wrong and offending someone. Here are some thoughts on this that I hope might help with folks that have similar queries.
There’s always a risk of “getting it wrong” when you’re dealing with writing about anybody outside of your own experiences. I worry about it all the time as someone who writes characters of different cultures, nationalities, even characters who live with disabilities that are beyond my personal experiences. The best you can do is research, talk to as many people as possible within that group, and do your research thoroughly with an open mind and heart. When someone from that group tells you that you said or did something offensive or problem-some, listen, learn, and be ready to apologize and mean it. Another important thing to remember is to respect when someone from that group says “No.” It is not their responsibility to educate you, but if you are respectful and open, your chances are pretty good at finding someone more than happy to talk to you.
As far as how and where to gather your research outside of the obvious talking to people from that group and asking respectful questions ( and honestly listening to the answers), go to the experts. Not just a random person from that particular group, but one of their scholars, educators, community outreach folks, etc… For example, every tribe, in my experience, will have departments dedicated to historical and cultural information.
One very important thing to remember is do not assume if you know about one nation’s traditions, that information will suffice for all Native American traditions you write about. It won’t. This may sound like a “duh!” statement, but I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a writer send me something that was a mismatch of tribal tradition, region, housing, food details, etc… When I told them Native Americans were not hive minds and the author had to “choose a tribe” they didn’t understand what the big deal was. It’s a huge deal folks.
For me personally, if you want to write Cherokee, or any contemporary Native American character hit up the website of the Cherokee group you want to center the character in, and not only talk to the cultural department, and see what books on the website or by e-mail they recommend to learn more about their traditions, stories, and history. There is a lot of crap out there. The experts within the tribes themselves can help guide you through the minefield of garbage to where the the gems lay. Please consider that there are plenty of poorly done historical depictions, and it gets tiresome only seeing NdN characters done in the past, as if we don’t exist now in the present. Unless you must do history fiction to keep your muse happy, please set your native character in a contemporary or even futuristic setting. Futuristic would be very cool to read! 🙂
Many contemporary Native Americans feel invisible in the eyes of the average American, only remembered as seasonal trimming during the thanksgiving holidays or as the mystical advisor for some white hero in movies or books. We need the faces of contemporary Native Americans in the stories we read, as well as TV movies or any other sort of popular entertainment. Realistic examples of contemporary of Americans, not caricatures or unrealistic idealizations no one could ever live up to. It’s not as hard as some people think it is. The “Others” in a lot of ways, you know we’re not so very different. It’s important that people remember that we can be heroes too, we can have romances, we can fly spaceships.
Authors do not have to be afraid to write POV characters who are not like them, as long as they’re willing to do the work it takes to do the best they can, and be willing to listen and continue to learn even if they do get something wrong.