Writing About Native Americans: 7 Questions Answered

A Native American man wearing street clothes sits astride a horse atop a bluff overlooking the landscape of Oljato Monument Valley in Arizona. On a road below, two vans and a car drive along a winding road.
Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer.

Many authors want to write about Native Americans in their fiction and nonfiction, but they have questions about doing so—and don’t know who to ask. As a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, I’ve written and published 15 historical fiction books with Native main characters, and over 275 nonfiction articles on Native artists and organizations. In 2012, I was honored as a Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Artist in Leadership fellow, and a First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership fellow in 2015.

Helping authors of all genres write authentic stories with Native characters is one of my passions. Once authors invest in the skills they need, they’re able to stand behind every word they write. So I’ll answer frequently asked questions I hear from writers.

1. What is the correct way to refer to Native Americans?

There are really long, complex answers to this, but I will give a short version here.

Many Natives in Indian Country still prefer the term “Indian,” but because it’s been used derogatorily for so long, you need to take great care if you use it.

“American Indians” is still commonly used, as in the National Museum of the American Indian.

“Native American” is fine as well, though technically anyone born in America is Native American.

My favorite term is “First Americans” and it’s gaining popularity. The Chickasaw Nation has adopted this as their term, and there is the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.

The most accurate and correct way is to refer to someone is by their tribal affiliation. For me, that’s Choctaw. So rather than I say, “I’m Indian,” I say, “Chahta sia hoke,” meaning, “I am Choctaw!”

2. Is it okay for authors who aren’t Native American to write about them?

It depends on who you ask. For me, the idea that one can only write about their own race is odd. I have characters of multiple nationalities that fit into the historical and contemporary times I write in.

The catch is Natives in mainstream media have been so grossly stereotyped it’s extremely easy for a writer to perpetuate those stereotypes without even realizing it. Writing First American characters should be done with care, research, and a strong knowledge base.

In the end, I believe writers should be judged on the quality of our writing, not on our race.

3. Are there still organized tribal nations in North America?

Yes! According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2020, there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

Many have their own officials, councils, law enforcement, health care systems, and more. Some of the tribal governments are located on reservations; others have boundaries based on county lines.

Each tribe has a distinct history and heritage, so it’s important to know which one you are writing about in your story.

4. Can authors approach a tribal community for help when researching their story?

I encourage authors to work with the tribe they are writing about if they can. Make friends in that culture. However, you may find people more guarded if you jump right into, “Hey, I’m writing a novel, can I ask all about your people?” So much has been stolen from Native communities, and it takes deep awareness to build relationships.

5. What can authors do to make sure they don’t get Native culture “wrong” and create a firestorm of controversy?

Connection. Make connections with Native people at events, through tribal historians, and at cultural centers.

If you build trusting relationships, you may eventually ask your connection(s) to read your manuscript for fact-checking. If they offer positive feedback, consider asking for an endorsement. Put those in your marketing copy or on your back cover.

Keep in mind that getting everything right isn’t a simple task. It’s doable in most cases, but you may run into roadblocks. Lean hard into your research and have a discerning eye to distinguish between stereotypes and true history and culture.

6. What are some stereotypes surrounding Native Americans?

The list of stereotypes is a long one, but I’ll cover two of them for you here.

First, “The Noble Savage.” While some people showed real prejudice against Native peoples (such as “no dogs or Indians allowed” signage), others romanticized the idea of Native Americans. This happens still today. While there is much to admire in Native culture, it’s important to guard against the starry-eyed view of Indigenous people. Though not directly negative, that view doesn’t always empathize with Natives as human beings.

Read through historical documents and keep a close eye on verbiage that romanticizes the culture and people of the tribe you’re researching. Often, you’ll find that newspaper accounts, time-period books, and speeches were from the point of view at one end of the spectrum or the other.

These perspectives come from two extremes. The truth lands somewhere in the middle, and your job as an author is to draw balanced conclusions.

“Historical-Only View.” One of the stereotypes rarely talked about is what I call a “historical-only view.” It’s the underlying perspective that American Indians have all but disappeared from the face of the earth. Though not directly stated, descriptions and attitudes assume that Native peoples are in the past. There is no future for them.

The solution? Get to know Native people by attending events like Indian powwows. Feel the beat of the big drum, watch the wildly beautiful flash of colors at the climax of the fancy dancers, and taste Indian fry bread. While there is etiquette to learn for powwows and other Native events, you can do it. Meet new people. Build trusting relationships. Show the respect that’s in your heart for Natives today, and remember … we Natives are still here. 🙂

If you want more, I cover five stereotypes to avoid that you can download for free.

7. What about marketing my books with Native American characters?

Many people I meet are fascinated by Native American history and culture. That’s a positive thing as long as you approach any marketing about and to Native cultures genuinely and respectfully, which goes back to doing your research. If you write YA, middle grade, or children’s books and plan to visit schools, some may not be receptive if you’re non-Native. You could consider partnering with a Native author or illustrator if your goal is to market in schools.

Contemporary, fantasy, historical, romance, or any genre should take into consideration who they are casting in their story and why, then create the most authentic, accurate, non-stereotype characters they can. If you’ve done your research and can show it (in your author bio, website, author notes, endorsements, etc), that can build trust and credibility no matter what audience you’re marketing to.

If you have more questions, ask them in the comments below. And if you’re ready to get into writing Native American characters in your story, I can help guide you through the minefield in my Fiction Writing: American Indians online course.

Chi pisa la chike, my fellow author. I will see you again soon.

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