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Including Native Americans in Writing | NINC



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As writers we always hear, “Write what you know.” In light of that truth, it is important that any person writing about Native Americans know the people and the culture they are writing about. It is important to know the current situation of the Native American people one is choosing to write about. It is also important to recognize that some things cannot, or should not, be written about given the culture and traditions of a people.

Who are Native Americans/First Nations/Indigenous people?
In the United States there are 562 federally recognized tribes. This number does not include state-recognized tribes or tribes terminated by the federal government. In Canada, there are 634 nationally recognized tribes. Mexico recognizes 68 tribes. These numbers do not include the tribes of Central and South America.

Each of these varied tribes has their own original language, cultural teachings, home structures, ceremonial practices, traditional clothing style, and kinship systems. My people, the Anishinaabe, traditionally lived in wigwams—rounded homes covered with birchbark and/or woven mats. The Lakota people, and other peoples of the Plains, who hunted buffalo, lived in teepees. The Diné have another type of traditional housing as do the Kickapoo on the U.S./Mexico border, and both are different from the Pueblo people even though all could be said to live in the Southwest of the United States. Totally different styles of housing. And it is important to remember that today the majority of Native peoples live in square, wood houses built by and to HUD standards.

The most effective, efficient, and truth-telling way to write what you know about Native Americans is not to use an internet search engine to find information about them but to visit and make good relationships with the people near you. Every major city in Canada and the United States has a First Nations (Canada) or American Indian Community Center (USA). Push beyond your comfort zone, risk making social blunders, and show up at a Native event near you. Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Boston, Albuquerque, and Denver are U.S. cities that have high-attendance powwows each year. They are open to the public. Every major city has Native American groups of artists, environmental activists, fashion designers, and political representatives.

Even if you do not live in a major city, I can almost guarantee that you live within one to two hours of a reservation, or reserve as they are called in Canada, where again, you can connect with actual Native people, who are alive and working for the betterment of their people. People who know the history of their people. People who know the teachings and way of life of their people. If one is writing about Native people, it is important to represent the tribe you are writing about accurately. Which tribes really do wear full feather headdresses? And why and when do they wear them? Which tribes are currently re-building buffalo herds? Which tribes have clans? Which are matriarchal? Which patriarchal?

So much of what we think we know, so much of what was taught to us in the current educational system is inaccurate and/or dated. So much of what is portrayed about us in the media is a romanticized or racist version of our existence. Again, connect with the people who live right by you. Governmental policies have invisibilized us, but we continue to exist, to thrive, to be.

Building good relationships
The North American continent is built on stolen land. Native people see the Earth as the Mother of all people, all creation. Deforestation to build homes, and create farms and cities is a heartbreak for many of us. The building of dams for hydroelectric power has flooded many traditional homelands. Mining for gold, silver, uranium, and other metals for temporary wealth without thinking seven generations ahead is heartbreaking. Strip-mining and pipelines damage the Earth and our communities, and create an environment that puts our women and children at risk (see hashtag #mmiw on social media about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women).

Just as the Earth has been strip-mined, there is a current practice of non-Native people reaching out to Native people to get answers to their questions about us. I refer to this as strip-mining our minds. We are so much more than an internet search. We are not the encyclopedias of our Nations. When I say to build relationships with people, I mean to build relationships. To build friendship. To get to know the people you want to write about. We are multidimensional. We are not the spokesperson for our entire tribe, nor for all Native people. Make the effort to know the people you want to write about.

Educate yourself about the difference in legal status between yourself and Native people
Native Nations, federally recognized tribes, are sovereign nations under international treaty law. Native people across the continent have a different legal status than any other people who are citizens of Canada, the United States, or Mexico. Entire books and law courses particular to tribal law exist. It is important to research the legal standing and treaty law pertinent to whichever tribe you are attempting to write about.

Writing about Native people requires a basic understanding of the boarding school system that impacted all of us. It requires a basic understanding of the era of “scooping” of our children—the taking of our children and placing them in non-Native homes. Do you know what ICWA stands for? Writing about Native people requires basic knowledge that tribal law exists. That tribal law is above state law, on par and equal to the Constitution of the United States. Some tribes are under federal jurisdiction. Some are under U.S. Public Law 280. What are the legal ramifications of tribal law, federal law, and state jurisdictional issues if a crime is committed on a specific reservation?

You don’t need to write our stories about us
There is enough for everyone. We live in a world that scares us into thinking within a scarcity model. We are trained to think there isn’t enough (publicity, money, status) to go around. We live in a world that maintains that melanin-challenged people don’t have a culture worth celebrating, writing about, recognizing. We are led to think that somehow “adding a little color” to the story will somehow make it better. Not true. You don’t need us in your story to write a perfectly good and readable story.

I heard a to-remain-anonymous author say, ”I had the mercenary thought to corner the market on Indians in such and such place.” Another author was asked, “Why are you including this Indian in your book?” The answer?  “Because Indians sell.” There was zero need for an Indian to be running up and down the stairs in that particular novel.

Dr. Debbie Reese authors a site titled American Indians in Children’s Literature. She is aware of hundreds of Native people writing our own stories in our own voices for young people. First Nations authors in Canada are extremely prolific. Unfortunately, if you look at the best-sellers list of Indian books, the majority of people writing those best sellers about us are non-Native. They, for the most part, are perfectly fine authors. However, something is always lost in translation from one culture to the next. Our Own Voices and We Need Diverse Books are two projects seeking to get Native authors the publication and recognition they deserve.

To be a true ally to Native people, hold open the door to Native writers who are working hard to break into the publishing market.

When thinking about writing about Native people, ask yourself:

  • Am I the right person to write this? Is there a Native writer who could do this more authentically than I can?
  • Who do I know from the Native community with whom I would feel comfortable sharing this writing?
  • Is what I have written culturally accurate?
  • Is what I have written needed and/or pertinent to the story?

May all good stories flow from you to the world.


Author photo

Marcie Rendon, White Earth Ojibwe, was listed in Oprah’s 2020 list of 31 Native American Authors to Read. Her Cash Blackbear crime novel Sinister Graves was a Minnesota Book Awards finalist in 2023. Girl Gone Missing was a Sue Grafton finalist, and Murder on the Red River was a Pinckley Prize for Debut Crime Novel winner in 2018. Broken Fields, the fourth in the series, is scheduled for a spring 2025 release. Upcoming releases: Anishinaabe Songs for the New Millennium, a poetry collection, spring 2024; Where They Last Saw Her, a contemporary standalone crime novel, fall 2024; Stitches of Tradition, a children’s picture book, fall 2024.

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