So I want to start this blog post off with a disclaimer. I am not Native American, I am not among the people most affected by this topic, and I’m definitely not an expert on the topic.
However, while I was writing my book, I realized that even if I was writing in a sub genre that attempts to undo some of the negative things done by the standard Western, I was still writing a Western with a Native American character, and had to be really careful not the make some of the dumb mistakes that people of European decent in the US tend to make when creating Native American characters in film and literature. So I did some reading.
Now, let’s leave old school Westerns out of this, because we all know that they’re racist–I mean, I can’t tell you how many Westerns I watched in my research period that had things like “I’m going to shoot the first injun I see” uttered within the first ten minutes with no apology. But there are also mistakes non-indigenous people make even when trying to create Native American heroes.
One of the big ones is being oblivious to the fact that there are specific tribes—“Native American” is not one amorphous group, and you accordingly can’t mix and match clothing, mythology, and customs. Old movies, and even more recent, sympathetic ones like Dances with Wolves are purported to have done this all the time. So when writing my book, I did my best to represent a specific tribe of Native Americans, the Me-wuk people. I researched their food gathering and preparing customs, their burial customs, and their myths.
Another mistake commonly made is to portray Native American characters as close to the earth, born environmentalists, and superior trackers. This one was a bit trickier for me, since the book is written in 1848, and a Native American man would actually be a lot closer to the Earth, hunting and the like. However, did my best to not make the indigenous character in my novel an expert, and portray the Narrator (a non-indigenous character) as just as skilled as hunting and trapping as him.
One last troubling trend is portraying Native Americans as a vanishing race, of a different time, wiped out long along and not part of the modern world. There are currently about 5.2 million indigenous North Americans alive in the US, a fact you wouldn’t be aware of from lots of popular media.
As I said, I’m not expert, and this is just a bit of what I’ve picked up along the way. Hopefully I have, through reading articles and blogs, and from learning from the mistakes other people have made, done some of the work of creating a non-stereotypical Native American character in my novel.