Writing What I Don’t Know

Many naysayers would say I have no right writing Native American characters. And I admit, I have had little contact with the culture or the people other than what I’ve read or the people I’ve sought out to help me try to make my characters believable and the world around them believable.

My first foray into writing Native American characters was my Spirit Trilogy that I wrote 15 years ago. It is a portrayal of the Chief Joseph band of the Nez Perce living in Wallowa County. The county where I grew up. Because I empathize with the tribes and feel they have all been wronged on so many levels, I strive to show their side of things and how strong a people they are. When I started to write these books, I contacted an, at that time, yahoo group of Native Americans and asked if there was anyone fro the Nez Perce tribe who would like to help me make my books historically accurate. I had two people respond. One was a young woman who would ask her grandmother my questions if she herself couldn’t answer them. The other was a man who said he was a descendant of Chief Joseph. I never asked for proof, but he was direct in answering my questions and I felt he gave me good information. I also read books written by McWhorter who lived among the Nez Perce, went to tribal websites and read their history, and toured the Nez Perce museums.

I did all of this to make sure I had portrayed the people, their culture, and their beliefs the best I could.

As I came up with the idea for my first mystery series, I wanted a character in the arts and I wanted one that would stay true to my need to show readers that Native Americans, First Americans, or Indigenous people, however you wish to call them, are people who have been wronged and who are still here and growing stronger. I feel it is their beliefs and culture that has kept them alive and now that many tribes are bringing back their language, their customs, and their beliefs, they are becoming stronger and wiser than the rest of us.

As so, I came up with a woman who is a potter who makes her own clay and was kept from her father’s family, her Nez Perce roots. In this way, I can have her slowly learn customs and attend events with the same interest and wonder I have as I encounter things in the culture. Placing her Nez Perce family on the Colville Reservation in Washington, I was able to learn a lot from another author, Carmen Peone, who lives there. She took me on a tour of the reservation. We talked to people, and she helped me when I had questions about customs, events, and how people would react to things. I feel making this connection is what helps to give my books more authenticity.

My Gabriel Hawke novels are set in Wallowa County. He is also a Native American character, but his background has him living in the Whiteman’s world since he turned 18 and he is now 55. He still clings to his culture and is slowly going to more events and visiting his mother at the Umatilla Reservation. I’ve toured the reservation, talked with people who live there and would like to make more connections with people who live there. I need to do a face-to-face visit with one of my contacts there for an upcoming Spotted Pony Casino book. I even had a short volley of emails with the tribal chief of police while I was figuring out how the tribal police worked in regard to the reservation and working with State, County, and the FBI law enforcement. And a person who worked security at the casino explained some of the ins and outs of that job. Then I made up my own casino and have it work similar but in a way that works for my character.

I also read contemporary books written by Native American writers to learn more about how the past and present are meshing together to keep the culture alive. And to learn how the Indigenous people of today are coping with life on and off of the reservations.

I attended the Wild Horse Casino Powwow this year.

Whenever you see me post that I am researching, I could be reading, I could be interviewing someone, or I could be on a trip to see a place I’m going to put in a book. But one thing, is certain, I know that no matter how much research I do, I can never write a true Indigenous character. I just hope I write enough about them and their lives that my readers learn to appreciate their culture even half as much as I do.

If anyone reading this is from the Umatilla or Nez Perce tribes, I would love to connect with you. I am looking for a beta reader to help me make my books better.