Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate American Indian Content, by Kara Stewart

Note: This post, authored by Kara Stewart (Sappony), first appeared on From Here to Writernity.

Are you seeing American Indian characters or content?
Questions Agents and Editors Can Use to Evaluate Native content

Developed by Kara Stewart (Sappony) with many thanks to Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) for contributions.

Dear Agents and Editors, 

Have you just been presented with a manuscript that has American Indian content? I know what you’re thinking. “Great googlie mooglies, how do I tell if the Native content in this doorstop is accurate or if it will cause a garbage fire for my agency/house?”  

Or you may be thinking, “Well, I really like the voice, the plot is killer, and the author says she did a lot of research.” 

Or you may not be overly familiar with problems in the ways that writers create American Indian content, and think “I’m sure it’s fine…”

Or….*eyeswipe over listed resources*  
“Okay! A resource list! Content should be good to go.” But that niggling doubt… are those resources reliable?

Or perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s just this one little paragraph that has American Indian content... and it sounds okay to me...we don’t need to check on just that!”

Stop right there!

I know neither you nor your authors want dumpster fires, so here is a handy (errr… I think it’s handy and hope you do, too!) set of questions (and answers!) you can use to evaluate that manuscript. And a bonus resource list! By using it, you can gain skills to inform yourself and help authors create great books that help, rather than harm.

Just pick from List A (for authors who claim to be American Indian) or List B (for those who do not) and have at it!

A couple of notes on the questions:
  • These are meant as guides. Any single question may not lead you to a definitive answer, but will inform you. Or you may come up with additional questions to ask or research on your own.
  • It is not racist or bad form to ask questions specific to American Indian citizenry. For American Indian populations, the question/answer is larger than underrepresented minorities or historical oppression, and involves tribal citizenship.  American Indian people are, first and foremost, sovereign nations­ with structures in place to govern ourselves. This includes citizenship. Asking “Are you enrolled?” or “Are you a citizen of your nation?” then, is a question that many welcome. The answer will tell you a lot. Most American Indian authors will understand why you are asking and openly share their citizenship with you.
  • One little paragraph, sentence, or phrase can make a difference in a book’s tone, believability, consequences, and how an American Indian reader may respond to it. Why include American Indians at all in that phrase, sentence, or paragraph? Choose from List A or List B.
  • For List A, Question 4 and for List B, you will need at least one, preferably two, vetted readers from the tribe whose content is included. The author’s American Indian contact and their auntie who works at the college does not count. An objective, tribally-vetted person from the tribe who is familiar with Native literature does.
  • Is pondering these questions slightly uncomfortable? It is for me too, but I believe it is crucial that agents and editors take an informed, pro-active stance in the stream of what gets published. Cliché, but we need all hands on deck. I’m not suggesting an interrogation, but a conversation that includes these questions will greatly improve depictions of American Indian people in children’s and young adult books.
  • As editors and editorial agents, you often ask writers to revise something that you think isn’t right. It might be a factual error, or asking for clarity. You can do that, too, with American Indian content.
  • Ultimately, what you’re asking is this: “What will children most likely walk away from this book/section believing about Native people?” Boil it down to what is/isn’t on the page. And don’t forget American Indian children! What will they walk away with, when they read this book or this section?

LIST A: For authors who claim to be American Indian

1. I see your bio says you are Native American. What tribe do you associate yourself with?

2. Is that a state, or federally recognized tribe? 
3. How are you involved with your tribe? 

4. Are you writing about your tribe or another tribe?

List A Cheat Sheet Potential Answers:
1.       The author should be able to definitively name a specific tribe. If not, they may have Native ancestry at some point in their family lineage, but they are most likely not part of a tribe or familiar enough with it for them to be able to write in the #OwnVoice framework.  If an author seems to change their mind, giving  different tribe names at different times, that indicates they’re in an exploratory phase of finding out their American Indian ancestry. Note: if an author tells you they are Native via a DNA test, hit the pause button! Read (re-read) Kim Tallbear’s article, There Is No DNA Test To Prove You’re Native American. DNA means nothing. What matters is lineage and kinship, not DNA.

On the plus side, an author may say, “I am a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and of Navajo descent” or "I am Sappony". Or, “I am Lumbee and Sappony, enrolled with the Lumbee” or "I am an enrolled member of the Sappony", if the author understands that there are members, and there are enrolled members, and it sometimes makes a difference.  Note: if a writer gives you enrollment information for two distinct tribes, that’s a sure sign that the writer is not versed in citizenship. While we may have parents or ancestry from more than one tribe, we are enrolled in one. That’s a protocol widely known amongst those who are raised with knowledge of their native communities. You can also ask the author for their tribe's website and contact information. Many tribes verify membership through tribal ID cards. You can ask to see the tribal ID card. “And do you have a tribal ID card?” is acceptable. If the person does not have a card, but is a member/citizen, they’ll likely know that they (and you) can verify enrollment or citizenship through letter/email. We are asked for our tribal ID cards fairly often – at university offices, to register to dance at powwows, or as acceptable forms of identification to vote in some states, for example.

2.      Question 2 is, in essence, a check on Question 1. It is easy for someone to fudge their way through Question 1, especially if you, agent/editor, don’t feel confident in your ability to sniff out American Indian authenticity. If they don't know if their tribe is state or federally recognized, that is a red flag that points to shallow understanding and knowledge.  It lessens the chance they are really part of any tribe. Neither state nor federally recognized is 'better than' or more authentic than the other. If their tribe is neither state nor federally recognized, that could be a warning signal to find out more, since there are many groups that claim to be American Indian tribes.

3.      Asking how one is involved in the tribe they claim is another check on Question 1. Being a member of a tribe is more than an enrollment number or membership verification. It a way of life. It is giving back to your tribe, your family. It is being involved. Some nations require tribal members to live nearby, or require participation in tribal activities. Possible follow up questions: Did you grow up in the community you are writing about? Do you live there now? Are you able to get back to see your family much? If a person says they serve on the tribal council, or sit on a committee for their tribe or state or federal Indian organizations, volunteer at tribal events and can name them, or can tell you other ways they give back to their own Indian community, their state-level Indian community or the federal-level Indian community, then they have a higher chance of creating content that is accurate.

Caveat: volunteer work at various Indian functions or organizations is not really an indicator on its own since many non-Natives volunteer and may therefore think they have enough Native experience and friends to write about us. See List B.

4.      If the author is American Indian but writing about another tribe, see List B. American Indian tribes are so varied that a Lakota writing about the Mohawk, a Pueblo writing about the Sappony, a Tohono O’Odham writing about the Ojibwe, means that the author is writing about a culture not their own, a culture outside of their own experience. They may have a fundamental understanding of the overarching issues, stereotypes and values in ‘Indian Country’ in the generic sense, but would be an outsider to another tribal culture. We think that you will still need a vetted reader, or two, from the tribe whose content is in the book. See List B.

LIST B: For authors who are not American Indian but claim to have done research and/or have enough American Indian experience to result in authentic, accurate, non-stereotypical text:

1.       Why did you want to write a book about American Indians/include this part with American Indian content in your book?

2.      What tribe are you writing about/what tribe’s content is included in this part of your book?

3.      Why did you select this particular tribal nation for your story?

4.      Who have you interviewed/spoken with in the tribe, and can you give me the names and a statement from the tribe that acknowledges that these people are vetted by the tribe to speak for them?

5.      What is your personal experience with this tribe?

6.      What resources have you used to inform your work?

List B Cheat Sheet Potential Answers:
List B questions are more recursive than List A questions.

·       If the author talks about having worked with American Indian kids/community and says that they asked the author to write a story for them, and this is that story, we have an example of saviorism. It’s not just authors of European ancestry who can get it wrong. Writing from ANY ‘outsider’ culture – White, African American, Asian, Hispanic – should have equally rigorous scrutiny when including American Indian content. If the author is being a savior, they may have saviors in the story, too. Also, very commonly, authors will express having an affinity for American Indian culture, being fascinated with Indians, or growing up near a reservation – Danger, Will Robinson! Proceed with caution! This can be code for “many stereotypes ahead”.  See Answer 6 for great resources to combat that.
·         If there are a couple of American Indian references in the book, “some Indian tribes say…” or “..look like an Indian..” or “Hopi legend says…” or “Indian burial ground” or “wise, old Indian man said …”, ask the author why they chose American Indian culture for that reference. We’ve seen many books in which it seems the author did not imagine American Indian children as amongst the audience for the book. With that in mind, ask why the author needs to include American Indians at all in that phrase, sentence, or paragraph. Can the scene stand without it? Why is it there? Can another group reference be substituted there? If the answer doesn’t support accurate, non-stereotypical text, you probably want to lose it.

2.  If there is no specific tribe mentioned . . .  
Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

3.      This answer circles back to Question 1 but will give you more specific information. Pay particular attention if the author says something like, “I had a neat idea for a historical fiction book based on a real tribe/person/event.” See Answer 6.

4.      Via a social event or mutual acquaintance, a non-Native author may feel they have someone they can turn to who can help them with their American Indian content.  But that doesn’t mean that the Native person your author spoke with speaks for the tribe, has a larger view of the cultural questions, or knows anything about American Indian representation in literature. The author may pose questions and receive vague or simple affirmation for that content. The assumption is that feedback from any American Indian person is fine, or that positive feedback from an American Indian person is validation of authenticity, accuracy and acceptance. That is a false assumption.  You and your author—and your author’s readers—deserve more than that. Writers worked, in some cases, years on the manuscript. It is important to find someone who can give the content the serious attention it, the writer, and readers, deserve.  This is why it is important to have not only appropriate, but objective, American Indian information contacts as well as vetted (someone the tribe agrees can speak for them) readers. 

5.      This answer circles back to Questions 1 and 2, but will give you more specific information. Again, if the author talks about working or living with/near American Indian kids/community and the story written was well received by them . . . time to ferret out more information. What experience? For how long? Time frame? What did the work/interactions consist of? What about this experience enables you to write from the point of view of an American Indian person?

6.      The Devil is in the details . . . and the overall tone. Authors can have all their facts historically correct according to accepted sources available. But it is the interpretation of the facts into a story that makes the book harmful or helpful. I’ve seen a number of books that get most of the ‘facts’ correct, but the overall tone is that of stereotypes (which may be difficult for non-Indian writers, agents and editors to see when that has been the prevailing mode of American Indian representation). I’d highly recommend that agents and editors read the Revised Criteria from How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children's Books for Anti­-Indian Bias. Reading a manuscript through that lens and thinking deeply about Eurocentrism and colonialism will make all the difference. You can find guidelines, suggestions, statistics and a number of resources here at Writing About Native Americans. It is a long post (as was this).

       But if it is truly important to you and your author to stop perpetuating stereotypes, you will have made it to the end of this post. And that one.

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-Kara Stewart (Sappony) is a Reading Specialist in the public schools. She currently serves on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education and on her Tribal Council.

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