Thursday, February 07, 2008

Beverly Slapin's HOW TO WRITE A HISTORICAL YOUNG ADULT NOVEL WITH AN INDIAN THEME (FOR FUN AND PROFIT)


Update: Friday, Feb. 8, 2008---Two thoughts

First, it isn't enough to read what Beverly Slapin wrote below... You have to do more than laugh or talk about it with others. She makes many powerful points, doing so with humor. Consider how you might act on what you read. Could you, for example, ask teachers to reconsider using those books in the classroom? Could you avoid buying those books as gifts?

Second, visit Oyate's website and order books from their catalog. It is the single-best-place I know to get terrific books by and about Native peoples. They have books from U.S. and Canadian publishers. They have books published by large publishing houses who can afford to send their authors out on book tours, and books published by tiny publishers that can ill afford to send books to review journals. Oyate has music and video, too, and excellent teaching materials. And, it is a not-for-profit organization.


[Note: This post may not be published elsewhere without the written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin.]

1. Name your characters in the traditional Indian way, using the formula that has been followed for decades: an adjective or participle followed by a noun. The adjective should be a color, the participle should imply animal or supernatural skills, and the noun should be an animal or natural occurrence or weapon. Young children are always named with a diminutive adjective followed by a predator (if a boy) or cute baby animal or form of flora (if a girl), and elders should always have the adjective “gray” in their names. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of making up names, go to authentic Indian sources. Just be sure that you cite them in your “author’s note.”

A good example: “There I found the Indian burial ground, with dozens of white headstones bearing the names of the Native American children from all tribes who had died while at the school. The names, with the tribes inscribed underneath, were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities…. [T]heir personalities came through to me with such force and inspiration, I had to use them. I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they may reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it.”[1]

2. Take get extra points for using the terms “brave,” “maiden,” and “papoose,” instead of “man,” “woman,” and “baby.” Don’t bother with “squaw.” It’s controversial. Also take extra points for the number of times you refer to Indian eyes and hair as “dark” or “black.” And remember: Almost all of your male characters should be referred to as “warriors,” whether or not they have ever seen battle.

A good example: “She had a round, moon face, with large, half-moon eyes of black…. She did not smile, but her dark eyes continued their piercing stare as if they were on the mission of a vision quest…. Her dark eyes rested on mine…[2]

3. Never, ever have your Indian characters use contractions. Indians did not do that. And, whenever possible, make sure your Indians eschew articles, conjunctions, adverbs. The clunkier the dialogue, the more authentically Indian it will appear. And if you want to create really authentic Indian speech, think Tonto.

A good example: “Attean learn…. White man come more and more to Indian land. White man not make treaty with pipe. White man make signs on paper, signs Indian not know. Indian put mark on paper to show him friend of white man. Then white man take land. Tell Indian cannot hunt on land. Attean learn to read white man’s signs. Attean not give away hunting grounds.”[3]

4. Make sure that you use as many relentlessly garbled metaphors as you can. That way, your protagonist will sound more Indian.

A good example: “Yet hope tiptoed on softly moccasined feet, setting my heart beating with excitement.”[4]

5. Or, if you choose to tell the story in the third person, you can do even more with illogical similes.

A good example: “Broken blades of corn stuck up out of the blackness, like dead warriors waiting for the Great Spirit to call them…. She gave no sound, but her heart cried out like a wounded eagle.”[5]

6. And if you wish to combine similes with metaphors, jump in with both feet and let your imagination run wild as a buffalo fleeing a railroad train.

A good example: “Your legs are your friends. You must teach them to run like the antelope. Then your enemies will not be able to catch you. Your eyes are your friends. You must teach them to see like the eagle so that you are a great hunter and your enemies cannot approach without your knowledge. Your ears are your friends. They will tell you what your eyes cannot see in the night. Teach them to hear the beetle that crawls on the ground. Then you will be able to hear the snake that slithers in the grass and it will not be able to bite you. Your arms and your hands are your friends. They must be strong and quick like the cougar’s.[6]

7. If your Indian protagonist is speaking, make sure that she or he leaves the narration every once in a while to give an ethnographic exposition to the reader. It is imperative that this explanation begins with “It is the custom of our people to….” This form of writing not only teaches young readers very interesting facts about how your Indians lived, but it also shows their teachers how much you know about how your Indians lived.

A good example: “It is the custom of our people to burn the possessions of the dead. And thus I burned our tepee.”[7]

8. Make sure that your Indian narrator represents the world in one way and then contradicts this representation. Nobody understands Indian worldviews anyway, so you don’t have to be too careful.

A good example: “My brother Nanolatch is ‘He Who Leaps with the Salmon.’ Nana means ‘Salmonwife’ but no one ever calls me that. It is my sacred name. When you say it aloud, you set the spirits loose. You can never predict what will happen then.”[8]

9. Make sure that your Indian narrator portrays Indian belief systems and ceremonies as mindlessly violent.

A good example: “I’d have to grow up and be a warrior—decorate my body with eagle feathers, dance the secret Sun Dance. Some of them torture themselves during the dance to show how brave they are. They hang themselves from a pole by leather thongs pulled through their chest muscles. I could do that. I’m brave enough.”[9]

10. If your Indian narrator is a young woman, have her mount a quasi-feminist critique of what you perceive to be a patriarchal society.

A good example: “Have a successful Initiation or fail, the end is the same for all Kwakiutl girls. We will marry some boy we did not choose and leave this village. A wish twists sharply in my belly—not to be born…female, but to be male.”[10]

11. If your protagonist is a white boy, make sure that your Indian character exists in order to teach him all about hunting, honor, dignity, loyalty, decency, and the necessity of washing up before dinner.

A good example: “Tom, I want to explain. I want to and I don’t know the words. I always hated men who could talk and talk, but now I almost wish I was one of them. Then I’d know what to say to you to make you know. I am a Choctaw, Tom, and I must follow the Choctaw way….I lived my whole life believing it and I’ll die believing it. It can’t be any other way, boy. It will come surely and in its time, as winter does when the fall has gone. I don’t like the winter, when the trees are old-looking and the animals lose their flesh, but I know it has to come.”[11]

12. If your protagonist is a white boy, make sure that he, after having lived in an Indian camp for a while, runs things ever more efficiently than the Indians ever did themselves.

A good example: “Jimmy discovered how hard it was to get things going. He had wanted to leave by dawn, but it was quite another matter to pack up ten saddles and nine travois, then round up the horses and direct fifteen women, thirty-five children, and three elders.”[12]

13. Through the voice of your white protagonist, make sure to describe Indians in ways that connote the three B’s—barbarism, brutality and bloodthirstiness.

A good example: “To Jimmy’s horror, some held spears in the air, dangling scalps from a recent raid on a wagon train. Jimmy clamped his hand over his mouth and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He had heard about such things, but he hadn’t thought friendly Indians killed people. A sickening, sweet odor brought tears to his eyes. He was afraid and angry at the same time….But now this—this atrocity!…He counted six scalps, all caked with blood. One was a woman’s long red hair, one a girl’s blond pigtails, four were men’s scalps, three dark, one gray. Jimmy thought about his family. His little sister wore pigtails, his uncle Lefty had gray hair. Molly’s hair was long and flowing. He pictured their house pierced with burning arrows and his mother crying for help….He hated himself for thinking that living with Indians would be carefree.”[13]

14. If your Indian narrator is an old man, have him remember the past with the oratorical skill of a white person trying to sound Indian.

A good example: “I wear white man’s clothes. Some of my grandchildren’s grandchildren do not speak Choctaw. Our great traditions seem fragile now. But that day as I watched Moshi ride away on his horse, I felt the eagle spirit race through my blood.”[14]

15. Feel free to take words from well-known Indian leaders and ascribe them to your characters, even though they are from totally different nations. Make sure to appear humble in your “author’s notes” so that no one will accuse you of stealing anything.

A good example: “The Crow people did not live on the coast, like Sings-the-Best-Songs and Drums-Louder and the people of the Wolf Clan, but I have lent Chief Plenty-Coup’s words to Sings-the-Best-Songs because they are more beautiful and more apt than any I could invent.”[15]

16. If you don’t know something about a particular tribe, just make stuff up, and rationalize, rationalize, rationalize.

A good example: “I’ve tried to take a little from several of the peoples of the northwest coast—Kwakiutl, Haida, Nuu-chah-nulth, and others. I cannot claim to know enough about their rich heritage to draw them, any of them, accurately. In any case, this is a work of fiction. But it is dedicated to them, and the wolves, whose hunting prowess they respected and admired.”[16]

17. Always remember, you are the author; you are creating your tribe, you are entitled to invent anything you want.

A good example: “While I tried to provide authenticity in depicting the pre-contact life of the Kwakiutl, I still had to remain true to my characters, who created their own world and understood it through their viewpoints. Certain aspects, like their names, tattooing, the Salmon Being chant…are my own interpretations. The ceremonies and rituals in the transformation potlatch have been altered and simplified to suit this story.”[17]

18. If you run out of things to say in your “author’s note,” feel free to invent otherworldly rationales to justify what you have created.

A good example: “The image of a girl carrying a spear formed behind my eyes, but I didn’t know if a Native American woman would have been allowed to become a warrior….The more I read, the more I found that what I’d imagined was entirely plausible.”[18]

19. And finally, don’t be afraid that your writing will be considered stupifyingly abysmal. You have captured the Indian way of talking, the Indian way of thinking, and, well, the Indian way of being.

A good example: “I see no happiness ahead…. I see no village in the moons to come where my wickiup will be a place of warm contentment. Once my heart was certain in the ways of our people, and my moccasins were set in the path I knew to be good. Now I travel in the moccasins of another and know not the path I follow or where it will lead.”[19]

20. Above all, stand firm in your belief that Native American people are expendable and that you, with your myriad talents and numerous awards, are a suitable alternative who can best tell their stories.

A good example: “In doing historical research, I ran across the story of the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the heart-wrenching accounts of young Native Americans…. Here was a story that must be told, I decided… There I found the Indian burial ground, with dozens of white headstones bearing the names of the Native American children from all tribes who had died while at the school. The names, with the tribes inscribed underneath, were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities…. In one respect I hoped to bring them alive again and show their plight and their accomplishments to young readers today…. [T]heir personalities came through to me with such force and inspiration, I had to use them. I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they may reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it.”[20]

—Beverly Slapin



[1] Rinaldi, Ann, My Heart Is On the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880. Dear America Series. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1999, pp. 195-196.

[2] Ellington, Charlotte Jane, Dancing Leaf. Johnson City, Tenn.: The Overmountain Press, 2007, pp. 124-126.

[3] Speare, Elizabeth George, The Sign of the Beaver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983, p. 31.

[4] Landman, Tanya, Apache Girl Warrior. London: Walker Books, Ltd., 2007, p. 68.

[5] Von Ahnen, Katherine, Heart of Naosaqua. Boulder, Col., Roberts Rinehart, in cooperation with the Council for Indian Education, 1996, p. 38.

[6] Burks, Brian, Runs With Horses. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995, p. 4.

[7] Landman, op.cit., p. 26.

[8] Schwartz, Virginia Frances, Initiation. Allston, Mass.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003, p. 13.

[9] Osborne, Mary Pope, Adeline Falling Star. New York: Scholastic, 2000, p. 111.

[10] Schwartz, op. cit., pp. 31-32.

[11] Ashabranner, Brent, and Russell G. Davis, The Choctaw Code. Greenville, S.C.: 1961, 2006, pp. 32-33.

[12] Gregory, Kristiana, The Legend of Jimmy Spoon. San Diego, Cal.: Harcourt, 1990, 2002, p. 130.

[13] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[14] Fitzpatrick, Marie-Louise, The Long March. Hillsboro, Ore., Beyond Words, 1998, n.p.

[15] Branford, Henrietta, White Wolf. Cambridge, Mass., Candlewick Press, 1998, p. 91.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Schwartz, op. cit., p. 265.

[18] Landman, op. cit., inside back cover.

[19] Von Ahnen, op. cit., p. 94.

[20] Rinaldi, Ann, op. cit., pp. 195-196.

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1 comment:

Aeve Pitre said...

To me this reads as what not to do... or did I miss something?