Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Rest of the Thanksgiving Story

Kathryn Page Camp

I wanted to add a picture of the first Thanksgiving to this post. Unfortunately, the only ones I found that were clearly in the public domain were also historically inaccurate. The photo at the head of this post is a good example.* The clothing and feathers are all wrong, and the position of the two groups, with members of the Wampanoag nation sitting on the ground and the Pilgrims standing, imply that the Pilgrims were the dominant race. Since a white woman is handing out the food, the picture could also imply that the Pilgrims provided the feast and the Native Americans were simply recipients.
As writers, we should be careful not to make the same mistakes.
When I think of the first Thanksgiving, I think of friendly Native Americans bringing their knowledge and skills and provisions to feed the starving Pilgrims. Without that help, the Pilgrims would have perished.
That’s one of the reasons I like Thanksgiving. It’s the one time of year when we remember the Native American participants as the generous people they were.** That’s a lot better than the frequent stereotype of half-dressed warriors burning homes and scalping “innocent” white settlers.
But the first Thanksgiving is only part of the story. The Pilgrims’ thankfulness to the Wampanoag tribe was an isolated instance. The European immigrants looted Native American graves, raided their villages, and sold the captives as slaves. White explorers and settlers passed along diseases that were new in this country. Since the natives had not built up an immunity, entire communities were wiped out. Then we destroyed their way of life by seizing the land that supported them and forcing them to move into the barren areas we didn’t want for ourselves.
Our white ancestors even sent soldiers to “escort” the Native Americans from the lands we craved to the ones we scorned. These long, forced marches were filled with hardship, and many people died along the way. Some Native Americans, such as the Navajos herded out of Arizona in 1864, were later allowed to return to their homes. But those were the exceptions. The more common experience was that of the Cherokees in 1838. Driven to Oklahoma over the Trail of Tears, they never did get back home.
Those of us with European ancestry have many reasons to be grateful to the Native Americans. But it doesn’t work the other way around.
So when you read or write about the first Thanksgiving, don’t forget the rest of the story.
* The picture at the head of this post is by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and was painted sometime around 1912-1915. It is in the public domain in the United States because of its age.
** I’ve read comments on the Internet complaining that people today think the Pilgrims and the Native Americans merely shared a meal together, or even that the Pilgrims were the benefactors rather than the beneficiaries. I can’t say whether those complaints are valid, but it hasn't been my experience. I learned at school and at home that Squanto and his tribe taught the Pilgrims how to survive, and my children learned the same lesson.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Inappropriate Storyteller - A Cautionary Tale

Heather Stamper
            A group of elementary school children were on a tour of their local library.  Part of the tour included a story in the children’s section.  Instead of selecting a picture book to read, the youth resources librarian decided to use oral tradition to tell a Native American folktale from the Pacific Northwest.  It was the tale of the Trickster Raven bringing light to the people. 
To paraphrase the tale, the chief of the Sky People had all the light of the universe hidden in a box and refused to let it out.  Raven infiltrated the chief’s house by turning himself into a hemlock needle floating in the water.  The daughter of the chief drank the water, swallowed the needle, and in the course of time, gave birth to Raven incarnate who then stole the light.
The young children were visibly bored by the story that for the most part went completely over their heads.  (Of course, there was the smarty-pants who had to ask about where babies came from.)  Their teachers looked at each other in shock and couldn’t meet the eyes of the parents who came along as chaperones.
While the storyteller meant well in attempting to share another culture with seven year olds of the Calumet Region, she could have told a local tribal tale or read from an actual book instead of going off the cuff and dwelling on the Raven baby growing in the princess’s belly.
            When you select a reading, it is very important to be mindful of your audience.  A story about conservation might not go over well at a lumberjack convention.  You might get more than a chilly reception with Bears fans if you read that fan fiction about playing for the Packers.  Or as in the case of the Inappropriate Storyteller, you could alienate your potential readers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It Ain't Just a Story: Writing about 21st Century Native Americans

Kayla Greenwell
Last week, Kathryn Page Camp deconstructed the Native American stereotype as she discussed the importance of historically accurate representations in writing. Stereotypes not only make our writing bland and incorrect, but also reflect the institutionalized racism in our society. It’s a lose-lose situation.
It is interesting to think about, if you are writing Native American history—but what if you are writing about the realities that Native Americans face today? Of living on the reservation and dealing with the struggles and prejudices that a 21st Century Indian encounters?
I look to Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, to answer my question. Alexie is the best-selling author of 24 books—and he still finds time to make films and do stand-up. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Alexis pulled from these experiences when he wrote The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Alexie creates a beautifully written, accessible narrative about a young boy named Junior. What is special to me about this novel is how Alexie realistically portrays the difficulties of reservation life. Don’t get me wrong, the book is hilarious. But in-between the jokes and comical insights, the reader begins to see the legitimate struggles of contemporary reservation life: poverty, alcoholism, housing, and employment. To show you what I mean, here is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Halloween.”
At school today, I went dressed as a homeless dude. It was a pretty easy costume for me. There’s not much difference between my good and bad clothes, so I pretty much look half-homeless anyway.
And Penelope went dressed as a homeless woman. Of course, she was the most beautiful homeless woman who ever lived.
We made a cute couple. Of course, we weren’t a couple at all, but I still found the need to comment on our common taste.
“Hey,” I said. “We have the same costume.”
I thought she was going to sniff at me again, but she almost smiled.
“You have a good costume,” Penelope said. “You look really homeless.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You look really cute.”
“I’m not trying to be cute,” she said. “I’m wearing this to protest the treatment of homeless people in this country. I’m going to ask only for spare change tonight, instead of candy, and I’m going to give it all to the homeless.”
I didn’t understand how wearing a Halloween costume could become a political statement, but I admired her commitment. I wanted her to admire my commitment, too. So I lied.
“Well,” I said. “I’m wearing this to protest the treatment of homeless Native Americans in this country.”
“Oh,” she said. “I guess that’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah, that spare change thing is a good idea. I think I might do that, too.”
Of course, after school, I’d be trick-or-treating on the rez, so I wouldn’t collect as much spare change as Penelope would in Reardan
It is sad to admit, but it seems that there are just too many problems in this world for one person to focus on. Unless we are constantly reminded of issues in front of us, we become disconnected with them. I fear that many Americans don’t realize that these pervasive issues still exist today. It seems impossible that issues from a century ago could still exist today, but they do. We forget, but thankfully there are writers like Sherman Alexie to remind us. Alexie quotes W. B. Yeats as the novel opens, and I think it would be a great place to end. Just remember, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More Than Buffalos and Tipis

Kathryn Page Camp

As a child, I was fascinated with Native American history. Well, that isn’t quite accurate. I was actually fascinated with the Native American culture and lifestyle back before the days when they were herded onto reservations or integrated into white society.
I grew up in Chippewa County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There were no Native Americans in the immediate area at the time, but there were plenty of historical reminders that they were the original inhabitants. My father got a month’s worth of vacation every year, and we spent many of those vacations traveling around the United States (as well as spending time in other countries). On those U.S. vacations, I visited and learned about various Native American sites. All of that peaked my interest.
One thing I quickly learned was to discount the stereotype of nomadic hunters chasing buffalos and living in tipis. Although many of the plains dwellers fit that stereotype, using it is like saying that all modern-day Americans live in stately homes surrounded by Magnolia trees.
The way Native Americans lived was dictated by their environment. Their primary means of obtaining food ranged from farming to fishing to hunting animals to gathering plants, and they often used a variety of these methods. Their shelters ranged from tipis to grass houses to wood homes to adobe apartment buildings such as the pueblo shown in the picture above. The plains dwellers lived in tipis because they needed something that was easy to pack up and move and because the materials (buffalo skins, for example), were easy to come by.
In parts of the Southwest, on the other hand, game was scarce and many Native American groups relied on farming. Since clay was plentiful and people didn’t have to move around to find food, they built permanent structures such as the one pictured above.
Then there were the Chippewa and others who lived off of the forests and rivers of the upper Midwest. They tended to move often during the summer and stay in one place during the winter, or sometimes the other way around.
Native Americans did whatever they could to adapt to their environment.
So if you want to write a historical novel that includes Native Americans, do your research. Putting buffalos and tipis in Florida makes as much sense as populating California with Southern accents.
And someone will notice your error.
The photograph at the head of this blog is from a slide my father took in 1965 on a family vacation to the western U.S. This picture shows a Native American pueblo in Arizona. I don’t know if it was an original structure or—more likely—a reproduction built for the tourist crowd, but it is one of the buildings that peaked my interest. In any event, it shows that not all Native Americans lived in tipis.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at