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Monday, January 30, 2012

Keeping It Real - When Writing About Native Americans

  I write a column for my writing chapter's quarterly newsletter called "Keeping It Real".  It's my goal to keep those annoying little misconceptions and inaccuracies out of a story that cause the author to lose credibility and consequently readers.  This interview is my second installment and I decided to make it more intimate by using the traditional Q and A format.  The subject of this issue is the treatment of Native Americans in writing.  For this discussion I turned to a Native American friend and businessman, Gary La Pointe of the Rosebud Lakota Sioux.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do when listening to his stories, and they are amazing and wonderful.

Q.   What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions
     that Non-Native Americans have about Native
A:  There are two. The first is that Native Americans        
     don’t exist as a contemporary culture, but only as a
     “history book relic”, instead of being a vibrant
     culture.  The second is that all Native Americans
     are the same, meaning they speak the same
     language, share the same cultural beliefs, practices
     and so forth.
Q:  If you could change anything about how Native
     Americans are portrayed in novels & entertainment,
     i.e.,TV, movies, etc. what kinds of things would
     they be?

 A:  When a tribe is portrayed, writers tend to take a 
       lot of creative license and pull cultural aspects
       from many different tribes (such as a dance from
       one tribe, a song from another, etc.) thereby     
       losing the cultural integrity of the tribe being
       portrayed and therefore the accuracy of the story.
       In “Dances With Wolves” Kevin Costner speaks in
       a “feminine” Lakota accent, which would not be
       used in real life.  In another movie, Apaches
       speak in the Lakota language, to name a few

Me with Gary!
Q:  In the romance genre, heroes are often portrayed
     as strong people who tenaciously hold fast to their
     personal values/honor code/ beliefs to the point of
     self-sacrifice to others.  Some are burdened with
     the baggage of past failures and others are in
     desperate need of redemption-although they don't 
     deliberately attempt to claim it. Can you think of
     any Native Americans past or present who fit these
A:  A majority of (Lakota) leaders fit that bill, and
     those that don’t are the ones who have attempted
     to assimilate with the white culture. 
Q:  What are some of the most important traditions do
      you hold fast to in your Lakota culture?
A:  These keep me sane:

     - The Pipe & it’s teachings.
     - The Vision quest - also known as “crying for a
      vision”.  Pronounced “Hanblehcheya” in Lakota.
        -The Sweatlodge - which cleanses and  purifies. 
      It's a physical and emotional baggage purging
      with sharing & fellowship is at its core. 
      The entire process is about 6 hours in total, and is 
      a community effort from set-up to take down.  
      The rules for it are not the same everywhere, but
      they are typically more rigid within tribes. 

Q:  Let’s step away from fiction to discuss the real life 
      happenings of a tribe, what have been the recent
      changes in your tribe/community? 
A:  What hasn’t changed is more important. Resources
      have not been fully utilized to improve the
      community. Old mentalities continue to prevail so
      that nothing ever really changes. 
Q:  How can someone learn more about the Lakota
     Sioux/ Rosebud reservation in their quest for
     accurate research?
A:  Online reference material, but if you’re serious
     about the effort, learning the language of a culture
     really helps you to learn about the culture itself.

  Thank you to Gary for this insightful discussion.  If you wish to learn more about Gary’s tipi business, check him out at the links below.  Gary is also available for educational presentations at schools and other sites. 


  1. Great post! I write western historical romance but haven't yet had a Native American character (would be Paiute in my setting) exactly because of the accuaracy issue. The suggestion of studying the language is an excellent one. Thanks!

  2. This was a really useful and interesting post. Thank you!

  3. Thanks Jacquie-you should write one in! I'm definitely going to use them in the future!
    I'm so glad you stopped by Virna & found the information helpful! I honestly won't be able to watch "Dances With Wolves" anymore without thinking of this interview!


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