Writing Outside One’s Ethnicity

IMG_2558I was born white.

It’s my heritage.

Yet I write main characters from another ethnicity––Native America.

My grandmother always told us we were part Indian, but the proof never came. It still hasn’t and probably never will. I never intended to write let alone write books that have the protagonist from a different heritage. I was trained in the abnormal psychology field and had a life goal to touch the lives of children.

That all changed when I moved to a reservation in 1988 with my husband.

I learned what makes life important to another culture. I learned to put city life behind me and live in a small community that depended on one another for their needs. A place where elders depended on the help of others for food and firewood. A place where the community lays down differences and rallies together as one in times of desperation and loss. A place where young mothers depend on relatives to help care for their children.

At first, this small town life felt like I was merely camping as we lived a short walk to a lake and our home was surrounded by trees. It was quiet. Peaceful. After a few years it became my community. Trust built bridges. Friendships bloomed with spring flowers. I learned their ways: customs, language, family dynamics.

It was after living in this small reservation town I began to put what I’d learned to pen and paper, writing non-fiction articles for a local paper, blogs, and booklets dealing with education, history, and traditions.

A story tugged at my heart and it wouldn’t leave me along. I saw a young girl in traditional attire, eating traditional foods and living in a traditional 6-foot tule-pit dwelling. I smelled the smoke from the morning larch fires wafts from the small opening in the top of the tipi.

I felt the bark between my fingers, the same bark the Native girl used to make baskets. I could see the men fishing at the Kettle Falls. Heard their stories and legends. Heard sticks crunch under deer’s hooves and saw if only in my mind a young man fit an arrow to his yew wood bow and pull back. I smelled the roasting venison and tasted its flavor as the juice ran down my throat.

I knew I had to tell the story brewing in my heart. The tug turned into a yank and before I knew it characters were cast and the beginning of a story was on the screen of my computer.

I had to think about how they used to talk––in their own tongue. It was different than the English language. I searched my notes from language lessons with Tima Mugs. I read books from Native authors from the Colville tribe. The tribe I am connected to from my husband’s blood and name and from our children and now grandchildren.

That connection grew with every word I read, every elder I interviewed, from every bead used for jewelry, every bark strip to weave baskets, every stitch in making moccasins and jingle dresses, from every drum beat during pow-wows.

That beat continues to thump with every key stroke I make while creating stories from another era and people.

I’ve learned these people are just like everyone else. That Hollywood stereotyping has done them a huge disservice. Not every Indian is a drunk, druggy, or gang wannabe. I’ve learned in the course of three decades that these people love, care, work hard, and fight to be seen as their Creator sees them: honest, truthful, loving, authentic.

It has been an honor and blessing forming a relationship with people of such qualities.

I believe the greatest gift we have when writing about another ethnicity is the relationships we form when making connections with those we write about.

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  1. Such a refreshing look at Native Americans. And you took the time to learn and grow. That story tugging at you is a blessing.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Judith. I could have chose to live on the outside of the reservation, so to speak, or in it. With the people. I chose with them.

  2. I share your feelings. Sometimes our “other” guides us to understanding. Then we are better people.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Well said, Anne! I love your sentiment.

  3. Beautiful Carmen, your words bring awareness and reality. When your dreams face adversity, you had the strength to put it on paper for us to read. Thank you.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Kathy. My goal is to bring awareness to culture and tradition.

  4. It is your open heart to all things that makes you a wonderful writer who brings others into the world you live and know. Great post!

    1. carmenpeone says:

      I appreciate that, Paty. Thank you! It is always a blessing when we are together for signings and sharings.

  5. So interesting and so beautifully written. How lucky the Coleville are to have you and you to have found them!

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Jane. I feel blessed to be a part of this community.

  6. Beautifully said, Carmen! I might add to your “greatest gift as a writer” is the fact that we eventually expand our own capacity to be authentic, loving, caring and honest. Thanks!!!

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Karen. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  7. Carmen…Your gifts are many with there’s poetic sensitivity to your relationships and surroundings. This tender piece warrants repetition and endorsement including the WWW blog. I missed your conference presentation a couple of years ago and hope to catch up in the future. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Arletta

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Arletta, I appreciate your kind words. Hopefully in the future we can just sit and chat. Bless you.

  8. I truly love how you are able to share the beautiful traditions and culture in your writing. You surely have a respect and love for these families.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Dayna. I really do love this community.

  9. Jean Sutton says:

    Well said, Carmen. I too, have found great friendships on the Colville Reservation as a nurse at Mt Carmel Hospital in Colville and through my mother Florence when she worked for a doctor in Colville who treated many natives.

    These friendships will last forever.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Yes. I agree. The friendships will last a lifetime.

  10. Hola dear Carmen, Well said! The best writing comes from the clearest seeing, and the clearest seeing is from the heart.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, C.M. I agree.

  11. This is an interesting, well written piece, Carmen. Thanks for sharing your life’s goals. They are an inspiration.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Mary. I enjoy sharing my family’s legacy.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Gaby.

  12. Carmen this is beautiful! Your words as always paint a beautiful picture of love and humanity!

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Roni. I’m glad you enjoyed it.