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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26 Responses to Writing Outside One’s Ethnicity

  1. Judith Grout February 5, 2017 at 12:27 am #

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

    • carmenpeone February 5, 2017 at 1:14 am #

      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. Anne Schroeder January 30, 2017 at 4:31 pm #

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

    • carmenpeone January 30, 2017 at 5:11 pm #

      Well said, Anne! I love your sentiment.

  3. Kathy Moss January 30, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    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.

    • carmenpeone January 30, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

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

  4. Paty Jager January 29, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

    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!

    • carmenpeone January 29, 2017 at 10:02 pm #

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

  5. Jane Isenberg January 29, 2017 at 6:05 pm #

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

    • carmenpeone January 29, 2017 at 10:01 pm #

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

  6. Karen Casey Fitzjerrell January 29, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    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!!!

    • carmenpeone January 29, 2017 at 10:01 pm #

      Thank you, Karen. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  7. Arletta Dawdy January 29, 2017 at 1:23 am #

    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

    • carmenpeone January 29, 2017 at 3:55 am #

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

  8. Dayna January 29, 2017 at 12:02 am #

    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.

    • carmenpeone January 29, 2017 at 3:53 am #

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

  9. Jean Sutton January 28, 2017 at 12:43 am #

    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.

    • carmenpeone January 28, 2017 at 12:57 am #

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

  10. C.M. Mayo January 27, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

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

    • carmenpeone January 27, 2017 at 7:27 pm #

      Thank you, C.M. I agree.

  11. Mary E. Trimble January 24, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

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

    • carmenpeone January 24, 2017 at 7:03 pm #

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

  12. Gaby G Pratt January 23, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

    What a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing.

    • carmenpeone January 23, 2017 at 9:12 pm #

      Thank you, Gaby.

  13. Roni McFadden January 23, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

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

    • carmenpeone January 23, 2017 at 9:11 pm #

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

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