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Native American Tropes to Avoid

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by johnsonjoshuak, Feb 22, 2016.

  1. johnsonjoshuak

    johnsonjoshuak Troubadour

    I've decided to create a culture within my world based on Native American/Indigenous Tribes (I can't remember what's PC right now) and have one of my main character's parents be a member of this culture.

    What I'm looking for are tropes to avoid in writing this culture.

    I've got the basics (alcoholics, pipe smoking savages, broken language) but I want to get pretty deep with this culture as its a major part of my MC.
  2. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    Don't stick tepees in places they don't belong. In other words, non-Plains environs. And many of the Plains tribes built earthen lodges they wintered in.

    TV Tropes is a decent source for this matter.
  3. johnsonjoshuak

    johnsonjoshuak Troubadour

    I didn't even think of TV Tropes, thanks
  4. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

    Research the Native American tribes that lived in a region similar to the one where your fictional culture resides. That way not only will you know what to avoid, but you will also know what to include.
  5. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    For me, the most important thing when incorporating a real-world cultural feel to a fantasy project, is to remember to portray the culture in a positive light. So absolutely take the things you like about the culture, but then don't rely on a more "European" way of communicating it? I don't know whether i'm saying that right. I'll try to clarify.

    A while ago, we had a fellow scribe who made an African-feeling culture, but he gave them some distinctly European traits, and that angered a few readers, because they felt he was saying the people weren't good enough without making them more European. It seems a silly perspective in a way, because he was just trying to make something unique, but I suppose the argument had merit, despite the unintentional message. And I mean no insult to people who feel either way about that particular issue, I'm only using it as an example of what I'm trying to convey. If you took that culture, say, based on Native American people that we as readers will recognize, but then you give them a religion that feels an awful lot like Christianity, it may send an unintended message that they are a great culture, but would have been better if they were more "like this" or whatever.

    Oh man, please understand what I'm saying, because I'm trying to be tactful, but it's a tough thing to talk about without causing offense.

    If you're using a recognizable culture, consider the ramifications of changing things, and I know that's hard to do, because our very craft is in taking something real and twisting it into something creative and unique. But when you change people's culture and heritage (and let's be serious for a moment, some cultures have a history of abuse by other people and attempts in the past to "Americanize" or "Europeanize" their members has been cruel and horrific in many ways), you can send a message reaffirming the hurt caused in the past.

    There are probably tons of resources where you could learn about different native people in the Americas (I used to live in New Mexico and we had a bunch of local resources, like the cultural heritage museum, but I'm not sure where to find them on the internet), and research would probably help you to find some really authentic ways to portray your fantasy culture with a respectful nod to their inspired real-world cultures.

    I think it's great to set out trying not to be negative and cause offense, as I'm very concerned with the same things, but also consider how you can use your fantasy culture to bring to light some of the amazing things of your subject culture. Will you delve deep into the traditions of the subject culture? Will you combine different qualities from distinct real-world peoples to create a hybrid sort of fantasy culture? Will you use a few surface details but change the whole identity of the culture, by creating a lot from your own mind and imagination? How might that affect actual members of that real-world culture? Are they included in your target audience?

    I don't want to advocate overthinking this, but it's a ground I tread very carefully, as I've seen writers get raked over the coals for innocent choices that bite them in the ass later, when critiques come back very negative.

    But in the end, we all have to make choices that are right for us and the work. In my current novel, I have a woman who was raised by a witch. I have to use that word, not because it's one I love or anything, and I understand how it's both a positive word for people who identify themselves with it, and a negative one to people who think it's demeaning or scary, or inappropriate for any number of reasons. But seriously, I had to pick something, and it's a word that I think most readers will accept as appropriate for the kind of woman the subject was--an earthy lady who dealt with herbs and spirits and who used her magic to astral project and create charms. What else would you call her? I could make up a word, but then that would subject my work to unnecessary explanations over something that's a TINY point of the book. All I need the reader to understand is that my MC has the ability to see auras, she mixes potions and poisons, and she thinks she can astral project, and she attributes it all to the woman who raised her and taught her the earthy sort of magic of her culture. But I'm prepared to defend my word choice to any future Wiccan or Christian reader who might take offense. I just have to hope that people can get over my not having a perfect word for what I'm doing, because I reality, I have to foremost provide a story in the English language that readers will understand, and my big job is to not overcomplicate things by dragging in unnecessary explanation.

    I apologize for the long post that's slightly off-topic, but I hope I've given you something to consider in any case. Just try to honor the cultures you're using to draw inspiration from, and consider carefully which details you'll change to suit your needs, and what message you might be sending in the changing. :)

    Best wishes!

    P.S. If I caused any offense to anyone, I apologize in advance. I'm trying to be more aware and sensitive, but I sometimes have a no-nonsense way of talking about things that I understand can be sore subjects for other folks. I believe open discussion is the best way to share and educate everyone, and I'm doing my best to always be sensitive to marginalized populations.
    Russ likes this.
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    So, I actually just did this like two weeks ago, for no practical reason whatsoever. Somebody on Facebook recommended an RPG called Ehdrigor, which was designed to reflect native or indigenous populations, and I took notes developing my own thing while I looked through it. When I was in High School I ran a D&D game set in a Native American setting (filled with all the cliches), and I wanted to see what doing it right would have looked like.

    Here's what I've got for you:

    - Mentally cut or ignore everything else in your world while you think about this. I know it's more of a mind game than an actual tip, but this is NUMBER ONE. If you want to build them correctly, you want to see the world from their perspective. You need to shake this idea that you're adding indigenous people to a medieval fantasy. See it the other way around - first you make an indigenous population, and then you add the medieval fantasy. See it from the inside, from their perspective.

    - It's okay to simplify the real world a little, for the purposes of creating a coherent and rich fantasy element for your people. There are (at least) four big cultural regions in Native America. North American tribes, Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. If you're looking at the North American tribes (modern day U.S. and Canada), you're going to find a lot of similarities between the legends and beliefs of the people involved. It's fine to merge the beliefs of different tribes while you paint your fantasy picture, to figure out the Magical Elements.

    - But this is important, after you have your Magic System, you still need to diversify the people you're creating, and be real about it. You can give everyone the same lightning bird god, but as somebody said, don't give them all tepees. Different terrains, different cultures, different governments - think about how different the seven lords of Westeros are, or the difference between Gondor and Rohan. You want to mimic that degree of realistic, internal diversity - at least in proportion with the rest of your setting. And then consider, just like Winterfell has ties to the old gods of the North, some Native American tribes had a lot that drew from Aztec mythology - Inca or Mayan or another magic system in your setting would work just as well.

    - Be careful with things like dreamcatchers, tepees, peyote, and the like. In the real world these are all very regional. Even if you want to involve some of these things in the region's magic system, I would suggest being a little careful about using them directly or making them universal. But for instance, sleeping alone in a tepee in the wild plains, taking a dose of peyote, and building a carefully made dreamcatcher could represent three different ways of accessing the same magic across the different tribes. But if you want to make these kinds of things universal, maybe you can, but what you don't want to do is accidentally push them so far that you make your native populations too uniform. If the magic is all you care about within your story - if the peyote and dreamcatcher are all you see in the story - then break them up. If the magic is a secondary backdrop, then it's okay if the accents are all the same behind the diverse cultures and governments.

    - No culture is uniformly positive. "Noble Savage" is just as much a stereotype as anything else.
  7. scribbler

    scribbler Dreamer

    To diversify your indigenous race you could look at a variety of different people, such as Aborigines, Inuit, Aztec, etc... By blending beliefs and cultural attitudes you would create something new that people wouldn't identify with one group or another.
  8. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    This, IMHO is one of the big things to remember. You can get all the culturally significant details right and avoid all the native stereotypes, but still mess things up by replacing those things with other stereotypes and bad character portrayals.

    All cultures have good people, bad people, and those in between. They'll have people who speak eloquently, people who speak simply, people who speak with accents, and those who don't. They'll have smart people, dumb people, and average intelligence people.

    They'll have beautiful people and ugly people, what ever that means to individual cultures and individuals themselves.

    With that said, if you want to create a grounded culture and portrayal of that culture, make sure the people are characters not caricatures. Make sure that the statement "All the people of culture X are Y" does not apply.
  9. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

    Ok this is going to be abrasive, I don't care.

    broken language? I've never heard it described as broken, dying maybe, never broken. They are fully functional languages that are being lost but that's about it, which is a shame really.

    First. If your asking this question because you want to be politically correct in your portrayal, simply don't use native Americans as a basis for this culture. It's called cultural appropriation, and basically anything about another culture is off limits to anyone not a part of that culture. So unless your Native american, you cannot write about or use anything pertaining to native American culture. Come on this is standard SJW handbook stuff.

    Second. Screw SJW and being PC, it's your book, write whatever the hell you want, how you want. You want a indigenous people who have a problem with alcohol, due to the fact that for the past 2000 years they have never had alcohol and thus it's never been a part of their culture, write it.... You want a nomadic culture that lives in tepees go for it but.....

    Grr... This is why I have a problem with PC 'culture.' I'm sorry you spent an equal amount of time apologizing for some unnoticeable offense. I stopped reading when you started apologizing, which sucks because you usually have good points to make. I prefer the no-nonsense, it doesn't follow the racist dogma and assume we are eternal victims in need of the PC savior police to protect us, so......I'll start where I stopped reading. Basically around the point where you say consider the ramifications of changing things. The way I see it, if these changes have such ramifications that the reader can tell the author simply transplanted their culture then the author dropped the so called ball. Culture is more than tepees, language, and smoking tobacco. Culture is the value system that defines a group of people. Smoking the 'peace pipe' is a symbol of the/a native american culture that values peace, dialogue, and sitting down with enemies to create it, it also presupposes the need to make war. Modern day native americans don't live in tepees, or do a lot of the other superficial/stereotypical stuff that we see as Native american, yet they are still native american in culture. What makes a culture is more than skin deep.

    And I'll finish where you started... I disagree with only showing them in a positive light. They may be a culture but said culture is composed of people who are flawed like every other human being on the planet, they make mistakes individually and as culture, they have problems individually and as a culture just like every other culture on the planet. Showing only the positive about a culture is just as stereotypical and insulting as portraying only the negative.

    So far I think Devors is mostly spot on.

    Don't base your culture off of some native american culture. Create a culture based off what they value, how do they show what it is they value, how do those values creep into everyday life? I'm not saying you cannot cheat a little and take what is already present in RL, but to remember that tepees, bows and arrows, tobacco, war parties, etc. are all symbols and like all symbols are easily changed.

    This is how I go about creating a culture. First I have a proto-culture and I choose 3 values, 3 rituals ( anything that is repetitive to reinforce a value, such as inviting guests into a house shows their value of hospitality), 3 symbols, and location. Then I move to the next culture that comes after at a later point in time, and change one value, ritual, and symbol, and add one of each and change location if the culture has moved or spread(sometimes I add two or even three depending on if there were outside cultural influences) then continue until I reach the culture in the time period I want. Then based off this cultures values, rituals, and symbols I start to go in depth with everything else, food, government, organization, housing, language, traditions, religion( which is a culture in itself). I try to have everything else revolve around the culture core. This is where I cheat and take things from other cultures. I have a tribal nomadic culture that uses a type of half buried yurt yet there is no other similarities to any central Asian culture. Problem with this method is it takes a lot of time but I think it's worth the effort.
    Brithel, Ban, Demesnedenoir and 2 others like this.
  10. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    He means what TV Tropes would call Tonto Talk - TV Tropes
    Trick and Demesnedenoir like this.
  11. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    A thanks beyond the thank button. And seriously, if I worried about PC my WIP would never get written... If it gets published I might get tracked down by atheists and religious people alike, plus a few more groups, and hanged while I scream "It's a fantasy world for crying out loud!"

    Actually, I look forward to the possibility of people trying to judge me by my writing, could be fascinating.
  12. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    For whatever reason, what popped into my head was the contrast between the longhouses, totem poles, and monster canoes of the pacific NW tribes and the cliff cities and desert agriculture of the SW Indians.

    Yet despite this, both sets of tribes featured a 'trickster' deity - 'Raven' in the NW, 'Coyote' in the SW.

    I would also point out these groups had some serious hostility issues: building a new longhouse in the NW tribes involved a human sacrifice. Early explorers had a really severe dislike for those tribes in what is now the Seattle/Portland area; and the ones in what is now coastal BC and SE Alaska were so dang tough they came within a hair of wiping out the Russians. Where I'm at, the Athabaskans, Eskimos, and Aleuts all sort of collided and fought what amounted to mini-genocidal wars with each other.
  13. johnsonjoshuak

    johnsonjoshuak Troubadour


    Thanks for the suggestions. I was originally going to use the Iroquois Confederation as the basis for this people group, but based on their location within my world, I'm considering more Plains tribes (Cherokee etc) but I definitely have a lot of research to do on them before I start building this people group.

    Maybe my concern for PC and all that is because I follow too many publishing people on twitter and it's a constant flow of SJW and PC nonsense and I've had that on the mind.

    Basically this indigenous group is going to have a similar history to the Native American tribes of the Americas. The main people group of my story migrated from the other side of the continent and displaced them through force and now they're a downtrodden minority (the society in my story is very heavily class-based and these people will basically be on the bottom of the scale). My main character is going to be 1/2 indigenous and half "migrant" and a commoner to boot so she'll have a lot of discrimination against her but she succeeds anyway.

    I think I'm going to research tribes who didn't use teepee, just because I definitely want to avoid that. I really like the long houses of the northeastern tribes but they might not fit into my story.
  14. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Troubadour

    I think the important thing is to do a lot of research and really try to understand Native American cultures. I don't think its insulting to point out issues or negatives things - no culture is perfect - what's insulting is to make assumptions about a culture without knowing much about it. The only way I think to really avoid this is to do research.

    That aside I will point out one of my pet peeves when it comes to the portrayal of Native Americans, and indeed a great many cultures - it is the way the way authors have them speak. I've noticed that some authors have characters who are there for no reason other than to spout 'cool' proverbs, which wouldn't be that bad if everyone else didn't speak in a relatively normally way.

    Dialect is something a lot of people, understandably have difficulty with, but if its done well it can really add flavor to the story. I would encourage you to listen to how Native Americans actually speak and keep that in mind when you write.
  15. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

    The whole "noble savage" thing, where all native Americans are paragons of wisdom and virtue and have reached spiritual enlightenment. Tribes spent time fighting each other, capturing other tribal members for slaves, etc. They are people like anyone else, with flaws and strengths.
  16. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

    Exactly. Putting any culture on a pedestal leaves a lot out. There's a certain piece of...humanity, I guess you could say, that gets lost when that happens.
  17. NerdyCavegirl

    NerdyCavegirl Sage

    I say that if it's a fictional culture, you shouldn't be so concerned about portraying a real culture right, because basing a fictional culture that much on a real one kinda defeats the point of it being fictional. If it's a fantasy world, there would be fantasy natives that evolved with the land, not perfectly not-cliche Native Americans. They may share certain values or resources, but the more unique your world is, the more unique its inhabitants should be. You wanna write Native Americans, go for it because they have a beautiful variety of culture, but just don't slap a new name on someone else's identity if you'd rather not offend them. More to the point of your question, my answer feels like common sense to me: Native Americans aren't savage, uncultured, unintelligent, or inferior because they aren't toxic technocentric Christmas/Easter Christians. Indigenous ways of life have been the standard for thousands of years all around the world and will outlast all our gadgets.
    TheKillerBs likes this.

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