Patricia Grady Cox
February 5, 2018
I wanted to have a character in my novel who told the story of the Navajo Long Walk from a native perspective. But how? I am not Native American. I had never done more than exchange a few words with Native Americans. I’d spent a lot of time at Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, but that hardly authorized me to represent their history and culture. I was afraid of being seen as presumptuous at best, a cultural (mis)appropriator at worst.
Thus was born Juan Rubén Tellez de Santiago, a main character in my novel Chasm Creek. Rubén is Navajo, but raiding Mexicans stole him at a young age, took him to Mexico, and sold him to a Spanish family. Indoctrinated into the Roman Catholic faith by this family, he embraced their religion, and came to be treated as a member of the family. They allowed him an education, but they also told him lies about his heritage that he believed. So, he enters the story as an elderly man, and serves well as a Navajo character who wasn’t culturally Diné. Rubén allowed me to share the story of The Long Walk through his eyes as he himself learns of it (and struggles with the knowledge).
For those not familiar, The Long Walk began when Kit Carson, under the command of Major General James H. Carleton, Commander for the New Mexico Military Department, “defeated” the Navajos in the winter of 1863/1864. The army rounded up thousands and marched them 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory (Bosque Redondo). There they were incarcerated, mistreated, and starved for five years before signing a treaty in 1868 which allowed them to return to a much-diminished homeland. I felt it was a story as compelling as the more well-known Cherokee Trail of Tears, and I felt compelled to share it. The backstory of another main character, Morgan Braddock, also touches on this period of Diné history.
My question to readers: What are your thoughts on authors presenting characters of a different culture/race/ethnicity/etc.?
My question to writers: Have you faced this issue in your work, and how did you address it?
Please visit my webpage – here.
For more information on the Navajo Long Walk, here is a link to the Bosque Redondo Memorial. https://www.bosqueredondomemorial.com/
Thought provoking post. I struggle with this. I think all of us should do thorough research and then look for the human emotions we all have in common to flesh out the character. Some of this will be thorough research into first hand accounts and then lots of imagination. You did this well with Ruben Santiago. I loved how his backstory added to my knowledge of history and makes him a full bodied
person in my mind. And remember that there are so many individual stories to tell. No one story embodies the whole of a culture or group. -Betty McCreary, Austin, Texas
First and foremost, I try to earn the trust of someone whose story it is to tell, earn their trust enough to ask them to help me tell it, ask them what sources I should use, who I should meet, where I should go. I never hope I’ve done “well enough.”
Thank you so much for your comment. Your approach is an excellent one. And you’re absolutely right – “well enough” is never really enough. We all need to strive to present the story and the character’s truth to the very best of our ability.
Thank you so much, Betty. If Ruben became a full-bodied character to you and you also were exposed to a part of history you may not have known before, then I did my job. Thank you for saying I did it well. And, yes, that’s an excellent point, Even with cultures, groups, ethnicities, each individual story is its own.
[…] with photographs that illustrate some aspect of whatever novel I’m trying to promote. See “My Story to Tell?” as an example of sneaking in some real history while talking about character […]