Represent Native Peoples Accurately in Your Fiction with Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Part 2

Represent Native Peoples Accurately in Your Fiction with Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Part 2

Quote from Represent Native Peoples Accurately in Your Fiction with Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Part 2

In “Represent Native Peoples Accurately in Your Fiction with Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, Part 2” host Beth Barany, creativity coach, and science fiction and fantasy novelist chats with author, writing instructor, and tribal member Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer where they continue their discussion about how to accurately represent Native Peoples and share the reasons why you shouldn’t shy away from representing them in your stories, plus ways you can research Native Peoples.


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Fiction authors who want to write about Native Americans face a challenging minefield riddled with dos and don’ts, and no clear answers. That is why author and writing instructor Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer created the “Fiction Writing: American Indians” digital course.

As a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she has written and published 15 historical fiction books with Native main characters, and over 275 non-fiction articles on Native artists and organizations with representatives from dozens of North American tribes. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian honored her as a literary artist through their Artist Leadership Program for her work in preserving Choctaw Trail of Tears stories, and she is a First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership alumni.

Through her in-depth course, authors are equipped to write authentic stories that honor First American history and culture. Discover more at

Free report “5 Stereotypes to Avoid When Writing about Native Americans”




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Welcome back to my conversation with Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer. If you haven’t yet, please go back and listen to part one. So you’ll be all caught up. And then join us here for part two, while I continue my conversation with Sarah.

Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer is a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. And she has written and published 15 historical fiction books with Native main characters and has over 275 nonfiction articles on Native artists and organizations with representatives from dozens of North American tribes. You can learn more about her in the show notes.

Please join us for part two of our conversation where we talk about accurate representation of native people in our science fiction and fantasy stories.


So one of the questions that, you have posed for me to pose to you is– I’m just gonna read it as you stated it, because it offers some things that I’m not super familiar with, but maybe you can explain.

So you shared with me: “In the face of potential controversy, like what came out of the movie Pan where they cast a white woman to play Tiger Lilly. And that’s not the first time that kind of thing has happened, why should authors try to include native cultures in their stories?

I didn’t see Pan, so I don’t know this particular context.


Mm-hmm. Right. We are just in such a vicious cycle it seems like in our society. With Pan and I have not watched the full movie. I wasn’t aware of it until a fellow author, sci-fi author, fantasy author, friend of mine, Molly Reader, who is into that genre, and actually, she hadn’t seen it either, but she had been following the controversy and she’s like, Hey, let’s talk about this.

And so I went and she showed me some movie clips and I was just, Oh my. It was very surprising. It was made in 2015. And the actress, I feel bad for her because she received a lot of personal backlash. And she said she, she really didn’t wanna play that role. It’s interesting in the newest Peter Pan movie, and I’m trying to think of what they’ve titled that, but they have actually cast a native woman in the role of Tiger Lily.

So they’re coming back around once again. So we went from the animated Disney film with a very highly stereotypical and what today would be considered offensive version of Tiger Lily and the native people that were portrayed in that to this whole opposite swing around with doing Pan, and they cast a white woman in that role to try not to be offensive.

That’s why they made that choice. But in doing so, they reverted back to the old Hollywood practices of casting non-native people or white people in the role of natives.

We’re swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other.

I like to put it in a way that– we were in one ditch and we’ve jumped the road and landed in the other ditch, but we’re still in a ditch.

Let’s get on the road of telling balanced, accurate, respectful stories in that, if you’re a non-native author, it doesn’t mean you can’t write about native people, and it doesn’t mean that you should shy away from it. It is a controversial subject though, and I think a lot of authors are aware of that, certainly a lot of the ones that I’ve spoken to.

The sad thing that I find is there’s a lot of fear. Something that I spoke with Jane Friedman recently. I was a guest on her blog, which was fantastic. She is phenomenal. And so I did a post on there. And it received a whole variety of comments. And she was in there on her LinkedIn page. And she told me it’s like, we don’t need fear.

Fear doesn’t help anyone.

We need to have these conversations and tell all perspectives of it and not be jerking to one side or the other and having knee-jerk reactions.

So, you have those that are very adamant that people who not of that culture shouldn’t write about a culture. And then you have the other extreme of authors like, you can write anything you darn well please, that kind of thing cuz we’re authors and we should be able to write whatever we want.

And I believe there’s a balance to that. There’s a balance to being able to do both of those because as authors, and this is going to the question of why you shouldn’t shy away from including native people, even though there’s controversy around it, and you may face that as an author. If you don’t include other cultures, you’re writing very stripped down bare.

If I was only writing about white Choctaw, mixed-blood woman living in a country town, and that’s all I could write about, it would just be a very dull story. We’re just not taking our responsibility as writers to educate other people and to just tell ’em a great entertaining story that has this diverse, vibrant cast of characters.

I’m not saying you always have to have a diverse cast of characters. But we don’t need to shy away from it just because there’s a controversy. The flip side to that is being careful not to have token characters. So not having that native character in there in a token role, just so you have a diverse cast.

That’s what we saw a few years ago. And now we’re to the other extreme of “don’t write about us at all.”

So, a fellow native author that I heard about, I don’t have a direct quote from her, but it was told to me by another author who heard her say, “Please write about us. You’re in our stories. we wanna be in your stories but in a well-done way.”

So we don’t want to have stories 10 years from now that don’t have native people. That’s why I encourage authors to not shy away from that despite the controversy and fear surrounding the subject.


Yeah, very good point. What are some of the key things to keep in mind specifically, especially for those of us who are inventing worlds, whether they’re fantastical, fantasy inspired or science fiction inspired? And I’m doing both.

What are some key components to think of? Like speaking of character development? Speaking of ways to represent culture that feel wholesome and not a caricature. Yeah. Can you speak to some very specific tactical things that novelists can do?


I’ll go ahead and bring up a couple more examples.

So going back to Pan, and you could put in that on YouTube and catch clips of Pan and Tiger Lily.

One of the things that I saw with the tribe that she’s from is they created this giant hodgepodge of multiple cultures. It looked like there was some Asian culture in there, Native. There’s this African. So it’s almost like we’re going to blend it so much that no one will be able to say they were stereotyping this culture. They were drawing from this culture.

Visually what I was seeing, it created this vision of chaos. And it was this chaotic, conflicting tribe that they were trying to do. So they were trying to be so careful with it, it just came out to be a mess.

And so I would encourage authors in world-building, you wanna think about, like how they dressed.

Just for quick reference, in contemporary terms, we have powwows, which anyone is welcome to attend. There’s some protocols that you follow. It’s a great place to go and see native cultures and regalia up close. That’s just one thing– is never call it costume. It is regalia or traditional dress.

So thinking about that, thinking about where the people are from.

Are they agrarian?

So a lot of people think of teepees and buffalo. The Choctaw, we were gatherers, we were farmers, and so we were an agrarian society.

And often that’s reflected in the clothing that the different tribes wear.

So thinking about in your fantasy world of creating it as a whole where it’s all in harmony and working together rather than, like I said, what was in Pan, where it’s just this disjointed, there’s no connections, there’s no rhyme or reason. It’s just chaos.

So thinking about the type of society– were they near the ocean?

You talked about California tribes. And in Washington State, I’ve interviewed a lot of native artists of that way. And the sea and the ocean, that’s a huge part of their culture. It’s a part of their art. It’s a part of their dress. It’s a part of who they are.

And so thinking about geographically– You’re creating this fantasy world. What can you draw from to create this harmonious world that they’re living in?

That’s a little bit on the big picture side.

I could say about languages too. I’ll point out the Mandalorian. That was another one that we assessed that I haven’t seen.

There was an episode set in this old west town, this wild west town, and you had the Marshal and you had this conflict between the people groups– the townspeople and what were representative basically like the indigenous groups. So the classic setup like that.




I think they did a lot of things really well from the clips that I saw. What threw me off just because language and language preservation’s been such a big part of the people that I know and talk to is they use a lot of sign language, they quote indigenous people, the warriors, which was fine.

We did use a lot of sign languages. It’s been overdone. So again, if you’re gonna use that, find a fresh way to do it. But they also incorporated this grunting almost as part of their language and mixed in there. That just threw me off because indigenous languages are so beautiful, and our culture’s so interwoven in those. And just having that grunting, almost caveman-like indistinction deal. So that was the only thing that I really faulted from the clips that I saw.

So just being cautious again about stereotypes and things that seem perfectly normal because it’s what we grew up seeing on movies and TV shows and cartoons and just really questioning every aspect of that.

The more you do your research and do things like hopefully go to native events or watch ’em on YouTube, powwows, and things like that, those things will start standing out.


That’s really great. I love what you’re saying both about really grounding whatever culture you’re being inspired by in the earth, in whatever background those peoples are coming from.

In my young adult adventure fantasy, I have in the third book, my character goes out into this area that’s basically desert.

And I based the culture on the Berber culture, which I had been connected to, and knew people and lived with people and went there. And so I felt okay with using words from that culture and using some things from that culture, but then adding in some other things.

And making them a desert people and really thinking through– well, if you’re a desert person, these are the things you know how to do. This is how you treat your animals. This is how you forage. This is how you set up camp.

So that’s just one example


— Yeah.


To really make sure it’s rooted, and that for a writer that requires us to do some backstory and thinking through, and that it’s not just this is what they wear just because, but no, that’s because of the materials and their environment and the history and all of that.

Yeah, I love that. And language. I love that too. I spent a lot of time as a novelist inventing sayings and words to try and to create a three-dimensionality. Cuz just like in our own cultures, we have a lot of language that comes from before.

Words don’t just — Well, sometimes they come out of the way we mishear or mispronounce, but they come from somewhere, usually from something– from a profession or from something that has gone before.

I love that level of thoughtfulness. That’s really great. And for people to do their research.

So you have a class that people can take.

Can you tell us a little bit more how your course, a digital course called Fiction Writing American Indians, can help science fiction and fantasy authors and all novelists, because it is geared towards fiction writing, right?

How it can help them tell better and more authentic stories?


I just had a follow-up about your stories that you’ve done and the work that you’ve done on ’em.


Yeah. Do you wanna go ahead and address that?


Yeah. So I do wanna follow up on you, Beth, and the stories that that you’re writing and that you’re sharing about.

Everyone listening, I haven’t read any of Beth’s books yet, but just from what I’m hearing, her heart and her research is she’s really doing it right.

And I just wanna tell you, Beth, that I appreciate that. You’re one of the authors that I’ve met, similar to authors that I’ve met, who just have genuine hearts to get it right in the best way they can. Not because they’re trying to check boxes or police society or something, but because you genuinely want to tell, one, the the best story that you can entertaining, entertain your readers and respect them, and then respecting the cultures that you’re writing about.

So I just wanna give you a Yakoke Again, thank you for doing that.


Oh, Thank you.


I love hearing the amount of work you put into your books.


Oh, thank you so much. And just for a little bit of context, I grew up in a household that celebrated other cultures in terms of music and food, and stories. My mom was handed a lot of native traditions from her grandmother. And my mother also lived in Mexico as a child. And then my father loved history and had studied Italian Reformation Renaissance history, and which is so interesting, and loved telling stories. And both of them were avid readers and storytellers.

And then I myself have lived abroad three times — in Quebec once and in Paris twice. And I’ve actually, I’ve been to the Middle East multiple times and North Africa.

I’m a citizen of the world and I feel like we’re all part of the human family. And we all have such beautiful, interesting, challenging sometimes traditions.


I was gonna say that too, when people talk about you can only write your own culture, you have so many options to choose from. You don’t even have to go outside of your culture. You have so many wonderful things in your heritage. So I just thought that was a neat little tidbit.

Of course, we can write about all those different aspects, but you’re bringing all of that to your writing and to how you’re teaching authors. I just think that’s wonderful.


And it’s fascinating to talk to writers about their ancestry and help them see the diversity that exists already in their own families.

I’m deeply inspired by the past and then of course about where we could go as a humanity.

Thanks for listening everyone.

That’s it for part two of my conversation with Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer. Stay tuned for part three coming next week. See you then.

Thanks for Playing!

Thank you so much, everyone, for listening to my podcast. Your interest and feedback is so inspiring to me and helps me know that I’m helping you in some small way.

So write long and prosper.

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Beth Barany teaches science fiction and fantasy novelists how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, consultant, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.”

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