17 May 2010

The Chief Silver Eagle Litmus Test for Writers

by Carrie Bailey

Nothing written about First Nation Peoples by white Americans will pass with my father’s approval.  Many of our current elders sympathized with the darker side of the American Indian Movement.  If a writer can accept some of us wouldn’t extend a peace pipe to anyone, then they can write believable First Nation characters fully prepared for the onslaught of disapproval.
The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test” aids savvy authors to create characters unlikely to trigger nausea in their readers.  Every quality detailed by the Mary Sue test relies on opinion and the writer must accept or reject the spirit of the critique offered on it’s own merit.  When employed correctly and with humor, the writer can avoid the type of character that causes readers to set down their manuscripts.
Here is my Native American version of the Mary Sue Litmus Test:

“The Chief Silver Eagle Litmus Test”

FIRST SECTION: POINTS ADDED (In small doses, none of the below characteristics are absolutely bad or result in a negative stereotype.  Even if your character/s display many of the characteristics in section one, characteristics from the second section will be subtracted from total and may redeem them).

Is your character a modern day FBI e.g. a Full Blooded Indian? (mark 2 points for every yes in this section)

If so, did you base the character on historical records of plains Indians between 1820-1880?

Is his/her use of English impaired by a poor mastery of grammar?
Does he/she give spiritual advice to your other characters?
Does he/she retain perfectly rigid posture at ALL times?
Does he/she claim lineage from an Indian princess?
Does he/she have a traditional name that follows the pattern “COLOR+REVERED ANIMAL” or “GERUND + REVERED ANIMAL?”
Does your character live on a reservation? (mark 1 point for every yes)
Does he/she work at a casino?
Is he/she an alcoholic, drug addict, or chain smoker?
Does he/she promote an environmentalist agenda?
Does he/she sell or make jewelry, art, or other crafts?
Does he/she love fry bread, salmon, corn, tamales, game meat, squash, or other traditional food?
Does he/she have diabetes?
Does he/she tell stories about animals that you wrote yourself?
Did he/she live in a boarding school where he could not speak his native language?
Does he/she play a traditional instrument i.e. the wooden flute?
Does he/she wear any traditional clothes?
Do you describe your character as having remarkably high cheekbones or long hair-especially in braids?
Does he/she use words from his/her language, but speaks English perfectly the rest of the time?
Did they have a full ride to college?
Do they recount with fondness their nights of playing basketball on the rez?
Are they researching their land rights?
Are you drawn to your character’s raw sexual energy?  (ignore this question if you’re writing a romance novel)
Are they between the ages of 15-45, but have no sexual/romantic conflict in a novel where all the other characters in their circle do? 
 Do they dress like a cowboy or listen to country music?
Are they Cherokee, Navaho, Sioux/Lakota, Chippewa, or from any other well-known nation?
 Do they smudge?
 Are they deeply and darkly tormented by being contrary?
 Would you describe them as lazy or disconcerned about the passage of time? (2 points)
Do you personally have a Native American ancestor that you know very little about, but no tribally affiliated friends?  (5 points if you’re White/4 points if you’re Latino/1 point if you’re Asian, Black, or Middle Eastern)
Have you only encountered Indians in Casinos or at Powwows or when you were buying traditional crafts? (1 point)
Did you borrow directly from a character on “Dances with Wolves” or “Smoke Signals” or “Thunderheart” or other 1990s blockbuster? (2 points)
Does your character live in absolute poverty and your compassion for them make you feel good about yourself?  (10 points)
On a standardized intelligence test would your character rate lower than your non-native characters? (10 points)
 Is your character absolutely trustworthy and honest? (2 point)
 Is your character a political activist for Indian rights? (1 point)
Do you have an Indian poster or piece of artwork or craft item in your house though you have no familial ties with the people who created it? (2 points)
Is your character is a mixed blood? (mark 1 point for each of the following)
Does your character walk in two worlds?
Does your character feel consumed by his/her sense of being an outcast, misunderstood, weird, or crazy?
Do the full-bloods all resent your character or envy their features?
 Is your character an urban Indian? (mark 1 point for each of the following)Is he/she currently attempting to find themselves?
 Is he/she spiritually lost?
 Do they attend AA or NA?

SECOND SECTION:  Is your character a full blood AND … (subtract 1 point for every answer in the following section)

 Obsesses over pop culture?
 Loves technology or excels in a technology related field?
 Has a position of authority or power unrelated to his/her ethnic identity?
 Practices a non-First Nation religion?
 Is an instructor of any sport other than hockey, football, baseball, basketball, soccer, or lacrosse?
 Has an accent because they lived outside North or South America or is currently an ex-pat?
 Has a stereotypical middle class suburban lifestyle?
 Has facial hair or light features common to Indians, but often attributed to mixture with Europeans?
 Was adopted and has no desire to reconnect with his/her tribe?
 Is very shallow or materialistic?
 Works in construction, logging, civil engineering or any occupation that aims to develop land or typically uses vast amounts of natural resources?
 Is your character a mixed blood AND … (subtract 5 points)
 Looks like a black American?
 Denies their Latino heritage?
 Denies the fact that they’re ¾ or more white?
 Is part middle-eastern, Jewish, or Asian?
 Is affiliated with a white supremacist group?
 Drives a new car?
 Vacations or studies abroad?
 Is a wine snob, coffee snob, tea snob, or any type of gourmet?
Is an urban Indian AND … (subract 1 point)

Does not rely on any social services?

Lives comfortably in an affluent neighborhood, but does not receive financial support from his/her tribe?

Speaks any native or non-native language fluently?

Did you base your character off of a close friend or relative who has lived on one or more reservations and when that friend reviewed your writing they …

Said “nice” and offered no other feedback? (0 points)

Offered one or more points of constructive criticism? (5 points)

Got excited enough to offer one or more hours of feedback, discuss their culture at length until you fell asleep, asked to promote your work, buy your work, or cried for happiness? (10 points)

Insulted you? (2 points) –trust me on this one

Teased you about it? (5 points)

Are you, the writer, tribally enrolled or have you lived more than two years on a reservation or reserve for non-work, non-social service related reasons?

Do you know why your character's Indian name would include a flying animal rather than a land animal? (1 point)

Is your character spiritually conflicted? (3 points)

Is your character gay/lesbian/transgendered? (2 points)

Is your character a dishonorably discharged military person? (1 point)

Are they more concerned about identifying with a high-school derived subculture such as a goth, jock, emo, drama kid, preppy, punk, skater, geek, etc.? (2 points)

Are they quick witted, humorous, or irreverent?  (3 points)

Could you replace them in your novel with a character of any other ethnic background and not have to spend more than 20 mins editing? (5 points)

The last question tricks us as it can actually go either way. This "The Chief Silver Eagle Litmus Test" should help a few writers avoid the boring dry old literary and real stereotypes of First Nation peoples, Indians, Native Americans, or Amerindians or ...

Like the typical Mary Sue character, Chief Silver Eagle emerges when the best intentions of the writer become too romanticized or sentimental for the average reader's taste.  No one person however, may claim absolute authority to determine an ethnic identity.  Writers benefit from weighing different perspectives of those culturally accepted as members of that community.  I personally desire that the noble savage icon be delegated to fictional groups of people such as the aliens in Avatar.  I plead with you: Do not write another noble savage into literature.  Though many actors survive on these roles, writers have been published based on these, and more than a few have been wildly successful doing so, the effort required to transform the one dimensional stereotype into a multifaceted intriguing character deserves consideration if you want to be published today.  

Few ethnic characters in literature go un-scrutinized, because the politics of identity have significant consequences for members of that group, especially in the case of Native Americans who compose only 0.5% percent of the population in the United States.  As a general rule, do not include a character in your writing from any ethnicity other than your own if that character serves only to promote an ideological agenda.  Just as with any other character, they ought to advance the plot.  Publishers regularly reject manuscripts that unintentionally offend large groups of people.  There should be no shame in being uninformed about another ethnicity especially when they are under-represented in your region, but don't go unpublished for it!   

While the number of people who identify as "Native American" on the American census maybe low, there's no small number of people with native heritage.  Blond or Brown, card-carrying or disbanded, we love to read characters we identify with and allow us to feel connected to our own history, present, and future.  I encourage everyone to include complex Indian characters in their novels.  On that note, I feel there are
Three plot offenses to avoid:              

1.  The outsider who meets the tribe, learns their ways in less than one year, and then takes over leadership with the entire tribes support except one character who resists, but is eventually won over.  Again, please make the tribe alien a la Avatar.  Why is this plot so pervasive?  Many people are enchanted by Indians.  Given the genocide and the negative side of reservation or reserve life, they want to be a character that "saves" the threatened tribe.  But they want it to be easy, too, which is why it happens almost overnight and all the other leaders are quickly dismissed.  But an ethnic group consists of families and families rarely unified so well, especially behind an outsider...    

2.  An ethnography of a native, tribe, nation in place of a plot.  Something must happen in the story.  Even after lengthy research and no matter how exciting your depth of knowledge or experience becomes, just describing the culture bores a reader to tears.  Either write a non-fiction book-we love those, too-or have them do something.  Also, don't have your characters explain their culture to each other as done in Smoke Signals.

3.  The Saga of the Last "Real" Red Man.  Hello?  This plot defies all common sense, but keeps coming back with a new face.  Indians were not only "real" when first met by other cultures and more than those other cultures ceased to be "real" too.  Put down the National Geographic already.  If other ethnic groups, such as Germans, Chinese, Jews, Sami, Basque, etc. continued to have an identity even though some of them adopted other religions, languages, cultural habits, mixed with other groups, and all used different forms of technology no matter where it was invented, then why would Indians stop being "real" when they do?  Keep in mind, we identify as Indian or not because we identify with other Indians or we don't.  Don't believe blood quantum an Indian makes, because the BIA often has brothers and sisters listed with different blood percentages.

If you read this far and you're thinking to yourself that one or more of your favorite Native American characters would be a Chief Silver Eagle, trust me, I know why this is so.  Those famous characters ARE the reason that the stereotypes exist.  You don't have to stop loving them if they mean something to you, but again, you don't have to go unpublished in an attempt to recreate them.  Since the internet reached Indian households information about First Nation peoples has been abundant and it's harder and harder to sell ugly stereotypes, anthropologically correct characters, and fantasy savages.  I don't claim stereotypes or Chief Silver Eagles no longer exist.  I'm just happy to announce they're disappearing in American literature while Indians aren't doing the same in real life.     

*One last idea to avoid: people crossed the land bridge 40,000 or at least 12,000 years ago according to science.  Do you know where all your ancestors were that year?  With the Celts all the way over in Turkey only 2500 years ago, you can avoid making offensive generalized statements if you hold other ethnic groups to the same evaluation.  For example, if Native Americans are actually Asian, then Celts are actually Middle Eastern.  

Before you query an agent, use this test.  Stereotyping isn't an issue of moral character, many Indians believe stereotypes about themselves, too; however, it may be the reason you don't get published.  So, consider using this test to improve an old manuscript that has been rejected and try again.  Good Luck!              


  1. I know. I got a lot of positive feedback on it, but no one has been brave enough to comment here, lol.

    I never meant for it to be a real scoring system. I should have said that in the article. It has been the biggest headache to format correctly, but I will retype it from the beginning and fix some stuff. Ah, the woes of transferring from MS Word to Blogger...

  2. thought provoking post, especially about stereotypes

  3. Thanks. It's a difficult topic, because people's experiences and the stereotypes they encounter are different, but even when we just think about whether our character is well-rounded... I think we benefit as writers.

    That's especially true with ethnic, gender, etc. stereotypes, because they change over time and often change as a result of popular fiction. Amazing isn't it?

    I love the line in Smoke Signals where the guy from Idaho asks the other guy, "How many times have you seen Dances with Wolves?!" Because, they're both fictional Indian characters...

  4. Thanks for the link to this post, Peevish Penman! I couldn't stop grinning as I recognized the old and tired stereotypes as well as seeing people I know (and some I'm related to!) here in this list.

    I am married to a Native (father enrolled, husband working on his enrollment) and have lived on the reservation for more than a decade. I have seen all the stereotypes listed here, plus others, on the huge space of tribal lands we enjoy in WA state.

    AS with all cultures, there are stereotypes that "seem" to hold true, but inevitably, that's only until you scratch the surface. My favorite local one is the Pepsi reference given in my post. Mainly because it shows the change in attitude by the people themselves from alcohol to soda pop :D

    If you live in the area you will know what I mean. If you don't, maybe one day, I will write about the changing culture I am living in the midst of today.

    There are twelve recognized confederate tribes (at least) in my state and who are active where I live. I think this gives us a unique opportunity to see the truth of this post.

    I am German and my family is trying to find the proof of Native Ancestory. However, while growing up, I did not know what I was because I was adopted. In fact, it wasn't until I was married and having children that I learned and consciously understood it mattered to some people. My best friends in high school included the exchange students from Germany and Mexico.

    Having been through foster care and adoption at an older age than is traditional, I have incorporated a lot of different ideas of family, and affiliations. I have a somewhat unique idea on what it takes to be family. Blood is only one tell.

    By the way, I know as many non-natives with long hair as I do natives.