Indigenous People Aren’t Decoration: On Marginalized People as Props, Part I

It was 2010, and I was walking across the University of Glasgow campus when someone called out to me. I turned around.  There was a tourist, complete with a fanny pack, holding a map and a camera.
‘Can I take a picture of you in your… natural habitat?’ he asked.

I really wish I could report this as a fluke, a single human sticking his foot in his mouth. But on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve regularly encountered the attitude that Indigenous people– no matter what continent– exist mainly for the amusement, edification, and enrichment of colonists.

This idea has a very prominent place in both narrative nonfiction and fiction, particularly period pieces.  The center is always a white* protagonist, whose culture and ethnicity is presented as ‘normal’. This has been embedded as an expected trope to the point that when such stories do not present such a protagonist are viewed with suspicion by media gatekeepers, such as TV producers and literary agents.

I’d also like to dispense early with the idea that this is simply finding the most convenient device to explain a novel culture and setting to the audience.  First of all , if that was really the case, any outsider would do. This person need not be a middle-class English or Anglo-American person. Second, there are plenty of ways to immerse your reader in your setting and get them up to speed on the context of the story by following characters who are already part of that culture. (If you’re feeling overwhelmed by this, take a look through my ‘worldbuilding’ tag for ideas).

This trope can be broken into roughly four categories. First, the adventure story (usually a period piece) in an overwhelmingly Indigenous setting with a white protagonist apropos of nothing (the Leatherstocking Tales, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves); second, and closely related to the first, is the non-Indigenous person who saves the day or otherwise shows off their cultural ‘superiority’ (Waverly, Robinson Crusoe); third, the more modern story of a white character ‘finding themselves’ with the help of Indigenous folks who fawn over them (Eat, Pray, Love); and finally, the romance plot, wherein the fawning takes on a sexual component (Outlander).  The last one has enough unique features to deserve it’s own post, so I’ll speak to the other three first.

First of all, stop insulting your white audience members. The argument that the audience can’t ‘relate’ to someone outside of the media’s conception of ”normal’ culture is laughable, and implies that white folks are uniquely deficient in the ability to enjoy stories, which is obviously not true.  If your characters are well-developed and your setting well-explained, it will resonate with your audience.

Second, put the story first. Saying that stories require conflict is like saying fish require water; however, it is not emphasized enough that one should maximize the conflict and stakes in ones story. The protagonist should always be someone who is heavily invested in the conflict at hand, preferably the person with the most to lose. If you’re telling a story in an Indigenous-dominant setting, set within the past 500 years or so, the Indigenous characters are the ones with the most at stake. Don’t cheat yourself and your readers out of the most compelling part of the story.

Third, and most importantly, stop writing about Indigenous people as though we were fictional creatures to be used as props, and start writing fully realized human beings. Stop writing characters whose whole existence revolves around the protagonist as soon as he or she appears, and start writing secondary characters who have their own stuff going on.  Stop writing stereotypes and actually do some research. It’s also worth asking yourself why you feel compelled to write about a particular culture– if the answer involves romanticized ideas based on TV or movies, either reconsider or get thee to the library.

As a final note, I’d ask that you avoid the Historical Fallacy when you write about colonialism– that is, avoid the idea that colonialism represents an inevitability, or that the problems sown by colonial expansion justify further violence against the people fighting for their lives. This also means avoiding depictions of Indigenous people as ‘primitive’, ‘closer to nature’ or less ‘civilized’, even if this is being used as a counterpoint to critique urban life and industry. Let your Indigenous speak about their own culture, rather than filtering everything through an outsider’s perspective.

If that all sounds too hard, pick a new story. It’s okay to let an idea go if you’re not the person to write it (you can even gift your plot bunny to another creator on social media or a NaNoWriMo forum!).  If it doesn’t, go forth and do your research (and then do some more, just to be sure).

Next week, we’ll return to discuss these tropes in the context of romantic plotlines.

*As I’ve said before, this refers to a very specific Western European/Euro-American identity that is shown as ‘default human’ or ‘culturally neutral’ in North American and Western European media; many Eastern European and/or Indigenous European cultures are explicitly excluded from this definition.

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