Friends, I am off to the Stonehenge site for a short trip, Susanna has kindly agreed to give us the next two installments of her WIP while I am away.
I chose George Catlin as a subject for a biography because his life story was dramatic, his art beautiful, the primary source material plentiful, and the kid-appeal off the chart. But I had no idea that the most fascinating aspect of his life–his adventures among the indigenous peoples of North and South America–would be so complicated to write about. Or so enlightening.
I’m not an expert on Native Americans, nor did I have the time to become one. But I had to be able to write clearly and accurately about the people Catlin painted. Luckily, I’m a research junkie, so I forged ahead, trusting that I’d find out what I needed to know as I went along.
First I had to familiarize myself with the vast number of tribes that Catlin visited. I spent months pouring over maps, learning about language groups, visiting the web sites of tribal nations. Gradually I began to distinguish the Crow from the Cree, the Lakota from the Dakota. I found out that such simple words as "tribe" and "chief" are loaded with cultural bias. I discovered an active American Indian community in the New York metropolitan area, where I live, and learned that the people in that community were glad to share information.
When it came to South America, the challenge was greater. For example, Catlin wrote about hunting flamingos with the Aucas in South America. As usual he was vague about geography, and since Painting the Wild Frontier was to include maps showing the location of each tribe, I had to find the Aucas. My research turned up Aucas in both Ecuador and Argentina. Which group did Catlin visit? Eventually I figured out that he was in Argentina, but that the people he called Aucas are now known as Mapuches. What should I call them in my book–Aucas or Mapuches? These were the kinds of details that filled my days.
Over time, as I learned more about the destruction of indigenous cultures and about how native peoples continue to struggle for self-determination and equal rights, I realized that learning about American Indians wasn’t simply a matter of distinguishing one tribe from another or figuring out how to spell their names. I came to see that although I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded, I, too, had prejudices. Once I became more aware of them, my thinking–and my writing–changed. In the process of encountering foreign cultures, boundaries can soften and shift. Empathy grows, and a writer chooses different words.
Not long before Painting the Wild Frontier went to press, I was struck by a caption I had written. It said, "Many settlers were killed in the battle." What about the Indians who were killed? Rejecting an implicitly white point of view, I changed the caption so that it said, "Many people were killed in the battle." Changing that one word made my story more inclusive, and reflected a new awareness I had gained in the process of researching and writing the book.