So you think you can write about Native Americans?

Like many people, I have an interest in and respect for the indigenous people of North America. You know, the Native Americans, First People, Indians: the people who had been living on this continent long before the Vikings or that Italian guy who was looking for a completely different land mass at the time he fell upon this continent and claimed everything for a far-away European nation. Yeah, those people.

We who grow up in California learn about the natives who lived here in third grade. My faulty recollection was that the Spanish missionaries and the soldiers who accompanied them to California in the late 1700s had subsumed the natives into their society by the time the Gold Rush occurred.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Through disease and systemic murder, in the scant 80-year interim between the padres and the forty-niners, the native population of California was depleted by more than half. However, at the time of the Gold Rush there were still more than 150,000* indigenous people living throughout this westernmost strip of the new American territory. And I wanted my historical novel Embracing the Elephant (which depicts life during the California Gold Rush) to reflect that reality.

Therefore, among my characters are three indigenous people. They do not appear often in the tale, but they are important.

My first task was to name these characters. I wanted the names to have specific, character-driven meaning. But finding the correct native words was harder than I anticipated. I had to choose from among more than 100 dialects stemming from 21 distinct language groups that those 150,000 surviving California Natives spoke. Oh my.

Because the relevant action takes place in the Sierra Nevada range around a settlement called The Sonoran Camp (modern-day Sonora), I easily narrowed that task. My characters would be of the Miwok Tribe – the Central Sierra Miwok Tribe to be exact. No appropriate dictionary for that dialect was to be found, but I did find one for the Northern Sierra Miwok dialect. Although it was not exactly right , it was as close as I was going to get.

For my Miwok boy’s name in Embracing the Elephant, I took the simple route and used one uncomplicated word: Kalelenu, which means “runner.” One down, two to go.

Years ago I worked with a man of the Sioux nation whose tribal name meant “Comes Walking.” I loved that name: it was stately and powerful and reassuring. I wanted the Miwok man in my story to bear that name. However, my trusty Miwok dictionary had too many variations for the verb “come” and nothing for “walking.” Were I a linguist, perhaps the full capabilities of the dictionary would have been more evident and I could have conjugated the verbs. Alas, I am no linguist.

Lastly, I wanted to name my Miwok woman after a lovely celestial pattern I had seen a few years ago: a crescent moon with one bright planet “perched” at each tip so the moon appeared to have been speared. Her name would be: Pierced Moon or Spindle Moon. But, not so fast. Kome means moon in Miwok, but I could find no word for “spindle” and am unsure I’ve correctly identified “pierced.”

Obviously, I was not going to be able to do this on my own. Therefore, I turned to the trusty internet and emailed both the Tuolumne band and the Ione band of the Miwok tribe (the tribes closest to the proximity of story) for help. I explained who I was, the reason for my request, and assured them that I was not trying to set myself up as an expert on their tribe, divulge any tribal secrets, or interpret sacred beliefs. A member of the tribe was invited to review those pages where I mention the Miwok, as further proof that I had not misspoken about their people. I was not asking for any endorsement. I wanted only an accurate translation of Comes Walking and Spindle Moon.

I have yet to hear from the Tuolumne band. For a time, I had some luck with the Ione band. My request traveled through different hands before I received a response of “some research is being done.” Four days later, an email came from the researcher. She was very nice, but she was not a native speaker and could do little to help me. She recommended some reading material on why tribes are reluctant to have non-Natives write about them (hint, hint). As a last resort, she suggested I place an ad at the Native Wellness Center. When I expressed skepticism of ad responses (how would I know if the responder really spoke Miwok? I was clueless enough already), she agreed to send my request to the cultural committee. “Perhaps they can help,” she said,  “in-between arguing with museums over rightful possession of the remains of their Miwok forefathers.” Touché.

I tried two other tacks as well: I contacted the linguistics department of UC Berkeley – which houses writings in the Central Sierra Miwok dialect. However, their researchers were “too busy” to help. Lastly, I asked my brother, who works at an Indian casino owned by the Shingle Springs Band of the Miwok. Apparently he couldn’t find anybody in the band who speaks or knows anybody who speaks Miwok.

The Miwok names I used in the novel may be gibberish, but since there appear to be so few native Miwok speakers I suppose I shouldn’t worry.

My intent was (and is) to be respectful of the tribe. I am only trying to do what the woman who wrote So You Want to Write About American Indians suggests: if you want to write about Native Americans, include a Native American voice in the research.

I would love to.

* This number is cited in both The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands and in Miwok Means People by Eugene L. Controtto.

About Lori Hart Beninger

Lori Hart Beninger is a native California writer with three critically acclaimed historical novels (Embracing the Elephant, A Veil of Fog and Flames, and A Peculiar Peace) that follow two 19th century young adults as they struggle with survival and acceptance in the pivotal era of the California Gold Rush up to the American Civil War. Please visit www.ontrackpublishing.com for synopses, availability, reviews, and more.
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