Thursday, July 28, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Native American or Indian, Ojibwe or Chippewa?


When writing outside your race or culture, it is particularly important to avoid labels that unintentionally disparage the race or cultural group.

My second middle-grade historical novel, Creating Esther, is about an Ojibwe girl who goes to an Indian boarding school at the end of the 19th Century. My first dilemma was whether to use “Indian” or “Native American.” I didn’t want to offend anyone by using the word “Indian,” but that was what Native Americans were called at the time of my story, and every boarding school had “Indian” in its name. For historical purposes, that was the best choice. But was it acceptable?

In September I’ll write about my research trip through Ojibwe country in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. For now, it’s enough to say that one of the stops in Minnesota was at the Grand Portage National Monument, where the museum answered my question about using the term “Indian.” I’ll let you read the answer for yourself in the first photo, which I took at the exhibit.

My second question was what to call the tribe itself. The legal name is Chippewa, and that is the name I was familiar with when growing up in Chippewa County, Michigan. But most tribes call themselves Ojibwe (or Ojibwa or Ojibway). Then there is Anishinaabe, which is the older version. Again, I’ll let the exhibit at Grand Portage provide the answer.

Based on those exhibits, I ended up using “Indian” and “Ojibwe.”
When writing historical fiction outside your culture, it is important to balance historical accuracy with sensitivity to the feelings of the culture’s members. Sometimes history has to win out, but think carefully about your choice.
And sometimes it’s as easy as asking.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. Desert Jewels is searching for a home, and Creating Esther has just begun circulating to publishers. You can learn more about Kathryn at


  1. Hello Kathryn, I took a Native American literature course as an undergraduate, and it was my favorite class in college. It was intense, but I learned a whole new genre that still sits on my shelf. Sherman Alexie and Louise Edrich became some of my favorite new writers. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I agree, Kelly. Both are great authors, and I think I have all of Louise Erdrich's children's books. She was part of my inspiration.

  3. Excellent article. By the way, in a class I took in High School on literature of the West (I attended school in Arizona), one of the books we read was "Laughing Boy", which fit our region.