My science fiction novels The Willow and the Stone and the upcoming Willow in the Desert have quite of few characters, one of which is Native American Leo Black Elk. In these stories, Leo is the last surviving member of the Crow people.
It’s funny that I came up with Leo long before I met my husband, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe. I claim no Native American ancestry, being descended from Scots and as lily-white as the day is long. But like many non-natives, I’ve long been fascinated with the cultures of the first Americans. My best friend in middle school was Cherokee and I dated a Creek a long time ago.
While my character Leo has some of those characteristics we non-natives tend to automatically foist on them in our romanticized vision – possessing a wisdom that seems somewhat otherworldly, being in tune with the Earth, and ancestor respect that borders on deification – I tried not to be ridiculous about it. Leo has had his rough times too. He was angry as a young man, as many young men tend to be when they come from a marginalized race. His temper is something he continues to fight in The Willow and the Stone. But Leo has also found a measure of maturity. He’s grown to realize that when you live with anger every day of your life, even if that anger is justified, then all you have in the end is anger. You miss out on the joys because you’re so busy looking for the racism that might be there or might not.
I once worked with a Mohawk woman in her thirties who had never really spent time off the reservation in the company of other ethnicities. Beautiful and intelligent with a wonderful sense of humor, I enjoyed being around her. You can imagine my surprise when she turned to me one day and said, “I didn’t think I would like whites. I’ve never bothered with them. But I like you.” She seemed as shocked by her words as I was. She’d not expected much good from me, while I, having had the good fortune to enjoy friendships with many races, had few pre-conceived ideas about her. It was an eye-opener, and I based young Leo on her limited view.
While I fought hard to keep Leo’s character from being the ‘noble savage’ stereotype, I do admit to him being a bit romanticized. He is one of the heroes of the two stories, after all. I went for the ‘noble’ part of the equation and did my best to eschew the ‘savage’. In the end, he’s a good man who carries on a few traditional ways from his culture.
I knew some non-natives might think I treated his ties to his heritage a little light. I kept this in mind when someone, a white author, mentioned that the name Leonard was hardly Native American and I should go with something else. It was hard to keep a civil tongue in my head over that bit of blind prejudice. Yes, many Native Americans have traditional names. A huge number also have names like my husband and in-laws: Peter, Natalie, Felicia, and Hubert, to name just a few. Besides, I took Leo’s name from an actual well-known Native American: Leonard Peltier who is, according to many including Amnesty International, unjustly serving a prison sentence for murders he did not commit. (Only the name is used; my character is not in any way based on Mr. Peltier.)
So that’s the genesis of Leo Black Elk: Native American but every day guy who happens to have ESP. I guess I did okay with him since no one in my husband’s family has taken me to task over the handling of his character. I’m still welcome back to the rez for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as far as I know. It’s a good thing; Leo is one of my favorite characters and I’d hate to think he was all wrong.