When I lived in Slave Lake, we kept our horses up in Mitsue, an industrial area about 5k out of town. We had rented a beautiful little oxbow flood plain where a tiny little creek, oddly named “Eating Creek” ran along and behind. We moved our horse out there in 1987ish and Dad sold the horses when I was in Japan in 1998 and in that decade the area what had once been farmers fields and a saw mill had been subdivided up into houses.
Mitsue, Alberta is probably known for 2 things. 1, it was where the fire that consumed Slave Lake started, pretty close to where we used to keep the horses. 2. Marie Courterielle was killed by her family as a Wendigo in the 1800’s, which was where the creek got its name. I’ve known that story for a good 3/4 of my life.
When I finally used it in a story, I made sure that the story was owned by the native characters. Watching Avatar, I thought for the first three quarters of the movie that they were going to let the native young man actually be the hero of his people, but if there’s one thing that you can count on in fiction, is that a white main character, given a motivating enough theme song to play with his montage, can quickly learn to out-do a person who had been born and raised doing something. It doesn’t matter if it’s a physical or mental skill, the white main character will quickly become the best at it as long as he gets his montage in.
When I finished the first draft of When the Snow Flies, I realized that I had the white character save the day by remembering the bit of lore that can drive a ghost out of your house. It only took two paragraphs to put that power back into the first nations character’s hands.
There is a line between white-washing your characters and cultural appropriation, but it’s not a narrow one. Be respectful of the tools you are using, don’t fall back to stereotypes or tropes, and if you do something wrong and someone calls you out on it, don’t double down. Apologize and try to do better the next time. I hope I’ve gotten it right.
I was downstairs one night in my duplex in Fort Chip. We had a house party, and there was tonnes of food we laid out but had ended up in the basement telling ghost stories. I went up to get a drink of something and I realized I’d left just the curtains open in front of the table we’d put the food out, uncovered. I will never forget that feeling of staring at my reflection in the window glass and wondering who was peering back at me. Needless to say I pulled the curtains shut and it took a couple years before I stopped covering the food in my kitchen before going to bed at night. It’s all just stories until you’re alone, cold and in the dark.