Notice: This page may contain spoilers for Theresa’s novel, We Are the Warriors.
I had the pleasure of reading a great “teen read” last week from a new author, Theresa Nichols Schuster. When I finished it, I had some questions niggling around in the back of my head. so I emailed Theresa and she graciously and candidly answered all my questions. Here is the interview in its entirety.
1. Your bio mentions you living and working on a reserve but doesn’t mention whether you are native or not.
A: I am not American Indian/Native American although for years growing up I wondered if I had some American Indian blood. My father graduated from the St. Labre Indian School on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in the 1930s and my grandmother lived in Lodge Grass on the Crow Reservation for forty years until her 80s. Six of my aunts and uncles graduated from Lodge Grass High School. I mention a bit about this on my blog bridgingthejourney.blogspot.com in the “Pain and Prejudice” posting.
2. I was wondering also if you have personal experiences of racism on the reserve where you lived.
A: I believe that among human beings whenever hurt, pain and suffering is experienced and can be attached to some characteristic(s) of others, prejudice can grow. This prejudice, based off experiences of pain, if not called to awareness either individually or as a group, can become entrenched in a social structure. Racism is prejudice that becomes entrenched and is based the color of ones skin or ethnic background. Power of one group over another, plus pain and suffering, are ripe fields for racism to flourish. By and large my relationships with American Indians on the reservation was one of care, love and respect. I did encounter harsh words at times, judgment, and being grouped and classified in a certain negative way because I was white or non-tribal as they would say on the reservation. I understood that living on a reservation I would not be hired for many tribal jobs no matter my skill level. This said, American Indians as a group and as individuals have suffered abuse, prejudice and racism for many years and in different situations. I do believe that anger can be a healing step through the recognition of abuse and claiming of power. It does not feel good being the recipient of that anger, but it happens. It is in our relationships with individuals that healing happens and the walls of prejudice and racism crumble. I had/have some wonderful relationships with tribal members from the Fort Peck Reservation.
On a personal note, my nephew-in-law and good friend is an enrolled Assiniboine member and is also the tribal attorney for the Salish Kootenai tribes. My husband is also a Fort Peck Tribal Appellate Court Associate Justice.
3. How did you become familiar with the vision quest? Do you know people who went through the ritual? Did you interview people who had done it? Did you ever do something similar?
A: Mostly personal experiences, although I did take a Religious Studies course at the Fort Peck Tribal College with Robert Fourstar (elder and chief), where we discussed and read about vision quests. I had many experiences of spending nights by myself on top the Pryor Mountains, in the deserts of the south Pryors, and in the Gallatin Mountains, often on spiritual quests. I also have walked the circle without food or water to seek guidance. Many stories there.
4. Many of the reserves in North America have a problem with drugs, alcohol, and suicide. I felt it was left just on the fringes of your story. Was that intentional? Had you considered having one of Nicki’s friends commit suicide rather than having her brother die in a fishing accident?
A: Yes, the problems on the reservations are deep, tragic and intense regarding alcohol, drugs, suicide, and accidental death (drowning on the Missouri River a big one (often including alcohol) – I did officiate at two wakes for drowning victims, one tribal, and attended a funeral for our son’s classmate, a tribal high school student.) I intentionally wanted my novel to be acceptable for the younger half of the young adult genre, hence not getting too “edgy” or intense, while acknowledging the presence of these situations. I also wanted to use the space to develop other aspects of characters and place. If I were writing for the older half of the young adult genre, I think this topics would definitely be included.
5. Starlight Wilson is obviously a victim of physical abuse. Did you think about resolving that situation in the story? I felt it, too, was rather left on the fringes.
A: Starlight Wilson’s situation was left hanging. That seems to often be the case in Indian Country. When and how these are resolved, through Family Services, Court proceedings, etc. is very difficult. Especially if the situation includes tribal and non-tribal members. Jurisdiction issues are complex and not easily resolved. Who goes to whose court is problematic. Protecting children is primary and a constant demand on the reservation for both tribal and non-tribal groups and individuals.
As you can see from Theresa’s responses, she brings a lot of experience and authenticity to her writing. Her first novel creates empathetic characters, who struggle with finding their own identity or niche in an environment where cultures sometimes clash. You can read my review here of We Are the Warriors.