21
$\begingroup$

My conculture, Sakha, is based on Puebloan culture. They live in a mudhouse, practice dry agriculture, don't wear feathers (do they? I thought they're more of Plains culture) and are matrilineal. However, the main difference is that this culture is still partially hunter-gatherer. They hunt to provide meat and mana required for dry agriculture. (Not that it's neccessary to collect mana, it's simply more profitable this way.) Even my story is set in the conworld equivalent of the beginning of the Pueblo III time period.

I decided to mix Puebloan cultures with some aspects of other cultures like the culture in Monster Hunter (because both the monster in Monster Hunter and monsters (Sakha: graam) with the most mana are dangerous. Some even hunt on another world just to hunt dragon-like creatures), and other desert dwelling cultures.

How can I avoid offending Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, etc while creating this culture? For the extreme example (note: the idea has never been in my conworld), would it be offensive if I decided to make my culture live in tipis and built totem poles? Especially if people from my culture appear similar to people from the cultures I'm using.

$\endgroup$
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ Just don't make the culture seem silly or ridiculous in your world. I don't think tibetans are mad at Aang, nor Inuit towards Korra for example. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jun 13 at 1:26
  • 18
    $\begingroup$ The short answer is: Get sensitivity readers (actually folks from the cultures you're drawing from) and offer to pay them. People who aren't part of those cultures don't get a say as to whether or not what you're doing is offensive. Not that one can judge based on the small amount of info in a question. I will say...don't ever use the term "red-face" again. Trust me, that one will not fly with anyone. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Jun 13 at 3:33
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ You cannot offend a culture. A human culture is an abstract entity, it does not have feelings: it cannot take offence. People have feelings and can take offence. The standard device used by countless books and films is: "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental." What's the question? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 13 at 5:11
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ I would also argue that this is better suited for writing.SE. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jun 13 at 5:39
  • 18
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP sticking a disclaimer in your work doesn't magically prevent you from looking like an insensitive jerk, if you are in fact being an insensitive jerk, and the OP is clearly keen to avoid that. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Jun 13 at 10:24
43
$\begingroup$

There are degrees.

Disclaimer: I'm (mixed) Apache and Cherokee (which are very different cultures even by stereotype standards).

Research is always good

Archeologically confirmed structures and living conditions are not at all offensive, anymore than me creating "pasty-faces" who live in buildings with thatched roofs and wattle and daub walls. Do some research and make their daily lives realistic. This is actual worldbuilding that enriches your story.

Hodge-podge soup is lazy

Throwing hundreds of different nations and cultures into a blender and serving exotica trope salad on paper plates – ehh, I could honestly take a pass. At least you say they are not wearing the Coachella featherdusters.

Having grown up in Pueblo country, I will say there are no big trees to carve totem poles out of, so that's a worldbuilding fail, not a cultural fail. Indigenous Americans lived in many different types of structures made from the materials that were available (including wooden buildings that look like medieval European farmhouses.

Pueblos are made from mud bricks because there was plenty of dirt and dung and scrub grass. Tall trees exist above a certain elevation, so when they were used (as roof beams) they were featured with carved patterns and paint, but not to the stylized totem pole level. The size of any pueblo room is limited by the height of the available trees – subsequently, pueblo rooms got smaller over time.

Teepees are temporary structures used by nomadic people who moved around because their food source was on 4 legs and had an enormous grazing area. Contrary to the notion that Native Americans invented recycling, they just stayed in one place until all the local bison were eaten. Then they had to pack up and move.

Teepees and pueblos are extreme opposites, created by very different cultures living in very different environments. You can't just mix and match these things. It's "offensive" because it's bad worldbuilding. I'm not personally offended (for my ghost ancestors), these structures make about as much sense together as a waterpark on the moon.

Native Americans are not magical elves who crossed over the rainbow bridge…

Avoid romanticizing native people. The offensive stuff is worshiping wolf spirits, pseudo-primitivism, and chatting casually with dead ancestors. Please don't.

No really, please don't. We are still here. We are not unicorns or tree nymphs or lurking animal bone things, but actual living people with bored teenagers and jerk bosses and scolding mother-in-laws.

*Also we never prophesied anything about pasty-faces coming to our land, that was all bs colonizers Mary Sue'd later.*

Native Americans weren't a monoculture. There was a "unifying" death cult called the Ghost Dance, but it was essentially the Al-Qaeda of its day urging teenage men to commit murder and terrorism in response to genocide, so not representational of actual native cultures (and it horrified the native people in its day). Unfortunately the Ghost Dance movement led to the Wounded Knee Massacre – a 9-11 like event in the tabloid news that whipped up anti-native sentiment. A lot of pseudo-religious cult mumbo-jumbo entered the American zeitgeist.

The rest seems to have come from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show which featured a "living" teepee village, melodramatic recreations, and more feathered headdresses than Coachella. The show toured for decades. Research can be difficult because of confirmation bias and exploitation. If you go looking for "american indian wolf legends" you will find plenty. The vast majority, if not 100%, are false.

TL;DR

Do some research. Don't throw it all in a blender willy-nilly but let it make sense.

It's ok to make up native people and give them some cultural beliefs – that's worldbuilding. Try for something original and it's at least your own ideas. If you want cultural inspiration go to the library and grab books on folklore and history, there are literally new worlds to explore that are so much weirder and more interesting than the clichés, and don't regurgitate colonialist propaganda about 2-spirit wolves.

The term "red-face" is offensive.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I think this should be the main answer to this question. 👍 $\endgroup$ – makingthematrix Jun 13 at 21:15
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ I've never understood the term "red-face" with regards to native Americans (who I think of as generally "tanned"). To me, the term conjures the mental image of a Brit who's been left in the sun too long. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 13 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ Of course. I don't think Navajo ever built totem pole. That's why I write for exteme example, and in original version, it's actually a statement that it would be offensive. $\endgroup$ – Akangka Jun 14 at 9:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The intended moral of the story is being happy is choice, because the people there are happy even though they're poor and have a low standard of living. As people say "it's the struggles that make life meaningful" $\endgroup$ – Akangka Jun 14 at 10:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Akangka Keep in mind that people are generally happier with higher standards of living. Like, there's a very direct correlation between income and happiness up until about 1.5 times the median income. Not saying your world can't be different, but avoid romanticizing poverty. $\endgroup$ – David Rice Jun 14 at 17:05
39
$\begingroup$

Ask Them, Not the Internet

There is an easy way to avoid doing this. Talk directly to the groups you're concerned about insulting. Explain what you're doing, and explain that you wanted to make sure you didn't accidentally offend them. For example, the Navajo Nation's official homepage would be a good place to start looking for a point of contact.

As long as you are polite, you are very unlikely to offend people simply by asking "is this offensive". (Just don't give off the impression that you don't really care about the answer and just want to hear them say 'no'.)

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ International mail is surprisingly difficult to navigate, though. $\endgroup$ – Jakob Lovern Jun 13 at 1:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A good example of this was a pair of Russian figure skaters who created an Australian Aboriginal routine. It caused some outrage back here. Talking to the Groups is the best way to ensure what you have done is culturally appropriate and not offensive to that particular group (There can be many different variations with some conflicts in belief). At some point someone somewhere will be angry at you no matter what. The world is a large place and you can't make everyone happy. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Jun 13 at 4:03
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ How do you find representatives for certain groups, if they even exist? What if I'm worried about offending Africans, or Americans, or Protestants? I agree that this is better than nothing, but community leaders don't necessarily speak for everyone, so you may still offend. "Talk to the group" seems intractable if the group consists of millions of individuals with differing viewpoints. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Jun 13 at 13:23
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Akangka You don't necessarily have to talk to them face-to-face. It's still within the spirit of this answer to talk to them via email etc. The important part is that you are asking people who have lived in that culture all their lives and understand the viewpoint on a fundamental level. $\endgroup$ – GrandOpener Jun 13 at 13:58
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @NuclearWang And yet, what other choice is there? Acknowledged that it may be hard to find good representatives, but there's really no other way to go about this. Goals like "portray accurately" can be done with research, but when the goal is specifically "don't offend this group of people" there is literally nothing else you can do except make contact with those people, or perhaps if you're lucky find things those people have themselves written about the precise subject that you're planning to portray. $\endgroup$ – GrandOpener Jun 13 at 14:13
12
$\begingroup$

Have an Author's Note

At the end of the book have a page or so like:

The Sakha are based on several real-life cultures. First and foremost the Puebloans, from whom I copied.... The custom of [X] I got from the [other] people, and [Y] is completely my own invention. [Z] is an actual custom, described in [scholarly source] that I couldn't resist including.

Please don't assume the Puebloans were (in any era) just like the Sakha. Plenty of things had to change for artistic purposes. If you want to know about the real Publoans, I recommend [list of nonfiction books]

See the afterward to 1632 for an example, though that's a little different and has some other stuff too.

Or, if it's a much more light-hearted book, follow Terry Pratchett's example from The Last Continent:

This is not a book about Australia. No, it's about somewhere entirely different which happens to be, here and there, a bit…Australian. Still…no worries, right?

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think that this sort of author's note is likely to be written by the sort of author who knows how to write sensitively and avoid giving offense, rather than that this sort of author's note is itself a way to avoid giving offense. Like, you can't just take a novel full of offensive characterizations, tack on a really amazing author's note, and call it good. Still, +1: it's a good idea to include this sort of note. $\endgroup$ – ruakh Jun 15 at 18:11
9
$\begingroup$

Research, and do your best.

If you can't, as Dayton suggested, actually contact the culture, do as much research as you can. People tend to be inherently understanding, and even though honest mistakes happen, as long as the majority of your work is 'correct' (so to speak) you'll avoid offending the majority of people. In the end, imagine yourself on the other side. If someone decided to write a story with heavy parallels to your culture, but messed up a few side details, would you be offended?

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Well, not. Unless they portray my culture as "backwards". However, I saw native american is much more sensitive. Having tipis and totem pole in the same place is considered offensive. (You're either having tipis only, or totem pole only). $\endgroup$ – Akangka Jun 13 at 2:43
8
$\begingroup$

There is only so much you can do if you want to extract many specific, "stereotypical" features from real cultures as set pieces in your work. Using less "real" material and knowing more about the source of your inspiration will be helpful.

That's not the most charitable way of phrasing what you're looking to do, but it's correct in the essentials. There are whole cultures, thousands of years old and rich in detail and nuance beyond routine expression, which have produced the features that have captured your interest.

Extracting a handful of conspicuous features from those cultures without any context and without providing any cultural representation beyond those conspicuous features, just because you think they look cool or suit your setting, generally is what people complain about in situations like this. It's definitely worse if the chosen features denigrate the group, but many object to their cultures being "cheapened" just to suit aesthetics in a fictional setting by someone not at all engaged with their actual culture and history.

So my main answer to the main question is: don't wholesale-copy much from existing cultures, and know enough details to be "inspired" well. Inspired by is not the same as copied from. There are many things that aren't especially culture-specific-- mud houses have been used in many parts of the world at many points in history by totally disparate cultural groups. Mud houses, alone are probably fine.

Mud houses that look exactly like those used in a certain culture... that's a bit different. Architectural styles and practices are varied, and can be very culture-specific. Having mud houses is one thing, but having mud houses that look just like Puebloan mud houses is a bit closer to copying rather than being inspired. This becomes more severe as you add more features which are specific to a given culture.

And just as importantly, think about the features that you aren't carrying over from your inspiration. A big risk is not noticing distinctions meaningful to members of the source culture: "these groups are all the same" is very offensive to groups that view themselves as being very different, especially if you casually blend details together in a way which more familiarity with the cultures would prevent.

If you're using the architecture, clothing, and art styles from a culture but nothing else, it's fairly easy for someone to say that you are caricaturing the culture without bothering to know (or at least, express) anything meaningful about it. This is especially the case if any of those elements had broader cultural significance (like clothing styles that weren't just popular for some reason, but had deeper religious or cultural meaning)-- it may not be possible to respectfully imitate one without the other.

As an example, I have some Italian heritage. I don't especially care about Italian representation in media in the modern day (we don't see the same kinds of social attitudes that were common in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century), but a cartoon of a mustachioed chef eating spaghetti and meatballs while speaking in a funny accent is a clearly "Italian" caricature, but is a poor representation of the culture that produced the Roman Empire, lead the Renaissance, and countless other items.

As for the "know enough details" piece, a person can't be much inspired by a culture they know little about. Doing some real research on a culture (reading published papers, well-regarded history books, etc.) can give you enough understanding that you aren't just copying superficial details. A few hours of casual googling simply isn't enough.


Broader notes:

The goal of not offending a "culture" is good, but fuzzy. Cultures often don't have representatives empowered to make blanket judgements on this sort of topic, as noted in other answers. And even if they do, that's no defense against individuals feeling offended and complaining. There is no bright line for the amount of respectfulness you can display (however that's defined) which guarantees that no one will feel offended, or that relieves you of any possible responsibility if someone takes offense.

There is no obvious standard for how to do this sort of thing "right", aside from not doing it at all. Talking to people who are a part of the source culture, especially if they are cultural experts (the exact definition of which will vary between groups) to get guidance on how appropriate your ideas seem to them can be helpful, but will never be definitive.

The shallower your inspiration and translation of cultural elements are, the more likely you are to give offense. The more knowledgeable, cautious, and substantive you are in representing cultural elements, the less likely. And if you can avoid copying enough superficial elements to obviously point to a real culture, you'll be on firmer ground still.

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

Make them different.

valley of the dinosaurs

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x72mkoi

I was so impressed with Valley of the Dinosaurs, then and now. The cavemen would have been caricatures of movie amerinds - speaking in clipped "ug" English, dressing like movie amerinds; the whole deal. But: they were blond, with weird mustard complexions, these cavemen, and so not Indians.

Do the same. You are already bringing in Monster Hunter. The idea of adding tipis and totem poles is not outrageous; if you are digging the amerind thing as a basis for a story make a big mix of all the things you think are cool. A stone pueblo totem pool would be very cool. People do that for Western Europe based fantasy and African based fantasy all the time. Mix Pueblo III with elements from older pueblo (Anasazi) periods, other Amerinds elementals you like, and add some Middle Eastern desert tech. No-one will be able to claim you are depicting their people in your fiction because you will not be.

$\endgroup$
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ I think Akanga is genuinely asking how to not offend those people, not asking for a rationalization. If the goal is genuinely to not offend those people, unfortunately this answer is very poor advice. As an easy example, if your fantasy people are blond, yellow-skinned people with green hair who happen to wear Sioux-style feathered war bonnets, you are guaranteed to offend Sioux, who will view your portrayal as a corruption and misuse of something sacred to them. One must understand the meaning and context and importance of various symbols to use them without giving offense. $\endgroup$ – GrandOpener Jun 13 at 14:07
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Agree with @GrandOpener, I don't see how showing unique cultural elements and stereotypical behaviors/traits, but re-skinning the people to look somewhat different will be any more palatable to the people you're appropriating. Heck, the Star Wars franchise got in hot water for unfavorable depictions of certain peoples with the characters of Jar Jar Binks and Watto, and they were CGI aliens. If you're clearly drawing inspiration from culture X, saying "but they don't look like X" is a rather poor defense that X people shouldn't be offended. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Jun 13 at 15:33
3
$\begingroup$

You're worried about offending real world cultures (or, more correctly, people belonging to those cultures). It's worth pointing out that most cases of cultural offense are rooted in the perception that the offender has got something wrong in terms of that culture. They're mis-attributing or misunderstanding something. Something has been used/borrowed/stolen without any tie to it's significance from that originating culture.

This is an easy trap to fall in to when designing a fictional culture by way of picking and choosing from real world cultures. But, this issue can be avoided if you take a different approach to designing the features you want your culture to have. Instead of reverse-engineering them by basing them on real world cultures, I would suggest a different approach.

You are building a world, and you're designing a culture that lives in that world. Instead of basing that culture on real-world cultures, make your culture fit your world. The cultural aspects you seem to be focused on (shelter, food gathering, etc) are all environmentally influenced anyways, so this should be straightforward. If you write your culture such that it fits their world then there's essentially nothing for anyone to be offended by.

In other words, drop the approach of basing your culture on real cultures in our world, and instead base your culture on the world in which they live.

If there's a real world culture that uses adobe brick, it's because their environment and tech supported it. Instead of worrying about whether or not your culture's use of adobe brick will offend a real world culture who used adobe brick, just ensure you are writing your world and your culture such that adobe brick makes sense for your culture. Such consistency is hard to get offended by. And although such an approach can seem overwhelming, since you're taking on the burden of consistency, in the end it's a more organic way to create a believable culture - potential offense aside, the result will likely make more sense to readers in the end than a culture that was just mashed together without any rhyme or reason.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Would another option be (perhaps not for this story, but other worldbuilding) to not just hang a lampshade on it, but have that be part of the point?

Like if I had post-apocalyptic humans spend a few centuries in the Midwest or wherever, and now life is better, they're back to having more leisure time and thinking beyond survival into creating a better world. They know of America as the name of their ancestral land, but details are lost to memory. They, like many, are interested in their heritage and some people are into researching and resurrecting some of it.

THEN they find that parts of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom survived -- maybe a big pre-flooding dome protected major parts of it, but the utilidors are permanently blocked off. Finally, they can see images of America in its glory: the Hall of Presidents -- Small World -- Haunted Mansion -- Carousel of Progress! (There's no Smithsonian strip of museums to compare things to). So now this is their artifact-driven attempt to understand How America Was. DisnAmericans believed that their Ancestors frolicked happily in houses to watch future generations. I think in Hall of Presidents, that though the presidents speak in order in a roll-call, they're physically grouped non-chronologically, so one may assume a tricorner hat and breeches could be worn along side a 1970s suit and tie, just different styles. More evidence might be the Family that recurs in Carousel. They clearly never traveled because they believed the world was very small.

Part of this imaginary version works because we know the "mainstream US culture" and we know about Disneyworld's simplifications, and we can imagine the effects of the animatronics appearing as a display without much context.

If you do something like that with a culture you do not know very well (yet), make sure that you are similarly making it clear that you know and communicate that, say, the Sacred Sculpture that your characters have passed down for generations is a toy or simple everyday thing that they are misunderstanding and imbuing with unnecessary reverence.

So this is advanced-level worldbuilding, especially when the building blocks come from a culture you don't understand. But finding creative work BY and FOR the groups you're writing about (movies, novels, stories) -- things where they don't care if outsiders get the jokes or references -- that can help you identify potential elements that are more safe to explore. (still research: It may be like "I can pick on my brother, my cousin can pick on my brother, but if an outsider picks on my brother, we all team up!")

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is sometimes present in science-fiction. For example, one of the two main factions in Legend of Galactic Heroes is basically Space Prussia - because its founder was unreasonably fond of XIXe century Prussia and made his Empire that way. $\endgroup$ – Eth Jun 17 at 13:26
0
$\begingroup$

Learn from Real Life example: Buddhism

Buddhism was started by "Siddhartha Gautam", who was a Hindu and Buddhism itself can be thought as a subset of Hinduism without all its god level complexities, just its spiritual intensity.

You can start investigating the origins of Buddhism and how he extracted the best parts of Hinduism out of it and created a whole new culture without offending anyone.

$\endgroup$
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ "without offending anyone" [citation needed] $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Jun 13 at 13:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This isn't universally applicable. Hinduism has generally been free of sectarianism and incorporated Buddhism back into the parent faith before long. To this day many Hindus actually regard Sikhism and Buddhism as different sorts of Hinduism. This doesn't happen often. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Jun 14 at 9:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.