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Native American quits soul-killing work; takes heart writing on Indian issues

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?

I am currently a freelance writer and educator. I’ve been writing as a freelancer for about 9 years and volunteering in the local school district for about a year and a half.

How would you describe yourself using three adjectives only?

Multi – faceted; complex; free-spirited

What is your ethnicity and gender? What kinds of discrimination have you experienced?

I am a woman who considers herself multiethnic. My mother was Native American from the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington State and my father was first-generation Sicilian American.

Being a mixed blood native person comes with a kind of discrimination that most people don’t recognize. It has to do with having my authenticity as Native American person questioned on all fronts. Americans (and others) are conditioned to think that there is a model “Indian” person; someone who looks a certain way, or dresses a certain way or lives on a reservation. The fact is, the process of settler colonialism (what the United States is based on) was designed to eliminate Indians.

It’s done this in a multitude of ways, and one of those ways is to racialize native identity by measuring it in terms of blood quantum. This means that someone who is less than a “full blood Indian” is less than authentic as an Indian person. It’s a constant process of minimalization.

It’s the opposite of the one drop rule for black people-where one drop of black blood (historically) made you black by law. When you’re a mixed blood Indian there is a sense that you don’t fit fully in the Indian world or the white world. There’ve also been plenty times I’ve been called Pocahontas, too, in a pejorative sense.

Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’? Is management white and male? How are minorities perceived and treated?

I am self-employed, so that does not apply to me for the most part. However, I will say that I’ve been trying to get hired on in the school district in a paying job. The community where I live is predominately upper-middle-class white. I’ve applied numerous times for jobs that I’m very well qualified for and so far I’m not seeing a real commitment to diversity.

If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?

In terms of the kind of discrimination I have described above, I have tried for decades to figure out a way to respond to it and I still haven’t figured out a good response! Most recently, I’ve written a blog post about it and referred people to that.
People don’t like to see themselves as discriminatory or in any way racist.

Discrimination can show up in so many subtle ways that people can’t even see in themselves. It’s sort of been a personal project for me to be able to figure out how to gently educate people in these issues. But it took me a long time just to come to terms with the fact that it was a type of discrimination that I was experiencing.

Going back to school and getting a degree in Native American studies was a huge help for me in this regard. There, because I went to school with many other native people, I was able to learn about this in an intellectual way but also understand the kinds of experiences other Indian people have had.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day? Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?

On an average day, I get up and get a cup of coffee and go to my computer and start looking for a job. I look for freelance writing jobs and I look for full-time permanent jobs. I’ve been doing this for over a year. I spend a huge portion of my day on the computer, not just looking for jobs but also fulfilling the jobs that I do have.

My main gig right now is writing for a website called About.com, which is owned by the New York Times. They have a new category (which is under the Education category) called Native American history and I was hired to be the topic writer there. I was pretty fortunate to be hired; it was a pretty intense vetting process and I had to compete against an unknown number of people.

But it is a great way for me to put my education to use and get paid for it (if minimally). I have to write eight articles a month and several blog posts to promote the articles as well. So I spend a good amount of time doing that. When I’m not doing that I’m surfing or dancing (I’m studying hula).

As far as myths, I don’t know what kind of myths there are about freelance writers but maybe one of them is that there is good money to be made. That hasn’t been my experience… The opposite is more likely true. Like all other industries, writing jobs are outsourced to developing nations where they can work at much cheaper rates. It seems to me the days of writing for a dollar a word are long gone.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?

There are advantages to freelancing, the obvious ones being the ability to work from home and have total control of your own time. So I would have to rate it as a five. What would increase it is if I had a steady stream of better paying jobs. Or if I could get a job more closely aligned to my education. But that’s pretty tough given where I live, not to mention the current state of the economy. I live in California where it’s been very hard hit and education jobs for people with ethnic studies backgrounds are pretty hard to come by, if not nonexistent.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

Yes, and this is sort of the back story that I will tell.

I had a long career in the dental field as a dental assistant and office manager. It was a career I chose as a very young person while still in high school. I knew I didn’t want to go to college because I hated school but I also knew I needed some kind of job training and back in those days there was a program in the public schools that trained kids for certain kinds of somewhat menial professions. I chose the dental assistant program as the default career option. It worked for me for quite a while because I could always get a job, but it was pretty miserable work; very stressful and thankless. I did it for well over 15 years.

One of the reasons it was such a bad job is because dentists are notoriously bad to work for, at least they were back then. A little over 20 years ago I was working for one of those guys and I was so stressed out after three years of working for him that it was making me sick, physically. I was waking up in the morning with migraine headaches, making it really hard to function. I quit my job and I was fortunate enough to be able to collect disability for about a year. This bought me time, time to figure out a new path.  

In that time I learned how to do Native American beadwork and leather work, like my ancestors did. Long story short, I was able to turn it into a career. I got good enough at it and figured out how to make a business of it that I supported myself for over 10 years this way. I developed a modest but national level of recognition because I won many awards for my work in the most prestigious Native American art events in the country. It helped validate my tenuous sense of identity as a Native American woman, and it brought my mother pride as well.

I was also raising a son as a single mother for most of those years. It worked out well for me because I was traveling a lot in those days doing the art show circuit which took me all over the country. There were some years I was traveling 25 weekends or more; my son would go to his dad’s house on the weekends while I was out traveling and during the week I was able to be at home with him. But my son’s father passed away, leaving me a sole parent when he was nine years old. By then I had become very active in local Native American political issues and had begun writing articles in the local newspaper about some of those issues. Knowing I would have to have a degree in order to be taken seriously as a writer, and also being burned out from my career as an artist, I decided to move to New Mexico and go back to school. That’s when I entered Native American studies program at the University of New Mexico at 47 years of age.

I stayed in school for six straight years and got a master’s degree. While I was a senior I reconnected with an old love from my past and ended up marrying him when I was in grad school. My son and I moved to back to Southern California (where I was born and raised) to be with him. It’s been two years now, and about seven months since I graduated.

So that’s how I got to where I am now. My plan had been to stay in school for a PhD and then get out and teach Native American studies. But at some point it became clear to me that staying in school was not going to benefit me so for now I’ve decided not to go back. Never in my wildest streams did I imagine I would ever move back to Southern California and marry my lost love.

But here I am, happily married, and having to reinvent myself once again in less than ideal circumstances, career-wise. It’s been a real gift but at the same time I’ve had to make some big personal sacrifices. That’s what I’m trying to find my way through now.

Does this job move your heart, how so? If not, what would?

My About.com moves my heart, yes. And when I can find other writing jobs in Indian country (sometimes I write magazine articles for native publications) then I feel like I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing. But sometimes out of financial necessity I take jobs that I don’t really enjoy.

When I’m writing about native topics I feel like I have the power to change the way people understand history or dispel popular misconceptions about Native American people. It’s really gratifying to me when somebody I know reads my work and says “I didn’t know that and I really learned something.” I’ve always had an internal need to make a difference in the world in some way. Maybe it’s just impacting someone’s individual life for a moment; but now it’s more like wanting to make my mark in the world as an artist or a writer. An elder/teacher of mine once taught me that the goal of life was to leave a legacy. I suppose that’s what I am striving to do.

I was hired for one project recently that was funded by the Canadian government, for an organization that does work in the realm of mental health and addiction in Aboriginal communities. I had to write a literature review and report of my findings; it was an opportunity to insert a very indigenous perspective and draw on cutting-edge scholarly work in the field. It was very challenging but I felt like I was doing work that meant something.

I mentioned that I work in the local school district as a volunteer. What I do is act as an assistant to the district’s Indian education director, who has created a Native American museum that is a teaching tool for the teachers. We give tours to school kids and teach teachers about Native American culture and history. We are trying to set up a new exhibit that teaches about ecology and environmentalism from the Native American perspective, but raising the money for that has been a problem.

If we can ever raise the money, the goal was to create a paying position for which I would be the director. But that’s a lot easier said than done. It may be possible that I would fill the position of the Indian education director for the district if and when the current director retires, which she says will be doing in the next year or two. So I am kind of holding out for that possibility. It’s still only a part-time position it wouldn’t pay all that much, but it would help.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that made you feel really good or proud?

Well, writing is very creative work and I’ve found that I need that creativity in my life. I thrive on it. I know what it’s like to do work that is soul-killing and I really don’t want to have to do that anymore if I can help it. So I get up in the morning, go downstairs to my computer, and begin another search for jobs and hope that this day will present something new, with some better financial potential. The only missing piece for me right now is a good paycheck! And in the meantime I enjoy the rewards of writing content for and enjoying surfing and dancing.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

I’d say that I’m still just trying to find the perfect career. I don’t know if that really exists, because I’ve been through several different career paths in my 50-some years. For me the path has been a process of growing and changing as a person and it is imperative that my career reflect who I am as that person. If I’ve learned anything the hard way, it is that there is no one perfect career or job that will last for my entire lifetime.

In some ways I wish that I could be the kind of person who could be satisfied with one career or job, but I think that is pretty unrealistic for most people these days. Plus, I’ve never been driven much by money. I’ve always been driven more by principle and the need to have a good balance between my personal life and my professional life.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

I didn’t get out of college with the intent of being a full time freelance writer, although I have always wanted to continue to write, and write professionally. So even though it’s not ideal, I’m doing what I do now because there is a certain level of convenience. What I do for a living has to fit in with the rest of my life as a married person, living in the particular community I live in (which happens to be a pretty great place to live, but geographically difficult in several ways in terms of the ideal career for me).

I did a lot of research on the Internet about what it takes to make a living as a freelance writer. I stumbled into one thing that would lead to another thing and another thing. Now most of my work comes from Elance.com and occasional other sources but everything I do is Internet-based.

I don’t know that I would say that I would change anything. I could not have foreseen how my life would change and when life hands you opportunities you take them if you’re smart. Life handed me love unexpectedly and I took it even though it derailed my plans. It’s like John Lennon said, “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

That’s what happened to me. And it’s good, but I suppose I’m just sort of waiting for the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. And that would be the ideal job or career, or at least a little more consistent money.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?

One of the beautiful things about what I do is that it’s very low stress (except for the fact that I feel I don’t make enough money). Being able to make my own schedule is awesome and I don’t have someone staring over my shoulder telling me what to do all the time. I love working at home and I have a lot of freedom to do other things. So I would say that I have a very comfortable and healthy work/life balance.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

I have read a report which claims that freelance writers on average make between $29 and $59 per hour, but I have my doubts about that. Maybe I’m just doing something wrong. Sometimes I get jobs that give me that kind of margin, but more often than not I don’t.

If I wasn’t married and had to support myself on my own with what I’m currently doing, I would not be able to, especially where I live now. It scares me to think that with my education I’m making less money than I’ve ever made, but that’s the current reality for me.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

My biggest challenge is that my education is not suited for where I live. It would be easier for me to get a job in Indian country if I was living in New Mexico or some other place where there are more Indians. But that would mean I would have to move and I’m not willing to do that. So I am forced to figure it out based on where I live now.

What makes me want to quit is discouragement. I fill out dozens of applications every month and it is very rare that I even get a response. But if I don’t try I certainly don’t have a chance.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

As far as being a freelance writer, I think the more education you have the more credibility you have. Not only can you specialize in writing about your academic field, you also demonstrate that you have the ability to research which is a really important skill in writing pretty much anything. Obviously you have to have good writing skills. I often come across jobs that specify people with an English or journalism background.

Another really good skill to have is the understanding of SEO, which is search engine optimization. The more computer skills you have the better off you are as well.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

I really started about nine years ago writing op-ed pieces and news stories for a community newspaper, for free. I was just thrilled to be published and that somebody thought what I had to say was worth printing. Once you begin establishing a body of published work you have something to refer to for potential clients. You have to have as well-rounded a portfolio as possible.

Internet based freelance writing is a really fast growing field right now. There are more and more new websites coming online that specialize in connecting freelancers with jobs. There are websites called content mills that are good places to start as a professional freelancer.

That’s what I did; I got hired on by Demand Media, which owns Ehow.com, Livestrong.com and others. I wrote articles for Ehow.com, which only pays about $15 per article but it’s a good way to get started writing professionally and gives you good experience working with an editor. Most of the freelancing sites and content mills are very low-paying jobs but it’s a good way to start.

Another thing I would tell a friend if they wanted to pursue a career as a freelance writer is to learn how to use a dictation program. I started having a lot of trouble with my wrists because I was typing so much and you can really damage them. But learning how to use a dictation program really saves you.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

I don’t take much vacation time at all. I really don’t like to travel very much anymore because I spent so much time traveling for a living, and I hate dealing with airports. I live in a Southern California beach community which is the kind of place that people come to vacation. I spend a lot of time on the beach and in the ocean so I really don’t feel a whole lot of need to get away because I love where I live. I have a pretty laid-back lifestyle, I must say, so I really don’t feel the need to get away much.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

Wildest dreams? What I’m doing now – only making a lot more money at it. I’d also like to be working in an academic or educational environment, maybe teaching part-time.

 

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  • It’s unbelievable how much I can relate to this article. I grew up in a racial diverse community and because it was so diverse there didn’t seem to be a need to teach about other cultures in school. It was a like a bitter sweet. People grew knowing very little about other culture despite the fact they we were a very diverse community. I guess the community believed we would teach one another. I remember when I was middle school a few of my friends were scared of getting deported because they were in the U.S. illegally and suddenly, every Hispanic became labeled as Mexican or illegal. Which was ironically funny because in my family, I do not speak Spanish fluently nor do I write it or read it, however, I do understand it perfectly, so for some of my family members I am not considered Hispanic. And, because I was not born in Honduras or in El Salvador, I am considered neither. As I grew older, I have to learn to proper stand up for who I am and who my people are. I am Hispanic. I am Honduran. I am Salvadoran. I am not Mexican. I am not Illegal. And just because a few are Illegal doesn’t not label all as illegals.

  • Thank you for being so honest about your experiences. In my short time on this planet, I too have been trying to find a way to respond to discrimination in a way that turns it in to a learning experience. I also admire your courage, it takes a lot to pursue a passion when a stable job is temptation. I remember calling my father during my first semester of college and telling him that I was changing my major from drama to medicine because I wanted to be able to take of the family but he told me to do what I love and that our family would always be taken care of.
    I sometimes thinks about what it would be like if I had decided to become a lawyer or something else more repetitive but I think my experience would’ve been much like yours. I don’t think I could sleep at night if I decided to chase money instead of doing what enriches my life because we only get one life (depending on your beliefs).
    I also relate to your segment about having more education makes you more credible. I am a writer for one of New York University’s many school papers and I try to make sure that all of my sources are credible and that I myself am also being truthful and properly educated about what I am writing about.

  • I want to thank you for sharing you experiences, identities, and challenges. I want to thank you for expressing your thoughts about how your identity as a mixed woman as come into play while in the workforce. This entire interview resonated with me on a personal level as I too am Native American. Your discussion of minimizing the Native experience with the blood quantum is very interesting and made me reflect on my own life and my experiences with my fellow Native Americans.

    I think, in addition to the workplace, the classroom can also be a place a lot of minorities feel left out, misrepresented, and underserved. When it comes to the Native population, many students deal with discrimination based upon the American education system’s standards for social studies education. I am very passionate about education reform on the topic of Native American history and how this education has played a role in the continued discrimination against Native peoples. I found that students were coming to college not even knowing that Natives were still alive and believed that Natives were what their primary schools taught them to be: history. Issues like this don’t just stop with the graduation of high school or college, but are carried into the workforce and can affect millions.

    This discrimination being intwined in children’s education has helped create the extremely polarized social climate that is present in the United States. I think that your career path would have been much easier and faced with less hardships if education was improved across the United States. I also think that you are a trailblazer and want to thank you for taking your time to be an inspiration for not only your fellow Native Americans, but also to people who battle with self-doubt and describe themselves as free-spirited.

  • Being of another culture can lead you to understanding people or people that don’t want to learn about other cultures. Throughout my high school career I have experienced both. I am Mexican, and I have traveled all over the world learning to respect other cultures. Learning to respect the people that are not like me. However, it can be hard for other people to understand other cultures and that leads them to say rude comments that can truly affect someone even if they are just ‘joking’. And understanding her story made me realize that even though she has sometimes been discriminated she found comfort in writing which is a strength nobody will ever take away from her. And even though she was faced with many challenges growing up she still does what truly makes her happy. She accepts and protects her heritage because it belongs to her and nobody can make her believe other wise and that is very inspiring.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. It was a pleasure reading
    your responses to the interview.

    I am African American. The feud with team light skin and team
    dark skin has always been heartbreaking but also eye opening to me as a young African
    American woman. My discrimination came directly from family members because I
    lived in an all-black community where my skin tone was darker.
    I was often questioned if my father was actually my father or if my mother was
    actually my mother. Many family members were neglectful of me because I looked
    nothing like them. The discrimination followed as I grew up and began going to
    school and working I was often picked on for being a darker skin tone.

    I tried researching on how to lighten my skin and skin
    bleaching products. My mom soon found out that I was saving my money and researching
    on lighter skin tones and broke down crying in my arms. I was only 15 and
    beginning my time at a local high school. From that point on if it was not my
    skin that was discriminated against
    people found smaller things to discriminate me with that was influential or a
    staple in the black community such as my dislike of southern food,(because I was
    not allowed to dislike fried chicken or ramen) music (I related and found peace in Pop music
    and not rap or r&b) and the fact
    that I was as skinny as a rod (and not curvy as the famous Beyoncé). Defining my
    “blackness” was something I struggled with for over 20 years, it wasn’t until I
    attended Meredith College and NCSU that I had the opportunity to be exposed to
    a diverse black community of women have struggled with their skin tone and the African
    American culture as well.

    I took it upon myself
    to work on my self-esteem and help girls who were also struggling with their
    African American “authenticity” and this ultimately helped me find my voice as I
    work with victims of human trafficking through community outreach and awareness
    about the problem I am able to speak and write confidentially about the issue
    and discrimination that I faced in my past and the discrimination that we as
    African American women continue to face.

  • Thank you for sharing this and giving an indigenous person the platform to share her experience as a person as well as a working indigenous woman in the United States.

    I really identified with the interviewee’s described internal need to make a difference in the world, to gently educate be it significantly or just for a moment. I can’t remember ever existing without that need. I truly believe that filmmaking found me. I’d always been passionate and curious about identity and how the world around us shapes who we are. But when Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012, and his killer was not convicted in 2013 –I was changed.

    I was sitting in on my bed in my apartment in Beijing and all I could think was “They still don’t see us.” I went back to New York to pursue a career in film, where I could bring the humanness that I see to black, brown, and women bodies. Like your interviewee, I’m not expecting to change the world with my film. But I can only pray that my intentions meet the minds of those who see them. I believe in storytelling, I believe in it’s ability to make us feel and see. I am studying at NYU to learn how to tell a compelling visual story without leaving the complexities that identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, family structure, etc.) brings, behind.

    I am glad the interviewee has found pathways to empower her own identity and the identity of her people through her work. It’s not an easy road.

  • This has been one of the most heartening pieces I have read in quite a while. I am a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. However, thanks to a variety of factors, my identity as a Native has always been called into question. your mention of the blood quota and the “ideal Indian” really struck a chord with me. Though I have experienced it all of my life, I had never been articulate the experience that you have so clearly identified in your own life. The experience of never belonging in either world (Caucasian of Choctaw) is something that has plagued my entire life.

    My grandmother, who was born and raised on and near the Choctaw reservation, always made it clear that to be successful is to be white. As a Native woman herself, growing up during WWII, she found her path to success by minimizing her public association with her heritage. As I have grown, I have seen how that experience still haunts her today. I do not want to suffer the same regrets, but often find myself making the very same decisions she made.

    To a certain extent, I do not think that neither myself, nor my grandmother, have actively acknowledged the role that discrimination has held in our lives. A clear memory comes into my mind. In 5th grade, every student in my class did a family heritage project, where we researched our culture and gave a class presentation dressed in the traditional garb of said culture. When I showed up to class, I was written off as a wanna-be and fake. No-one would acknowledge the heritage that I had been so proud to share with them. After that day, I learned just why my grandmother had denied her heritage and culture publicly.

    However, at the University of Arizona, I had the opportunity to belong to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium, a small group of underrepresented students whose goal was to participate in cutting edge research and further their goals in graduate school. For some reason, just as I was surprised at our own shared experiences, I was surprised at how similar I was to these other students. My situation is not unique. However tragic it is that we all had similar experiences, we all used these shared experiences to come together and make ourselves better people and better students because of it. It amazed me that no-one questioned my role as an underrepresented student or my validity as a Native female.

    Thanks to the opportunities provided by this program, I will be attending Stanford University as a student in the program for Master of Science in Laboratory Animal Science. I will have the opportunity to participate in research in their esteemed Comparative Medicine department. However, with a small cohort of other students, I can only hope that Stanford lives up to its reputation of inclusivity. Though I will be the only Native student in the program, I hope that I will not let myself hide my heritage and culture.

    I hope that one day, I can do as you do and enjoy my passions and be proud of the work I am doing while, at the same time honoring and embracing my culture. Though STEM fields are notoriously male dominated and Native members are few and far between, I hope to be able to carve a path for future females and Natives, so that they may know that it can be done and it can be done well. Just as this brave and proud woman has succeeded, I wish to as well.

  • I originally picked this article because the author is Native American, which I also am, and also because of

    the soul-killing job part. After reading, I found there was much more here than I thought. One thing that

    stood out to me was the alienation felt by being part of two races. For me, I am Native American and

    African American, but the problem lies with my skin tone. I am very light skin. I was always too white for

    black kids, and too black for white kids. The other thing that made me think about myself was all the job

    searching. Doing something you want to do that also makes money. I don’t know exactly what career I

    want. I guess I have an idea, but even then, when people ask me what I want to do, I just say something

    business-like, since that’s my major. Like her I wanted to be a teacher also, but that’s a job that doesn’t

    seem to pay enough. I read one of the other articles, where the author said she could make 25,000 a year

    full time (not counting the summer months). That seems fine for one person, but it also seems like it might

    be cutting it a little close. So I chose business because I had thought of being a boss or something like that

    when I was younger and I’m sure I would get enough money from it. Hopefully I can find joy in it too. And

    hopefully I can get experience like this woman has, without being lost or changing jobs/careers so much. I

    just don’t want to graduate and think “what now?”. Then end up being 50 something, still with no clue.