Career Advice

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, 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 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 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, and others. I wrote articles for, 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.