Daunis is such a strong and engaging protagonist in "Firekeeper's Daughter." What aspects of Daunis’s personality impress you the most?
I love the way Daunis’s mind works. Early in the story, her best friend Lily calls out Daunis’s “black or white” thinking. The reader is inside Daunis’s head, witnessing her increasingly complex emotions and how she navigates complicated situations. I am also impressed by her Terminator-like personality on the ice. Daunis’s mind operates full-throttle and full volume. But when she’s on the ice, all that “noise” fades. She is able to hyper-focus and become a “tenacious beast”.
She’s also perfect for the role of what you’ve called the “Indigenous Nancy Drew.” How did you go about developing the mystery-thriller aspect of the plot?
I wrote the beginning and the ending, and THEN dove into the middle. It’s kind of like those maze puzzles with one entry and one exit, and you need to find the path through. I write the thriller parts going forward from the beginning; I work on the mystery elements backwards from the ending. I used to struggle with writer’s block until I had the epiphany that I am not a linear writer.
How closely does the story reflect your own experience as someone with a Native dad and a non-Native mom, and how satisfying -- or difficult -- was it to relive those times? Do you think those adolescent cross-cultural challenges have improved over time or gotten more formidable?
Well, they always say to write what you know. Daunis comes from the experiences I had growing up as a light-skinned Ojibwe girl who didn’t quite fit in on the reservation or in the small town where I was raised. Teens are still hearing the same things I did and, yes, it’s even worse with online harassment. Stories about coping with similar challenges can be a literal lifeline to someone.
What were some of the greatest challenges you faced as Director of the Office of Indian Education, and how do you hope to address those issues through your writing and beyond?
The greatest challenge remains that too many public schools relegate content about Native Americans to the past and rely on materials that perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation. Online sites such as the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, the American Indian Library Association, and the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) have excellent resources for all educators. It’s especially important because 92% of American Indian and Alaska Native students attend public schools. I am thrilled to be part of a growing body of Indigenous authors telling stories about our communities, and helping Native children and teens to see themselves in books.
You’ve said you wrote this book over a long period of time while juggling a day job and raising a family. When did you know “Firekeeper’s Daughter” was ready to show to the world?
I would finish a draft and know what was lacking or where I’d missed the mark. I’d work on my craft and start all over again. This went on for nearly ten years when I was selected for the We Need Diverse Books mentorship program. I went through one last revision with feedback from my mentor, author Francisco X. Stork. At that point, I began to query agents because I couldn’t think of anything else to revise. I felt as though I’d exhausted my writing muscles to capacity and had taken the story as far as I could.
What would your advice be to first-time YA authors?
Write the story you wished to read as a teen, the one that only you can tell.
Do you have a favorite Indigenous author?
I have many favorites but pressed to name just one, it would be Marcie Rendon. Her Cash Blackbear mystery series -- beginning with “Murder on the Red River” -- is incredible. She writes the way Anishinaabe storytellers describe what you’re seeing and sensing. You feel as if you’re right there with her.
What would you like your readers to take away from “Firekeeper’s Daughter?”
Indigenous people are still here and we have dynamic stories to tell.