Search

Episode 31: Katrina Phillips Starts with the Fragments

Play episode

Note: Links to books are affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you purchase books through these links, I’ll make a small commission, which helps me keep Drafting the Past going. Thanks for supporting our guests and the podcast!

In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Katrina Phillips. Katie Phillips is an associate professor of history at Macalester College. She is the author of Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and Performances of Native American History, which focuses on the past and present of three Western performances that purport to show Indigenous history, but do so from the perspective of white settlers. Katie is a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. She is also a public historian and consultant, and, to my delight, she has also published multiple children’s books about Indigenous history. Our conversation covers the importance of making history accessible, the value of an intellectual community that says things like “this has to be in the book,” and how writing for kids lets her reach a whole new set of readers. Here’s my conversation with Katie Philips.

MENTIONED IN THE EPISODE

TRANSCRIPT

Kate Carpenter:
Hello fellow writers and welcome back to Drafting the Past. I’m Kate Carpenter, and this is a show all about the craft of writing history. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Katrina Phillips.

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
Well, thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Kate Carpenter:
Katie Phillips is an associate professor of history at Macalester College. She’s the author of Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and Performances of Native American History, which focuses on the past and present of three performances that purport to show indigenous history, but do so on the terms of white settlers. Katie is a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. She’s also a public historian and consultants, and to my delight, she has published multiple children’s books about indigenous history. Our conversation covers the importance of making history accessible, the value of an intellectual community that says things like, “This has to be in the book,” and how writing for kids lets her reach a whole new set of readers. Here’s my conversation with Katie Phillips.

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
I know some people who it’s like they have known they were going to be a writer from the time they were little kids. It has always been their thing, their dream, their goal, and I always loved writing. I’ve always loved it. My dad is a retired high school English teacher, but is also a writer. He’s written a lot of books, a lot of newspaper articles, and essays and things like that. So I’ve grown up around that. I’ve grown up around writing. I’ve grown up seeing my dad write and things like that, but I didn’t know that it was something I could do as a career. And my dad, again, as a retired English teacher, he is so good in that realm of fiction. He’s mostly like an outdoors writer and things like that. And so tells these beautiful stories and all of these things. And for me, I’ve always loved facts and information and things like that.
And honestly, when I was maybe fifth grade, fourth or fifth grade, something like that, a group of friends and I decided that we were going to write a book about the presidents. And some of my friends did a couple of them here and there, but I did most of it, typed it all up, did all of that stuff, and I was just like, “Okay, cool. That was fun.” But now being able to combine those two loves, seeing what my dad has done, combining that with my love of history and things like that, it’s just been really incredible. And having the chance to not only write in the academic sphere, but also getting a chance to do more public writing, doing writing for kids and things like that. It’s one of those things where I pinch myself every once in a while because I’m like, “I am actually getting paid to write,” and being able to pull together a lot of the things that I love into all of these different little facets of my career is pretty phenomenal.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, let’s talk just about the basics. So when and where do you like to do your writing?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
So this is a spot where I’ve had to really change how I’ve done it over the years. When I was in grad school, at first I was like, I need this huge chunk of time. I need it quiet. I need to create the perfect ambiance for where I’m at. And then I had my first kid, and all of a sudden I no longer had those huge chunks of time. I no longer could curate my perfect writing space. And so now I’m at the point where I can write just about anywhere. I’ll take a notebook to my kids’ basketball practice. We have to get there half an hour early before a soccer game. And so I’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve got a little bit of time,” I’ll take a draft of something I’m working on and things like that.
And so it’s taken me a long time to hone in on that ability to be okay with saying, “I have a 30-minute chunk of time, let me just see what I can get done.” And so I do really writing in my house. If I go to a coffee shop or something, particularly around here, I’ll usually see somebody I know and I, like a lot of us, I have no self-control. And so then it’s like we start talking and then I’m like, “Oh, wait a minute, now my day is gone.” But yeah, by now it’s basically, and now we have two kids. So by now it’s basically whenever and wherever I can, I’ll take it as a win.

Kate Carpenter:
What’s your process? Are there tools you use? How do you like to keep yourself organized?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
So for organizing things, I’ve tried a couple different things over the years. Back in grad school working on my first book, I printed everything, had all the sticky tabs on the side of the pages, highlighting notes and things like that. And now that I’m starting to move into the process for my next book, really in that hoarding, collecting every possible source I think I might need. I actually started a spreadsheet, which I’m sure people have been doing this forever, and I’m just now getting into this, but I started a spreadsheet and I have overall sources. I have a list of, I’ve got a tab for chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, things like that.
And what I like about that is I’m teaching myself to keep everything in one space instead of downloading an article off JSTOR, plugging it in what I think is the best folder for it, and then forgetting that it’s there. And so I think that for me is my trajectory at least going forward for this book, is to really be really concrete and intentional about how I’m collecting these sources, whether they’re archival sources, whether they’re secondary sources, and so far so good. But again, I just have to be really intentional about it instead of just dropping it somewhere and hoping I find it again.

Kate Carpenter:
Where in the research process do you like to start writing?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
I think for me, whether it’s on the page or not, I’m always writing where, and I like to just get some ideas down on paper. And I never start, I feel like I’m revealing all my deepest darkest secrets here. But I never open a blank Word Doc because that’s the most terrifying thing as a writer, right? Where it’s like you open, whether it’s Word Doc or Google Doc, and it’s just this big blank space staring back at you. And so I’ll either, and I think this is something I have subconsciously picked up from my dad, because he’s got pieces of paper everywhere with little notes, little tidbits and things like that. And so what I usually do is just open, whether it’s the Notes app, whether it’s honestly a blank email on my phone and just talk or type into that. And it’s very rarely complete thoughts or fully fledged sentences, but I start with that, and then open my Word Doc, and then plug it right in there.
Because it feels to me that it’s like, “Okay. I’ve already started this. I’ve already started to think through this.” And so I think I start to write pretty early on. A lot of it, again, it can be stream of consciousness, things like that. My biggest issue and my lovely grad school advisor still tells me this all the time, and I love to write. I’ve been told I’m good at it, but my issue is always what’s the argument? And so I think part of that early process for me with the stream of consciousness and things like that is to get all of that down, and then go back fairly begrudgingly I might add to be like, “Okay. What is my argument? What is my claim? What am I trying to do here?”

Kate Carpenter:
So is that the point at which you go from fragments like, “Okay, I’m drafting now,” or does it just happen, and then does it evolve from one to the other?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
I think it evolves from one to the other where it’s, I’ll put my ideas down. And for me, I tend to start with, now the more I’m thinking about it, I tend to start with a lot of, honestly, like the secondary literature, just to see what other folks have done, what they’ve said, what they’re arguing and things like that. And then, almost using that to help me define what I’m trying to do, right? And I’ve never really been a fan of the question that’s like, “What’s the gap in the literature? What’s the big glaring omission?” Because I feel that discredits the work that’s come before us that’s helping us shape what we’re trying to do now. And so I try to think about it as, “Here’s what these scholars have done, how is what I’m doing building on that?” Right? They’ve laid these incredible foundations for us. How can we take that into the story that I’m trying to tell?

Kate Carpenter:
What does revision then look like for you? Do you wait until you have a full draft? Do you revise as you go?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
I think I revise as I go. Most of the writing that I do, unless it’s the shorter things and pieces that don’t necessarily require it. But I still, and I know there are people who are not a fan of this structure, and that’s good and fine for them. But I tend to structure my writing into the subsections, and I do that for a couple of reasons. One, it helps me ground myself and to see, okay, and especially as a historian where it’s like, and for a lot of the work that I do, especially as someone who does native history, there’s so much context. There’s so much explanation that has to happen before I can even get into what I am trying to say. And so a lot of times revision for me will be honestly filling in a lot of the incomplete thoughts I have.
So I’m really good at the first half to the first three quarters of a sentence or a paragraph. And then I always write in all capital letters, do something or more here, and I highlight it in whatever color I’m feeling that day. Because that way I can be like, “Okay,” that idea is most of the way there, but instead of beating myself up over the fact that I’m not quite there yet, I’m going to set it there and I’m going to come back to it. I’ve never been the kind of person who can write beginning to end. And it’s something I tell my students when they’re going to turn in a first draft or even a second draft where I’m going to say, “If you’re stuck, throw in a bullet point with just some ideas,” add a note to yourself where it’s like, “I think I know where I’m going with this. I’m not quite sure, I’m going to come back to it.”
Giving myself permission to have that freedom where it’s understanding that writing is a process and understanding that I don’t know what I want to say here. I think I know what I want to say. Let me do some more in this section and then come back. And so from the outside, it’s probably very chaotic, but it’s how my brain works and it’s just what I’m used to by this point.

Kate Carpenter:
Do you have a community or people you rely on for feedback as you’re working?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
Yes. So I have been a part of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies workshop at the University of Minnesota since my first semester as a graduate student. And when I finished my PhD, I asked my advisor, I said, “You know I know I’m done. Is this still a space for me or would you prefer to keep it more for the graduate students who are coming in?” And she said, “You are always welcome here,” and I’m still there. And it really is. And that is where, I mean, that is a huge part of the reason I’ve been able to do what I’ve done is because of that community. I mean, I have some friends from grad school who were in the workshop who literally read every single chapter of my dissertation multiple times, then they read the book chapters as I was revising and editing. I mean, they have really helped shape who I am as a writer and as a scholar.
And I think writing is such a solitary pursuit sometimes, and it feels really lonely sometimes. And having a group of people who are in the same space, and they’re not even all historians, they are in all kinds of departments. We have folks who are in the workshop now or who have been there in the past, who have been in psychology, who have been in forestry service, who are in the hard sciences and things like that. And it’s really fantastic to have such a broad community because somebody will be like, “Oh, I’m not sure if you’ve seen this book or if you’ve seen this source.” And it’s something that’s just commonplace in their realm, but can play a really crucial part in what someone else is doing.
And so that has been my main community. And for the past year or so I’ve been with a couple other folks. We just meet on Zoom, we chat once a month about what we’re working on, what we finished, what we’re thinking about. And we are not at all in the same historical field. But even just having that, knowing that that support is there and having a space to share excitement and to help encourage folks along is really phenomenal. And again, both of those spaces have been really crucial to quite honestly, my career as a whole.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, I want to turn and talk a little bit about your book Staging Indigeneity. And I have a lot of things to say about, it was so wonderful, and one thing I found really interesting about this book is that this is not a trade book, right? It’s a fairly scholarly book in the sense that, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems to be more of your primary audience. But one thing I really loved is that often I hear a debate amongst historians, not a historical debate, but a debate amongst historians of writing for the public versus writing for scholars. And there’s this, what to me seems like a false dichotomy of we can either write accessible prose that’s maybe not as nuanced or we can write nuanced, detailed thought aimed at fellow scholars, right? And I loved this book because it is not necessarily aimed at the widest possible audience, and yet it’s so compelling, it’s genuinely fun to read. I really enjoyed it. And so I was curious how you thought about your writing and your audience as you were working on it.

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
Well, thank you. Those are quite honestly, some of the best compliments I’ve gotten about the book. And I think as far as that back and forth within the field, the more I see how the past is shaping the present and how many questions people have about so many different things, especially a lot of the things that have happened over the last couple of years. I am falling much more into the camp of writing for the broadest possible audience while also upholding the rigorous methods and standards of the discipline. And like you said, I don’t see how those can’t work together. And some of the books that come to mind that I think do an absolutely incredible job of that are Megan Kate Nelson’s books, right? Where they are so incredibly well researched, but that’s a book that I could buy for my father-in-law, right? And be like, “Hey, I think this is a book that you’d really enjoy.”
And I think as far as that balance goes, I would love to have these books, these conversations that we have in academia, not just confined to academia itself. It’s great to talk to other scholars and historians and things like that, but we also can’t ignore other people. And so when I was writing this book, and I read a lot of books, whether it was in grad school or even since then that I just didn’t understand as someone with a PhD in history. And I think the biggest thing for me, and what I try to do in basically everything I write is to make it as accessible as possible. And when Staging Indigeneity came out, I had all these extra copies and I put one on my husband’s desk and I was like, “It would mean a lot to me if you would read this.” I’m like, “You’re not going to read it in one day, but just when you have a couple minutes, read a little bit here, read a little bit there.”
And he gave me a hard time for it. Because he was like, “God, you use a lot of big words.” And I was like, “I mean, these are words I use in everyday conversation. So you’re just reading them instead of hearing me say them.” And again, he is not a scholar. He is incredibly smart in his own realm and with what he does for work, it’s not anything I could ever do. But that for me was one of those moments where it’s like, “I want to be able to write books that my sisters-in-law, my brothers-in-law, my in-laws would read,” right? And I’m not including my parents there because they read everything I write regardless. But it is, and I think especially as I’ve started doing a little bit more work in writing for the public and things like that, honestly, I feel like if I were to go back and try to write Staging Indigeneity now, it would probably look different.

Kate Carpenter:
Another thing I really like about this book is that you combine history and I guess maybe what we would call ethnography, but you do it often in alternating chapters, right? So you have the history of one of these performances, and then a closer look at how it’s functioning now and how it’s grappling or not grappling with that history. And they really enjoyed this. This was a really cool way I thought to present this information. How did you think about that narrative structure? Was that always the plan or was that something that evolved as you wrote and revised it?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
It was something that evolved as I did the writing. And so in my dissertation, I had Unto These Hills and I had Pendleton, and so Tecumseh was in my dissertation, the dissertation actually started with an Indian pageant that was staged on my reservation with the Apostle Islands Indian Pageant. And so that it made sense to set that aside for that’s going to go in the next book. But after I went to Pendleton for the first time, after I went to Unto These Hills for the first time, I was like, I mean, “This has to be part of it.” And I think part of it for me was because I have a background in performance, I’ve danced, I did musical theater, I did all of that stuff, even did that professionally for a little bit.
And I think for me, having the archival work, all of that, mostly enmeshed in chapters one, three and five, and then going to these performances and actually being there and seeing how these performances are working and functioning today was something that as I was doing the writing and as I was doing the revisions felt that much more critical to the story I was telling. Especially as a native woman, especially as someone with that performance background. It was really, and honestly, I’m pretty sure it was when I was submitting a chapter to workshop and folks were asking me questions, and I’m talking about my own experiences and being there and things like that.
And I’m pretty sure somebody at Workshop was like, “That has to be in the chapter. That has to be in the book.” And so I give a lot of credit to the workshop folks, but I also give a lot of credit to my editor for trusting me with that. And I think that’s why I tried really hard to still ground the historical side of things. So it was like, “This is what it was like at first. This is why these shows were created. This is why the folks put all this work in.” And that’s also why I added Tecumseh is because it was another show that still performed today. And so I remember when I was like, “Oh God, that means I have to go see another show.” And it’s one of those things where I don’t think I could have done justice without actually being there. And I’ve gotten knocked for it.
But looking at some of the reviews of the book that have come out, a couple of folks have been like, “Would’ve really liked to see a little bit more criticism of those three productions.” And I think the criticism would’ve been in the book if I hadn’t gone to Chillicothe, if I hadn’t gone to Cherokee, if I hadn’t gone to Pendleton. Because seeing these three towns, seeing what these shows do for the economy as a whole really changed how I saw both literally and figuratively these productions. And so yeah, I think it was really important to me to actually see these shows first because of the performance piece, but then once I was there, then to be like, “Oh, there’s the reason.” But there’s also why there’s this dissonance between what’s on stage and what we really see.

Kate Carpenter:
To show how this narrative structure comes to life. I asked Katie to read the opening to chapter two of Staging Indigeneity, which takes readers to the present day incarnation of the Pendleton Round-Up. Here’s Dr. Katrina Phillips reading from Staging Indigeneity.

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
Unlike Charles Wellington Furlong, I did not step off the number 17 traded Pendleton. Nearly a century after Furlong traveled west to Pendleton, I fly from Minneapolis to Seattle, hop in a rental car and drive about five hours southeast to Pendleton. The pine and hemlock trees stubbornly clinging to impossibly steep mountainsides give way to gently sloping treeless hills as fences and wide open planes stretched for miles in all direction. Eastern Oregon looks nothing like the coast. There are none of what Emily Brock calls “lush temperate rainforests” out here. Pendleton sits in Northeastern Oregon, about an hour southwest of Walla Walla, Washington. Hotel rooms run more than $300 a night in Pendleton during Round-Up week and sell out quickly. So I stay in Walla Walla when I head west for Round-Up. I have to admit that I have yet to go to Pendleton for something other than Round-Up.
So I have to trust the newspapers that have long described how Pendleton comes alive during Round-Up week. During the second week of September, the usually quiet streets are jammed with cowboys and tourists playing cowboy. Made possible in part by the clothing vendors that conveniently line the road to the arena. Rodeo participants, their numbers carefully pinned to their backs, patiently wait in line for a table at the restaurant or a spot at the bar. Vendor booths take over most of the city streets, and bars and restaurants compete for tourist dollars by posting their deals and specials on chalkboards and signs in front of their respective establishments. The performative aura permeates Pendleton. In order to get press credentials, I needed to follow rodeo sanctions and quite literally dress the part. While I had packed jeans and my cowboy boots, I had neither a western shirt nor a cowboy hat. So I did my part and contributed to the local economy of Pendleton buying the required attire at one of the pop-up shops and returning to the press trailer.
An older Pendletonian and gentleman, the one with the power to give me the credentials, looked me up and down and shrugged his shoulders, unimpressed by my costume change. “We all have a part to play in Pendleton,” he said, handing me my badge. Later, after determining that my go-to ponytail did not fit under my brand new cowboy hat, I put two braids in my hair as a way to combat the unseasonably warm weather. I passed another Pendletonian gentleman who commented that my hair made me look “like an Indian.” As a Lake Superior Ojibwe dressed up as a cowboy and feeling decidedly out of place, I decided to take it as a compliment as I made my way to the grandstand for the rodeo.

Kate Carpenter:
I love this opening to this chapter. There’s so much happening here and it’s fantastic. You’ve touched on this a little bit, but I wanted to talk a bit more about your decision to put yourself in the book. Was that a struggle for you? I know for some historians that’s like a thing that, I don’t know, they feel allergic to perhaps.

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
And it is. It’s funny that now having this kind conversation and thinking back about it, how much of these conversations in the field as a whole played into whether I did it purposely or not played into how I wrote the book. And I think for a lot of folks in Native American and Indigenous Studies, it’s less of a contestation, if you will, over whether or not we ride ourselves into the narrative. And I think for a lot of folks in that field, for those of us who are native, whether we’re writing about our own people or whether we’re writing about other native nations, I think it’s important to situate ourselves in the work that we’re doing for a number of reasons. And so, at least here, my experience in Pendleton was a lot different than my husband’s experience in Pendleton, right? Nobody batted a eye at what he was wearing, right? But what I was wearing gets called into question.
Yeah. And I think it just made sense to write myself into it and to write my experiences into it. And like I say, later on in the book, when I went to see Tecumseh, when I went to Chillicothe for the first time, I admittedly knew probably less than I should have known about Tecumseh as someone who teaches native history. But I was like, “I’m not going to do any research. I’m not going to do anything. I want to be a tourist.” And so having the chance to do that was really opening, right? Because I was like, “I’m going to see this and then I’m going to do the research.” And one of the things I wrestle with in the book is the history that we see on stage is not necessarily the “real history.” And so what are the takeaways for people that don’t have this background?
And quite honestly, I think one of the main reasons I decided to write myself into the book was, and pretty sure this is in chapter four, is when I went to see Unto These Hills for the first time. And I got there early to get a sense of the theater and things like that, and a non-native couple comes up to me and asks me to help them find their seats. And that for me was a moment where I went, “Oh, okay, this is different,” right? And I think that was the first time where I realized that my positionality, for better or for worse, depending on how you read the book, was going to play a really important part in the book itself.

Kate Carpenter:
Another thing that apparently not all reviewers agree with, but I think is one of the great strengths of the book is that you talk to people who are participating in these performances or in the larger events, and those perspectives are so much more nuanced. It’s not always like, “Yes, this is problematic, but we’re here anyway,” the easy soundbites, they’re much more complicated and have to do not only with cultural experiences, but also with individual families or just tradition or all the things that we all have in our lives. What was it like to come as a scholar, but to talk to people who were participating and to learn those perspectives?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
That was, and I’m thinking particularly about Pendleton here, that was honestly what helped shape the structure of a lot of the things in the book, especially thinking about the different responses I got from the board members and thinking about their positionality versus the native cast members. And one of the stories that I was told while I was in Pendleton was from one of the chiefs, one of the leaders who was there with his family, and he had been there just as his family had been there and everything like that. And when he told me the story of their leader who was martyred and how that’s not a story that’s in the show, I never would’ve learned that, and I never would’ve been able to add to then do that additional research into this leader, into this figure in their lives. And the fact that people were so open with me and were so willing to talk to me is something that I will be forever grateful for. Because, I mean, and honestly, I looked ridiculous and they were my jeans, my cowboy boots.
And I still have the shirt and I still have the hat, I still wear the hat when we go to rodeos around here, but I’ve never worn the shirt since then. And it sounds silly, but it’s like, and again, with having a performance background and things like that, I was like, “This is a costume.” And I had my cowboy boots because I know what it’s like to walk around a rodeo and cowboy boots are the best thing to wear when you’re at a rodeo. But I mean all of those different layers, all of those different pieces, and yeah, the fact again, that people were so willing to sit down and have a conversation with me and answer these questions and give me that insight. I mean, the book would not have been the same without it. And I say it in chapter two, but the people I talked to in Pendleton, I was using their stories for what their stories were, not trying to apply it to everyone. But I think it made such a difference in how I then saw these performances and the history behind them.

Kate Carpenter:
I want to shift now because I also want to talk a little bit about your work writing for kids, especially. It’s something I love. And then you’re the first person I’ve talked to who writes for kids, at least as far as I know, and I think that’s so wonderful. So I’m curious, first, how did you find your way to that genre and that experience?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
So it actually found me, and so I’ve done consulting work for an educational company called Capstone for, oh, about five, six years by this point. Wow. Yeah, the whole thing where it’s like time has lost all sense of meaning over these last couple of years. And so I’d started doing some historical and cultural consulting for them where I got to look at a number of books while they were still in the editing stage and things like that. And again, I mean, I need to give props to Capstone for recognizing that we need somebody with experience in this field to make sure that the books that we’re putting out are doing the good things we want them to do. And so I worked on a couple of those and had a great time with it because again, as an academic, any chance you have to do something that’s maybe a little more fun and exciting than the drudgery of our own work is, yeah, it was really cool.
And then I got an email that said, “Hey, we’ve got this series called Traditions and Celebrations, and would you want to write a book about Indigenous People’s Day?” And I said, “Yes,” and then I went, “Oh my God, what did I just get myself into?” And so I did the research, I wrote a draft of it, and the turning point for me was when I submitted a draft to my workshop at the U, because I was really struggling. And again, for those of us who do native history and the history of other historically excluded populations, a lot of it is not that great, right? There’s a lot of really shitty things that we have to talk about. And I was expressing some of these frustrations with the workshop people. And a couple of them were like, “You can find a way to do this that doesn’t hide what happened, but that still makes sense and makes it appropriate for this target market.”
At that time, my kids were maybe first or second grade-ish for the older one, and then the little one was still in preschool. And so what clicked for me, and again, I mean, our older one is the kind of kid, I think he was five when he goes, “Mom, how did the Civil War start?” And my husband and I are like, “Oh, we are not prepared for this.” And then we started buying books for him that was help us read them together and really help nurture that interest that he had, right? Because for us at least, and again, people are going to disagree with our parenting philosophy, but with things like that, if kids are asking questions, they can have the answers. They might not be as complex as if like you and I were talking about this, but we can do that work. We can lay that historical groundwork for them to ask these really important questions. So that was the light bulb moment for me thinking about, “Okay. If I’m writing this book for my kids, how can they approach this?”
And yeah, the folks at Capstone were really incredible, and they loved how I structured it, they loved how I set it up. The editors were fantastic, and the image that we have on the front of that Indigenous People’s Day book is one of my all time favorites. Because when we started that conversation, I said, “I don’t want a black and white image on the cover of this book.” And they did a lot of fantastic research and found a couple of different images, and the image that we have on the front of that book is so incredible and colorful and powerful and all of those things. And so yeah, that was honestly how the first one happened. And then they asked me to write the text for a graphic novel, which was a ton of fun.
And then the most recent book, the Super SHEroes of History is part of another series. So Scholastic has this whole fantastic Super SHEroes collection. And yeah, it’s just a lot of fun to not only do something that’s a little bit outside of the typical work for historians. And my joke with this, and it’s a joke, but it’s probably true, is that I’m going to guess more people read the kids’ books than read my academic book. And one of my husband’s sisters, she was like, “Yeah, these are the kind of books of yours that I can read and that I like to read.” But yeah, it’s been a lot of fun to find that trajectory, not only because it’s fun, but I also feel that it’s not only good for my kids and other native kids to see books like this. And there’s been such an amazing growth in the field of native kid lit, and I am just honored to even be a tiny little fraction of that.
But it’s also good for the kids who don’t look like my kids to see what it’s like when the kids who look like them are not the protagonist, when it is not their history that is front and center. And yeah, it’s been so much fun, and I’m just so grateful to get the chance to do this kind of work. Because, again, I love my academic work, I’m very proud of it all, but this is where I can see that tangible impact, where it’s friends are buying the books and sending them to their hometown libraries. They’re buying the books and sending them to school with their kids. And that having that broader community support is, yeah, it’s just incredible.

Kate Carpenter:
I assume you see this as part of your broader work as a public historian. You also, as you said, you’ve worked as a consultant for books and other things, you give press interviews regularly. How do you think broadly about the relationship between your work as a writer and your work as a public historian?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
To have that relationship that the writing side and the public history side, it’s interesting to think about them separately, but then also to see how they work together. Because the writing piece of it is, I think, really crucial, but also for people to either hear a voice or see a face and start to put those connections together, if that makes sense. Because again, it’s like with the writing, it’s like, it’s words on a page, and it seems there’s maybe a little bit of a disconnect there. But then to, again, to have that public component and get to talk with people and give them a chance to ask questions and start to build those relationships, and to give folks a space to maybe ask the questions that they don’t know how to answer or to find a way to quite honestly make history accessible.
And I think a lot of that for me comes from the fact that, like I said right at the beginning, I’ve always loved to write. I’ve always loved that piece of it. I didn’t know that I could be a historian, right? I am from very rural Northern Wisconsin, and I had no idea that this was even a career option. I think my background and where I’m from really drives a lot of that work for me to tell people that history is, it’s amazing. It teaches us so much, not only about the past, but also about the present and it shapes our future. And I feel like I’m on a soapbox for why history is cool. But yeah, and I think especially given the really drastic and dramatic shifts that we’ve seen over the past couple of years, I think for a lot of folks, having a space to try to make sense of a lot of these things and giving them the tools to do that has also really shaped how I’m doing that work.

Kate Carpenter:
What’s the best writing advice you’ve gotten?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
Oh, the best writing advice I’ve gotten. Oh, man. So honestly, this is going to sound a little silly, but I promise I can connect it. This is what one of my dissertation committee members said, actually, they’ve told me two things. One of them is that a good dissertation is a done dissertation, which I know a lot of us have heard. But I try to do that for myself with my drafts where it’s like, especially and having the workshop knowing that I’m going to get feedback from other outlets. I used to stay up super late, try to make it as perfect as possible, do all of that stuff. And then I was finally like, “No, the point of this part of it is to get feedback. And so a good draft is a done draft.” And so for a lot of things, that’s how I try to think about it, where it’s like, nobody is going to judge me for the status of my draft.
And again, I mean so many of us in academia we’re perfectionists. We like everything to be done exactly the way it needs to be done. But learning to give myself grace on that front and saying, “Okay. This draft is not where I thought it would be by this point, and that is okay, I’ve got the time to revise it and finesse it and things like that.” And so that, honestly, that has shaped a lot of how I’ve now started to write, and it’s really liberating and it’s really freeing. And yeah. So that’s a good one for me. And then when I write proposals, whether it’s for conference papers or submitting things for an edited volume or things like that, the same faculty member from the U told me this when I was writing my dissertation prospectus. And he said, “You are writing a work of fiction that is masquerading as nonfiction.”
And the number of times I have told that to other people, I mean, I’ve lost track of it. And it’s such a good way to think about it because again, it’s what you think you’re going to write about. But if you haven’t done the research yet, you have to be kind to yourself and recognize that what you have here might not be what the end product is. But trust yourself, trust your knowledge and your capabilities and recognize that once you do the research, things might change, they might shift, they might move around. But again, it’s that juxtaposition of knowing that you still need to do the research and hoping to find what you think you’re going to find and being okay with that changing. So those are basically the two little things that keep flashing up behind me whenever I’m doing this kind of work.

Kate Carpenter:
Those are super helpful. Before I let you go, can I ask you what you’re working on now?

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
That’s the most academic response ever. I’m working on a couple different things. So the next book that I’m working on is going to look at activism, environmentalism, and tourism on and around my reservation. I did not grow up on my reservation, but went back there a lot as a kid and things like that. And so for me, it’s a sense of really trying to tie this history back into, quite honestly, giving myself a greater sense of what this history is, of where I come from, of that really long history. And it’s the research I’ve done so far has been really enlightening and really inspiring quite honestly, and that the book is very much in its very early stages. I know what I want it to look like, but I would say there’s still a lot of research I need to do. But yeah, that’s the top thing right there. Doing a couple other things for Capstone, doing more in the public history realm as well. But yeah, it’s a lot of fun and like I said at the beginning, I just can’t believe that this is what I get to do.

Kate Carpenter:
Awesome. I love that. Well, Dr. Katrina Phillips, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past and talking about writing history with me.

Katrina (Katie) Phillips:
Well, thank you so much and it’s being able to think about these things in the broader context is always great, so thank you for that.

Kate Carpenter:
Another big thanks to Katie Phillips for joining me for this episode of Drafting the Past. And thanks to you for listening. You can find more about this episode and ways to support the show at draftingthepast.com. And hey, are you in the Kansas City area? I am excited to be hosting a panel as part of the inaugural Heartland Book Festival at the Kansas City Public Library on October 7th, 2023. I’ll be talking with four authors I admire, Erika Bolstad, Kerri Arsenault, Staci Drouillard, and Vivian Gibson about how they blend history and memoir in their books. If you’re in the area, please join us. It’s free, and it’s going to be a great conversation. Until next time, remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.

Hosted by
admin
Join the discussion

More from this show

Subscribe

Episode 31
css.php