top of page
  • Shawn Pohlman PhD, RN

A Writer's Tale: Creating Stories for the Descendant's Project

When John Graybill called and invited me to join the Curtis Legacy Foundation board and become the writer for the Descendant’s Project, truthfully, my heart skipped a beat. The timing was good as I had just retired from my nursing professor role, and I had the skills to interpret interviews and write stories as a result of my doctoral education. During my training, I developed qualitative research expertise, which means I learned how to study people in ways that captured the rich context of their lives. For my dissertation, I studied fathers of critically ill premature infants—a topic I became passionate about as a young nurse caring for babies and parents in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Although very meaningful work, in my later years I became equally enamored with qualitative research. So, bottom line is this: I’m sure glad I followed the nudge my wise old heart gave me the day I picked up John’s call and said “Yes,” as I think I have more to give, more to learn, and more to create!

Writing the stories of the living descendants of Native Americans brilliantly captured by Curtis over 100 years ago is truly an honor for me—as stories matter—a lot. When you read a well-written story or listen to a passionate storyteller, you get a glimpse into the lives of other humans who are often very different from you. Stories prompt reflection and may increase empathy—two elements in need of more attention in our world today. Unfortunately, in today’s age of technology and instant information, stories may have lost their zeal; although, I sense that tide is turning ever so slowly. According to one celebrated author, Daniel Pink, the story has taken a back seat to facts (numbers, statistics). He noted that society considers stories less dependable than facts: “Stories amuse, facts illuminate. Stories divert, facts reveal. Stories are for cover, facts are for real” (Pink, 2005, p. 102). This role reversal has enormous consequences for how we work and live, especially in an era where presumed “facts” are instantly available via technology, which actually lessens each fact’s value. As facts pervade our world, “what begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact” (Pink, 2005, p. 103). This is exactly what I strive for when I write the descendants’ stories.

The process I use to create the descendants’ stories mirrors the method utilized for my research with NICU parents: Interpretive Phenomenology. It’s a big word, but simply stated, this method is used as a means to better understand the lived experience of others. This type of inquiry is based on a philosophic framework that assumes humans dwell in a meaningful world (Benner, 1994; Taylor, 1985). So, to put it another way, each person is unique and therefore will experience the world from his/her own vantage point. A good illustration of this concept involves the nature of stress. Personally, I find visiting a physician stressful (maybe it has something to do with me being a nurse?), while others find such encounters a breeze. Therefore, visiting a doctor has different meanings for each person, and those meanings are shaped by genetics, family experiences, relationships, culture, and society.

There are 4 steps involved in creating a descendant’s story: 1) conducting the interview, which is audio/video taped, 2) transcribing the interview word-for-word, which is done electronically, 3) carefully reading and interpreting the transcription, and 4) creating the story. My interpretation process begins as I read the transcript for the first time and jot down my thoughts. As I read and re-read the transcript, my understanding of the descendant deepens and themes or categories begin to emerge. Once the themes are firmly established, I extract portions of the transcript that best illustrate each theme. The final step, creation of the story, is the hardest part. My goal is to provide the reader with quotes that vividly capture the lived experience of each descendant in a way that prompts reflection and deepens the reader’s understanding. In addition, I try to find any pertinent information about each descendant’s ancestor, which can be found in The North American Indian—the 20-volume collection of Curtis photographs and written notes. I enjoy weaving pertinent details of each descendant’s ancestor into his or her story. Surprisingly, I have discovered similarities between their past and present lives; sometimes there are even striking resemblances in the photographs!

As a writer, I do feel a responsibility to capture these stories in a way that is authentic and honorable. After all, it is my belief we have much to learn from them—if we take the time to stop, listen, and reflect. It is my enduring hope that doing so will open the hearts and minds of our readers. That is my story, and I’m sticking to it!


Shawn Pohlman PhD, RN

Benner, P. (1994). The tradition and skill of interpretive phenomenology in studying health, illness, and caring practices. In Benner, P. (Ed.) Interpretive Phenomenology: Embodiment, Caring, and Ethics in Health and Illness. Thousand Oaks, California: 99-127.

Pink, D. H. (2005). A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the World. New York: Penguin Group.

Taylor, C. (1985). Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, MA.


Do you like reading stories like this? If so, please support our work. As a nonprofit organization, we depend on donations from readers like you.

154 views0 comments