Wanted: Books written by or about contemporary Native Americans.
Needed: Books that include contemporary Native American children presented without stereotypes or clichés.
Every child needs to see their own people and their own experiences in the books they read: yet in the United States less that 5% of children’s books published are written by or about Native Americans.
All young people need books that describe contemporary children who are Native American, not just historical accounts as though Indian children lived “past tense”, only a long time ago. The following books have “real” characters and engaging stories that include traditional celebrations continued in contemporary ways – with food, family, dance.
Secret of the Dance by Alfred Scow and Andrea Spalding (Orca, 2006);
Whale Snow by Debby Dahl Edwardson, illustrated by Annie Patterson (Charlesbridge, 2003);
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (HarperCollins, 2000);
The Butterfly Dance by Gerald Dawavendewa (Abbeville, 2001);
Powwow’s Coming by Linda Boyden (University of New Mexico Press, 2007);
Little Coyote Runs Away by Craig Kee Strete (Putnam, 1997);
When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger with Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron (Tricycle Press, 2007).
With each of these books, if one asks, “Is this how an American Indian child would want to be perceived?” I think the answer is, “Yes.”
For Older Readers:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney (Little Brown, 2007);
Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001);
Bowman’s Store: A Journey to Myself by Joseph Bruchac (Lee & Low, 1997);
Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (Puffin Books, 1997);
Rattlesnake Mesa: Stories from a Native American Childhood by EdNah New Rider Weber, photographs by Richela Renkun (Lee & Low, 2004);
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (Harper & Row, 1968 – new reprint edition, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010).
In every area of the curriculum – art, literature, sports, science, government and politics – include contemporary Native Americans. For example, in sports, one of the greatest American athletes of the past century was Jim Thorpe. But how often is his biography included in a list of American athletes? Joseph Bruchac, whose work reflects Native American traditions as well as his own Abenaki Indian heritage, is one of our most prolific contemporary authors of children’s books yet we seldom see his books mentioned on recommended reading lists other than “books about Native Americans.”
Native Americans as individuals as well as their histories and cultures should be part of every aspect of year-round curriculum. But a note of caution: in textbooks, be aware of historical inaccuracies, omissions, bias, and especially ethnocentrism, i.e., from whose point of view is the text written? The most common examples of ethnocentricism are historical descriptions of the “conquest of America”, from Columbus to the Wild West. The American Indian point of view is rarely presented. American Indian history, other than their conquest, is rarely described. They were here first yet textbook histories of North America rarely begin before the first appearance of European explorers! So judge for Yourself. In any book with reference to Native American children or culture, be aware of stereotyping.
Dr. Anselmo Ramon, Tohono O’odham, the former Director of the Native American Studies Department in the Tucson Unified School District, has worked with teachers to create a rich multicultural curriculum free of stereotyping. Here is his guide:
Stereotype = conventional, simplified identification based on exterior qualities.
Frequent stereotyping of Native Americans includes:
* Stereotyped people, especially physical appearance, e.g. “raven hair”, “tall and straight as an arrow”. Also be aware of cultural stereotyping, such as “one with mother earth”, “tree-hugger”, “seeker of vision”;
* Portrayal of Native American cultures as simplistic, primitive or savage;
* Speaking of Native people in the past tense;
* Slang references, such as Indian-giver, redskin, squaw, chief, “how?”, “Ugh” and sayings such as “acting like a bunch of wild Indians”;
* Identifying an individual child as Indian rather than by tribal affiliation. For example, a character might be Navajo or Hopi, not simply Indian;
* Cartoonish portrayals on book covers or in picture books or graphic novels.
Ellen Levine: “Rest on Truth for authority rather than taking authority for truth.”
Stereotypes are often perpetuated not on purpose, but because of lack of awareness. When you choose a book, be aware of “Indian-ism”, just as we once needed to become aware of sexism. Is a character who is an Indian first an individual?
On book covers, even in our beloved favorites, how is an Indian portrayed? Think about the Indian in the Cupboard books. Would you want your father to be represented by this image? Or remember Disney’s Peter Pan?
We NEED books for children that are –
Beyond stereotypes, beyond bows and arrows;
Beyond past-tense, romanticized or villainized characters;
Beyond inaccuracies, omissions and an ethnocentric presentation of history.
And so, to finish, below is a list of some of my favorite resources, which I hope you too will find helpful.
Lasting Echoes: An Oral History of Native American People by Joseph Bruchac (Silver Whistle, 1997);
Extraordinary American Indians by Susan Avery and Linda Skinner (Children’s Press, 1992);
Children of Native America Today by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder (Shakti for Children/ Charlesbridge, 2003);
Keepers of the Night: Native American Stories and Nocturnal Activities for Children by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac, story illustrations by David Kanietakeron Fadden (Fulcrum Publishing, 1994).
American Indian Library Association, including the American Indian Youth Book Awards, awarded biannually;
Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian;
Debbie Reese’s in-depth reviews on her American Indians in Children’s Literature Blog;
Comprehensive discussions of Indian literature and artists on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s website;
The Lacapa Spirit Prize, which recognizes significant books in Indian literature;
Oyate, an organization that emphasizes books written by Native Americans and publishes books such as A Broken Flute and Through Indian Eyes;
The Bridges to Understanding Series, including Crossing Boundaries with Children´s Books edited by Doris J. Gebel, published by USBBY;
Salina Bookshelf focusing on Southwest Native American cultures and publishers of Navajo/English bilingual books;
Publishers of muticultural books focused on diversity: Orca Book Publishers, Fulcrum Publishing, Lee & Low Books
The North American Native Authors Catalog Online with hundreds of titles and biographical information about most American Indian authors currently in print;
Hands-on learning experiences about Native American culture and traditions, and the natural world at the Ndakinna Education Center;
The Saratoga Native American Festival;
Author, storyteller and illustrator, Joseph Bruchac;
Author and storyteller, and wilderness expert, James Bruchac;
Elizabeth Bluemle‘s tagged list of books about contemporary Native American children, part of the extensive multicultural book list on her blog Shelftalker, which appears on the Publishers Weekly website.
Nancy Bo Flood
And thank you, Nancy, for giving us much to think about and providing so many book titles and resources.