February 27, 2017

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Authenticity and Sensitivity: Goals for writing and reviewing books with Native American themes

In March, Scholastic released a new title in its popular ‘Dear America’ series of historical fiction diaries. Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl (Scholastic, 1999) was favorably reviewed in leading journals, but within the Native American community, adult readers were aghast at the presentation of the boarding-school experience and Lakota culture. I was one of nine women who spoke to one another at length about this title. Rinaldi’s book contains factual errors as well as errors in the presentation of Native culture, but it is the appropriation issue that causes the greatest concern to me, my colleagues, teachers, and parents.

Within children’s literature the word appropriation usually refers to the taking of stories without crediting the source of the story. In this case, we used the word to refer to the taking and use of names of children who died at Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918). We viewed this use of names as a violation of the respect due to those children and their families, and we were struck by the utter lack of sensitivity extended to them. We doubt that a similar story would have been created using names taken from another tragic episode in history–the names on the Vietnam Memorial come to mind. Our review of My Heart Is on the Ground is online at www.oyate.org and includes information on personal names in Native culture and quotes from boarding-school survivors.

Not everyone who worked on that review is Native. What binds us together is our concern for children. We believe Native children should have books that do not demean or embarrass them or their heritage, but neither should they put them on a pedestal or in a glass case. Like other children, Native children should be able to choose books with characters from their communities that make sense to them, books that reflect who they are with integrity and sensitivity. Children who are not Native should be able to choose titles about Native Americans–be they set in historical or modern times–that are free of outdated, stereotypical notions and free of factual errors.

In the U.S. today, there are over 500 different tribal groups. In addition to the nearly two million people who claimed American Indian status on the 1990 census, another five million indicated they were of Indian descent. Native people live in urban, suburban, and rural areas as well as on tribal reservations. Native people differ in the degree to which they have maintained their heritage and/or adapted to mainstream society. There are also differences that occur by way of cross-tribal or cross-cultural marriages that can impact children born of those marriages. Taking all this into consideration, there is tremendous diversity among Native people and, clearly, a rich bank from which authors can draw as they develop plot, setting, characters, and so on. There is, however, a prevailing tendency to write stories about traditional Natives in historical settings. Stories about modern-day children, who play video games and eat at fast-food restaurants and whose parents are lawyers or engineers, are rare.

Despite the diversity of tribe and lifestyle, most books that children read about Native Americans are not about a specific tribe. Rather than creating culturally specific artwork, illustrators have tended to mix elements from different tribes, such as including a tipi and a totem pole in the same scene. In fact, tipis were and are used by the Plains tribes, while totem poles were and are carved by Northwestern tribal groups. Recognizing this mix for what it is–a mistake–can be difficult. As a society, we’ve been inundated with such mixing for decades. We see it in movie theaters, toy stores, and on grocery bags.

Native American religions have consistently captured the imagination, of first, European immigrants and, later, Americans. Elements of Native religion are misunderstood, maligned, and romanticized when they are removed from their tribal contexts and appear in American society. In the process, the spiritual significance of ceremony and artifacts is lost. For example, feathers hold deep significance in most Native settings. To understand why it is inappropriate for children to make construction-paper feathers and headbands, it may be useful to consider parallels to one’s own deeply held religious experience. Catholics, for example, would object if schoolchildren across the U.S. made a chalice out of a Styrofoam cup and glitter.


Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children has essays by Native people that can help readers and writers gain insight into Native American issues.

An author who writes a story about Native Americans engages in many forms of research. She may visit the site of her story or study documents in a library. She may also read other works of fiction about her subject. Authors insist on creative license, but that license cannot be taken with known facts. A story about Abraham Lincoln loses credibility if the author describes him as the 10th, rather than the 16th president. In My Heart Is on the Ground, Sitting Bull is identified as Cheyenne, rather than Hunkpapa Lakota (Sioux). Facts about Sitting Bull may not be as well known as facts about Lincoln, but that information is available.

When authors write outside their own cultures, it is irresponsible not to consult several sources. In addition, they must be mindful of biases that exist in terms of who prepared the source, and when. Authors of informational books are well versed in the importance of consulting reputable sources and updated material as they write. That same level of precision must apply to research conducted in preparation for writing fiction. Detailed research can provide a wealth of factual information, but without a meaningful connection to the culture about which she writes, an author may unwittingly tread on territory the members of that culture would prefer she walk around, rather than tramp through. At a 1999 children’s literature conference in Madison, WI, James Ransome was asked why he does not illustrate books about other cultures, specifically Native Americans. He replied that he hadn’t ‘held their babies,’ which conveyed the idea that meaningful connection translates to interaction at a personal level, interaction layered with trust and care.

‘Unwittingly’ is the key word here. How does an author know when she has crossed that line of sensitivity? Certainly, the answer to that question will vary from one individual to the next. Whose judgment will hold sway? Rather than blunder and create embarrassing situations for the author, publisher, and readers, it is necessary to ask expert readers with extensive knowledge of the culture to critique the manuscript prior to publication–and to listen to their recommendations. This is a long-standing practice in informational books, and it can and has been applied to Native-themed books. Problems arise, however, when consultants’ feedback is selectively used and/or ignored.

In the case of My Heart Is on the Ground, the manuscript was sent to Genevieve Bell, whose doctoral dissertation focused on Carlisle Indian Industrial School. In her letter to Scholastic, Bell wrote: ‘I think it is a little problematic that the vast majority of student characters in this manuscript are taken from names in the cemetery. I understand that you are interested in preserving a historical feel to the diary, but I think you run the risk of upsetting a great many indigenous peoples….’ The full text of her letter can be read at www.epix.net/~landis/review.html. Bell’s experience is not unique. Marge Bruchac, an Abenaki historian, had a similar experience in her role as consultant to Lynne Reid Banks’s The Key to the Indian (Avon, 1998). She felt strongly about suggestions that Banks chose not to use, and asked that her name not be published. Yet, the book cites this acknowledgment: ‘Thanks to Marge Bruchac for her trenchant criticism.’

Clearly, steps must be taken both in the publishing house and by the consultant to make sure such practices don’t continue. There are experts available who have been willing to serve as consultants. Now, however, they are declining to serve in that role because of experiences similar to those described above. What suffers, in the end, is the accuracy and quality of literature we provide to children.

Once a book is published, it needs someone to give it a careful review. In Children’s Literature in the Elementary School (Brown & Benchmark, 1996), Charlotte Huck notes that readers are unlikely to notice errors in unfamiliar or highly specialized topics. They must depend on competent reviewers to identify inaccuracies. ‘Ideally,’ Huck writes, ‘a book with technical information should be reviewed by someone with expertise in that field’ (p. 582). As a society, we receive little formal education about Native Americans that provides us with sufficient knowledge to be able to notice errors. If finding reviewers with expertise is difficult, it may be necessary to note in the review that the reviewer has attended to literary elements but cannot comment with authority on a book’s factual or cultural authenticity.

So where does that leave the people who select books for children? We know authors may make mistakes, and we expect reviewers to note them. We are only now becoming aware of the issue of violations of cultural sensitivity. Reviewers and librarians cannot rely on acknowledgments if some publishing houses and authors are going to ignore quality feedback, and they cannot rely on reviews in major journals if knowledgeable reviewers are unavailable. Perhaps, until the various entities that provide us with books do a better job at ensuring quality, we will have to be particularly careful about selecting books with Native American themes. The following resources can help individuals check facts and gain greater insight into cultural sensitivity:

Davis, Mary B., ed. Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. (Garland, 1996)

Francis , Lee & James Bruchac, eds. Reclaiming the Vision: Native Voices for the Eighth Generation. (Greenfield Review, 1996)

Hoxie , Frederick E., ed. Encyclopedia of North American Indians. (Houghton,1996)

Ruoff , A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. (MLA, 1990)

Slapin , Beverly & Doris Seale, eds. Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children. (Univ. of California, 1998)

Native American Sites

Index of Native American Resources on the Internet

Debbie Reese ( d-reese@uiuc.edu) is a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the College of Education, University of Illinois, Champaign.