Robert Berkhofer Jr.’s The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (Knopf) was published in 1979. Though not about children’s literature, the arguments he made apply to the Indians portrayed in most children’s books. In short, they aren’t really Indians. They have little basis in reality. These imaginings, however, have great staying power. As we approach 2009, stereotypical images of American Indians as bloodthirsty savages and tragic, heroic warriors still strike fear and evoke sympathy as they traipse across the pages of children’s books.
America’s collective refusal to let go of stereotypical images of Indians is costing all of us. In 2006 and 2007, respectively, the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Sociological Association (ASA) passed resolutions centered on images of Indians used as mascots for athletic teams (see p. 56 for URLs). Both associations called for an end to the use of this imagery, citing research studies that show that the mascots are harmful to the self-esteem of Native children, and, conversely, create a sense of superiority in non-Native children. I invite you to look at those mascots and compare them to images of Indians in classics like Little House on the Prairie. Indian mascots on a playing field and Indians in classic and popular children’s books are similar. If we take the APA and ASA resolutions seriously, we must take action. That means teaching children to recognize and critique stereotypes, and it means providing them with literature that offers realistic Indian c
The books included here are all written by Native writers. That decision is intentional. Given society’s collective lack of knowledge about American Indians, it is good for children to learn that Native people write books. It is helpful, too, for teachers and librarians to draw children’s attention to the settings and topics Native writers select to write about. Though we may love books like Little House, it is long past time to let them go. Replace them with books like the ones listed below, and read them all year long. Booktalking them only during American Indian Heritage Month marginalizes them, and by extension, all American Indians.
CAMPBELL, Nicola I. Shi-shi-etko. 2005. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-659-6.
____. Shin-chi’s Canoe. 2008. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-857-6.
ea. vol: illus. by Kim LaFave. Groundwood.
Gr 2-5–The experiences of a brother and sister forced by government policy to attend residential schools, the Canadian equivalent of U.S. boarding schools for Native children, are the heart of these two picture books. With their family, the siblings engage in activities that nurture their Native identity, a sharp contrast to the “kill the Indian/save the man” philosophy of the schools. The palette of the first book is warm, conveying the richness of home life. In the second, predominant tones are glaring in quality, reflecting the harsh experience of life at school.
CONFEDERATED SALISH AND KOOTENAI TRIBES. Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story. illus. by Sam Sandoval. Univ. of Nebraska. 2005. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-0-8032-4323-1; pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-0-8032-1640-2.
K-Gr 3–This story about how the animals brought fire to the Earth begins with a note about the appropriate time of year to share it and explains that Native stories are more than entertainment; they have purpose and meaning to Native people who tell them in the present day. Sandoval’s rich watercolor palette denotes the colors in fire, thereby echoing the story. DVD version available from University of Nebraska Press.
HARJO, Joy. The Good Luck Cat. illus. by Paul Lee. Harcourt. 2000. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-15-232197-0.
K-Gr 3–With her opening words, “I have a cat…,” Harjo tugs on the experiences of many children. As the story develops, though, Native children will grin as they read or hear the words “beaded earrings” and “powwow” on the second page. Through Woogie, the cat, depicted in delightful acrylic paintings, Harjo simultaneously affirms and informs readers about present-day Natives.
MESSINGER, Carla, with Susan Katz. When the Shadbush Blooms. illus. by David Kanietakeron Fadden. Tricycle. 2007. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-58246-192-2.
K-Gr 5–”When the leaves fly like red and yellow wings, and nuts tumble from the trees, Dad makes the house snug and warm before cold weather.” Lenni Lenape people are at the heart of this story narrated by a young girl. One side shows a family before contact with Europeans, while the facing page presents a contemporary family engaged in the same activity. This format and warm acrylic illustrations beautifully challenge the false notion that Indians vanished.
ORTIZ, Simon J. The Good Rainbow Road/Rawa ‘kashtyaa’tsi hiyaani: A Native American Tale in Keres and English. illus. by Michael Lacapa. tr. by Victor Montejo. Univ. of Arizona. 2004. Tr $16. ISBN 978-0-8165-2340-5.
K-Gr 5–Land, culture, and community join two Native brothers as characters in this story about the well-being and survival of a people. These five characters embody significant roles as the brothers set out on a difficult journey to help their people. Lacapa’s exquisite illustrations set the pace as readers ponder the sacred nature of knowledge and spirituality.
SOCKABASIN, Allen J.Thanks to the Animals. illus. by Rebekah Raye. Tilbury House. 2005. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-88448-270-3.
K-Gr 3–As a family transports its home and belongings for the winter, a toddler accidentally falls from the family sled. One by one, the animals of the forest encircle and protect him until his father returns. Detailed watercolors bring this story of physical and emotional warmth to life. The final page includes information on the Passamaquoddy people, and the story can be heard in Passamaquoddy and English at: www.tilburyhouse.com/Children%27s%20Frames/child_thanking.html.
SMITH, Cynthia Leitich. Jingle Dancer. illus. by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu. HarperCollins. 2000. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-688-16241-2; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-688-16242-9.
K-Gr 3–Jenna is Muscogee and Ojibway. With the help of her family, she is able to get enough tin jingles to make her dress sing and is able to participate for the first time in the jingle dance at an upcoming powwow. With gorgeous watercolor illustrations of Jenna’s home and suburban neighborhood, this story is an exquisite presentation of present-day Native life.
TINGLE, Tim. Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom. illus. by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. Cinco Puntos. 2006. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-938317-77-7; pap. $8.95. ISBN 978-1-933693-20-0.
K-Gr 5–Set in the 1800s, this story about the friendship between a Choctaw girl and an enslaved African boy dramatically evolves into one about responsibility for others and their well-being. Dramatic acrylic illustrations boldly reflect the time and the peoples at the heart of this compelling tale.
TINGLE, Tim. When Turtle Grew Feathers: A Folktale from the Choctaw Nation. illus. by Stacey Schuett. August House. 2007. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-87483-777-3.
K-Gr 5–The word “Nation” in the subtitle of this story conveys a fundamental fact about American Indians: we are sovereign nations. Hence, the book is instructive as well as entertaining. The author’s pacing and storytelling style coupled with hilarious, action-packed illustrations make this Choctaw telling of the race between Turtle and Rabbit an absolute gem, delightful for reading aloud.
WABOOSE, Jan Bourdeau. SkySisters. illus. by Brian Deines. Kids Can. 2002. pap. $5.95. ISBN 978-1-55074-699-0.
K-Gr 3–Two Ojibway sisters bundle up and head outdoors for a walk on a cold night. They lie in the snow, looking up at the sky, gazing at the SkySpirits, known to others as the Northern Lights. Deines’s palette perfectly captures the northern cold and the warm relationship the girls have with one another and those around them.
BRUCHAC, Joseph. Hidden Roots. Scholastic. 2004. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-439-35358-8; pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0-439-35359-5.
Gr 5-9–In this sensitively told story, Sonny comes to learn that he is Abenaki and why his Native heritage has been kept secret. With compelling characters, Bruchac brings the Vermont Eugenics Project, a shameful government sterilization program ended in 1936, out of hiding. Through Sonny and his grandfather, readers learn of a brutal policy inflicted on American Indians. This title deserves extended discussion in every classroom.
BRUCHAC, Joseph. Skeleton Man. HarperCollins. 2001. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-029075-7; PLB $16.89. ISBN 978-0-06-029076-4; pap. $4.99. ISBN 978-0-06-440888-2.
Gr 4-7–Set in the present day, this riveting thriller draws from a traditional story told by Algonquian and Haudenosaunee peoples. When Molly’s parents disappear, she is placed with a man who claims to be her uncle. Bruchac’s gripping descriptions–”…it seemed as if the flesh was melting off his bones”–coupled with seamless references to Molly’s Mohawk identity make this a must-read page-turner. Audio version available from Recorded Books.
CARVELL, Marlene. Who Will Tell My Brother? Hyperion. 2004. pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-1657-6.
Gr 7-9– For decades, Native people have protested the use of Native imagery for school mascots. This story, based on the author’s family experience, chronicles teenage Evan’s efforts to rid his school of its mascot. Though his activism is rebuffed and met with taunts, the novel ends on an optimistic note. This timely story, told in free verse, may prove useful in schools currently examining such practices.
DORRIS, Michael. Sees Behind Trees. Hyperion. 1996. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-0-7868-0224-1.
Gr 4-7–In this pre-contact story, nearsighted Walnut’s coming-of-age and name “Sees Behind Trees” could not happen without his mother, who teaches her son how to use all of his senses, and Otter, the tribe’s weroance (leader). The story thereby rests on communal responsibility that is at the heart of Native communities and their survival.
ERDRICH, Louise. The Birchbark House. illus. by author. Hyperion. 1999. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-0300-2; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-1454-1.
Gr 4-7–At the heart of this story is Omakayas, an Ojibwe girl. Rich in cultural detail, this is an enthralling story about first contacts between Natives and Europeans. Conflict is presented honestly, yet thoughtfully, without demonizing or dehumanizing the “other.” The first in a series, it was followed by The Game of Silence (2005) and The Porcupine Year (2008). Audio version available from Audio Bookshelf.
LOYIE, Larry. As Long as the Rivers Flow: A Last Summer before Residential School. illus. by Heather D. Holmlund. Groundwood. 2002. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-473-8; pap. $8.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-696-1.
Gr 4-6–Forced to choose between going to jail or sending their son to residential school, Lawrence’s parents opt for the latter. The summer before the 10-year-old’s departure is spent with family and community, learning and making memories that will flow like rivers, sustaining him in the harsh conditions of the residential school. Light-filled watercolors convey the beauty of the land and warmth of family relationships.
ORTIZ, Simon J. The People Shall Continue. illus. by Sharol Graves. Children’s Book Press. 1988. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-0-89239-041-0; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-0-89239-125-7.
Gr 4-8-The topic of this picture book is well-suited to students in middle school. Ortiz’s prose poem is a straightforward history of Native peoples and their interactions with Europeans from first contact to the present day. Directly but not gratuitously, the author includes brutalities of warfare and boarding schools, yet the overriding theme is that every culture has something to contribute to the well-being of others. Bold illustrations echo the forthright qualities of the text.
SMITH, Cynthia Leitich. Indian Shoes. illus. by Jim Madsen. HarperCollins. 2002. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-06-029531-8; PLB $15.89. ISBN 978-0-06-029532-5.
Gr 4-5–Through the Relocation Programs of the 1950s, American Indians were moved to major cities in the United States. Finding each other, they created supportive indigenous communities. Through short stories featuring Ray Halfmoon and his grandfather, Smith presents one urban Indian family living in Chicago. The title story is especially heartrending as it reflects the love Ray has for his grandfather.
SMITH, Cynthia Leitich. Rain Is Not My Indian Name. illus. by Lori Earley. HarperCollins. 2001. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-688-17397-5; PLB $16.89. ISBN 978-0-06-029504-2.
Gr 6-9–Friendship, love, death, grieving, healing–such is the journey of Cassidy Rain, a 14-year-old mixed-blood teen. Smith seamlessly describes Native culture and community through the eyes of a witty protagonist who loves sci-fi and photography. References to the Internet, Web sites, and anime firmly situate this Native teen in the present day. Audio version available from Listening Library.
SNEVE, Virginia Driving Hawk. High Elk’s Treasure. Holiday House. 1972. Tr $14.65. ISBN 978-0-82192-414-3.
Gr 5-7–In this adventure story, 14-year-old Joe High Elk finds a hand-painted Lakota historical calendar called a winter count. Readers intrigued by recent museum exhibits of these pictographic calendars will find this story especially satisfying.
STERLING, Shirley. My Name Is Seepeetza. Groundwood. 1998. pap. $8.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-165-2.
Gr 6-8–Sterling recounts her brutal experiences in a Canadian residential school. Knowing the events in the book actually happened to the author as a young girl renders them all the more painful.
ALEXIE, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. illus. by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown. 2007. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-01368-0.
Gr 8 Up–Alexie tells an enthralling story that creates opportunities to explore many dimensions of Native life: Indians and Thanksgiving, reservation life, family relationships, boarding school, basketball, mascots, fitting in, and spam (the meat and the email). A laugh-out-loud read, the novel evokes sadness, too. Forney’s cartoon illustrations invite study for the stories they tell as well. Audio version available from Recorded Books.
BROKER, Ignatia. Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative. illus. by Steven Premo. Minnesota Historical Society. 1983. pap. $13.95. ISBN 978-0-87351-167-4.
Gr 8 Up-Questions from her children about their heritage prompted Broker to write this account of the life of her great-great-grandmother, Oona (Night Flying Woman), who lived in the 1800s. Oona’s people repeatedly moved in an effort to maintain their way of life, but over time they eventually adopted white ways of living. In telling Oona’s story, Broker shares Ojibway beliefs and traditions with readers.
CARLSON, Lori Marie, ed. Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today. HarperCollins. 2005. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-623957-6; PLB $16.89. ISBN 978-0-06-623959-0.
Gr 8 Up–In this astounding collection of stories by gifted–and acclaimed–Native writers, names known in children’s literature (Bruchac, Smith, Van Camp, Erdrich, Alexie, and Harjo) are joined by those who write for adults: Linda Hogan, Greg Sarris, Susan Power, and Lee Francis. Refreshing for their honesty and subject matter, the narratives are edgy, unsettling, and inspiring.
DELORIA, Ella C. Waterlily. Univ. of Nebraska. 1990. pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-0-8032-6579-0.
Gr 10 Up–An unusual story by a Dakota woman who worked as a research assistant for famed anthropologist Franz Boaz. Deloria’s identity and her academic study infuse her account of her life during the early period of Dakota/white contact with depth and authenticity.
KENNY, Maurice, ed. Stories for a Winter’s Night: Fiction by Native American Writers. White Pine. 1999. pap. $14. ISBN 978-1-877727-96-2.
Gr 11 Up–This anthology includes Drew Hayden Taylor’s satire “Oh, Just Call Me an Indian” and the hilarious “Needles” by Tehanetorens/Ray Fadden about a porcupine he raises. Also included are retellings of traditional tales and new stories about men who voice anger over beer named “Crazy Horse Malt Liquor” and stories about community. A rich and far-ranging collection.
KING, Thomas. One Good Story, That One: Stories. HarperCollins. 1993. $$?? ISBN 978-0-00-224000-0.
Gr 11 Up–The wit and humor that King incorporates into these stories invite readers to consider what each selection is really about. Whether his teller is Native or not, at the heart of each one is a conflict and a challenge for readers to revisit what they think they know about Native people, history, and the issues they contend with on a daily basis.
ORTIZ, Simon J. Men on the Moon: Collected Short Stories. (Sun Tracks Series). Univ. of Arizona. 1999. Tr $35. ISBN 978-0-8165-1929-3; pap. $18. ISBN 978-0-8165-1930-9.
Gr 9 Up–In the title story, an elderly Acoma man’s questions about the pursuit of knowledge point to the wisdom or lack thereof in society. In one selection set in San Francisco, a Native father comes upon hippies who want to be Indians. An outstanding collection by an accomplished author.
TAPAHONSO, Luci. Blue Horses Rush In: Poems and Stories. Univ. of Arizona. 1997. Tr $25. ISBN 978-0-8165-1727-5; pap. $13. ISBN 978-0-8165-1728-2.
Gr 11 Up–This collection begins with a preface that grounds readers in Tapahonso’s life as a Diné (Navajo) daughter, mother, and professor whose accent diminishes when she leaves her reservation for the university. Through the stories and poems about change, conflict, death, and birth, the author relates how her heritage sustains her in tangible (mutton) and intangible (spirituality) ways.
VAN CAMP, Richard. The Lesser Blessed. Douglas & McIntyre. 2004. pap. $16. ISBN 978-1-55054-525-8.
Adult/High School–This extraordinary adult novel excels as a young adult story. Larry is a teenage Dogrib boy whose life includes alcohol, violence, and sex. Realistically drawn, his story is raw and unsettling, yet, in Van Camp’s skilled hands, the account is not depressing. From start to finish, Larry’s Native culture and history are gracefully infused into the compelling narrative.
|Debbie Reese is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana.|
On the Web
Oyate. http://oyate.org. Oyate. Berkeley, CA. (Accessed 9/21/08)
Oyate is a Native-run nonprofit organization whose work includes critical evaluation of books and curricula with Native content. The Web site includes free resources such as “Deconstructing the Myths of the First Thanksgiving” and invaluable, in-depth critiques of classic “Books to avoid.”
Native American Sites. http://nativeculturelinks.com/indians.html. Lisa Mitten, Social Sciences Subject Editor, CHOICE Magazine. (Accessed 9/21/08)
Created in 1995, this has become the premiere site for information about Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada. Most helpful is the extensive “Information on Individual Native Nations” page. Mitten marks tribally owned sites with a drum icon, thereby establishing them as primary sources.
Techniques for Evaluating American Indian Web Sites. www.u.arizona.edu/~ecubbins/webcrit.html. Elaine Cubbins, University of Arizona. (Accessed 9/21/08)
Cubbins provides a user-friendly set of guidelines for evaluating the merits of Web sites with Native content. Teachers and librarians will find the page useful for their own purposes and for sharing with students before they begin using the Internet for research on Native projects.
American Indian Library Association. http://ailanet.org. American Indian Library Association. (Accessed 9/21/08)
In addition to an extensive set of links to on-line resources, this site offers two publications about books for children and young adults: “I” Is Not for Indian and “I” Is for Inclusion. An affiliate of ALA, AILA established its “American Indian Youth Literature Award” in 2007.
American Indians in Children’s Literature. http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.info. Debbie Reese, Assistant Professor, American Indian Studies, University of Illinois. (Accessed 9/21/08)
This site includes critical analyses of children’s and young adult literature by or about American Indians along with links to full-text articles, Native writers’ Web sites, and other sites that will give teachers and librarians information and insight.
Resolutions regarding the use of mascots (from intro):
The American Psychological Association (http://apa.org/pi/oema/justification_amindian_mascots.pdf)
The American Sociological Association
By Phyllis Levy Mandell
Code Talker (unabr.). 5 cassettes or 5 CDs. 6 hrs. Recorded Books (recordedbooks.com). cassette, ISBN 978-1-4193-5121-1: $41.75; CD, ISBN 978-1-4281-6571-7: $51.75.
Gr 5 Up–A Navajo grandfather tells his grandchildren about his experiences in the Marines as a top-secret Code-Talker during World War II and the thousands of lives they saved using Navaho encryption the enemy never cracked. This inspiring historical fiction title by Joseph Bruchac (Dial, 2005) is ably narrated by Derrick Henry.
A History of American Indian Achievement (Series). 4 DVDs. 4 hrs. (closed captioned). with tchr’s. guide. Prod. by Centre Communications. Dist. by Ambrose Video (ambrosevideo.com). 2008. $129.99 ser.
Gr 7 Up–In eight half-hour segments, viewers are given a chronological look at American Indian tribes, their cultural complexities, leaders, and achievements. Host Tyler Christopher, a Choctaw/Seneca actor, lends credence to the presentation. Historical and contemporary footage, photos, tribal artwork, etchings, and graphics are utilized to present the history of the American Indian from before European contact to today.
Indians of North America Video Collection. 20 videos. 30 min. ea. with tchr’s. guide. Prod. by Schlessinger Media. Dist. by Library Video Co. (libraryvideo.com). 1993. $39.95 ea. Includes: The Apache; The Aztec; The Cherokee; The Cheyenne; The Comanche; The Iroquois; The Maya; The Navajo; The Seminole; The Yankton Sioux; The Chinook; The Creek; The Crow; The Huron; The Lenape; The Menominee; The Narragansett; The Potawatomi; The Pueblo; A History of Native Americans.
Gr 5 Up–The history, culture, and lifestyle of various American Indian tribes are presented by Native scholars and contemporary tribe members. Photos, illustrations, maps, and live-action footage vividly augment the narration. The problems Native people face today are also discussed.
Native American Teens: Who We Are (In the Mix Series). video or DVD. 30 min. Prod. by In the Mix. Dist. by Castle Works (castleworks.com). 2006. video: ISBN 1-931843-02-3, DVD: ISBN 1-931843-10-4. $69.95.
Gr 6 Up–Hosted by Native rap artist and actor, Lightfoot (Cherokee), this film highlights what it is like to be a young American Indian today on reservations across the U.S. Among the activities featured are a Unity conference where representatives from many tribes discuss how they struggle to maintain their cultural identity, a lacrosse tournament, teens at a film production camp where they learn the ancient art of storytelling, Olympic events featuring sports based on traditional activities, and more. Also included are several short films made by Native teens that reflect the issues confronting them.
Pontiac (Native Americans and Frontiersmen Series). video. approx. 28 min. New Dimension Media. 2001. ISBN 1-56353-873-6. $49.95.
Tecumseh (Native Americans and Frontiersmen Series). video. approx. 28 min. New Dimension Media (ndmquestar.com). 2001. ISBN 1-56353-875-X. $49.95.
Gr 5 Up–These films, narrated by Peter Coyote, tell the stories of Native people who fought for control of the American West. Most segments feature live-action reenactments supplemented by period art and maps.