November marks National Native American Heritage Month, and librarians aiming to help students become well-versed in the culture and history of Native people have plenty of options to engage kids of all ages.
Librarians can creatively “indigenize” their library—make their space welcoming to Native students—in a number of ways, from visual displays to accurate research tools, says Debbie Reese, Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois. Reese’s website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, provides a critical look at Native people’s portrayal in books for young people and the school curriculum.
Because so many library resources “are outdated and/or biased in ways that continue to present American Indians as victims, savages, or tragic heroes,” Reese advocates using materials written from a Native perspective. She lists examples of appropriate sources on her website, including Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia (Garland, 1996) and the Encyclopedia of North American Indians (Houghton Mifflin, 1996).
Within the library space, Reese suggests hanging posters of Native authors, and/or posters with the word “Read” in different Native languages. She also recommends that educators and students research the tribes that lived in their area and obtain a wall clock written in the Native language they spoke.
For elementary and middle school reading, librarian Robin Levin recommends Tim Tingle’s Crossing Bok Chitto (Cinco Puntos, 2006), an illustrated retelling of a Choctaw legend about a friendship between a native girl and a slave boy during the 1800s, to spark discussion about the connection between Native and African-American history.
The Bok Chitto River was historically the boundary between Indian territory and white man’s land, and any slaves who made it across were considered free, says Levin, a librarian at Fort Washakie School on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, home to people from the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes.
Levin also suggests the work of Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator Paul Goble, who was himself adopted into the Lakota tribe. In her view, Goble’s illustrations are both beautifully done and respectful to the tribes that he portrays.
This month, Levin will also be showing the film Up Heartbreak Hill to students and members of her community. This PBS documentary follows two Native teens who have the chance to leave their home on the Navajo reservation in order to pursue academic and athletic dreams. Following the screening, a panel of students will field questions from the audience.
Levin underscores the importance of events like this, which allows Native students the opportunity to speak about their own experiences: “This gives them an opportunity to establish a firm and positive self-identity,” fostering their confidence that “they have skills that are marketable simply by being who they are.”
On November 2, Levin will also give a presentation entitled “Taken from My Home: Indian Boarding Schools and the Holocaust in Perspective” at Aims Community College in Colorado as part of the college’s Human2Human Diversity Series. She will show clips from her film Taken from My Home, a documentary about Indian children who were forcibly removed from their families and re-educated at Indian boarding schools, a practice that went on from the late19th century to 1975, when the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act was passed.
Novelist Debby Dahl Edwardson also chronicled this period in her book My Name Is Not Easy (Amazon, 2011), a National Book Award finalist, about a young Alaskan boy and his brothers who undergo wrenching hardship at such a school in the 1960s. At her presentation, Levin will discuss how diaries and personal testimonies from adolescents are an insightful way to exploring both the Indian boarding school experience and the Holocaust.
Reese and Levin both stressed librarians should make such initiatives, and up-to-date information about Native culture, a part of library and classroom activities at all times, not just during National Native American Heritage Month. Reese says, “Libraries can get us there, but we’ll need your help year-round, not just in November.”
This article was featured in School Library Journal's Extra Helping enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.