April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Native American Heritage Month: Teaching Tips and a Call for Responsible Student Research

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Because so many library resources “are outdated and/or biased in ways that continue to present American Indians as victims, savages, or tragic heroes,” Reese advocates using materials written from a Native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.”

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.



  1. Barb Gogan says:

    What a contradictory article! You first quote Debbie Reese, an expert in the field, then Robin Levin, who seems to have no more authority than being a school librarian, who recommends books by Paul Goble,, who Debbie Reese feels does NOT write authentic American Indian stories. As a matter of fact, Reese states on her site, “I suggest to librarians, when one of them (a Goble book) is torn or dirty, that you remove the book and NOT replace it. There are better choices, and readers in your libraries should have those books instead.”

  2. Ms. Gogan is correct. I do not recommend Paul Goble’s books. Below is an extended excerpt from my site, about two Lakota women who find Goble’s books problematic. At the end (after the dotted line) is the quote Ms. Gogan posted in her comment.

    Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a Crow Creek Sioux poet, novelist, and scholar and she is one of the founding editors of Wicazo Sa, one of the leading journals in American Indian Studies. In her essay “American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story” Cook-Lynn writes (p. 117-118):

    A transplanted Englishman, Paul Goble, who lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a time and married a woman from Sturgis, South Dakota, with whom he has a child, has been the most intrepid explorer of this genre [children’s stories about Indians] in recent times. He has taken Iktomi (or Unktomi) stories, the star stories, and the creation myths of the Sioux, a vast body of philosophical and spiritual knowledge about the universe, to fashion twenty or more storybooks for children ages 3 to 14 which he, himself, has illustrated in a European aesthetic and style. Now living in Minnesota, he has successfully used several people as “informants,” including a popular hoop dancer, Kevin Locke, who lives on one of the South Dakota Indian reservations. It is no wonder, when Native cultural philosophy and religion are used to entertain and inform white American children, that the idea of “Indian Intellectualism” in America is dismissed.
    Goble takes his place not alongside, but a step ahead of those other white writers of children’s stories who, knowingly or not, have long trivialized the rather sophisticated notions the Lakotas have held about the universe for thousands of years.
    [C]onsidering the vast ignorance the average person has concerning native intellectualism, the non-Lakota speaking Englishman’s interpretation of the native Lakota/Dakota world-view and spirituality through the lens of his own language and art is, at the very least, arrogant.

    It has not occurred to anyone, least of all Goble himself, to ask why it is that tribal writers, except in carefully managed instances, have chosen not to use these stories commercially. If one were to inquire about that, one would have to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of who owns bodies of knowledge and literature. That is a difficult exploration in a capitalistic democracy that suggests anything can be bought and sold. Many white American critics refuse to enter into this debate, believe Native American literature and knowledge cannot “belong” to any single group. A discussion of who “transmits” and who “produces” usually follows.

    Cook-Lynn’s essay is in Devon Mihesuah’s Natives and Academics, published in 1998 by the University of Nebraska Press. She’s written several books and essays, including a recent article in Indian Country Today about Ward Churchill, who, by the way, is not Native: Lessons of Churchill fiasco: Indian studies needs clear standards.

    Doris Seale is Santee/Cree/Abenaki and a co-founder of Oyate. In 2001, she received the American Library Association’s Equality Award for her life’s work. The essay I’m excerpting from below appears in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Seale and Slapin. In the essay, Seale writes (p. 158-160):

    In the beginning at least, there seemed to be some understanding, and some humility about the fact that he was venturing into a world that he could never more than partially comprehend.
    Whether Goble has reacted to an increasing insistence in the Native community that it is time for us to tell our own stories, or at the very least that they should be told accurately, or to criticism of himself specifically is unclear, but as a young friend put it, “Man, something happened to him!” His work has come with increasingly longer lists of references, mostly to ethnographic texts from the late 19th- and early 20th Centuries, as a sort of justification. Lately, Goble has been specializing in Iktomi stories–Iktomi, for those who may not know, being the Lakota “trickster” figure. The introductory material in these books, “About Iktomi,” gives the impression that Goble has come to believe in his entitlement to do pretty much what he wants to with any of our stories, and that the result should be beyond criticism. In Iktomi Loses His Eyes, a “Note to the Reader” tells us that “there is no ‘authentic’ version of these stories. The only rule in telling them is to include certain basic themes.”
    In the author’s note to the Bison edition of Brave Eagle’s Account of the Fetterman Fight (1992) Goble said this:

    “I wrote the book for Indian children because I wanted them to know about and to feel proud of the courage of their ancestors. I have written all my books primarily with Indian children in mind…”

    Assuming, apparently, along with many anthropologists, that we have so lost our traditions, cultures and histories that we must be taught them by a white person.

    There is no reconciliation for us to the things that have been done to us, to the things that are believed about us, to the fact that, even now, there is nothing of ours that is not fair game. If some white person wants it, there is nothing precious or sacred enough not to be touched.

    Is it necessary to say, in the 21st Century, that this is not right?


    I am fairly certain that every elementary school and public library has at least one of Goble’s books on the shelf, and I’m sure that they circulate pretty well.

    I suggest to librarians, when one of them is torn or dirty, that you remove the book and NOT replace it. There are better choices, and readers in your libraries should have those books instead.

    I know, I know…. As your eyes read over my words, you are thinking about the Library Bill of Rights, and free speech, and all of those things that America privileges.

    Nonetheless, I encourage you to think about what Cook-Lynn and Seale wrote, and give this some thought.