Unteaching the Native Narrative

Three educational strategies to affirm authentic American Indian/First Nations representation, plus resources.

The three best things librarians and educators can do when representing American Indians/First Nations people are to curate authentic and contemporary texts and materials about Native people; to make full use of those materials in the same way as other materials; and to educate themselves with available resources before designing a lesson, display, collection, or presentation with Native content or references.


Accurate, authentic, and contemporary resources

Inaccurate, stereotypical representations of American Indians have permeated our society for generations. They are found on and in everything from mascots and grocery store products to films and literature. Given the pervasiveness of these images, it is not enough to unteach harmful narratives. You must replace them with the truth. Teaching and recommending accurate, authentic, contemporary books and materials are the best way to do this.

Not Your Mascots Facebook

“[Native people] face a constant barrage of unteaching the accepted narrative,” Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation, attorney, and cofounder of Not Your Mascots, said in a 2017 TED talk. She added that 87 percent of references to Native Americans in children’s textbooks date back to the 19th century or earlier.

As a long-time reading specialist and literacy coach in public schools, I estimate the percentage of outdated and inaccurate textbooks and trade books in classroom libraries, media centers, and leveled book rooms to be even higher. Publishing statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) with Dr. Debbie Reese’s breakdown of CCBC’s American Indian statistics bear this out. This 2018 Diversity in Children’s Books Infographic also showed that only one percent of children’s books represented characters who were American Indian or First Nations people.

When educators teach history that lacks information about today’s Native populations, it reinforces the false impression that there are few, if any, contemporary Native people. That precludes learning about the thriving world of specific tribes, their initiatives, events, cultures, organizations, and people.

One easy thing educators can do to combat this is to use present-tense language. Much nonfiction focuses on American Indian tribes in the past, with sentences such as, “The Hopi believed...” or “The Hopi lived in...” But it’s difficult to imagine a book about the French, for example, or New Yorkers, that uses only the past tense: “The French believed...” or “New Yorkers lived in...” even if the book also has information at the end about contemporary French citizens and New Yorkers.

Changing the focus and the language from a study of people of the past to one of contemporary people helps everyone understand that we are still here. Additionally, most textbooks and trade books, including fiction and nonfiction, contemporary and historically focused, that are in schools and libraries are rife with misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and stereotypes about Natives. That’s harmful for kids.

“If children are consistently exposed to books and other media that negatively represent their culture, then it is likely they will internalize these social messages and develop a poor sense of self,” states the Association for Library Service to Children in its 2014 white paper “The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children,” paraphrasing a Walter Dean Myers New York Times editorial. “Similarly, negative images or misinformation about a particular cultural group reinforces stereotypes in children outside the culture.”

Equitable use of materials

If Native-focused resources and collections are accurate, authentic, and contemporary, imagine using a selection to start a book club. Or to speak with young people about fall. Or friendship. Or careers. Or biodiversity. Or to recommend to a young patron who loves beautiful picture books. Are authentic, Native-focused resources mingled among items in a collection? Or are they segregated into an “American Indians” section?

Relegating Native-focused books to a section reinforces the “othering” of Native people as exotic, a topic to study, worthy primarily in our differentness from society’s current norm.

“Studies indicate that by preschool age, young children reveal stereotypes and negative behaviors towards those they perceive as different. These learned attitudes are fostered by the views of parents, caregivers, educators, and peers and by the social messages that reading materials convey about a particular culture,” writes Jamie Campbell Naidoo in “The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children.” Naidoo continues, “Librarians can help children develop favorable attitudes towards those perceived as the “other” by introducing them to authentic, high-quality literature.”

Consider shelving Native authored books alongside other titles of that genre or target audience. Where to put an accurate, authentic, contemporary Native-authored YA novel? With other YA novels. And so with picture books, middle grade mysteries, and adult novels. Consider selecting those books and materials as routinely as others for the numerous requests and tasks that media specialists and educators handle today.

“There are many practical ways to highlight BIPOC authors and works, especially #OwnVoices. . . such as handselling, readers advisory, programs, end-caps, shelf-talkers, staff picks, booktalks, book clubs, giveaways, and social media, Alexandra Brown wrote in The Problem with Diversity Labeling, on a blog for Lee & Low Books. “Create book lists that are easily accessible to your patrons on your library blog, website, or OPAC, in patron-accessible binders, on display in the collection area, or on social media. Always feature a wide array of identities while ensuring that representation isn’t only occurring during a heritage month (i.e., Indigenous authors only being displayed during Native American Heritage Month). Crucially, make sure those books and authors avoid stereotyping the group they’re meant to represent -and that the author themself is not problematic.”

Kara Stewart, an enrolled member of the Sappony Tribe, is a reading specialist in the public schools of Orange County, NC. She has served on the Sappony Tribal Council and the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education.

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Kim Orth

I’d like to read this article. Thank you

Posted : Nov 20, 2020 07:02



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