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Books by Native Writers Key to Building Accurate Knowledge About American Indians

Authentic literature helps build accurate knowledge of Native peoples.

On Thanksgiving, families across the country will be gathering 'round their tables to celebrate. In elementary school some of you may have dressed up as Pilgrims and Indians to reenact the "First Thanksgiving." The thing is, those reenactments—and a lot of what Americans "know" about American Indians—are inaccurate. A lot of American Indian people have a critical view of those reenactments and the Thanksgiving holiday itself.

Did you know that some Native people in the U.S. consider Thanksgiving a Day of Mourning? Or that some call it "Thankstaking" instead of Thanksgiving? And did you know that for the last several years, the President of the United States has been proclaiming November as National Native American Heritage Month? And that November 23, 2012—the day after Thanksgiving—has been designated as Native American Heritage Day?

Kids aren't in school, so there's no way for teachers to teach them about Native peoples on that day, and most Americans are racing to the stores for Black Friday to snap up the best deals and start their holiday shopping. In that heady shopping spree, it is not likely that any parents are inclined to say "Hey! Let’s talk about American Indians and their contributions to American society!"

In President Obama’s proclamation, he suggested that Americans "commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities." While proclaiming a month and a day to commemorate American Indians is a start in the right direction, I think it is far better that we step away from commemorations of any sort and start providing everyone with accurate knowledge about American Indians year-round. One of the best ways to do that is to buy books for children that are written by Native writers.

"Native writers?" You might say. "Can’t we just buy Paul Goble’s gorgeous books? They're in all the bookstores." Some call them gorgeous, but leading Lakota scholars point to problems in the ways he presents his Iktomi stories. A few years ago, the American Library Association was using his art for bookmarks and posters for Native American Heritage Month, but in response to the American Indian Library Association’s objections, those bookmarks and posters were withdrawn. A far better choice is a book by a Native writer, especially one who is telling stories from his experience—or who has done extensive research and has personal relationships with peoples of other Native nations.

A good example is Tim Tingle. He's Choctaw, and has three outstanding picture books you can buy instead of a Paul Goble book. One is Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom. It won several awards for Tingle’s telling of the relationship between the Choctaw’s and enslaved black Americans in Mississippi.

Another excellent choice is Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer. She’s Muscogee Creek and, like Tingle, has written several award-winning books for children and young adults. Jingle Dancer is about Jenna, a Muscogee Creek girl who wants to do the Jingle Dancer for the first time at an upcoming powwow. Set in the present day, Jenna—in jeans and a t-shirt (dressed like any girl today)—walks through her neighborhood to visit friends and family members who help her get ready to do that dance. An author's note explains the dress and the dance, too, and a bit of history about the Muscogee Creek Nation.

For children in middle grades, Joseph Bruchac’s Hidden Roots introduces readers to a piece of history that isn’t taught: the sterilization of Native people. Bruchac is Abenaki. In Hidden Roots, readers meet Sonny, an Abenaki boy living in New York in 1954. For their protection, their family has hidden their identity. In the author’s note Bruchac writes that there were 31 states that enacted legislation to sterilize the “feeble minded.” Of late, sterilization of black Americans has been in the news, but Native peoples were also targets of that legislation. With grace, Bruchac’s Hidden Roots looks at what that legislation did to his family. A prolific writer, Bruchac has a great many books that ought to be read.

Last week, Louise Erdrich won the National Book Award for The Round House. Erdrich is Ojibwe. Her story features a thirteen-year-old boy named Joe whose mother was raped. Set in 1988, in The Round House, readers learn about the difficult issues regarding Native law and jurisdiction as Joe and his parents and extended family live through the rape. An outstanding writer, Erdrich conveys this trauma without resorting to gratuitous prose. Make sure you also get her Birchbark House series of historical fiction for middle grade students. They're a far more honest and accurate treatment of the interactions between Native peoples and whites than seen in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series.

There's a sea of books—like Little House on the Prairie—that are chock full of errors and bias. Did you know, for example, that "squaw" is widely seen as derogatory? And, that it is not the Native American word for woman? The Muscogee Creek have their own word for woman, as do the Choctaw and the Abenaki people. Same thing applies to papoose. Though its often used in crossword puzzles as "the Native American word for baby," it belongs to a specific tribal nation.

Indeed, there are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. today, spread from north to south and east to west. There's no such thing as a Native American. Though it is a term of convenience when speaking of the Indigenous peoples of the U.S., each of those 500+ Native Nations has its own language, spirituality, history, and material culture.

There's a lot to unlearn—and a lot to learn—and with Native peoples using the internet, parents and teachers no longer have to rely on biased encyclopedias. They can go right to a Native Nation's website as a primary source of information. At American Indians in Children's Literature, I provide information that helps people find tribal websites, and resources to help parents and teachers develop a critical eye with regard to the ways that American Indians are portrayed. Please stop by, and drop me a line, too.


GOOD is urging our community to resist the urge to volunteer around the holidays—the time of year when food banks and soup kitchens have more helping hands than they need. and commit to serving on a day when the need is far greater.Join us in volunteering smarter

Illustration by Corinna Loo

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