Writing About Native Americans: A Diversity Conversation with Kara Stewart

Welcome to The Winged Pen, Kara! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Writing About Native Americans. I know many readers/writers in my circle are eager to learn more about this topic. Tell us a little about yourself and your passion for Native American Literature, especially for children.

Kara: I’ve been a Literacy Coach and Reading Specialist in the public schools for twenty years. I was the Honor winner in 2014 for Lee & Low’s New Voices award, and am still working on that manuscript! I’m an enrolled member of the Sappony and have served a number of terms on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education and my Tribal council, am an educational consultant, and was the recipient of a University of North Carolina’s 2015 Community Diversity Award. I’m also an SCBWI Carolinas member.

As a Sappony person, I’ve done a lot of stereotype busting in the schools. Instruction is driven not just by data, but also by popular literature, resources, and what people think they know, and when those concepts are inaccurate and full of stereotypes, so is the instruction and hence, the learning. I want to break that cycle of misrepresentation for all children so that it won’t continue to roll on for the next three hundred years as it as for the past three hundred years.

Based on the most recent data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, although there has been a small increase in the number of books written about Native Americans in recent years, the number of books written by Native American authors remains rather flat.

Related to this information, is it okay for non-Native Americans to write books about Native Americans or with Native American main characters? Should these types of books primarily be #ownvoices? What type of knowledge/experience should an author have before they write a book about Native Americans?

This has been quite the controversial topic over the last few years. I can’t give ‘the Native opinion’ – I can only give my personal opinion. After reading hundreds of books about and including Native people by non-Native people in a professional capacity and as a parent (now a grandparent), I do believe these books should be #ownvoices.

My reasons fall into two major categories:

1)    Colonialist/inaccurate/stereotypical portrayals- I have read books by non-Natives that technically have the facts correct, but the overall atmosphere of the book is still colonialist, which was most likely not the author’s intent. But does intent matter when a child reads that book and either has the colonialist mindset reinforced, or a Native child is given reminders that their family is ‘less than’? Can you, as a non-Native writer, recognize when your words combine in a way that perpetuates a colonial mindset?

2)    We should leave these stories for Native authors to tell, ones who are finding it difficult to get published. Many agents and editors seem to find the colonial/inaccurate/stereotypical content more palatable and probably marketable, as it is the same content about us that has been cycling for hundreds of years.

I’d like to take this opportunity to give air time to some authors who have already written phenomenal blog posts about this topic. Writers will find a lot to chew over in these posts.

·      Jacqueline Woodson’s Who Can Tell My Story in The Horn Book

·      Torrey Maldonado’s Write What You Know: Encouraging Young Authors of Color on Ideas Never Sleep

·      Torrey Maldonado’s Demand Change in the Publishing World on Ideas Never Sleep

·      Celia C. Pérez’ When Google Translate Gives You Arroz Con Mango: Erroneous Español and the Need for #ownvoices in The Horn Book

·      Sarah Hannah Gomez’ How Privilege and Diversity Affect Literature and Media on Scoop.it!

·      Margarita Engle’s Cuba For Beginners on Multiculturalism Rocks!

I’d also like to invite writers to read some of my blog posts on writing about American Indians to get an idea of the nuance necessary (with over 567 very different sovereign federally-recognized nations and hundreds more sovereign state-recognized nations, nuance is everything), and real life consequences to Native people:

·      Writing About Native Americans

·      On Obligation and Percy

·      Indian 101 for Writers – co-written with Alison DeLuca, a five part traveling blog series that can be used as a mini-course and perhaps the most important resource in this post specific to American Indians.

With the push to make sure children’s literature mirrors the diversity we see in the real world, many authors are trying to be more inclusive with the characters in their novels.

Is it okay for authors to write novels with supporting characters who are Native American? What advice do you have for avoiding stereotypes and harmful narratives?

Professor Snape was a secondary character. Yet we knew him deeply – or so we thought! He was fully fleshed out and came alive from his mannerisms and attitudes to his outward manifestations of his beliefs and motivations.

Secondary, and even tertiary, characters shouldn’t be demoted to the token Indian, or the speck of diversity to attract an agent or editor. I think writers need to ask themselves why they want to write a Native character. See more on this on Questions Agents and Editors Can Use To Evaluate Native Content.

A tool you will want to learn to use to avoid stereotypes and harmful narratives is the Criteria From How To Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias (adapted from oyate.org).

It was created originally by the wonderful people at Oyate as a tool to evaluate already-written books. Media specialists and teachers who attend my workshops report afterwards that it does take three or four passes at evaluating books before they feel they have the hang of it, but through using it they have become much more adept at recognizing harmful narratives, inaccuracies and stereotypes. Writers can also use it to learn to evaluate their own writing, although they will most likely need to study Indian 101 for Writers first. The Criteria would be a great activity for writing critique groups.

As writers, you will also want to be sure to use sensitivity/beta readers. This is a great way to find problematic language and bias you may not realize are in your writing. You can find helpful thoughts and even a spreadsheet full of people willing to be sensitivity readers on Writing In The Margins. Debbie Reese has also written a very helpful post on her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature that is specific to Native content. If you do hire a sensitivity/beta reader, please be sure to believe her or him. It is discouraging when you care enough about your group to offer these services, but your feedback is primarily met with the author defending their writing.

Those are great points, Kara! We talked about sensitivity readers and the importance of well-developed characters in this recent post. What can we do as consumers, educators, writers, and readers to increase the number of books written by Native Americans and to raise awareness about correctly portraying Native American culture in literature?

The good news is that there are many things you can do! The number one best thing you can do is to educate yourself, which means being willing to put in a LOT of time reading and thinking – not just about Native Americans, but about yourself, and being willing to seriously consider and reconsider beliefs you may hold, uncomfortable as that may be.

One tool to help you with this is Indian 101 for Writers. If you are serious about wanting to learn as a writer, reading all five parts and investigating the resources listed in it will be a mini-course worth your time. Take your time and let the information sink in.

Another great thing you can do is promote Native authors. There are so many amazing books out written by Native authors! Debbie Reese has a Best Books page by year that includes very recently published books, and the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education has a lengthy Recommended Books About American Indians list. Just a few of my personal favorites are Tim Tingle’s How I Became A Ghost and Saltypie, Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett, and Cynthia Leitich Smiths Jingle Dancer.

Thank you, Kara! So many great resources and things to think about in your responses! We greatly appreciate your time and your dedication to helping other writers and readers!

Thank you, Michelle, for inviting me to share my thoughts and information with you and your readers!

For more great books written by Native Americans, check out our post from last month on Native American Literature for Young Readers.

For more information about Kara Stewart check out and follow her blog From Here to Writernity. Or follow her on Twitter.

 

 

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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Native American Literature for Young Readers


Happy Indigenous People’s Day! As the wind turns from humid to crisp and the leaves begin to change colors, we can’t help but think about Thanksgiving and our mixed feelings about this celebration. My education about Native Americans as a child was woefully inadequate and wrong for the most part. Understanding that our childhood views of colonialism were misrepresented is important to our history, our culture, and our humanity and the best place to begin fixing our misunderstanding is to make sure that the books we read are representative of Native American culture.

To celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, we’ve been busy reading to create a list of recommended books that should be in our classrooms, home libraries, or reading stacks this fall and all year. Yes, you should read Sherman Alexie’s books too, but there are many other fine Native American authors who are often overlooked. We’ve chosen to shine a light on them.

 

We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp and illustrated by Julie Flett

A perfect book for new parents welcoming baby into the world. A lovely rhythmic read aloud, beautifully illustrated.

Board book, ages 0+

 

My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Julie Flett

What makes your heart fill with happiness? Holding hands? The sun on your face? This little board book does a great job of reminding us to cherish these moments. Beautiful, happy illustrations, alluring to the eyes.

Ages 0+


Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith and illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu

A joyous story filled with details about the traditions associated with the dresses jingle dancers wear. Young Jenna gets help from her family and community to give her dress its own voice. Beautiful, lyrical text with traditional Indian phrasing. Warm, inviting illustrations.

Ages 6+

 

The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz and illustrated by Sharol Graves

Originally published in 1977, the 40th edition of this book of truth about Indigenous People and colonization will be published in October. If I had to purchase only one book for my library for the fall, this might be the one. Clearly expressed text quickly explains the lives of Indigenous people as America was discovered by the Spanish and the population exploded as more settlers came here.  Ages 6+

 

Shin-Chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim LaFave

This story about Shi-shi-etko and her little brother Shin-Chi’s journey to an Indian residential school shines a light on one of the darker moments in our country’s history.  The author’s note provides additional historical context for the story, context that many of us missed in our history lessons and can share with the next generation through this sweet book. Ages 6+

 

Saltypie  by Tim Tingle and illustrated by Karen Clarkson

Saltypie tells the story of a grandmother through her young grandson’s eyes. Filled with wisdom and tenderness, this story of a woman who lived a life of adversity without losing her good humor and warm heart has a surprise at the end that’s worth a read. The author notes include additional historical context and some lovely family photos.  Ages 6+

 


Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson and Illustrated by David Shannon

Hiawatha, a brave Mohawk warrior, is angry. He wants revenge when his family is killed in a battle of warring tribes. But everything changes when he is visited by the Peacemaker, a prophet who wishes to end the warring and changes Hiawatha’s mind and heart. Hiawatha’s story is a timeless tale, important for all humans for understanding unity, cooperation.

Ages 8+

 

Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Native Americans Ray Halfmoon and his Grampa live in Chicago, which is much different from life in Oklahoma where Grampa grew us. The fun, interrelated short stories are heartwarming and help young readers understand what life is like for many present-day Native American.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

 

Soft Rain: The Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears by Cornelia Cornelissen

Nine-year old Soft Rain’s inspiring story illuminates an important part of our American history, one that should not be forgotten–the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The author’s voice is perfect for helping young readers understand the impact of being torn from your family and forced to relocate.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

The Warriors by Joseph Bruchac

Twelve-year-old Jake Forrest has spent his whole life living on an Iroquois Indian reservation. He must leave the life he loves when his mother graduates law school and lands a job in Washington, DC. Jake, who has always been a star lacrosse player, struggles to adjust to the spirit of the game off the Indian reservation. Through this story, we learn that the origins of lacrosse are tribal. There are just enough lacrosse scenes to satisfy fans of the game, but at its heart this is a realistic story about the struggles we all feel trying to fit in. The Warriors deftly grapples with issues such as racism, violence in sports, and cultural misappropriation.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle

This. Book. Will. Keep. You. On. The. Edge. Of. Your. Seat. Unlike anything I’ve ever read and full of surprises. A story about a young Choctaw who doesn’t survive the Trial of Tears, told by his ghost. Each chapter a cliffhanger, this is a terrifically compelling tale of resilience and unity with surprisingly humorous moments.

Ages 8+

 

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by James Marshall III

Learn about Crazy Horse through a modern child’s eyes in this stunning novel. Full of the beauty of oral tradition, family heritage, and road trips, this one is perfect for you and your middle-grade reader.

Novel, Ages 8+

 

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

This story, and the others in the series, has the feel and tone of Little House on the Prairie and other pioneer-era stories but with a more sensitive and historically accurate portrayal of Native people. Follow the adventures of two young brothers as they navigate childhood in a rich historical setting. Novel, Ages 8+

 

Fire in the Village, by Anne M Dunn

A collection of fables, legends, and creation myths from an Anishinabeg-Ojibwe elder living on the Leech Lake Reservation. The seventy-five stories in this beautiful collection capture a piece of history that might otherwise have been lost.

Short-story collection, Ages 12+

 

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

Wonderful story about reservation life, friendship, racism, poverty, family and something that binds all of us: music. Prepare to cry with this one, folks. It will break your heart and make you mad at points, but the journey of emotions is well worth the ride.

Novel, Ages 12+

 

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson

Did you know that native Alaskans were given radioactive drugs without their permission to study whether their bodies were biologically more resistant to the effects of cold weather? Powerful, factually-based narrative about the difficulties Alaskan Native Americans children faced when they were uprooted from their families and culture and sent to a school where they were punished if their native language slipped from their lips. Multiple POVs give the reader a broad picture of the range of their struggles, all delivered in an intriguing, relatable story that would be a great classroom read for ages

Novel, Ages 12+

 

Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac

The importance of the Navajo Code Talkers during WWII was so secretive many historians don’t even know about it. Thanks to Joseph Bruchac’s family connection we can now all read about these brave men who helped keep troops safe during the war by using a code based on Navajo language, the same language they were forced to suppress as they were educated in schools designed to make them fit into white culture. Infused with Native American history and  culture, Code Talker helps us understand what it must have felt like to be in young Ned’s situation as he went from life on a reservation to working the front lines as an American soldier in WWII.

Novel, Ages 12+

 

Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon

This murder mystery follows 19-year-old Cash as she revisits family history on a journey to help her friend investigate the murder of a Native man on a neighboring reservation. Anyone who loves good crime fiction will appreciate this novel.

Novel, Upper YA/Adult

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

When the Robot War ignites, our government crumbles. Human resistance is led by small organized groups. The Osage Nation in Gray Horse, Oklahoma is one of these groups. Despite decades of oppression, these small tightly-knit tribal mini-nations remain strong, the perfect fighters against the collapse of humanity  This book is a sci-fi thriller written in the style of World War Z  by a Cherokee citizen who also has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon and Masters degrees in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.  This gripping story is perfect for upper YA (high school age) and Adult.

 

These are all books that we can personally recommend, but don’t stop there. There are many resources for finding authentic and accurate books written by Native Americans.

Debbie Reese’s AMERICAN INDIANS IN LITERATURE BLOG

Kara Stewart’s blog FROM HERE TO WRITERNITY  We’d like to give a special thank you to Kara who helped us hand-pick some of the titles we’ve reviewed!

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Blog

And checkout/subscribe to our Native Writers Twitter List.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

 

 

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