Guest Blogger

Indigenous Voices: Authentic Children’s Literature in the Classroom and Library

Early in 2021, I began conversations with people at the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center (CICSC), the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE), and California Indian Education for All, about providing a virtual event that featured Native writers. It would be available to the public, at no charge. I was—to put it mildly—thrilled! 

The outcome of our conversations was the 2021 Indigenous Voices: Authentic Children’s Literature in the Classroom and Library. I gave the opening remarks for the two-day event, providing some history of stereotyping and their impact on Native and non-Native children, and I talked about groundbreaking moments in children’s literature. You may remember that Michaela Goade (Tlingit) had just won the 2021 Caldecott Medal for We Are Still Here, and HarperCollins had launched Heartdrum, the first-ever Native-focused imprint from a major publisher. 

Following my remarks, participants had the opportunity to hear directly from Native people of several different tribal nations. In one session, Traci Sorell (Cherokee) spoke about her books, and in another, Anton Treuer (Ojibwe) spoke about his. Organizers expanded the format by including two sessions where a Native person facilitated a conversation between two Native authors. Christine Day (Upper Skagit) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) were in conversation with Patricia Morris Buckley (Mohawk), and Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache) and Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) talked with Naomi Bishop (Pima). 

Hundreds of people attended. It was, indeed, so successful that organizers decided to do it again.

Brochure courtesy of guest blogger

Coming up on May 24 and May 25, you can hear from another slate of Native people. This year, Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) kicks things off. I personally hope that she’ll talk about Sisters of the Neversea. As I look back on thirty years of reading and studying children’s and young adult literature, I think Sisters of the Neversea is unique in all that it embodies. Native children have been assailed by stereotypes in popular books (and movies) like Peter Pan. Non-Native children have been harmed by them, too, because Barrie’s imagery mis-educated them. A history of stereotyping is, in part, what led Leitich Smith to do the work she does with her stories. In Sisters of the Neversea, she pushes against the stereotyping in Peter Pan, giving Native and non-Native readers a story with remarkable depth. For example, I see a parallel between the Native people on that island and the US government boarding schools where Native children were removed from their homes and sent to schools that would “kill the Indian” in them. 

With the Heartdrum imprint that she brought into being, she’s gifted us all with the opportunity to hold books in our hands that we can hand to children, confident that we are holding their growing sense of belonging and knowledge of others, close to our hearts.  

Following her talk, Naomi Bishop (Pima) will facilitate a conversation with Christine Day (Upper Skagit), Daniel Vandever (Navajo), and Brian Young (Navajo). Recently, Brian Young spoke at the Navajo Nation Library in Arizona. One of the take-aways was when he said that he often has to tell people that his book Healer of the Water Monster, is not fantasy. It is infused with Navajo content that non-Native readers tend to associate with myths and legends. His remarks go right to the heart of one strand of the historical misrepresentation of Native peoples and culture that I and Cynthia Leitich Smith have pushed against for decades. Native creation stories are treated as folktales, myth and legend but Genesis (from the New Testament) is not. That disparate treatment is an example of white supremacy within society and children’s publishing, and I am glad to see Brian saying “no” to mischaracterization of his book.   

The next day, Angeline Boulley (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa) will talk about her book, Firekeeper’s Daughter. She’ll be followed by a conversation that Traci Sorell (Cherokee) will have with Michaela Goade (Tlingit and Haida) and David Robertson Norway House Cree). 

Some of you may find yourself stumbling over my inclusion of the names of the tribal nations that writers belong to, because it is not yet a norm. We’re getting there, though! Including that information (it is also part of the flyer for the 2021 and 2022 event) helps everyone understand that there are thousands of Native Nations on the continent called North America. We’re different in what we call ourselves, and we differ in our histories, languages, stories, songs, and material cultures. 

Indigenous Voices 2021 and Indigenous Voices 2022 reflect what I view as a new moment in children and young adult literature. In some ways it feels like we’re on the cusp of no longer having to say “we are still here.” I’m so grateful to people like Jonathan Hunt at San Diego County Office of Education, and Joely Proudfit (Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians) at CICSC for making the 2022 event happen.

Sign up for this free two day event! Register at https://sdcoe.k12oms.org/900-215459. And encourage your friends and colleagues to sign up, too. And make sure you get and promote books by Native writers.  


Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Debbie Reese. Tribally enrolled at Nambé Owingeh, a sovereign tribal nation in the southwest, Debbie Reese is the founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature. Dr. Reese was selected by ALSC to deliver the 2019 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture (now known as the Children’s Literature Lecture Award).

Photo credit: Durango Mendoza (Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma)

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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