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Native American Heritage Month

At this time of year we all begin to think about Thanksgiving and the founding of our nation. In 1990, November was designated Native American Heritage Month and while I’ve expressed my hesitation about these months before, it does give me an excuse to talk a little bit about Native Americans in children’s books. The story of Native Americans is complicated. The story of the United States cannot be separated from the story of the decimation and destruction of native cultures and people. Of course, at the same time, we live in and love modern California—a state that grew out of the Mission system as well as the terrible treatment of California Indians. As adults–librarians, teachers, or parents–we have an ethical responsibility to analyze our books for how they depict Native Americans. The best way to start that analysis to with the American Indian Library Association’s checklist I is not for Indian. Here is a slightly modified version of the checklist:

  • Is the artwork predominated by generic “Indian” designs?
  • Are the Indians all dressed in the standard buckskin, beads and feathers?
  • Is the history distorted, giving the impression that the white settlers brought civilization to Native peoples and improved their way of life?
  • Are Indian characters successful only if they realize the futility of traditional ways and decide to “make it” in white society?
  • Are white authority figures able to solve the problems of Native children that Native authority figures have failed to solve?
  • Are women portrayed as subservient drudges?
  • Is there anything in the book that would make a Native American child feel embarrassed or hurt to be what he is? Can the child look at the book and recognize and feel good about what he sees?

I use that criteria when I read nonfiction and fiction titles, and it changed my feelings about some classic children’s novels—Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn, and turned me completely off The Indian in the Cupboard.

For anyone interested in a more in depth exploration of this topic, I wholeheartedly recommend Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, the book  A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, and a nice essay by Nina Lindsay in School Library Journal.

Below is a list of a few exemplary nonfiction titles in our collection that are specifically about California Indians:

California Indians Fact Cards A set of 52 pages collected in a binder, these “Fact Cards” present detailed information about individual California Indian tribes in an easy to use reference tool.  The “Fact Cards” have, among other information, population estimates from 1770 (the first Mission was established in California in 1769) based on research done by A.L. Kroeber in 1925. Those statistics are contrasted with data from 1910 census, which dramatically illustrates the decimation of the native population. The “Fact Cards” begin with a detailed source note, identifying where the information came from and how reliable it is, which are important considerations when writing a history of any Native American tribe.

The Pomo by Elaine Landau A classic ‘fact book’—exactly the kind of book that kids turn to again and again for school reports. The Pomo is divided into tidy chapters that cover the basics of life, including “Family Life,” “Religion,” The Arrival of Whites”, and “Trade.”  Straightforward language, with accurate facts, is paired with full-color images with detailed captions.  Twelve pages are dedicated to what Landau calls, “The Arrival of the Whites.”  She doesn’t shy away from the brutality associated with the Missions and makes it very clear that the Pomo did not die out, and that the culture and people are still here.

Native Ways: California Indian Stories and Memories edited by Malcolm Margolin and Yolanda Montigo This book uniquely documents contemporary and historical stories of Native Americans in California, covering the every day and scared aspects of life. Written with engaging, age-appropriate language, the book is an excellent source of information and an enjoyable book to read.

Weaving a California Tradition: A Native American Basketmaker by Linda Yamane I love this book. Weaving a California Tradition introduces Carly Tex, an 11-year-old Western Mono girl. The text, full-color photos, and Carly herself, engage readers in the story of the life of this girl as she takes flute lessons, travels with her family to a powwow, and makes baskets.  The living traditions of the Western Mono basketmakers are the heart of the book.


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