BLOGS  >  JULY 23, 2020

Honoring Voices of Native Nations


November often brings thoughts about Thanksgiving. My thoughts are about how to ensure that the stories students hear and the representation they see of Native peoples during this month are not harmful or ones that continue perpetuating negative stereotypes, as they too often are surrounded by in November. It is also Native American Heritage Month, and while I know that it is vital to include books by and about various cultural and racial groups throughout the entire school year, not just in one month, many are asking for book recommendations with Native characters at this time of year. But since this is a marginalized culture about which we see some of the most egregious offensive stereotypes, I wanted to share a booklist full of picture books that honor Native Nations to use in your #ClassroomBookADay read-alouds this month and every month.

The National Congress of American Indians says this about Native American Heritage Month: “The month is a time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.” I hope these picture book recommendations will help you work toward that goal.

What do you picture when someone references Native Americans or American Indians? Is it the “leathered and feathered vanishing race” of historical representations (Matika Wilbur, TEDtalk, 2013)? Is it the “stereotypical images of young children in headdresses, passive girls in long, black braids, and the portrayal of native people as savage beasts are reported in many children’s books today” (McMahon, Saunders, & Bardwell, 1996, as cited in Sabis-Burns, 2011, p. 135)? Is it the fake feather headband and buckskin clothes of the clipart kids that are prevalent in a simple Google search or on Teachers Pay Teachers resources? Is it these stereotypical, inaccurate, historical, biased views of Native Americans that children are socialized into? And how do we offset that in the classroom? Our #ClassroomBookADay read-alouds are a great place to start. If we focus on selecting books from #ownvoices authors and illustrators who share their tribal affiliation or membership, look for tribally specific characters and stories that avoid the monolithic view of Native Americans as all one culture versus more than 570 individual sovereign nations. Look for those that include Native peoples in the present day with contemporary clothing and references (and present tense!), and we can start to offset the stereotypes with authentic portrayals.

Fox and Short (2004) point out, “every child reserves the right to see themselves positively and accurately portrayed in stories and to find truth based on their own experiences instead of negative stereotypes and misrepresentation” (as cited in Sabis-Burns, 2011, p. 133). Whether you have Native students in your classroom or not, it is vital that all children see contemporary, accurate, positive representations of Native peoples in the books that are shared in school. Mora (1998) claims, “How a media depicts a group affects how a group sees itself, such is the power of images, the power of words” (as cited in Cai, 2002, p. 71). Those images and words have that same power over how children from outside that group see those within it. When children are exposed to stereotypical images of a racial group over and over in the books they read, it negatively affects the perception of that group from both cultural insiders and outsiders. That is where our picture book choices for read-alouds can make a difference. We have the ability to share positive, contemporary, realistic, accurate representations of Native peoples and cultures of Native Nations that can serve to offset the negative images many students get throughout school and the media they consume.

Dr. Debbie Reese’s website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, is one of my go-to resources for finding critical reviews of children’s literature with Indigenous content. I have learned much from her and her critiques about the essential need for representation that is accurate and authentic in books about Native Nations and peoples. I cited her work along with several other researchers and scholars during a recent MLIS grad class on multicultural children’s literature, for which I chose to do A Critical Analysis of Native Representation in Picture Books for my final research paper. I put together a shareable graphic on guidelines for critically assessing Native content in children’s literature. I am hopeful this will be a resource to help you in selecting books for #ClassroomBookADay, other read-alouds, your curriculum selections and your classroom or school library. 

The books I have selected for this month’s recommendations meet the criteria on this list upon a critical read. Be sure to also read the back matter for any of these books that includes it. Further information can set context and make the difference between fully understanding the message of the book versus putting a white-centric perspective onto it. A prime example, Luby & Goade's Encounter is a Native perspective on first contact that is far better than Yolen's popular one (about which Dr. Reese had shared critiques). However, if this new Encounter is shared uncritically with just the story itself, it can lead to a skewed perspective of friendliness of these encounters which is a disservice to kids and classrooms trying to do more anti-bias work in considering whose story is told and which perspectives are missing. But when pairing Luby's back matter alongside the text of the story, it can serve to spark more critical thinking and lead to valuable conversations about the colonists’ arrival on indigenous lands.
That is the power of sharing picture books with Native representation all year long (remembering to prioritize those with contemporary settings!) so that representation is present and deeper conversation and learning can happen beyond biased perspectives textbooks provide, all during enjoyable read aloud experiences. I believe these picture books are all ones that will make a good addition to your #ClassroomBookADay read-alouds throughout this year. 

Jillian Heise 

Jillian Heise is a Grade K-5 Library Media Teacher in southeastern Wisconsin. She previously taught Grades 7-8 ELA in the Milwaukee area for 11 years and is board certified. Jillian is a passionate advocate for student choice in reading and the power of shared stories through #ClassroomBookADay picture book read-alouds. She brings her literacy expertise and knowledge of books to her role as Chair of the WSRA Children’s Literature Committee. You can find Jillian talking books and education at Heise Reads & Recommends and on Twitter at @heisereads.

Watch webinar recording presented by Jillian Heise, Building Community: #ClassroomBookADay Read Alouds.

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