Native Characters in Children’s Books, Part Two: Pathfinders

Jan 6th, 2015 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic
By Ryan Winn

SON WHO RETURNSThere’s a diversity shortage in children’s literature. The University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that 92.1% of the 5,000 books published in 2013 featured White characters, while only 1% featured American Indians. An unnamed children’s book executive responded to these statistics by claiming the discrepancy could be blamed on poor sales, stating, “If we thought there was a demand for more nonwhite characters we would try to fill it.” This explanation highlights the publishing industry’s faulty business model, because it places the blame for the lack of minority texts on the parents of their youngest readers. There are some fantastic books being published, and every tribal college and university (TCU) library should stock and promote them.

Blaming the lack of minority texts on poor sales is a rationale that dismisses both the proverbial chicken and the egg. Publishers argue they’re not offering minority texts on the premise that there are not enough interested readers—yet they fail to acknowledge the absence of these texts’ readers may be a result of their myopic output. Moreover, six of the past ten years’ National Book Awards for young people’s literature went to texts featuring minority characters—including the 2007 award for Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Each of these books contains engaging stories featuring minority characters, and they all sold well. Afro-Latina author Veronica Chambers sums up the frustration over a lack of minority publications: “What the poor numbers say most graphically is that [the book publishers] really don’t care.”

Yet we TCU educators must care, because books offer readers both experiences they don’t have to pay for and they serve as a mirror for self-expression. A few months before his passing this summer, the decorated African American author Walter Dean Meyers published the revealing essay, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Explaining that a James Baldwin story had a profound influence on his foray into writing, he notes, “By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.” Similarly, Alexie dedicated his first fiction collection to a handful of people. Although he gave no surnames, he honored Native writers Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Creek), and Leslie Silko (Laguna Pueblo) for the groundbreaking books that inspired him in his youth.

A great resource for young readers is the exemplary Native Pathfinders series. Published by 7th Generation, which is dedicated to using “culturally accurate content to preserve the history and stories from the past, to highlight the beauty and wisdom of Native cultures, and to address contemporary issues,” the series’ novels are action driven and well written. Contributor Gary Robinson’s (Cherokee/Choctaw) novels feature modern Native teenagers facing different challenges and crises. The protagonists find meaning and enrichment through embodying the wisdom of their elders. In Tribal Journey, for example, a crippled teen learns his Duwamish culture by joining a canoeing family. In Little Brother of War, a Choctaw boy heals from his brother’s death in Iraq by competing in stickball. And in Son Who Returns a Chumash/Crow boy learns of his culture and identity through powwow dancing. Decorated author Tim Tingle’s (Choctaw) compelling Danny Blackgoat trilogy features the perseverance of a Navajo teenager during the Long Walk of 1864. A hallmark of Tingle’s writing is that he makes historical periods pulse with immediacy and his characters always overcome obstacles because they’re equipped with the tools of their people.

We know that sports mascots, product marketing, and automobile names reinforce negative cultural stereotypes, but it’s staggering to learn that in high schools across the nation, American Indians are portrayed in a 19th century context 87% of the time. The resulting ignorance of American Indians affects everyone, including school administrators. Take the case of five-year-old Malachi Wilson (Navajo) from Seminole, Texas, who was sent home his first day of kindergarten because his hair braid was against school policy. It’s no surprise that his elementary school’s mascot is an Indian, that the school’s various logos feature Native people wearing feathers, and that students are called “Indians and Maidens.”

Getting compelling accurate texts into the hands of children is an effective way to realize positive change. If this past November witnessed Thai protestors using the three-fingered solute from The Hunger Games series to voice their displeasure with Thailand’s authoritative government, there’s no denying that contemporary books can rally the indignation of their readers. We TCU employees are called to our positions to help strengthen the future of Native nations. While we directly serve the adults in our classrooms, we also have an obligation to help educate the minds of every member of our communities. If every year brings 4,950 new children’s books that exclude Native characters, we need to ensure that the 50 that do feature Natives are vetted and celebrated for accuracy. TCUs are improving the lives of generations of American Indian people, and by using our libraries’ funds to amplify the reach of Indigenous stories, we can help make the multicultural road easier to navigate.

References

Landry, A. (2014, November 17). ‘All Indians Are Dead?’ At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children. Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved December 2014 from: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/11/17/all-indians-are-dead-least-thats-what-most-schools-teach-children-157822

Meyers, W. D. (2014, March 15). Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? New York Times. Retrieved December 2014 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/where-are-the-people-of-color-in-childrens-books.html?_r=0

Mydans, S. (2014, November 20). Thai Protesters Are Detained After Using “Hunger Games” Salute. New York Times. Retrieved December 2014 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/21/world/asia/thailand-protesters-hunger-games-salute.html?_r=0

Robinson, G. (2013a). Tribal Journey. Summertown, Tennessee: 7th Generation.

Robinson, G. (2013b). Thunder on the Plains. Summertown, Tennessee: 7th Generation.

Robinson, G. (2013c). Little Brother of War. Summertown, Tennessee: 7th Generation.

Robinson, G. (2014d). Son Who Returns. Summertown, Tennessee: 7th Generation.

Terrero, N. (2014, April 11). Kid Lit’s Primary Color: White. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved December 2014 from: http://shelf-life.ew.com/2014/04/15/kid-lits-primary-color-white-report/

Texas School Sends Kindergartner Home for Braid (2014, September 2). The Buffalo Post. Retrieved December 2014 from: http://www.buffalopost.net/?p=19288

Tingle, T. (2013). Danny Blackgoat: Navajo Prisoner. Summertown, Tennessee: 7th Generation.

Tingle, T. (2014). Danny Blackgoat: Rugged Road to Freedom. Summertown, Tennessee: 7th Generation.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair.

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