Monday, July 24, 2006

Writing BY American Indians that isn't ABOUT American Indians

In my work, I search for books and stories about American Indians that are written (or retold) by American Indians. I do this because it is critical that Americans know that we are part of today’s America; that is, American Indians aren't dead and gone.

I’d bet that most of you know the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Why are so many people familiar with that phrase? I googled it and got 18,400 results, and I know it appears in many children’s books. Maybe America’s children are first introduced to that phrase by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in Little House on the Prairie.

Those who believed and acted on that phrase didn’t succeed.

We did not vanish. A good many of us are writers, and we don’t always write about American Indians, nor should we be expected to confine our creativity and interest to American Indian topics.

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s upcoming book, Santa Knows, may be an example. From what I can see on her webpage, Alfie (the protagonist) is not American Indian, and the story isn’t about American Indians. Smith and her husband co-wrote Santa Knows

My father is another example. He is retired now, but spent most of his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory where he designed and built high-speed cameras and published a lot of articles in scientific journals.

This particular post to my blog may seem a bit odd, out of place, perhaps, but I do want readers to know that not all American Indians write about American Indians. To some of you, that simple statement may seem a no-brainer, but with American Indians, we have to state the obvious again and again. Such is the power of stereotypical imagery.

Update, Feb 19, 2015

I've long since read--and love--Santa Knows. I definitely recommend it!

My father passed away in June of 2013. In addition to the scientific work he did at Los Alamos, he worked very hard, advocating for Native people interested in higher education, and, advocating for the ways that Native people are treated in the workplace. The local paper in Santa Fe has a wonderful article about him

Sunday, July 23, 2006

More Board Books

There are four additional board books by Beverly Blacksheep! They are Baby Learns about Weather, Baby Learns about Time, Baby Learns about Senses, and Baby Learns about Seasons. Oyate carries all eight titles. To order, call 510-848-6700 or email:

You can see some of Beverly Blacksheep's art here:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The 1700's: Writings about Indians

I spent the last three days studying materials in the Yale libraries. It is fascinating to do this sort of research. There is so much here; I worked very intensely and it will be awhile before I can write about the materials I saw.

Briefly, I read the diary of a soldier, dated 1759-1762. In several places he refers to Indians they fought. He didn't say "savage" or "heathen" --- just Indian. He didn't use "bloodthirsty" or any of those loaded words that we see with great frequency in children's historical fiction. I'm not making any generalizations from reading one diary (and, I was reading quickly, skimming in parts, so may have missed something).

I read a "dialogue" between several missionaries. Dated 1795, it is an account of their work with "the Delawares, the 6 Nations, the Mahikands, and some smaller tribes." In it I did come across the word "heathen" but it wasn't used with much frequency. Instead, these missionaries used the word "Indian."

There is much to do and I will need much more time to read and work here. For now, I head back to Urbana. A note: the staff at the Sterling and Beinecke libraries are wonderful and very helpful. If you're in the area, stop by the Beinecke, go upstairs, and see the panorama pop-up book of a wild west show...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Board Books

In some of my posts, I talked about words like "papoose" that some (incorrectly) think are "Indian" words that all Indians use, regardless of tribe or mother tongue.

Today, I want to talk about board books in which you'll find the real deal. By that, I mean these books are by Native authors, and they use their own language in the book. (Board books are those books meant specifically for babies and toddlers; the pages are thick cardboard.)

In 2003, a set of board books were published by Salina Bookshelf, located in Flagstaff, Arizona. The illustrator is a Dine (Navajo) woman named Beverly Blacksheep. They are bilingual books, which means that all the printed words are presented in two languages: Dine and English. The four are Baby's First Laugh, Baby Learns about Animals, Baby Learns about Colors, and Baby Learns to Count. Learn more about the Navajo Nation by visiting their website.

In the early 2000's (sounds odd to use that phrase), the Fond du Lac Head Start Program published two board books that use Ojibwe words. Boozhoo, Come Play With Us is a series of photos of children at the Head Start, doing the things children do in pre-school, but with the addition of Ojibwe words to name those things. The book is by Deanna Himango, with photos by Rocky Wilkinson; both individuals are Ojibwe. So is Lyz Jaakola, whose book Our Journey uses Ojibwe words for north, south, east, west, but also for sun and earth. And, here's the website for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation.

If anyone knows of other board books like these, please let me know.

As you may have noticed (above), I included links to tribal websites. By visiting these links and having children you work with visit them, we can let go of wrong ideas (Indians are extinct) or ideas that confine us to the past (Indians don't drive cars). We're very much are part of today's society. Nation nations and individuals are using the internet, just like everyone else.

I'm in New Haven, Connecticut this week, spending some time in the Yale library archives. I'm finding some interesting things that I'll use in my research and on the blog. Off to the archives!