Monday, March 24, 2008


So many books and stories about American Indian and First Nations peoples confine us to the past. Verbs are in past tense. Stories are set "long ago." Historical fiction abounds. Native characters are flat, stock, stereotypical savages or heroes of days long past.

Given that state of affairs, is is not surprising that children (and adults) don't know that Native people are very much part of the present day, and that we live our lives with many of the same conveniences everyone else has. Computers. Cars. Jeans.

When I work with teachers, I suggest they develop lessons with visuals that show their (non-Native) families and ancestors, coupled with images of Native children and their ancestors. I suggest they talk about "special clothes" that are only used at certain times for specific purposes.

Now, there's a terrific--absolutely terrific--children's book that does precisely that. It is When the Shadbush Blooms. The book is written by Carla Messinger (Turtle Clan Lenape), with Susan Katz, and illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden (Wolf Clan Mohawk). Published by Tricycle Press in 2007, the book is about the Lenni Lenape people, past and present.

Turning to the first double-page spread in the book, the text reads:

"My grandparents' grandparents walked beside the same stream where I walk with my brother, and we can see what they saw. Deer leap in the woods. Hawks fly in circles overhead. Frogs splash, and turtles sun themselves."
The stream runs down the center of the two-pages. On its left bank (left side of the page) are the grandparents' grandparents, in clothing they would have worn in their time. On the right bank (right side of the page) are two children, shown wearing clothes kids wear today. T-shirts, cut-offs, and sneakers. One points to the frog. In the sky is a hawk, and behind the grandparents, just at the edge of the trees, is a deer. Encircling them all are shadbush in bloom. On that first double-page spread, the words are "Mechoammowi Gischuch" and "When the Shadfish Return Moon."

That pattern of telling continues throughout the book as one cycle, or moon, and its work and play follows another. These cycles are noted at the top outside edge of each page, in the languages spoken by the narrators, Traditional Sister on the left, and Contemporary Sister on the right.  Here's a page about winter activity (click on the image and a larger image will open):

Beyond the story itself, the book includes information about the Lenni Lenape culture and language. This book is a many-layered treasure.

Such a treasure, in fact, that it is a nominee for the Children's Book Council's "Children's Choice" awards. If you are a teacher or librarian working with kids, go here to vote for it! And, buy it from Oyate.


Anonymous said...

I just had a little baby girl and very much look forward to reading your suggestions on children's books. we just got the book Lullaby song by decamp and she loves it. she keeps kissing the babies pictures.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that my last post had the title of the book and author wrong. oops. i'm such a forgetful mom these days. sorry about that.
the book is welcome song for baby by Richard Van camp....and i look forward to purchasing , when the shadbush bloom" as well.