Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Native American Representation in Children's Literature: Challenging the People of the Past Narrative, by Julie Stivers

Eds Note: Today, AICL is pleased to share a study done by Julie Stivers, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, School of Library and Information Science. Ms. Stivers shared the poster (below) with me earlier this week. I was reading Ed Valandra's article that day and sent it to her because her study confirms Vine Deloria Jr.'s observations about books published from 1968 to 1975 (Valandra's article is listed below in Additional Resources). Of those four years, Deloria wrote (p. 105-106):
...it seemed as if every book on modern Indians was promptly buried by a book on the "real" Indians of yesteryear. The public overwhelming[ly] turned to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Memories of Chief Red Fox to avoid the accusations made by modern Indians in The Tortured Americans and Custer Died for Your Sins. The Red Fox book alone sold more copies than the two modern books. 
Valandra continued:
In other words, the non-Indian literary world refused to consider Native peoples in a modern context, thus hindering the accurate depiction of contemporary Native issues.

Ms. Stivers studied children's books published since 2013. Her findings tell us that things haven't changed much. What gets published, matters. The writer's you read, and their viewpoints, matter. Please seek out Native writers! Think about their stories and what they choose to share. It matters. 

Thank you, Ms. Stivers, for giving AICL permission to share your excellent work on this project! 


Native American Representation in Children's Literature: 
Challenging the "People of the Past" Narrative
by Julie Stivers

Are you a librarian...a teacher...or a parent?  Let’s think for a moment about the books we own that feature Native American main characters.  What are their settings?  In the past?  Modern day?  If the text does not make this clear—if, for example, there are anthropomorphic animals—what are they wearing?  Baseball caps and modern clothes or ‘leather and feathers’?

It was these questions that drove me to research the time settings of books featuring Native Americans for a Children’s Literature class assignment on content analysis.  Of the many problematic stereotypes in youth literature written about Native Americans, I chose to focus on examining the prevalence of the ‘people of the past’ narrative.  At face value, readers and librarians may think this is a harmless problem—which is, of course—what makes it so dangerous.  However, a predilection for featuring only Native American books that are set in the past puts forth a narrative that Native American people themselves are only of the past, allowing their present lives—and their sovereign rights—to be ignored.  This stereotype is damaging to the sense of self of contemporary Native youth.  A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children (Seale & Slapin, 2005) contains “living stories" which shed light on the negative impact stereotypes in literature are having on Native American youth.

This poster displays results from the content analysis of youth fiction books published since 2013 with Native American main characters.  75% of books written by non-Native authors were set before 1900, compared with only 20% written by Native authors.  Increasing the time period granularity makes the results even more striking.  No books by non-Native authors were set after 1950, whereas 75% of books by Native authors were, with 2/3 of books written by Native authors set in present day. 
Which books do we think are being put out by the Big Five publishers?  Overwhelmingly, those set in the past.  So, if we are relying on ‘mainstream’ review sources, ordering platforms, and book fairs, we will get a clearly biased view of Native Americans in our youth literature.  Only by seeking out offerings from independent publishers and learning from sites such as American Indians in Children’s Literature and Oyate can we successfully challenge the ‘people of the past’ narrative by collecting books about—and written by—Native Americans that reflect a wide range of experiences and settings.

Please note that this research makes no claims as to the quality or authenticity of the titles.  The presence of a book in a ‘pre-1900’ category does not preclude it from being an excellent example of literature featuring American Indians, such as How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle, praised by both Native reviewers and mainstream critics.  For this sample, however, there was a commonality for all well-reviewed books set in the past—they were all written by American Indian authors.

Additional Resources:

Seale, D. & Slapin, B. (Eds.). (2005).  A broken flute:  The Native experience in books for children.  Berkeley, CA:  Oyate.

Stewart, M.P. (2013).  “Counting Coup” on children’s literature about American Indians:  Louise Erdrich’s historical fiction.  Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 38(2), 215-235.

Valandra, E.C.  (2005).  The As-Told-To Native [Auto]biography:  Whose voice is speaking? Wicazo Sa Review, 29(2), 103-119.

Boccella Hartle, M. & Shebala, M. (2010).  When your hands are tied.  Documentary film.  http://www.whenyourhandsaretied.org/


Anonymous said...

I would be curious to see how this breaks down between picture books (books for the young), middle grade, and books for teens. While I do not question that Ms. Stivers' findings are strongly the case for middle grade and younger, I am having a hard time thinking of (recent) historical YA books with a primary emphasis on the portrayal of Native Americans. I would be happy to be corrected!

Julie said...

My sample included board, picture, and chapter books, not YA. I did include If I Ever Get Out of Here because it is sometimes shelved as YA and sometimes as J or middle-grade. Otherwise, no YA.

Good question!