First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) partnered with literature expert Debbie Reese, Ph.D. (Nambé Pueblo) to create a very special way of observing Native American Heritage Month 2016, which has been taking place during November. It was the issuance of the Native American Children’s Literature Recommended Reading List – with the goal of encouraging a “national read” of five books under the #NativeReads hashtag – followed by the issuance of an expanded list totaling 30 “must read” books, all with Native stories by Native authors.
“A core part of our work is to change the narrative on how American Indians are viewed … by making the invisible visible, by actively refuting persistent negative stereotypes, and by shifting the pervasive misperceptions. Books can help do that,” said First Nations President and CEO Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit). “Education makes a significant difference in breaking down stereotypes, reshaping collaborations and building bridges of understanding in the world today.”
Dr. Reese, known for her expertise in the field of Native children’s literature, is an educator and has served on many national literacy boards. She is the editor and publisher of the American Indians in Children’s Literature website, and knows the importance of culturally authentic stories.
“Story is what shapes societies,” she said. “The stories any society tells its youth are ones that shape the future of that society. Most stories children read about Native people are full of bias, stereotyping and factual errors that are dismissed if the story itself is done well according to literary merit. Those, I find, are the most destructive to Native youth, and to non-Native youth, too, whose thinking is impacted by what they read.”
In order to counter the destructive narrative, Reese actively seeks out books that authentically portray Native Americans and their cultures. One of the authors she chose for the #NativeReads campaign is Cynthia Leitich Smith who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Austin, Texas. Smith wrote Jingle Dancer, published by Morrow Junior Books, and says being chosen for the #NativeReads campaign meant much to her and her readers.
“It was deeply heartening [to be selected]. Depictions of Native people – especially in contemporary times – are rare in the field of children’s YA (Young Adult) literature. And when it comes to accuracy and authenticity, Native voices are still pushing back against a sea of stereotypes. So, an initiative like this that lifts up and highlights our stories, that connects them to young readers in celebration, is not only welcome but treasured,” said Smith.
Arigon Starr is a member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles, California. She co-owns Wacky Productions Unlimited with Janet E. Miner. Starr created the Super Indian Volume One and Volume Two comic books to show Natives in a contemporary light. To have her creation selected for the #NativeReads campaign raised a variety of emotions for her.
“First there was shock, then amazement, then a feeling of relief that my work had been validated in a way it hadn’t been before. The mainstream world sees comics as pure entertainment. However, with Super Indian, my goal was always to educate folks about contemporary Native America with fantastical, funny storytelling. I’m deeply grateful that Native Reads is bringing my work to a larger audience,” said Starr.
Eric Gansworth is a member of the Onondaga Nation and is a professor of English and the Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He wrote and illustrated the book If I Ever Get Out of Here, published by Arthur A. Levine Books.
Gansworth felt “fortunate and honored to be in such terrific company among the artists whose work was also selected.” He understands firsthand how Native writers are needed to reflect the experiences of Native communities.
“When I was 11, a writer and artist from my community, Ted C. Williams, had a book about our community published. The Reservation, which has just celebrated its 40th year in print, showed me our small world of a thousand people was worth writing about, worth celebrating. It gave me a context, room to dream. If my work finds its way out there and, even for a short time, helps someone feel less lonely in the world, allows them to hear another familiar voice, that is motivation enough to keep doing it and trying to send it out into the world.”
The #NativeReads campaign ties into a major initiative called Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions, led jointly by First Nations Development Institute and Echo Hawk Consulting. The two-year research and strategy project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and it will create a long-term, Native-led movement that will positively transform the image of and narrative of Native Americans.
Dr. Reese sees such efforts as a way to change and counter harmful stereotypes and misconceptions, and to raise awareness.
“Whenever I am asked to recommend books, I think about the new ones, and older ones, too, that are accurate. I focus on ones by Native writers because a teacher or parent can use present-tense verbs when talking about the writer and that writer’s nation. This creates layers of learning that counter the problematic books most children are going to be asked to read in school. I was glad to learn that First Nations wanted to do the Native Reads campaign. It is a concrete action to interrupt the massive cycle of misinformation. It is, in my view, a step to shape society in ways that affirm our place in it.”
Please visit www.firstnations.org/HeritageMonth2016 to find the #NativeReads featured books for Native American Heritage Month, and a link to the entire reading list of 30 selected books. All resources are free. You can also find Discussion Guides for each of the five featured books, and a list of “10 Ways You Can Make a Difference” during Native American Heritage Month.
By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer