American Indians and Diversity in Young Adult Literature

I get a lot of resistance to my efforts to promote books by American Indian or Indigenous writers. In one lecture after another, someone in the audience asks if people who are not Native can write stories about American Indians.

The answer to that question is yes! People who are not indigenous have been doing that for a long, long time, but that does not mean their stories accurately portray the experience of Indigenous people. Those who do it well are closely connected to Indigenous people. A case in point is Debby Dahl Edwardson. She is married to an Inupiat man and raised a family in his community. Her newest book, My Name is Not Easy, is a beautiful journey into her husband’s childhood. I say beautiful because of her evocative writing. Here’s an example:

“My name is hard like ocean ice grinding at the shore…”

The story itself is heartbreaking for what it tells us about government programs that, in this case, used Native children as subjects for scientific experiments. Debby’s book is inspiring, too, because it also tells us just how strong Indigenous people and our Nations are, in spite of all the governmental programs designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

Debby gets it right in terms of a story that resonates with Indigenous peoples, but she is an exception. A visit to American Indians in Children’s Literature provides examples of writers whose work has not fared well with critics who study the ways that Indigenous people are portrayed in their books. Take, for example, Ann Rinaldi. Her My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Robe was soundly critiqued by a group of nine Native and non-Native women. Rinaldi did a lot of research in order to write her book, but research is not enough. A lot of sources writers use are unreliable because they originated with people who were outsiders to Native communities. If you’re part of the community, as Debby is, you’ll learn all of that insider knowledge about how those sources are viewed.

I recommend My Name is Not Easy and I hope it wins the National Book Award. I’ll return though, to the books I recommend: those written by Native writers. They offer another dimension to literature studies. Youth who read them may be intrigued to read about the author, thereby learning about that writer’s Indigenous Nation. In various ways, Native writers teach their readers about sovereignty. A big word, but it is at the heart of who American Indian Nations are in today’s United States. Though we are often categorized amongst the multicultural populations of the United States, that categorization obscures the fact that, as sovereign nations, we are self-governing and have things like tribal elections and our own police departments.

There’s a lot to learn about who we are, and literature can help with that learning. Here’s my short list of books by Native writers. The writer’s tribal nation is in parenthesis.

MIDDLE GRADE

Hidden Roots and Skeleton Man, by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)
The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, and Porcupine Year, by Louise Erdrich (Ojibwe)
As Long as the Rivers Flow: A Last Summer Before Residential School, by Larry Loyie (Cree)
Indian Shoes and Rain is Not My Indian Name, by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek)
My Name is Seepeetza, by Shirley Sterling (Salish)

YOUNG ADULT

Night Flying Woman, by Ignatia Broker (Ojibwe)
Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori Marie Carlson (not Native)
Stories for a Winter’s Night by Maurice Kenny (Mohawk)
Men on the Moon: Collected Short Stories, by Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo)
Blue Horses Rush In, Luci Tapahonso (Dine)
The Night Wanderer, Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibwe)
The Lesser Blessed, Richard Van Camp (Dobrib)

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/110411debbiereese.jpg [/author_image] [author_info]Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. A former elementary school teacher, she taught in the American Indian Studies unit at the University of Illinois for several years. She is currently in library school at San Jose State University with the goal of establishing a tribal library at Nambe. She publishes the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, which is required reading in children’s literature courses across the United States and Canada. Her publications appear in children’s literature journals (Horn Book and School Library Journal) and books about children’s literature. [/author_info] [/author]

3 thoughts on “American Indians and Diversity in Young Adult Literature

  1. Thanks for a great post, Debbie! I noticed that you didn’t include Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN on your YA list. I’m guessing this is because the book has (already) gotten so much attention, and you’re looking to raise the visibility of other writers. (That’s a concern I’m sensitive to in my teaching as well, as you can see from my reading list for this Caribbean Women Writer’s class: http://coloronline.blogspot.com/2011/03/women-writers-of-caribbean.html)

    Is there anything else behind the omission/exclusion?

    Also, I’m curious, what were Rinaldi’s crimes?

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for this great list. Many of the YA titles are new to me. I love the new covers for The Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year. Debbie did you get a chance to read Robopocalypse yet? I did and it was very good and Wilson’s native heritage does play a large roll

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