Skip to main content

4 Mistakes Made in Children’s Literature About Natives, and Books That Fix Them

Four common mistakes made by authors of children's books on American Indians, and books that avoid them, by the publisher of American Indians in Children's Literature.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

U.S. Presidents have proclaimed November as Native American Month for 13 years. Such months have their good and bad sides. The good is that there’s an educational focus on the people being singled out for celebration. The bad is that the materials and children’s books used are often developed and written by well-intentioned people who may not understand the nuances of the subjects involved.

We can, however, help people move beyond common misinformation by sharing knowledge about Native nations. One way is by buying and giving books that reflect and flesh out those details, imbuing them with perspective and context that non-Native authors often lack.

RELATED: Beyond the So-Called First Thanksgiving: 5 Children's Books That Set the Record Straight

Infinity of Nations Smithsonian

Native peoples of the U.S. are citizens of sovereign nations.

Our leaders fought to defend our homelands and families. They fought, in other words, for our existence as nations. Tim Tingle, Choctaw, features nationhood on the very first page of his book.

When you start reading How I Became A Ghost (The RoadRunner Press, 2013), this is what you see:

Infinity of Nations Smithsonian

See that “Choctaw Nation”? That is rare in children’s books because most of the books published are by people who are not Native and do not know the same set of facts that Native people do!

As the date and location indicate, Tingle’s book is about the Trail of Tears. That is the subject of lot of children’s books, but the nationhood part is not in those books. Teachers who want to be inclusive about history use those books, but using Tingle’s instead provides their students with a whole new starting point. How I Became A Ghost is a chapter book for kids in grades three and up.

Another aspect of Tingle’s book that is well done is his presentation of Choctaw ways of being. No mysticism or exoticizing in this book! The fact that the narrator, Isaac, becomes a ghost, and that the panther on the cover is a shape shifter, are just parts of the story. That brings me to a second important point.

Traditional Native stories are part of our lives today and deserve the respect accorded to any peoples’ origin stories.

The market is flooded with Native “myths” and “legends” that are “retold” by people who aren’t Native. In most libraries and bookstores, you’ll find those books over in the folk and fairy tale section. Some teachers use them for inappropriate art activities, like making kachina dolls in the classroom, using items like toilet paper rolls. There are better choices!

I’d be willing to bet that some readers of ICTMN tell their kids traditional stories when they need that story. Take a look at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s picture book, Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins, 2000). Leitich Smith is Muscogee (Creek).

Infinity of Nations Smithsonian

Set in the present day, the story is about Jenna, a Muscogee girl whose family is helping her get ready to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow. When Jenna feels overwhelmed by all that needs to be done, Great-aunt Sis tells her a story to encourage her. The story itself is not in the book. Here’s how Leitich Smith handles it. Remember—Jenna’s feeling weighed down:

“Great-aunt Sis told Jenna a Muscogee Creek story about Bat. Although other animals had said he was too small to make a difference, Bat won a ball game by flying high and catching a ball in his teeth.”

There’s more information about the story in the back of the book where the first paragraph of the Author’s Note tells readers that Jenna is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. As did Tingle, Leitich Smith emphasizes nationhood, which points to another key piece of information to share with children. 

Native peoples don’t necessarily look upon U.S. celebrations the same way others might.

Infinity of Nations Smithsonian

In the opening chapter to If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013), Eric Gansworth’s novel for middle/young adult readers, Gansworth’s main character, Lewis, glances over at his elementary school. The book is set in 1776. Lewis imagines the teachers getting ready to teach and celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, but Lewis thinks:

“They were going to be puzzled by the fact that the United States Bicentennial Celebration wasn’t exactly a reservation priority, since we’d been here for a lot longer than two hundred years.”

Beatles fans, especially, will be intrigued with the ways that music figures in the book. From the chapter titles to the trip to a concert, Gansworth’s story about friendship between two boys, one Native and the other White, there’s depth and integrity that book lovers will find deeply satisfying. Gansworth is Onondaga. At one point in the story his mom speaks to him in Tuscarora. That brings me to another important point to share with others.

Many, many languages are spoken within Native nations.

Infinity of Nations Smithsonian

Pop culture tells us that “the Native American word for baby” is papoose. Cue a game-show-buzzer that signals WRONG. Within our respective languages, we have different words for baby! And for saying hello, too! And counting! Check out Julie Flett’s gorgeous board book We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers (Garfinkel Publications, 2014) . Flett is Cree Métis.

In it you’ll find a Roman numeral on each page, along with the Cree word for that numeral and a sentence in English describing the contents of the animals shown on the page. Here’s the page for number one:

Infinity of Nations Smithsonian

The takeaway? In classrooms across the U.S., the children’s books being used for Native American Month are likely to be ones like Julie of the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins and Indian in the Cupboard—all of which misrepresent Native peoples. All kids deserve better than that, and there are better choices out there.

For more good books, visit my Best Books page at American Indians in Children’s Literature, and spend some time on the site itself. You’ll find in-depth analyses of what is wrong with those classics! Next time you’re in the library, ask the librarian to order How I Became A Ghost, Jingle Dancer, If I Ever Get Out of Here, and We All Count. 

Tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, Debbie Reese holds a doctorate in Education and publishes American Indians in Children's Literature.