Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

The American Library Association announced winners of the nation’s outstanding children’s books this week. At the top of the list is “We Are Water Protectors,” a picture book created by two Indigenous women.

It was illustrated by Tlingit artist Michaela Goade and written by Carole Lindstrom, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe.

The selection is history-making, marking the first time an Indigenous person has ever won the Caldecott Medal.

The medal is the award for the most distinguished American children’s picture book.

The 40-page picture book follows a young female protagonist standing up against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and was inspired by Indigenous-led movements across North America.

“I’m still pretty shocked about it,” Goade told Indian Country Today. “I would really love to say thank you everyone who's lifted this book up. And for really the people at the heart of this story, which are water protectors and land defenders everywhere, who have boots on the ground doing this work for all of us.” 

(Photo courtesy of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group)

Around Indian Country, many celebrated the news.

“Because 'We Are Water Protectors' won the Caldecott Medal, children around the world will read about Water Protectors, for generations to come,” Debbie Reese, Nambé Pueblo, said in a blog post. She is the founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature. “Kúdaa, Carole and Michaela, for giving this book to all of us.”

The book’s illustrations were done with watercolors. Shades of blue, purple, red and pink infuse the pages.

“Michaela Goade’s semi-translucent color palette beautifully bathes every page with powerful illustrations,” said Caldecott Medal Committee Chair Annisha Jeffries.

(Photo courtesy of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group)

The inspiration for the story came from Lindstrom, who watched the happenings of Standing Rock from afar in 2016.

“I felt very helpless, wondering how I could be of service so far away since I can’t be there,” Lindstrom reflected. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll write a book.’”

She initially wrote a novel, and it eventually turned into a picture book. After writing, she told her editing team that she wanted an Indigenous person to illustrate the book.

The publishing team chose Goade, who began working on creating the colorful illustrations.

An obstacle for Goade was figuring out how to illustrate the “heavy” topic in a way that would resonate with children. 

(Photo courtesy of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group)

She says she did research then reflected characters who are wearing both traditional and contemporary clothing, highlighting various genders and skin complexions.

All of these details were very intentional, Goade said, because representation of Indigenous communities is something that comes few and far between.

“We need representation for our own communities, but we also need non-Native people to see these books, value these books and lift these books up,” Goade said. “Not just in November for Native American Heritage Month, but all year.” 

(Photo courtesy of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group)

The book has a five-star rating on Amazon and is a No. 1 best seller in Nature Conservation.

Now that “We Are Water Protectors” has been given the seal of the Caldecott award, the duo expects it will gain even more recognition and traction.

With more visibility, the women hope it brings more awareness to environmental injustice.

“The fact that President Biden has canceled the Keystone pipeline is huge,” Lindstrom said. “And so my hope is that we can cancel the Dakota Access Pipeline, [Enbridge’s] Line 3, and all of the pipelines on Turtle Island.”

(Related: Tribes to Joe Biden: Stop Dakota Access Pipeline)

The book was published in March by Roaring Brook Press. 

In 1942, Velino Herrero, Zia Pueblo, received a different Caldecott award. He was the illustrator of “In My Mother’s House,” which was named an honor book.

Also awarded Monday was Eric Gansworth, Onondaga, author of “Apple (Skin to the Core).” His book was recognized as an honor book for the Michael L. Printz Award, given for excellence in literature written for young adults.

Happening Monday evening is the American Indian Literature Award ceremony. It will be streamed on YouTube beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com.

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