Books for kids? Native authors pen from the whimsical to real stories

Patty Talahongva

Indian Country Today newscast for Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, with three authors who have written books for kids

Patty Talahongva

Indian Country Today

So many Native parents are having to home school their kids now and it's a good time to take a look at some of the children's books written by three Native authors. 

Brenda Child, Red Lake Ojibwe, is author of "Bowwow Powwow." It is a whimsical and yet educational story of a young girl and her pet dog who are learning about traditions around the powwow. 

Traci Sorell is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her children's book, " Indian No More," focuses on the government policy of termination and how a young girl had to make sense of this policy as she was moved from a reservation to a city. 

Commander John Herrington is Chickasaw and the first Indigenous NASA astronaut to fly in space. He tells his personal story of being a boy who dreamed of becoming an astronaut in his book, "Mission to Space." The book includes photos of his actual astronaut training to prepare for his mission to the International Space Station. 

Here are some comments from Brenda Child:

"Bowwow Powwow is a book that I've had in mind for quite a long time. The two central characters are Windy Girl and her dog Itchy Boy. And another important character is uncle. The story is about Windy Girl finding this incredible dog who's very compatible with her. He's a very funny dog who barks a lot as dogs do."

"And the idea of the book is that Windy Girl and Itchy Boy are hanging out a lot with their uncle on the reservation. One day he tells her a story about something, a special dance that was performed before powwows which was about a ritual exchange of gifts."

I know as a historian these were also events that surrounded important diplomatic events in Ojibwe history. So I just had the idea of putting that into a story for children."

"Windy Girl, one night, falls asleep at the powwow and she has this pretty incredible dream about dancers and a grand entry and all the performers and dancers are dogs."

"I went up and spent a day, Jonathan Thunder and I, who is the illustrator for the book, spent a day at the Red Lake Elementary School and when we arrived, the little kids had their bulletin boards and they had their own dogs dressed up in powwow outfits. They had little tiny powwow stands with little pieces of fry bread and cans of pop. It was just the cutest thing. So my sense is that there is something about the children's imagination that can imagine a powwow that is about dogs."

"Yeah. I always had in mind that if I published a children's book, I'd been thinking about Bowwow Powwow for quite a long time, that I wanted to have not just elements of my own childhood or even my mother's childhood because Itchy Boy was in fact my mother's childhood dog, I wanted to have it be in the Ojibwe language. A parallel story in Ojibwe because you can't always just translate from English into an Indigenous language." 

"We were very happy to have Gordon Jordain participate in the process. He works with young children up in the Duluth Public School system in Minnesota and he's a native speaker of Ojibwe. And so we thought what a perfect combination. And so he did that kind of parallel Ojibwe story."

"I think our really wonderful thing, we're now in the position as many people are with their tribal languages, that a lot of our speakers of the language are quite elderly but of course what we have coming up is this new generation of language speakers who went to school from the time they were very young and worked in the Ojibwe language." 

"And I really liked the idea of not just that it's in Ojibwe language but it's a young girl's voice doing the reading. So the Minnesota Historical Society was very kind to put together nice videos, so you can explore it in English or in Ojibwe, whichever your preference is."

Here are some comments from Traci Sorell:

"It (Indian No More) focuses on a period of our history that none of us were ever taught in public school or even if you went to tribal schools and you're in my age range or older we weren't talking about what the federal government had put in place in terms of the termination of relocation policies."

"So it's a historical fiction book set in the late 1950s. And it covers the story of Regina Petit, who is Umpqua and her family that are on the Grand Ronde Reservation in northwest Oregon at the time that their tribe is terminated. And then they are relocated to Los Angeles."

"It has wonderful Indian humor, of course it has very poignant, difficult scenes as well because there is this sense of growing up around her community and her family that Regina enjoys. And then that is taken away from her, literally in the matter of a very short time period and they can only take a few belongings with them on the train to Los Angeles."

"Members of the Grand Ronde Tribe were largely sent to Seattle, San Francisco, some to Portland, down to LA. So very much dispersed from where they had all been together."

"It's been very disconcerting for some kids to think that these children are being completely taken away from their grandmas and grandpas and aunties and uncles and everyone that they...have spent time around and they're all being sent to different places."

"There's a young group of Miccosukee and Seminole youth in Florida that have their own book blog, it's called Indigo Bookshelf, Voices of Native Youth and Ashley who's 13 actually reviewed the book. And she said, you know, 'This isn't my story. This isn't my community but I feel like it belongs to me. It feels so natural to me.' And that's the type of feedback that matters the most to me because when I read it, I didn't experience termination or relocation with the Cherokee Nation, I grew up here in Northeastern, Oklahoma, where my tribe is, this is where I live."

"It isn't something...you know when we talk about this, the timeframe of this story in the late fifties, we're talking about the Cold War, we're talking about Civil Rights. That's what is presented in school. And yet this is a very impactful time for our Native nations. We are now dealing with a population over two thirds outside of our tribal communities, living in urban, suburban other rural spaces because of what has happened here."

"So this story was already written when it came to me. So Charlene Willing McManis is Umpqua, she's a citizen of the Grand Ronde Tribes. We met several years ago at a children's literature conference in New York city. Charlene after that ,experienced cancer. She had been working on the story."

"We had talked about this at that time. And I said, you have to get the story out in the world. It's super important. I know that there's nothing else out there for young people that would explain this. We were planning to meet again and she got ill again, the cancer returned and about two and a half months before she passed she asked me to step in and finish the revisions for the book to have it published."

"I was completely overwhelmed and humbled and freaked out about doing that because it's not my tribe, it's not my experience and yet I fell in love with the character."

"The publisher sent me out to meet with the folks from Grand Ronde. The tribe was absolutely wonderful. The cultural resources department made all of their staff available to me and we sat down and went through the linguistics in the book, there's words that are used. I wanted to make sure that those were right."

"I was able to see maps of the area where Regina would have lived and where Charlene grew up. I also went out to L.A. to the neighborhood where Charlene went and lived later. And so just making sure it's historical fiction but it's a time period people lived through, people will look at the book and know these things. And so I want to be very respectful of that. And so it's been a complete team effort. And for that, I am truly grateful but it's an important part of Charlene's legacy."

"If you go to my website, Traci Sorell, you'll find a teacher's guide and a lot of discussion questions from that. Another professor has also prepared another set of classroom guides. 

Here are comments from John Herrington:

"I dreamed about being an astronaut when I was about eight and we lived in Colorado at the time and my dad was into model rockets. And he used to shoot model rockets and put beetles in the payloads of the model rockets and then watch them fly up in the air and then come back down. And so I became, as they say that little beetle later on in my life, I was the one on the rocket, not the beetle. And yeah, that was fun."

"My brother, a guy named Lynn Miller and myself at Lynn Miller's house, actually his basement, my brother and I would sit three abreast like you would on the Apollo capsule. And we actually, I think we drew a little instrumentation on the box and we pretended we were Apollo astronauts because that's what was on TV. That's what people were doing."

"A lot of people say they like it (the book) because they're actual photos. It's not just an illustrated book...and to be able to see something and identify with that little kid, that little kid in the book, I've got a lot of really positive responses from that. They'd like to see the actual photos."

"There's a language committee at the tribe that sat down and looked at the words that were in the book and said, well, 'It's very descriptive language.' So they said, you know, you don't have a word for astronauts. And so what does an astronaut do? Well, an astronaut walks above..."

"And so it's fun to go through and talk about the pictures in the book and some of the things that people wouldn't know unless I pointed out some little unique details about some of the photos."

"My late wife, Margo, it was her idea. She had this idea to reach out to students, the children at that age range in early grade school, maybe K through 3rd, roughly."

"And then she said, we need to do more books. We need to do more books about mission to somewhere. So this is mission to space, this is the reality of what my training was to space."

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Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider. Based in Phoenix, Arizona. Talahongva enjoys hiking, reading and traveling to new places.

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