Out of the 3,700 children’s books published in 2019, only fourteen percent featured non-white main characters. Out of those books, less than one percent featured Native American main characters.
Studies have proven that children’s books and popular culture, particularly those with diverse representation, have a direct impact on how children perceive real-world diversity. By allowing Native Americans to go un-represented, or worse, misrepresented in children’s media, both Natives and non-Native children are denied the opportunity to develop necessary empathetic skills and cultural understanding.
In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop likened books to “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.” She asserted that readers instinctively look for their “mirrors” in the books they read, a character that allows them to imagine themselves as a hero in the story. Books also act as windows into another person’s story, and sliding glass doors that let them step into a dissimilar character’s headspace. For Natives, the few mirrors they do have are either villainized, made into a joke, or are representative of ancient Indigenous people.
To understand this concept, one only has to look at the portrayals of Native Americans by what is arguably one of the most recognizable brands in the world: The Walt Disney Company. Between Peter Pan (1953) and Pocahontas (1995), Disney made over $435 million just from worldwide box office gross. This doesn’t include the rides, games, bedding, clothing, and subsequent TV show spin-offs for both of these hits. As well-received as these two movies were, however, one of the harshest criticisms of the films was the way the movies depicted Native Americans.
In Peter Pan, the fictional tribe behind Tiger Lily were, at best, offensive caricatures. In the 1953 film, Peter and the other children spend a night dancing, singing, and smoking peyote with a group of half-naked, red-skinned warriors. They dance to a song called “What Makes the Red Man Red?”, where the final answer is described as such: “Let's go back a million years, to the very first Injun prince. He kissed a maid and started to blush, and we’ve all been blushin’ since.”
In the image above, it is clear that the artists at Disney put at least some thought into the tribe’s design. They show depictions of Thunderbirds, a mythical creature described by many tribes around the U.S. and in Canada. Even this minor attention to detail proves that the artists were working from a place of specificity and forethought.
However, the big-nosed, thin-lipped faces of the warriors are nothing more than cartoonishly offensive caricatures, not unlike the Nazi illustrations of Jews in World War 2.
The dangers of illustrations like these should be obvious. For Native and Jewish people, we are demanding they feel bad about themselves. Even more dangerously, though, depictions like these carry the insidious message for non-Natives and non-Jews: This group of people do not deserve respect because they are different.
In 1995, Disney made Pocahontas, and many Natives were tentatively excited to have a “princess movie” representing Native women. And while this time the Native woman depicted was given lines of dialogue and a strong character arc, she was still woefully misrepresented.
Because so many children are connected to the “Disney-fied” story of Pocahontas, the true story is often preceded by a content warning for parents with young children.
Disney Plus: ‘Wrong then ... wrong now’ Films now have cultural advisories, including ‘Peter Pan,’ ‘Dumbo’ and ‘The Aristocats’ and are now blocked due to ‘negative depictions of race’ but ‘Pocahontas’ not included
According to Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow, in his book The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History, the real Pocahontas was already married and a mother when she was kidnapped at sixteen years old by the English in the early 1600s. After being kidnapped, the English murdered her husband, raped her repeatedly and, when she became pregnant, married her off to an Englishman named John Rolfe. After her marriage, she and her child were taken to England where she was forced to convert to Christianity, paraded around the country as an example of a “civilized savage,” and was eventually poisoned, though no official autopsy was conducted.
The Disney movie tells a very different story of a young Native woman accepting the English, fighting for a fictional romance with John Smith (even though she would have only been ten years old at the time Smith arrived in Virginia), and singing power ballads about her connection with nature. Knowing the true story and the ongoing battle the Virginia tribes are fighting to have Pocahontas’s body returned to her homeland, it is no wonder there was so much dissent in the Native community against the movie’s adaptation of her story.
While some would say children’s illustrations have no effect on the real world (as the many defenders of Disney’s Peter Pan and Pocahontas have argued), all we have to do is look at the few depictions of Native American women we have available. In Peter Pan, Tiger Lily is nothing more than a silent damsel-in-distress who battles Wendy for Peter’s affections. She is illustrated dancing on a pedestal for Peter and giving him cutesy “Eskimo kisses” while Peter Pan wears her father’s feather headdress.
The only other young Native American girl shown in the movie is explicitly illustrated with large, round breasts, long eyelashes, sitting coyly with bare legs showing under a short skirt. Pocahontas’s off-the-shoulder dress with a high slit up the thigh is also markedly more sexually revealing than almost any other Disney princess, save for the Arabic princess Jasmine and the mermaid Ariel.
The sexualization of Native women is insidious in our culture, and it has had dire affects. The U.S. Department of Justice found that American Indian women face murder rates that are more than ten times the national average. Poor police work and an overall lack of interest in Native American women’s safety has led to the formation of groups like “The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women” and grassroots movements like Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (#MMIWG).
All this leads to the question, how can we ethically move forward when it comes to depicting diverse characters in children’s books? Having already stated my opinions on rewriting historical events to make white audiences feel more comfortable (re: Pocahontas), I would also like to examine the ethics of creating a book about a certain ethnic group when the author or illustrator are not part of that group.
I spoke with my sister Andrea Robideau, a former early education teacher for Native American children, and current foster care specialist at the Native American Youth and Family Center, about the moral and ethical dilemmas the publishing industry faces when it comes to Native American books.
For example, Englishman Paul Goble had a successful and lauded career illustrating and retelling traditional Native American stories. In fact, many of his buyers were Native American families and tribal schools, and some of his books were commissioned by Native people.
However, while admitting to her love of Goble’s artwork and working relationship with the Plains Indians, Robideau also had to concede her frustration with his non-Native privileges. The traditional stories Goble put into written words are still being told by Native elders to this day. In a very real way, those stories are sacred, and seeing a non-Native man profit off of them can sting.
She referenced author Terri Cohlene’s popular Native children’s book series, including Quillworker: A Cheyenne Legend (1990) illustrated by Charles Reasoner. Both author and illustrator are non-Natives. “Why was a white woman allowed to profit from Native stories, when Natives have been shut down so many times?” Robideau asked.
Certainly, it is not as though there aren’t Native authors and illustrators to choose from. Kevin Noble Maillard, author of the book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (illustrated by Peruvian illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal), is an enrolled member of the Seminole nation. His children’s book details the process and importance of making fry bread, a food that is popular amongst many tribes across the U.S. and Canada. The book won the 2020 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal and was also the 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Picture Book Honor Winner.
Though this book clearly states it is a Native American story, the story and illustrations are all-inclusive. The illustrations are diverse in age, race, and body type, and are visually appealing to both children and adults. In an interview with Sally Lodge from Publisher’s Weekly, Maillard revealed that the inspiration for the story came from his own mixed-race children. He had been searching for books that reflected a modern Native family and had come up short.
Likewise, Illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal admitted to connecting with Maillard’s struggle to feel represented in a society that defaults to stereotyping indigenous and non-white people. In the same interview with Sally Lodge, Martinez-Neal lamented “when people hear I am from Peru, they immediately assume I live in the Andes, wear traditional clothing, and have a llama.” Her character design process was inspired by Maillard’s diverse family, as well as her own. She recognized, as most other books featuring Natives have not, that Native families can look extremely diverse.
Personally, this book showed me a mirror I had never seen before. The books and movies I grew up with only showed depictions of ancient Native Americans, dancing around fires in loin cloths and teaching white people how to survive outside. Even though my father is Dakota Sioux, we never lived on or near any reservations, and moved far too often for his military service to develop any real roots. I was often caught between trying to explain “Indian things” to my friends at school and not being able to find the words to explain myself clearly.
Recently, my fourteen-year-old nephew had this same issue in his classroom. When asked on a test “What did the Native Americans believe?”, he responded by crossing out the word “did,” so the sentence read “What do the Native Americans believe?” When confronted about it, he replied with a simple, “We’re still here.” This answer brought on an onslaught of questions and comments from his classmates and teacher, innocently wanting to know more information.
The sad truth is that being Native American at all, at any age, somehow comes with the caveat “you will at some point be required to teach the class.” You are expected to know all the answers, to bring a modicum of wisdom or mysticism to the table, regardless of whether or not you spent time on a reservation (or attended mostly white schools that never taught true Native American history.)
To be clear, I don’t blame children for being curious about a lifestyle so vastly different from their own. I also don’t blame teachers for feeling compelled to reach out to their students who have experience in the subject they are about to teach. Even though the number of books featuring diverse characters is higher than it has ever been, Native American culture is still conspicuously low in representation. The books that are being marketed don’t accurately show the Native children of today, who are growing up in a time when it feels like their way of living is constantly being threatened.
The conversation of diversity in children’s media is an ongoing one that has, thankfully, been gaining more traction. Grassroots movements like “We Need Diverse Books” have held companies accountable for publishing diverse books and hiring people of color onto their teams. Without having the US children’s book statistics for 2020 yet, I can only assume that Black representation is going to rise significantly, in large part because of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer and the election of America’s first Black female Vice President in the fall. Native American representation, however, still has a long way to go to break down old stereotypes, and accurately and meaningfully represent modern Native culture.
Some quick suggestions for publishers and booksellers hoping to contribute to a more progressive book market:
1. Hire Native authors, illustrators, and professionals. They exist, and they’re ready to tell their stories.
2. Stop color-coding books featuring minorities. This is often seen during Black or Native American History Month, where all of the books featuring a particular group of people are put onto one shelf. This “othering” of these books encourages customers to walk past them without stopping, assuming that, if they aren’t Black or Native American, the books aren’t for them.
3. Market your books for everyone, not just the race or gender of the main characters. White children will read books that have a Native child on the cover if given the chance.
By publishing books featuring Native American main characters, we are contributing to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s theory of “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors”, promoting empathy towards others and encouraging self-confidence and pride for Native children across the United States.
It is long-passed time to reveal to the world that Natives in 2021 live in houses, go to school, and come from diverse families. In other words, “we’re still here,” and we’d like everyone to know it.