November 13th, 2009


Thank you for sharing our conversation.

May we leave you with a few stories?

Yesterday here on the Navajo Reservation not one school was open.

Everyone was preparing for Veteran’s Day. Honoring warriors is serious and sacred; it is a family and community event.

Veterans and their families had been grooming their horses, polishing saddles and bridles, washing uniforms. Soldiers -- women and men in their 20’s, old timers, even the veterans from WWII - the Code Talkers – all were getting ready. From across the high mesas, from individual ranches, homes and hogans, in the early morning they began riding in full uniform to the chapter house. What a moment it is to watch horses and riders coming from all directions to the designated meeting place. Families wait along the streets watching. In front of homes are hand-printed signs: free coffee and doughnuts for veterans.

Who can tell this story?

Who should tell the story of one grandson watching his grandfather, a Navajo Code Talker from WWII, ride at the head of the parade of horses and warriors as they approach the Chapter House?

Who should tell the story of one girl who is both angry and scared that her older sister, her only sister, has been deployed to Iraq for a second time?

We need books that celebrate the experiences, the imaginations, the history of all children. As individuals, without stereotypes, without clichés.

Sometimes a good way to answer a question is through story.

An older friend of my husband’s was listening to this discussion and emailed this story.

“I have a very good friend who I visit often in her home on the reservation. She is about my age and has a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is a poet, was well educated in a Pennsylvania college, and taught school for many years. She has a daughter who teaches in a reservation elementary school and another who is closely involved in her Tribal Head Start programs. My friend was raised by her grandparents and is very strong in her Native language and spiritual understanding. We have many conversations about our childhoods and compare notes. We both frequently are amazed at the similarity of our family and peer relationships as children, and what shaped our understanding of life and living. Even at my age (75 yrs.), this personal experience helps me to understand the common human thread that children everywhere experience. A competent, thoughtful author, regardless of ethnicity or culture can weave these common threads into story that is authentic and gives children joy and understanding.”

We share a universal journey… each of us through our unique experiences.

As Debby Dahl-Edwardson pointed out, to write a story we need to live with them… in some way, at some level.

From Susanna Reich, author of The Art and Adventures of George Catlin:

“During the process of writing my recent book, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin (Clarion, 2008), I became acutely aware of issues of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and prejudice in regard to Native Americans. I decided to directly address this in the book, as well as in interviews on Mitali Perkin's blog and elsewhere. In the 19th century, Catlin's paintings, books, and lectures helped create some of the stereotypes that still exist today. At the same time, he left us with an invaluable visual and verbal record of traditional ways of life. He's a controversial and fascinating figure, and I was very happy that every one of the major trade reviewers zeroed in on the contradictions he embodies, which are so central to my text.

I hope that teachers and librarians will find the book useful as a springboard for discussions about these issues. And I eagerly await the publication of Louise Erdrich's forthcoming novel for adults, Shadow Tag, in which the main character is writing a dissertation on Catlin.”
Susanna Reich


Children’s books about and by American Indians and Alaskan Natives are hard to find. This is a small body of literature.

Books are needed that go :

Beyond stereotypes, beyond bows and arrows;

Beyond retellings, made-up tellings, long-ago warriors and chiefs;

Beyond the inaccuracies in history books.


Here is a recent comment from ccbc:

"Regarding the paucity of books by Native Americans available in libraries and in bookstores"

“I also have noticed that books by/about Native Americans have disappeared from libraries and particularly from bookstores. The topic has apparently nearly disappeared from local school curriculums as well (I live in Virginia).

I had been working on a children's biography of a lesser-known Indian chief, but … feeling that I could never satisfy the kind of criticism I see here, I put the book aside and will probably never finish it.”

Suzy McIntire

Arlington VA

Yes, there is criticism. That’s part of our profession. Listen to the concerns; enter the dialogue; continue to write appropriately. Tell your stories truthfully.

Ellen Levine: “Rest on Truth for authority rather than taking authority for truth.”

My YA novel, Warriors in the Crossfire (Front Street Books, 2010), set on the island of Saipan, includes dances and chants held sacred by the Carolinian people. Before I was given this information, Filipe Ruak, an elder of the clan and the keeper of the dances, asked the other elders for permission for me to be given this knowledge and to publish it. They agreed. They asked that their dances be told in printed form for their children and for all children. These dances are the property of their clan. Only they had the authority to give, or withhold, this permission.

Ellen Levine: “Rest on Truth for authority rather than taking authority for truth.”

Write from a place that resonates truth. Seek permission from the people of whom you write. Research. Listen. Then write.

Here is an abbreviated list of internet sites we hope you find helpful: as a review source about books by and about Native Americans. Their two publications, A Broken Flute and Through Indian Eyes include reviews and relevant articles, discussions, etc. American Indian Library Association: American Indian Youth Book Awards, awarded biannually International Board of Books for Young People, publishes Bookbird: A Journal of Inter/l Children’s Lit. US IBBY, publishes Bridges to Understanding, Crossing Boundaries with Children’s Books Shakti for Children hundreds of titles and biographical information about American Indian authors in print The Ndakinna Education Center, Greenfield Center, NY offers hands-on learning experiences about Native American culture, traditions and the natural world. The Saratoga Native American Festival National Museum of the American Indian

and to close -

This month celebrates Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.

This week celebrates all warriors who have served this country.

John F. Kennedy, address at Amherst College October 26, 1963:

“When power leads man toward arrogance,

Poetry reminds him of his limitations.

When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns,

Poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.

When power corrupts,

Poetry cleanses,

For art establishes the basic human truths

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Which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”


Wrapping Up Lose Ends

A few final thoughts…

I want to say something about the fear of not “getting it right.” It’s a very real fear. It’s the fear we all face every time we start a story and every time we finish one. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story about our own family or a story about medieval England, either. The important thing to remember is that there is no one “right” way. The experience my nephew had growing up as a mixed race Inupiaq boy in Seattle is different than the experience my son had growing up a mixed race Inupiaq boy in the village, which is a different experience than my husband had, growing up as an Inupiaq boy at a parochial boarding school in Indian country in the 60’s. And cultures are fluid, always realigning themselves in relationship to the other cultures they come into contact with.

Here’s a story, to illustrate what I am saying. In my region, people are by and large devoutly Christian. One time a well-educated Inupiaq woman who had been raised in the lower 48 and married to a white man, returned to the village of her mother’s people. She was presenting a workshop in her field of study and I was there to help facilitate. We were given a tour of the village by an Inupiaq man who had many stories to tell. In the course of the conversation, he spoke about the Inupiaq naming tradition and about the belief that part of a person’s spirit is attached to a name, such that when a child is given a specific name, the child assumes the spirit of the person they were named after. The person is said to have been “brought back” through the name. This would appear to imply a belief in reincarnation and the visiting woman, knowing the prevalent Christian beliefs, said, “ah but of course the people no longer believe this.” The tour guide looked at her.

“We still believe this,” he said.

“But don’t these two beliefs conflict with one another?”


I knew from my own experience that this was true. My husband’s grandfather was a Presbyterian preacher whose life work was the translation of the Bible. My oldest son is named after him and ever since he was an infant, people have be commenting on his behavior and telling us that certain things are to be expected because he’s Ahmaogak—not because he is named after Ahmaogak, but because he is Ahmaogak. If I were an anthropologist or a psychologist, I might be trying to figure out the mechanics of how these two apparently disparate beliefs can coexist. But I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and even if I were, my interpretations would still be colored by my own cultural orientation. As it turns out, I am a writer and all I can do is paint life as I see it, tell the truth as I understand it, filtered through my own filter...and (this is the important point) understanding that that’s is what I am doing. All any of us can ever do is to look at things through our own eyes, afterall. Marion Dane Bauer, in her book, A Writer’s Story From Life to Fiction, says, “If I am going to write someone’s story, I must look out through that person’s eyes, hear with his ears, think with her thoughts, feel with his feelings. And there is only one person whose eyes, ears, thoughts and feelings I have ever experienced in this world. That person is I, myself.”

I’d also like to add a few words about fantasy. We got excited about the idea of Native-based sci-fi and fantasy. Natives in space! How cool is that? A word of caution though—Cyn Smith says it in her interview at the Tu Publishing website: “remember that a lot of what the mainstream categorizes as “myth” is part of traditional belief systems and should be afforded the same respect as other faiths.

There is a tendency to talk about Native legends as though we are talking about Paul Bunyan or something. We aren’t. I am working on an Inupiaq “fantasy.” It’s a story I’ve been working on, in one incarnation or another, for over ten years and I am just now to the point where I am able, casually, to refer to it “fantasy.” But it’s not, you know. It’s based on very real cultural beliefs and to call it fantasy, or even magical realism, grates a bit. I’m gonna go with it, though, because I’m actually doing a riff of my own in this piece which is pretty much fantasy. I want people to remember, though, something writer Jewell Parker Rhode said: “…the magic comes from my African American cultural traditions; it's very much a part of these traditions. My grandmother was magical; her sense of teaching us to look for signs in the world was magical.”

It’s not really fantasy. It’s part of a very real and very complicated belief system, which goes back to the whole fear of not getting it right.

And finally, I would like to say something about cultural immersion. I’ve had two opportunities within my lifetime to be totally immersed in a different culture. The first was when I went to live in Norway and it wasn’t a totally different culture. It was my heritage culture and so I was really open to the idea of being immersed in a new language and a new/old way of looking at things. And because of this experience, I was open to the idea when the opportunity presented itself again and I found myself at home in an Inupiaq community. I continue to be fascinated by the differing worldviews one encounters and I am sometime surprised by the fact that people who have never experienced it assume, for example, that everyone in the world counts kin in the same way. Teachers in our schools want to, and sometimes do, correct our kids when they say of one of their classmates, “He’s my uncle.”

All reading is an immersion experience and writing, done right, gives people an opportunity to be immersed in the worldviews of many cultures, cultures they may not otherwise experience.

And an aside: I totally love the idea that there are, “nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth. (quoted from Earl Shorris, “The Last Word”)

So I offer this complementary quote, from linguist James Crawford: “Each language is a unique tool for analyzing and synthesizing the world, incorporating the knowledge and values of a speech community. …to lose such a tool is to forget a way of constructing reality, to blot out a perspective evolved over many generations”

As writers, heck as human beings, this should concern us greatly. Native languages are dying almost daily. There should be endangered language legislation—legislation that really has some teeth in it.

I have lots more to say…but thanks for joining us. This conversation has opened some doors, I hope. It has, I know, touched on sore spots. I think recognizing where the sore spots are and why they are there is the first step towards healing.

AND LISTEN TO THIS SPEECH. RIGHT NOW. Uma Krishniswami posted it on her blog, from Julia Larios. Thanks.

An excellent place to start exploring the issues we have been discussing is at Debbie Reese's blog.

Typos in this post are all mine...running off to the day job, Debby.