“We believe Native children should have books that do not demean or embarrass them or their heritage, but neither should they put them on a pedestal or in a glass case. Like other children, Native children should be able to choose books with characters from their communities that make sense to them, books that reflect who they are with integrity and sensitivity. Children who are not Native should be able to choose titles about Native Americans–be they set in historical or modern times–that are free of outdated, stereotypical notions and free of factual errors.”
Reese, Debbie (1991). Authenticity and Sensitivity. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA153126.html.
Even today, stereotypes, assumptions, misinformation, and Euro-American biases about Native American people continue. They appear in sports logos, cartoons, children’s toys, in the media, and in children’s books. Too often, classroom discussions about Native Americans center on the past, presenting lifestyles as if the people themselves no longer exist. People have become so used to seeing these stereotypes that they forget what effect these images have on the people they represent, particularly the children. The reality is that there are over 500 different Nations in the United States each with their own unique culture. California alone is home to over 100 federally recognized tribes and Federal Indian reservations with a variety of cultures and languages spoken. Because of this it is important for children to learn about the world around them and to appreciate and value the differences and similarities between peoples.
Over the years, the most frequently asked questions by librarians concerning books on Native Americans have centered around the ideas of “How can I personally tell good books on Indians from bad?” and “Where can I find reliable reviews?”. Neither of these are as simplistic as they sound. Reviews abound in the usual sources for books dealing with Native peoples, but most are written from a literary angle, or from a children’s/YA literature perspective. There are plenty of “good” books – i.e. well-written, exciting, from respected authors, much-loved by their readers, with well-developed characters – that are terrible when examined with the criteria of whether the Native American(s) depicted in them are accurately or even humanly portrayed. For the most part, this criticism is directed at fictional works, where the greatest stereotypes and wildest imaginings about Indians still hold sway. Nonfiction has been improving greatly in recent years, but there is often still a tendency to oversimplify to the point of distortion, especially in titles for the youngest readers (Caldwell-Wood & Mitten, 1992).
However, we are not helpless in dealing with stereotypes in children’s literature. We can educate ourselves by reviewing and selecting quality children’s and YA books with Native themes. We can support Native authors, storytellers, and illustrators by purchasing their books or checking them out at the library. We can choose books that provide knowledge about contemporary Native Americans as well as historical information to dispel the myth that Native Americans exist only in the past. We can consult books such as A Broken Flute (AltaMira Press, 2005) edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, to help understand the issues of bias and authenticity. By educating yourself you can challenge existing biases and focus on building cultural diversity.