Monday, June 28, 2010

Inside the Story Circle, by Award-Winning Author Linda Boyden

The following post is also featured at Multiculturalism Rocks! Linda Boyden graciously accepted to be my guest blogger. In the following article she raises awareness about elements that often misrepresent Native American cultures in children's literature.

In July of 1992, a group of Native American writers and storytellers convened in Norman, Oklahoma. As a result, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers was formed the following year. Today, Wordcraft Circle has active members from forty states, three Canadian provinces, and two countries representing more than 135 sovereign Indigenous Nations/tribes.

Wordcraft ‘s unique purpose, to ensure that the voices of Native writers and storytellers–past, present, and future–are heard throughout the world, urges members to “return their gift” of creativity by mentoring and volunteering both within Wordcraft Circle and their local communities as well.

In that spirit I would like to share some ideas to consider when choosing books on Native Americans for children.

~ Begin by reading “Through Indian Eyes, The Native Experience in Books for Children,” edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale ©1998. This is a comprehensive overview of many children’s books in print about Native Americans. It gives reviews, both positive and negative, and is an invaluable source in helping parents, teachers and librarians make intelligent and sensitive choices. Also visit their related website, Another excellent source book is Lessons From Turtle Island by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw published by Redleaf Press, ©2002.

~ Check alphabet books, making sure they do not contain an “I is for Indian” or “E is for Eskimo” type of page. Most publishers of today are aware of this, but many libraries and used bookstores have older books in their stacks with such entries.

~Read or peruse what your children/students read, preferably beforehand. Don’t choose books in which the Native American characters sport ridiculous names, such as “Chief Big Foot.” A Boy Called Slow, the picture book biography of the Hunkpapa Lakota warrior, Sitting Bull, by Joseph Bruchac is a great way to help non-Indians understand the significance of Native American names.

~Avoid books whose Indian characters speak in what Beverly Slapin calls Early Jawbreaker, such as “Me go...Ugh...Me see ‘em.”

~ However, don’t discard classic children’s literature, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series, because of the bias. Instead, address the issue and use the biased sentiments as a springboard for discussion or debate. Have children dig deeper to discover what caused Ma and other settlers to fear and hate Indians. Contrast that point of view with Pa’s. Explore and expand the role of the Osage warrior, Soldat du Chene, in “Little House on the Prairie”.

~ Words such as “squaw,” “papoose,” and “brave” are regarded by many Native people as racial epithets and as such are inappropriate to use. If found, tell children the truth: at one point in history these words were used; today, however, they are offensive to most Native Americans.

~Make sure that Indian characters are not portrayed as bloodthirsty savages, simpletons needing to be rescued or discovered, cute toys/mascots, or illustrated as Caucasians who are merely colored brown–or worse–in red.

~Native people of long ago did NOT all live in tipis. Homes, clothing, hairstyles, regalia* and customs differed according to each region and tribal affiliation.

~Native people of today are VISIBLE and live very much the same way as most other Americans. Many still live a traditional lifestyle and balance the two.

~Many objects, such as sand paintings, masks, drums, pipes, or rattles, are considered by most Native Americans to be sacred and should not be used as classroom crafts. A little research will yield much respect.

~Songs like, “Ten Little Indians” are not cute; they are demeaning and relegate human beings to the status of pets or animals. Instructing students to sit “Indian-style” on the floor is also inappropriate. Ask your primary students to crisscross or sit on their pockets instead.

~Do attend local powwows, which are Native American social gatherings. Many reserves or reservations have museums that are good resources for educating yourself about American Indian cultures. Explore websites, such as Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers and resource websites such as Hanksville, which provides a comprehensive listing of contemporary Native writers or Native Languages, a website that preserves Native languages and cultures at

*Note: please do not refer to ceremonial clothing as costumes because costumes are items to be worn for Halloween etc. In contrast, many powwow regalia have been handed down from one generation to the next. Almost all regalia has been hand-made by family members.

Once enlightened, I believe we cannot go backwards. Racism and stereotypes hurt both in the present tense and in the future. Be informed to make better choices. Read as much as you can, but be selective in your choices, keeping in mind that much in print has not been written from the Indian point of view.

Finally, let this be your guide: imagine you are the Indian child sitting within the story circle. Imagine how the words and pictures of the book you have chosen will impact her as well as the non-Indian friend sitting beside her.

About today's guest
Linda Boyden has spent most of her adult life leading children to literacy. From 1970-1997, she taught in elementary schools, receiving her master’s in Gifted and Talented Education in 1992 from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. In 1997, Linda decided to change careers and abandoned full-time teaching for full-time writing. Her first picture book, The Blue Roses, debuted in 2002. It was the recipient of Lee and Low Books’ first New Voices Award, the 2003 Paterson Prize, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers’ Book of the Year, Children’s Literature, 2002-2003, and was included on the prestigious CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) 2003 Choices list of recommended titles. In 2006, her “Grammy Linda” preschool storytelling DVD was released. Since 2007, she has written and illustrated her second and third picture books, Powwow’s Coming (2007) and Giveaways, An ABC of Loanwords from the Americas, (Fall, 2010) both from the University of New Mexico Press.

Linda is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers. She enjoys doing author visits and storytelling at schools and libraries across the country.

For more information about Linda and her work, please visit


Anonymous said...

Great post, Linda!

I've also heard "tailor's seat" as a (to the best of my knowledge) inoffensive term for sitting cross-legged. (If anyone knows a reason it might be offensive, please share, I'd like to know!) I've never heard "sit on your pockets" before, though, that's a neat one.

Anonymous said...

Miriam, I didn't know about "tailor's seat..."

I'm shocked about the little understanding and respect that surround the clothes and the objects Linda mentions. Their spiritual meaning and sacred value far from the consciousness of the mass. Again, I'm not sure much is considered sacred in today's world; I think it leads to much disrespect of cultural heritages and values...