Native American heritage is often misunderstood and mistaught, according to Dr. Kayla Lewis, associate professor of literacy at Missouri State University.
The lack of proper education about native heritage contributes to racism and reinforces stereotypes. Children’s books can be a powerful tool to combat these issues.
“Children’s books provide an outlet for teachers to honor, support and teach native heritage,” said Lewis, a member of the Chickasaw Nation. “They can also help preserve endangered indigenous languages.”
Children’s books for change
Children’s books can help kids learn valuable life skills. This could include the ability to talk about culturally sensitive subjects.
“Part of my work is teaching others how to ask questions and talk about these often-taboo topics,” Lewis said. “People can be so worried about offending others that they avoid conversations altogether.”
But these conversations are necessary to combat stereotypes and learn about others.
“We’ll see kids grow up not afraid to talk about these things. They’ll be more understanding, accepting and willing to be the agents of change we need.”
Children’s books also expose kids to different cultures, especially in schools that lack diversity.
“Exposure to a variety of cultures is crucial to create an accepting and educated society,” Lewis said.
The search for honest books
Unfortunately, many children’s books do not portray Native Americans accurately.
“So many books depict Native Americans with the same stereotypical characteristics and misconceptions. Meanwhile, they ignore the unique customs and traditions of over 550 federally recognized tribes.”
Lewis wanted to curate a list of accurate Native American books for teachers to use in their curriculum.
She partnered with her former professor and longtime friend, Dr. Sarah Nixon, another MSU literacy professor.
The duo evaluated 95 high-quality children’s books from their personal and local libraries. The books were fiction or non-fiction written by or about Native Americans.
They found a majority would be approved for classroom use.
One of her favorite books they analyzed is, “We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know” by Tracy Sorrell.
“I love this book because it teaches about our true history and shows Native Americans as we are in the present day,” she said. “It shows that even though all these cruelties happened to us, we are still here.”
Lewis hopes the books they identified will provide a better understanding of native heritage for children.