Halito. Sv hohchifo yvt Sarah. Chahta sia. Hi, my name is Sarah, and I am a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. I am also a librarian at the Metropolitan Library System. Happy Native American Heritage Month!
This is a great time of year to celebrate, share and learn about local Indigenous cultures. Oklahoma and the United States have a long and complicated history when it comes to tribal nations, much of which is never taught in school. For instance, as I sit here writing this in what is now Oklahoma City, I honor the tribes who originally inhabited these lands: the Apache, Caddo, Tonkawa and Wichita. I also honor the tribes that have a historic relationship to this region: the Comanche, Kiowa, Osage and Quapaw. Finally, I honor the Muscogee and Seminole Nations, who were federally assigned this land after their forced removal from their homes. Many of these tribes are never mentioned in our children’s curricula. This is one reason why invisibility is an issue impacting Indigenous communities.
Another issue we face is that of cultural representation. Research such as the Reclaiming Native Truth Study has found that the majority of the national population know little or nothing about Native
Americans today. What many people do know falls into the category of myths and stereotypes that everyone, Native and non-Native alike, are subjected to in everything from movies to books and even in classrooms. Cowboys versus Indians in old westerns, the myth of Thanksgiving or Columbus as a hero, Tiger Lily or Pocahontas in Disney movies and books; all of these are part of a widely held false idea that either paints Natives in a negative light as dangerous heathens or as “noble savages” that are in need of Western saviors. Numerous studies have actually shown that stereotypes and a lack of cultural representation have a harmful effect on Indigenous youth. This effect is not just on them psychologically but also affects the attitudes of their non-Indigenous peers and authority figures which can lead to decreased opportunities throughout their lives.
So, what can we do to help fix this? One of the most important things we can do is to educate ourselves. Once we are educated it is easier to educate our children, identify problem representations around us and be allies for our friends and neighbors.
I am biased but I believe one of the best ways to learn is through books. I’m not talking about reading dry textbooks but instead reading richly detailed pictures books or Own Voices novels. My favorite resource to find quality books for children and teens is the American Indians in Children’s Literature website, which is run by Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo) and Dr. Jean Mendoza. They do a really good job of not only highlighting books by Indigenous authors but also discussing whether the book offers authentic cultural representation.
This is important because there are over 500 individual Sovereign Tribal Nations within the United States alone and each of them have their own cultures, so an Indigenous author writing outside of their own tribe can fall into the same stereotypes and writing pitfalls as non-Indigenous authors. Many of these books are available from your local library or bought from your local bookstore.
Some of my favorites are:
- May We Have Enough to Share by Richard Van Camp (Boardbook)
- We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom (Picture Book)
- Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard (Picture Book)
- Ancestor Approved edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Juvenile Fiction)
- Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (Young Adult)
- #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Youth or Adult versions)
Of course, there are many other ways to learn about and engage with Native cultures. Illuminative is an informative website that covers many key issues in Indian Country, conducts research and creates digital content that is easy to understand and share. There are museums to visit such as the brand new First Americans Museum, which features exhibits and programs highlighting the 39 distinct tribal nations in Oklahoma. There are shows to watch on TV or online that showcase the lives of Indigenous people and feature Indigenous people like Molly of Denali on PBS Kids, Reservation Dogs on Hulu or Rutherford Falls on Peacock.
Finally, don’t forget to check out the programming happening at your local library. The Metropolitan Library System is offering programs all throughout the month of November that span everything from art to Indian Education to Indigenous foods.
I hope that creating these bridges and fostering cultural understanding will make it easier for our children to thrive together in the future.
Sarah Brown is an adult librarian for the Downtown Library. She loves to read and pass on traditional Choctaw ways to her children. She and husband Steven are parents to Aislinn and Rowan.