When Nancy Mercado invited me to submit a post for CBC’s “It’s Complicated” series, I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the audience of CBC’s Diversity Blog. In her invitation, she wrote that CBC defines diversity in terms of “cultural/ethnic/religious/class/sexual diversity.”
I’m complicating the definition by adding “nation” because while American Indians have specific cultural or religious ways of being that mark us as diverse from the mainstream, the most significant marker is our political status as sovereign nations. Within an Indigenous sovereign nation, you could find people who don’t have the hair or skin color, or other features commonly—we could say stereotypically—attributed to American Indians. I’ll complicate the discussion even further by saying that there are people who are citizens of sovereign nations, and, there are people who are descendants of someone who was/is a citizen of a sovereign nation. Going one step further in complication, there are sovereign nations that are federally recognized, some that are state recognized, and some that are not recognized at all.
Most people don’t know anything at all about tribal sovereignty and what it means. Without that knowledge, it can be difficult for outsiders to write stories that ring true to our experiences as American Indians. In fact, it can be difficult for someone of a sovereign tribal nation at one end of the country to write about a nation at the other end, but someone who knows their nation, its history, its ways of being, and the ways it has been misrepresented has a leg up on anyone else. They know that there is a lot they do not know, and they know that standard sources aren’t the place to go for the information they need to write a story that holds up to the eye of someone of that tribal nation.
That said, the first thing I look for when analyzing a story is whether or not the story is tribally specific. Being tribally specific means letting the reader know this is not a story about an American Indian, but that it is, for example, a story about a Muscogee Creek girl. The author can do that in an author’s note, or weaving that bit of information into the story.
Cynthia Leitich Smith does both in Jingle Dancer, a story in which the protagonists’ identity as Muscogee Creek is central to the story because she is going to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at a powwow. A gifted writer, Smith’s story is explicitly instructive without being didactic. Joy Harjo’s The Good Luck Cat is, quite simply, about a lost cat. It could be anyone’s story, but the illustrations tell us that the ‘anyone’ in this case is Native. The illustrations are replete with the sorts of material culture you find in the homes of Native people whose identity as Native figures prominently in their furnishings and art.
I have a lot more to say, and invite you to read my blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Since 2006, I’ve been writing about the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children’s and young adult literature. From the incidental sidekick to the protagonist, there’s a lot to think about in how it can be done well.