Native Now: Contemporary Indian Stories

Book Links: Dec./Jan. 2000-2001 (v.10, no.3)

by Cynthia Leitich Smith

I make lousy fry bread. I'm usually feather-free. I don't start conversations with phrases like "as my grandfather once said" and then burst into poignant lectures about the religious traditions related to my Native identity, let alone anybody else's.

And it's pretty stunning for me to sit down with a group of second-graders, who tell me that Indians shot arrows, went on warpaths, and lived some time before the turn of the eighteenth century. From my point of view, just their use of the past tense is chilling.

That's why I create contemporary Indian characters like Cousin Elizabeth, a suit-wearing woman with a messy closet who can't go to a powwow because of her law job, and Cassidy Rain Berghoff, a 14-year-old fan of science fiction and Cracker Jack who often says the wrong thing and thinks her heritage is her own business.

My first picture book, Jingle Dancer (April 2000), and my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (spring 2001), feature Native American characters. These books fall into the category of contemporary fiction, probably the most underrepresented type of Indian-themed book. At first, Native content was presented in historical fiction and nonfiction as well as retellings of traditional stories. However, we're beginning to see more contemporary picture books such as Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau, illustrated by Robert Hynes, along with contemporary novels such as Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac. My work is yet another voice to add to this slowly widening circle.

A challenge in writing contemporary Native American fiction is that some of my readers will be insiders, members of Native communities, and some will be outsiders, many sadly unfamiliar with Indian cultures except in the most scant and stereotypical of ways. Some would say I should therefore create an educational overlay on my fiction to help enlighten the outsider group. Yet it's important to me that none of my characters will ever be mistaken for guides on a Native American tour, and I believe it's important to both groups of readers as well.

Let me explain:
It's a small moment in my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name: my protagonist, Cassidy Rain Berghoff, has just been informed that her ex-second-best friend, Queenie Washington, is not only a mixed-blood Indian of African ancestry, but one of Seminole heritage.

Why would Queenie's tribal affiliation be particularly noteworthy? Rain is a racially and intertribally mixed member of Creek Nation, a tribe linked to the Seminoles, past and present, in history, language, tradition. Throughout the story, these two girls stand at a distance, separated by a romantic conflict over a boy in their past, linked by their grief over his death. So this added connection between them might be seen as an opportunity to educate young readers about the fascinating history linking Rain's and Queenie's tribes. Instead, the passage simply reads: "Aunt Georgia called this morning and mentioned that Queenie's great-grandfather had been a Seminole, which made Queenie a pretty close cousin after all. I was more interested in the fact that Queenie had volunteered to make Thursday's spaghetti dinner."

While young readers no doubt do learn about their own and other cultures from fiction, it's a mistake to summarily force passages of social studies in fiction. Doing so compromises the realism of the characters' perspectives and disrupts the plot structure with details unnecessary to advance the story.

Historically, children's literature has offered too many "superethnic" Native characters, focusing on what's commonly perceived as different, perhaps "exotic." In doing so, we authors have failed to portray the immense diversity of Native people, underestimated young readers, and, at the very least, broken the "magic" of fiction by flattening three-dimensional characters into paper dolls speaking encyclopedia-ese.

It's important to keep in mind that although some outsiders may see Native America as a mystery, to insiders it is the norm. In this case, for many young readers of the Creek and Seminole nations, their tribes' relationship is not news.

For them, pausing the otherwise natural voice of the narrator to lecture would no doubt feel jarring and artificial. It may even send the message that this is not a book for the communities it reflects but rather one designed exclusively to teach outsiders.

But it would also be disturbing to outsider readers. By this point in the story, they know Rain. She's a wry, sensitive girl who looks up to Aunt Georgia, who's protective of her brother Fynn and his fiancée Natalie, who enjoys powwows but is not herself a dancer, and who has practically memorized every episode of The X-Files in her DVD collection. Though she knows of her own tribal history and traditions, she is a budding photojournalist, not a tribal historian. It would be out of character for Rain to lecture at length on the sociopolitical-historical ties between Creeks and Seminoles, especially when her mind is cheerfully preoccupied with the prospect of Queenie's cooking. Likewise, the text of my picture book, Jingle Dancer, includes references to powwows, regalia, fry bread, Indian tacos, and the Muscogee traditional story of Bat. The realistic watercolor illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu feature an Ojibway dreamcatcher in Cousin Elizabeth's apartment and a Creek basket in Grandma Wolfe's home. The thematic concepts of sharing and reciprocity as well as interracial characters are integrated but never explicitly discussed. Although a few vocabulary words are defined in the author's note for adults, young readers are asked to embrace Jenna's world on its own terms.

I'm not just trying to avoid didacticism. Its fall from fashion is a mainstream cultural preference. Many authors from underrepresented communities may well draw from their own storytelling traditions in framing stories that explicitly teach. What I'm suggesting is more subtle. The personality and situational perspective of the individual character has to be considered. In my novel, for example, Rain mentions walking by a Trail of Tears painting in her hallway. But she doesn't pause to elaborate on the removal and its historical period. I can imagine a story in which this kind of reflection would be appropriate, one perhaps incorporating a journey to her ancestral lands. But that's not the story I'm telling.

Instead, the painting here is part of the backdrop. Rain is familiar with the story of the Trail of Tears, but that information is so grounded in her day-to-day worldview that she doesn't feel a need to comment on it. Native American readers will be validated by their reflection in cultural references that occur naturally, I hope, seamlessly in the story.

Meanwhile, outsiders will sometimes have to apply themselves to understand some traditions and perspectives. But even with effort, they may not catch everything. That's okay. At least they won't be patronized or cheated of a worldview that isn't all laid out for them. They'll have the opportunity to be uncomfortable now and then, and to work through it. Perhaps they'll even be inspired to learn more. Yet the story at hand dictates what is integrated and what remains unsaid. The story is where the readers' focus should be. It's my hope that all of them will be touched by the grief and humor of my characters-both Native and non-Indian-and that they'll come to care about these fictional people as individual human beings.

Contemporary Native American Fiction

Bruchac, Joseph. Eagle Song. Illus. by Dan Andreasen. 1997. 80p. Dial, $14.99 (0-8037-1918-3); Puffin, paper, $3.99 (0-8037-1919-1).
Gr. 4-6. Danny Bigtree encounters racism when he moves from the Mohawk reservation to Brooklyn, New York. However, Danny is inspired by his ironworker father and a story of Iroquois hero Aionwahta to choose peace.

Bruchac, Joseph, and Gayle Ross. The Story of the Milky Way, a Cherokee Tale. Illus. by Virginia A. Stroud. 1995. 32p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-1737-7).
Gr. K-3. A spirit dog has been stealing the corn meal, and he can be driven away only with the combined efforts of a young boy, Beloved Woman, and the entire village. Stroud's artwork depicts Cherokee life in the early 1800s, after the coming of the Europeans and before the Trail of Tears. However, this traditional story retelling is presented within a contemporary framework, illustrating how today's Cherokee people pass down traditional stories to their children.

Dorris, Michael. The Window. 1997. 112p. Hyperion, $16.95 (0-7868-0301-0); paper, $4.99 (0-7868-1373-3).
Gr. 4-6. Rayona Taylor, the heroine from two of Dorris' novels for adults, is featured here as an 11-year-old. Although well acquainted with her Native and African American ancestry, Rayona is surprised when she is sent to live with her father's relatives in Kentucky and finds they are Irish Americans.

Erdrich, Louise. Grandmother's Pigeon. Illus. by Jim LaMarche. 1996. 32p. Hyperion, paper, $5.99 (0-7868-1204-4).
K-Gr. 3. Grandmother, who has never been dull, sails away to Greenland on the back of a porpoise. A year later, she still hasn't returned, so, with great reluctance, her family members begin to sort through her things. When they reach her bird nest collection, they are surprised not only to find eggs in a nest, but to realize that they're beginning to hatch. No one knows how a bird could've gotten in, but Grandmother's stuffed pigeon looks suspiciously pleased. Once the hatchlings are grown, an ornithologist pronounces the birds members of an extinct species. After a flurry of media attention, the three males are freed with messages to Grandmother, who writes back, finally, from Greenland.

Harjo, Joy. The Good-luck Cat. Illus. by Paul Lee. 2000. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (0-15-232197-7).
K-Gr. 3. Woogie has always been a good-luck cat, but as she falls into one scrape after another, it's questionable how long her luck can last. A delightful look at the friendship between a cat and a young Native girl.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Jingle Dancer. Illus. by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. 2000. 32p. Morrow, $15.95 (0-688-16241-X).
K-Gr. 3. Jenna, a Muscogee-Ojibway girl, brings together her jingle dance regalia with the help of women from her family and intertribal community. In turn, she dances at the powwow to honor them. The book includes interracial characters and those engaged in both traditional pursuits, such as storytelling, and mainstream ones, such as practicing law.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Rain Is Not My Indian Name. 2001. 140p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-688-17397-7).
Gr. 5-9. When budding photojournalist Cassidy Rain Berghoff finally decides to get herself a teen life, her best friend Galen suddenly loses his. Six months later, Rain has withdrawn from her family, small town, and intertribal community. But when her nonparticipation is used to counter proposed financing for a Native summer youth program, she once again picks up her camera, begins reconnecting with others, and eventually finds the perfect way to honor Galen's memory.

Monture, Joel. Cloudwalker: Contemporary Native American Stories. Illus. by Carson Waterman. 1996. 58p. Fulcrum, $15.95 (1-55591-225-7).
Gr. 4-6. This collection of six short stories features characters from various Native nations. In "Cloudwalker," a Mohawk boy, Virgil, longs to walk in the clouds like his steelworker father. To his mother's discomfort, Virgil even practices on the beams in his barn. When Virgil and his mother travel from the Six Nations Indian Reserve to visit his father in New York City, Virgil is so excited that he forgets his own birthday-at least for a while. "Grandfather Crosses Over" chronicles Doreen's respect and then grief for her grandfather of the Jicarilla Apache nation. In "Powwow," fancy dancer Homer watches with pride as his older brother Lester, a new army private, carries the American flag at a powwow at the Sac and Fox fairgrounds. The book also includes an introduction to dispel stereotypes and an extensive glossary.

Savageau, Cheryl. Muskrat Will Be Swimming. Illus. by Robert Hynes. 1996. 32p. Northland/Rising Moon, $14.95 (0-87358-604-2).
Gr. 2-5. When a young Native girl is called Lake Rat, she is comforted by Grampa, who reveals how he was once called Frog because of his French-Indian heritage and, through a Seneca traditional story, shows how those intended insults are signs that the bullies simply don't appreciate the joy of the frog and the wonder of the lake.

Van Camp, Richard. A Man Called Raven. Illus. by George Littlechild. 1997. 32p. Children's Book Press, $15.95 (0-89239-144-8).
Gr. 5-7. Brothers Chris and Toby Greyeyes attack a raven with their hockey sticks, but then a mysterious man enters their lives and his story changes their view. Littlechild's bold and vibrant illustrations reflect the boys' interracial heritage.

Online Resources

Cynthia Leitich Smith Children's Literature Resources

is a 130-plus-page award-winning Web site devoted to children's and young adult literature. It features original interviews with authors, illustrators, and experts; bibliographies on the site authors' areas of expertise (Native Americans, Asian Americans, interracial families, Texas, fantasy, horror, and more); articles on children's books and writing; a literacy campaign; and numerous comprehensive and annotated links to related resources on the Web (including a listing of links to sites about state awards for children's books). A separate section on Native American Indian themes in children's books (with separate bibliographies for contemporary books, historical books, books by Native authors or illustrators, and links to related education resources) is available at

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a children's and young adult author living in Austin, TX. She has a professional background in law, public relations, and journalism. She is also a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian nation. Her first picture book is Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins, 2000), and her first novel is Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001).