Monday, December 15, 2014

KidLit in DC-Land: Part One

A week ago, I made a quick visit to our nation's capital for a conference.  Washington, DC, is one of my favorite cities because of its history and endless museums, and fortunately, I had a couple of minutes to play tourist.

One place I always look forward to visiting is the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened in 2004 and houses several exhibitions on Native American history and current events.  Next time you're in DC, check it out -- it's packed with information typically left out of history textbooks and has plenty to teach everyone about the diversity and accomplishments of contemporary Native American people.

Also, sweet architecture.

So you know I beelined it to the gift shop to check out their children's literature selection, right?  Yeah, of course.  I was so pleased to see books by wonderful Native authors from various nations and backgrounds: Joe Medicine Crow, Maria Williams, Gerald DawavendewaJoseph Bruchac.

However, I was surprised to see some more problematic books on the shelves.  Ever since I began studying multicultural children's literature, I have encountered multiple resources warning about offensive and harmful elements present in so many children's books about indigenous people and cultures.  So I was confused when I saw several books containing these elements in a museum that affirms indigenous people's cultures and experiences.

For example, the experts at Oyate -- a "Native organization working to see that [Native] lives and histories are portrayed with honesty and integrity" in literature -- have created a list of criteria for readers to look out for when choosing books about Native Americans.  This list includes warnings against:

  • Stereotypes of Native people as primitive / savage / romantic / at one with nature
  • Oversimplification or generalization of Native cultures (i.e., assuming that all nations dress, speak, act the same; tell the same stories; have the same experiences)
  • Inaccurate portrayals of cultural practices
  • Insinuations that Native people are all dead and gone, or that those who remain are not a "viable people"

Several of the pieces of children's literature I found in the NMAI gift shop -- "classics" that are very popular and abundant in classrooms and libraries around the country -- contained these elements.  Below are pictures of some of these books and links to reviews that point out their questionable features.


One of Joseph Bruchac's books in front of a more 
problematic title, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses

After I finished browsing, I left the museum wondering about what I had seen.  Why do the folks at the NMAI stock these books?  Do they not consider them offensive?  Are they just trying to meet customer demands by selling what's well known and popular?

Honestly, I'm not quite sure what to make of this situation.  What are your thoughts?


  1. I also wonder why the NMAI isn't sensitive about these books. Maybe someone should inform Debbie Reese about it. She is the authority about sensitivity in American Indians' literature. I guess that not many people pointed out this lack of sensitivity to the NMAI, so they are not aware.

    1. You're right -- this would be a good question for Debbie Reese. Her work has been invaluable to me.