Thursday, April 15, 2010

Books about California Indians for Children

Recently, a California first grade teacher named Ben left a message on this blog, asking if I knew of any good picture books about California Indian pre-contact lives, because he couldn't find ANY. It's true; such books are not only rare, but frequently published by small presses without much budget for marketing; finding books that are respectful, based on reality, and by or openly consult California Indigenous peoples is a still more difficult task.

One of the problems of looking specifically for "children's" books about California Indians: you run right into that well-established field of "editing" (aka "dumbing-down) traditional Indigenous stories meant for whole communities, including very intelligent adults, and turning them into bedtime stories for kids without the necessary context, permission or respect needed to really understand what those stories are. They may be stories, but once put through the wringer of mainstream interpretation, publication marketing colorizers, and sheer ignorance, they are all too often no longer Indigenous stories, let alone the stories of a particular tribe.

Still, Ben's query reminded me how badly we need a reference list that operates knowing those difficulties, and encouraged me to locate what little materials I know of on this blog, so that it is at least a bit easier to come by. Suggestions welcome! As always, this is a work in progress.

One place to start such a search would be A Broken Flute: the Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (Alta Mira Press, 2005). This is a substantial volume, rich with reviews and guidelines for doing your own evaluations of books about, or by and about, Native peoples; it is usually kept in the reference section of a library. If your local library does NOT have it, try local universities, and good old Inter-Library Loan. The book is not cheap, but is a solid investment for any public school or institution of higher learning, especially as a community resource. It is also not just about California Indigenous experiences, but reading this volume will hone your selection and critical skills for your continued search. For example, I did several reviews for this collection regarding books for children about California, the Missions, or California Indians, that might save you some time.

Another terrific place to look is Debbie Reese's blog, American Indians in Children's Literature - I can't recommend Debbie's scholarship or passion highly enough; she's a beacon in the field of critical thinking.

Trolling the internet using search terms like "california indian books children" led me to the following information (I have not read all of these books, but the sources themselves are familiar to me, and I would definitely start with these materials, which try to stay close to California Indigenous communities as their sources, than books which are pretty much constructed out of stereotypes):


BY Carolyn Lehman
c 2003

** California Indian author or illustrator
* Native American author or illustrator


London, Jonathan. Fire Race. Illustrated by Sylvia Long. Chronicle Books; 1993. In this Karuk story, Coyote and the other animals cooperate to steal fire from the Yellow Jacket Sisters so that the world will not be cold and dark. The illustrations are noteworthy for their geographical and cultural accuracy, with one exception--Coyote is wearing a woman's basket hat. There is an afterward by Karuk linguist, Julian Lang.

Santiago, Chioro. Home to Medicine Mountain. Illustrated by **Judith Lowry. Children's Book Press; San Francisco, CA; 1998. This story from Lowry's family tells how two boys at Indian boarding school figure out how to get home so that they can be with their family for vacations and ceremonials. The expressionistic illustrations use bright colors and bold strokes to bring to life the California natural landscape and the intense longing that leads the boys home.

**Norton, Jack. Natasha Goes to the Brush Dance. CARE, 496 Gold Court, San Andreas, CA. 95249 (fax 209-754-9218); 2000. Natasha is a young Yurok girl who prepares for and participates in the traditional Brush Dance with her best friend Rose. Contemporary cultural issues are included in this self-published picture book by historian and Hupa tribal member, Jack Norton. The author's understanding of children within the culture and the use of community photographs give this book the authenticity that most commercial publications do not achieve.


Margolin, Malcolm and Yolanda Montijo. Native Ways: California Indian Stories and Memories. Heyday Books, P. O. Box 9145, Berkeley, CA 94709; 1995. Traditional California Indian life is described by Indian people themselves and illustrated through photographs and drawings. Care is taken in distinguishing among the different California tribes. While the intended audience is non-Indian school children, the respectful attitude is refreshing for all. There is a very short chapter that describes recent history (from white contact on) and present day life, although references to today's Indian people are made throughout the book.

Mayfield, Thomas Jefferson. Adopted by Indians. Heyday Books. The story of Indian Summer (see below) edited and illustrated for middle graders. This personal account (recorded in the earlier part of the 20th century) is a reminiscence in old age of Mayfield's childhood experience growing up in the Choinumne Yokut community in California's San Joaquin Valley. Strictly speaking, it is a white settler narrative, but it does give a view into Choinumne daily life before the genocide and shows variety in the relationships between Native residents and white newcomers at that time. The black and white illustrations give additional information about Chinomne material culture.

Smith-Trafzer, Lee Ann and *Clifford E. Trafzer. Creation of a California Tribe. Sierra Oaks Publishing, 1370 Sierra Oaks Court, Newcastle, CA, 95658-9791 (916-663-1474); 1988. Travis and Laura and their classmates hear Maidu stories from Grandfather.

**Yamane, Linda. Weaving a California Tradition. Lerner; 1997. This excellent photo essay about a contemporary Western Mono girl who is learning the tradition of basket making is unfortunately out of print. Look for it through your library. This book is unique for its authentic and positive portrayal of the daily life of a contemporary California Indian child.

**Yamane, Linda. The Snake that Lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains and When the World Ended... Oyate; Berkeley, CA. These are small press collections of Ohlone stories re-told by an Ohlone basket maker, historian and story teller. Both books contain some discussion of storytelling and translation. They acknowledge the original tellers.


**Lang, Julian. Ararapikva: Creation Stories of the People. Heyday Books; 1994. Traditional Karuk literature, language and lifeways are the focus of this bi-lingual volume by Karuk scholar Julian Lang.

**Margolin, Malcolm, editor. The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories and Songs. Heyday Books; Berkeley, CA; 1981. Although Margolin is not Indigenous, his sources all are.

Mayfield, Thomas Jefferson. Indian Summer. Heyday; 1993. This is the original taped (and edited) reminiscence of T. J. Mayfield. Unlike Adopted by Indians, Indian Summer gives a short picture of the violence that decimated the Choinumne and shows how Mayfield hid his childhood with the Indians out of fear of white violence. Excellent primary source material on the Gold Rush era.

**Wilson, Darryl Babe. The Morning the Sun Went Down. Heyday; 1998. A moving autobiography of a Pit River (Achumawe and Atsugewi) man's childhood in the mid-20th century, this book vividly reflects the strong bonds as well as the struggles of a California Indian family in the Hat Creek/Burney area.

* **Voices through the Ages. A Native American Anthology. ITEPP; Humboldt State University; 1999. This collection of student essays about growing up Native American was published on an educational grant.

Sources for Books on California Indian Experience:

THE BOOKHANDLER (Call 619-472-0471 for a print catalog of children's books related to California and U.S. History and Social Studies curriculum.)

Heyday Books (

Native Authors (

Oyate ( Oyate distributes books by and about American Indian people as well as publishing a few titles of their own. Their site has many resources for helping readers determine accuracy and authenticity.

As Lehman notes, Hey Day Press and Oyate are strong promoters of accuracy and small presses. I'll try to follow her key (* Native author or illustration, ** California Indian author or illustrator, though I'm not sure of some tribal affiliations yet). Here is a sampling of what they offer:

Blue Jay Girl
* *Sylvia Ross
On the rim of a great valley, where the hills turn into mountains, lives Blue Jay Girl, a Yaudanchi child who goes where she wants to go and does what she wants to do. While the other girls are learning...
hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-59714-127-7 $12.95

O, My Ancestor: Recognition and Renewal for the Gabrielino–Tongva People of the Los Angeles Area by Claudia Jurmain and William McCawley; Foreword by Kevin Starr
In O, My Ancestor, members of the Los Angeles area's Gabrielino-Tongva community reflect on what it means to be Gabrielino-Tongva today, when centuries of domination by the Spanish and then Americans have left little of the native culture intact. This...
paperback, ISBN: 978-1-59714-115-4 $21.95

Two Bear Cubs: A Miwok Legend from California's Yosemite ValleyRetold by Robert D. San Souci; Illustrated by Daniel San Souci
This enormously popular children's book is a delightful retelling of the Southern Sierra Miwok legend of the mountain El Capitan and how it came to be. Mother Grizzly Bear thinks that her two playful cubs are wrestling and having fun...
hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-59714-092-8 $14.95

** Lion SingerWritten and Illustrated by Sylvia Ross
There was once a time when there was no metal in the Chukchansi people's world... So begins this story set in the old days—before there were cars or television sets, in a time when much of California was covered in...
hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-59714-009-6 $12.95

Adopted by Indians: A True StoryThomas Jefferson Mayfield; Edited by Malcolm Margolin; Illustrations by Hilair Chism and Rick Jones
The children's version of our best-selling title Indian Summer, this book gives younger readers a close-up view of traditional California Indian life and early California. Thomas Jefferson Mayfield kept a wonderful secret for almost sixty years; the secret of his...
paperback, ISBN: 978-0-930588-93-9 $10.95

**Ishi's Tale of Lizard, ed. by Leanne Hinton, illustrated by Susan L. Roth. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (1992). Unpaginated, color illustrations, grades 1-3; Yahi/Yana. Based on a story told by the Yahi man known as "Ishi," hence my starring it as "Native-authored" despite much interpretation/translation.

Oyate, an organization devoted to reviewing and making available accurate representations of Native peoples, offers a few truly rare books:

**Tjatjakiymatchan (Coyote): A Legend from Carmel Valley, written and illustrated by Alex O. Ramirez (1995). Unpaginated, b/w illustrations; preschool-up; Rumsien Ohlone/Esselen. “Fox was truly a proud fur person, and reasonably so. There was also Coyote, and one of his favorite pastimes was playing tricks on Fox.” But to be tricked by Coyote twice in one day! Here, Ramirez tells how that happened. It’s evening in the Carmel Valley, and Ramirez’s grandfather, after hearing a coyote howl, would say, “Sta solo” (He’s lonely). And then he’d tell this story. The writing is a lovely thing, round, and with many levels of meaning, both in the prologue and in the story itself; past and present coming together. And Ramirez’s soft pencil illustrations complement the mood of the story.
**, ** The Sugar Bear Story. 2005, by Mary J. Yee (Chumash), color illustrations by Ernestine Ygnacio De Soto (Chumash). Found in Yee’s journals and illustrated by her daughter, The Sugar Bear Story, in Barbareño Chumash and English, is a simply told yet deep little story about how people ought to treat their guests. This treasure of a book includes a basic glossary and pronunciation guide of Chumash words, a concise description of Chumash history and culture, a territorial map, and photos and brief bios of mother and daughter.

1 comment:

  1. Again, wanted to say I'm enjoying your pages. I recently added a blog roll on my Terra's blog, and linked to you.


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