Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
June 17, 2000 - Issue 12

Evaluating Native American Children's Books

"No one illustration is enough to create stereotypes in children's minds. But enough books contain these images - and the general culture reinforces them - so that there is a cumulative effect, encouraging false and negative perceptions about Native Americans."

From "Unlearning "Indian Stereotypes: Council on Interracial Books for children 1841 Broadway, New York, NY 10023.

1. Look at the Illustrations

  • Do they show all Native people looking alike?
  • Are animals used to represent Indian people? this denies the humanness of Native people and suggests that one "becomes" Indian simply by putting on a " costume" of leather and feathers.
  • Do children "dress up like Indians" or "play Indians" as if Indian were a role that one could assume like doctors or cowboys?
  • Do Native Americans appear in alphabet and counting books as objects that are counted; as " 'I' for Indian"?
  • Do the illustrations show Native people threatening non-Native people, particularly people portrayed as "helpless"? (e.g., Peter Pan, Little House on the Prairie, Indian in the Cupboard)
  • Do they show Native people in a variety of occupations and historical time periods (not just in conflict with Europeans, for example.)
  • Are Native and non-Native people interacting? Haw are the non-Native people near the Native Americans reacting toward them? Afraid? Scornful? Putting up with them?
  • Are the clothing styles, homes, etc. accurate for the specific culture portrayed? There is enormous diversity in the traditional clothes and homes of different Native people; and Indians today are contemporary, as well, often seen (but seldom depicted) in modern clothes and settings.
  • Is the artwork dominated by "generic Indian" designs? Has the illustrator taken care to reflect the traditions and symbols of the particular people in the book. (For example, are totem poles, sitting beside tipis with canoes alongside?)
  • Is the illustrator Native American? Is the specific identification the nation/tribe of Native people represented?

2. Look at the Vocabulary.

  • Does the vocabulary suggest that Native people have ceased to exist, that they lived only "long ago", that they are "frozen" in the historic past? Are Native people discussed in the past tense only? Is the time the story takes place clear?
  • Is the vocabulary demeaning? Does it include words like "squaw", "brave", or "papoose" instead of woman, man, and baby? Are stereotypes reinforced by using words or phrases like "sneaking", "lurking", "Indian file", or "Indian style"?
  • Are the words "savage", "primitive", or "uncivilized" used when talking about Indian cultures at the time of European arrival or before? Is respect shown for the cultural diversity of Native cultures rather than being depicted as simplistic or inferior?
  • Do Native people speak in either "old westerns/Tonto" speech or the oratorical style of the "noble savage"? (For example, The Indian in the Cupboard) Or do they use language with the articulate skill of a people who came from an oral tradition?
  • Do Native characters have ridiculous imitation "Indian" names, such as "Little Chief" or "Indian Two Feet"?
  • Is the language loaded when presenting Indian/European contact and subsequent conflict? Are Native victories called "massacres", while the words "battle" or "victory" describes the non-Native's side of the conflict?

3. Look at the Story.

  • Has the book been reviewed by a Native person or someone knowledgeable about Native peoples as well as the subject of the book?
  • Is the author or publisher Native American? If the book is a retelling of a traditional Native story, is the specific Native source identified? Is there an author's note explaining the appropriateness or permission for his/her telling of the story? (For example, a volume of "American Indian" or "Native American" stories, with no mention of nation or tribe makes our diverse cultures one-dimensional and generic)
  • Are Native people associated mostly with violence? Are Native people located primarily on remote reservations? Are reasons given for either conflict or reservations? Are urban, rural, or suburban Native people presented at all?
  • Are Native women portrayed as passive or working "drudges"? Are they portrayed as having an important role in the culture?
  • Is the image of the Native people portrayed with human strengths and weaknesses, responding to his/her own nature and his/her own time and circumstances?
  • Are Native heroes only the people who, in some way are believed to have aided Europeans in the conquest of Native people and this continent? (For example, Pocahantas, Squanto, Sacajawea) Are Native heroes those who are admired because of what they did for their own people?
  • Does the book lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Native peoples, yesterday and today?
  • Are traditional stories treated with the respect given to other cultures/religions' teaching stories or parables, or are they trivialized as superstitious "myths" or "legends" only suited for small children?
  • Would a Native reader be proud of this book and his/her heritage? Is there anything in the story that would embarrass or hurt a Native child?
  • How can this book best be used in a school curriculum to enhance a variety of themes, not only "Native studies"?

The above article was written by Dovie Thomason and presented first to the public in the Central Virginia Area in an issue of "Monacan News" in 1997 where it was reproduced with the intent to distribute as far and wide as possible to promote understanding about Indian people.

For an excellent site that has a recommended reading list (and a books to avoid list, too) visit:

back to the What's New page

Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry. All Rights Reserved.