In July of 1992, a group of Native American writers and storytellers convened in Norman, Oklahoma.  As a result, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers was formed the following year.  Today, Wordcraft Circle has active members from forty states, three Canadian provinces, and two countries representing more than 135 sovereign Indigenous Nations/tribes.

Wordcraft ‘s unique purpose, to ensure that the voices of Native writers and storytellers–past, present, and future–are heard throughout the world, urges members to “return their gift” of creativity by mentoring and volunteering both within Wordcraft Circle and their local communities as well.

In that spirit I would like to share some ideas to consider when choosing books on Native Americans for children.

~ Begin by reading “Through Indian Eyes, The Native Experience in Books for Children,” edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale ©1998. This is a comprehensive overview of many children’s books in print about Native Americans.  It gives reviews, both positive and negative, and is an invaluable source in helping parents, teachers and librarians make intelligent and sensitive choices. Also visit their related website,  Another excellent source book is Lessons From Turtle Island by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw published by Redleaf Press, ©2002.

~ Check alphabet books, making sure they do not contain an “I is for Indian” or “E is for Eskimo” type of page.  Most publishers of today are aware of this, but many libraries and used bookstores have older books in their stacks with such entries.

~Read or peruse what your children/students read, preferably beforehand. Don’t choose books in which the Native American characters sport ridiculous names, such as “Chief Big Foot.”  A Boy Called Slow, the picture book biography of the Hunkpapa Lakota warrior, Sitting Bull, by Joseph Bruchac is a great way to help non-Indians understand the significance of Native American names.

~Avoid books whose Indian characters speak in what Beverly Slapin calls Early Jawbreaker, such as “Me go…Ugh…Me see ‘em.”

~ However, don’t discard classic children’s literature, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series, because of the bias.  Instead, address the issue and use the biased sentiments as a springboard for discussion or debate. Have children dig deeper to discover what caused Ma and other settlers to fear and hate Indians.  Contrast that point of view with Pa’s.  Explore and expand the role of the Osage warrior, Soldat du Chene, in “Little House on the Prairie”.

~ Words such as “squaw,” “papoose,” and “brave” are regarded by many Native people as racial epithets and as such are inappropriate to use.  If found, tell children the truth:  at one point in history these words were used; today, however, they are offensive to most Native Americans.

~Make sure that Indian characters are not portrayed as bloodthirsty savages, simpletons needing to be rescued or discovered, cute toys/mascots, or illustrated as Caucasians who are merely colored brown–or worse–in red.

~Native people of long ago did NOT all live in tipis. Homes, clothing, hairstyles, regalia* and customs differed according to each region and tribal affiliation.

~Native people of today are VISIBLE and live very much the same way as most other Americans. Many still live a traditional lifestyle and balance the two.

~Many objects, such as sand paintings, masks, drums, pipes, or rattles, are considered by most Native Americans to be sacred and should not be used as classroom crafts.  A little research will yield much respect.

~Songs like, “Ten Little Indians” are not cute; they are demeaning and relegate human beings to the status of pets or animals.  Instructing students to sit “Indian-style” on the floor is also inappropriate.  Ask your primary students to crisscross or sit on their pockets instead.

~Do attend local powwows, which are Native American social gatherings.  Many reserves or reservations have museums that are good resources for educating yourself about American Indian cultures.  Explore websites, such as Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers and resource websites such as Hanksville, which provides a comprehensive listing of contemporary Native writers or Native Languages, a website that preserves Native languages and cultures at

*Note: please do not refer to ceremonial clothing as costumes because costumes are items to be worn for Halloween etc. In contrast, many powwow regalia have been handed down from one generation to the next. Almost all regalia has been hand-made by family members.

Once enlightened, I believe we cannot go backwards.  Racism and stereotypes hurt both in the present tense and in the future.  Be informed to make better choices. Read as much as you can, but be selective in your choices, keeping in mind that much in print has not been written from the Indian point of view.

Finally, let this be your guide:  imagine you are the Indian child sitting within the story circle.  Imagine how the words and pictures of the book you have chosen will impact her as well as the non-Indian friend sitting beside her.

About today’s guest
Linda Boyden has spent most of her adult life leading children to literacy.  From 1970-1997, she taught in elementary schools, receiving her master’s in Gifted and Talented Education in 1992 from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.   In 1997, Linda decided to change careers and abandoned full-time teaching for full-time writing.  Her first picture book, The Blue Roses, debuted in 2002.  It was the recipient of Lee and Low Books’ first New Voices Award, the 2003 Paterson Prize, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers’ Book of the Year, Children’s Literature, 2002-2003, and was included on the prestigious CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) 2003 Choices list of recommended titles. In 2006, her “Grammy Linda” preschool storytelling DVD was released.  Since 2007, she has written and illustrated her second and third picture books, Powwow’s Coming (2007) and Giveaways, An ABC of Loanwords from the Americas, (Fall, 2010) both from the University of New Mexico Press.

Linda is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers.  She enjoys doing author visits and storytelling at schools and libraries across the country.

For more information about Linda and her work, please visit

12 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Inside the Story Circle, by Linda Boyden

  1. Linda, thank you so much for this post. I will make sure to bookmark it.

    I’m curious to know if your thoughts on some of books and stories figuring Native Americans. As a writer, I wonder how they are received when you do school visits… I hope you don’t mind me asking. 🙂


  2. There’s a contradiction in the essay above. Boyden asks us to think about the Native child and the non-Native child in the storycircle and how they may be impacted by the story being read.

    And yet, Boyden suggests using LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE because of the bias in the book and series. She says a teacher should use the biased sentiments as a springboard for discussion or debate.

    Speaking frankly, Ms. Boyden, I–as a Pueblo Indian mother–would be asking to meet with you if you asked my daughter to participate in a “debate” about portrayals of American Indians in LHOP. What do you want third graders (the approximate age this book is used in) to debate?

    The racist portrayals that Wilder created? Why racism is bad? Why people might feel and act racist? All of that, I think, is important, but to do it WHILE you read a classic book like LHOP is, in my view, inappropriate. That book ought to be taught, but not in a third grade classroom. It belongs in a high school or college classroom.

    A young adult or college student can handle hearing “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” but I don’t think a young child ought to hear that phrase (it occurs three times in the book), even if the teacher goes right over to that young child and says (perhaps with a hug) “nobody believes that now, dear.” The words carry great power, and with great power is the potential for great harm.

    I’ve got many concerns with LHOP. That’s only one.

    You refer to Soldat du Chene. He’s the only “good Indian” in the book. He is the only Indian with a personal name, and the only one whose tribe is named. Why is he a good Indian? What makes him good? And what about all the others? What tribe were they from?

    I think Wilder would have us think there’s good Osage Indians and then there’s bad, generic, savage, Indians without tribes, tribal constitutions, tribal governments, tribal schools, etc. ALL OF THAT was there during the time the Ingalls family was there. Instead, she gives us a good Indian whose tribe merits being named by her, and, who speaks French, the language of the intelligent and sophisticated.

    Instead of this biased and racist book, I recommend Erdrich’s BIRCHBARK HOUSE. She does not vilify or dehumanize the Europeans or American Indians.


  3. The essay has many good points, but it also is overly broad. The word “papoose” is not a racial epithet. It is the word for baby, but it isn’t THE Native word for baby. It is a word in a language (Algonquin) spoken by specific tribal peoples. So, it can and should be used in books about a specific tribe. It would be inappropriate for it to appear in a book or story about a Pueblo baby, where we (at Nambe) speak Tewa.

    Squaw is more complicated due to its origin, its historic use, and the derogatory connotations it has picked up. I’ve written about the word, specifically, how it is used in SIGN OF THE BEAVER.


  4. Last, I am glad to see Boyden recommend the touchstone book, THROUGH INDIAN EYES, but also recommend A BROKEN FLUTE, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (same editors of THROUGH INDIAN EYES). A BROKEN FLUTE is newer and has even more reviews and essays than EYES did. And, some of what was said in EYES has been revisted by Seale and Slapin. One example is the review of Tomie de Paola’s LEGEND OF THE INDIAN PAINTBRUSH.


  5. Hi Debbie (I generally address people who comment by their first name, but please let me know if Ms. Reese would be more appropriate and accept my apologies), thank you so much for the additional input on this topic. I belong with those who are interested and have much to learn about Native American cultures. I’m linking the references you shared. Thanks again.

    I do agree that a deeper analysis and conversation is possible with high school students and possibly some middle school ones. I don’t know what is the better way to discuss it, however it seems difficult for me to ignore a conversation on the reasons behind the Indians’ portrayal in LHOP, as the questions might come from the children themselves.

    “That book ought to be taught, but not in a third grade classroom. It belongs in a high school or college classroom.” I couldn’t agree more, as well, though again I am not sure it is too young for middle school. I wonder if any initiative has ever been taken in that sense (i.e. move LHOP to middle or high school curriculum as opposed to elementary school).


  6. Nice post about GUEST POST: Inside the Story Circle, by Linda Boyden for all creative children, it helps a lot in how to guide our child’s in their creativity stage. hope to see more soon, Thanks!


  7. Nathalie,

    I insist on Debbie. Many of my students find it awkward, but, I prefer a first-name basis.

    When students bring up stereotypical and racist images/ideology/language, etc., a teacher should address it immediately.

    I don’t mean to suggest that we meet children’s questions with silence or avoidance. A lot of the stereotypical and negative imagery is all around us in society, so there are plenty of opportunities to address it.



    1. Hi Debbie,

      thank you for clarifying. I didn’t attend school in the U.S. except for college, and I have yet to become more familiar with what is taught in the classroom. I really appreciate your input.


  8. Thanks, everyone for such interesting and insightful comments. I appreciate the compliments and am glad most of you found the article helpful. I particularly want to thank Debbie Reese and say I wish I had had a parent as committed as you seem to be when I found myself teaching LHOP. I had a third grade in the mid-90’s in rural VA. in which my class demographics was about 5 or 6 African American students with the rest of my 23 students Caucasian. Not very diverse, to say the least. BTW, this school had the Powhatans as their mascot (and we were not even close to the Powhatan homelands) with a 6 ft. wooden, cigar store Indian in full Lakota regalia as one entered the building! I am proud to say I lobbied for and got all that changed.

    Changing curriculum was tougher. I was on my own and LHOP was a recommended title for the grade level theme of pioneers. As a mixed-blood Native woman, I found so much to object to in the book, that was a given, but my district didn’t have a Native Studies dept. at that time. So I handled it the best way I could by answering my students’ questions honestly (“Yes, those words were spoken at that time period. They were wrong then and are wrong now.”) My class did end up having a debate. It revolved around the injustice of stolen homelands and broken promises. Both the students and their parents learned quite a lot by this experience. Some parents were displeased; I was called on it, but I did what I had to do.

    Currently, I am a full time author and storyteller. I try to inform the teachers and librarians I meet about the problems that lurk in older books that are STILL on their shelves regarding Native American stereotypes. Whenever possible I share an “incomplete” bibliography I have compiled of some of the wonderful titles available today, so I thank you for the recommendation of “A Broken Flute”. I will add it to my own library as well.

    Thanks to you, Debbie, I will certainly rethink the article and address your concerns.


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