Honoring Identity with Young Adult Novels

Volume 24, No. 4 - Summer 2013
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POSTING INSPIRATION. Inspired by what they read, stuents in Donna Miller’s literature class posted responses to assigned readings.

After reading the novel Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac, a student in my young adult literature class at Aaniiih Nakoda College wondered about a focus for her literary response. I invited her to notice how Bruchac of the Abenaki/ Slavic tribe relates the passage of time with section titles like Moon of Leaves Falling (October) and Moon of Long Nights (December). Throughout the story, protagonist Howard Camp notices weather changes and other seasonal markers: “It was late August, three months past the time of the blackflies and a month or more before the first real frost” (27). As an analogy, we discussed concepts like the shepherd’s calendar, which concentrates on the weather and how it affects both livestock and landscape. Native Americans, too, capture these changes with their own names for the passage of time. To illustrate, I shared Huckleberries, Buttercups, and Celebrations by Jennifer Greene and Antoine Sandoval. In this book— which preserves the Salish calendar months while commemorating language, culture, and gifts received from Mother Nature—we read about Bitteroot’s Moon celebrated in May and Storytelling’s Moon observed in November. Literature by American Indian authors not only promotes and honors cultural identity, it recognizes the sacredness of life while meeting Montana’s “Indian Education for All” mandate. Inspired by these ideas, the student decided to learn the names and stories behind each month of the Assiniboine calendar and create a calendar of her own. She interviewed her parents, as well as some language experts in the Fort Belknap area, and used her research to design a wall-sized calendar with both the Assiniboine and English words for each month. She decorated it to capture the prominent features of nature throughout the year.

Earlier in the semester, students enrolled in my young adult literature class celebrated Banned Books Week by reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The book was ranked number five in 2011 on the list of most frequently challenged books, a list compiled annually by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom to inform the public about censorship. It has been challenged for a variety of reasons, including offensive language, racism, controversial religious viewpoints, sexual explicitness, and violence. Students critically examined Alexie’s book to determine whether they deemed it offensive. They concluded that the novel has value despite its dissonant side. Because it is a book about life, it is not without disconcerting moments: masturbation, domestic violence, racism, alcohol-related deaths, bullying, and the ill effects of poverty all figure into the text. It also forces readers to confront Alexie’s contention that reservations were meant to be death camps.

Despite such moments, this is mostly a story about empowerment and hope. It dispels some myths and helps readers see with new eyes. Through Arnold Spirit, a Spokane Indian nicknamed “Junior,” readers further learn about triumphing over handicaps. Junior’s resilience especially inspired one reader:

On a daily basis, Native people think about losses and [the hurt of historical trauma, but] Arnold makes these concrete lists of what makes him happy. . . All the other people in Arnold’s life had given up, aided by the school system and history and alcoholism and poverty and death. But Arnold challenges the downward spiraling mindset and leaves; he is guided by Mr. P’s encouragement and the encouragement of his grandmother. In my experience, it only takes one motivational person to set the wheels turning in a young person’s mind; one encouraging statement to open the doors of possibility.

During one discussion, students noted the value of nurturing and paying attention to dreams. In Alexie’s story, Arnold knows his mother, given the chance, would have gone to college; his sister would be a writer of romance novels; and his father would have been a musician. But “nobody paid attention to their dreams.” One student responded, asserting, “It’s nobody’s say what we dream! It’s our dream, so butt out of it! And if you have something to say, like, ‘Oh, you can’t dream that big,’ then posh; nobody can tell us what and what not to dream. I say dream big or go home!”

Finally, students valued the book for what it can offer youth who are struggling. Through his writing, Alexie inspires, establishes a means to escape misery, and illustrates how youth can use negative experiences to better their lives. As one student wrote:

Discouraging young adults from reading books about negative things that can and do happen to them does not protect them from negative things but instead diminishes their right to relate, to know, and to make sense of [what is] happening to them. . . Because Alexie has survived the hideous battle of a childhood filled with negativity, he writes about that to give young adults the tools to survive their own battles.

By reading about negative experiences, students were impacted positively, calling literature “the only hope left to some young adults.” Ultimately for many of them, Alexie provides inspiration. “To deem this book as inappropriate only further shows the harsh and sometimes inappropriate criticism of life growing up on a reservation. . . . It takes a great deal of courage to persevere when there are so many factors working against you,” responded one student.

Offering young adult literature that features Native American protagonists is one way to address the issues of identity formation, reading motivation, and literacy development for American Indian youth. With such literature, we promote and honor cultural identity. When readers see themselves represented in stories like Alexie’s, they realize that they matter, that their experiences count. Cultural relevance can also motivate students to read. We foster literary literacy when we present students with engaging reading material that rewards meaningful analysis, demonstrates important connections with their lives, and legitimizes their voices. After all, in liberal arts we don’t just want students to read novels; we want to expose them to multiple perspectives and situations that inspire and encourage critical thinking.

Dr. Donna L. Miller teaches elementary education and early childhood development at Aaniiih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

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