why we need more native american writers
A member of the Navajo tribe, I grew up hearing the traditional tales of my people. In these stories were people like me who spoke my language. There were stories of our deities, such as Changing Woman, The Twin Warriors, and the mischievous Coyote, stories of horse riding and sheep butchering, of the stars and the animals—stories of my culture told from the perspectives of those who had lived it.
As I entered the public school system, I became more adept at reading print books. But the people in these stories neither looked like me nor lived like me. Though upset, I decided not to say anything to my teachers, opting to avoid confrontation. Instead, I assumed that my own cultural tales were less important than those in the books being presented to me.
Curiosity drove me to creative writing. I played with the pen, testing out the sounds of words, running them over my tongue. But the Americans in my stories did not look like me. They had green eyes and blond hair. They were white-skinned and well-dressed. Little girls with ruffles on their shirts and bright bows in their hair. Fathers who played catch with their sons, always calling them by endearing names like “sport” or “kiddo.” Mothers who sang lullabies to their children at bedtime.
I strayed from topics I’d experienced in my own life and focused on the picture-perfect families I’d read about in books. These were families I felt my own could never compare to. These were people I could never compare to. Young adult books made me an “other” in my reading experiences, so I became an “other” in my own writing. In college, I looked back at all of my previous short stories and realized I didn’t recognize any of my characters.They read like fillers, dull and uninteresting. I had never felt so different—or so alone.
But experiences like this are not uncommon. All young children are impressionable. The types of stories we read in our youth leave lasting impressions. They reinforce majorities while obscuring traditional minorities. Many creative writers of color have suffered under this influence. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie, for example, shared her experience with this so-called “perpetuation of the norm” in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
“I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading,” she said. “All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. And talked about the weather.”
In high school, I accepted the curriculum I was taught as fact. I read books like Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Tom Sawyer. These books are childhood classics. I won’t deny that, and I don’t regret that I read them. But I wish these weren’t the only children’s books available, because early literary experiences are extremely impactful. I had little access to books reflecting my experiences. It was only after high school that I had the opportunity to read some.
Allow me to recommend some favorites—The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth, If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, and Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson. These are books written by Native authors telling their stories. These are books I wish I had been given access to while growing up, for they would have taught me that my experiences are nothing to be ashamed of.
According to an analysis by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, of the 3,200 books received from US publishers in 2016, Native American authors only wrote 0.8 percent—that’s a total of eight books. African Americans wrote 2.8 percent, Latinx Americans wrote 2.9 percent, and Asian Pacific Americans wrote 6.1 percent of books. Compare that to the majority: 87.9 percent of books were written by white American authors. This lack of representation hurts the traditionally marginalized. Though there may be fewer Native Americans than white Americans, our stories are no less important.
We need more Native writers writing about Native matters. We need more diverse life experiences in literature. We need more voices.
I write about my own experiences proudly now. I revel in my voice as it comes alive on the page, expressing without boundaries, rushing the horizon. But there are still hundreds of voices waiting to be heard, waiting for their chances at roping the moon.