Native Americans portrayed better in today's books

Books for children

October 03, 1990|By Molly Dunham | Molly Dunham,Evening Sun Staff

NEXT WEEK'S celebration of Columbus Day will be a mil preview of the wild things in store two years from now, when America marks the 500th anniversary of its "discovery" in 1492.

Fine. Italian-Americans have every right to revel in the salutes tChristopher Columbus. But he didn't exactly discover the continent.

The native people who were living here before the Nina, the Pintand the Santa Maria landed were doing just fine, thank you. Even today, textbooks write off Native Americans as "savages" who stood in the way of the white man's progress.

Many other books, however, celebrate the spirit and intelligencof the American Indians who fight to keep their culture alive today. Kids have long been fascinated by Indians, and that's even more true today as the "Tonto" stereotypes disappear.

The best book I've found on the subject for grade-school kids is "The People Shall Continue," written by Simon Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves (Children's Book Press, $12.95). It's described as "the only existing overview of American Indian history for children written by an American Indian." Ortiz is a storyteller whose prose is spare, yet lyrical.

"The government agents gathered the children. They took the children far from their homes and families. The children from the West were taken to the East. The children from the East were taken to the West. The People's children were scattered like leaves torn from a tree. At schools far from home, the children were taught to become Americans. They learned to be ashamed of their People."

At the end, "the People" extends to include all people -- whites, blacks, Asians and Chicanos -- and it tells of the struggle to make sure "the balance of the Earth be kept."

"We must fight against those forces which will take our humanity from us. We must ensure that life continues." This wonderful book is available at the 31st Street Bookstore, one block west of Greenmount Avenue, or through The Children's Book Press, 1461 Ninth Ave., San Francisco, Calif. 94122.

Another book not to be missed is "The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses," by Paul Goble (Aladdin paperback, $3.95). Goble's storytelling talents and tempera-bright designs reflect his admiration for native cultures.

This book won the Caldecott Medal. Its illustrations are bold and clean, contrasting with the delicately detailed ground, where wildflowers, thistle, prairie dogs and turtles dance across the page. The story involves a Plains Indian girl who stays with the tribe's horses when they stampede during a thunderstorm.

"Fear drove them on and on, leaving their familiar grazing grounds far behind." She awakes the next day to discover a wild spotted stallion who takes over her herd, and she eventually becomes one with the wild horses.

The idea of people sharing their spirit with animals is found in many of Goble's books, which include "Buffalo Woman," "Gift of the Sacred Dog," "Star Boy" and "Death of the Iron Horse." His reverence for nature is reassuring.

A quick look at some other books with a Native American theme:

* Preschoolers: "Arrow to the Sun," by Gerald McDermott (Penguin paperback). The Caldecott Award winner in 1975, this is a book of stunning, geometric paintings that vibrate as they tell the story of a Pueblo boy who searches for his father, the Lord of the Sun.

* Early readers: "Where the Buffaloes Begin," written by Olaf Baker, illustrated by Stephen Gammell (Puffin paperback). Gammell's illustrations made this a Caldecott Honor Book in 1981. It's the story of Little Wolf, a 10-year-old boy who helped avert catastrophe in a buffalo stampede.

* Young adults: "Sing Down the Moon," by Scott O'Dell (Dell paperback). This is a Newbery Honor Book by the author of "Island of the Blue Dolphins," and it features another strong Native American girl as the heroine. Bright Morning, 15, sees her Navaho people crushed in spirit as the white soldiers force them from their canyon homeland in 1864 and march them to oblivion -- Fort Sumner.

* NEXT WEEK: First of a two-part series on magazines for kids.

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