Celebrating Indigenous Culture Everyday: Past, Present, and Future Author Events
My mother grew up on reservation lands. I did not. But I love visiting family there and go back as often as I can. However, I grew up in a suburban town in upstate New York. My parents raised me and my siblings with similar values: respect for elders and other cultures, hard work and perseverance, and the importance of pursuing an education. I still carry these with me, and I’m realizing, the lessons my parents gave us guide my second career as a Native children’s author.
As I reflect on my work this past year, I found a pattern. I am a lifelong learner, I knew that, but in addition to sharing tools to help authors write better, I’m discovering more about my own Indigenous heritage. While connecting with other authors from a variety of US and Canadian Native Nations, I am expanding my knowledge of our culture and traditions. Basically, I’m getting to know myself better.
Here’s quick review of my events this past year. I hope by reading this roundup of events and what I’ve learned about my Lakota self as a writer, you will expand your knowledge of Indigenous books and celebrate contributions of Native Nations not only for one day, but throughout the year.
Villanova University (online)
When talking to Dr. Rachel Skrlac-Lo’s class about literature in the classroom, we focused on theme.
Students read my book (Sioux Code Talkers of WWII) and we looked at facts from the book and how they intersected with patterns. As I prepared for the presentation, I discovered my intersecting ideas. I lean into Family and Elders, Love of Grandmother Earth, Veterans, Education, and Values of Forgiveness and Perseverance.
I remembered, at the Native Intensive in Austin, Texas in August 2022, hearing author Monique Gray-Smith point out four themes she writes about. These defiinitely show in her books “You Hold Me Up,” “My Heart is Filled with Happiness,” and “When You Are Kind.” Can you guess some of her themes? Monique said, “Our stories are our medicine.” Thinking back at her talk, I believe this is true. My themes have laid down a good path to follow as a writer, which fills my heart with happiness.
Indigenous contribution: values that guide our lives like respecting elders, showing compassion and encouragement to others which in turn will fill your heart with joy and happiness.
Connect: Take a moment to discover your four themes as a writer.
Thank you, Dr. Rachel Skrlac-Lo for sharing your class with me!
Read more about Monique Gray-Smith and her books HERE.
SCBWI Florida (In Person)
I am a retired teacher and miss the classroom, interacting with students, learning alongside of them. Now, as a children’s author, I am invited to speak on different topics. I love helping others on their writing journey, as it fills the empty space left from not being able to be in a classroom. When I build an author presentation, I like to choose a topic that I can learn from too.
Starting a new piece of writing is a difficult thing to do. Staring at a blank page and writing those first lines is a high hurdle to jump over. But once you get started, and find your story in your drafts (yes, it may take many revisions), then you can always go back and rewrite the beginning.
When author Julie Augenson invited me to speak, and I picked the topic – writing first lines. I used lots of mentor texts to start researching how authors craft first lines. Picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA samples provided examples of different ways authors invite readers to enter a story. I find it easier to try out one strategy and move on. If it doesn’t work, I can try another approach. Rewriting happens a lot for authors.
Read examples of first line structures HERE
Getting through your first draft is important, because you learn about your characters and the heart of your story as you make your way through. (Yes, I try to outline and follow along, but usually I find out things that add depth and layers in revision.) Embrace and trust in the process. Get your thoughts down the first time without worrying about mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Once you have your draft down, then you have something to work with. Revision is where the “real” writing occurs. (Pssst. I have a secret…It took me 35 drafts and 20 years before I received a contract for SCTs…but don’t get discouraged! You can do anything you put your mind to.)
Indigenous Contribution: values of perseverance, determination, and resiliency while getting educated in your field.
Connect: Don’t give up! Learn all you can about a subject and keep going.
Anyway, thank you, Julie Augenson for connecting me with your Florida group! It was great to see you 🙂
In Company Retreat at Highlights Foundation (In Person)
As I write the words “in person,” it warms my heart. The pandemic compressed time, it seems like a long time ago, and yet, we’re still working through the effects of that unusual time in our lives.
Whenever I get to know other authors and illustrators, I walk away with new inspiration, new hope. The June retreat helped soothe some emotional fears for me. I think all creatives go through similar emotions too.
Author Jennifer Jacobson opened the retreat with encouraging words, “focus on writing that brings you joy,” and “working slowly lets you find your authentic subject.” I smiled. This seems to be a pattern for me- working slowly! Other speakers also let priceless quotes about writing slip from their lips. Illustrator Joe Cepeda said, “Begin with blank walls, a blank page, and release your expectations.” Teacher/Author Torrey Maldonado said, “Write in the cracks and crevices of time.” Author Jane Kurtz said, “Open your heart to the possibilities.” And author Chris Tebbets said, “We carry what we need…Trust your memory of your emotional experiences.”
Emotions are what connect your story to your readers. Here are a few Native / First Nation / Indigenous authored books and the emotional hook they have to connect with their readers:
At the Mountains Base by Traci Sorell (Cherokee) – a lovely story in poetic voice, sharing a family’s care, concern, and fear for their loved one’s safety while they are away at war.
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith (Cree, Lakota) – rhyming voice, about young people who need a community that surrounds them in love so they can grow.
Forever Cousins by Laurel Goodluck (Mandan, Hidatsa, Tsimshian) – when two cousins are separated because one family moves away, the girls hold onto hope that when they are reunited in the future, they will become best friends again.
Jo Jo Makoons: Fancy Pants by Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) – a young girl dreams of finding something fancy to wear at an upcoming family event.
Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) – a collection of short related stories, as Grandpa and grandson experience certain family events in their lives.
Middle Grade Books
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day (Upper Skagit) – a young girl with a knee injury is committed to going to a special ballet school, and feels it’s unfair that she won’t be able to go. She spends time recovering in nature, with her family, healing both physically and mentally.
Heroes of the Water Monster by Brian Young (Navajo) – a young boy accepts responsibility to care and fight fairly for the nearby rivers / water sources, and is committed to making the right decisions for Earth.
Young Adult Books
Firekeepers Daughter by Angeline Boulley (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa) – a teenage girl accepts the challenge of going undercover to find out who killed her friend. She seeks justice, gets tangled up, and has an unexpected love interest who helps guide her along the way.
Rez Ball by Byron Graves (Ojibwe) – a teenage rising basketball star encounters loss, is searching for a place to belong, and demonstrates selflessness during the course of this story.
Ancestor Approved, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek) – a collection of short stories that invite you into the world of powwow dancing, complete with fears, needs, dreams, values, family, justice, love, selflessness, and humor.
This is just a quick list. I’m including a few in each genre, mostly fiction here. I tried to highlight a variety of authors, but there are many, many more exceptional contemporary Native / First Nation / Indgenous authors and illustrators. Look for more titles in upcoming posts. (Also, see November 2023 below)
Indigenous Contribution: Native Creatives are telling their stories and readers can see themselves in story. Connect: For more information about why it’s important to connect all readers with different worldviews, see the Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Doors article.
Highlights Foundation Nonfiction Summer Camp (In person)
I love feeling connected to others writers. My hope is that I can share the knowledge I’ve learned about writing to help others reach their goals. Traditional publishing takes time, and teaches patience as we continue to learn about who we are and what makes us curious.
I love hearing all the different topics people bring to Summer Camp. I love watching writers improve in their craft. I’m happy to be there as a instructor/coach.
Indigenous Contribution: Coming together in community benefits everyone. I also left Highlights in July with a new story idea. I’ve been researching, and resting, letting the idea marinate a bit while thinking about Native values like reciprocity and love of Grandmother Earth.
Connect: Find an upcoming workshop at Highlights Foundation HERE.
Clarendon Historical Society (In person)
After researching the Lakota/Dakota Code Talkers for decades, it was a pleasure to share details about my Great Uncle’s special service in World War II. The Clarendon historical building was filled with interesting artifacts – history I held carefully in my hands. The dusty old smells, the rusted metal on various tools of the past. Fascinating.
The vibrant and welcoming Melissa Ierlan organized the evening, and I enjoyed talking with the community members. People were kind, inquisitive, and supportive. Being in community is the best.
Indigenous Contribution: Native men joined the armed forces at the highest rate (of eligible community members) during WWI and WWII. They volunteered to protect Grandmother Earth and served honorably.
Connect: Learn more about Veterans and Memorial Day. Read more about our land and environment and how we can protect it.
Native Creatives Retreat
I am in awe of everyone who showed up for the retreat! So many inspirational moments, like- the dedication of the Native Creatives cabin.
Inside we discovered an entire book shelf dedicated to Native Creatives. I think that was the most photographed spot that day. Our community of Native Creatives is growing and it’s an honor to be part of the group.
Indigenous Contribution: Of all the children’s books published in a year, the percentage of books written by Native authors has hovered ~ 1% but in the last few years, that rate has risen to ~2%. Native Creatives are telling their own contemporary stories, many are award-winning books, including a 2021 Caldecott winner, Michaela Goade for We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom.
Connect: Support Native Creatives! Read about diversity in kidlit from the CCBC and WNDB. Sign out books by Native authors from your local library. Buy our books and write positive reviews. Use Native Kidlit in your book clubs. Enjoy!
Festival to Go
As I prepare for my upcoming author visit, I try to make connections with past history to current day life. I dig into the 10+ bins that house my code talker research collection, and reread. I’ve forgotten some – I can’t possibly have that all archived in my head. But there was something I remembered, I looked for, and I found! I’m excited to pull together three active and unique poems and a page from a newly released book to accompany those “new” details about the Dakota Code Talkers of the 163rd Infantry, Company B. I haven’t shared those details before in an author visit. I hope my plan goes well with the students.
Rochester Children’s Book Festival (In person)
Please see the website for a list of all the free presentations on Saturday, November 4, 2023. It’s always exciting to share my book and writing journey with others. But this year I decided to boost other Native Creatives.
I’ll be doing a book talk, sharing titles of untold stories, speculative fiction, narratives that demonstrate values of kinship, integrity, and service, award-winning books, as well as nonfiction and seasonal stories that preserve our Native heritage. There are many newly released titles in the last few years. It’s a thrilling time as an author. And readers can connect with these excellent books throughout the whole year. I hope to see you there!