Transcript from an interview with Traci Sorell

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Traci Sorell. Watch the video interview with Traci Sorell ›

Young life as a reader

When I think about my reading life as a child, it really started with my mother. Not just reading us stories before bed, but also telling us stories, and I have a lot of people in my family who are very gifted storytellers. Some of them told stories — I would call them tall stories — but I grew up with aunts and uncles, and grandparents, and community members who loved to spin a good yarn, as they say.

And being the oldest grandchild on both sides I did want to spend time with adults, and I wanted to hear about adult conversations and stories. And I read early. I had talked early. So language has always been a very rich part of my life. And as people say, we are all made up of story. So, I feel like that was intrinsically true for me from a very early age.

Seeing myself in books

I would read Beverly Cleary and I enjoyed those books. Ramona’s having her adventures and I felt like I had adventures when I was a kid, and they weren’t anything exciting, but hers weren’t either, they were just kind of everyday things. 

And then I would read books like Judy Blume’s books about these kids in a high-rise apartment in New York City, and that was just bizarre to me because when I went up an elevator in a building with twenty-some floors my brother was getting an allergy shot at the doctor. It’s like nobody lived in that building, people worked there, but I couldn’t fathom that this child had no yard. You know, it was a completely different reality for me. 

I loved Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder: Hear My Cry, which of course was set long before I was born, but it was a very moving portrayal. But many books, like I say, would be entertaining like that, but again, nothing that related to my upbringing. Now, of course, Where the Red Fern Grows and The Summer of the Monkeys are written by a Cherokee author Wilson Rawls, those aren’t centered though in Cherokee culture. I mean, they are set in Northeastern Oklahoma, so it was like their geography kind of landscape was familiar. 

So, yeah, in terms of when I actually got to see myself in books, that didn’t happen until I was an adult, and it’s been much more recently. But the reason that I wrote We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is because there wasn’t a picture book about contemporary Cherokee life and that disturbed me, everything was historical. Or biographies about prominent Cherokee people. 

I was like, okay, what about our everyday lives? I’ve had lots of feedback from Cherokee families and Cherokee children about the book, and they love it, and it’s a well-read and well-loved book in their house, but one woman she said, ‘You know, I just love that it’s a book about us doing the things that we do.’ I was like, ‘Yes! Right?’ 

Windows, mirrors, and sliding doors

Yes, when people talk about Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's work, and she talks about books being windows and mirrors, and sliding doors for children to be able to, not just see themselves, but to see their peers in the world around them.

What I am very conscious of is whoever is the subject, whether that’s in my fiction work, like At the Mountain’s Base, which is a 111-word poem about a family waiting for their family member who is a female pilot in battle to come home. Or non-fiction — the Mary Golda Ross biography Classified, or We Are Grateful, or We Are Still Here — I’m looking to center who is depicted in that story, and making sure that I am providing as authentic a representation as I know how to.

And that’s not just me as the person, that’s also consulting with other people, and other sources. As I’m always saying, bookmaking is a team sport. And so I am one person in the team, I am not the leader of the team, I am literally one person, and a lot of times I feel like I’m the information gatherer, the fact gatherer. I’m going to kind of put things together and organize it, but then other people are going to take parts of it and run with it. 

If that book is about Cherokee people, then I want whoever opens that up to feel like they see themselves. 

And knowing that we all have experiences and things, but there are a lot, there are commonalities, right? My hope is that there is also universality in what I’m talking about and so that others will be able to not just learn something about a person, or an experience, or an event that they may not know about, but they are able to tie that to their own lives. And so I think about Indian No More that my late friend Charlene Willing McManis wrote, and I finished and got published.

That book is looking at a young child who is forced to move in the late-50s from her tribe’s reservation in Northwest, what is now Northwest Oregon to Los Angeles. The majority of children in this country, because we’re such a mobile society, have had experience with moving, even if it’s just in the same town, right? But they may have ended up in a different school. Somehow their life has been disrupted. 

And many children, especially once you start socializing outside of your house, have experiences with meeting other people who don’t do the same thing as you or things that you don’t even know are cultural practices that you have, other people may think very different things or receive very different messages about the things that your family does. And so then you start hearing that feedback and it’s wild. [chuckles] You know, as a child to think like, ‘What? Where did you get that?’ 

In service to my Cherokee community

In terms of my Cherokee identity and that influence on my childhood, and kind of my trajectory as an adult, and what I’ve done with my life, I grew up in a variety of small towns within the Cherokee Nation reservation, which is located in Northeastern Oklahoma. And, my mom’s mother — my grandmother, my Elisi, she had volumes of family pictures and family histories. 

And she would tell me about different members of the family and things that they had done. Many of them were schoolteachers, and so from an early age I knew that our family was one that gave of their gifts and abilities to others. You know, they were definitely service-minded people. And my mother definitely instilled that in me as well that even though I would be the first generation to graduate from college that I needed to look at how I would also be of service, you know, and use the gifts and abilities that I have. 

Being raised in a community where there were a lot of Cherokee people, and also Shawnee and Delaware, there were also white and Black people, too, not as many of other groups. That’s just what I knew as reality until after my parents had divorced and we moved to California. 

And then the world got a lot broader in terms of variety of different ethnic groups, religions. But my education is focused from undergraduate in Native American Studies, that’s also my graduate degree, with an emphasis in Federal Indian Law and Policy, and then I went to law school and worked as an attorney with tribal law. Also, I went to DC and worked as a legislative director. I managed a national nonprofit that served American Indian and Alaska Native Elders in Albuquerque. 

All of those things — like I say — were in service to Native people and Native Nations.

Seeing Native children in books

After my son was born, I started looking at the collection of children’s books, because I had collected children’s books since I was an undergrad. One of my classes was looking at what is the representation of children of mixed-race backgrounds in books. And so I was looking at, well, how are Native children represented in books?

Because when I was a kid there really wasn’t representation of us by us. You would see characters in a book, let’s say Little House on the Prairie books, or things like that. I didn’t find those books interesting to read, so I didn’t read much past the first one, and I was a prolific reader. But, when I would read about those characters they looked nothing and acted nothing like my community or what I knew, so I was like, ‘Well these must be some folks somewhere else because they don’t seem like anyone I know.’

And of course it wasn’t until later that I realized that these folks have no real knowledge of Native people. Like, they’re not trying to show our full humanity, our complexity as fellow humans. 

What we’ve seen I would say even in the last five years has been just tremendous in terms of a variety of voices coming. Are we anywhere near where we need to be? Unfortunately, we are not. But all I can do is bring my background and skills and abilities to try to address the problem. You know, that’s how I was raised. If you see a problem, how can you be a part of the solution?

And part of that is helping to mentor and bring other Native writers or artists as illustrators into the field. So really that goes in line with my Cherokee identity — we are to be part of the community, we are to uplift other people, and provide that helping hand where it’s desired. 

Centering Native people and history

Like I say, there are universal themes in all the books and things that kids can relate to, but I’m always centering who is depicted in that book and making sure that their full humanity is relevant and centered, and the focus on the page because that’s what has been missing. And when you see yourself depicted, as I did as a child, like I say, with the shell of characters and very gross stereotypes, you disassociate from that because you’re like, ‘This is not anything I recognize.’ How could you think this is what Indians are, or Cherokee people, or any tribe?

Nothing, of course, from my childhood ever addressed that we were sovereign nations. That our nations have existed for tens of thousands of years. Tthe Native Nations have always been here, and so that’s something else that I want to help children understand because that’s not been part of what we’ve ever talked about in this country, and yet it’s a reality from before it ever started and certainly since then.

Our history tends to be like, ‘okay, 1492 is where we’re going to start,’ and then there’s like a brief paragraph prior to that about the Bering Strait. Now thankfully science has finally caught up to our stories and what we have always known; that theory has been debunked in the last five years. But I was like, ‘We already knew that.’ You know? We’ve known about having thousands of Native Nations from the Arctic to Antarctica on this huge continent.

And their trade networks, and the fact that they got in boats and went across the sea to other places. I mean, people have been moving and doing things forever, and yet that’s not the story that children hear. So I really focus on centering that in my work. 

Finding authentic children’s books about Native peoples

I get asked quite often, ‘What books do I recommend? How do I know if I’m adding good books to my classroom library or school library or my public library? Which books are the best or okay?’ And what I tell people is the book is going to give you a lot of information. So, certainly, check that out, look at who’s written it, who has illustrated it, what does it say in the back matter? 

And then also, a lot is available on the web. Check out the creator’s websites, and see what they are representing about themselves. A lot of people will say, well, if they’re Native then, yes, that book is recommended, and that’s not necessarily always the case, it’s not always the case if someone is not Native that the book is awful or not well written. I think it’s a much higher hill to climb and to do it well, if you don’t have a lot of help from others. 

It can very easily come off as written for non-Native people. My criteria when I look at a book is, who has been centered and who is this book written for?

Second to that I look at what work has this person done? And people a lot of times will say, ‘Well, but if it’s fiction.’ And? If it’s fiction? I’m like there still is writing from a place of giving those Native characters their full humanity. And that is not the easiest work to do, but it’s necessary if you’re going to write a work that to me should be given to young people, you know? The majority of young people only get access to books because they’ve come from gatekeepers, whether that’s someone’s family, or a community member, or the librarian, or the teacher, you know?

Until they’re a teen, they generally are being taken to the public library. They are being given access to the school library at certain times or they are being told, ‘Yes, you can go and select a book in the classroom library.’ And all of those decisions then are also influenced by what that person puts in those libraries, right, in those collections. Similarly, with what a family brings into its home.

So until that child is a teen, they could have missed out on a lot of wonderful representations because that’s not what they’ve had exposure to. I always tell people, like Google is your best friend. You can find lots of lists that have been curated by people that tell you what are books that are well done, and the place that I always tell people to start is look at the American Indian Library Association’s website.

Including Native languages in books for young people

The inclusion of a Native language, whether that’s Cherokee or any other language in books for young people now is much more, becoming much more common, which is wonderful. And it’s not that there weren’t books published before, because Charlesbridge had done a book back in 1994 called Itse Selu which was the Cherokee Harvest Festival book, so I knew it was very much possible to put the Cherokee words in a book, and so I did.

I have a complete Cherokee language version of At the Mountain’s Base, that’s an e-book that you can get in the Cherokee Syllabary. For our immersion school, for adults that are learning and families that are learning the language online, that’s a wonderful book then for them to be able to read in the Cherokee Syllabary.

I did a short story in Ancestor Approved, which is a middle-grade anthology that came out in February of 2021, and I centered that with an Ojibwe family in Michigan, and I used a lot of Ojibwe words in that, and consulted with a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who is an Ojibwe expert on that. 

For me, wherever I can put that language in that makes sense I’m going to. For Indian No More, Charlene my co-author, she had used the Chinuk Wawa language which is what the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde speak, and that’s what the young people learn now, so that’s in the book as well. 

Anytime that it works — because again, if you are writing an authentic piece, there are many families that use that language. They will use English and their language, sometimes they’ll just speak in their language, so it makes sense to have that in the story, but also if we’re going to support Native language revitalization, right, so many of our grandparents and great grandparents lost their language through the boarding schools. 

In order to help that, we have to do our part. And so, I see including Native language in trade books as helping assist in that effort and also letting other kids know that there have been numerous languages on this continent long before any languages arrived from Europe. 

Writing workshops with kids

In terms of visiting with young people in school visits and doing library visits, that is definitely one of my favorite parts of this work because I absolutely love meeting with young people, and just getting to hear their stories. Again, we’re all made up of stories, that’s part of our lives. 

One of the first exercises I do with them is to say, ‘Highlight all the passive verbs. Am, are, is, was, were, would, could, should, have, has, had, to be, will be, be.’ And this light goes off in their head.

Because I said, ‘When you are reading a book you will find some of those words in the dialogue. But if you look at books for young people, if you want to read them and they’re interesting to you, you’ll find they don’t have many of these words in them.” Because that’s one of the things that we look at is, how do you keep the story moving? Well, you keep the story moving by using active verbs and rich nouns and adjectives. So we talk about that. That it’s very intentional. 

The real writing comes from revision

‘The real writing comes from revision.’

And there’s not just one revision, it’s multiple revisions. I’m going to get feedback from a lot of people. 

Not only is the page marked up for like the copy-editing stuff, right? Periods, commas, the wrong tense, but then you have all these notes in the column about larger questions you’ve got to answer. You have all those markings. Many people talk about how they might glance through it, and some of them don’t open it for several days. I always open it, read through it, and then I just set it aside for several days and then I’ll come back to it because I need to let my subconscious like work on it. 

And so I have to step back from it and then a few days later I can come back and say, ‘No, we don’t really need to explain this. Who is centered in this story knows this information and everyone else can get enough of a context. I’m not going to spell this out.’ But then other times I do need to spell something out because I have assumed too much for the age of who the book is designed to reach.

Writing We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga 

The story behind We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is — I mean, each book is its own distinct entity, of course, and it has its own journey. That book was the easiest to write. I sat down and I made a four-square grid with things that we do in each season. And as the book starts out it talks about the Cherokee people were taught to be grateful, not just for wonderful things, but also difficulties in our life.

And I wanted to have at least one thing in each season that might be difficult, whether that’s sending a family member off to military service. Whatever it is, I wanted something like that in there. And so the book really is like a poem because there’s an opening line in the stanza, then there’s the sub-parts of the stanza, and then each refrain is completed. And each season has its own stanza. And then there’s the ending.

And what, what breaks from that — of course — is that introductory paragraph on the first page. And I really just looked at, okay, now that I have this list of things that happened in each season, like gathering the honeysuckle to make baskets. It was like how do I make that as pleasing to the ear, as well as really tapping into also the five senses? 

I mean, in our daily lives we encounter and deal with all five senses, and we do that across all the seasons, and that needed to very much be an intentional part of what I was working on in the book. 

I wrote the text using ‘we’ meaning the Cherokee people as a collective, but if you look at the art you will see there is a family, a Cherokee family introduced on the first page whose members will appear throughout the book. You kind of follow them through the story.

It’s literally like the ancestors were right there helping me put everything on the page. The others I’ve had to work a little harder for. 

Working with illustrator Frané Lessac

In terms of working with Frané Lessac, the illustrator of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, I couldn’t have asked for someone who was more conscientious and caring, and devoted to doing the necessary research. As is typical in the trade book industry, authors can be consulted on and say, ‘Here’s a list of people we’re looking at, what do you think?’ 

But in this case, they asked me for a list of Native illustrators that I would be interested in working with, and then also some names of non-Native illustrators in case the Native illustrators weren’t available. 

So some illustrators may not have time for something like this. This is a laborious process. It takes a long time to get a picture book out in the world. I saw Frané’s work and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of detail. Like, she has really put in the work on this.’

And of course she did on this book. She spent her own money to come from West Australia, where she now lives, she grew up in New Jersey. But she came from West Australia to the Cherokee Nation and brought her, what she calls her sloppy copies, her very, very rough sketches. We went over them and then I took her to meet a number of other Cherokee culture keepers and wisdom keepers to have them go over her sketches and for her to ask questions, so that when she got back to her studio in West Australia she had what she needed. 

Another friend of mine is a very accomplished award-winning photographer, and he had over 500 photos of our Cherokee people, flora, fauna, our geography, and because a lot of people think of Oklahoma as like the prairie, and Northeastern Oklahoma is not like that. We’re up against the Ozarks, of course, we’ve got lots of rivers, and lakes, it’s very wooded and green, and that needs to be depicted in the book. 

Gratitude all year long

One of the things I do with kids is, what do you do to welcome each season? And what are you grateful for? Because I mean the larger message in this country is, ‘Oh, November is gratitude month and we think about Thanksgiving,’ and then we’re pulling out these fake myths about the Wampanoag people and Thanksgiving, and it’s like, no, just learn to practice gratitude on a yearly basis, right. Every day, every month, every season. All humans come from tribal peoples, and there are definitely certain groups that have evolved away from that. 

But if you look at that and you are attached to giving thanks for that sun coming up, that allows you to live. If the sun does not come up and does not create photosynthesis with plants, you’re not living. There’s such a chain-reaction of all these different things, right? If it does not warm the earth, then you are not able to move around. There are many very basic things that we do not put emphasis on, and I think that’s why we have the climate change crisis that we do now.

It’s that we’re very much — in a broader sense — divorced from and detached from what sustains us, and what sustains our lives. But the more attached you are to being grateful for those things, the more you want to protect them. 

Cherokee legend of the first strawberry

One of the questions that I get asked about is the reference to the story about ani, or strawberries, in We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. And so I talked to people about how we need to have balance in our lives. This is like a central Cherokee value and being of good mind. And so that story talks about how first man and first woman get in an argument, and she does not want to hear what he has to say any longer so she takes off. 

And, to get her to finally stop running in the opposite direction, Unetlanvhi, or Creator, starts putting impediments in her path, there are obstacles. And there are a variety of different berries, and she just kind of keeps moving on past them. But then when her feet start getting tangled in the strawberry vines and she smells this wonderful smell, she bends down to pick them up, and she tastes them, and if you’ve ever had a sun-ripened strawberry — not the store-bought stuff, a sun-ripened strawberry — you will stop in your tracks and just savor that sweet goodness, right.

And she starts picking these strawberries. She forgets that she’s upset with him. She wants to share them. She turns and she’s heading back, and he has been trying to catch her to apologize. And so strawberries are a symbol of love, but also of forgiveness and coming together. I make that reference in there, again, not that — if you don’t know that story, you can certainly find it out easy enough, but it’s just another kind of way to weave culture into the story in a way that Cherokee people very much understand it, others I hope are curious to find out, well, what is that story? Let me read that.

History we need to know: We Are Still Here! 

We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know came to me early on. One of the things that I was very angry about as a first-generation college graduate is why am I just now learning the larger experience of Native Nations in this country? Like I am paying for an education and I’m learning this, I did not have this in K-12. 

Yes, I knew there were things that had happened to my tribe, the Cherokee Nation, but I was not aware of the fact that were many things that were systematic and were happening to many Native Nations simultaneously, like forced removal. One of the things we talk about in this country that people will associate with the Cherokee Tribe is the Trail of Tears. 

Well, many – okay, hundreds — of Native Nations have been forcibly removed. So there’s not just one forced removal, there are many. And we do a disservice to our young people. This is all history we need to know. I wanted badly to write this book, and I thought, ‘How am I going to do this as a picture book and who is going to publish this?’

And of course, the hardest part for me was I have a background in law and policy — what am I going to do with the vocabulary? 

I wanted one book that showed when we disappear from curriculum, which is generally after 1900 in all textbooks, what happened? We did not disappear, we are still here. You don’t see that. You don’t get to experience that, not in the classroom really or until very recently in mainstream media.

And I’m so grateful for Frané, because as much as I was struggling with the vocabulary to make it as accessible as possible for upper-elementary and beyond, I also wanted to make sure that the artwork came along. She was a perfect match in that because I feel like she took a very representative image in each of those topics, and there are 12 topics in the book that really helps you understand what I’m talking about. 

But it was also critical to have the timeline in the back. So for those students, if it’s being used in classroom use, or even families to talk about, okay, so relocation is happening in the 50s and 60s, and a lot of Native people are being moved by the federal government off of their lands, so it’s another removal, right? It’s voluntary, but who they’re moving are impoverished people from reservations to become impoverished people in the cities. 

The timeline in the back tells you all these other things that are going in that same timeframe, because again, what do we talk about in this country in terms of the 1950s? We’ll talk about the Civil Rights Movement, we’ll talk about the space race, we’ll talk about the Cold War, we don’t talk about that termination is happening and relocation is happening. 

My hope is that classrooms will take information, that families will take information, and begin to understand that there’s more than you’ve been told, and for every community member that lives in this nation you should know this. This is not information that should be kept from you, and that’s really my hope for the book that it gives that information in understandable bite-sized chunks.  

Imagining the illustrations for We Are Still Here

I often get asked about the illustrations for We Are Still Here and how that came together. 

When it came time to figure out the art, it’s like, how are we going to do this in a way that invites young people into the experience? And Karen Boss, our editor, and Frané Lessac and I, the illustrator, sat down — we were actually all at the American Library Association conference in Washington DC — and we talked about how can we do this in a way that doesn’t take away from the factual text?

And I said, ‘Well, there are kids that are actually learning this information, even though it’s not taught in like public schools.’ You have kids that are at tribally run schools that have developed their own curriculum, and then there are also charter schools, public charter schools that have a predominantly Native population, and so they have developed their own curriculums, and that is the students that are learning. 

So we talked about situating it at one of those type schools. It’s set at an urban public chartered school where there’s Native students and they are teaching in essence their family members, their community members about each of these topics. They’re assigned one. And the reveal, the wordless reveal at the end shows them with the tri-folds and they have taken their topic, and done their artwork, and so what you see on each page is — we came up with a list of names of kids that, again, Native people are going to recognize some of those names as coming from certain tribes more than others.

So Frané creates this art in her folk art style that really does look like, — you know, it’s not a fine art type motif — so it really looks like something that students would relate to, it doesn’t seem like anything out of what they might themselves envision for that topic, or how they would put something together. And I just love it, I absolutely love it.

Sharing We Are Still Here with Cherokee children

And I recently had the opportunity to visit the Cherokee Nation’s Immersion School. I met with third graders. I knew they had read the book, their teacher had shared that. Unbeknownst to me, they had each prepared their own topics. She had 12 students in the class and each of the 12 topics they took on, and explained in the Cherokee language, alright, this is an immersion school so they don’t speak English in the classroom, everything is writing in the Cherokee syllabary, and that’s what they speak.

And they had taken each topic and what it meant to them. I almost started crying when this was explained to me because this is exactly what I wanted to have happen with this book, again, whether the kids are Cherokee, other Native Nations, or non-Native that they would take on the topic and learn something and apply it to their lives. And so to see our children from the Cherokee Nation taking this information in and understanding it at third grade, I mean, I was like, ‘It’s never going to get any better than this as an author for me.’ 

How much different our lives would be today if I had had that information and my generation had that information in third grade — wow, wow. 

At the Mountain’s Base

When people ask me about At the Mountain’s Base and how that book came to be, a lot of times when I’m reading other picture books I will fall in love with the structure. And I read a book called In the Village by the Sea written by Muon Van, and it’s a circular poem, where it starts is where it ends, “In the Village by the Sea.” So I was like, ‘Oh, I want to write a story like that.’

Native families who are waiting for someone to come back from the service, but we always in general in this country talk about men in terms of military service that also is really the same among Native Nations. But if you look at the data, Native women serve the highest proportion across the military for their percentage of the overall population in the U.S. 

So why aren’t we talking about the fact that so many Native women are volunteering when they make up a small amount of the population? So, I intentionally made the pilot female, but I don’t say in the poem, if you actually type out that 111-word poem I don’t say that she’s Native, because again, you don’t know with the publisher, like are they going to hire a Native illustrator or not, etc.? 

And they hired Weshoyot Alvitre who’s from the Tongva Tribe in California. And I loved it because, again, this is where a book is a team sport. 

Weshoyot just created some beautiful art and she’s a comics and graphics artist. If you look at the poem and how she breaks it up into panels, and then uses the double-page spreads very sparingly just like they would in a comic, I love that, because it is, like I say, a shorter poem, but it definitely, again, takes the emotion and the impact of the poem I feel like to a whole other level than I could have done with just the words. And I’m grateful to her for that. 

Also, if you take off the dust jacket and you’re able to look at just the case cover [grabs the book] she decided to weave in the Cherokee culture, and you find finger-weaving. I’ll take the cover off here. So this is a lightning pattern, you see that a lot in World War II insignia, but you also see it in Cherokee designs as well. 

But this is what I mean about her using panels [displaying book] to take the poem and break it apart, and then you see her using the double-page spread for those kind of bigger reveal moments. It’s just an absolutely beautiful book and I’ve been delighted with how it’s been received and I even heard from Native women who have served as well as non-Native women who are pilots in talking about how it’s given them an opportunity to talk to their children about the work that they’ve done and it’s opened, opened a path for them to be able to share about what they do.

Powwow Day

With my newest picture book that will come out in early 2022, Powwow Day, I return to the fictional side of things. 

The illustrations inside are just breathtaking. Madelyn Goodnight is a Chickasaw illustrator. And so I’ll just share — she’s got just beautiful, beautiful color inside the book that I absolutely love. Every page pops with color.

So it’s about this young Ojibwe girl named River, but they really could be from any tribe in terms of Powwow Day because I don’t have a specific language used in this picture book.

River is recovering from a serious illness. I don’t say cancer in the book, but it certainly could be that, it could be a number of things, and all she does is look forward to dancing with her sister and her cousins and her friends in her jingle dress dance at the powwow. So how is she going to experience or enjoy? Why should she even go to the powwow if she’s not able to do what she loves to do?

And sometimes we have to understand that we can’t always do what we want to do when we want to do it. It’s very hard, but sometimes we have to let other people care about us and take care of us, and recognize that there will be a time for that. So it’s dedicated to a couple of friends' kids who were able to overcome childhood illnesses and then also in memory of those who were not able to recover and return to the circle. 

Classified: Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer

For Classified: Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer I often get asked, ‘Oh, how did you come up with this topic to write about Mary?’ 

Mary and I are both Cherokee Nation citizens, we grew up within the Cherokee Nation, after Oklahoma statehood, which was a very different reality than prior to Oklahoma statehood. We are raised with Cherokee values. 

And she was in a lot of women in STEM anthologies and surveys, and they would mention that she was Cherokee and that her great-great grandfather had been the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. 

I’m reading about Mary and what she’s done and how she was a mentor to others and what her colleagues were saying about her, and I thought, everything tells me she is living out her Cherokee values. She walked into math class in college and none of these guys want to sit next to her, right, she’s the only woman.

She was like, ‘Okay, fine. I’ll do better than you.’ That is not a typical response in that timeframe, and certainly not as someone who is not even a young white woman, right. But it comes from the fact that she grew up in a community where there was no difference between the importance for education and developing of the mind between boys and girls, there just isn’t. 

I met with one of Mary's first cousins and he directed me to her undergrad alma mater where they had donated everything when she had passed, her papers and things like that. That was a treasure trove — her notebooks of her beautiful handwriting, all of her equations and calculations. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to need help with this.’

So I contacted Native engineers who worked for NASA and said, ‘Can you help me understand like what is related to a plane? What’s related to a rocket here? Because I want to be able to help Natasha Donovan, who is the illustrator, I’m going to send her all the pictures that I’m taking here in these archives so that she can create the art.’ 

And of course Natasha is an incredibly gifted artist. And I just love how she’s depicted Mary and, again, woven in all of these things that are Cherokee related as well as Mary's professional life with STEM throughout the book. It’s wonderful. 

A few weeks before she passed, she did an interview with our tribal newspaper, and in that she talks about ‘the Indian values that I grew up with’ as well as her firm foundation in mathematics ‘paved the way for the life that she had.’

So you see that quote in the very beginning of the book. It was very much like she was living out her values, and that’s how she walked throughout the world.

And that’s the part of the story about Mary that I didn’t see in the other books, and I knew that I could contribute that for young people. That you can walk into any space you’re in as your whole person, like who you are, you bring those identities with you. Other people have already laid that foundation, and Mary is one of those people. Everywhere she walked she was a Cherokee person. 

Charlene Willing McManis and Indian No More

Charlene Willing McManis and I met at Kweli Journal's Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York City in 2016. I had just sold We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga and was ecstatic to be at a conference where it was going to be other BIPOC creators. So there were seven of us Native writers there that day. And we all went to lunch and Charlene was telling me about this book. 

And immediately I just got chills and I said, ‘Charlene, you have to finish this book and it has to be out in the world because we have nothing for young people, and really for adults that talks about termination and relocation in a way that’s not like an academic textbook.’ I mean I had studied that in undergrad and graduate school, and I knew the tremendous impact that it had on Native Nations and their citizens, with 109 tribes that were terminated in the 1950s and the displacement of so many people being moved from reservations into urban areas, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of people. 

I said, ‘This needs to be out there. We don’t talk about this at all,’ and nobody knows this has happened unless it’s happened to your family or you happen to attend a tribal school or a publicly chartered Native school that studied this. And so she’s like, ‘Yeah, no, I’m definitely working on this.’ And she’d gotten a mentorship from We Need Diverse Books from the acclaimed Margarita Engle, and so she was helping her with the book.

And then in early 2018, when we were getting ready to go to Kweli again, that spring, and I was super excited — it had been announced that Lee & Low was going to be publishing the book — we were planning to get together, and then Charlene emails and she said, ‘My cancer has returned and I’m not feeling well. I don’t know that I’ll be able to finish the revisions for this book and get it ready for publication. Would you be able to finish it for me? I’ve talked to my editor at Lee & Low.’

And I was like, ‘Whoa, you’re going to get better, everything is going to be fine.’ She said, ‘But if I don’t, will you finish it for me?’ 

Charlene died very quickly after that initial conversation, less than two months later. 

She was just one of those people that walked into a room and she lit it up. I mean, she just was the brightest, most beautiful cheerful soul. 

I’m so grateful for all the love that this book has received. It won the middle grade category for the American Indian Library Association’s awards. It’s been on many state lists. For the Global Read Aloud it was picked as the upper elementary selection in 2020.

And I look at how many young people and adults have read this book in the two years that it’s been out and I’m, I’m just so grateful because, like I say, that’s what Charlene wanted. She wanted people to know what had happened to her and so many other Native people as children, and what had happened to their families, and their communities, and their Nations, and many more do now because of this book.

Research and truth-finding for Indian No More

What ended up happening was I got a box in the mail from her husband with newspaper clippings, a thumb drive and photos of her as a child. Because the book is historical fiction, it is based some on her childhood, some on other citizens of the Grand Ronde Tribe that were relocated, and then, like I say, some fictional elements.

So, I was concerned because I thought, ‘Okay, I have no one to ask to verify tribal realities for the Nation, etc.’ Lee & Low, very generously, sent me out to meet with the Cultural Resources Department at Grand Ronde. 

I said, ‘What I would like is to be able to access your archives and visit with you all, and ensure that what we’re representing is accurate, and if it’s not accurate then I want to make sure it’s changed.’ They were extremely helpful, because again, when you have people who have lived away from the tribe for most of their lives, many people because they were low-income when they left, which is why they had to, I mean, people who could remain in Grand Ronde had either pooled money together to buy the land or had the resources to buy the land they lived on at the price that the U.S. government set.

That was not Charlene’s reality for her family and so she was moved, they were moved to Los Angeles. And I wanted to make sure that what was in the book was accurate, and some things were more pan-Indian in nature and not as specific to Grand Ronde, and so I changed those things. And I wanted to make sure that I was using — that what she had for the Chinuk Wawa language is what they were actually teaching right now, instead of what would have been maybe what her grandmother and other people said. 

I employed my mom and my husband to help with fact checking of other things because a lot of people are very aware of what went on in 1957, when the bulk of the book is taking place.

So, was Popeye really a float during the Macy’s Day Parade that year? You know, kids can Google things. Adults reading the book will be like, ‘That wasn’t what that tool cost in that year.’ I don’t want those kind of things coming back to me. 

Living outside of our tribal homelands

One of the things that I also really like about Indian No More is that in addition to shining a light on a period of history we don’t talk about is what also happens to so many Native kids today — whether that’s moving from their tribal lands out of their community into a public school setting, or moving out of state somewhere else. Again, two-thirds of us live outside of our tribal homelands.

Regina and also Charlene are Umpqua, and so these kids in LA have no concept of how their lives differ, right? They’ve grown up in a diet of The Lone Ranger and Tonto, and westerns in the 1950s, which again, most of these people playing these roles are not even Native. And so Regina immediately is confronting them telling her what it is to be Indian and that she’s not. 

And then once she goes to school like experiencing, of course, things like Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving hadn’t even been celebrated that long in the United States before the 1950s, so it was not something that was celebrated on the reservation. And she comes down and they’re doing this play at school, and they’ve got this whole pilgrims-and-Indians thing, and of course because she’s Native they’re going to dress her up. 

And they’re putting the lipstick and drawing stuff, and nothing, again, that relates to her culture at all. It’s all this stuff that’s like the Hollywood Indian stereotype, and her mom and grandmother come to see the play, and just the embarrassment that she has as to what they’re doing on the stage, and that her family is witnessing this because it’s completely opposite of anything that she’s been raised with. 

My own family moved from Oklahoma to California when I was a teen, and I remember just being treated like I had minus 20 IQ points or something, automatically. And how could I possibly be Cherokee and what was that anyway? And I thought, man, everybody knows who I am, where I came from, and knows my family, what are you talking about? Like, how is this even a question? But, you know, the Native Nations there in the San Diego area were invisible, like no one was paying any attention to them. They were not mentioned in the news, in our curriculum, nothing. So how could I expect these people to know anything about my tribe? 

And that’s what you see Regina experiencing — coming from a community where everyone knows who you are, you can’t go anywhere without people saying, ‘Oh you’re so and so’s granddaughter, you’re so and so’s niece.’ You know? That just is like part and parcel of your life. Outside that, you experience ‘we don’t think you’re Native,' and if you are, you’re definitely not acting like we’re expecting you to act, so that even makes you more suspect. 

Creating safe spaces for Native kids

The thing that I tell young people, it doesn’t matter if you’re a young man trying to grow out your hair, or already have your hair long. Whoever you are, however you’re trying to express your culture, understand that the majority of people are extremely ignorant about that. It doesn’t excuse what they say, it doesn’t excuse what they do, and these kids are only modeling what they’ve seen adults do. 

One is taught that no one comes out of the womb being racist, being prejudiced, being a bully. That is an environmental behavior that they’re seeing at home, that they’re seeing in their community, in their neighborhood, and it’s how families interact with each other. It doesn’t make it right, but at the end of the day, you have to remain true to yourself, and it is hard to do that at times when you’re in an environment where no one understands who you are. 

But ultimately my hope is that these books, like Indian No More and others show young people that folks have already experienced this. Like, you are not alone in this and so my hope is that the book is a place of respite for them, maybe a life-saving device that they can turn to, and reread when they need comfort — going okay, you know what, Native people have experienced this, not just really for decades, but for centuries. 

And to remember that their ancestors, yes, went through a lot, but they also gave them so much strength. So many people have prayed, and loved you, and dreamed you into being. And so you need to stay focused on that because there is so much power in our ancestors praying, and loving, and dreaming us into being that that is what you need to walk in. 

This other stuff is going to be there and it’s going to be there on a regular basis, but we cannot stay in that place. We need to honor our ancestors with our eyes on the future because you will be an ancestor someday, and you need to encourage young people around you, and they’re going to need you to be that source of saying, ‘People have gone through this before you. And what do you need me to do, young one, to support you in your journey?’  

Telling Teara Fraser’s story

In addition to book that I craft myself, I also have done a number of anthology pieces. And I was asked to write about a contemporary woman, Teara Fraser who created the first Indigenous woman owned airline from scratch. And I couldn’t fathom such a thing, you know.

But I was delighted to interview her. She created Iskwew Air, which is the Cree word for woman. I talked to her daughter, who works with her, as well as a number of other women in the airline industry in British Columbia, Native and non-Native, and then a young man who also had been mentored by her. So DC Comics put together this anthology of contemporary and historic women — it’s titled “The Wonderful Women of the World.” 

And wow, so wonderful to work on that and to be paired with Natasha Donovan again, because they had asked for me for illustrators, so I gave them a list of Native women illustrators that I thought would be great for the project, and they selected Natasha. So, it’s just wonderful to get to work together, and like I say craft Teara’s story to be shared with the world.

"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio