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Meet the Indigenous Authors of Heartdrum

Getting Real | November 2, 2021

Celebrating Indigenous Pride

Celebrate pride and community with the Native authors of Heartdrum! 💜 🧡 ❤️ This Native American Heritage Month, we asked our middle grade authors what heritage, pride, and Indigenous power means to them.

How do you celebrate your Indigenous heritage?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: I’m known to rock my beads, my mocs and ribbon skirts, to gather in community, to try out Mvskoke recipes and display Indigenous art. Yet the quieter moments matter, too. When I’m with a beloved cousin, talking about family history, talking about how our Elders survived great challenges, that’s a way of celebrating—with every shared breath—who we are and that we’re still here, too.

“Heritage is about kindship and community ties, shared values, and about a relationship to the land, water, air, and future generations.” —Cynthia Leitich Smith, Author of Sisters of the Neversea, editor of Ancestor Approved.

Brian Young: We are entering the winter seasons, and for the Diné that’s a very special time because we are allowed to tell season-specific stories such as Coyote stories, and we get to do na’atl’oh, or string games. But outside of the winter seasons, I remember the stories my grandparents told me. I remember the history of the Diné people that isn’t taught in schools. But just as important as remembering the past, I envision the future for the upcoming Indigenous generations and think about what I can do to ensure that they can succeed and surpass what I have been so fortunate to do. I think about my grandma and my future grandkid and how they are connected and what I can do to give both of them happiness.

Christine Day: By telling stories that celebrate and uplift modern Native kids.

Andrea Rogers: I celebrate my Cherokee heritage by supporting other Cherokee people. This might be boosting the work of Cherokee thinkers, researchers, or artists. There are so many great Cherokee artists and artisans out there, you could easily buy work exclusively by them and your house would overflow with beauty. Being in community is also a celebration. The joy of an Indigenous gathering fills my heart. Recently I attended an online presentation by Dr. Melissa Lewis (Cherokee) on how traditional beliefs and foods can help our bodies heal. There were several Cherokee women in the online room, including academics and writers. The joy and power I felt while all of us were together was about the potential for us to make positive changes in the world, not just for Cherokee people, but for everyone.

Kim Rogers: For me, every sunrise that greets me when I awake and every breath I take is a celebration. Native people are survivors. I am here because of the strength and resilience of my ancestors. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2021, I celebrated my own Wichita culture and history as well as the 39 tribes in Oklahoma by attending events at the new First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.

“Native people are survivors. I am here because of the strength and resilience of my ancestors.” —Kim Rogers, Contributor to Ancestor Approved.

What does your Indigenous heritage mean to you?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Heritage is about kindship and community ties, shared values, and about a relationship to the land, water, air, and future generations. It’s about a duty to protect and preserve. It’s about hope and joy. It’s knowing that laughter is good medicine and that there’s no shame in tears.

Brian Young: I think having Indigenous heritage comes with duties and responsibilities to the land, to the past generations, to the future generations. It means that through all the atrocities and horrors of the past, I was given strength by my ancestors to thrive and to succeed. It also means I have to continue that pathway of giving strength and power to future generations.

Andrea Rogers: My Indigenous heritage is, specifically, Cherokee. The word Indigenous encompasses so many peoples, languages, and geographical and political realities, I can’t be an expert on all of the tribes, but I can support members of those tribes. My self-directed learning focuses on my tribe. Being Cherokee is not about the way you look, but the way you think, and so much of that thinking is embedded in language. Learning our language and history is a priority for me. Providing resources that enable me to share the richness of our culture and community with my own children and other Cherokee people is important to me. I write and teach to give children the world that was not available to me when I was a kid.

“I write and teach to give children the world that was not available to me when I was a kid.” —Andrea Rogers, Contributor to Ancestor Approved.

Dawn Quigley: Being a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe means I see everything through my Native lens. When I was young, I was the only Native person in my schools, so I did what many children and teens do—try to blend in with the crowd. Of course I always felt at home with my Turtle Mountain relatives (so much food, teasing, and laughter!) I was in my late twenties when I began teaching at a Native American charter school, and it was there, surrounded by other Native teachers and students, that I began to feel I could be my authentic Ojibwe self. There’s something to be said for seeing yourself in surroundings where you belong and feel safe. Now, writing Native children’s books, I try to normalize contemporary Native joy and characters who aren’t relegated to the past. Also, I want to share my Native humor with readers, to share part of our amazing Indigenous heritage.

When did you first realize what it means to show your Native pride?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: I never thought of it as pride so much as connectivity, being part of a circle that honors Elders and rejoices in our little ones. Outside of that, I’m not sure. I loved going to public school in Kansas City, but its few reflections were distorted ones. I don’t think it was until law school in Michigan, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Native students, and that was about we, not me, and the Tribes we worked to serve.

Brian Young: I had been beyond blessed to have grown up on my traditional homelands in Fort Defiance, Arizona. I was exposed to cultural events, had access to my Elders, and heard the language around me. I didn’t feel or notice my Indigenousness until I left my homelands to attend a private boarding school in Connecticut. I went from being a part of the majority to realizing that I was a minority when I was one of two Native students in the entire boarding school. When I graduated, I dressed in my traditional attire and wore my turquoise and moccasins. When I stood in front of all those students wearing what my ancestors wore, I felt that pride. It was then that I realized my pride. I didn’t have to find it because it was always there.

“Indigenous power means to me the strength to support friends, family, community, and Mother Earth.” —Brian Young, Author of Healer of the Water Monster.

What does it mean to build Indigenous power?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: It means creating bridges between parallel roads—from our citizenship in Tribal Nations to others represented in our families and regions to our intertribal urban enclaves, and among relatives scattered across this continent. It stretches across land and water to Indigenous people around the globe rising in solidarity as we seek land back and justice and to honor traditional lifeways while moving forward.

Brian Young: For me, that means building a supportive community of family and friends. And Mother Earth is a part of that community, because she’s our mother. Especially in the Indigenous kid lit community, there’s massive amount of support and care. It’s an honor to be a part of this community. So Indigenous power means to me the strength to support friends, family, community, and Mother Earth.

"Building Indigenous power must start with breaking cycles of trauma. By choosing love and resilience, we can create brighter futures for ourselves and each other.” —Christine Day, Author of The Sea in Winter & I Can Make This Promise.

Christine Day: I think building Indigenous power must start with breaking cycles of trauma. I do my best to model this in my books. We all go through difficult situations and heartaches, but by choosing love and resilience, we can create brighter futures for ourselves and each other.

Dawn Quigley: I might answer this question in a different way and center what it means to build a powerful Native children’s literature community. My Elders taught me, and still do, that we are a community that supports and helps one another rise together. I’m so proud and humbled to be a part of our Native writing community because we metaphorically link elbows to rise together, instead of being crabs in a bucket climbing over each other to the top. Building a powerful Native children’s literature community has included: supporting our lives outside of writing, participating in critique groups, boosting each other on social media, sending each other resources for manuscripts and my favorite: cheering each other one when we’re trying to finish a book!

Kim Rogers: We are reclaiming what has been taken through colonization. Learning our languages, culture, and history, connecting with the land, healing from intergenerational trauma, and telling our own stories are all ways to build Indigenous power.

“My Elders taught me, and still do, that we are a community that supports and helps one another rise together.” —Dawn Quigley, Author of Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend.

About the Authors:

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) is the bestselling, acclaimed author of books for all ages, including Sisters of the Neversea and Hearts Unbroken, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award; she is also the anthologist of Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Brian Young is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and the author of Healer of the Water Monster. He grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Christine Day (Upper Skagit) grew up in Seattle, nestled between the sea, the mountains, and the pages of her favorite books. She is the author of I Can Make This Promise and A Sea in Winter. Christine lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband.

Andrea Rogers (Cherokee) writes fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of “Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story, as well as the short story “The Ballad of Maggie Wilson” in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids.

Dawn Quigley is a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota and the author of Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend. She is a PhD, education university faculty member, and a former K–12 reading and English teacher, as well as Indian Education program codirector. She lives in Minnesota.

Kim Rogers writes books, short stories, and poems, including “Flying Together,” the short story in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids that inspired the anthology’s cover. Kim is an enrolled member of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. She lives with her family on her tribe’s ancestral homelands in Oklahoma.

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