Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 13 Number 2
May 1974

The Native American in Juvenile Fiction:

Maria Falkenhagen and Inga K. Kelly

WHAT do teachers judge to be stereotypical of Native Americans in trade books for children? How do teachers’ perceptions of stereotypes compare with findings of current research on the topic? What guidelines are today’s teachers prepared to apply to the selection of fictionalized juvenile literature about Native Americans? And, finally, to what extent is there a need for explicit criteria for book selection in this area?

In order to examine such questions, a survey was administered to 30 elementary teachers enrolled in a seminar on the selection and utilization of minority juvenile literature. Teachers were asked two questions: (1) identify the stereotypes about Native Americans which you believe are likely to appear in juvenile literature, and (2) identify criteria which you feel are of paramount importance in the selection of juvenile literature about Native Americans. The stereotypes identified by the teachers were compared with findings of two recent investigations in which content analysis was used to determine Native American stereotypes that actually exist in selected fictional children’s literature.

Teacher Response and Research Findings

Stereotypes about Native Americans identified by the respondents fell into three major categories: dress, living conditions, and customs. Specific examples cited by teachers within each category were compared with those identified in 1965 by Gast (see Note 1) and in 1973 by Falkenhagen (see Note 2) Gast applied the technique of content analysis in order to arrive at generalizations conveyed in 42 juvenile multi-ethnic books, 12 of which were about Native Americans. His investigation will be referred to as the 1965 study. In the analysis herein identified as the 1973 study, Falkenhagen used a modification of Gast’s model in a follow-up investigation of 22 Native American juvenile literature books published between 1965 and 1973.


The majority of teachers indicated that the wearing of traditional costumes constitute a major stereotype in dress. As examples, they cited text or illustrations which placed emphasis on the wearing of moccasins, "beads and feathers," and other traditional vestments of Native American garb appropriate to the last century. Results of the 1965 study indicated that Native American characters were divided between the garb of the dominant culture and traditional Native American dress, with most characters wearing traditional dress or a mixture of Indian and Anglo-American apparel. According to the 1973 report, stories of contemporary Native Americans showed the majority in modern dress, although most Native American characters in stories of the past were, indeed, in traditional costume. However, traditional costumes varied from tribe to tribe and did not, generally, stereotype the Native American as always wearing breechcloths, beads, feathers, etc.

Living Conditions

Most teachers felt that likely stereotypes in children’s literature would portray Native Americans living in teepees or hogans. They tended to believe that there would be little mention of non-reservation living conditions. In 1965, Gast reported that Indians were shown to hold on-reservation jobs of sheepherding and craft work, and were categorized as poor and of lower socio-economic class. Furthermore, they were shown as attending government elementary and secondary schools, but without aspiring to go to college.

Although specific indicators of reservation/non-reservation settings were not obtained in the 1973 investigation, evidence was found of occupational economic stereotypes. Native Americans as a group were shown to have low socio-economic status within the dominant (Anglo) culture. Native Americans of the past were depicted as receiving tribal training for duties within their tribes while contemporary characters were not shown to aspire either to higher education or professional occupations. As a group, they were depicted as living in poor to adequate economic conditions.


Most teachers were of the opinion that stereotypes about Native American cultures probably appear in children’s literature. The consensus was that most books would oversimplify Native American culture and values, and would not give a realistic portrayal of contemporary Native American life.

In 1965, it was concluded that Native Americans were generally portrayed as having adopted the dominant middle-class American values while taking pride in their ethnic culture and clinging to traditional patterns of life. Gast reported that the sampled literature emphasized similarities rather than differences between minority and majority Americans with regard to behavior, attitudes, and values.

According to the 1973 research, however, Native Americans were portrayed as not being thoroughly assimilated into the dominant culture, but rather retaining their ethnic heritage and pride. While characters were shown as striving for acceptance in their own culture, rather than in the dominant culture, realistic portrayals of the serious conflicts produced by this goal were not evident in most books about contemporary Native Americans. It was concluded in 1973 that juvenile books did present a realistic picture of racial prejudices of both the Native and white American cultures. Cultural differences, however, were sometimes dealt with in the form of improper comparisons, i.e., equating Native Americans of the past with "primitive" and "simple," or depicting economically-limited Native Americans as less advanced, less competitive, and less assimilated than majority Americans, without previous consideration of Native American values.


Only slight differences existed between the two content analysis studies with respect to stereotypes in dress, living conditions, and customs. Findings of both studies showed that dress stereotypes tend not to prevail in the more recent books. Thus, it appears that teacher opinion of this aspect of possible stereotyping was unfounded.

While teachers assumed that generalizations would appear as two types of living conditions (teepees, hogans), the research findings indicate that stereotypes exist with respect to socio-economic factors rather than to buildings or structures. Furthermore, the teacher judgment that little mention would be made of non-reservation living was incorrect according to the 1973 study, although some evidence of this type of stereotype was reported in the earlier investigation.

Respondents were partially correct in the judgment that stereotypes of Native American culture existed. It must be noted, however, that the types of stereotypes reported by both investigators were of a subtle nature rather than the traditional explicit ones about which the teachers seemed most concerned.

Since the teachers had had experience with children’s literature, it is interesting to note that here was little correlation between their judgments of possible areas of stereotyping and the results of the content analysis studies. It appeared that the teachers expected to find stereotypes which may have prevailed in earlier books, but are no longer current. Thus, the teachers responding to the survey seemed to be somewhat "out of touch" with stereotyping found in current juvenile minority literature.

If these views are representative of those held by elementary teachers in general, there is clearly a need for building an accurate awareness of the types of stereotypes likely to appear in contemporary Native American literature for children. Teachers can increase their competency in this area by increasing their knowledge of Native American culture, becoming familiar with the contents of the trade books available to the classroom, and applying appropriate criteria for evaluating Native American literature.

Evaluation Criteria

When teachers were asked "What do you consider to be the most important factor or factors in recommending a book about minority people to a student?" almost all respondents insisted on accuracy. In addition, they indicated that a story must be believable, interesting, and relevant to the student, and that it must present the minority characters in a positive manner.

Undoubtedly most teachers want to teach in an accurate, unbiased, and relevant fashion. They should recognize, then, that Native Americans, as an ethnic group, do not fit the stereotypes of "savage," "stoic," etc., which have been applied to them throughout their appearances in children’s books.

That Native Americans are unique and that their culture is unique is true. That they are influenced by their culture and may not have assimilated into the "mainstream" as quickly as have other ethnic groups is also true. But it is at this point that the generalizations end. It is precisely at this point that the teacher must reject other generalizations, lest he or she is placed in the position of judging the Native American within the construct of the dominant non-Indian society at the expense of respect for differences in standards and values.

The problems associated with cultural differences and the resulting stereotypes are complex. Elementary teachers who wish to teach students to understand this should be aware themselves. From a base of awareness, the educator must examine materials to avoid falling into that category of teachers described by Joyce who "over the years . . . have given their children a distorted, prejudiced view of American minority groups."’

The following criteria are presented to assist educators in an accurate evaluation of fictional literature about Native Americans for the elementary classroom:

1. Does the author use imaginative and artistic language to convey the Native American experience as well as the human experience?

2. Does the author write from the Native American cultural standpoint rather than the Anglo-American dominant viewpoint, without being patronizing or sensational?

3. Is the Native American character in children’s fiction fully developed and presented without generalized statements about dress, mannerisms or personality?

4. Are the descriptive passages and specific adjectives used in fictional literature about the Native American free from stereotypes and bias?

5. In a story about Native Americans of the past, is the Native American presented as an integral and contributing part of the history of America?

6. In a book about Native Americans of the past, is the culture of the Native American described in such a way as to preclude improper comparisons between past and present-day cultural standards? (Specifically, words like "primitive" or "stone-age" should be avoided, as these words imply, incorrectly and inaccurately, that Native American society of the past had little or no technology.)

7. Is the culture of the contemporary Native American described as a dynamic process rather than a static one? (see Note 4)

8. Does the book adequately and accurately describe the life and present situation of the Native American in the world of today? (see Note 5)


1 David K. Gast, "Characteristics and Concepts of Minority Americans in Contemporary Children’s Fictional Literature," (unpublished Ed.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, 1965), Chapter 4.

2 Maria A. Falkenhagen, "The Treatment of the Native American in Selected Children’s Fictional Literature," (unpublished M.Ed. paper, Washington State University, 1973), Chapter 3.

3 W. Joyce, "Minority Groups in American Society . . . Imperatives for Educators," Social Education, 33, (April, 1969), p. 429.

4 Rubert Costo, Ed., Textbooks and the American Indian (The Indian Historical Press, Inc.: Chicago, 1970), p. 18.

5. Ibid., p. 23

Maria Falkenhagen is a Reading Specialist for the High School Equivalency Program at the Washington State University, Pullman, where Inga K. Kelly, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Education. This article evolved from a paper which Ms. Falkenhagen wrote for a course on the selection and utilization of multi-ethnic literature which was taught by Dr. Kelly.

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