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How Children's Books Grapple With The Native American Experience


We're just a few weeks away from the presidential inauguration and an historic milestone. If confirmed, Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico will be the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. She's been selected to lead the Department of the Interior. That's the agency that oversees the country's natural resources, national parks and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So in honor of this historic moment and to start the new year off right, we thought it would be a good chance to learn more about the native nations experience.

And for that, we've called Aaron Carapella. He's the creator of Tribal Nations Maps. That's a site dedicated to mapping the lands that Native Americans lived on prior to European settlement. And he's recently launched a section of the site to highlight children's books focused on characters and stories rooted in the Native American experience. And he's with us now.

Aaron Carapella, welcome. And Happy New Year.

AARON CARAPELLA: Thank you. Happy New Year to you. And thanks so much for the invitation.

MARTIN: So let's start with your inspiration for this children's book project. You started out by mapping tribal lands as they existed before European settlers came to North America. So what inspired you to pivot to books?

CARAPELLA: Well, I generally almost daily get requests from teachers that are - have been requested to start Native American components in their classroom. And a lot of times, they're lost as far as resources and where to go. And so a pretty common question is, you know, what kind of Native American books would be appropriate? Which ones are accepted by native sources, are considered authentic by native authors?

And so I would kind of off-the-cuff answer people as those questions would come in. And over time, I kind of decided it was a good opportunity to create a list of books that are grade-level specific for teachers.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that we are speaking at an interesting moment. I mean, on the one hand, you know, there's, as we said, this historic opportunity here that Deb Haaland will be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet department and the Department of the Interior. Does this have some meaning to you, to see her, if confirmed, in this position?

CARAPELLA: Well, yeah, it's really important. And it's great that Deb Haaland has been nominated to run Interior because, you know, she will - she'll oversee the management and conservation of the nation's federal lands, parks, natural resources. She's going to oversee branches like the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

These are entities that historically have been very antagonistic towards native people and have not had a lot of comprehension of, you know, Indigenous connection to the land. So to have a native person running that agency and all of the umbrella agencies under that is really telling. And I think having a Native American in that position at a Cabinet level was a great decision on the part of the Biden administration.

MARTIN: Well, you know, now I'm going to really put you on the spot and put you in a terrible position. I'm going to ask you...

CARAPELLA: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Which of some of the books on the list are your favorites.

CARAPELLA: I have kind of a few favorites. Obviously, a lot of people are aware of Standing Rock. There's a lot of pushback to pipelines going through treaty lands. And so there's a really great book called "We Are Water Protectors" by Carole Lindstrom that's kind of geared towards kindergarten through third grade. Another one written by a native kid that was actually there, Aslan Tudor - he wrote a book called "Young Water Protectors." Those are really great ones to kind of see through native eyes why these types of environmental issues are concerns for our native people.

Lastly, there's a book called "Pipestone: My Life In An Indian Boarding School." That's for high school age. You know, I'm sure you're aware of the boarding school issues that went on for about a hundred years. It's a great view from someone who was at those schools and how native culture and language was beaten out of so many tens and tens of thousands of young little native boys and girls after the reservation period commenced.

I've probably read over a thousand native books in my life, and there's thousands more to go. So it's really beautiful to see people recognizing Indigenous people and culture.

MARTIN: That is Aaron Carapella, creator of Tribal Nations Maps. We're talking here specifically about children's books that focus on the native nations experience.

Aaron Carapella, thank you so much for joining us. And Happy New Year once again.

CARAPELLA: Happy New Year to you. And thanks again. And be well, everyone. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PDP'S "BLUE SECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.