When I write nonfiction (or fiction for that matter), I focus on making the invisible visible. If someone had asked my focus five years ago when I began writing for children, I wouldn’t have answered that way. Back then, I just wanted to have a picture book showing present-day Cherokee life and people to share with my young son, and none existed.
But my focus expanded when I realized how few contemporary books (nonfiction or fiction) there are when you consider there are over 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Most books are written by people with no familiarity or knowledge of the tribe(s), people, land base, or history. This results in most of those books having inaccurate text and images that most readers take as fact.
|Traci in 11th grade|
No one in my new community knew or understood I was a dual citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the United States. Even the tribes from the San Diego area didn’t figure into the local news or community events, and they certainly weren’t included in the school curriculum. Talk about identity crisis.
This invisibility caused me to major in Native American Studies in college. I wanted to read, research, and know my own tribe’s history and contributions. I wanted to learn more about other Native Nations too.
After college, I pursued advanced degrees, studying how federal laws and policies impacted Native Nations and their inherent sovereignty. Not exactly what anyone in my family expected from a first-generation college graduate.
I find a lot of abhorrent laws and policies get enacted and upheld in federal courts when stories are not told, when Indigenous people are invisible, and when the sovereignty of Native Nations is not honored. Devastating consequences result.
I want to shine a light on those injustices in my work, so children know the history of what has happened—and continues to happen—in this country. Even if the history doesn’t make it into textbooks, I want to see those stories available on school and public library shelves.
There are so many amazing contributions that Native Nations and their citizens have made and continue to make, but those stories have rarely been told. When they have, it is usually in service to white-focused narratives, not the humanity, resiliency, and hard work of Indigenous peoples.
Knowing this, I plan to be busy the rest of my life actively recruiting other Native writers and artists to enter the world of children’s literature. Our ability as Native Nations to remain sovereign, provide for our citizens, and contribute to the broader mainstream society depends on greater visibility and education of all children in the United States. Accurate books are critical to this effort.
I’m grateful for the Native creators who have already been doing the work in this field. I’m humbled to add my contributions to this effort.
My debut nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (Charlesbridge, 2018), shares the value of gratitude as taught in contemporary Cherokee culture across the four seasons. I’m working on two picture book biographies that feature Native women—one from science and the other from politics. I want to do what I can to make sure Indigenous peoples are never overlooked, cast aside, or rendered invisible again.
Traci Sorell received a Sibert Honor Award for We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. She also writes poems and fiction for young people. Before writing for children, Traci advocated for the rights of Native American Nations and their citizens at the White House and U.S. Congress. She is an enrolled Cherokee Nation citizen and again lives in northeastern Oklahoma where her tribe is located. For a complete list of her forthcoming works, visit www.tracisorell.com.