My Search for Authentic Native American Indian Stories

November 7, 2023

I’m honored to be the spotlight author for November, which is also Native American Indian Heritage Month. I’m so glad to have this attention on authentic, Native-written stories, and I hope they will be shared all year through. They have so much to teach us.

As a teacher, I love the way books can open windows for my students to other people and places. When I was hired as an elementary art teacher, I was excited to find a large library of books already in my classroom. Picture books can be the perfect way to introduce the art and traditions of other cultures and honor the diversity of students in our classrooms. When I looked closer, though, I found many outdated and stereotypical depictions of other cultures. Similar to the lead-based paint I also found, I knew these books had the potential to harm my students. I searched for better alternatives. I bought newly published books about Maya Lin, Ruth Asawa, Horace Pippin, and other great American artists and created lessons inspired by their work. But when I looked for books about Native American artists, I didn’t find much of anything. How could I bring the Native artists of the American Southwest to life for my students?

Growing up, my Osage grandmother had a collection of Native American Indian art and books, which I loved to study on my visits. I was especially drawn to the beadwork, hand-woven rugs, and pottery. Like my students, I always loved creating with my hands. Maria Martinez was a well-known artist to me, as a master of hand-built clay pots, which she polished to a mirror-like finish, all by hand. My students were especially drawn to clay. They just couldn’t get enough. What a perfect opportunity to introduce them to Native American artists like Maria. But all I could find were black and white photos in dusty books. There was nothing to bring her to life for my elementary-aged students. So, I set out to write my own book.

I had previously published another book (LOVE YOU MORE THAN ANYTHING), and I was Native American (Osage), so I didn’t think it would be difficult. But I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. A few months into my project, I realized I would need help from someone who knew Maria. I was lucky to connect with Barbara Gonzales, Maria’s great-granddaughter. Barbara is a potter and a teacher, and she was excited to work with me. In our many long, late-night phone calls, I learned so much about Maria and the Tewa people. Barbara still lives in San Ildefonso Pueblo, and she grew up with Maria. I learned what Maria wore and ate, about the pattern of her days, and her pottery-making process. We included many words in Maria’s native language of Tewa. Since Tewa is a spoken language, Barbara had to figure out the spelling of many words we included in the book. A highlight of this process was meeting Barbara in person in San Ildefonso Pueblo and continuing our friendship to this day.

Late in 2020, after countless hours of work, I finally held the first copy of SHAPED BY HER HANDS: THE STORY OF POTTER MARIA MARTINEZ. I was so proud to finally have a story I felt good about sharing with my students. Thanks to Barbara’s help, this story brought Maria’s story and pottery-making to life in an authentic way for myself and my students.

Here are some additional resources to help find Native American Indian picture books that are authentic and authored or co-authored by a member of that nation.

And for middle grade books:

About Anna: I’ve loved to read, write, and draw as long as I can remember! One of my inspirations was my grandmother, Opal Murray Harber. She was a librarian at the Denver Public Library, and a member of the Osage Nation. She collected books of all shapes and sizes, along with Native American Indian art.

Now I spend my days getting my hands messy and inspiring young people to create as a K-12 Art teacher. When I’m not writing or teaching art, I love spending time outside with my husband, two boys, and poodle. I live in Longmont, Colorado.