Betting Yesterday on Tomorrow

by Craig Stark

#24, 9 August, 2004

Ann Nolan Clark
and the
Native American Picture Books of Change

One of the riskier things a bookseller or investor can do is speculate in the book market. Buying at market prices today and selling for significant profit tomorrow requires a combination of luck, knowledge, and something I'd call foreknowledge that few of us can bring to the table. Perhaps foreknowledge is the toughest of the three to muster because it involves some sort of ability to see into or guess the future - in this case to predict what will become collectible tomorrow. It's far easier to make $1 guesses at garage sales and let tomorrow bring what it will.

Still, when certain factors seem to fit together like a tightly crafted dovetail joint, it's hard to resist taking, as Bertram Wooster would put it, the occasional flutter on the ponies. What I'm doing today - and I certainly don't intend to make a habit of this - is sticking my neck out, predicting significant profits tomorrow for a little known market niche that spans only a handful of years in the mid 20th century.

Discussing profitable niches is ordinarily something that would appear in the Gold Edition newsletter, but since this niche is more speculative, less of a sure thing, I think it's best to go public with it and emphasize the financial risk, albeit small, involved in having a go at it. No promises.

The niche I'm referring to is a sub-sub-sub-niche of a sub-sub-niche of a sub-niche of a niche. Narrowly defined, in other words. The parent niche is Americana, the sub-niche Western Americana, the sub-sub-niche Native Americana, and the sub-sub-sub niche so-called Native Americana Picture Books of Change. The word "change" here refers to the bridging of Native American and white cultures - that is, books of change were those that were published with the intent of furthering societal integration of Native Americans as Native Americans during the early to mid 20th century.

Before I get into what comprises this niche, I think it might be helpful to discuss some recent history.

It's a common perception that US Government policies toward Native Americans didn't become enlightened until well into the latter half of the 20th century, and some would argue that they never have become truly enlightened. Aren't today. Still. Whatever the case, most will agree that at various times in our history our government has come down hard with the hammer of assimilation on Native Americans - that is, enacted and enforced policies that attempted to subdue if not crush altogether Native American cultural and political expression with the perhaps more sinister intent of engineering some sort of vanishing absorption into Anglo-American culture. No secret, of course, that many of these policies had disastrous results.

Interestingly enough, however, even in the context of governmental institutions there have been times when people have made a difference in spite of existing policy. Sometimes a single person. So it happened in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed John Collier Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Collier was no Johnny-come-lately to the Indian rights movement. He'd been fighting the reform battle for years. Finally installed in a position of governmental clout, he was more than ready to get things done. Central to Collier's thinking was the belief that education based first and foremost on teaching and preserving Native American culture and second (and secondarily) on culture at large was the only approach that had a ghost of a chance at helping Native Americans learn to survive with any dignity in a society that had all but discarded them.

Collier advanced the cause mightily in 1936 by appointing William Beatty Director of Education for BIA. Beatty, an educator profoundly influenced by the progressive educational philosophy of John Dewey, spearheaded the production of a series of elementary readers written in both English and Native American (and in some cases Spanish) languages and illustrated by Native American artists. These readers came to be known as the Indian Life Series. They were a new and welcome visitor in the classroom: they actually spoke to Native American children because they were written for them, not about them. Ultimately, 21 were published for Pueblo, Navajo, Sioux and Hopi students, and today they stand as one of the more remarkable achievements in government publishing history.

There are several reasons for this. First, the principal writer for this series was none other than legendary children's author Ann Nolan Clark. Clark's 1941 classic In My Mother's House is clearly one of most noteworthy children's books of the 20th century, and many of her other efforts exhibited comparable quality. Her gift for penning comprehensible but philosophically complex prose poetry was, in my opinion, nearly unmatched in children's literature. A passage from In My Mother's House:

Brown fields,
With ground all broken,
I walk softly over you.
I would not hurt you,
While you keep
The baby corn seeds sleeping.

Having had the experience many years ago of driving umpteen-ton John Deere tractors over the chocolate loam cornfields of the Illinois prairie, the image of tiptoeing over baby corn seeds sleeping in a brown, broken field may be difficult for me to identify with, but it seems perfectly right and good for a Native American child - in fact, one could argue that we could use more of this thinking in our approach to the land. In any case, Clark's painstakingly sympathetic willingness to both understand Native American culture and express its subtleties in her books made her a perfect fit for the Indian Life Series.

And this brings me to the second reason these books are so remarkable - the illustrations. These books were packed with them, and the telling point here is that all were accomplished by Native Americans. Though Native American artists had made scattered appearances in publications prior to this, this marked the first determined and consistent use of their work by any publisher, and the results were often stunning. Notable among these artists were the following:

Hoke Denetsosie
Velino Herrera
Allan Houser
Oscar Howe
Fred Kabotie
Jimmy Toddy
Gerald Nailor
Andrew Standing Solider
Andrew Van Tsinajinnie

Budget restrictions dictated that few contracted artists could work in color, but despite this, illustrative quality is exceptional throughout the readers. Note the elegant restraint of Hoke Denetsosie's "Afternoon" from Little Herder in Spring below. The gnarled tree is instantly riveting, and a quiet, profoundly deep, mesa desert is articulated in the background with a deceiving simplicity of line and shape.

Velino Herrera's "Deer Dance" from Young Hunter of Picuris is similarly executed. Nothing more than line art, and yet the result communicates a depth of dignity that brings the page to life.

If there was color present, it most often appeared on the covers. An example of noted artist Andrew Standing Soldier's on a 1942 publication:

Ok, let's get to the point. Are these readers collectible? Well, yes and no. Several factors certainly point in this direction. Native Americana is a strong niche; these books are illustrated - in some cases by artists who are becoming collectible in their own right; and print numbers were relatively low. First printings of the early issues may do fairly well, sometimes commanding $50 to $100, but oddly enough, not always. If you're patient, some of these can be had on eBay for under $10. Many of the later issues consistently sell for less than $10, and a complete collection of the readers could probably be completed in a few months for less than $200.

Why are these books under the collector's radar? It's difficult to say, but if I had to guess, I'd say it might have something to do with one of two factors. One, since the US government had a heavy hand in their production, this might suggest tainted ethnic purity. Recall also that this series was conceived to be a bridge between two cultures, not a pure expression of Native American culture, and this may also be perceived as contamination. Two - and I have the sense that this is very likely - it may be that the quality of writing and illustration simply hasn't been widely recognized yet.

Whatever the cause, I believe that this very quality will eventually elevate the series to a high level of collectibility no matter what's working against it at present. Buying in the marketplace, therefore, could pay off handsomely down the road. Here is the complete list of readers:

Indian Life Readers

    Pueblo Series

  1. Little Boy with Three Names (1940)
  2. Young Hunter of Picuris (1943)
  3. Sun Journey (1945)

    Navajo Series

  4. Little Herder in Autumn (1940)
  5. Little Herder in Winter (1940)
  6. Little Herder in Spring (1940)
  7. Little Herder in Summer (1940)
  8. Who Wants to Be a Prairie Dog (1940)
  9. Little Man's Family (1940)
  10. Coyote Tales (1949)

    Sioux Series

  11. Brave Against the Enemy (1944)
  12. Pine Ridge Porcupine (1942)
  13. Slim Butte Raccoon (1942)
  14. The Grass Mountain Mouse (1943)
  15. The Hen of Wahpeton (1943)
  16. There Still Are Buffalo (1943)
  17. Bringer of the Mystery Dog (1943)
  18. Sioux Cowboy (1945)
  19. Singing Sioux Cowboy(1947)

    Hopi Series

  20. Field Mouse Goes to War (1944)
  21. Little Hopi (1948)

For more information on the Indian Life Readers, take a long look at Rebecca C. Benes' beautiful, densely illustrated book, Native American Books of Change: The Art of Historic Children's Editions.

Benes details not only the history of the series but also related publications spanning the years 1924 to 1985. To my knowledge, it's the only reference extant on this topic - and hot off the press to boot. If you have a special interest in this niche, it's a solid investment. Comprehensive bibliographies of picture books by, respectively, authors and artists are included in the appendices, and numerous illustrations, some of which appear in this article, appear throughout and are most helpful in sharpening the all-important eye for what to look for.

Speaking of what to look for, definitely keep the above list of artists mentioned in mind. Many appear in other, non-governmental publications. A few are already highly collectible. Also, look for mimeographed (or otherwise duplicated) Native American story books that appear to date from the first half of the 20th century. They may be examples of productions that preceded the Indian Life readers and, as a result, have both historical and monetary significance.

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