If there were something like a Chinatown for Cherokee people, says author Traci Sorell, it would be easier for non-Native American people to know more about these indigenous people.
“They are your neighbors, they’re the children in your classroom, they’re the people walking into your library, they’re your colleagues at work,” says Sorell, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation.
The author, who lived in Olathe, Kansas, for several years until October, moved back to the 14-county region that makes up the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, where she was born and grew up. She decided a children’s book about Cherokee people living in contemporary American society would allow kids everywhere to learn more about these neighbors.
An attorney and an advocate for indigenous people who recently decided to shift her focus to children’s literature, Sorell’s first nonfiction picture book, “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” was released this fall.
Sorell made the career shift after her search for picture books to read to her son about Cherokee and other tribal nations turned up only ancient stories.
“There’s not a story past 1900. And yet, we’re here,” she says.
Years ago, while doing advocacy work in Washington, D.C., Sorell figured out that the modern presentation of Native people in books and movies gives the general population the idea that indigenous cultures are a thing of the past.
“We don’t even make up 1 percent of books that are published about Native people, and the people who are often telling those stories often tell them in a very stereotypical way,” Sorell says. “So it’s very easy then to make people stay invisible, to dehumanize them. If you look at public policy, people say, ‘Oh, well, they don’t exist, I didn’t know people still needed to be concerned.’”
In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that nation’s American Indian and Native Alaskan population is about 6.7 million, almost 80 percent of whom are living outside of their tribal lands.
“Once you know that these folks exist, you can’t deny their existence, you may still not want to do anything to assist them, but you can’t deny that they’re here,” she says.
Representing Native people in children’s literature is also important, she says, because children have a strong sense of justice.
“They get when people are being treated unfairly. Anytime they read and connect to a story, it expands their worldview, it expands their empathy, and their humanity, and their sense of connection to other people. These people were here, these tribal nations and their governmental systems existed long before the existence of the United States, thousands and thousands of years. And you need to know what has happened since then.”
Frané Lessac, an Australia-based artist who has illustrated more than 40 children’s book, created the images in “We Are Grateful,” which include a dad who sports a man bun, ear-spacers and a beard — which Sorell says are not hipster fashions.
“The father figure is modeled on my brother,” Sorell says. “Gauged ears are historically very common in the Cherokee Nation. I have pictures of an ancestor who’s got gauged ears. Those are traditional things that the large, mainstream U.S. culture is doing, but for us they go back many thousands, hundreds of years.”
Similarly surprising for mainstream readers might be the blonde girl in many scenes, who looks not unlike a photograph of Sorell as a fairly blonde girl.
“Cherokee people, from a phenotypical standpoint, range from blonde hair blue-eyed to black hair. So, we’re completely across the spectrum, and I said that really has to be represented in the book,” she says.
“But the fact that any child looking at this book who is Cherokee, and even who is not Cherokee, sees this is who we are — it’s not a racial distinction, it is a matter of that family, that kinship, that connection to community. Our citizenship varies widely, but they’re all Cherokee citizens, they’re all dual citizens with the Cherokee Nation and the United States.”
She named the book after the Cherokee word for gratitude, she says, as “a reminder to celebrate our blessings and reflect on struggles — daily, throughout the year, and across the seasons.”
And she includes words from the Cherokee language, such as in one passage that describes this season:
“Uligohvsdi, fall. When cool breezes blow and leaves fall, we say otsaliheliga…
…as shell shakers dance all night around the fire, and burnt cedar’s scent drifts upward during the Great New Moon Cermony … as we clean our houses, wear new clothes, enjoy a feast, and forget old quarrels to welcome the Cherokee New Year.”
Correction: This article has been changed to reflect that “We Are Grateful” is a work of nonfiction.