Native Voice: Joelle Bearstail on Bear’s Braid & Bullying

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Joelle, congratulations on the release of your picture book Bear’s Braid, illustrated by Denise Tadlock (Mascot Books, 2021)! Could you tell us about your journey to becoming a children’s author and your initial inspiration for writing this story?

Thank you! It has been new and exciting so far. I am happy to meet people, such as yourself, that have been offering advice and sharing their experiences as well. My journey to becoming an author has been long, stressful at times and yet rewarding. I am happy and thankful for the finished product.

Bear’s Braid is based on what my son has experienced at school throughout the years. During this journey, I have come to some realizations. My son has been teased, called names, told to cut his hair; all of this brought back memories of my childhood experiences at school. I recalled going through the same thing. I remember not wanting to go to school because of what was happening so I know that hurt, I know that feeling of not belonging.

When we moved to the reservation due to my dad getting a job there, it was like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders. There were kids there that looked like me and acted like me. I felt at home. I realize now that the inspiration for this book also goes back to my experiences.

Knowing this situation all too well and seeing my son go through this, was hard. During this process, there have been families that reached out and shared their experiences with me. I wrote this book to help educate those that do not understand our ways and to help encourage our young ones.

Your book touches on bullying, which is a universal theme, and Indigenous cultural preservation as related to hair. Could you please tell us a bit about how you addressed each in the story, and why you took the approach that you did?

I feel that discussing these aspects of our culture such as long hair, smudging/praying, our language, should be shared. Let’s normalize boys with long hair. The practices displayed in this story are how many of us live. The family dynamics in this story are how many of us live.

I wanted readers to experience the normal, everyday life of an Indigenous boy and also understand what they go through. I wanted the main characters to be relatable. I wanted kids and even adults to be able to see themselves in this book. It is imperative that our youth see themselves represented in all types of media- books, TV shows, magazines, movies.

Your story also features an intergenerational relationship? What are your thoughts on integrating Elder characters in books for very young readers?

That relationship between Bear and his grandma was very important to me. I felt it was necessary to show that respect we have for our elders. I think it is important to display that special bond a grandchild and grandparent can have. Grandparents have a wealth of knowledge because they lived in a different time and have experienced different things. Grandparents can offer wisdom that grandchildren can put into use as they navigate through life.

Joelle’s son, Thomas, in dance regalia.

What advice do you have for fellow teachers about using Native children’s literature in the classroom?

Although I am not in the classroom at this time, I think Native children’s literature should be used as much as possible.

Is it a lack of resources that prevents this? I am not sure. There may be some research that needs to be done to see what’s a good fit for the classroom, but having that representation there, that message, educating about different tribes and cultures is essential. It shows that we are still here, living and human. If a classroom is diverse, then the books should reflect that as well.

We as educators should be willing to put the work in to learn about other cultures if we expect our students to. The delivery of content is crucial as well: making the information sound interesting, helping the students relate to it. It may take some time and effort but educators are known to get creative and adapt when needed.

Joelle with students at Circle of Nations School.

What advice do you have for fellow Indigenous writers who’re interested in creating books for kids?

I say do it. Get the ball rolling! It is a process but it is so worth it in the end. I had no idea of what to do or how to begin so I googled it and came across a ton of information. There are also helpful people in the writing community that may be willing to help.

I feel that there is a need for meaningful, authentic stories, lessons, and content. There are tales that make our imagination run, stories that take us places our ancestors once were, messages that help us learn, adventures of people just like us. Our representation matters. Use your gift, your words are needed.

Cynsational Notes

Joelle Bearstail‘s Hidatsa name is Bullberry Woman (Maahishí wiash). She is Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, located along the Missouri River in North Dakota. She has worked in the education field for several years as a teacher, curriculum specialist, and education liaison.

She is also the founder of ImagiNative Inc., a nonprofit organization with the mission of empowering native youth by encouraging them to embrace their talent, creativity, and individuality. Being a first-time author, Joelle thinks it’s important to spread awareness of issues that affect our native youth. Joelle, her husband John, and children Parker, Haley, Thomas, and Layla still happily reside in their beautiful homelands.