As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we reached out to author Emily Bowen Cohen to tell us about her experience growing up Native outside of her tribal community and the impact of books, teachers, and librarians on her childhood.
For more books celebrating Native experiences, head over to our Indigenous Stories roundup.
When I was twelve years old, I moved from Indian Country to a place where I was often the first Native person people had ever met. My father, a member of the Muscogee Nation, had passed away a few years earlier. We relocated from Oklahoma to the East Coast so we could be closer to my maternal grandparents. The move compounded a loss. I was deprived of my father and my Native community.
I was lucky that my grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a school librarian. The year we moved she gave me the book A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris. It was the first time I read a story about a contemporary Native American girl. I know my grandmother’s gift was deliberate. I was confronting real questions about my identity. Fellow students assumed I knew how to ride a horse. They wondered if I lived in a teepee. But after school, I could read about Rayona, another girl struggling with her Indigenous identity. Books were the way I stayed tied to a Native community.
Because of my experience, I wanted to include the power of books in my graphic novel, Two Tribes. Like my younger self, the protagonist, Mia, lives far from her Muscogee community. She wants to learn more about her Native heritage, so she checks out a book from the library. Unfortunately, she chooses an Indian capture narrative. The book confuses Mia. The non-Indigenous author represents Native people as scary heathens with bizarre practices. If only Mia had talked to the librarian or her teacher about her choice! They could have put the book in context. Instead, Mia believes those around her have very negative assumptions about Native American people.
But even if Mia had reached out to the knowledgeable adults around her, she still would be growing up Indigenous in a country that wanted to destroy her ancestors. When you are Native American, the history books written about your people can be painful. History lessons can paint Native people as savage losers. Mia battles to get the “real story” from her Native family. But for Native students who don’t have access to their community, teachers and librarians make all the difference.
My grandmother’s gift of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water made me understand she knew I was a Native person with my own identity, not just her granddaughter. My high school English teacher continued the work. She asked me to present a talk to my class about my experiences as a Native American. That really made me feel like my story was important. Between them both, a lifelong quest to explore my background was hatched. I credit them for starting me on the path that resulted in Two Tribes.
Sharing books with students that champion contemporary Native people is essential. So is providing context for the books that already exist. I feel blessed knowing that students today are surrounded by educators who celebrate Native American Heritage Month. They are in good hands.
About the Author
Emily Bowen Cohen is a member of the Muscogee Nation. She spent her childhood in Okemah, OK, and her teen years in Montclair, NJ, before graduating from Harvard University. She and her husband live in Los Angeles. You can find her memoir-style comics at memberoftwotribes.com.
About the Book
In her poignant debut graphic novel inspired by her own life, Emily Bowen Cohen embraces the complexity, meaning, and deep love that comes from being part of two vibrant tribes.
Mia is still getting used to living with her mom and stepfather, and to the new role their Jewish identity plays in their home. Feeling out of place at home and at her Jewish day school, Mia finds herself thinking more and more about her Muscogee father, who lives with his new family in Oklahoma. Her mother doesn’t want to talk about him, but Mia can’t help but feel like she’s missing a part of herself without him in her life.
Soon, Mia makes a plan to use the gifts from her bat mitzvah to take a bus to Oklahoma—without telling her mom—to visit her dad and find the connection to her Muscogee side she knows is just as important as her Jewish side.