Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stores for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ancestor Approved is a collection of intertribal stories with a target audience of middle grade youth.  It not only features rising Indigenous voices but the voices of well-established authors like Tim Tingle, Eric Gansworth, and Joseph Bruchac.

The core of the book revolves around an intertribal powwow— an important gathering among native people that Rebecca Roanhorse describes through the eyes of Ozzie, the Rez dog, as “a riot of color and noise and happy people” (83). Adding a unifying as well as a humorous thread, Ozzie turns up in several of the later stories wearing either an Ancestor Approved or a Rez Dawg t-shirt.

At this powwow, performers dance with grace and power and pride, whether in the Grass, Jingle Dress, Fancy, Fancy Shawl, Round, Smoke, or Freestyle dances.  When they’re not dancing, they are watching, storytelling, socializing, or purchasing food, art, crafts, and other wares from the many vendors who follow the powwow circuit.

Readers of Ancestor Approved will encounter various tribal affiliations and come to know different native words, customs, and ways of being in the world. Some of these are tribal dependent, while others cross cultural lines—blending and reforming. The book also includes a glossary to further support learning and language development.

Although the stories can be described as focused on dancing or vending, the collection goes well beyond this cultural celebration to embrace other elements of identity.

For example, in the short story “Fancy Dancer” by Monique Gray Smith, Rory realizes that “dancing isn’t just about being athletic; it’s about telling a story to the drumbeat and revealing the strength that is in your heart” (9). His step-father Paul tells him: “The song is the bridge between your mind and your body. But right now, your mind and your body don’t trust each other. We have to build that bridge of trust. When you truly learn to believe in yourself, all of you. . . then that is the greatest gift learning to fancy dance will give you” (13-14).

Rory also learns that we can allow the unkind things someone else has said to define us or we can define ourselves, including in what we wish to excel. “There are always going to be people who want to pull you down. That’s the hurt in their hearts. But it’s up to you whether you let them succeed” (10).

There are ghost stories, mysteries, and coming-of-age stories tucked into the pages of Ancestor Approved. I smiled with recognition at the way some American Indians point with their lips, charge Indian Prices, or tease one another: “‘Still being an elephant, huh?’ she asked. Big ears, listening, long nose in everyone else’s business.  Her business this time” (135).

Discussions stimulated by influential texts like the stories in Ancestor Approved have the power to shift perspectives and to inspire lasting change. These eye-opening stories not only hold that power but give us the courage to speak out about people and issues that matter.

  • Posted by Donna

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