Dr. Katrina Phillips was born and raised in northern Wisconsin, and is a proud citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of History with a focus on Native history and the history of the American West at Macalester College. In addition to being the author of a number of academic and news publications, Dr. Phillips has also written several children’s books, including Indigenous Peoples’ Day and The Disastrous Wrangel Island Expedition. She’s also served as a historical and cultural consultant for books like Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army and The Journey of York: The Unsung Hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Dr. Phillips' latest children's book is Super SHEroes of History: Indigenous Peoples: Women Who Made a Difference and was release on November 1st.
In your new title, Super SHEroes of History: Indigenous Peoples: Women Who Made a Difference, you feature the stories of real-life indigenous women. How did you choose who to write about and what kind of research goes into telling the stories of real people?
The people at Scholastic had started a list of potential biographies, and they asked me to send them some ideas as well. Once we had a big list, we started narrowing it down to fit the constraints of the book. We had input from an editor and a curriculum consultant, too, and we finally settled on the twelve women who’d be featured in the book. We have women who were warriors and engineers, women who are authors and activists, and women who were crafters and interpreters.
I did a lot of research for the book. I looked at academic books and articles; articles from newspapers and online resources like NPR, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, A Mighty Girl, and Indian Country Today; children’s books; and the Library of Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs – and that’s just the beginning! As a historian, I start with the research and then decide the best way to write the story I want to tell. History tends to get a bad rap as the boring subject in school where you memorize that this war started in this year and ended in that year, but finding ways to bring these hidden stories to light – and writing them in a way that’s compelling, interesting, and exciting – is really fun. There are days where I can’t believe that this is what I get paid to do!
We’re constantly having to push back against the misconception that Indigenous people are just static figures of history
The book covers women from history, as well as indigenous women of today. Was it a purposeful choice to include women from such varied time periods? What went into that decision?
It was a deliberate decision, and I’m grateful to the people at Scholastic for recognizing that it’s important to look at both historical and contemporary figures. We’re constantly having to push back against the misconception that Indigenous people are just static figures of history – or that we as Indigenous peoples no longer exist – and showing that chronological trajectory was really critical.
A lot of the people who are advocating for Indigenous issues today are drawing inspiration from those who came before us – and, in many ways, we’re still fighting for the things our ancestors fought for. Books like this can help show readers that Indigenous people are still making history today.
Though there have been some positive strides in recent years, indigenous people are still very underrepresented in youth literature. What does it mean for you to have the opportunity to center real indigenous voices?
It feels like a lot of pressure, to be honest! I’m really proud of the book, but the historical lack of representation means that we don’t have a lot of room for error. I want kids – and adults – to read this book and come away with a better understanding of Indigenous history, and especially the lives and experiences of Indigenous women.
What are your thoughts on how to include indigenous voices and stories throughout the year and not just during Native American Heritage Month?
There’s been a big shift in recent years that has led to so many incredible books by incredible Indigenous authors and illustrators, so it’s getting easier to integrate these books throughout the year. Dr. Debbie Reese runs a blog called American Indians in Children’s Literature, which is a great resource for determining if books are historically accurate and not misrepresenting or misappropriating Indigenous cultures and histories. Books like Kevin Noble Maillard’s Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story and Traci Sorell’s We Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know are great ways to introduce Indigenous voices, along with books like Bowwow Powwow, I Sang You Down From the Stars, and Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present (just to name a few).
Yes, we need to talk about the terrible parts of Indigenous histories, but we also need to talk about the beauty and the joy in resistance and ongoing advocacy.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of creating children’s books today? What is the most rewarding?
The most difficult part is finding ways to talk about these events in a way that makes sense for children, especially when writing about Native and Indigenous histories. There are a lot of tragic and horrible things that have happened, and it’s not always easy to talk about or write about these events. I wrote a book about Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and talking about that history means talking about what the Taíno people endured when Columbus arrived on their lands.
At the same time, though, that’s also the most rewarding part. Yes, we need to talk about the terrible parts of Indigenous histories, but we also need to talk about the beauty and the joy in resistance and ongoing advocacy. There are so many wonderful books that are helping shape how children learn about these people and these events, and I’m humbled to play a small part in that. I love seeing how my own kids, their friends, and their classmates are growing up with books like this, and I’m grateful for the chance to do this kind of work.
What was your favorite childhood book?
My dad is a former high school English teacher, and we honestly used to read the dictionary together for fun. But I also read just about everything I could get my hands on. I adored the American Girl books – and I kind of wonder if that’s part of what led me to become a historian! Molly was my favorite, but I loved learning about historical times and places through those books.
Watching my kids read books that I’ve written is the best feeling in the world.
Are you working on anything now? What’s next for you?
I’m starting work on my next academic book, which will look at activism, environmentalism, and tourism on and around my reservation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I’m also in the process of rewriting the American Indian History module for PebbleGo Next, which is an online educational module from Capstone. I’m always reading and always writing, and I have a few ideas for children’s books that I need to start putting down on paper. It’s been a really fun experience to start branching out into this kind of work, and watching my kids read books that I’ve written is the best feeling in the world.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I hope the people who read the book are inspired by these women. They all have incredible stories, and I’m proud to be able to tell some of those stories in this book. I’m not the first person to write about these women – not by a long shot – but I think the style and the format will help introduce these histories to new audiences, and I hope they discover something along the way.
Diverse BookFinder would like to thank Dr. Katrina Phillips for her time and input.
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