November is Native American Heritage Month, an opportune time for students to reflect upon the history of Native Americans and indigenous peoples around the world, and to learn about their cultures. Last week I presented a book that inspires students to rethink the story of Columbus from the point of view of the Taino people. This week, I present a book that explores indigenous peoples in a broader sense with a focus on their relationship to nature.
Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con madre tierra: Poems/Poemas (ages 5-8), written by Jorge Argueta and illustrated by Lucia Angela Pérez, is a bilingual poetry book about a boy who learns self-acceptance through his growing connection with Mother Earth.
Here is a description from Goodreads:
Tetl’s skin is brown, his eyes are black, and his hair is long. He is different from the other children, whose taunts wound him deeply, leaving him confused and afraid. But Tetl’s grandmother knows the ancient teachings of their Aztec ancestors, and how they viewed the earth as alive with sacred meaning. With her help, he learns to listen to the mountains, wind, corn, and stones. Tetl’s journey from self-doubt to proud acceptance of his Nahuatl heritage is told in a series of powerful poems, beautifully expressed in both English and Spanish. Vivid illustrations celebrate nature’s redemptive powers, offering a perfect complement to the poignant story.
The protagonist exhibits pride in his identity, though he is discriminated because of it. He says, “I am descended from the Aztecs and like them I wear feathers of beautiful birds to protect me from the bad words and the looks that come my way from some people because I am Indian.” He asserts that though everyone knows him as Jorge, he prefers his Nahuatl name given to him by his grandmother. Ancestors are a reoccurring theme throughout the poems; they become a vehicle of wisdom through which Tetl learns about the natural world.
As the boy is taunted for being Indian, he finds peace and solace through the blessings of Mother Earth. In the poem “Mother Earth Tells Me”, it says, “Mother Earth tells me, do not be sad anymore, my Indian boy. You are as beautiful as the wind./The sun, the trees, the ocean and the stars are for you./So are the mountains the flowers the moon and the little drops of dew…./All this I give you, my son. All my love is yours. You just be happy.”
The book includes bits of knowledge pertaining to agriculture and includes important indigenous symbols of the natural world, including the sacredness of stones, water, wind, the sun, corn, animals, and more. It ends with a poem titled “Prayer” which sums up how many indigenous cultures hold a profound respect and appreciation for the natural world. The illustrations celebrate Mother Earth as they beautifully reflect symbols of the natural world through pages full of deep, vibrant colors.
This book is a wonderful tool for introducing students indigenous communities and exploring the way that many such cultures have strong spiritual ties with nature. As a bilingual poetry book, it teaches Spanish vocabulary in a creative and artistic way, allowing students to learn by reading the two languages side by side.
The author, Argueta, is a celebrated Salvadoran poet and writer. In an interview with Poetry for Children, he speaks about growing up in rural El Salvador and the role poetry played in his childhood. Stay tuned in December for a review of another of Argueta’s books, Tamalitos: Un poema para cocinar/A Cooking Poem.
Given how much we appreciate this book, we imagine that your students will enjoy it even more so. There are several tactics you can use to introduce it to your class, including focusing on the history of indigenous people, the poetic approach, or the emphasis on Mother Earth and natural resources. Below are a few ideas to expand these concepts at an adult-level, as well as classroom suggestions for how to explore them with younger students.
- Before anything else, you might familiarize yourself with Jorge Argueta’s website. It is a beautiful assemblage of information about his own history, his writing process, and the many award-winning books which he has published.
- For expanding the discussion of indigenous peoples, you might consider the website “Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future,” which draws the connection between indigenous peoples, indigenous knowledge, and the emphasis on natural resources. In terms of connecting this to the classroom, we direct your attention to an article by Debbie Reese, author of the wonderful blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. In 1996 she published an article, “Teaching Young Children About Native Americans,” which remains relevant and timely even now, more than ten years later.
- Lastly, if you’re short on time and want to explore both poetry and nature to your students in one fell swoop, you might find inspiration in the following resources: Literature-Based Teaching in Science: Poetry Walks; Science Poetry in Two Voices: Poetry and the Nature of Sciences; and, last but not least, these environmental-themed/poetry lesson plans titled “Water/El Agua.”
Images: Modified from Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con madre tierra: Poems/Poemas illustrations, Illustrator: Lucia Angela Pérez