- By Jenna Kunze
Daniel Vandever, Diné, believes the future is female, Indigenous, and drawn from the generations before her. Vandever, along with Diné artist Corey Begay, have won the American Indian Youth Literature Award for their book Herizon, which follows a Diné girl’s journey through the Navajo Nation to herd her grandmother’s sheep. The award honors Native writers and illustrators for the best work that portrays Indigenous people “in the fullness of their humanity.”
Both men told Native News Online they drew from their personal experiences to bring the story to life: Vandever from spending his summers in Haystack, New Mexico, helping his grandmother herd sheep, and Begay from recalling the Northern Arizona landscape and its exaggerated colors he grew up around.
“I remember going out into the pastures with my male cousins, where a lot of the female cousins were left at home to clean the house and do dishes,” Vandever told Native News Online. Now, the United States has its first-ever female and Indigneous cabinet member, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo). “As an uncle with several nieces, I wanted to write something that can serve as a source of inspiration (and) spoke towards that movement away from the kitchen, so to speak,” he said.
It’s meant to display the importance of Indigenous knowledge, and the transferring of skill sets and values from one generation to the next.
As a former educator, Vandever was very intentional in his decision to tell the story without words to reach young readers. The book includes discussion points throughout and a cultural key in the back for readers to learn about the importance of sheep herding, the significance of a Navajo bun, and more.
Certain details—such as the portrayal of an intergenerational family unit, and the decision to make the girl’s magical scarf a deep red—were meant to invoke thought and spark conversations, Vandever said. Those two details specifically were a nod to the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epedemic.
“With ICWA, there’s often a misunderstanding of what the family unit is,” he said. “I figured that it could be a good launching point to start talking about… normalizing that oftentimes kids live with their grandparents, or in a household with their grandparents.”
He said the book is wordless to leave room for readers to interpret and discuss the story themselves.
“I think this book is written by me, so to speak, but it's really written by whoever the reader is, in a sense,” he said. “What is their story?”
Begay, who got his start as a graffiti artist, first collaborated with Vandever on their first book, published in 2017, Fall in Line, Holden!. The story follows a young Navajo boy through his day at boarding school.
He said this book was an opportunity to honor Diné mothers, sisters, nieces, and grandmothers. He illustrated the book with bright colors and a landscape that are characters themselves.
“A lot of these landscapes are of everything that I've seen on Navajo Nation,” Begay told Native News Online. “They're not just random colors. They're colors I've seen before in the landscape. I just stare a little longer than most people.”
The book was self-published by Vandever’s company, South of Sunrise Creative. Vandever said publishers had suggested he put words to the book, which ultimately encouraged him to self-publish.
“I took it as a task in order to keep the process authentic and keep my message uncompromised,” he said. “I think this just proves that we not only have stories to tell, but we have stories that we can create, package, and deliver from ourselves, untampered from anybody else altering what that story might be.”
To order a copy of Herizon, visit https://www.southofsunrisecreative.com/.
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