Representing Children of Today... Not Just Long Ago
Traditionally, "Native American inspired dolls" have been objects that sat on shelves, teaching a mixture of truths and untruths, primarily to adults. Many have been a mishmash of cultural traits, drawn largely from the Plain states.
Ah, but what of the little girls who, like little girls everywhere, benefit from learning about their heritage, visualizing their future, cuddling a doll, sharing day to day tribulations? What's out there that she can relate to?
That's what I'm exploring here. When I refer to "dolls for Native American children" I am not suggesting that these dolls are appropriate only for Native American children. They're not. Children from different ethnicities benefit from playing with dolls who are a different color and represent a different history. But my focus here is on dolls that I think are appropriate for them. That category excludes some dolls that are billed as Native American and includes others that aren't.
The doll you see here is Adora's Ava. She doesn't necessarily look like she is Native American --and yet she could be. Dolls aren't, as a rule, photo realistic. Features tend to get stylized.
Some of the companies that offer the most diverse dolls, and display the most cultural sensitivity, don't identify them their dolls by race. The Adora website tells us only that Ava's eyes are dark brown, her skin medium tan, and her hair silky and deep brown. (Her hair had actually looked black to me.)
I I believe that to a small child, it's less important that every detail is right than that we validate that she's a human and not an icon, that her family lives today and not just long ago.
I wasn't sure what doll -- or culture -- to display as an opening image. And then I was drawn to Ava who is what our eyes, histories, and imaginations, make her.
Except where otherwise noted, images are my photography.
Particular vs Generic
What of dolls that, unlike Ava, attempt to represent a culture?
Dolls are generally more authentic if they represent a particular Native American group. A generic Native American image is more apt to be a stereotypical one.
I lived for a lot of years in Arizona and taught for a while on one of the reservations. The children had Yaqui and Tohono O'Odham ancestry. They were Native American, but their cultures were different than those of the Navajo or Hopi peoples to the North. (And none of those Arizona folks ever lived in tipis!)
In this global age, some children do identify as Native -- I see that when I read product reviews that have been written by Native Americans. But I think it's an area to tread with caution. if we give a child a generic Native American doll with a "Plains-type" outfit, it can be a message we don't know who that child is. Children from other cultures can also get stereotypes from Native American dolls and media representations.
I am by no means an expert in this area, but I am aware that even those stereotypes that an outsider may see as positive are not necessarily viewed that way by those within. Not all see it as constructive to be associated with the spirit of earth or water.
It's interesting to read the reviews of particular dolls. I have reservations about Barbie's Spirit of Water -- but I read a review by a girl who identified herself as Native and talked about how lovely that series of dolls was.
Issues with Representation
Here is a fascinating forum thread from 2006. It begins as a discussion of where to find Hispanic dolls, but soon veers into the issue of inappropriate representation of Native Americans.
One mom told of a writing a complaint to an online store that specialized in multicultural dolls. She had many concerns about the representation of Native people. One thing she wondered was why the Native American dolls were all dressed like long ago -- as if they only lived long ago -- when every other ethnicity was represented by modern dolls.
The proprietor of the store responded that she agreed that what was out there was inappropriate, but the choice was to carry inappropriate or carry nothing -- and suggested that the consumers write the manufacturers and say they wanted more and wanted better.
I can empathize. More than five years have passed. It's still a struggle to find modern Native American dolls.
- Girl Mom
The difficulties of finding Native American dolls.
Today's Girl Leah
Today's Girl Leah may have features that are familiar to some Native American girls. Taking into account the wardrobe this doll comes with -- there are quite a few items beyond what she is actually wearing -- she is a less expensive option than many.
Realistic Ethnic Features
Saila isn't a Native American girl -- she's a Native Canadian girl. Still, I suspect that many Native American girls would find that she has physical features not unlike their own.
Saila is not sold in U.S. stores. You can, however, order her straight from Maplelea.
- Maplelea Saila
An eighteen-inch play doll.
Magic Attic Rose
Rose, of the Magic Attic line, sometimes considered a Native American representation. Unfortunately, the Magic Attic line is no longer being produced. However, it's a line with appeal to collectors as well as children, so you will find both new and used Rose dolls still on the market. It is a fairly economic option for a child's 18-inch play doll.
As you can see, Rose has the clothing of a modern little girl. There is a Cheyenne outfit in the line, but buyers should be aware that the book Cheyenne Rose places the adventure in the context of fantasy and traveling back in time. (The entire Magic Attic series features similar fantasy elements.)
Hearts for Hearts Mosi
A Modern Navajo Girl
Here's one I'm excited about: In 2013, Hearts for Hearts will introduce Mosi, a Navajo girl. She is interested in preserving Navajo artistic traditions. She has a horse, which is sold separately. The doll has already won a DOTY (Dolls of the Year) Industry's Choice award.
The Hearts for Hearts girls are character dolls who represent modern girls from around the world. They live in areas where there isn't a lot of wealth. Each doll, though, represents the kind of girl who gets involved and makes a difference in the world around her. (The first doll from the U.S. was Dell, an Appalachian girl.)
I am excited about Mosi's introduction for several reasons. First, I highly respect this doll line. The organization partners with World Vision. The website brings the dolls to life; each character has a diary with a many entries. The website also has a safe space where girls can go to make pages that represent the things they care about.
Secondly, the Hearts for Hearts dolls are within the reach of more people. At 14 inches, they are smaller than many companion dolls, but they come with a better price tag: about $30. (I like American Girl, but those AG dolls loom out of the reach of so many people -- from so many backgrounds and ethnicities.)
Note: She's here -- after rather a long delay! If she's sold out on Amazon, check Target.
Apparently there's been a change. Here Mosi is, no longer touted as Navajo but as Native American. There are hints of Navajo culture, though, aren't there?
A Peek at Mosi
Here a Hearts for Hearts representative discusses the line and gives a sneak peek at little Mosi.
The Significance of Dolls - Teaching Children We're All Beautiful
Here is a reflection on racism by an Onondaga/Mohawk writer. S/he has two doll-related recollections: one of a grandmother who was taught that blued-eyed dolls were beautiful, the other of an Apache friend who wanted a blue-eyed doll, but was only allowed ethnic ones. The writer asserts that "we need to give our children dolls that represent all the races and teach them that they are all beautiful".
- Racism and Stereotyping
Reflections on Native American stereotyping.
Kidz n Cats Kiki
There are hints that she may be Native Hawaiian, but Kiki is a modern little girl. Like the other Kidz n cats, she is a play safe vinyl with very poseable joints. Alas, like the other Kidz n Cats dolls, she is pricey.
Nez Perce American Girl Doll Kaya
Sandy Dolls: Representing Different Tribes
Sandy dolls are not made by a Native American tribal member. However, they are tribe-specific -- they don't represent a generic image. They are vinyl and cloth, so they can be put in the hands of children. There are toddler/ little girl dolls representing Iroquois, Kiowa, Creek, Pueblo, Sioux, Ute, Hopi, Navajo, and Comanche traditions. There are taller dolls representing youth of the Osage, Pueblo, and Pawnee tribes.
- Sandy Dolls
Vinyl and cloth dolls with story cards.
Dolls for Little Girls and Boys - In Shades of Brown
There's another class of dolls, besides collectibles, that's labeled Native American: play dolls that are marketed to preschools and kindergartens as part of multicultural doll sets. The dolls are also sold individually.
These dolls are not super realistic, and that in and of itself is alright. Dolls for little children don't necessarily need to be. But I think that people who aren't used to buying dolls often buy by the label, and think that they have the most authentic (or only) option. They don't realize that often it's primarily hair and skin color that are used to distinguish one ethnicity from another. In one line, the Hispanic dolls have medium brown skin and hair while the Native American dolls have deeper brown skin and black hair. Both appear to have the same face mold (a mold which is also shared by the African American and Caucasian dolls).
If a preschool teacher buys a set of the dolls, they're sending the message that people come in a lot of colors. That's a good thing. But when someone is buying a doll as a companion for an individual child, the label won't go far in ensuring the doll looks like her (or him).
When buying for a particular child, it can be good to look at quite a few dolls. Consider the ethnic features and also the doll's other features: What appeals to you? What seems right? Just because the 'You and Me Friends' line doesn't identify dolls by race, it doesn't mean one of those friends isn't of Native descent!
The reviews on this Barbie are mixed, but overall I came away with a favorable impression. One person gave the doll one star saying s/he had never seen a Navajo dressed like this. Another countered that s/he lived on the border of the Navajo Nation, and that many of the older women dressed like that all the time.
I can't vouch that everything about the doll is accurate, but she looks familiar to me -- that's speaking as someone who lived a lot of years in Arizona. What I really like about this Barbie is that she represents a particular and distinctive Native American culture not a generic, blended one. Here there is acknowledgment that not all Native Americans wear buckskin.
Navajo Dolls Made by Navajo Artists
- Modern Dolls in Traditional Clothing
These are fifteen inch dolls. The fashions are hand made by a Navajo artist. The dolls themselves appear to be plastic or vinyl.
- Navajo Cloth Dolls
These are twelve inch rag dolls -- women dressed in velveteen. They sell for $35.
This is another one I like. It attempts to represent the people in a part of the nation, not the nation as a whole -- and it shows something refreshingly different than fringed buckskin.
I moved from Arizona to the Seattle area. To my untrained eye, the pattern here looks authentic, though I understand there are details that are not.
Remembering a Special Doll
The father here is not Cherokee, but his son is 25% Cherokee -- and takes after his Cherokee ancestors so much that people often thought he was adopted. Here the father (a doll aficionado himself) recalls the doll that was his son's companion growing up.
- Adam's Doll
Adam still has his doll, Wolf.
More Perspectives by Those With Native American Heritage - And a Pattern
- Reflection from Springfield Dolls blog
Here is a dress pattern for an 18 inch doll, created by a woman who is 1/8 Cherokee. She has come to identify herself as a white woman, but one with Indian family members. I am reminded that girls with Native American ancestry may want a historic
Modern Paper Dolls
Artist Steven Paul Judd has drawn some modern paper dolls with modern takes on historical themes: The medicine man wears scrubs while the chief (executive office) is a woman with a suit and laptop.
- Paul Judd's Paper Dolls
Paper doll representations of modern career options for Native Americans.
Girls of Many Lands Minuk
The American Girl "Girls of Many Lands", which included a twelve-year-old Eskimo girl, Minuk, is no longer being made. I have seen some very reasonably priced dolls on eBay, though. I haven't read Minuk's story, but the summary is very interesting.
Playing with a Collectible Doll?
Collectible dolls are definitely not for children under three -- they have small parts which make them unsafe. However, many collectible dolls are made of vinyl, not porcelain, so they are (relatively) unbreakable. Parents sometimes do give collectible dolls to older children.
There are various safety issues to be aware of in dolls: for example, whether clothing is flame-retardant. Some of these issues are relevant to children over three. It's good to study the product and address any questions to the maker -- but not to assume that a doll is prone to shattering just because it's been labeled collectible! The doll may have delicate accessories that won't stand up well to hard play -- and, yes, you may find yourself paying a little more to get things like the "Certificate of Authenticity" that won't have a lot of meaning once the doll is no longer in pristine condition. But, oh, the realism!
Some collectible dolls are weighted, and they're heavier than dolls sold for children. This is the opposite -- it's a very petite doll that may not be as cuddly. I don't know a lot about this particular doll, but I thought some people might want to check it out.
Let's Talk Dolls!
Gail Thompson on September 10, 2017:
I would like to identify the maker of dolls purchased in Scottsdale approx 25 years ago. They are Native American in appearance with very different expressions, such as sad face, mad face, happy face, etc. Can you advise me of the best direction to take?
Gayle Dowell from Kansas on September 09, 2012:
Lovely lens. I'm of Osage descent, and I always wanted a doll that represented my heritage. My mother bought my girls one each when they were young.
Shelly Sellers from Midwest U.S.A. on May 31, 2012:
Another wonderful lens about dolls!
JoshK47 on May 16, 2012:
Very nice lens - thanks for sharing!
Auntie-M LM on May 16, 2012:
These dolls are wonderful. I remember when I was little I had dolls from many lands. I think that is where my love for travel began. The dolls you show are important, not only for American Indian girls, but for all girls, to learn and to love all cultures.
trendydad on May 15, 2012:
great dolls, brings the thought of history