Seventh-grader subject of biography

Book on Lydia Mills is 3rd in series on Native kids

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2005

Just a seventh-grader at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, Lydia Mills is still getting used to the idea of having her own biography at the age of 12.

"Meet Lydia: A Native Girl from Southeast Alaska," the third in a series of books on Native children - produced by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian - came out last year. Since then, Lydia, Tléikw shagoon of the Wooshkeetaan (Shark Clan), has received a lot of attention from people who have read the 48-page book about her travels through Southeast Alaska.

"The only thing that's really changed since the book came out is that I have gotten a little bit more into my culture," Lydia said. "It just seems like a lot of people understand that I'm a Native person who loves my culture, and that's what I want people to understand."

Miranda Belarde-Lewis, Lydia's cousin, wrote the book two years ago, when Lydia was 10. She followed Lydia through her daily life - playing soccer on Sandy Beach, practicing trombone, beading, attending school and helping out in a Tlingit language enhancement class. Most of the book is devoted to the time she and her family spend celebrating their heritage - at culture club, celebrations and home.

Lydia and her brother, Thomas, spend the school year in Juneau with their mother, Juneau-Douglas City Museum director Jane Lindsey. They spend summers with their dad in Hoonah, Gustavus and Excursion Inlet.

The book is intended to introduce pre-high-school readers to Tlingit life.

"There's a lot of people that think we ride polar bears to school or dogsleds," Lydia said. "I'll be talking to someone through a game (on the Internet), and they'll ask me if I live in an igloo. My cousin Miranda comes from Zuni, New Mexico, and people ask her if she rides horses to school or if she lives in teepees."

"The book shows how unique the Tlingits are, and that every Native is different," she said. "We aren't all the same."

The Smithsonian began the series with "Meet Naiche: A Native Boy from the Chesapeake Bay Area" and "Meet Mindy: A Native Girl from the Southwest." For the third, they solicited volunteers to write about a young relative. Belarde-Lewis was interning at the City Museum at the time (2002), and came up with the idea to profile Lydia.

"I was the perfect age and grade, and I was really involved with my culture, that's how it happened," Lydia said. "I was really happy she asked me. I was looking forward to it, and it was something new. It's just one of those interesting things that not a lot of people get selected for."

Belarde-Lewis spent summers in Southeast Alaska while she was growing up in Zuni, New Mexico, but Lydia hadn't seen her in years. They took some time to get reacquainted, then began the interview process. The final text is in Lydia's words, but ghostwritten by Belarde-Lewis.

"She would come over, and I would basically talk to her for a while," Lydia said. "She asked me questions about certain places and certain things, and she would write what I said the best she could. I read it, and I would say, 'I don't say that kind of stuff,' and we would go over and over and over it again."

The interview process took a few months, but the editing process stretched over almost two years.

"The Tlingit culture is pretty complex, and since this a book for kids ages 10 to about 13, the editor was guessing that kids wouldn't be able to understand things like the Raven-Eagle moiety," Lydia said.

"(Belarde-Lewis) was pretty good at it," she said, of the book's simple, but explanatory, language. "And when she was little, she had come up to Excursion Inlet. So she could relate to things like that. She asked me if certain things were OK to talk about, and she made it so it wasn't invading my privacy."

John Harrington, a Washington, D.C., photographer and a Siletz Indian from California, took the photographs in the book over the course of a four-day weekend. They shot in Juneau, then Lydia, Thomas, Lindsey, Belarde-Lewis, Harrington and editor Sally Barrows flew to Hoonah, boated to Excursion Inlet and chartered a plane to Gustavus.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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