Finding activism through art: A Q&A with Tlingit illustrator Michaela Goade

Sitka illustrator Michaela Goade, who is Tlingit, made headlines twice this winter. Once for her Google Doodle of Tlingit leader Elizabeth Peratrovich, and once for illustrating the children’s book ‘We are Water Protectors,’ for which she won the Caldecott Medal, one of the highest honors in children’s literature. (Photo by Sydney Akagi)

Sitka illustrator Michaela Goade received national attention in December for her Google Doodle of Alaska Native leader Elizabeth Peratrovich, whose legacy is honored annually on Feb. 16. Goade made headlines again last month as the first Indigenous person to win the Caldecott Medal, one of the highest honors in children’s literature. Following news of her award, KCAW’s Erin McKinstry interviewed Goade about her work illustrating “We are Water Protectors” and what inspires her as a Tlingit artist.

KCAW: Your illustrations are just so bright and colorful and captivating. It’s hard to find the right words to describe them, but I just wondered, where do you get inspiration for your art from?

MG: From growing up here, really. I get a lot of ideas when I’m out on walks or just out on the water. I take a lot of photos. I make a lot of notes to myself on my phone. Just things that I see around me. Other than that, you know, culture, culture is a huge inspiration. And I started on this picture book journey back working with Sealaska Heritage Institute in 2016 or 2017. And they were getting started on their Baby Raven Reads program. Before those projects, I had never really picked up watercolors much or never illustrated. And picture books are their own unique art form. So we were all figuring it out together. And when I didn’t know what I was doing, essentially, the fact that these stories were rooted in culture and in place and were something I felt on a really deep level, that really helped me through that process. And I think that’s just naturally carried over. And now I’m working with Indigenous authors from different parts of Canada and the U.S., and just having the similar core themes across the board.

KCAW: What made you want to work on “We are Water Protectors” specifically, this book that you won the Caldecott for?

“We are Water Protectors” urges activism to protect water and other natural resources. Author Carole Lindstrom was inspired by Indigenous led movements like the 2016 demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Cover illustration courtesy of Michaela Goade)

MG: Well I think upon first reading Carole’s story, I knew that I wanted to work on it. Just the way she wrote and what she was writing about. I’m sure we can all relate here, just growing up in Southeast Alaska, being Tlingit, like people of the tides. Water is a way of life here, and it is is our life here in so many different ways. So that core theme really resonated. And I remember, like Carole, feeling helpless in 2016 during the gathering, the Stand at Standing Rock, and I remember feeling helpless. And at the time I was a bit younger, and still working up in Anchorage. So it was just, how can I help. I’m not a super vocal person. I shy away often times from those more extroverted things, so it was awesome to have an author write the story. And then activism through art is something that I’ve really learned through this book.

KCAW: Sure, what are some things that you hope that parents and their kids take away after reading this book?

MG: You know, I hope that people take away the message that we are all connected to each other and to the land. And that this fight for protecting our waters and our lands and mother earth shouldn’t just be on the shoulders of Indigenous people as it historically has been. And so just first and foremost to encourage people to look at their own relationship with the land and water and how might they take some more steps in their life to become better land stewards and then raise awareness of these really important Indigenous-led movements that are happening. And then also, to help Indigenous children feel seen and validated and adults. And to know that their voices and their stories are worthy of everyone lifting them up. And just to feel valued in that way. Because that is very important. Representation is so important. And for non-Native people as well. To see these books find success and find wide audiences, so that’s really, really affirming and really rewarding.

KCAW: So sort of the big national headline is that you’re the first Native American to win the award. Do you identify as Native American? Do you identify as Indigenous? Alaska Native? Native?

MG: I appreciate the question because I don’t get that question very often. I just get labeled. I identify as Tlingit and I also identify often as mixed Tlingit. Because it’s important to identify that I’m also white. So it can be a little strange to see the first ‘non-white.’ That’s just a tricky label, you know. I like to amplify as much as I can and lift up communities as much as I can. So I’m really honored by the recognition and the award. And the knowledge that I’m helping open doors for more people.

And I think it’s important to look at that and digest it and acknowledge and reflect on being the first in the award’s 83-year history. I think I remember reading, I didn’t know this, out of the 83 years, only 21 years has the award gone to a woman. And then I’m the only BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) female to get that award. It’s just interesting to look at that and reflect on that while also just being excited for the future and just know that there have been a lot of big strides in the publishing industry in the last few years and to acknowledge that. And I am really grateful to be sort of entering this industry now. Because from what I’ve been told, it was even a lot different 5-10 years ago. So it’s really great timing too, and I think that is worthy of note. I feel very grateful for that.

Google Doodle of Alaska Native civil rights icon Elizabeth Peratrovich by Michaela Goade (Source: Google)

KCAW: I wonder if you’ve gotten any feedback from Indigenous parents or children on the book that you would like to share that’s been particularly heartening to you?

MG: I can’t think of anything big. Oftentimes, it’s just these personal messages you receive from parents or families. Like when the Google doodle came out that I worked on that had Elizabeth Peratrovich. Just seeing and receiving little comments like I am so proud to be Native today, or I am so proud to be Tlingit today or my Tlingit or my Native children were so excited to show this to me. Those sorts of personal little messages feel more real or I guess significant than maybe the big recognitions. So just receiving little things like that over the last few days, that has been really great.

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