by Debbie A. Reese (Nambé Pueblo)
As a professor, it is important that I publish my research in academic journals, but as a Native parent and former schoolteacher, I know that those journals are not readily available to people who work with children on a daily basis. With the growth of the Internet, I thought an Internet blog was the way to reach practitioners. In May of 2006 I launched “American Indians in Children’s Literature.” Using it, I reach parents, teachers, librarians and others who have Internet access. Through the blog, I provide information about American Indians—whether that information is a review of a children’s book, or a new source for teachers, or, an announcement about something like the National Endowment for the Humanities “Artrain” that is currently on tour.
Artrain is precisely what its name suggests: a train filled with art. The work exhibited in this particular Artrain is contemporary art by American Indians. Titled “Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture,” it has been touring the country–on railroad tracks–since 2004. I was especially intrigued by the exhibit because it includes the work of Judith Lowry, a woman who illustrated the outstanding children’s picture book, Home to Medicine Mountain which is about Lowry’s father and uncle. They are of the Mountain Maidu and Hamawi Pit-River tribes in northern California. As boys, they were among the thousands of Native children taken to boarding schools developed in the late 1880s to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Missing home, the boys ran away from the school, getting home by riding atop a box car. These schools had a devastating effect on Native communities across the United States, but it is among the too-many topics that are not taught in our classrooms.
On my blog, I write about books like Home to Medicine Mountain and others by Native authors who write books that provide children with accurate information about American Indians. And, I link to websites maintained by Native writers and illustrators like Sherman Alexie, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and George Littlechild.
Research shows, however, that it is not enough to provide children with better information. Teachers must also actively work towards helping children develop an ability to identify racist, biased, and outdated information about, in this case, American Indians. These depictions—whether they appear in children’s books, television programs, movies, as school mascots, or in products at the grocery store—far outnumber the factual and realistic portrayals of American Indians. For decades, Native scholars have addressed these problematic images. Many have written about the racist, biased, and erroneous presentation of American Indians in Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Through my blog, teachers can find those critiques.
My blog is listed on websites of the leading teacher and librarian organizations and associations, social justice organizations, and, sites maintained by American Indian tribes and organizations. The content of the website is designed to help people develop a critical stance when evaluating American Indians in children’s books. This means recognizing negative and positive stereotypes, both of which stand in the way of seeing and accepting American Indians as people of the present day.
As I write this blog post, we are entering the month of November. By Presidential Proclamation, November is Native American Month. Ideally, teachers and librarians would be providing children with information about American Indians all year long, but it is often left for this month, partly due to Thanksgiving. It is this holiday during which a lot of “teaching” about American Indians takes place. I placed the word teaching in quotation marks for a reason. Sadly, a lot of what is taught around this time of the year is superficial and laden with error and stereotypes.
Last week, I visited our local library to read the Thanksgiving picture books they have on their shelves. As a teacher, a mother, a Native woman, it is disheartening to see one book after another that uses the words “Pilgrims and Indians.” And, it is troubling to see the illustrations of the Indians. For the most part, they are little more than the stereotype that stands in for all Indians… You’d be able to describe it: fringed buckskin, feathered headdresses, tipis, totem poles, “tom-toms”… That attire and housing is common to a specific group of Native people: the Plains Indians. Totem poles are not made by Plains Indians, and “tom-tom” is not what any Native nation or tribe calls their drum. The word “tom-tom” comes from scouting organizations.
In reality, the clothing, housing, and other cultural artifacts of Native peoples varies with their location. Too often, though, illustrations in picture books clump artifacts together with little regard for the fact that they do not belong together!
The thing is, U.S. schools, from pre-school through college, do a poor job of educating Americans about American Indians. It isn’t a deliberate effort to mis-educate, and there is no point in laying blame on anyone, or feeling guilty if you’re doing something in your classroom or library that is stereotypical. The point is to start doing things differently.
Through my blog, I try to share a lot of information that I think helps my readers understand the diversity that exists across the 500+ federally recognized Native tribes (let alone the 200+ state recognized tribes and the many groups who are completely unrecognized by the state or federal government). I am confident that more and more people are learning how to look critically and let go of problematic books, and instead, select books that present American Indians as we are—not savages and not heroes—but people with good and bad qualities.
I invite you to visit my page. Take time to read and think about the content of my site. In good faith and hard work, we can all effect change in the way today’s society views American Indians. American Indians in Children’s Literature is located at http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com. And, I welcome your feedback and comments. Visit my site and write to me at debreese at illinois dot edu.