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 Teachers must also actively work towards helping children develop an ability to identify racist, biased, and outdated information about, in this case, American Indians.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.
I appreciate you taking the time to tell us about your blog. This is a greatly needed resource.
Debbie, yours is one of the most informative and educational blogs in the field of children’s literature, and is one of the few I read every day.
Thanks for the great work you do!
Thanks, KT and Jennifer, for your remarks. Once a week I send an email to teacher and librarian listservs, summarizing what I posted the prior week.
Since Friday of last week, subscribers at two of those listservs have raised objections to my emails. They are characterized as commercial spam, unsolicited emails, self marketing, and, therefore, inappropriate for the lists.
Autumn is a gorgeous time of the year, but for American Indians, it is tinged (some would say packed) with problems. In early October, we see the Columbus Day feel-good stories. Later that month, Halloween costumes where people dress up like Indians. My students talked (yesterday) about celebrities and students on campus, dressed like Indians. On a college campus, a lot of these “Indians” are falling-down-drunk.
Next is November, which is Native American Month, and, Thanksgiving.
Our country, our children, so desperately need honest instruction and honest books about American Indians, but we’re so hung up on and attached to feel-good stories…
Questioning all those feel-good moments and traditions feels like an attack on those who hold those traditions dear. Though I’ve been writing, as carefully and caringly, as I can, I still draw flames.
Someday, we’ll be in a better place. I have confidence in teachers and librarians. We’ll get there.
I agree, Debbie. We will get there. It will take time, sometimes it seems forever. And it takes people like you to raise these issues to promote sensitivity and understanding.
Hi, Debbie, what a terrific idea to host this blog! I teach a sophomore level course for teacher education majors called “Socio-Cultural Diversity in Education.” We have done some examinations of cultural stereotypes, and we’re reading “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” later in the semester (some profs also use “Reservation Blues” in lit courses). My students can really benefit by reading your blog; most are planning to teach k5 – 6th grade here in Georgia. They can learn a great deal from the examples and insights you’ve posted. Thanks again! dee
My students are also reading Alexie’s book later this semester. On my blog is a clip of an interview with Alexie. Do take a look at it.
Dear Debbie: I found your blog through PaperTigers whom I am now a contributor for. I posted the blog on my FB site and hope some of my ‘friends’ will connect it to it. I recently did a posting on Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola Campbell (of Interior Salish and Metis ancestry) that you might enjoy reading. The book was recently nominated for Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Children’s Book illustration, I believe.
mary anne sullivan
I am a first grade teacher and I am always looking for childrens’ books that deal with the history of marginalized cultures in our country in a truthful manner. I would appreciate some title suggestions.
Not sure if that link is too long to work here, but Ms. Leitichsmith recommends The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, Children’s Book Press, 1988, for ages 5 and up. She writes “For all of its poetry and brevity, this oral chronicle of the history of Native peoples to present day is honest, inspiring, and surprisingly complete.”
Just a question, if I may. Are there any lesson plans available for schools on this site or the other? We are lookig at reliable sources for children’s literature to resource in our evening class among other primary school teachers. Your response would be greatly appreciated.
Mary Anne and Jose,
I do not blog for ALSC and don’t look at this page very often. I’m sorry that I did not see your questions until today (April 5, 2009).
My own site is where I respond to comments and post information several times a week.
Please do visit americanindiansinchildrensliterature.net and look over the resources there.
I know you’ll be looking at this page from time to time, and I wanted to tell you after reading your article I was motivated. I’m in a Humanities course about the American Indian culture and one of the assignments is a response paper to the schools the American Indian children went to. Furthermore, I was assigned to find a topic of consequence for my English paper that I can argue in six pages. I was wandering around for a while trying to find a topic and now I know what I’m going to do. I will proceed to read your blog to gain further knowledge, and I’m glad you’ve taken advantage of the Internet to reach people. Thank you so much.
I am interning at a tribal college in an Adult Basic and GED Preparation classroom. My job is to find authentic reading materials, especially those with cultural relevance. I am at a disadvantage here, being white and blind to many of the insulting stereotypes that pervade our literature. In order to help alleviate some of those difficulties, my research has been focusing on literature written by Native Americans. That is where I stumbled across your blog. Children’s literature is one of the areas I am interested in because the reading levels of this population can be anywhere from completely illiterate to college level. When working with lower-level adult readers, teachers need to be on the watch for books that are not condescending or obviously and overly “cute.” I can see that in this specific group of students, however, there are even more elements that might be construed as insulting or off-putting to struggling readers.
If you should happen to see this reply within the next month or so, any advice you could give would be most welcome. I have been cross referencing names like George Littlechild and Michael Kusugak, though I have not yet begun picking the books up to look at for myself. Native American authors writing books that might be considered “popular fiction” are also being added to my lists along with occasional books of poetry or biographical/autobiographical non-fiction. Specific names or titles to look for or avoid would be most useful to me at this point in my studies; however, if you’ve noticed anything in my approach as I have explained it that is off, I would like to know that, too. This is a learning exercise for me, but beyond that, I hope that it benefits the program I am working in much more.
Sincerely grateful for your time,
My site (americanindiansinchildrensliterature.net) has a lot of material that you may find helpful.
George Littlechild’s work is terrific. Get his book THIS LAND IS MY LAND. I’ve just now realized that I have not written about that book on my site! That’s a huge oversight on my part. I’ll do that soon.
Kusugak’s books are terrific, too, and I need to add them to my site.
Have you looked at http://www.oyate.org?
Dear Ms. Reese,
Thank you. I’m looking forward to reading This Land is My Land and many others. I did look up and through Oyate fairly thouroughly, and I am starting to dig a little deeper into your site as well. You are a dedicated educator.
Mary Lou Pierrard
Thank you for your very thought provoking presentation on the topic of residential schools in children’s literature to our class at the University of Manitoba. I did google the topic as you had suggested and came across Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell and Goodbye Buffalo Bay by Larry Loyie. Both books would be wonderful additions to a school library and I will pass the titles on to our Resource Librarian.
I am wondering if you have discovered any graphic novels on the same theme that would be of interest to older students? Some of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing students that I support struggle with reading English.
Hi Mary Lou,
First, I’m sorry I didn’t see your post earlier. Second, I’m glad you found my presentation helpful.
Now to your question. I don’t know of any graphic novels about boarding schools but I definitely see the need, not just for the population you work with, but for all readers, given the interest in graphic novels. When I come across one, I will write about it at my site.
One more thought, Mary Lou… You might want to get a copy of the TRICKSTER, edited by Dembicki. It is a collection of stories by Native writers, done in graphic format. I like some of the stories quite a lot. I wish, however, that Dembicki had put the information about the tribal nations for each story right with the first page of each story rather than in the back of the book.
Thank you for mentioning my children’s books. I am a Cree author from Alberta… who writes about my true, traditional experienes as a child in the 1930s-1050s. My first book As Long as the Rivers Flow (by Larry Loyie, from Groundwood) won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction and was named the Honour Book of the year by First Nation Communities Read in 2006. It is still going strong, and has been welcomed as an introduction to the issue of residential school. The sequel is Goodbye Buffalo Bay, a chapter book, about my last year at residential school and moving on at 13 years of age. When the Spirits Dance is also in this series, set during the Second World War. It opens the door to discussion of war (both of the last two books from Theytus).
My next book is The Moon Speaks Cree (Theytus), like As Long as the Rivers Flow is an illustrated children’s book with illustrations by the award-winning artist Heather D. Holmlund. It will be out this fall 2011 and follows my life during a traditional winter learning about our way of life and survival. I also have The Gathering Tree, my only non-fiction book. It is well known as an introduction to HIV awareness and prevention. I worked with Aboriginal health educators and the illustrated book (also Heather D. Holmlund) includes 15 questions and answers about HIV and AIDS in a grandparent friendly way.
As an Aboriginal author, I appreciate the chance to let your readers know more about my books. I began writing at 55 years of age, more than 20 years ago. I have many more books to write!
My website — http://www.firstnationswriter.com — also has study material on every book … residential school issues, HIV awareness, the war years … and more.
— Thank you, Larry Loyie
I have one of your books on my site here:
I’ll look at the others.
I am so grateful to find your site. I am not currently teaching, well, I should say I am not teaching in a public school! I will always be a learner and teacher. Of Abenaki descent I want to share your blog as a resource to my local school. Thanks, Will check back to read more . Kate