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Interview with Debbie Reese

After I did my last post, about representation in children’s literature and Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, it occurred to me…why not interview Debbie? She’s incredibly smart and well-read and knows what she’s talking about in ways I can’t even begin to. And she said yes! I am incredibly grateful for the time she took to give such thoughtful responses. Thank you so, so much, Debbie. So, here is the interview:

1) Let’s start with the good: what are three books you would recommend, fiction or non-fiction, adult or children’s, to readers interested in finding nuanced, respectful, accurate depictions of American Indians?

Because most of what children bring to school with them is a stereotypical, monolithic, long-ago-and-far-away idea of Native peoples, my first choice—for children or adults—is Cynthia Leitich Smith’s picture book Jingle Dancer. It is tribally specific, set in the present day, shows dance as something reverent (for Native peoples, dance has significance beyond American society’s concepts of dance as entertainment or performance), conveys the significance of extended family, includes a traditional story presented as a normal part of our experiences, and with the character who is a lawyer, shows us as more than artists and storytellers.

In his The People Shall Continue, Simon J. Ortiz gives readers an expansive history of the continent that came to be known as North America. He names many Native Nations, starting with our creation stories and moving to our trade networks and conflicts, and then he moves forward in time to colonization and what that meant to our nations. He doesn’t flinch from brutal federal policies like the boarding schools that sought to destroy our nationhood by taking our children and though it was published in the 1970s, its ending is applicable to today’s society. He points to the destruction that capitalism is doing to all of us, and calls for all of us who have been marginalized and oppressed to stand together to fight greed so that, of course, humanity will continue. The People Shall Continue is also a picture book but its message is one that readers of every age can—and should—embrace.

A third book that comes to mind is Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. Too many people in the U.S. are not aware that Native Nations (there are over 500) have diplomatic agreements (treaties, contracts) with the federal government. In practice, this means that we are sovereign nations, and that we have police departments and court systems on our reservations that impact who is prosecuted and where that prosecution takes place. In The Round House, a crime is committed. But where it happened is the crux of the story. Who has jurisdiction? Erdrich’s powerful story helps readers understand our sovereignty. Though she has written for children, The Round House is for older teens and adults.

2) How did you come to start AICL? How has it changed and blossomed since you first began? How have various readers—librarians, teachers, children, parents, Native American or not, responded? (I’ll ask about writers later)

I launched it the summer my daughter was away for the first time. Learning the ins and outs of blogging occupied my mind during her absence, but the decision to blog was based on an interest in two things.

First, I had reviewed for Horn Book and got into terse conversations with editors about two of my reviews. One of those conversations was revisited a few months ago at Read Roger , the blog of the editor at Horn Book. That recent conversation captures why I think blogging is important. In short: my perspective has value and ought not be edited so that it conforms to language and frameworks that overtly or subtly marginalize diversity of experience, culture, and history.

Second, as a former schoolteacher, I know that teachers—who are already underpaid—use their personal funds to buy a lot of the items in their classrooms. Memberships in professional associations are expensive! Few of my fellow teachers (Native ones at the Native schools I taught at, or Latino/a ones at the public schools where I taught) could afford to join or attend professional conferences. That means they don’t have access to the research and writing that can help them in their professional development after they graduate from college. A glance at attendees at any professional conference tells us that, in particular, people of color are notably absent. With a blog, I could make my work available at no cost to anyone.

3) You state beautifully why this work is so important (Dr. Fryberg’s research etc.). What other kinds of changes need to happen to address falling graduation rates and high suicide rates, as well as negative self-image, among NA youth?

Stephanie’s empirical research is very important because it documents the impact stereotypical images have on Native and non-Native people. In the U.S. we tend to laud science, and that ought to prompt publishers, writers, booksellers—anyone, really—who is involved with children’s books and textbooks, to change course in terms of what they’re doing. Instead, the response is to cry censorship and violation of the First Amendment, as if a shift to factual portrayals is a threat to the country and to freedom.

4) You’ve done a lot of important work, from this blog to your years as a professor at the University of Illinois to your years teaching elementary school. You must have gotten significant pushback. What kind of resistance have you met with, and how have you addressed it and coped with it, both practically and emotionally (if that’s not too personal a question)?

People resist my critiques by defending some aspect of the book they think is more important. One example is Touching Spirit Bear. It misrepresents Tlingit people but because it is about a bully who faces his bullying nature, people choose to look away from the misrepresentations. Ignoring them means that Tlingit—and Native people—are thrown under the lets-not-bully bus. There’s a fleet of busses like that. The Weetzie Bat bus (LGBTQ), the Mosquitoland bus (mental illness), The True Meaning of Smekday bus (biracial protagonist), the Walk Two Moons bus (coming to terms with death), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (gay conversion camps)… There are others, but those are much-acclaimed and award-winning books that elevate one topic, people, or theme while looking away at misrepresentations of Native peoples.

I counter defenses of those books by not backing away from my critiques. We count, too. More importantly, our children count, too. One coping mechanism is to keep images of my daughter, her cousins, and their children in my head. Knowing that they’re likely to be asked to read these books gives me the tenacity I need to keep going.

I also have a circle of friends who I turn to when I need to blow off some steam, and I often have to walk away from my computer for a while before responding. Another coping mechanism is the emails I get from readers thanking me for the blog itself, my perspective, or, a specific review.

And I got a huge boost in July when Cree Metis artist, Julie Flett, wrote to me about an illustration she was doing for an article in Teaching Tolerance. The article is about Native history. Julie read the interview, saw my name in it, and wrote to tell me she wanted to include an illustration of someone reading to children. That someone is me! As I read her email I was stunned—in a good way. I have no words to describe how that felt. I’ve said delighted, and tickled, and humbled, and honored, but none of those convey what it meant to me. As we talked more, she asked about a book that I could be reading, and I thought of Simon J. Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue (described above). The article with the illustration came out last week.

5) I’ve always been impressed how open you are to dialogue with writers. I know you’ve had a variety of responses from them over the years. What is a typical response? Do any stand out, for better or for worse?

They range quite a bit! Some will doggedly rebut my critiques, while others clearly think about what I said and respond in a way that signals a change in their thinking. An example of the former is the extended dialogue I had with Rosanne Parry about her book, Written In Stone. As that dialogue shows, she was not open to my critique, but I think the entirety of the conversation offers a lot to other writers who read it. An example of a better response is the interactions I had with David Arnold about his book, Mosquitoland. At first he blocked me on Twitter, but later, unblocked me. He responded to my critiques, and—I think—changed the title of one of his songs, based on our exchange. Because his book was out, he couldn’t change it but did say he is talking with fellow writers and editors about it. I don’t have evidence that he is actually doing that, but I hope he is. I have a tag at my site for posts that include an author’s response:

6) Have you noticed any trends in the literature you review regarding gender? Or gendered trends in the responses you get from readers and/or writers?

I haven’t studied either one in the work I do on my blog. I did find, in my dissertation research, that most depictions of Native peoples in the children’s books I looked at (for the dissertation) were male. Even if the character was a girl, she was shown being a male. And of course, it was a stereotypical depiction. A good example of that is the image of Grace (in Hoffman’s Amazing Grace) as Hiawatha—Longfellow’s Hiawatha, that is! There was, in fact, a person named Hiawatha. He is a key figure to the Iroquois people and is nothing like Longfellow’s Hiawatha.

7) One very selfish question–for those of us who are not NA and do have children, what resources do you recommend if/when we have to speak to a teacher about a racist reading, or Thanksgiving-related activity, etc.?

Like so many Native people in Education, I feel weary just thinking about that holiday and the questions I’ll be fielding! A few days ago I got the first one for this year. A librarian wrote to say that teachers in her school are trying to do a better job with the way they re-enact the first Thanksgiving. They want to move away from stereotypical costumes the kids wear. They want accuracy in the costumes. At first glance that seems a good move, but it strikes me as similar to all the efforts to make mascots better by having them be more accurate in how they represent a particular Native Nation. Both (Thanksgiving reenactments and mascots) are creations borne of a White point of view. Both mean well, but both ask Native people to come onto a White stage, to perform in a White story. Another example: when the Lewis and Clark bicentennial rolled around, people wanted to reenact that, too, and wanted Native Nations along their route to dress up and greet Lewis and Clark.

The way that Thanksgiving story is told is deeply flawed. It is a feel-good story about America’s beginnings, but it one-sided and glosses over the violence that Native people experienced. Teachers think kids don’t have the wherewithal to hear that story in its completeness, and they think kids will get the truth later. Some will; some won’t! Some will feel something akin to betrayal. James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me gets at that, but so do the words of Taylor, a 5th grader whose teacher shared with me (with Taylor’s permission) something she wrote: Do you mean all those Thanksgiving worksheets we had to color every year with all those smiling Indians were wrong?

By November of each year, a teacher has had about three months to work with children, teaching them about points of view. By then, the teacher could have read to children, or had them read, books by Native writers that give readers solid information about who we are. By then, the teacher will have students using specific names for tribal nations, and the students will know that we’re still here (I hate saying “we’re still here” but it is necessary). They may even know that we’re very politically engaged, fighting against companies that want our resources and/or pollute our lands! The students in those classrooms will be ready for a more accurate look at Thanksgiving, and they’ll share that new information with others, and there will come a day when the question won’t be a question anymore. It will be the way-it-is. It may be a long way into the future before we get there, but I am optimistic. It will happen eventually, and opportunities like the one you’ve given me with this interview, are a step in that direction. Thank you!

5 thoughts on Interview with Debbie Reese

  1. My husband is from Ecuador, and he is a Mestizo, his mother being of Spanish descent and his father is Montubio, one of the indigenous groups in Ecuador. In coming to the U.S. he is perceived pretty exclusively as Latino, and obviously encouraged to acculturate to white American aesthetics.

    In Ecuador, indigenous people are encouraged to assimilate to Spanish culture, and his father died when he was young, so he has limited connections with his indigenous ancestry. In coming to the US his ability to be seen and understood as an Indigenous American is even further obscured by white insistence on a unified Latin ethnicity.

    I feel like Indigenous South American identity is also homogenized the way Indigenous North American identity is, even though the presence of indigenous people is much larger and more visible.

    I am trying to learn more about the construction of the Mestizo identity, but doing so only from English language resources has some inherent problems. Here is an interesting paper I found.

    1. Also, a disclaimer: I am certain I’ve mixed up categories and misrepresented identities in my comment. I’m struggling to sort them out, but even this kind of categorization and sorting seems to be forcing a white US and European viewpoint on a non-US or European culture.

      Also, a big issue in this article and in my reading is the question of whether a racist representation is better than no representation at all.

      1. I think a racist representation is worse than none at all.

        A void can be filled, but racist representations create a lot of “knowledge” that must be undone.

        Racist representations create conditions for people to CAUSE hurt to those being misrepresented.

    2. Okay, this quotation from that paper helped me a lot:

      Estrada’s recent book on Montubios (1996) supports these ideas by presenting a
      photograph of the different ‘races’ that
      have combined to create the ‘montubio’
      people: the ‘white European’, the ‘Black’,
      and the ‘Cayapa Indian
      s’ of the Ecuadorian
      coast (Estrada 1996:25). The linking of
      Montubios to a specifically coastal
      Indigenous ancestry, rather than to Indi
      genous peoples more
      broadly should be
      highlighted, as it sustains their separation
      from the larger Indigenous movement and
      marks them as uniquely coastal.

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