Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Minneapolis. I’m glad for this acknowledgement that Columbus and Co. were not actually the true founders of the Americas. Not even close.
My goal over the next couple of days is to encourage you to pick up a book or two or five written by Native American authors and deepen your understanding of their lives, cultures, and histories. Recognizing my own ignorance with respect to Native Americans has been a long journey full of stumbles. Perhaps you can do better.
I grew up in northern Minnesota where my small town was next-door-neighbors with the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
Despite that proximity, my knowledge and experience of our Ojibwa neighbors was painfully meager and prejudicial, I realize now.
My dad and brother and I would drive through the reservation to get to our favorite walleye fishing lake every summer. Along the way, I witnessed dismal poverty which, according to my childhood sources, was entirely the Indians’ fault.
Our school’s sports teams were the Indians, with our cheerleaders leading us in war whoops as we waited for the games to begin. As I write this, I know it must seem incomprehensible that this would not have jarred our sensibilities, made us feel deeply uncomfortable, but astonishingly, it did not ever occur to us that this was offensive. In our little downtown, there stood Indian Joe’s Wigwam full of trinkets for the scads of tourists vacationing among the surrounding lakes and forests. A wooden statue of an Indian stood on the sidewalk in front of the store which seemed perfectly normal at the time.
And that’s about it. Beyond that I do not recall ever really thinking about Native Americans. I do not recall being taught a single thing in school apart from the annual Thanksgiving tribute to Squanto. Although they lived practically next door, Indians seemed to be relics of the past, cordoned off from modern life in some sort of parallel universe, of no import to our world.
That they had a profound, weighty history amongst diverse cultures and nations; that they faced unique contemporary challenges and were burdened by serious grievances; that their stories included substantive accomplishments and meaningful contributions to the world — all this was walled off from my view, as hidden as my own negative stereotypes.
Fast forward several decades to my years reading and learning with my kids. When my children were young, I was marginally more aware that there was so much more to this story, to these peoples, to our country’s disturbing relationship with them, to the glaring omissions and misrepresentations in children’s literature. I wanted to do better, yet I didn’t know where to turn. I read Dee Brown’s book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and longed for books that would help me communicate the sorrows and tragedies, wisdom and dignity of the American Indian peoples, but there seemed to be few children’s books available and I felt enormously unqualified to discern authenticity and value in this area. I tried, but honestly, I did quite a mediocre job of it.
Finally, in 2010 when I began blogging and making an effort to shore up my weak areas, I stumbled across a site which has proven to be challenging, humbling, and extraordinarily helpful. It’s called American Indians in Children’s Literature and it’s hosted/written by Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, an academic, and a passionate advocate for honest, authentic, positive representations of Native Americans in our children’s books.
To be perfectly honest, my first forays into this jam-packed website left me feeling a bit scorched, taken aback, overwhelmed. I found myself bridling at some of Reese’s assessments and criticisms, felt there was excessive negativity about some books, portrayals, sentiments, that felt innocuous to me. “Does she really need to be this critical?” I’d think. “Are there any stories that can pass her muster?” So I’d leave the site, a bit stung and skeptical, thinking I’d figure things out some other way.
But then I kept going back. Reading more. Finding myself asking, time after time, “I wonder what Debbie Reese’s take on this would be?” I resolved to hear her out and after hearing her explanations multiple times, they began feeling less foreign to me, and more compelling. My defenses settled down enough that I could consider her perspectives more thoughtfully. At this point I have come to rely heavily on her evaluations of Native representation in children’s literature. Although I find myself still disagreeing at some points, as I would with anyone, I’m gradually learning what elements are objectionable, and why, what kinds of stories need telling, and why, which accounts are praiseworthy, and why. My understanding is still minute, but I am glad for incremental growth.
I want to hold out to you this posture of learning, of listening well, recognizing that our hackles go up when we feel offended but that doesn’t mean we stop listening. I would like us to grant people, especially those who have been silenced for so long, the chance to tell us their stories in their own voices and to strive to respond with trust rather than skepticism, with humility rather than defensiveness. I would like to get better at doing this myself, and I would very much like to see Orange Marmalade readers take this stance in relation to Native American representation in children’s literature.
To that end, over the next two days I’ll be telling you — very briefly — about many Native American titles serving a range of ages. November is designated as National Native American Heritage Month, and I hope you’ll take that opportunity to check out some of these valuable stories for yourselves.