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Writers Against Racism: Debbie Reese

Before graduate school, Debbie taught elementary school in New Mexico and Oklahoma. She is currently an Assistant Professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois.

     

Born in 1959 at Santa Fe Indian Hospital, I grew up at Nambe Pueblo, on our reservation in northern New Mexico. Nambe is a federally recognized tribe, and I am on the tribal census. I went to Nambe Pueblo Day School, established in the late 1800s as part of the United States government’s Indian Education program. The Pueblo Indians were never removed from our homelands by the federal government. I grew up learning Pueblo ways of being, from material culture (cooking indigenous foods) to the philosophical and spiritual (dance is a form of prayer). When I saw "Indians" on television in westerns or cartoons, I knew intuitively that they were not real, and the Hispanic and White students I went to high school with knew they weren’t real either. As such, those stereotypical images did not carry much weight.

Then I moved to Illinois in 1994 for graduate school, and found out how much weight they DO carry in communities where there are few, if any, American Indians. The University of Illinois had an "Indian" mascot called "Chief Illiniwek." It was the stereotypical image of an Indian, in fringed buckskin and feathered headdress (but barefoot which made no sense at all), doing an "Indian" dance to Hollywood-style "Indian" music at sports events. When Native students at Illinois objected to it, our efforts to educate students, staff, administration, and local residents were met with ridicule and outright hostility. It was astounding and outrageous that the mascots supporters could say "we honor you" with "Chief Illiniwek" in one breath and in the next say "if you don’t like it, leave." They loved an IMAGE and wanted the IMAGE and their own definition of INDIAN rather than living, breathing, American Indians.

Though I had long been mindful of biased representations of American Indians in school curricular materials, the embrace of this mascot was shocking. In trying to understand it, I began to see images of Indians in children’s books in a different way, and I saw how ubiquitous they were—and are.

In the United States, children are taught by well-meaning adults to love Indians, but that ‘love’ is for ‘the white man’s Indian’ — something that is a fiction created by people who are not themselves Indian. This imagery was and IS deeply entrenched in the American mind. It gets recycled year after year in children’s books. It includes love of:

1) the savage Indian who was conquered by courageous settlers,
2) the brave Indian who courageously fought but, in the end, lost to settlers,
3) the noble Indian who cared for the earth but no longer exists because his people were defeated by the settlers.
4) the beautiful Indian princess or heroine whose actions helped the settlers.

Most "Indians" in children’s books are male, and most "Indians" in children’s books are figures of the past. Rarely do children see American Indian characters who reflect our reality, our lives today. There are terrific books by Native writers that teachers and librarians can use to displace the stereotypical imagery. I wrote about some of them last November for SLJ.  Recent research shows that the self-esteem of Native children decreases when they see stereotypical imagery, and the self-esteem of non-Native children increases when they see those same images.

In an effort to share my research and thinking about the ways that American Indians are represented in children’s literature, I created  "American Indians in Children’s Literature."  Material there may be unsettling because I am critical of favorite books, like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and popular ones like TWILIGHT.  

Please, do come over to my site.  As educators, we cannot let the status quo remain unchallenged.

Comments

  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Debbie, your story really hit home with me. All of the Stanleys are from eastern Oklahoma and are part Cherokee, but we’re not on the rolls, something I’ve always regretted, but back then it wasn’t anything you talked about. That feeling of pride came later. I was particularly interested in your comments about mascots. Myself, I’ve always been curious as to why some of these upset so many Native Americans. I’ve heard arguments in recent years from my Kiowa, Comanche, and Fort Sill Apache friends here in Lawton, both pro and con. Now, I will tell you that the “Redskins” of Northeastern Oklahoma State University and the “Savages” of Southeastern Oklahoma State University were certainly over the top (they’ve been changed), but I, too, used to think that some of the American Indian images university used seemed celebratory. Your Illinois story certainly put an end to that line of thinking. Thanks for including that. I haven’t yet read your article, but the fact that you said parts of it would be “unsettling” means I should go straight to it, because, as I understand it, “unsettling” people’s notions about of race is exactly Amy’s aim (and the aim of all the contributors) in this incredible series.

  2. Thanks for linking to Debbie’s site.
    The first thing I did was search Wrede’s new YA novel Thirteenth Child. Its an alternate reality world about the settling of the U.S. that doesn’t include any Native Americans.

    I think part of the reason its so hard to find Native American characters in fiction is guilt. There is no changing this country awful history but ignoring Native Americans makes what happened that much worse.

  3. This post is wonderful, Debbie–thank you so much for participating and pointing us to further resources. People of color in the US need to be better allies to Native Americans. We so often get consumed by our own battles for justice, but there really are startling similarities between the oppression of blacks and of Native Americans. I remember returning to Canada in 2005 and being stunned to learn that crack cocaine was ravaging northern Ontario reservations–and Indian men were being left at night, without coats or shoes, on icy prairie roads by police officers. We share many of the same struggles, particularly when it comes to issues of representation, yet we too often buy into the same distortions and fail to speak out as allies. I, for one, plan to do better…

  4. George Edward Stanley says:

    One of the political mindsets I have never been able to understand is bifurcation, and it seems to be particularly prevalent in the United States. It’s either this or it’s that; and there’s nothing in between. If we fame any of what we’re doing in terms of “whites oppressing minorities” we’re going to fall into traps that are always set and lying in wait for us by people who have no interest in righting any wrongs. A couple of years ago I attended a campus lecture by a prominent black sociologist/historian with a black colleague of mine. During the question and answer session, she used the term “the oppression of blacks by whites” and he stopped her immediately and told her that there were people just lying in wait to tell her that it was Africans capturing Africans who then sold those Africans to white slave traders. Now, we can argue the logistics of this all we want to, but the argument is still going to be used. You’ll hear similar arguments about American Indians, that American history is replete with examples of various American Indian tribes allying themselves with white settlers/frontiersmen/troops against other American Indian tribes. What we have to remember here is that there are very good people and very bad people and all kinds of people in between in every race/ethnic group/society. I personally don’t think we should start framing this as one color against other colors because that’s not what it is. Right-minded people of all colors (and I do think, with all my heart, that this is a very right-minded movement) should be joining together to make sure everything we’ve been talking about these past few weeks, stopping racism (and other forms of discrimination) in its CURRENT forms in its tracks, is fully realized for all the people of the world. It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll be worth it. One final comment: Over the years, as a holder of a doctoral degree, whenever I’ve been in a setting with other whites who may not even have finished high school, I often feel less-than-comfortable, as though I’m “too good for these people” – and this occurs no matter how nice and helpful and (fill in the blanks here) I’m trying to be. I say this, because I know for a fact that, for any white person, any person of color who has achieved any success at all, such as obtaining a doctoral degree or being the president of a company, or being a famous entertainer, or anything else that’s considered a measure of success in this country is not going to be seen as oppressed. I think we just have to avoid these kinds of arguments if we want to succeed in what we’ve set out to do.

  5. George, you are so right about the pitfalls of condemning an entire race or group for the actions of part of that group. Although I have friends of all races, colors, religions, etc., I am made to feel uncomfortable if I express my opinion in a forum dealing with racism. Among my friends and business associates I am considered one of the most unbiased people they have ever met. We laugh about my lack of tan and my accent, but we never laugh AT each other. But, when I stand up to speak, I am immediately judged as “white and unable to understand.” Perhaps I don’t understand. I think that there are bad people of all colors and races who do bad things and who should be stopped. I also think that there are good people of all colors and races who do good things and who should be encouraged. Racism would stop being such a problem if we looked at the actions and not at the skin colr.

  6. Andromeda Jazmon says:

    Debbie I have learned so much from you and your blog. Thanks for your insight and thoughtful discussions. I look forward to more of your work.

  7. That we continue the stereotype of Indians in school is a crucial and excellent point. Definitely the Little House scenario shouldn’t go unchallenged, and don’t let’s get me started on Twilight… Thanks for the heads-up about your blog.

  8. lot about you

  9. Very interesting site. Hope it will always be alive!,