Teachers Write 7.15.16 Dear Teachers… A letter from Debbie Reese

As always, Friday is feedback day at Teachers Write, so be sure to visit Gae’s blog today to spend some time on mini-critiques.

Friday is also one of our reflection days, and this week, guest author Debbie Reese joins us with a special letter to all of you. Debbie is an activist scholar tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, and her website, American Indians in Children’s Literature is a great resource for educators. 


Dear Fellow Teachers,

When Kate Messner asked me to join Teachers Write, I thought my contribution could be a post titled “Let’s Talk about Native Stories and Native Characters.” As I sat down to think about it—and you—I thought a Dear Teachers letter might work better.

I taught kindergarten and elementary school for several years before I went on to work on my doctorate. Some of that teaching was in public schools but some of it was in boarding schools for Native children. There were striking differences between the public and boarding schools, and between the boarding schools, too (I taught at two different ones), but one thing was true no matter what children I had in my classrooms: they were children whose parents put a certain trust in me. A trust that I’d teach them to the best of my ability, and an implicit trust, too, that I wouldn’t do anything to hurt them.

I grew up at Nambe Pueblo on our reservation in northern New Mexico. I love it there. I can walk outside my door and readily find pottery shards—evidence that the land I live on is land that my ancestors lived on hundreds and hundreds of years ago. If you came to Nambe on one of our ceremonial days when we invite the public to join us for some aspect of it, you’d be driving onto the reservation, and, into our jurisdiction. If you were going too fast, you might get pulled over by our tribal police. You’d be given a ticket that you’d pay at the tribal court.

People who I went to high school with know all about tribal jurisdiction, but some of you may be going “huh?” It is highly unlikely that, though life experience or education, you’ve learned about Native Nations as sovereign entities.

You know those word association tests, where someone says a word or phrase and you’re supposed to reply with whatever comes to mind? If we were to do a form of that, and said “American Indians” or “Native Americans,” chances are very high that a monolithic image is what comes to mind. The image will include feathers, a tipi, a buffalo herd, and maybe a totem pole. Pause your reading for a minute and do an image search on the web, using “American Indian” or “Native American” as your search words. See what I mean? That imagery is everywhere, and it is powerful, and it is a problem.

If you ask a Native person how they wish to be described, they’re likely to tell you they want you to tell your students what their tribal affiliation is, rather than the generic “American Indian” or “Native American” phrases. That request is important for several reasons. It dispels the image of the monolithic Indian but it also adds knowledge about a specific nation.

Let’s look at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s picture book, Jingle Dancer.


In the author’s note, Smith wrote “Jenna [the main character] is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.” In her own bio, Smith writes that she’s an enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation. That information can be shared with kids when a teacher decides to use Jingle Dancer. The teacher can show kids a picture of Smith, saying “Here is a photograph of Cynthia Leitich Smith.” And, she can pull down a map and say “Here’s where the Muscogee Nation is located” and, using a computer and projector (or smart board) she can say “and here is the Muscogee Nation’s website.” Doing all of that provides kids with a lot of present-tense information that challenges the pervasive idea that Native peoples are of-the-past.

There are many things in any person’s life that are important. The items they choose to hang on their walls are one example. Do you remember Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat? It came out in 1999, and won the Caldecott Medal. At the time, I was teaching children’s literature to students in the teacher education program at the University of Illinois. Jewish students in my class were absolutely delighted as they pored over the book. On every page, there was something by the author—who is Jewish—that the rest of us didn’t notice. That book functioned as a mirror for those students, and it provided me and the other students with a window, or an opportunity, for us to learn a little bit about aspects of Jewish people that matter to them.

Those bits are all over the pages of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s picture book Jingle Dancer. On one page, Jenna is watching a video of her grandmother dancing the jingle dance. She’s using it to learn the dance. To the right of the television is a trunk. Many wouldn’t notice the trunk, but to a Native kid, it pops! A lot of us store traditional clothing in those trunks. When Jenna visits Cousin Elizabeth, we see a piece of artwork on the wall that echoes the artistic style of Virginia A. Stroud. I love that bit. I have one of Stroud’s paintings in my house right now!

There’s a lot to know—but with the growing resources on the Internet, there are ways to know that you’ve not had before! Back when I was a teacher, none of these resources were available. I couldn’t afford the membership fees for organizations that publish journals (NCTE publishes Language Arts) that sometimes carry articles about critical literacy, racism, and children’s literature. With that in mind, I created American Indians in Children’s Literature ten years ago. It allows me to put my research in a place where teachers, librarians, and parents can easily find it. I link to full text articles, too. A lot of items are ones I wrote in response to a question from a teacher. AICL is for you. If you want some help, write to me! Put “Kate Messner’s Teacher Camp” in the subject line, and I’ll bump your query to the top of my list.

All children—Native or not—ought to have mirrors and windows. As teachers, you can help change the status quo. I’m willing to help. Write to me.

With respect for the work you do,

Debbie Reese

American Indians in Children’s Literature


Twitter: debreese

32 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.15.16 Dear Teachers… A letter from Debbie Reese

  1. Thank you for this incredible resource. I’m so grateful and I’m looking forward to reading more!

  2. Dear Debbie Reece,
    Thank you for the work that YOU do.
    Recently, at a writing workshop, and a new friend who has written about a Native American woman in Florida told our group how much you had informed her writing and supported her work.
    I follow you on twitter and your tweets never fail to make me think deeply. I so appreciate your presence in education circles.
    My hometown is western New York where Mary Jemison lived. I grew up on stories of her and spent many, many, many hours in Letchworth State Park that were her lands.
    Mary Jemison’s story, Indian Captive by Lois Lenski, was a huge reading window for me. I wanted to just climb out of that window and go live the life. It was truly one of my favorite stories.
    There are many problems with that book that I can now see….and probably some that I still don’t. I’m willing to learn…but so many of even the primary sources available are not respectful. It feels overwhelming to do the work on my own as a reader….as a Librarian….as a citizen.
    Thank you for the website. I will spend time there today and will put books on my wish list that you recommend.
    Thanks for dropping by today. You are a gem for us to know and have access to.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I have pages and pages of notes on Lenski’s book but haven’t had time to turn them into a post. There’s a personal dimension to it, for me. My husband is from PA. We spend a lot of time in the area where the book is set. I’ve spent hours pouring over the book and studying google maps, trying to map the route to see how close it is to my husband’s land there, in PA. I’m so glad you see the problems in it! That’s what I hope to accomplish with my work. It is far from acceptable for anyone to reject a book just because I say it has problems. They have to read and study and OWN their point of view because owning it is the only way, I think, that people become informed and able to apply what they learn to other books. What you said is the perfect example of what I think, so thank you for your comment!

      1. and….PS….sorry to be so comment happy…I would love to keep up with your study/work of Mary Jemison. If there is any way to support or help or anything…I want to know!

    1. Thanks, Kathy! The only way we, as a society, can move forward is by talking about what we learn, sharing it with others. As the horrible news we’re seeing daily demonstrates, there are powerful misconceptions and viewpoints out there that make conversations about racism uncomfortable. Too many people choose not to have the conversations. I understand that choice, and sometimes I have to make that choice, too. But more often than not, I try to engage someone because, ultimately, not having those uncomfortable conversations means that the status quo remains intact. And–public thank yous are important, too! They signify support that means a lot.

  3. Debbie, I\’m going to jump in with a question about the classics. Many of us look back at our childhood favorites now – books like Little House on the Prairie and Island of the Blue Dolphins – and realize that those books depict Native peoples in problematic ways. Those books are still being shared with kids today, and I\’m wondering if you have thoughts on how we should be talking about those problematic scenes with young readers.

    1. Hi Kate,

      I think we ought to move away from using those favorites. For some of us they hold a nostalgic quality, or an emotional attachment, that can make it hard for us to talk about the problems in a way that conveys they ARE problems. I think that the teacher’s words would be forced, with words like “it isn’t PC to use this” beneath it… in other words, a reluctance to really dig in and see the problems as problems.

      We don’t have to use them in literature circles! There are better options! Instead of LITTLE HOUSE, teachers could use BIRCHBARK HOUSE, which doesn’t demonize or misrepresent anyone in the way that LHOP does.

      If teachers are doing a critical media lesson, I think that’s when LHOP or ISLAND could be used, with students reading–not for the story, but for the bias and errors. That right there is a magnificent and powerful lesson about reading critically. (More in the next comment.)

      1. Here’s my suggestion for using LHOP in a critical media literacy lesson:

        1) Watch the Trail of Tears episode in the We Are Still Here series at PBS. Note the ways that the Native people are dressed, their roles as shopkeepers, and yes, plantation owners. Note the mix of language they use. They’re the “primitive” people that Laura Ingalls Wilder shows us in LHOP.

        2) Read LHOP with the viewing of the Trail of Tears in mind, critically analyzing the words used by the characters when they’re talking about Native peoples. Discuss/compare the depictions Wilder gives with the ones in the documentary.

        1. I love the idea of using a media literacy lesson to look at titles that were once, or still are, considered classics with a more critical eye. I think it is important that we don’t shy away from these issues but confront them head-on with our students in order to teach kids to be critical thinkers and sensitive to others at that. One of my favorite texts from my undergrad days – going waaayy back – was a text by Masha K. Rudman about Multicultural Literacy and Children’s Issues. Quite progressive for the late 80’s & early 90’s at the time!

      2. I really appreciate your answer here…Kate’s question is one on my mind but I kinda wimped out of asking. I cut my reading teeth on Little House books. They are precious to me.
        But, I see the wisdom in not using them in literature circles.
        I do get frustrated with teachers that use the same old books year after year and one of my tasks as a Teacher Librarian is to cheerlead my colleagues when they update their kidlit.

        1. Most adults read that series as kids and didn’t notice so much… like Pa. One of the biggest pushbacks I get for my critique of the series is that Pa is a good guy. That he’s not racist like Ma.


          Pa does blackface in one of the books. And, he tells Laura and Mary about how, when he was a kid, he used to pretend he was a hunter, hunting wild animals and Indians.

  4. Wow- Thank you for your thoughtfulness, time, and resources. I am excited to pursue them further and to share with fellow teachers!

  5. I’m not a teacher, but a mom of 8 kids, and really appreciate your help in the daily challenge of rise good, responsible, thoughtful, loving people. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for your post. You made me think. I love what you said: “All children—Native or not—ought to have mirrors and windows. As teachers, you can help change the status quo.” I’m going to put that up near where I plan my lessons.

  7. Reading your letter this morning was very powerful. In teaching social studies to fifth graders, students preconceived ideas about this topic can be disturbing. I think our curriculum is working to use media literacy, documentary work and other resources to work on this perception. Thanks for enlightening us!

  8. Thanks, Debbie, for this thought-provoking post and the important work that you do. Mirrors and windows. So powerful. I work with middle school English Learners, and I can attest to the power of using literature that authentically communicates culture. I’ve used an excerpt from “The Latehomecomer” by Kao Kalia Yang with 8th graders and seen the Hmong students in my class so excited and almost in shock that we were reading literature by and about a writer from their culture in school. I loved watching how, in small groups and class discussions, some of my Hmong students felt empowered to share cultural information with their classmates, which prompted great discussions around similarities and differences in the cultures of the other students. One of my Hmong students told me that her grandfather was a shaman and asked if it would be okay for her to bring in some traditional objects to share with the class – which she did – totally initiated by her and very well received by the class. Truly a highlight and a genuine learning experience for all, myself included. Mirrors and windows. This is also how we communicate most clearly to our students that everyone’s stories are worth telling. Thank you again for this important topic.

  9. Good morning, Debbie!

    Thank you for sharing that incredible resource.

    As a schoolteacher, I want to be accurate with the information that I am teaching my students. My school is located about 5-10 miles away from the Onondaga Nation and yet my students know so little about the history of the Nation. All they know about is the Onondaga Nation Arena, where some of the students play hockey or lacrosse. Even these students don’t know the history.

    I use two non-fiction texts in my classroom. The students read The First Americans: The Story of Where They Came From and Who They Became and Buried Beneath Us: Discovering the Ancient Cities of the Americas, both by Anthony Aveni. I’m not sure if you are familiar with them, but if you are, I was hoping that you would share what you think about these texts. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you again for the resource and your letter on a very important topic.

    1. Andy,

      First, get a copy of Eric Gansworth’s IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE. Eric is Onondaga, and his MG novel is terrific.

      I don’t know the Aveni books, but we can do some critical work just by looking at the title “The First Americans.” Increasingly, you’ll see Native people saying, essentially, “nope” to being called “First” Americans. We were something else long before “American” was a word. There’s political dimensions to it, too. If we accept the idea that we are simply “the first” Americans, it puts our ownership to these lands, and the treaties that came from them, into a slippery space. It subtly undermines us.

      Second, Aveni’s books seem to be mostly characterized by long-ago kind of thinking. I like the “who they became” part because it suggests we’re part of today’s society, but I have to actually see the books to know if the book does, indeed, do that.

      1. Hi, Debbie,

        Thank you for all of the helpful advice. I greatly appreciate it. I have already ordered Eric’s book. I look forward to reading it.

        I know that you are super busy, so I feel funny bothering you again, but do you have any good suggestions on nonfiction texts?

        Thanks again.

        1. I wish I had more time to look for nonfiction, or, to look closely at what IS out there. Frankly, most of the series books that librarians buy sets of… are just like the sets they get rid of. Same old biased content… a waste of money!

          Here’s a link to a page of resources that I put together, for kids/parents/teachers doing research projects:

          The American Indian Contributions series… that one is terrific. And every library, if not every teacher, would do well to have the encyclopedias I recommend. You can get them… they’re out of print, which means, relatively inexpensive.

  10. OK, I”m getting pesky and I’m sorry. But, you know….since you’re here….

    One of my bucket list dreams is to move to New Mexico and attend some of the amazing writers community events/workshops there.

    Any reccs from you to make my bucket list more specific?

  11. Hi Debbie,
    Do you have any recommendations for 3rd grade? This is my first year teaching 3rd and I would love any advice or ideas that you have!

  12. Louise Erdrich’s BIRCHBARK HOUSE series of historical fiction is excellent, and I strongly recommend teachers use it rather than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, which gets taught a LOT at 3rd/4th grade. The former doesn’t stereotype or misrepresent anyone; the latter does. And–I’m wondering if any of you have re-read it as an adult… do you remember that the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” is in it three times? If you teach Native kids, how do you manage their well-being when that is being read?

    Last year, Joseph Marshall’s IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE came out. I highly recommend it, too. It is set in the present day. Here’s my review: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2015/05/in-footsteps-of-crazy-horse-by-joseph.html

  13. Thank you, Debbie, for your tireless and vital work.

    And oh! You’re the first person outside OK to reference the nod to Stroud’s style. I recall the conversation around that.

    I had a wonderful exchange–facilitated by the Harper editor and art director–during the production of the book with the illustrators (Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu). They were both doing art outside of their own cultures for the first time and were so eager for guidance and to discuss Native artists and artistic approaches. For reference, I sent them family photos, tribal newspapers, picture books by Native illustrators…

    Throughout that process, they showed open hearts, devoted minds and a real determination to getting it right.

    Building and connecting a children’s book is always a team effort.

    On another note, I strongly second the recommendation of Eric Gansworth’s IF I EVER GET IT OUT HERE. It should be in classrooms and YA library collections, for sure.