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,
American Indians in Children’s Literature