Introduction by Cynthia Leitich Smith
I remember sitting too close to the television, watching Buffy St. Marie on Sesame Street. How strange that a real Indian woman had somehow found her way onto the screen. What a blessing!
And yet, she also was the exception that proved the rule.
Native people were rare in the popular media of the 1970s and 1980s, Native women even more so. Tiger Lily from Disney’s animated Peter Pan was arguably the best known.
If you haven’t watched it since childhood, look up the video of the song “What Makes the Red Man Red” and consider what it felt like for Native children to witness and what the takeaways were for their non-Indian peers.
Still today, as an adult, I clench up during those once-in-a-series occasions when an American Indian reference (because actors are even more unusual) appears in a storyline.
Only this fall, I found myself vaguely baffled by the “magical” dreamcatcher on Once Upon a Time, a show which has yet to feature a single Native actor/character. From a world-building perspective, how did that become a tool of Camelot’s Merlin or of the daughter of Prince Charming and, yes, Snow White?
And yet, I’m hopeful—in part because of voices like those I’m welcoming to this circle today, in part because I’ve seen Native and non-Indian children embrace contemporary Native characters and historical ones who’re depicted as three-dimensional human beings. I’m grateful not to be the only woman of my Nation writing for children (shout out to author-poet-musician Joy Harjo).
I pray that the ranks of Native voices, well-crafted Native characters, and content will grow more quickly in days to come. I’m also honored and proud to celebrate all who are here now. So let’s hear from several of the voices in the children’s/YA literature industry and community, in response to the following questions:
- How did you process–emotionally, intellectually, and/or on a pragmatic/outward response level–societal/media misrepresentations of Native people as a child? Did that change for you as an adult, and, if so, how?
- To what extent is your individual Nation well represented in the arts, including literature? Where would you point your own daughter to see her reflection or your dearest friend to be respectfully educated?
We’ll begin with author-storyteller Tim Tingle (Choctaw), then continue with author Yvonne Wakim Dennis (Cherokee/Sand Hill/Syrian), blogger and activist scholar Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo), author-illustrator Julie Flett (Cree-Metis), author-artist Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), and librarian-reviewer Naomi Bishop (Akimel O’odham/Pima), concluding with author-musician Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)–whose contemporary Native novels numbered among my mentor texts when I was a beginning children’s writer.
Cynthia Leitich Smith(Mvskoke Nation) is the acclaimed New York Times bestselling YA author of the Tantalize series, the Feral trilogy, and award-winning books for younger children such as Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain Is Not My Indian Name. She’s also well-published in the short story, her writing recently appearing in Things I’ll Never Say and Violent Ends. Cynthia is a popular author-speaker and most enjoys leading writing workshops for children and teens. She makes her home in Austin, Texas, and teaches on the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
To understand my response to misrepresentations of Native people you must consider the time and place of my upbringing. I am an old man. By the time you read this, I will be 67 years old. I was raised on the Texas Gulf Coast, far from my Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. When I watched television as a child, we had a choice of three channels. Only three channels. Total. They were all in black-and-white and cowboy shows were very popular—shows like “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke” and “Wagon Train.”
Out of curiosity, I recently watched several episodes of Bonanza, and was surprised and impressed by a few plot lines depicting unwarranted racism directed against Native American characters. The villains of these episodes are thieving and deceitful Anglos. However I also remember, from over half a century ago, Wagon Train as often showing savage Indians attacking innocent travellers west.
As a child we often played Cowboys and Indians, and nobody wanted to be the Indians. They threw hatchets and spears and killed everyone around them, then stole their horses and rode away hollering war cries. I didn’t want to be an Indian, either. I was Choctaw, not the kind of Indian I saw on television.
As an elementary-aged student, I had no concept that most Americans believed that all Indians were savages. I did not understand why my grandmother made all forty-two of her grandchildren promise never to tell even our closest friends that we were Indian. I never associated this with her fear that we would be considered savage, or that we might be punished for being American Indian. As I grew older, I heard stories of how she had suffered severe punishment at Goodland Academy, an Indian Boarding school, for speaking the Choctaw language.
Later, as I became junior high school age and my curiosity was awakened, I realized that although Choctaws, my people, were civilized Americans, non-Indians lumped us all together. They believed that we all wore moccasins, lived in teepees, and scalped innocent people. This was untrue. Choctaws lived in wooden houses and had an elected system of government long before the United States of America became a nation.
My Mawmaw’s warnings began to make sense. She was afraid for us, afraid of what would happen to us if anyone found out we were Indian. Only my closest friend, Charles Savell, knew I was Choctaw. His mother was Chickasaw and his mother and mine were best friends, so we shared a well-kept secret.
As I pursued my education at the University of Oklahoma at the age of fifty, with a focus on Native American studies, I discovered many hidden and little-known facts regarding Indian issues. I began applying this knowledge to my family life and history. I was always told my grandparents left Oklahoma because of better jobs on the Gulf Coast. That might be the reason, but I suspect another factor led to the move as well.
Until the late 1920s in Oklahoma, it was against the law for a member of an Indian tribe to testify against a white man in a legal hearing or trial. If an Indian witnessed a crime committed against an Indian by a white man, no matter how serious, nothing he said could ever be heard by a jury.
An elderly gentleman who became a close friend and advisor on my thesis, Jay MacAlvain, told me of the shooting death of his uncle on a train bound for Oklahoma City in the early 1920s. He was sitting peacefully at a small town where the train had stopped, when a drunken sheriff entered the train and shot him in the chest. The shooting is well-documented, but no charges were ever filed. This crime inspired my first adult novel, House of Purple Cedar, which I wrote to honor my now deceased friend.
How things have changed. Following the encouragement of our parents and aunts and uncles, my generation of Tingle cousins decided to pull back the masks and step into the light.
Chata hapia hoke.
We are proud to be Choctaw.
I wrote the book Saltypie to celebrate our family’s decision to speak openly of our Choctaw heritage.
Both the Mississippi and Oklahoma Choctaw Nations have focused so strongly on education for the past half century–of music, culture and language–that great writers and artists have emerged naturally. We celebrate and make readily accessible our Choctaw religious hymns and our chants from bygone eras. Beadwork, flute-making, and tribal clothing dating back to early contact with Europeans is common and readily available.
Our tribal game, stickball, is still played–not as an ancient ritualistic celebration, but as a highly competitive contest. The best Choctaw stickball teams travel hundred of miles seeking tournament championships.
Our history is now proudly demonstrated. The Republic of Ireland has commissioned a beautiful sculpture commemorating the Choctaw gift of monies to Irish families starving during the Potato Famine. Private Joseph Oklahombi, a Choctaw Codetalker of World War I, was awarded the prestigious French medallion, the Croix de Guerre, and his portrait is on display at Orly Airport in Paris. I feel very fortunate that for Choctaws seeking knowledge of our past, the information is published and studied on a university level.
Because of this high visibility of “what it means to be Choctaw,” great literary works for all target audiences are flourishing. Children’s illustrated titles, for pre-K through early grades, Middle Grade and Young Adult novels, and a fine number of adult-themed books have been published in the past three decades. Choctaws Louis Owens, Rilla Askew, and LeAnne Howe have gained international recognition with their literary masterpieces.
Is my Choctaw pride seeping through? I hope so.
Are Americans better informed about Native Americans? I fear not. I am often asked, when I present at public schools, if I grew up in a teepee. When I ask questions such as “What do Indians wear?” I hear the usual stereotypes in reply. We need more authors, more posters and visual depictions of modern Native Americans, and more accurate lesson plans for teachers to present the present-day reality. To quote Dr. Kevin Gover, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., we must “meet them on the bridge they cross upon.” We must reach out and inform, teach, entertain, and enlighten our fellow countrymen about who we are and who we have always been—hardworking and dedicated American natives.
Where would I point my own daughter to see her reflection or my dearest friend to be respectfully educated?
For my dearest friend and my son or daughter:
I would hope to accompany, or better yet to lead them, on a journey to the Kiamichi Mountains of Choctaw Nation, southeast Oklahoma. I would start with the old boarding schools, many of which are museums, and we would stop often at quiet and wood-shaded graveyards. We would listen to the grass whisper and feel the songs of the old people wrapping around us at Jones Academy, the old capitol at Tushkahoma, and the cabins of Robbers Cave near Wilburton. And we would sip hot coffee by an open fire overlooking the railroad tracks of Spiro, near the Arkansas River.
After this life-changing journey, I would present each of my fellow travellers with a library of books to help explain why the air now hums and the clouds send greetings as never before. Greg Rodgers, whose children’s book Chukfi Rabbit’s Big, Bad Bellyache won the 2015 Oklahoma Book Award, sends his warmth from above. Chatah hapia hoke. We are proud to be Choctaws.
Tim Tingle is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a frequent presenter at tribal events. His ancestral grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835, and memories of this family epic fuel his writing. Author of fifteen books, Tingle has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, and the National Museum of the American Indian. Tingle’s first children’s book, Crossing Bok Chitto, was an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Book Review. Following critical acclaim for How I Became A Ghost, Tingle was featured at the 2014 National Book Festival.
Yvonne Wakim Dennis
When my sister and I lived with our Native grandparents, we were happy and felt like we belonged. Looking back, we never questioned our place in the world. We were not comfortable living with either of our parents, who divorced when we were toddlers. When we became school-age, we went to live with our mother and really felt like outsiders in the community. She was Arab-American, brown, and the subject of great gossip and curiosity in the small mainly Anglo town where we lived.
We got the message that to be “as good” as the other children, we had to be better at everything. My mother had to prove to the world that her Native-Arab-American children were the smartest, prettiest, best musicians, best athletes, most mannerly, most respected, most popular, best read, etc. Of course, we only achieved a few of those expectations!
Several times, we were asked to tell the Indian story in the classroom–just called upon with no preparation to speak to a classroom of smirking, “woo-wooing” uninformed children. It was quite daunting to us.
First of all, it was usually after some mention in our school books of bad, bloodthirsty, ignorant savages, with whom we had no connection. (I always felt simpatico with the buffalo, bears, and horses!) We did not identify with those images, and it was a source of embarrassment and ridicule for us to be connected to them by the other children.
Second, we were just kids. We were not well-schooled in the 500 years of oppression and history that Native peoples experienced.
Third, we knew that if we reported these embarrassing episodes to our mother, she’d come to school and threaten everyone from the teacher to the principal. We did not want any part of the discussions, although that changed when we got into high school.
Then I became aware of many different issues: the Black civil rights movement, Syrian and Palestinian displaced peoples, genocide of the Roma and Armenians, ecological struggles. I think all of that gave me permission to both explore and extol my own background, Native issues, and why there was never any mention of Indians in the news or curriculum.
I was just plain mad about that. It didn’t help that I was a hormonally challenged, marginalized, smart, reactive teenager from a very dysfunctional home. Looking back I think I developed coping skills: to be well-read, to pretend to be confident (I faked it), to be friendly and genuinely interested in people, to be a stellar volunteer and a Miss Goody-Two Shoes. My peers respected me and my opinion, but I was seen as a brainiac who could become quite passionate about my opinions. The kids learned to back off.
I was an avid reader and never had any books that portrayed Native folks as just “normal” contemporary people. I turned to foreign writers, African American writers or U.S. authors who wrote about foreign places. Some of my favorites were Yukio Mishima, James Baldwin, Pearl Buck, Hurston, Wright, Gibran, Tolstoy and lots of other authors who wrote depressing works. I thought my choices set me apart from my classmates. But after working with so many teen girls as an adult, I now understand that girls often choose literature chock full of pathos, drama, and unrequited love.
Of course, I loved fantasy and mystery and the occasional romance that teen girls like. But mostly, I read adult books. In those days I don’t remember any YA literature. I felt alienated from the characters in those gloomy books and had a longing to be in their world, even if it was not such a great place to be.
I sort of came to writing through the back door. Throughout school and college, I was a pretty good writer and won every contest I entered. My classmates knew I would always get the best grades on anything I wrote. But life happened and my activism took me to a career in social work. I did write, but usually articles, proposals, reports, curriculum or newsletters, and sometimes stories for my students.
While working in NYC at the Native American Education Program, a federally funded project for Native American elementary and high school students, I contracted a debilitating chronic illness and could only work part time. My life changed. I wanted to still be an activist, but I could not take to the streets or fight battles with the same ferocity. I was just too sick. I had to find a way to make a difference. A dear friend and colleague asked me to help her update a book. I did and it got me into looking at being an activist in a different way–going back to my love of writing. I am happiest when I am writing!
During my years working at Native Ed, I had enough funds and resources to purchase all the Native books I could find. I wanted our students to have a better experience than I had and to find characters they could identify with in literature. I never minded if they kept the books–I just found a way to buy more. Also, I was obsessed with acquiring curriculum developed by Native programs, educators and at one time, we had the largest repository of curriculum materials of any Title IV project. People came from all over the country and from abroad to use the library. It thrilled me to see Indian kids reading Indian authors.
There are some great Cherokee artists in every discipline. I mean just fabulous artists from Nadema Agard to Jamie Hendricks to Louis Owens to Dorothy Sullivan to Mike Wolfe to Mary Kathryn Nagle, etc. Although we may have the same representation as other groups, there is a lack of diversity within the group. There are not many resources about Urban Cherokee or those not living in NC or OK. There are too many “legend” books and too few books based in modern times.
I would guide my daughter (and did guide my real-life son!) to speak with Elders first. There is so much to learn that is not in literature. Then I would continue her education with very ancient history and present her with everything I could find from anthro to archeological to “Eurocentric accounts” to a real understanding of the Doctrine of Discovery to the latest “scientific” info which often disputes the anthropological and archeological theories. I would teach her to compare and question. Does Euro-based science conflict with traditional info? Why are the peoples who developed most of the food consumed in the world today not considered scientists? How do the historical accounts written by Eurocentric scholars differ from those written by Native scholars? Do both Native and non-Native scholars differ from traditionalists?
I would also direct her to watch television and read different newspapers/magazines and keep a log on Native people in the news. If she were really young, I would provide her with materials that I would choose, from picture books to chapter books. Some of those choices would be written by some of the authors participating in this roundtable.
If she were older, I would direct her to websites (including those hosted by the people on this roundtable) and reviews of books. I would never restrict her choices, but would certainly encourage discussion. Also, I would take her to as many live performances, museums, and art shows as possible and make sure we had a variety of Native musicians from different disciplines playing in our home. I feel it is vital to embrace the diversity of living in an international city and would introduce her to Indigenous cultures from Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego and all points in between. And most importantly, I would ensure that she had community.
I believe that the values, wisdom and science of Indigenous peoples hold the solutions to most contemporary issues, and everyone has the responsibility to learn the “soul” of this place no matter the birthplace of their ancestors. I would certainly direct a friend to the Internet. Native newspapers, language lessons, research papers are all there and mostly free. I would tell my friend that there are no more excuses for being ignorant.
The author of several award-winning non-fiction books for children and adults, Yvonne Wakim Dennis interweaves environmental justice, activism and multiculturalism into all she creates and credits her diverse family (Cherokee/Sand Hill/Syrian) for her commitment to inclusivity. Her focus is on First Peoples, but she also has written about the many cultures that make up the United States. Recent publications include: Native American Almanac (2016); A Kid’s Guide to Arab American History (National Arab American Museum Children’s Book of the Year – 2014); and A Kid’s Guide to Native American History (2010 Gold Moonbeam Award; 2010 Silver IPPY Award).
I grew up on our reservation, immersed in our dances and ceremonies. It was the norm for us there to do all of that, pretty much like it is the norm for kids in other cultures who, say, go to church on Sunday. Of course, we didn’t go to church on Sunday. Our ways of doing things were not day-limited. I knew the Indians I saw on TV weren’t real because they looked nothing like us. I don’t think I thought much about those TV Indians as a kid. There were so many of us that my Hispanic and White classmates weren’t informed by stereotypes and misrepresentations, either.
That did change as I got older and moved around in increasingly larger circles. In high school I went on college visits with Native kids from our school, where we met Native kids from other states. And then college where I started hanging out with students from other Nations, and then grad school, where I learned even more about the diversity in Native Nations.
The downside of stepping farther and farther away from my home? I also learned that the farther I moved into spaces that were increasingly white and not-Native, that stereotypes were not even recognized as stereotypes. Specifically, I mean the mascot at the University of Illinois and the experiences of the handful of Native students there who, on top of our studies, worked to inform the campus community about why that mascot was a problem. Who we were as Native people didn’t conform to the romantic/tragic hero that the mascot depicted, and so we were dismissed as not real. Unbelievable, but true. What I experienced at Illinois became the driving force of my work in children’s literature, where I promote accurate books about Native peoples and point to problematic depictions in books.
There’s not a single book about Nambe Pueblo available–that I recommend, anyway. You will find Nambe in Huxley’s Brave New World. But the depictions of the “savages” on the Savage Reservation are incredibly problematic. Sometime I’ll write that up for my blog.
There is one nonfiction photo essay that is about pueblo peoples in northern New Mexico. I absolutely adore that book. It is Swentzell’s Children of Clay. It is who we are, in a matter of fact way. Sadly, it is out of print. The child on the cover could be my own daughter, who had fine fair hair that color when she was that age.
And as Cynthia knows, my all time favorite children’s picture book is her Jingle Dancer, a book I wish I’d had when my daughter was dancing for the first time. Though it features a child of an entirely different nation, it conveys something that is found across our nations: the strong sense of family coming together for important moments in the lives of Native youth and a strong commitment to young people and our nations, too.
Another book I’ll point to is Simon Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue. It was published in the ‘70s and is out of print, but would be so perfect for today! In it, he starts by naming several Native Nations and things that are unique about each one. He moves on through harrowing points in our history, like boarding schools, but through all of those points, we push through, we survive–indeed, we thrive. He closes by talking about the need to come together, across race and nation, to fight greed that destroys all of us, if we let it. Coming together, as he notes, is how the people shall continue. Indeed, his message in that book is what I see within We Need Diverse Books. People coming together, across many different demographics, to fight the ills that are harmful to all of us.
Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. A former school teacher and professor, her book chapters and articles are taught in Education, English, and Library Science courses in the US and Canada. Her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, is her way of reaching a broad audience of people who work within children’s literature. She gives workshops and lectures widely, in person and through social media.
This roundtable will continue tomorrow with Part 2.