Episode 6, Season 2
Each autumn, Thanksgiving brings a disturbing amount of inaccurate information and troubling myths into classrooms across the United States. Most students don’t learn much about the history of Native nations—and even less about Indigenous peoples today. Dr. Debbie Reese explains what to look for and what to avoid (or teach with a critical lens) when selecting children’s books by and about Indigenous people. She also recommends specific books to counter common misconceptions in your classroom.
Meredith McCoy: When I was a seventh grade student at Grey Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Mr. Joseph Thomas taught one of my favorite classes, English. I love playing with words. As a kid, I often lost myself for hours reading, and Mr. Thomas encouraged me to do both. Now, my parents also love to read, and in my house we had a lot of books. There were my parents' textbooks from school, loads of nonfiction for their jobs, novels that they enjoyed, and I eagerly pulled down book after book to find new worlds in their pages. Like in many middle school English classes, we wrote a monthly book report. So, I turned to the stacks that surrounded me at home.
Meredith McCoy: On the bookshelf in their office, my parents had a bunch of Native authored books. I pulled down Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. I was drawn to it because Louise Erdrich is Turtle Mountain Ojibwe just like me. Her writings were a mirror for my family to borrow an image from Rudine Sims Bishop. Growing up far away from our homelands and our current territories, her books linked me to my Native nation. They gave me a connection to the rest of my community. So I read them with love and excitement and joy. And when I turned in my book report, I was excited to share these stories with my teacher. Imagine then my surprise when, instead of giving back my paper, Mr. Thomas called me over to his desk for a teacher conference. In my excitement about exploring the narratives that I had been missing, and that I’d found in Erdrich's book, I hadn't considered that I might be a bit young for some of the content. Of course, my teacher noticed. So, during the conference, he requested that I get prior approval for all my remaining books that year.
Meredith McCoy: Today, as a former middle school English teacher myself, the story makes me laugh. It reminds me of my own precociousness, and of my joy of reading and learning. But it also reminds me of how lucky we are that the world of young adult literature today is no longer what it was back in the year 2000. We live in a moment where a Native student, looking for a book that reflects themselves, can find texts appropriate for any age and any reading level. I am so grateful to the Native authors who have changed the game for teachers and students because we're now better equipped to introduce all of our young learners to a fuller understanding of Indigenous peoples through books.
Meredith McCoy: I'm Meredith McCoy, and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises. In our second season, we are expanding our focus to better support elementary school educators to spend more time with teachers who are doing this work in the classroom, and to understand the often hidden history of the enslavement of Indigenous people in what is currently the United States.
Meredith McCoy: Talking with students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery. In most U.S. classrooms, students don't learn much about the history of Native nations, and even less about Indigenous peoples today. And each autumn, Thanksgiving brings a disturbing amount of inaccurate information and inappropriate myths into classrooms across the country. We know that there aren't many resources for elementary grades about teaching Indigenous enslavement, yet. We're working on that. But there are a lot of good resources that teachers can choose to counter misconceptions in their classrooms right now, including through children's literature.
Meredith McCoy: In this episode, Debbie Reese is going to help us understand what we should be seeking out and what we should avoid or teach critically when selecting and presenting children's books by and about Indigenous people. Over the past 13 years, her website, American Indians in Children's Literature, has become the go-to source for educators seeking critical perspectives of Indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books. I reference it all the time, and I'm constantly suggesting that other folks check it out as well.
Meredith McCoy: I was so honored to interview Dr. Reese, a personal hero, who has opened up the conversation about representations of Native people and provided such important suggestions for how to improve the state of children's literature. During our conversation, she offers several suggestions for specific books for your classroom. We discuss strategies for helping students critically understand problematic texts, including confronting common myths and misconceptions. And Dr. Reese explains the importance of using a combination of texts when teaching about Indigenous peoples. I'm so glad you can join us.
Meredith McCoy: Dr. Reese, it is so good to have you here on the show.
Debbie Reese: Thank you for inviting me.
Meredith McCoy: Could you tell us a bit about your background and why you do this work?
Debbie Reese: I am tribally enrolled at a sovereign Native nation called Nambé Pueblo that's in the part of the country that is currently called New Mexico. I was born at the Indian hospital that serves my tribal community in Santa Fe and raised on the reservation and was always interested in school and became a school teacher. And then became a professor in American Indian Studies, interested in representation of Native people in children's books.
Meredith McCoy: In addition to being an author and a public intellectual, you run this amazing blog, American Indians in Children's Literature. Could you tell us a little bit about who it's for and what it does?
Debbie Reese: People who work at universities are supposed to write articles that will get them tenure at a university, but often that means that their articles and book chapters are in places that teachers cannot actually access easily. And I wanted my work to have as wide a readership by people who use children's books as possible. So I created this blog, I think in 2006, that is being widely used by professors and librarians and teachers and parents in the United States and Canada. It's called American Indians in Children's Literature. You type that into a search bar, all those words, you'll find it. You can also follow me on Twitter. My Twitter name is Deb Reese.
Meredith McCoy: I use your blog often in my own work, and I'm constantly suggesting it to teachers as a resource. What are some of the major themes that you address on the blog that you like to have accessible to teachers?
Debbie Reese: I guess what I want most of all for teachers to come away from after they visited my site is to be able to recognize that Native people are still here and we have stories to tell, that we are not of the past—we are of the present—and that most of the books that they probably received when they were children or that were taught to them when they were in teacher education programs missed that very important point that we're still here. So, there's a lot of historical fiction that teachers learn about when they take their children's literature courses, but they don't learn about the present day books that Native writers are creating.
Debbie Reese: It's important that when teachers are selecting books that they look for ones that are written by Native writers. There are a great many of them. If you come to my website, I actually have a gallery of Native writers and illustrators that you can page through and see their names and their tribal affiliations and a photograph of them. That's one thing and in addition to the own voices writing is the key piece that we are sovereign nations. Though we have been characterized in most teacher education programs as one of the underrepresented or minority groups in the United States, we have a distinct status because we are sovereign nations who have some jurisdiction over what happens on our reservations. Other underrepresented groups do not have that power. We have it because we were nations before the United States was a nation. That isn't taught, and that's a key piece I want people to come away with.
Meredith McCoy: Thinking about the books that are often being used by teachers in K—12 classrooms. What do you see people currently using, and what kind of shifts would you like to see?
Debbie Reese: One big one that I think it's used over and over and over again, and I see referenced in many texts and articles, is Island of the Blue Dolphins that is especially used in California, and it is especially a problem because it was written a long time ago by a white writer named Scott Odell. It did win the Newbery Medal, but it won that medal during a time in children's literature scholarship when people didn't recognize what an outsider who was looking at a people he did not truly understand or know could do wrong in terms of the representation. There's many, many errors in how Scott Odell presented that story.
Debbie Reese: One is that he made up words that he said are words in the language that the woman on that island spoke. They're not. He made them up. But teachers seem to think that's an actual language, and it's not. It's a white person's imaginings of what a Native language was. So that's one problem with that book. A second problem is the way that it opens. It has a Russian ship coming to that island, and it has Native men attacking and killing the Native families on that island of the blue dolphins as if that's just a fact of what happened. What is missing from that is that the Russians who were the captains of those ships had enslaved those Native men from Alaska and were holding their families hostage. If the men did not do as they were told, their families would be killed. That's an important piece of history that is left out.
Debbie Reese: And so, without that info in there, the Native men who attack the families on the island are simply savage barbarians, bloodthirsty Indians. So, that's also another big problem with Scott O'Dell's novel. And people take it as authentic and accurate. They use it in the classrooms as if it was a text that teaches kids about Native people, and it doesn't. It gives students a white man's view of a people. So I see that one a lot, and it's especially a problem.
Meredith McCoy: What is the difference in impact on children when they receive a children's book that's told from an Indigenous perspective compared to when they receive a book told from a non-Indigenous perspective?
Debbie Reese: I think there are many. One is they have the potential to imagine themselves as a writer, because that person is of their nation and so it provides a role model. What we commonly refer to in children's literature as mirrors, books that can be mirrors, written by people who know the history and the culture and the people that they're writing about because they are of that particular group. And I think that the likelihood that a writer who is of a particular tribal nation will accurately and authentically present that nation are much higher than someone who is not of that culture.
Debbie Reese: There's one example that I can talk about. It's a bad example. It's a book that's supposed to be about the Zuni people. Zuni is one of the Pueblo Nations in New Mexico, and the writer of the book depicted a moment in our ceremonies where we share the harvest. At a certain point in that particular dance that we do that's a harvest dance, we hand or toss items from our basket to somebody standing nearby. So I might have a basket that will have years of corn in it and squash and perhaps dish towels from Walmart, things of that nature. I will pull them out one at a time and toss them to somebody that's standing next to me. The way that a non-Native person depicted that is as a food fight. So when we look at her book, that's Penny Pollock's Zuni Cinderella Story, she has a double-page spread, two of them in sequence, where the Pueblo people in that story are throwing food at each other. It's like a food fight in a cafeteria.
Debbie Reese: So, that's gross misinterpretation of something that's quite significant to the communal values that we have amongst the Pueblo people. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that outsiders don't understand what they're looking at. And they can misrepresent it in ways that are detrimental to the well-being of Pueblo children, who, in that case, would look at that and think this is wrong.
Meredith McCoy: Well, I am horrified that that exists.
Debbie Reese: And it won an award from the American Folklore Society.
Meredith McCoy: That to me speaks to the importance of having Indigenous authors and Indigenous folks all the way up the publishing chain—editors, folks at the publishing houses.
Debbie Reese: On the book award committees.
Meredith McCoy: Right. And what kind of books would you recommend that people adopt in their classrooms moving forward?
Debbie Reese: Another book that I want teachers to take a look at is called Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, written by Kevin Noble Maillard, who is Seminole Nation, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. This book is actually about a food that is created in many Native communities. It's got a very dark history. That's part of the story that you get when you start reading it. But the thing that I absolutely adore about this book is that when you open the cover, the front end pages and the back end pages of the book are filled with the names of Native nations. Back in March when I first saw the cover reveal for this book, and I saw that the artist had looked up the names of Native nations and in tiny letters filling the two end pages of the book, you'll find hundreds of names of Native nations, and she said that she imagined Native kids and their parents scanning those words to find their own nation.
Debbie Reese: I was so intrigued by that. I wrote to the author and said, "Kevin, what's up with this? Can you tell me more?" And he sent me some information about it, and he also sent me the first draft of those end papers. I did exactly what Juana said she imagined people doing. That's the way parents are going to feel when they get this book. They're going to set their finger on there and go looking for their nation. So, I did that, and I found it. And I wrote about it in a blog post. When I write about my nation, I always have that accent on the e, and Juana noticed that and she went back and made that correction to how she had our nation represented. So, Nambé now has an accent in the book cover, and I got the book yesterday. And I am just so taken with that much recognition of who we are as people of the present day that Native families across the United States are going to be looking for their name on the front and back cover of this book.
Meredith McCoy: That's so beautiful.
Debbie Reese: It really is, it really is.
Meredith McCoy: As I've been looking at your blog over the years, and thinking in particular about this project, I've noticed there's just not a lot out there in terms of children's books that talk about histories of enslavement. Are there any that come to your mind? Or are there any texts that you think even treat this issue sort of tangentially?
Debbie Reese: As a topic, Native enslavement or enslavement of Native peoples is something that's just from my point of view becoming known within the adults’ academic community, and it will filter down to children's and young adult books. There are books out there that do that, only a few. And I need to study them to see how the subject of slavery has been treated by writers. But, at present, let's avoid those books for now until we've had time to really see how this body of literature develops.
Meredith McCoy: That feels like a really important insight that we need to tread cautiously and wait until there's been more thinking about how these books might work for children. What about some issues that are tangential, like maybe removal or the Dakota War?
Debbie Reese: Well, there are some stories about that. One that I'm really looking forward to is by Andrea Rogers. It’ll come out next year. She's Cherokee, and this will be a middle grade story that I think might be the first middle grade story by a Cherokee writer about removal. So I'm really looking forward to that. Some writers touch on that in their work, but this is the first one that I'm thinking of that is going to do that from a Cherokee perspective.
Meredith McCoy: That sounds really exciting.
Debbie Reese: Again, that book is Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story written by Andrea L. Rogers, who is Cherokee.
Meredith McCoy: What is the impact for students when they receive a text about a historical event, like removal, being told from the perspective of someone whose peoples experienced that event firsthand compared to receiving a book from the perspective of someone whose ancestors did not go through that experience?
Debbie Reese: I've been thinking this morning about Traci Sorell's picture book, and the book title is We Are Grateful. It's a yearlong look at Cherokee history and culture. It's an important book because it's written by a Cherokee writer. It's about the Cherokee people. It's a seasonal treatment of their lives in the present day. And so, there is content in there about removal told from that perspective.
Debbie Reese: When teachers start looking through that book, they're going to see Cherokee words scattered here and there. There's a page about the fall time of the year. And there's a Cherokee word for that, and the pronunciation guide is there for it as well. On that page we see the sentence, “When cool breezes blow and leaves fall, we say otsaliheliga … .” And you see the art on that page shows a native family—a little boy on his bicycle, a mom walking behind him, and a father pushing a Cherokee child in a stroller. So, they're just out for a walk. And behind them are trees with the leaves falling. And it's very much set in the present day because you just look at that, this is a family of today out for a walk in the fall, but they are a Cherokee family.
Debbie Reese: And so, there's that kind of treatment of the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee people throughout. On the pages where they are shown dancing, you see them in traditional but also contemporary modern clothing because some people wear traditional and some people wear more contemporary clothing for the gatherings that occur at their nation. I think that when we get books like that about topics that we have not seen covered very well by writers who are outside of that particular experience, are ones that people of that group, in this case, Cherokees, can embrace in a way that the others, they can't.
Debbie Reese: One thing that seems to be lost in classrooms is that Native people are here 365 days a year. Most teaching about Native people gets confined to Columbus Day or to November "Native American month." And what is lost when you do that is that both of those topics are historical topics. They are not, here we are today and this is what we're doing. So, using a book like Traci Sorell's We Are Grateful because it is a yearlong treatment of Cherokee life and culture puts us right away in the present day. You could look at her title, We Are Grateful, it's not a past tense verb. You can flip to the first page of the book—it says the Cherokee say—so looking at the verb tense that Traci Sorell uses in her book is really important. As a picture book, it lets children really pick up some important information right away.
Meredith McCoy: This is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, and I'm your Host Meredith McCoy. Along with this podcast, you can find our new first of its kind K through 5 framework for teaching slavery to elementary students, including 20 age-appropriate essential knowledge sections, over 100 primary source texts and six inquiry design models at tolerance.org/hard history.
Meredith McCoy: Once again, here's Debbie Reese.
Meredith McCoy: Thinking about texts that often misrepresent Native peoples, we are just moving into November. And in the fall, we know that many teachers look for texts that talk about Thanksgiving. Could you give us some context for children's books about Thanksgiving, what works and what maybe teachers should avoid?
Debbie Reese: So, though I don't know this for a fact, I'm pretty sure that whether a part of the official school curriculum or not, it's expected that around Thanksgiving every teacher in every elementary school is going to teach that story that is not an accurate reflection of the history of that time period. So, what I recommend that teachers do is repackage the way they're going to teach about Thanksgiving by thinking about the Native peoples in their communities today and providing students with stories written by people of that nation or ones that are accurately telling kids information about those particular people.
Debbie Reese: For Columbus Day, I think that's an opportunity for us to, as teachers, talk about the Taíno people and Puerto Rico and the experiences that we are seeing in the news every day about the people of Puerto Rico. Thanksgiving and Columbus Day are huge topics. They are so at the heart of the United States' story of its birth and its life that they're very hard to chip away at. And, as soon as you ask teachers to revisit that, you get a lot of resistance, not just teachers, but Americans, broadly speaking. Nobody likes their feel-good stories about this country to be disrupted. They need to be. We need to disrupt those stories, because I think that, as we move from one day to the next, one year to the next, what this country does on a world stage reflects on how it has treated its citizens, past and present.
Debbie Reese: I think that if we could be more honest about our history, that we would become a better nation going forward and treating peoples of other nations with more respect than was done with Native and African American and Asian American peoples in this country. I was at a local high school yesterday, and the particular class I was visiting, these are kids who are in AP classes. So, these are advanced students. And the teacher was recounting to me that they'd had a conversation about Thanksgiving and how that was taught to them when they were in grade school. One student said, "Nobody teaches like that anymore." And the rest of the class, we're talking about 40 students, said, "That's exactly how it was taught to me." And by “that is exactly how it was taught to me,” I mean that children are still dressing up in what they or their teachers perceive to be Native clothing that the Wampanoag people wore and sitting down at a table with other students dressed like Pilgrims to share a meal.
Debbie Reese: That's a terrible representation of a moment in history that people choose to celebrate without looking at the rest of the history around that period. There's a children's book that has kids doing a play reenactment of the arrival of the Pilgrims and how the Native people greeted them and were happy to see them and wanted to share their land with them. That book misrepresents the history. It puts it into that kind of happy, get together, feel-good Hallmark card interpretation that it really does not deserve. So, Thanksgiving books in particular are highly problematic.
Meredith McCoy: What do you think the impact is on children when they receive children's literature that so directly erases historical facts?
Debbie Reese: A few years ago, a teacher wrote to me about a student that she had in her classroom she was teaching, I think it was fifth grade, gifted students, and they were looking at the way that Thanksgiving has been taught. And the student that was brought to my attention in particular, her name was Taylor. Taylor was horrified when she was learning this history. And she said to her teacher, "Do you mean all those smiling Indians worksheets that I had to do all these years were wrong?" In her words, there is an absolute betrayal. She didn't say, “My teachers betrayed me.” But I think that's what's underneath her words, that her teachers in kindergarten, first, second, third and fourth grade in depicting or teaching her that Native people were smiling and greeting the people that were overrunning their lands and killing their families, was a betrayal of the trust that a child and her parents expect from a teacher that their children will be given factual information, not fairytales.
Meredith McCoy: In Teaching Hard History, we’re focused particularly on histories of Indigenous enslavement. And, when teachers teach about Thanksgiving, they often include stories that talk about a man named Squanto. I don't like to use that name because it's not actually his name. His name was Tisquantum. And it seems to me like when I was going through those very same lessons that you're describing, we never talked about Tisquantum and his relationship with the Pilgrims. Or if we did, it was in this very simplified way where he was just helping the Pilgrims out of love. What should teachers know to think more critically about how they represent Tisquantum in their classrooms?
Debbie Reese: Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up. Because in these children's picture books about that Thanksgiving moment, we do have Tisquantum entering the story as someone who could speak English and help the Pilgrims survive—learn how to plant using fish—and there isn't any context provided for why he knows English. In some books, you will see that he was captured and sold into slavery and went to England and that's why he knows English. He made his way back. But that fact is glossed over; it's not really dealt with in a way that children will understand the act that was done to him by which he became someone who would know English. That doesn't fit when we're trying to tell a feel-good story. How do you make that fact work? You don't. So you just leave it out.
Meredith McCoy: And I think that that's exactly what the teachers who are listening to Teaching Hard History and looking at the framework are trying to do better. They're thinking about, well, the history is not always as simple or as binary as we're taught. And so, thinking about ways to talk about Tisquantum and his experiences of enslavement is an important way to bring in the histories of enslavement into lessons that teachers are already teaching. A lot of the way that early Indigenous history gets taught in K—12 classrooms focuses on the Eastern Seaboard. Why is it important to help students understand Indigenous peoples across the continent?
Debbie Reese: It's a way of keeping the conversation and the history and the story of the United States on the Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower and Indians greeting them in a way that is just not accurate. Indigenous peoples were on every part of this continent. And starting at the East Coast, the way that most history textbooks do, erases the peoples on the West Coast and in the northern and southern parts of the country. So I think that when we insist in textbooks on starting the story there, we fall right back into a rut that doesn't let us critically examine what happened across the continent.
Meredith McCoy: Can you tell us a little bit about how your new book might help teachers to make sure that they are talking about Indigenous peoples across the entire continent?
Debbie Reese: There were peoples here on this continent before Europeans arrived. So the Indigenous People's History of the United States for Young People opens with that idea. It very quickly says that most of what people know is Columbus' landing, but that Native people have a different way of thinking about that moment in history.
Debbie Reese: Three years ago, I was invited to adapt Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's book for young readers. I agreed to work on that with Jean Mendoza, a friend and colleague. Both of us are former elementary school teachers. Both of us have Ph.D.s in education, and we're both parents of Native children. So we are bringing all of that into our adaptation of a book that would say, "Look, this is the actual history. It started before the United States started." The book works very hard at providing teen readers with a Native point of view on these moments in history and how those moments in history impacted Native communities and our resilience. Obviously, we're still here. These nations are still here, and that is evidence of our efforts to fight back for our lands and our peoples and our communities—for the values, for the stories, for the songs, for all of those things that make us be a people.
Meredith McCoy: This book would have been so helpful for me as a Native kid growing up in K—12 public schools where I was one of only a handful of Native students in my school district. And I also think it's really important for non-Native students to read. How do you see this being a book that serves all students?
Debbie Reese: Referring again back to yesterday, I was at a high school. They had students doing presentations on various parts of the book. A white student was doing a presentation on Lincoln. In chapter 10, we talk about Lincoln and the Dakota 38 and how he was responsible for the largest mass execution of anybody in the United States and that's 38 Dakota men who were hanged in a public execution. And that student who read what we have in chapter 10 about that was very intrigued by that because she had never learned that Lincoln did that. So she started investigating that. That became her project that she presented to her fellow students. She's white, and some of the students in the class are African American, and they are visibly uncomfortable as she recounts this. And one said, "Wait, wait, wait, can you just give me a minute because Lincoln is like my hero. I didn't know that he did all of this."
Debbie Reese: So, I think that, in answer to your question, why the kids need to know this, I think because it's history and other children, whether they're Native or not and let's be honest, most of the children who are going to read this book are non-Native, they need to read this. They need to know this history, so that they don't carry these myths with them into the work that they do. Perhaps the young man who needed a little bit of time to reflect on Lincoln, that person could grow up to be a legislator in Congress where they have control over funding that will make its way to Native communities or to schools. So, I think just having more educated citizens who start out as young people in schools that have control over the lives of everybody in the country, whether that's in schools or on reservations, is important to have that history.
Meredith McCoy: In addition to your book, what are some favorites that you like to encourage teachers to use in their classrooms when they're looking for children's books about Indigenous peoples?
Debbie Reese: Coming out next year is one called We Are Water Protectors that's written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade. Both of these women are Native, and they're both enrolled in their nations. The book We Are Water Protectors is about Native activism where Native people are standing up to injustice, in this case, the Dakota Access Pipeline. Some of your listeners may have followed that news when it was breaking and may be familiar with the photographs that were circulating from there, but also from similar kinds of protection moments in Canada, where a Native person, a woman, was kneeling on the ground in front of a line of police officers holding up an eagle feather in defiance of their approach to the Native people who are standing to resist them coming on to the places where this exploitation was taking place, where the pipelines were being dug. So, that photo is iconic because it shows a Native person from the back looking at the police who were approaching.
Debbie Reese: We Are Water Protectors on the cover has the front view. So, you see the little girl's face. You see a little girl's face holding that feather. And behind her, you see people holding hands. Those are the Native people that were standing behind the Native woman in that photograph, standing together, holding hands saying, "We're protecting our water. We are protecting the water for everybody." So I think that a book like this one, We Are Water Protectors, which will come out in 2020, centers Native people in the present with all of our values as people who are fighting for everybody, everybody's water, but who are doing it in a collective way, standing together. So, I think this is an excellent book, and I really can't wait for it to come out.
Debbie Reese: On the book jacket for We Are Water Protectors there is a bio for both Carole Lindstrom and for Michaela Goade. Carole's reads, "Carole Lindstrom is Anishinabe/Metis and is tribally enrolled with the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe." So there you have right away that she's tribally enrolled with a specific nation. Same for Michaela Goade. It says, "Michaela Goade is of Tlingit descent and is tribally enrolled with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.” In addition to talking about what was going on at Standing Rock and how it was the largest gathering of Indigenous peoples ever to come together in an action of this kind, teachers can say, "Oh, let's look up the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe," and they can pull that nation's website up. And they could do the same thing with Michaela so that we move away from the idea of Native or Indian and get into the heads of children the specific nations of these two women.
Meredith McCoy: I'm your host, Meredith McCoy. And this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. If you're looking for more literature suggestions for your elementary, middle or high school classrooms, including strategies for pairing primary sources with YA literature, to introduce fundamental themes and information about slavery, dive into our archives, and check out Episode 17 from season one, Young Adult Trade Books with John H. Bickford. Again, here's Debbie Reese.
Meredith McCoy: Recognizing that authors are tribally affiliated is a really important part of vetting children's books. In addition to that, what are some things that teachers should look for when they're trying to decide whether or not to bring a book into their classroom?
Debbie Reese: All right. One thing is to reject anything that is ambiguous in its content. We are Native Americans, we are American Indians, but both of those terms obscure the fact that we are very different. That there's over 500 sovereign tribal nations and that we have different stories, different languages and we're located on different parts of the country. So being mindful of the specific information in a book, a teacher should look for specific tribal nations being named in the books; Native American, American Indian or Indigenous are global terms that really don't help very much when children are trying to understand who Native people are. So, that's one.
Debbie Reese: Another thing that I see a lot is the use of the word first Americans to talk about Native people. That completely erases the fact that we were nations before America came into existence. So, I encourage teachers to really reject that or, if they're going to bring something in like that, that they pick up a Sharpie and do some editing of the book when they present it to kids so that kids learn that books have mistakes in them. With a classroom collection, I want teachers to make sure that they have a balance. Most of them are going to have books set in the past, or they're going to have books about holidays, like Thanksgiving. And I think they really need to have more books that show us as peoples of the present day. And that's one big need that I think needs to happen.
Debbie Reese: A third is verb tense, using the word is, using the word are rather than was and were brings us into the present day. I think that's very important. Another thing that I ask teachers to look for is with respect to our religious stories. They are too often categorized as myths, legends and folktales, rather than as religious stories. Many of these when they're written by Native people might in fact be teachings from a religious base of that particular nation. And having them categorized as myths, legends and folktales, kind of like Little Red Riding Hood, trivializes their significance to the people who tell them. So, I would like teachers to think about the myths, legends and folktales that they are using. And I really want them to just stop using those stories in the classroom. These are trivialized and seen simply as folktales and not having religious significance. That, unfortunately, leads teachers to use stories, for example, if there's one about how chipmunk got its stripes, which is a creation story for a particular nation, as a way of telling kids, “Now you write a story like that.”
Debbie Reese: Teachers are not likely to ask students to read Genesis and then pretend they're God and create the world like God did. So, I would really like teachers to be very mindful of their use of what is characterized as myths, legends and folktales. Another thing I want teachers to be thoughtful about is that society, whether that's television or movies or books, leads them to think that Native people have dark hair and dark skin and high cheekbones. Some of us do, but not all of us. Thinking of Native peoples as having a particular look is an indicator that stereotypes are working pretty hard on their own way of thinking about Native people. And that we are a race of people rather than that we are nations of peoples. When you have nations of people, what you look like doesn't matter. So, I think that it's really important to never assume that you don't have a Native kid in your classroom because you don't see someone with dark hair, high cheekbones and darker skin.
Meredith McCoy: I'm so glad that you brought that up. What we know from the National Indian Education Association is that there are nearly 645,000 Indigenous students in classrooms across the United States, and 93 percent of us attend public schools. So, I'm so glad that you're pointing out that all teachers should be aware that they may have Native kids in their class. Not all of my teachers knew that I was a Native student unless I brought that into the classroom on purpose. So thank you for raising that.
Debbie Reese: Yeah, I think it's a huge problem. There's a book that won the Caldecott Medal that's supposed to be a Pueblo story, and it misrepresents Pueblo ways. And I just think about all the Pueblo kids whose teachers are using that book in the classroom, and what do the Pueblo kids do when they know that it's not right, but their teacher is telling them, "This is about you." How does a kindergartner speak back to that? It's unfair to Native children to have to deal with problematic books.
Meredith McCoy: There's been a push in social studies research recently from folks like Leilani Sabzalian and Sarah Shear to think about ways to make sure that K—12 social studies classrooms are really openly talking about Indigenous governance and sovereignty. Are there any particular children's books that you think are good teaching tools for helping teachers talk about Indigenous sovereignty and contemporary governance?
Debbie Reese: Mmm. I want to say a little bit about Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Cynthia Leitich Smith, the author, is Muskogee, and Hearts Unbroken is set in a suburban area where the main character, Lou, and her family are Muskogee Creek. They're one of the few Native families in that school and in that area. As you read that story, you learn a little bit about the family. Early on, you learn that Lou's mother is in law school. And one evening, Lou and her mom are sitting at the kitchen table and they're both studying. And Lou can tell her mom's little bit frustrated, and she reminds her mom, "Mom, you're becoming a lawyer. You're doing that because you want to defend tribal sovereignty, and you want to keep American Indian children in American Indian families and communities where we belong." So, there's just that little passage right there that talks about tribal sovereignty and why people like her mom are going to law school to protect that.
Debbie Reese: She's talking about defending tribal sovereignty, but she's also talking about the Indian Child Welfare Act. In the United States, there's a long history of white social service. People deciding that Native families can't take care of Native children, and those Native children were removed from those homes. There's horrific stories of how those kinds of removals took place. The outcome of that was enough Native people speaking up about it such that Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act that protects Native children and Native nations and their sovereign nation status that plays into the idea that they determine the placement of Native children.
Debbie Reese: So, Cynthia's book brings that into it. And another thing that I like about Hearts Unbroken is that her brother is interested in the arts, he's in acting. The school is going to do a production of The Wizard of Oz, and he's trying out for the Tin Man, and he gets the role. But during the book he starts to learn about L. Frank Baum and Baum's writings about Native people. So, he writes up a paragraph because the theater teacher is trying to have the students create materials that would promote the production. So, he's written something, and this is what he wrote: "L. Frank Baum is remembered as someone who created a magical world with very different characters coming together as friends. But he was like the wizard. His public image doesn't match the reality of who he was. Baum was a terrible man who hated American Indians and wanted us all killed."
Debbie Reese: Now that is absolutely true. If teachers who are listening want to look up L. Frank Baum's writings about Native people, he did, in fact, write columns for newspapers of that time that said that we should be exterminated. So, this is a young person learning about the history in which writers like L. Frank Baum, and he's not the only one, there were many, really just wanted to exterminate people, exterminate our nations so that our resources would become available to them. This particular segment continues, and this is Hughie. Her brother's name is Hughie. Hughie tells Lou, "After rehearsal, Mrs. Q said I was off tone, off focus. She said Baum was a man of his time. That nobody cares anymore and that I shouldn't have mentioned it." Either, what stands out to me about that particular passage—"a man of his time”—is that when we are being critical of children's books and how writers are talking about Native people and other people as well, someone will inevitably say, "Well that was a man of his time," or, "She was a woman of her time."
Debbie Reese: And, with that one, I'm thinking about Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie. A man of his time or a woman of her time, who, when that is brought forth as an example of thinking of the past, that it's not of the present, and so, leave those people alone because that's the way everybody thought back then, is fraught with problems. Lots of people thought that back then, but lots of people did not.
Meredith McCoy: In some of the later summary objectives in the Teaching Hard History framework, we try and help teachers think about the relationship between present issues for Indigenous peoples and these longer histories of enslavement, recognizing that as the institution of slavery morphed over time to maintain these systems of power and labor, that the issues facing our communities today in many cases grew out of those problems and those dynamics. Could you speak to how teachers might think about putting conversations about the past and texts about the past in conversation with texts about the present to understand this connection between past events and present impacts?
Debbie Reese: In Cynthia Leitich Smith's Hearts Unbroken, when the theater teacher in that story tries to say that racism of L. Frank Baum is a reflection of the past, that it's not something that is appropriate to bring up in the present day because that sort of thing doesn't exist anymore, I think she's trying to make the case that L. Frank Baum would not speak that way today because he knows better, because we are no longer racist as a society. And, in fact, we are. That is ever more clear with every day when we see what's coming out of Washington, D.C., and the White House that we do have very racist ways of thinking about people. Not just of the United States, but of the world and who we think can come to this country called the United States of America.
Debbie Reese: So, I think that using children's books that reference things like that. That Cynthia Leitich Smith is saying through her characters, "No, racism isn't a thing of the past. It's part of the present." If we only think carefully about it, that being able to see that will help us all go forward in a better way.
Meredith McCoy: Given how few resources exist in terms of representing histories of Indigenous enslavement in children's books, Teaching Tolerance is going to be commissioning some new works that deal with this subject. And they're prioritizing working with Indigenous writers. As writers think about answering this call, what kinds of content or themes would you like to see represented in these new works?
Debbie Reese: There's a book that came out a couple of days ago that is by a writer named Charlene Willing McManis who was of the Umpqua or Grand Ronde Reservation. She passed away before the book could come out. Her book is called Indian No More, and it's her family story of the time period when the United States government was trying to terminate Native tribes. Saying, "You are not a tribe anymore. You're not a nation anymore." And, so this happened. This is a fact of history that many tribal nations across the United States were terminated by the federal government.
Debbie Reese: This story is about how that felt to her as a young girl and her family. Their nation was terminated, and they moved through another government program called Relocation to Los Angeles, and that's where she grew up. That story of the kinds of efforts that the United States government made over time to erase Native people, to get us out of the way need to be brought forth. So, I would like teachers to get a copy of Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and read that. Bring that into the classroom so students understand that period of history and what that was like for a Native family. Termination relocation is something that I think everybody should know about, and so I'm glad that we have that.
Debbie Reese: I also think that it would be interesting for teachers to try and find any books that talk about Lincoln and the Dakota 38. You won't find it because that gets left out of the biographies about Lincoln. So, that is an obvious need that the people that you commission to write the stories there should be one about Lincoln and that moment in history that ought to be there. We've talked a little bit about Native people and enslavement. So I think there should be stories about that, obviously. So I'd like to see some of that.
Debbie Reese: This is a little dicier, but I think worth considering to when people come here to this country, to the United States and they embrace this idea of Americanism. What do they give up? Do they lose their own languages? Do they step away from some of their community values and at what cost and who is losing out in that process? I think that's a topic that should be considered, and I guess I think of that, in particular, when I think about the Land Rush and the Gold Rush, this land belonged to somebody, and somebody else is now benefiting from the resources on that land. It's not just white Americans; it's Americans who are of other colors. And I think that, if we bring that forward, we have a richer understanding of what it means to embrace capitalism and let go of your own values and participate in things that might ultimately be harmful to everybody.
Meredith McCoy: I'm glad that you raised that. The reason enslavement for Indigenous peoples persists for so long, well into the late, late 1800s, is because the central motivation of capitalism doesn't go away after the Civil War. There is still that ongoing desire that continues to this day to find cheap or free labor as a way to maximize profit, regardless of the impact on human beings and human dignity. So, I do think that those questions about how people who continue to arrive in the United States engage in relationship with Indigenous peoples and take ownership of their use of Indigenous resources and occupation of Indigenous lands. That is a really important conversation that all of us should be having.
Debbie Reese: And as you say that, we are also talking about appropriation of Native identity. There are the stories that are coming out in the L.A. Times about all of these businesses, where someone in the business said they were Cherokee, and they were getting contracts based on that. So they're enriching themselves by a false claim to being Native. It is interesting to think about the multiple ways that capitalism drives people to do things that are harmful to the planet and the people everywhere.
Meredith McCoy: It seems like we're in this really beautiful moment where there are lots of books coming out. Academic books, children's books, trade books, written by Indigenous authors and coming from an Indigenous perspective. What do you see as the state of things at the moment, and where do you see us going?
Debbie Reese: I agree, it's wonderful that we are seeing more books because publishers are paying attention to the call for these books. But we have to see that roll over into a sustained use of the books. That is only going to be sustained if teachers buy the books, if librarians buy the books and use them. So these books have to be brought into the programming that librarians do. So, for example, if librarians are doing a book display, about music, about rock ‘n’ roll music, then they should bring Eric Gansworth's book to that. They should put Robbie Robertson's book on that shelf. They should consider the fact that Native people are not just Native people, but they're musicians as well. They like music, and bring us into those particular conversations so that we're visible in more than one way to children in the libraries.
Meredith McCoy: This has been such a beautiful conversation and it really fills me with hope for where teachers can go in their classrooms and what kinds of resources and texts they can be putting into the hands of kids. And these are texts that would have made my learning experience so much richer as a kid growing up if I had had access to them. So, I want to say a big chi-miigwech to Debbie Reese for joining us today. This has been a beautiful conversation, and I'm so thankful that it will be out there for teachers.
Debbie Reese: Thank you for inviting me. I hope that teachers who listen to the podcast will look for these books and that they'll come to my website. And I also want to say, is one final thing, that I want teachers to speak up that when they are using a book and how they're using it, I want them to say so on social media because publishers are watching for that and that will help us see more books like that get published. But I also want them to speak up when they see something that's a problem. Because only by saying, “This is not okay” to the publishers and the writers and the editors who create books will we see a falling off of that. Teachers have a lot of power if they use it.
Meredith McCoy: Debbie Reese grew up at Nambé Pueblo, a sovereign Native nation in what is currently known as New Mexico, where she's also tribally enrolled. She studied depictions of Indigenous people and Native nations in children's books for almost 30 years. And Dr. Reese founded the website, americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com, in 2006 to make her research and writing easily accessible to teachers, parents and librarians. Be sure to follow Dr. Reese on Twitter, where she's constantly posting new information about children's books that are coming out and important trends in the world of children's literature to keep an eye on.
Meredith McCoy: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare their students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance offers free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find these resources online at tolerance.org. Most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of what is currently the United States or how its legacies still influenced us today. Now in our second season, this podcast is part of an effort to provide comprehensive tools for learning and teaching this critical topic. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials that include over 100 texts, sample inquiries and a detailed K—12 framework for teaching the history of American slavery. You can find these online at tolerance.org/hardhistory.
Meredith McCoy: Thanks to Dr. Reese for sharing her insights with us. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer with additional support from Robin Wise and Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Kate Schuster is our executive producer. Our theme song is “Different Heroes” by A Tribe Called Red featuring Northern Voice, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie. If you liked what you heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues, and then let us know what you thought. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback. I'm Dr. Meredith McCoy, Assistant Professor of American Studies and History at Carleton College and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.