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“Change happens when enough people demand it.”

Debbie in 1998: “Native American folktales are beautiful.”

Debbie in 2017: “WTF was I thinking in 1998?!”

When the Horn Book asked if I’d be interested in writing something for their Family Reading blog, I looked back at a Field Notes column I had written for the Magazine, way back in 1998. I began “Mom, Look! It’s George, and He’s a TV Indian!” with a story about my daughter’s fury over one of her favorite characters — George from James Marshall’s George and Martha books — playing Indian.

We are tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo in Northern New Mexico and were living in the Midwest, where I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois. Public adoration of the school’s stereotypical mascot (which is no more, thanks in part to our activism) got me wondering, WHY do people like this sort of thing so much? I started looking critically at children’s literature and saw characters playing Indian — a lot.

Romantic and derogatory images were — and are — pervasive. We came across many of them as my daughter went through school and was assigned such books as Brother Eagle, Sister Sky and Caddie Woodlawn. Native readers bear the burden of getting through those books as best they can, while non-Native readers may not realize the images of American Indians in those books introduce and affirm misinformation. When I suggest people set those harmful books aside, I get attacked as a censor. That charge is meant to shut me up (can’t be done) and tells others to ignore me (works for some but not others).

* * * * *

The Debbie that wrote that 1998 article used a word 2017 Debbie does not: folktales.

Here’s why: The creation stories Indigenous peoples tell are as sacred to us as Bible stories are to Christians. Generally speaking, no one calls Bible stories “folktales.” Thus I no longer use the word folktales. Or myths. Or legends.

This gets tricky when a story is written by someone who is not part of the particular group with which the story originates...like Paul Goble's books. In my 1998 article, I referred to Goble’s The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses as a Native American folktale. Today, I say “hell no” to that book because Goble came up with the story all on his own. It looks like a Native story, but it isn’t. He made it up.  If you see anything that is “based on” stories from one or more Native peoples, I say, “Put that book down right now!”

Since 1998, much of my writings have been inspired by episodes in our life as a family of readers. My daughter is all grown up now. She plans to have children, which means I’ll be a grandma sometime. I look forward to that, and as I do, I reflect on the nearly thirty years that I’ve been writing about children’s books.

Illustration (modeled on Debbie Reese) by Julie Flett for Teaching Tolerance

In more recent years, I’ve added another dimension to my writings: our status as sovereign nations. Europeans who came to our homelands recognized us as nations of people with leaders with whom they had to enter into diplomatic negotiations. That’s why there are treaties! Native children, especially those who grow up on their reservations, know about their tribal government, and they know that our stories and ceremonies aren’t simply entertainment. A terrific example of this is Mission to Space by John Herrington, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, former NASA astronaut, and first tribally enrolled Native American to fly in space. I've also been advocating for books that include Native languages, such as Julie Flett's books. She's Cree-Métis and the illustrator of the Teaching Tolerance poster used as this post's featured image and to the right. [Editor's note: Julie's poster stars Debbie Reese herself, reading an earlier edition of Simon Ortiz's The People Shall Continue to a group of kids.]

Stereotyping and misrepresentations of Native peoples remain a major problem in children’s literature, but we know this: change happens when enough people demand it.

Reject and call out stereotypes and misrepresentations! Read and promote books by Native writers who, in some way, bring nationhood into the books. To get started, visit my blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Join me! Let’s make change happen.

For a list of children's books that 2017 Debbie does recommend, visit the Indian Country Today website for the First Nations Development Institute's "30 Must Reads for Children and Teens" — and don't miss "Ten Ways You Can Make a Difference" following the booklist!


Debbie Reese
Debbie Reese
Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo. A former school teacher and assistant professor in American Indian Studies, her book chapters, research and professional articles, and blog are used in Education, English, and Library Science courses in the U.S. and Canada.
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Je Suis Charlie

Change may come when people demand it, but the roads of history are littered with changes that have not been for the better. It is a poor idea to put sacred stories off limits for depiction, reinterpretation, inspiration, or even satire, and to double down on the interdiction when the artist is not a member of the group that historically created the sacred story. This is true whether the work is for adults or for children. A good deal of art in all forms, plus the core texts of a pair of huge world religions, would be at risk.

Posted : Sep 08, 2017 04:16

Kitty Flynn

Debbie, thank YOU! I'm so happy that you had the time to contribute. Keep on refusing to be "shut up"; we are all the better for it.

Posted : Sep 08, 2017 03:44

Debbie Reese

Thanks, Uma. And thanks, Kitty, for asking me to do this piece! I enjoyed writing it.

Posted : Sep 06, 2017 10:24

Uma Krishnaswami

Debbie thank you for sharing the changes in your thinking over the years. Change also happens only when enough people are willing to review and reconsider their own thinking. That includes those of us who have worked in the field, love the work we do, and try to speak the truth.

Posted : Sep 06, 2017 09:09



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