An Interview With Debbie Reese
Debbie Reese is the founder of American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL), which provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society. Her site has been listed as one of First Peoples' Top Five Native Blogs and Podcast to follow, and has written posts for School Library Journal and the American Library Association blogs. Debbie is a Nambe Pueblo Indian and RYS has invited her to speak about the crossroads between books, culture, and authentic representation in literature.
Want to ask Debbie a question live?
Join the Twitter Chat tonight, November 18, at 9PM EST.
Tonight we're chatting about #NativeAmerican representation in children's books w/ @debreese & @alliejanebruce. Use #SupportWNDB to join in.
RYS: Hi Debbie! Can you begin by sharing a little about how do you define your personal role(s) and mission(s) within the world of children's books/literature?
Debbie Reese: I'm an advocate for accuracy of information that children and young adults receive through the literature they read. Most of the representations of Native peoples in literature are well-intentioned, but most of what goes into them was, and is, shaped by inaccurate perceptions of who we are now, and who we were in the past. It is a cycle of misinformation that, with my work, I try to interrupt.
Stephanie Fryberg is a researcher who found that stereotypical images--positive and negative--depress the self-efficacy (sense that you can change the world) of Native kids who see them. She also found that the self-efficacy of non-Natives who see them is elevated. That elevation may be why positive stereotypes, in particular, make people feel good, but it is crucially important to note that the person who feels good is not the person being shown. Studies show that Native youth drop out of school and commit suicide at exceedingly high rates. Writers love books. Readers love books. Why? Because they inspire or move us in some way, but we must acknowledge their power to hurt as well. So! I advocate for accuracy and work towards helping others why. And of course, I hope they join me in talking with others about the ways that Native peoples are misrepresented in children's books.
That said, the single most important thing to know about Native peoples is that we are sovereign nations whose leaders entered into diplomatic negotiations with leaders of European countries and later, leaders of the United States. We were not the primitive Indian that so many people think we were. Our leaders were politically savvy. They fought to protect our homelands from those who wanted those lands. Their skills in war and diplomacy are why we exist today as self-governing sovereign nations. If, for example, you were to come visit me at Nambe (my reservation in northern New Mexico) and you drove too fast once you were on our reservation, you might get pulled over for speeding by tribal police. You'd pay your ticket at our tribal court. Chances are you'd meet and talk with tribal members who are on our tribal census. That scenario packs a lot of information that isn't taught is schools, but it is at the core of who we are, and is a large piece of what I see as my role in educating writers and readers.
RYS: Our readers seem very interested in diversity efforts in children's literature. Many of our followers identify in majority circles. What are some ways our followers can support diversification efforts?
Debbie Reese: I believe that, in the abstract, people like Native people. I think that abstract embrace is what explains the reverence people have for Indian mascots, Native "folktales" (more on that later) or that motivates their decision to dress up as an Indian at Halloween. Because we're such a small demographic, there is little opportunity for them to meet and talk with a Native person about issues of stereotyping or appropriation. Supporting us means getting to know us. It is natural to turn to books, but the books we turn to is key. Instead of a favorite classic that has Native characters, I suggest people read Native writers, Native news media, Native journals, and Native websites. Steep yourself in that material and use it as a guiding light when selecting books about Native people, or, when creating Native characters or stories. And of course, buy children's and young adult literature by Native writers. Doing so increases their sales number, which tells the publishers those books will be bought if available. And, ask your librarian for the books, too, and check out the ones that are on the shelves. Librarians use this data in collection development--and weeding, too! If books don't circulate, they get removed from the shelves.
RYS: On the writing side, can you speak toward cautions or considerations one should/must take when writing outside one's own culture?
Debbie Reese: Years ago in a graduate seminar, the professor asked me about books written by outsiders to a culture. I said then that I thought it was fine, that it was possible with a lot of work. She said "you just had a baby, didn't you?" I had, and said as much (the question was fine, as I'd brought my daughter to class by then). The professor posed a third question: If you were going to read a book about what it is like to birth a baby, would you rather have one written by a male who had researched it, or a woman who had been through it. It was an easy answer! Of course, the woman who had experienced it. It doesn't mean the man couldn't do a good job, but still, my choice would be a book by someone who actually shared that experience. Same with stories about Native people. I would prefer to read one by a person who grew up on his reservation, than one who researched and based on that research, imagined what that life was like.
Doing the research to write outside one's culture means, in this case, means--at the very least--reading Native materials. Lot of authors visit a place (like a reservation) and some talk to someone there and feel that a few visits and conversations is sufficient to "get it right." I think that is possible, but I've read far too many books in which that was not sufficient. Even teaching on a reservation can be insufficient. I think the motivation for writing the story is where things may fall apart. If the motivation is to help Native kids who want stories about themselves, I think a writer becomes a rescuer rather than a writer. It seems to throw up blinders that don't let the writer see his or her own privilege.
Without having read Native scholarship, a writer (even one who has taught on a reservation) is still shaped by the romantic stereotypes by which they were socialized. If a writer had read Native articles about art and appropriation, they'd likely know about the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act that protects Native artists and consumers, too. It says that art (paintings, jewelry, weavings, etc.) that are marketed as American Indian must be made by someone who is enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. The Act protects that person's livelihood, and it protects the consumer from fraud. While the Act doesn't apply to stories, I suspect that, if a writer knew about that act, they'd think twice about creating a traditional story to use in their book. Similarly, if a writer had read articles in Native journals, she would know that boarding schools were devastating to us, and with that knowledge, wouldn't white wash or overly dramatize it in her book. Sensationalizing something like that suggests a lack of understanding of what the boarding schools did to Native peoples. And spirituality! That is so badly done in most books I've read. Understanding dance, and clothing! Those are also badly misrepresented.
Quick Tips for writing about/with Native characters:
Any of these words/phrases will signal that you did not do the research necessary to give readers a book that portrays Native people with integrity.
- Don't use squaw or papoose as THE Native words for woman/baby. Those two words originate with a specific tribe and ought not to be used as if all tribes use them. We all have our own words for women and babies. And--the ubiquitous, derogatory portrayal of squaws has made the word itself derogatory.
- Don't use shaman to refer to our healers. Native people use our own words for healers. Shaman is an outsider's word.
- Don't use chief or warrior unless it is appropriate to the character's role. Use "men" instead. And don't use "brave/braves" to refer to men! Like shaman, it is an outsider's word.
- Princess is a European concept, not one rooted in Native peoples. Don't use Indian Princess.
- "Low man on the totem pole" is commonly used to suggest a hierarchy of status, but position on an actual totem pole has nothing to do with status.
- "Off the reservation" is commonly used to signal out of control, but it is rooted in the reservation period when Native peoples were confined to reservations. Leaving them without permission of the government agent meant you were at risk for being pursued and killed.
- "Circle the wagons" summons images of brave pioneers under attack by savage Indians. In fact, those "savage" Indians were men who were protecting their homelands from illegal occupation by squatters.
RYS: Can you recommend some of the best titles in recently published picture books, middle grade, and YA by Native Americans?
My favorite picture book is Cynthia Leitich Smith's JINGLE DANCER. Set in the present day, it is about Jenna, a Muscogee Creek girl who will be doing the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow.
My favorite middle grade book is Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE. Set in the heydey of the Beatles, it is about Lewis, a 7th grader who lives on the Tuscarora Reservation, and his growing friendship with George, a white boy who he meets at school.
Tim Tingle's HOUSE OF PURPLE CEDAR is one of those books that is written for adults but that would appeal to YA readers. Set at the end of the 1800s, this story is told from the vantage point of a Choctaw woman whose community dealt with racism of the town marshall. There are spiritual elements to the story, too, that Tingle presents in a matter-of-fact way, rather than a romantic or mystical way.
Another wonderful crossover book is Louise Erdrich's THE ROUND HOUSE. Set in the present, it gets at jurisdictional issues specific to our reservations when a rape takes place.
For more, I'm going to take a shortcut and invite readers to the Best Books page on my website. There, I've got a set of links to lists I developed, and a link to the page about the Youth Literature Award of the American Indian Library Association.
RYS: What are some other resources/links that writers, teachers, librarians, and parents should check out and consider regarding diversity in children's books?
Debbie Reese: Cynthia Leitich Smith (author of JINGLE DANCER) has an incredible website. Here's her page about diversity. It has incredible depth and breadth. Scroll down to find her section about Native Americans.
Oyate is well known for its work on Native Americans in children's books. Their HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE guide is online here, and I highly recommend two of their books: THROUGH INDIAN EYES: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN (1987/2006), edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, and, A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN (2005), edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin.
RYS wants to thank Debbie Reese for her thorough comments and ample resources. Definitely a lot to think about here. If you have a question that hasn't been answered, or want to chime in on the subject, tonight's Native American Twitter Chat (11/18/14) is at 9PM EST using the hashtag #SupportWNDB.