Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Following up on "What Neil Gaiman said..."

THE PEOPLE IN THIS EPISODE:

Debbie Reese (me). Tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo (for those who don't know, that means I'm American Indian) and Assistant professor in American Indian Studies. As a Native woman, mother, and aunt who is deeply connected to my family and community at Nambe Pueblo (I was raised there, and I have a home there) and as a professor who studies the ways that American Indians are portrayed, I view the world from a place that is distinctly different from most people who rarely give much (if any) thought to American Indians. Said another way, my context, and framework, and perspective for viewing the world are distinct. Like many, I believe there is great power in words. Written, or spoken, they can empower and inspire, but they can also hurt and demean. Most words about us (American Indians) are in the latter category. There is a whole lot of good intent that goes very badly. My work is not a blame-game. It is a 'hey, let's all look at this carefully and think about it!'

Neil Gaiman. His novel, The Graveyard Book, won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2009. He is also a very popular and prolific writer. Visit his website, Neil Gaiman. Sometime back I started following him on Twitter, reading his blog entries when he tweeted them. I have not read any of his books, but I've bought several of them as gifts for my family. Contrary to what some people seemed to think, my questions about the words he said ("a few dead Indians") had nothing to do with the book itself. I was not suggesting he should have set the book in the U.S. I was not suggesting that he should have included American Indians in the book. I was noting the words he said in the interview.

Kynn Bartlett. A self-employed writer, and, I think, a game developer. He's She's got a site called "Bold Pueblo Games" but he she is not Pueblo Indian, and I'm not sure why "Pueblo" is in the name of his site. He She has a LiveJournal (LJ). I do not know if you must have a LiveJournal account to read his her LJ. (2:15 PM, April 21: My apologies to Kynn, who submitted a comment saying "preferred pronouns for me are along the lines of "she" and not "he." I'm correcting that error using strikeout technique rather than erasure.)

BGF Central.  I don't know who BGF Central is. From Gaiman's tweets, I gather BGF Central's name is Pam. At the top of her blog, AND WE SHALL MARCH are the words "BLACK. GEEK. AND FINE WITH THAT."

WHAT KICKED OFF THE EPISODE:

First, my post, "What Neil Gaiman said..." prompted Kynn to post it on his her LiveJournal.

Second, Kynn's post, "Neil Gaiman's racist fail" prompted Neil Gaiman to tweet on his Twitter page.

What followed was called "a brouhaha" by some, or a "sh*t storm" by others.  A couple of days have passed, and the post you are reading now is my attempt to do two things. First, I will lay it out chronologically. For clarity sake, I'm writing it in third person.

Part of why I am taking the time to lay it out is my second reason for this post. I think it important that we see how celebrity fandom can obscure the work that my original post (and all my work on this blog) is trying to do. That is, pushing everyone to think about HOW they think about American Indians, what they THINK they know about American Indians, and how all of that comes together in the words they write and speak aloud.


TIMELINE OF THE EPISODE
April 18, 2010


9:06 AM
Debbie Reese posted "What Neil Gaiman said..." to her blog. 

11:24 AM
Kynn posted "Neil Gaiman's racist fail" to his her LiveJournal.

4:56 PM
Yukari m (yucaree) tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself :: I'm assuming you mean European-style graveyards but someone's not happy with you :: tinyurl.com/whatneilgaimansaid

(Note: Whenever you see the @ symbol in front of a name on twitter, it means that the person who wrote the tweet (yucaree) sent it to the person named right after the @--in this case, Gaiman).

7:13 PM
Gaiman tweeted to yucaree:
@yucaree of course they aren't. It's the Internet. I left a clarification, but it's not yet posted.

7:04 PM CST
Neil Gaiman's comment to "What Neil Gaiman said..." was approved for upload by Debbie Reese. (Gaiman submitted his comment at 6:39 PM CST. Reese moderates comments to keep spam from appearing as comments on her site.)

(No time stamp available)
Gaiman tweeted:
I'm called a racist by someone who has taken a comment about European graveyards in US out of context http://bit.ly/cx9rDUnd Sigh. #twits 
As you will see, Gaiman deleted this tweet from his page. It is archived elsewhere. If you clicked on the link he provided, you saw it was a bad link. (Note: The pound sign in front of a word is a "hashtag." It is a technique in Twitter for compiling tweets with the specific hashtag on a single page. Hence, there is a page where all tweets in which people who used "#twits" in their tweet are compiled.) 

8:25 PM
Debbie tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself No... I did not call you a racist. Ignorant, perhaps. In fact, you misspoke.

(No time stamp available)
Gaiman tweeted: 
Linkfail on 'racism' : http://bit.ly/cx9rDU (Perhaps the person thinks that Indian Burial Grounds were European-style Graveyards.)
Realizing the link was bad, he provided one that worked. It went to Kynn's LiveJournal. 

8:30 PM
Gaiman tweeted:
I should point out that the actual site the #twit LJ linked to - http://bit.ly/c5Rzv2 - is perfectly sane. And my reply wasn't sarcastic. 
The link he included is my post "What Neil Gaiman said..."

8:31 PM
Gaiman tweeted to Reese:
@debreese not Deb, you didn't at all. The "racist" comment was in http://bit.ly/cx9rDU which I think misunderstood your point.
Note: I do not know Gaiman personally. This episode is the first time I have ever interacted with him. His use of "Deb" should not be taken to mean that we know each other.  

8:32 PM
Gaiman tweeted to Reese:
@debreese and I was happy to clarify on your site what I meant. (Sad about the comment after mine though.)

8:33 PM
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself Shall point out that you're calling this individual person a twit to your 1.4+ million followers.
Apparently (as you will see), BGF Central is someone Gaiman relies on for advice. 

8:35 PM
Gaiman tweeted to KurtBusiek:
@KurtBusiek Throwing a term like racist around like that cheapens it in a way I find offensive. It's a real, bad thing & that's just cheap.

I don't know who KurtBusiek is---could be a fan or a friend (or neither). 

8:36 PM
Gaiman tweeted to BGF Central:
@BGFCentral Yeah. Point taken. But people had twittered it, and it was coming on the FAQ line. And there are words you don't use lightly.
8:38 PM
Gaiman tweeted to BGF Central:
@BGFCentral and Pam, twit is a much, much milder term than racist. But yes, #ishouldusethesepowersonlyforgood

8:39 PM
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself words you don't use lightly=Truth. But power dynamics factor into #agame reality....

8:40 PM
Gaiman tweeted on his Twitter page:
The wise @BGFCentral points out that calling someone a twit in front of 1.4 million people is not using these powers for good. Sigh.
8:40 and 8:42 PM
BGFCentral tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself ..Twitter is not the format to respond to that. Your homeport, where there is room for Big Picture & Nuance, is. Otherwise.. it looks like you're PA unleashing a bum rush, which will blowback. No FAQ line filter on Twitter.
Notes: I think "homeport" is Gaiman's blog; "PA" might be Public Affairs At 2:13 PM, April 21, Pam wrote to me, saying that PA is Passive Aggressive; I don't know what "No FAQ line filter on Twitter means." 

8:41 PM
Gaiman tweeted on his Twitter page:
And @bgfcentral is right for she is wise, so I will delete those tweets.

8:47 PM
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself You r sweet, DON'T DELETE THEM. Also an #agame reality re Omission v Take The Hit Move On. No room here; check email later.

8:47 PM
Yucaree tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself: I'm sorry, my intention wasn't to make you sigh, but I'm glad you're aware of what's being said so you can clarify your point.

8:58 PM
Reese tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself I responded to your comment. And of course, your fans are commenting. Context/perspective r crucial http://tinyurl.com/y3efkes
9:13 PM
Gaiman tweeted to Kynn:
@kynn I assumed that the apostrophe on "Neil Gaiman's racist" was short for "IS".
9:13 PM
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself You're right. Calling someone a twit is *nothing* compared to calling them a racist. I believe that person is *wrong*.  

9:14 PM
Gaiman tweeted to Kynn:
@kynn Happy to have a real discussion. @Bfgcentral pointed out that it was wrong of me to get offended on Twitter, so I deleted comments.
 9:15 PM
Kynn tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself you seriously thought I wrote "neil gaiman is racist fail" and not "the racist fail belonging to neil gaiman"? reeeeeally? 


9:15 PM
Gaiman tweeted to Kynn:
@kynn follow me & I'll send email.

9:17 and 9:20 and 9:23
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman: 
But because of the scale difference *you* must be clear-eyed practical in if/how/where you respond to an *individual* speaking from top-of-head impulse (benefit of doubt) in a space this person might consider a personal diary & is not prepared to deal with a flood of your readers who read your missive as a call to step up and "defend" you. You will be blamed if it goes badly.

9:22 PM
Gaiman tweeted to BFG:
@BGFCentral good advice, much too late. I had already deleted. Now being accused of hiding the evidence.
Gaiman's "hiding the evidence" is in reference to the conversation taking place on Kynn's LiveJournal.

9:26 PM
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself Arg very sorry to hear that, but not surprised. Couldn't type warning fast enough cuz doing bunches of things at once, here.


9:25 PM
Reese tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself Context in which I read interview:23 of 100 bks in SLJ Top 100 List hve American Indians (sort of)http://tinyurl.com/SLJ-Top100

9:36 PM
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself Clarify at your homeport next week (by Monday mean-time would be best). Be honest, do not equivocate. Then weather the hit.
9:37 PM
Gaiman tweeted to Kynn:
@kynn sent you an honestly apologetic email.
Kynn posted Gaiman's apologetic email on Kynn's LiveJournal at 10:07. (Update, 6:58 AM, April 22: If that link does not work, try this one: http://kynn.livejournal.com/1239035.html. )

9:39 PM
Gaiman tweeted to Kynn:
@kynn Again, sorry.
9:38 PM
BGF Central tweeted to Gaiman:
@neilhimself From what I know of you the Weather The Hit part might be hardest. But you can take it and will come through Wiser. #agame
9:47 PM
Gaiman tweeted on his Twitter page:
Argh. Appear to have made a mess of that one in every possible way. Apologies to all, especially @debreese and @kynn.

9:50 PM
Gaiman tweeted on his page:
Too long on the road. Food, and sleep. And may the #volcanogod look kindly on my attempts to get to the UK this week.

That was his last tweet on this topic. At 9:51, I tweeted to Gaiman: "[Apology] to me? Not necessary. Interesting, though, to see people blasting me for pointing to the interview in the first place." I tweeted that to him because I don't know why he was apologizing to me. Or rather, what he was apologizing for. Maybe it was because his fans were blasting me.


MY REFLECTIONS

Gaiman has over a million followers. His tweets sent ten thousand of them to American Indians in Children's Literature over a 24 hour period. Many of them submitted comments. in 2006 when I started blogging, I did not moderate comments. But then I started getting all kinds of spam, so I set the comments option to "moderate comments." I rarely reject a comment submitted by an actual person. The ones that just curse me, I ignore those. But I approve both, negative and positive comments.  When the comments started coming to "What Neil Gaiman said..." I read each one and approved all except one. Then on Monday, I posted a note saying the comments option was closed.

As of this writing, I have not gone back to study the comments. My impression is that most of the individuals submitting comments did so without reading and reflecting on what I said, and without reading and reflecting on comments submitted prior to theirs. Instead, it was mostly a dogpile.

Some people seemed to think that I was/am angry at Gaiman for NOT setting his book in a United States cemetery, and for NOT including American Indians in his book. Some people blasted me for "not reading the book." Some people said I was making a mountain out of a molehill, that Gaiman's remark did not merit being singled out. Privately, someone said that if he'd said "a few dead Jews" the response would have been very different.

My concern is not his book, so, it does not matter if I read it or not. My concern is that a very powerful figure said some things in a newspaper interview that I found troubling. I was (and am) sure that Gaiman knows more about American Indians than his words implied.

I want him to write something about this. Given his fanbase, he could push society to think about the ways we all think, write, and speak about American Indians. He said a little at my blog, clarifying what he meant, but, I want him to write about this on HIS blog. And I want him to tweet it when he does it.

As minutes passed on Sunday night, he worked pretty hard to make amends with Kynn for calling Kynn a twit, but that took him away from his "a few dead Indians" remark.

I think there is more for him to do and say, and I'd like him to do that.

(Note to Gaiman, Kynn, and BGF: I copied and pasted items from your tweets. If I've made errors, please let me know. My email address is dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com.)

Update: April 21, 1:17 PM
I tweeted this follow-up to Gaiman. He tweeted back "definitely planning to blog about it. Still several blogs behind due to volcano travel madness." When his blog post is published, I will provide a link.

33 comments:

carter meland said...

Having read this post and the original, I think we should all be clear that Gaiman is not the subject here. He said a handful of unfortunate words that contain a world of pain and misinformation that glosses over centuries of genocide.

What is at issue here is not that THE Neil Gaiman said these words, but that it is SO easy for members of US/Western/perhaps world culture to speak so offhandedly about "a few dead Indians". Prof. Reese took advantage of this, not to slag off on Gaiman, but to ask us to think about the ease with which such words slip from majority culture mouths.

Prof Reese could just as easily put James Cameron's unfortunate words from a recent interview under this same cultural microscope. In a recent interview he said the Lakota people should have fought harder to save their culture 150 years ago. Such words imply that the Lakota do not CONTINUE to fight for their culture. It safely displaces the fight into the past, and puts the Lakota people there too--it ignores who they are now and what they are doing to revitalize and restore the culture that US social and political policy sought to erase.

As an admirer of Gaiman's fiction I know he is capable of complex and nuanced reflection on a variety of issues and so I, along with Reese, hope that he will take an opportunity to reflect deeply in his blog about how powerful such words are.

Melissa said...

Some folks over on LJ have pointed out how Gaiman handled Native beliefs in American Gods (which is mostly about European gods!) may be pretty problematic; although it's not a children's book, I'd be interested in what you thought of it if you ever do read it.

Kurt Busiek is a comic book writer; well-known in those circles, but not Gaiman-famous. Not sure if that affects any of the context here or not.

I believe Kynn is a woman.

Sarah Park said...

Debbie, I read the entire first post (plus the comments - good grief, can people be any more defensive and ignorant?) and this second one, which clarifies a lot. I hope readers will calm down and realize the importance of the conversation. One of the most important things I'm reminded of here is how defensive people can be when someone raises a question about the power of words; it may not mean much to one person, but it could mean a lot to someone else, and to invalidate that is to dehumanize, which essentially perpetuates the dehumanization of Native Americans. It's unproductive and insulting.

The work you do here on this blog and elsewhere through your teaching etc is tremendous and should be part of every course on children's/YA literature, pop culture, American studies, and more.

In other words, you rock :o)

Kynn said...

Yeah, preferred pronouns for me are along the lines of "she" and not "he."

As for why Bold Pueblo games are named such, it's a take-off on Tucson's nickname of "The Old Pueblo."

Thanks for rounding these things up.

Debbie Reese said...

I apologize, Kynn. I will correct that error right away.

nonnymouse said...

http://andweshallmarch.typepad.com/ is the blog of Pam Noles.

Barry said...

I agree with Sarah that you rock, and I might be a little presumptuous when I say that I think we agree that having a calm discussion about why his initial comment wasn't correct could prove enlightening.

bibliophile30 said...

I think this is ridiculous (and I read this whole thing and your previous post). He did not intend to be offensive and I think people are saying "Why didn't you read the book?" because if you had, you would understand what his comment meant. That anyone would throw out the racist word in ANY context over this is appalling. His mistake was tweeting anything about it to begin with; he should have just ignored it because it really is all beneath him.

Will Shetterly said...

The problem with discussing this is that people who oppose racism can have different beliefs about how that should be done. Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Studies have effectively created a faith system for one subset of anti-racists that makes the discussion difficult, if not impossible. See, for example, Thandeka's What's Wrong with Anti-Racism.

Maia said...

Debbie, Thank you for all of your care and wisdom here! It feels ironic to say, but I think yet true, that what you have compiled is a unique resource for many of us about how power dynamics on the internet can play out.

Hopefully a few (or many?) folks who stumble across the discussion for other reasons will learn something about the original (in so many ways) issue... that would be a blessing, and it is thanks to your perseverance and balance.

I'm sorry that you have been hit with a maelstrom of poor behavior. I'm grateful for your existence, and tenacity. -- Maia

Evelyn said...

People get so offended by being called a racist that they don't stop to question whether or not their words or actions were actually racist. I'm not a member of the KKK or anything, but that doesn't mean that I don't have white privilege or don't make the occasional racist assumption. Jay Smooth has a great discussion here about telling people that what they did/said appears racist without saying that they are racist, and managing to get your point across and maybe make a difference. It's not about whether or not you're consciously or intentionally racist, it's about the impact of your words and actions.

Ebony Elizabeth said...

Debbie, Ebony from Child_Lit here. I am ever grateful for your scholarship and the work that you do in the world. I have learned so much from you, and continue to do so. I hope that at the end of this incident, some of Gaiman's fans stick around your blog, read some of the other entries, and learn something new. My very best to you always.

lavendertook said...

I've already seen someone else on LJ say that a comment like "a few dead Jews" would never be made, but in dealing with the racially insensitive fail of Gaiman's statement, I hope people can avoid making light of antisemitism that is still quite prevalent, because, yeah, there ARE people who say insensitive crap like that about Jews. And I'm not even talking about Holocaust Deniers. So let's please not add antisemtitism fail to the insensitivity toward Native Americans that was on display here.

Evan Carden said...

I'm not trying to derail, but I cringe every time I read 'but if he said it about Jews than everyone would recognize that it was wrong!' (note: not a direct quote from the posting) it makes me insane. Partly because it's simply not true, but mostly because the implication usually seems to be not that other groups need the same level of recognition, but that the discussion of antisemitism is overblown, or exaggerated, or outdated.

Yes, I know you're merely repeating what someone else told you, but still...

green_knight said...

@bibliophile30:

Even if I don't mean to step on your foot, if I do it, you will notice. And if that happens, you will probably expect me to apologise rather than wave if off with 'what do you want, you weren't hurt'. Particularly if you're a person whose feet are stepped on regularly by strangers who go out of their way to do so.

Dismissing large tracts of history with 'a few dead Indians' is offensive, particularly in a context _where this is happening all the time_.

Saying a thing that you didn't mean; particularly an offensive thing, is never comfortable; particularly for a writer who takes pride in their ability to always use the exact right word.

And sometimes that word is 'sorry'.

Jean Mendoza said...

Debbie, creating and posting a chronicle of the whole event is such a good idea. Aside from being impressed once again at the thoughtful diplomacy which is characteristic of your approach to such things, I'm also finding it interesting how this incident of "mass behavior" unfolded.
You have been doing this work long enough that (as Sarah, Maia, or someone pointed out) we can pretty much anticipate what certain responses will be like -- not just the defensiveness of some, but some of the exact words used (see a couple of examples in this thread; not going to name names). The sheer volume was remarkable this time. I hope some of the tweeters will stick around for substantive discussion (but as others have pointed out, that's not the purpose of Twitter, which turns out to be a fine medium for hit-and-run anonymity).

At any rate, thanks for bringing more opportunities for serious thought to the situation. And I hope you get to enjoy your time at Penn State.

fightingwords said...

I find it fascinating that those who are commenting here to complain about anti-racism are still not engaging the actual text, which doesn't require any particular belief in anti-racism, just an acknowledgment of historical and contemporary context, which isn't actually subject to one's opinion. Weak derailing, that.

Thank you, Professor.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, I apologize sincerely for being stupid. I really appreciate your help in understanding this. I don't want to address the outrageous behavior of some of the people in these discussions. I'd like to ask about the text. I read your original post a few days ago. It seems to me that was probably asked why he didn't set the story in an American cemetery. Gaiman was saying that if you look in European style cemeteries in the US you won't find anyone buried in them before about 250 years ago.

I see the phrase "a few dead Indians" as referring to the relatively rare number of of Native Americans interred with Europeans in a single gravesite, and the nothing before that to mean that there aren't any graves in those cemeteries with dates earlier than that.

Knowing that the ghost of a Roman Soldier shows up in The Graveyard Book, I could understand easily how a typical European style American cemetery wouldn't work for the author's purposes.

I flinched a little at the "few dead . . ." line because we are all a sensitive about death, and "a few" makes light of it, but making light of death is exactly Gaiman's style. I did not and still can not see how you read the original text as suggesting that there were few or no inhabitants of this continent before 250 years ago.

Can you walk me through that interpretation?

Or was it just the very offhand nature of a remark about a sensitive subject that was hurtful?

Or is it just unacceptable to talk about the dead in European style gravesites in the United States without mentioning the Native Americans not interred in those gravesites?

Again, thank you for your help.

yukari said...

Hello, @yucaree here. It appears I may be the one who brought this to Neil Gaiman's attention in the first place. I'm on CALIBK12 and Child_lit and one of these listserves was where I read of Dr. Reese's original post.

I do feel badly about what ensued, or more accurately, *how* things progressed. But in the end, if this (re)opens a (civil) dialogue about the depictions of Native Americans in children's literature, then I don't regret it.

I do not know Neil Gaiman personally and I am a relatively new fan of his work. But what I’ve gleaned from his blog, twitter account, in-person lecture, and the few works I’ve read of his show me that he doesn’t take lightly the power of words. My reason for tweeting him in the first place was because I wanted to give him a chance to tell his side; in fact, Dr. Reese wanted to know if he’d said anything about this since the 2008 interview and what better way to find out than to go to the source? He appears to be a sincere person and if he says he’ll post something about this to his blog, I believe he will. I look forward to reading what he says.

And if I may add a personal comment … I am embarrassingly ignorant about Native American culture, history, and current events, and Dr. Reese’s post and many of her readers’ comments were incredibly eye-opening for me. I work in an elementary school library in a predominately Caucasian, privileged community and I’m just now realizing, at the age of 33, that I’ve been reading books incorrectly all these years (I grew up here too, although I’m not white). I’m not trying to make excuses – there’s no doubt I wasn’t challenging my noggin enough to figure this out earlier – but it’s difficult to learn about what you’re not exposed to. As part of my job I have to find ways to effectively expose my students, through books and stories, to communities and issues they have no idea about; to be culturally aware in the truest sense of the word so they can be better citizens. So I thank you, Dr. Reese, for stimulating an unused part of my brain. I will be reading your blog (with eyes wide open) from now on with great interest.

OrganicSchool said...

I've been following this debate, and find it interesting.

It makes me wonder: did you face a similar backlash when you panned Stephenie Meyer, Tony Hillerman,and other novelists with cult followings on your blog? Or was this an isolated uproar because Twitter was involved?

betsyl said...

kurt busiek is another person who writes comics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Busiek

Anna N said...

Wow, I just read both of your posts on this after following a link from The Hathor Legacy (I've read a bunch of your other posts too). To me, your words and the timeline of various people's reactions really speak volumes about why holding people accountable for their words and discussing them is important, and how people's defensive or derailing reactions work to take over the discussion.

I guess I just wanted to say thanks for your calm dedication to speaking out about this, and for lots of other posts that have really opened my eyes about problematic aspects of many of the children's books I grew up with.

Stacia said...

It feels like every week, a famous person says something unfortunate and/or racist. When called on it online, if they have an online presence they will lash out, working on the belief that calling someone racist is the worst thing ever. Their fans/defenders/sycophants will dogpile, as you so aptly put it, to try to force people to stop their discussion. Conscious or not, it is epic derailing, and boy does it get tiresome.

The issue, as you already noted, is the ability of people to so off-handedly use phrases like "a few dead Indians" without any concept of the context or the impact their words have. And a writer, especially someone with as long a career as Gaiman's has been, most especially needs to understand the impact of his words. To try to shrug it off with "it's just a twit on the Internet being unhappy" (a very similar tactic that his fiance recently used, coincidentally) adds another level to the situation that I think needs to be explored.

Debbie Reese said...

Bibliophile30,

We can explain Gaiman’s remarks, and, then, in the spirit of good will, move on from the remarks.

We can explain away “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. (Explanation for that phrase is "well, that’s what people thought back then.” To which we can ask "all people thought that? The Osages thought that? The Cherokees? The Pueblos? And all the Democrats and Republicans, too?")

We can explain away "sitting Indian style" and "Indian giver" and "wild Indians" and, I imagine, just about any innocuous or derogatory or demeaning or ignorant phrase/idea about American Indians.

And then we can move on.

But who is the "we" that is going to move on?

I move about in this world as a Pueblo Indian woman who notices, wherever I go and whatever I am doing, the ways that American society stereotypes American Indians.

Those stereotypes reflect a massive body of misinformation about who we were, and who we are.

You can say (to the Debbie Reese's that point to examples of these things) "get a life" or "quit taking offense" or "do something more important with your life" etc. etc. etc. (and those of you who've gone to my first post about Gaiman's remarks) know that people said precisely those things.

They aren't the first ones to say things like that; I've heard that sort of thing many, many times before. I am very strong, however, so those challenges don't hurt me.

But all the remarks ("Indian giver" etc.) that a Native child encounters every day, have a different effect on that child than they do on me. Children are more vulnerable in their identity, their sense of well-being.

In a recent study, researchers at Penn State University (John Tippeconnic and Susan Faircloth) did some analysis of graduation rates. Native students do not graduate at the same rates as non-Native students. In their analysis, Tippeconnic and Faircloth talked about "lack of relevant curriculum" --- and that, for me, includes children's and young adult literature that is part of that curriculum. And it includes, too, the imagery they happen to see in and out of the classroom. [Reply to bibliophile30 continued in next comment]

I

Debbie Reese said...

(continuation of reply to Bibliophile30)

In another study, a research psychologist named Stephanie Fryberg tested (using psychological testing measures) the self-esteem and self-efficacy of Native and non-Native students, and then showed them a series of slides that included one of the Cleveland Indians mascot, and, Disney's Pocahontas. After viewing the slides, she ran the test again and found that the Native students self-esteem and self-efficacy decreased, while self-esteem and self-efficacy of non-Native students increased.

Both findings are relevant to the work I do on this site. If you've got Native students in your school/classroom/library, stereotypical images are likely hurting them.

Equally frightening is that the images are helping the non-Native students. Fryberg is continuing her research, trying to ascertain why that elevated self-esteem occurs.

Returning now to the Gaiman remark, it seems as if those who want to explain things like that want me to quit being an Indian. They want me to assimilate into a not-Pueblo world. They insist that I understand where the remark came from, and then let it go as unimportant.

Can you imagine how high that pile of explain-away remarks, imagery, is?! In children’s books, advertisements, films, clothing articles, food items, cars, US armed forces helicopters, mascots, musicians….

In a tremendous hurry Thursday to catch a plane to Pennsylvania (for a lecture at Penn State), I left without my reading materials for the plane ride. In an airport bookstore I thought I’d see what David Baldacci’s writing is like. I bought FIRST FAMILY. Surprise! And not surprise! There’s Indians in it. This plot line starts on page 37 with a “Koasati” tribe. I’m not familiar with that tribe, and I could look it up but I’m not doing that right now. I’m wondering why Baldacci includes the three Koasati characters he introduces. He tells us that they don’t trust white people. I could say more about that part of the book, but won’t. I’ll leave it for now and go on to the second reference in the book. On page 106, a teen boy is reading THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN.

I did not expect to come across Indians in FIRST FAMILY, a book I chose as my pleasure reading for a plane ride. But there it was. I’m glad to see Alexie’s book mentioned in FIRST FAMILY. I don’t know yet about the Koasati characters. We’ll see how that unfolds.

I believe it is vitally important for all of us to consider my point of view, rather than insist I come over and take your point of view. If key people in the world like Gaiman would use his work and words to push back on this mountain of Indian references, to put it in check, then, maybe all of the world (and I do mean the world) would perhaps finally begin to move away from the deep-seated “knowledge” about who American Indians are.

Debbie Reese said...

lavendertook and Evan:

You are right. Especially given the recent spate of feature films that play fast and loose with the Holocaust. In some ways, it seems to me that the Holocaust is being romanticized in the same ways that American Indian experience has been romanticized. Stories and films let people walk away thinking they've learned something about history, but given American's rush-to-war, I think we've learned very little.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous,

You flinched at the remark. So did I. I think my two-part reply to bibliophile30 may provide answers to the questions you posed. If not, please let me know.

Debbie Reese said...

yukari,

Please call me Debbie. As my students would tell you, I prefer Debbie to "Dr. Reese." I insist on first-name-basis to recognize that we're all learners, and we're all ignorant about something. I know a fair amount about American Indians, our history, how we're portrayed, etc. I know next to nothing about, for example, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific. I've made insensitive remarks and been deeply embarrassed by those remarks. Or, I've thought things that weren't accurate. I grew up very isolated at Nambe. There was a time I thought we were the only Indian people around. Then I learned there were other tribes in the U.S., still around, just like we Pueblos were...

We're taught (in and out of school) about American Indians in a very narrow way. We're educated and socialized to fear and hate Indians for being bloodthirsty, and, to love them for being courageous.

Thank you for both, coming by to comment, and the content of the comment itself.

Debbie Reese said...

OrganicSchool,

Meyer and Hillerman fans? I did get some response, but nothing like this. If Meyer had tweeted, there would have been an uproar.

Beverly Slapin said...

Hi, Debbie--

In your post about Fryberg's research, you wrote,

"Equally frightening is that the images are helping the non-Native students. Fryberg is continuing her research, trying to ascertain why that elevated self-esteem occurs."

This study reminds me of a comment from a colleague in 1992, during the "textbook wars" in California. At that time, an ad hoc multiethnic group of mostly parents, calling ourselves Communities United against Racism in Education (CURE) did a line-by-line analysis of the history-social science textbooks that were up for adoption. One of the parents wrote this, and we reprinted her comment in our written materials:

"In order for some children to be proud of their cultures, other children must be made ashamed of theirs."

I would be willing to be that that's what happened in the case of Fryberg's subjects.

Anonymous said...

Debbie,

I'm your 12:25 anon. Sorry to respond so late. I've been traveling myself.

If I understand you, then--

The phrase "a few dead Indians" is not a phrase that can ever be used in civil discourse. It rakes up too many bad images and if those bad images are not addressed, they are therefor implicitly and automatically dismissed.

Is that it? Gaiman's mistake was using a phrase that is taboo for the same reason that --a whole lot of other words that I feel I don't have to type here--are also taboo?

Debbie Reese said...

A taboo? No.

My concern is the ease with which the words were spoken, and, the lack of notice of those words, and what that ease and those words signal with respect to American Indians.

Rin said...

I don't keep up with much on Twitter, but you said you hope he comes back to this issue on HIS blog--I wanted to let you know that he has. http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2010/10/big-blog-on-train.html

On the bright side, hopefully the traffic increase to your website has helped more people to look at the information you are presenting? Particularly in light of Columbus Day (blegh) coming up this weekend.