Sunday, February 18, 2007

Children's books and American Indians

This blog and my work are focused on the ways that American Indians are represented in children's books. I contend that those representations have a significant impact on what people think they know about American Indians. Through text and illustration, children "learn" a lot about American Indians. And, what they "know" is affirmed by the words and images in their books.

This "knowledge" is affirmed in many ways. Through negative and romantic stereotypes in movies and television shows, and through mascots like UIUC's "Chief Illiniwek." This "knowledge" issues forth in the speech of children and adults, creating uncomfortable and hostile environments for Native children.

In an effort to create a safe space for Latino, African American, and Native students at her high school, my daughter, Liz Reese, created the "Minority Student Advocacy" program. She's at University High School ("Uni") which is the laboratory high school for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The MSA program is part of Uni's effort to recruit and retain students from the three underrepresented groups.

These efforts have met with resistance from students and parents. On Feb 7th, the school paper ran an editorial countering the need for the program. Comments to that editorial reveal the depth and breadth of racial intolerance and ignorance in this community. The primary target for these efforts was (and is) my daughter. Anonymous people commented about her skin color (apparently she isn't "dark enough" to really be an American Indian) and her identity (I'm Native, her father is white, and apparently, that means she can't really be American Indian). And, since we don't live "in a hovel on a reservation" our statements are without merit.

What children's books are in your collection? In what ways do they contribute to comments like those directed at my daughter? What do your students, parents, and community members "know" about American Indians?

If you wish to explore this situation more fully, go here. You will learn a great deal about what it means to be an American Indian living in a society filled with misinformation about who we are. The page is meant to keep people abreast of developments on the work my daughter is doing.


k8 said...

How horrible! I'm sorry her school is such a hostile environment. While this is nnever acceptible, it seems more disturbing coming from a school affiliated with the university. Am I right in assuming that most of the students' parents are affiliated with the university in some way? A former student of mine attended the school and referred to her former classmates as being mostly 'professors' kids.'

Not that it matters - I was just hoping for a little more enlightenment.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I would add to this the additional importance of quality youth literature touching on interracial family and identity themes. There is an unfortunately prejudice that suggests children of mixed race are somehow lesser or of no culture rather than both/all. That said, my thoughts, prayers, and best wishes are with your daughter.