Monday, September 15, 2008

Alphabet materials with "I is for Indian"

A friend wrote to me yesterday, telling me of a school-sanctioned alphabet program that has "I is for Indian" materials. The program is called "Sunform Alphabet." Produced by Sundburg Learning Systems, based in Illinois, it is not an old item. The copyright is 1991.

For decades, educators have written about why "I is for Indian" is inappropriate. While I can't think of a recent alphabet book that has that sort of thing in it, there are older ones that still circulate. One example is Alligators All Around, by Maurice Sendek. With the brilliant and beautiful alphabet books published these days, the older ones with stereotypical images of Indians are being displaced. That is progress.

The Sunform Alphabet program, though, is a problem. If it is being used in your school, the following items may help you have it withdrawn.  From the American Indian Library Association are two publications:

"I is not for Indian: The Portrayal of American Indians in Books for Young People"
Compiled by Naomi Caldwell-Wood and Lisa A. Mitten
June 29, 1991, published by the American Indian Library Association

"I is for Inclusion: The Portrayal of American Indians in Books for Young People"
Compiled by Naomi Caldwell, Gabriella Kaye, and Lisa A. Mitten
Updated in October of 2007, published by the American Indian Library Association

You might also find statements issued by the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association helpful in developing your argument. Both issued statements calling for an end to the use of Native imagery for school mascots. These statements are based on the association's review of studies about the effects of this sort of imagery on Native and non-Native children.

Comparing mascot images with stereotypical images in children's books and school materials makes a compelling case. You might find the illustrations below helpful in making a case for talking about mascots --- with the goal of getting rid of them. Shown below is "Chief Illiniwek" a mascot no longer in use. Also shown is Grizzly Bob, from Berenstein Bears Go To Camp.


Anonymous said...

Can you explain the problem with the Berenstain Bear illustration you show?

Debbie Reese said...

Grizzly Bob is wearing a feathered headdress, fringed buckskin. That is commonly thought to be the way Indian men dressed. The word "Indian" brings that image to mind. While it is kind of like what some Plains tribes wear, it has obscures the diversity that exists across American Indian Nations. Overwhelmingly, images of Indians place us in the past, which obscures that we are people of the present day. Last, American society provides a lot of opportunities for people to dress up and "be" Indians. This includes the camp theme in this book. It seems Americans love to emulate some romantic idea about who they think American Indians were, but when American Indians of the present day speak up against all the past AND present mistreatments of our lands, spiritual places, stories, children, etc. etc. etc., our voices are dismissed and ignored. In sum, it seems that people love to love Indians in the abstract, but when a Native person in the present day says "hey... it is not ok for you to dig in our ceremonial grounds" or "hey... it isn't ok for you to build that house or store on our burial sites" the professed love for Indians is forgotten.

DaisyPA said...

I am a homeschooling mom - we currently use an alphabet program that has I for Indian. The program has an Indian with a headdress. The focus is the sound of the letter I, not the fact that the Indian might be politically incorrect.
IMHO...This is a non-issue.

Anonymous said...

So my family is Scandinavian. Should I be offended by people who dress like Vikings? I don't see the problem with the picture in an obviously fictional childrens book.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Anonymous,

Where are you writing from? Here, in the US?

Do you see "V is for Viking" in children's alphabet books? If so, can you give me the title of the book? I'd like to take a look.

Also, just what/who were Vikings? What does that word mean?

Rob said...

A bear who becomes an Indian by dressing up as one implies that anyone can do something similar. In reality, anyone can become a cowboy or a firefighter, since these are occupations. No one can "become" an Indian.

Do books portray today's Scandinavians--doctors, lawyers, engineers--solely like their distant ancestors? As raiders and pillagers in bearskins and helmets? If not, then the situations aren't comparable, are they?

An Indian with a headdress isn't "politically incorrect." It's incorrect, period, because it's false or misleading. It doesn't represent the diversity of past or present Indians.

In other words, it's a stereotype. You may be concentrating on the letter "I," Daisypa, but your child is absorbing the pictures as well as the text. Where do you think people get their stereotypical notions about Indians if not from books such as these?

You do realize that few Indians wore feathered headdresses, don't you? What exactly are you teaching your children about the depth and breadth of Indian cultures? Are your lessons merely "politically incorrect" or are they also historically incorrect?

Squaxin_Island said...

My wife and I just received a Sesame Street Alphabet book (copyright 1970) as a gift. We were not too surprised to see "I is for Indian," but I was hoping for more. Once my son gets a little older (he's 19 months old today), maybe I'll think about making my own alphabet book with tribal names...S is for Squaxin!

Thanks for your insight.

Anonymous said...

Dear PaisyPA,
Children get their perceptions of Aboriginal people from their parents and from media. Images matter. Image IS AN issue. My daughter is a Cree Indian. Everyday she looked at a caricature of a buffoon style Indian man in the class that said I is for Indian. "This is what a male Indian looks like", said the message and her non-aboriginal classmates saw the same thing. She deserves to have her heritage respected just like every other child in school. Image can support a child in their indentity or it can cause serious harm. What would you want for your child?
Iris Loewen