Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Something I wrote ten years ago...

Ten years ago today (April 15, 1998), a reflection I wrote was published on-line at the site maintained by Kay Vandergrift at Rutgers. It is among my earliest publications. Kay and I were (and are) active participants on discussions on the child_lit listserv. [Note: Then and now, heated discussions take place. There and other places, I strive to help people see the problems with stereotypical, biased, and erroneous (sometimes I call them LIES) about who indigenous people were and are. As you may know, my critiques draw a lot of fire from writers and their fans who defend their stories with "freedom of expression" and "freedom of speech" and "creative license." I'm not always diplomatic or kind in my responses to them. I care more about the child, Native or not, who is "learning" from their messed-up books.]

I'm pasting that reflection here today, and I've added some images. It captures my thoughts of ten years ago, and there are things in it that I want to respond to. For now, here's that essay.


Thoughts on Not Seeing Oneself

I grew up on a small Indian reservation in New Mexico. There are nineteen different Pueblos in New Mexico, and ours is called Nambe. As a first grader, I attended the Day School at the Pueblo, which is the same U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Day School my father attended when he was a child. I was so excited to be in school, so eager to learn how to read.

Twenty-five years later, I was teaching first grade for the public school district that eventually consolidated Nambe Day School and other small districts north of Santa Fe. My students would often bring books from home to share with classmates at story time. One day, Gabe brought in a book that struck a chord deep within me. It was Tip, a basal reader, but it was the Tip from which I had learned to read, twenty-five years before. I looked at dear Tip, the brown and white terrier who was always into one sort of mischief or another, taking Jack's ball, Janet's doll, or scattering the pile of leaves Jack had made. "No, No, Tip! Stop, Tip, Stop!" they'd say to him. I cherished the memories that surfaced as I turned the pages, reliving those moments.

Five years later, I moved from the Pueblo to central Illinois, to work on a doctorate in early childhood education. As I walked neighborhood streets, admiring the two and three story homes and the leafy trees, I felt an odd sense of joy, as though I were in a dream world. For the first time in my life, I could actually experience what it was like to play in a huge pile of orange, red, and brown leaves!

During my second semester, I took a course in multicultural children's literature and slowly became aware of why I felt I was in a dream world. It became clear that I was finally in the place Tip took me to. Those images I saw in Tip represented something I did not have as a child, but had found and embraced joyfully as an adult.

The feelings of joy became bittersweet as I realized that I treasure the two and three story houses and the huge piles of leaves because those images were connected to learning to read. I began to wonder - what if my basal reader had contained illustrations of brown Pueblo children playing in a sandy arroyo? What if the illustrations showed the gorgeous adobe homes that now merit million dollar price tags? Would my experience in central Illinois be the same?

Of course, this is an unanswerable question, but it does speak to the need we recognize in the 90's, for children to see themselves in their books--to see their life experiences validated in the books they read, be they basal readers or children's literature. This means that we need to give children books with characters that look like they do. We say it is necessary for their self esteem.

I don't know if my childhood self esteem was hurt by not seeing myself in my books, but I do know my heart soars today when I see my culture in the pages of Dianne Hoyt-Goldsmith's Pueblo Storyteller or Marcia Keegan's Pueblo Boy, or Michael Lacapa's Less Than Half, More Than Whole. I suspect this is true for all of us, with different books and in other media. Aren't we all thrilled when we see national magazines do a feature story on a small town near our own? Don't we all sit up straighter and grin?

Multicultural literature is suffering a sort of backlash as the 90's draw to a close. Some critics attack multiculturalism as an effort to balkanize America and view it as a threat to national unity. I view it as an affirmation of self, a validation of oneself. I count, you count, we all count! As we all assert our needs to be validated and then act on that validation, we will probably struggle as a country as we sort through this period. I do not want to sound like Pollyanna, but I do hope we can recognize, validate, and respect the cultures within our country and then reap the rewards of our efforts. We can only be the richer for it.