Monday, February 09, 2009

Indigenizing Children's Literature

In 2008, the Journal of Language and Literacy (JoLLE) published an article I wrote. Titled "Indigenizing Children's Literature," it is a critical look at Little House on the Prairie and Thanksgiving Day. The article is one of several published in Volume 4(2), 2008, a special issue devoted to children's literature and literacy. JoLLE is a peer-reviewed online journal. I submitted this paper there, specifically because it is an online journal, thereby making it like my blog (accessible to anyone who has an internet connection).

In the conclusion, I make some connections between images and ideology in those two books and America's wartime activity. I welcome your thoughts and comments on the article.


Kevin Lydy said...

I completely agree that, in too many minds, Native Americans are "creatures of fantasy." Ask any student (K - 16) to draw a Native American and almost without fail they will draw a "warrior" with a headdress, ax, bow and arrow, etc. Yet ask them to draw an African American, Asian American, European American, or Arab American and the result is again, almost without fail, contemporary. The idea of a contemporary Native American is almost nonexistent. As teachers, it is our charge to rectify this unfortunate situation.

Debbie Reese said...

Note that Kevin said "K-16." He's not exaggerating. My experiences at our campus provide me with many examples of what Kevin describes.

Wendy said...

I read your article a few weeks ago and wished that Oyate would replace their current article on Little House on the Prairie with this one. The current one made me angry; it was poorly reasoned, and the comments he made comparing Charles Ingalls and Charles Manson--based on a 19th-century photograph--were ridiculous. As I wrote to Oyate at the time, I am really interested in cultural critique of Little House books, but it was difficult to learn from an article like that.

I have sometimes taken issue with your blog comments about Little House on the Prairie, because I've felt they didn't take in the entire context and so were less useful (and probably made people defensive). This article comes across as more fair and knowledgeable to me, and I did learn from it. The most compelling part to me was the idea that Charles Ingalls was positive toward Indians... as long as they were beneficial to him. This acknowledges that Ingalls does make many positive comments about Indians throughout the book, but puts them in their proper context--one couldn't rightly claim, after reading this, that Ingalls was really a friend to Indians. He may have had more respect than many other settlers, including his wife, but it's a mistake to think that he fully respected their rights as people.

Jeff said...

We have a group of Social Studies teachers reading "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your Amreican History Teacher Got Wrong" (James W. Loewen). Our current focus is Chapter 4, "Red Eyes" which deals with the treatment of Native Americans in US History textbooks. Interestly, today at lunch I was reading a section which deals with the portrayal of incidents of warfare between Native Americans and European "settlers." My reading today certainly is relevant to your noting the absence of this component in the listing of US wars.

Jean Mendoza said...

I have read these comments with interest. Wendy mentions Dennis McAuliffe, Jr. and her negative reaction to a piece he wrote, and Jeff talks about Jim Loewen, whose work also upsets some people.

A set of questions comes to mind that I suspect we all use (consciously or not) to filter ideas outside of our experience: "When it comes to unfamiliar perspectives, what am I willing to listen to? When do I stop wanting to listen? When do I reject outright what the speaker/writer is saying because of how s/he says it?"

Some people stop listening when they feel defensive about either what's being said or how it's being said. Others stop when they think the writer/speaker is being “bitter” or “angry”. And so on. I want to suggest that when one feels defensive, or feels that the tone of writing is bitter or angry, that one ought to recognize that the writer’s/speaker’s tone is DATA and its meaning needs to be investigated along with one’s response to the words/tone. “Meaning” covers two things: 1) the personal import of the fact that one feels defensive or feels that one is somehow the recipient of somebody’s anger, and 2) the reasons that somebody might be angry or bitter about a particular thing.

If we investigate our own discomfort: what is it that we’re carrying around that makes us feel (or be) vulnerable to accusation or attack? Maybe some previously unexamined sense of responsibility (or perhaps some real culpability) that we’re still not ready to examine? Or something else? If we investigate what we perceive to be a speakers/writer’s anger or bitterness: what has happened to generate these feelings of anger/bitterness?

I think there’s a lot to learn from giving attention to the historical information both Loewen and McAuliffe share in their writing, regardless of whether one approves of how they say it. It’s a nod to Reason if we as readers/listeners set aside our own non-rational responses to an argument and use what the writers/speakers say as a basis for our own research and learning. If someone doesn’t like what McAuliffe or Loewen says, it gives him/her a chance go to the primary sources and find out if what the writer’s saying about Osage history or about warfare corresponds to the record.

Wendy said...

Jean, I don't think my response to the McAuliffe article was non-rational. This is about what he says, not how he says it. I did attempt to set aside my reaction and learn from the article, but I tend to stop "listening" when I come across a piece with flawed reasoning. There's an error in the second paragraph of the essay, when McAuliffe says the book doesn't mention that the Ingalls family was squatting illegally; this is clear in the book. A little bit later, McAuliffe makes claims about Charles Ingalls's character based on his photograph and nineteenth-century hairstyle. Do we not complain when people make assumptions about Natives based on photographs? He "assumes" that Charles Ingalls took part in direct violence against the Osages but then admits there is no evidence to that.

There is much that I agree with in the McAuliffe article, but I don't think his opening is responsible. In comparison to the other "books to avoid" articles on Oyate, some of which take positions just as strong, this one is weak and, I think, unlikely to affect the audience in the way that a critical piece on Little House on the Prairie could.

Anonymous said...

I have to tell you that most child development specialists would say that endorsing the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus as real beings is a form of dishonesty that winds up hurting kids when they find out they've been lied to by the people whom they most trust. Raising them to know these things are 'fun pretends' is a kinder way to go. Likewise, parents can take charge of helping their children understand what they read - as you say to be critical thinkers standing with their children from a young age, challenging and adding to what comes in these literary works. Likewise, we get to choose NOT to read certain things. Thank you for your work. This is a great paper; I just shared it on facebook! SLN