Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Open Letter to Music Education Faculty at the University of Illinois---and elsewhere, too

Dear Professor Bergonzi, DeNardo, Hendricks, Legutki, Sweet, and Thibeault:

At the time your email (below) was covered in the Daily Illini, I was at the Michigan Teachers of English annual conference, where---as a featured speaker---I shared research on the effects of stereotyping on American Indian children. As a Pueblo Indian woman, and, as a former schoolteacher, I believe it is vital that pre-service teachers receive precisely the sort of information you shared with them in the email you sent. The conference you attended ("Race, Erasure, and Equity in Music Education") sounds outstanding.

A bit of context: I'm from Nambe Pueblo, in northern New Mexico. I grew up there, and I'm tribally enrolled. From parents, grandparents, and elders, I learned what it means to be pueblo. Fast forward to the early 1990s and my decision to go to graduate school at the University of Illinois. Prior to that, I had been teaching school, careful not to teach stereotypical or biased information to my students, whether it was the kindergarten children in Albuquerque or the Native children in Santa Fe. Prior to moving to Urbana, I'd been forewarned about "Chief Illiniwek" but waved the warning away. I couldn't imagine what was to come...

I got here in 1994 and was taken aback, again and again, at what I saw and heard all around me: the intense embrace and love of a stereotype that, from an educational perspective, was fraught with error and misinformation. My efforts to understand this phenomenon led me to study images of American Indians in children's and young adult literature.

People here say they "learn" about American Indians by watching "chief illiniwek" dance on the football field. The dance, the music, and the mascot itself feed expectations and ideas that American Indians were tragic peoples who no longer exist.

Then and now, it is difficult to comprehend that an educational institution was engaged in blatant institutional racism they called "honoring" of American Indians. That sentiment was put forth year after year, in the face of Native students, staff, and faculty who said it was nor honorable, nor was it educational.

We weren't alone in expressing our objections. Indeed, since the 1970s, national Native organizations have issued statements calling for an end to this use of Native imagery. Amongst the organizations are the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association.  In recent years, the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association passed resolutions calling for an end to the use of Native imagery, too. Among the research studies they based their resolutions on are the studies done by Stephanie Fryberg.

You were not being "politically correct" in your actions. Rather, you were doing what any of us (professors) should do: share developments in our respective areas of research and study with our students. Your actions and email are educationally sound, not "politically correct."

When I returned to campus the first week of November, I played several versions of "One little, two little, three little Indians..." for students in my Intro to American Indian Studies course, and pointed them to the student paper and coverage of your email. By this point in the semester, my students have spent a semester noting occurrences of Native imagery. They see things they've never noticed before, and your email provided me with the opportunity to call their attention to this sort of imagery in music.

I've been following the media coverage of your email, and the purpose of this Open Letter is to publicly say that I fully support your actions. If you wish, I'm happy to talk with you individually or as a group, or to speak with your students, too. My email address is dreese.nambe@gmail.com.

Debbie Reese
Assistant Professor
American Indian Studies
University of Illinois
(UIUC Class of 2000)



Dear Music Education Major:

As a faculty we want to indicate our support for any student who chose not to participate in the "Next Dance." We also affirm the position that the decision to participate should be left up to each student individually.

However, we view this event and activities like it as inappropriate for anyone intending to serve as a music educator. Music education, as a profession, is in the midst of a critical examination of the ways it has actively or complicity allowed for the erasure or marginalization of minority people and musics. In fact, most of us have just returned from the conference "Race, Erasure, and Equity in Music Education," sponsored by the Consortium for Research on Equity in Music Education.

Although the "Next Dance" has already occurred, we still feel particularly compelled (1) to voice our extreme disappointment with the event, (2) to ask that you consider what participation says about you as a future music educator and the extent to which this conflicts with your profession's commitment to respect all people and (3) to invite discussion as to how you and we, the faculty, might instill pride in our university and its athletic teams in ways that honor the musical and cultural lives of all people.

We know the contextual issues surrounding this event have been discussed in many of your courses in music education. However, the faculty didn't want to let the recent event pass without noting that, regardless of whether you participated in Saturday evening's event or not, you weighed in on an issue important to your profession. Please take a moment to consider this recent, "real-world" instance of how personal values and actions and professional obligations intersect. There will be many more in your career.

the Music Education Faculty (Louis Bergonzi, Greg DeNardo, Karin Hendricks, Allen Legutki, Bridget Sweet, Matthew Thibeault)

Update, November 16, 2:31 PM

A colleague at an East Coast school wrote asking what "The Next Dance" is...  This update is to provide context for her and others who wonder what "The Next Dance is all about. She knew that the "chief illiniwek" is no longer the official mascot of UIUC.

A few years ago, the university quit using "chief illiniwek" as its mascot. Since then, the pro-chief student group and its counterpart, the "Honor the Chief Society" and the "Council of Chiefs" (the latter is all the former students who played "chief illiniwek" while they were students at UIUC) has chosen an "unofficial Chief Illiniwek" and rented the campus basketball arena (Assembly Hall) for a performance they call "The Next Dance."

"The Next Dance" is not sanctioned by the university.

Other news:

Recently, there was an effort on the part of the pro-chief groups to get trademark rights to "chief illiniwek." The University lawyers responded by telling them that their use of the phrase "chief illiniwek" is a violation of the university's trademark on that phrase and the logo, too. As a result, the pro-chief groups are not using "chief illiniwek" anymore. You can read a news story about it here, and the university letter to the lawyer for the "Honor the Chief" society here.

Those of you wondering what this particular post has to do with children's literature can see the parallels quite easily by comparing images of Indians in popular, classic, and best-selling children's books:

Clifford the Big Red Dog, in Clifford's Halloween

Grizzly Bob in Bearenstein Bears go to Camp

From Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak

From Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff

George in George and Martha by James Marshall

Grace, in Amazing Grace


KBHC said...

Thanks so much for writing this. An important post and important contribution to this conversation!

Kate Clancy
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
University of Illinois

unique said...

thanks so much