Thursday, November 06, 2014

Some thoughts about Native American Month and Thanksgiving

In the opening chapter of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Our Of Here (2013, Arthur A. Levine Books), the main character, Lewis, is walking home. The time of year is August.  Lewis lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. Here's what Lewis is thinking:
As I turned the corner at Dog Street, where I lived, I could see my old elementary school. The teachers would be in their classrooms now, decorating bulletin boards with WELCOME TO THE 1975-1976 SCHOOL YEAR! in big construction-paper letters. They were going to be puzzled by the fact that the United States Bicentennial Celebration wasn't exactly a reservation priority, since we'd been here for a lot longer than two hundred years.
That puzzlement is what today's post is about. Lewis's people identify with a tribal nation that has been here far longer than the nation we know as the United States of America. I think it fair to say that the US marks two moments of historical significance. One is its independence on July 4, 1776. But Independence Day is preceded by "the first Thanksgiving" in 1621. (Set aside time to read and study What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving: The Wampanoag Side of the Tale.)

In schools across the country, Native peoples appear in the curriculum at specific times of the year. Like this month. November. Thanksgiving.

Coincidentally (?), November is Native American Month. I suspect November may have been chosen because that is the month when the US celebrates Thanksgiving. As such, I think it seemed (to someone) to be the ideal month for Americans to "reflect on the profound ways the First Americans have shaped our country's character and culture." That phrase is in the opening line of President Obama's 2014 Presidential Proclamation designating this as National Native American Heritage Month. The first president to proclaim November as Native American Month was George H. W. Bush, in 1990 (see the full list of proclamations here).

People mean well. They have good intentions. But even President Obama's opening remark indicates a framework that doesn't work. Are Native peoples "the First Americans?" I know a good many Native people who would say they're citizens of their tribal nation first and foremost, and I've read that Native leaders who fought the U.S. in the 1800s wouldn't call themselves Americans at all.

A fact: 
Native Nations pre-date the 
United States and all its holidays. 

Our timelines, in other words, don't start at 1621 or 1776, or the year at which any given state in the US celebrates its statehood.

President Obama is right. Native peoples did shape the country's character and culture. Watch this video from Vision Maker Media. It has terrific information about how the Founding Fathers were guided by, and turned to, the Haudenosaunee.

So here we are, a few weeks away from Thanksgiving, in a month designated as one in which US citizens are invited to "work to build a world where all people are valued and no child ever has to wonder if he or she has a place in our society." That is another phrase in President Obama's proclamation. In it, he also talks about sovereignty.

I want librarians, teachers, parents, writers... everyone, really, to move away from talking about Native peoples in the past tense context of Thanksgiving. I want everyone to move away from talking about us only in November.

Buy and share the books I recommend below year-round. Doing that conveys the respect and inclusion that everyone in the U.S. should have as a given. Not an exception, but as a given. Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here and the ones I discuss below are among my favorite books.

Every people has a creation story. Not every person within a group believes in those creation stories, but I think most people respect those stories and the people who hold them as truths.

Simon J. Ortiz's The People Shall Continue starts with Native creation stories (plural because there are over 500 federally recognized Native Nations in the U.S., with tremendous difference in language, location, spirituality, and material culture) and moves through contact with Europeans, wars, treaties, capitalism, and the need for peoples to unite against forces that can destroy the humanity in all of us. Published in 1977, 1988 and again in 1994 by Children's Book Press, this picture book is no longer in print. Used copies, however, are available online, and I highly recommend it for children and adults, too. It offers a lot to think about. Ortiz is a member of Acoma Pueblo, in New Mexico.

Believe it or not, a lot of people express surprise to learn that we are still here. People think we were all killed or died of disease... gone from the face of the earth. Some people think we are still here, but that to be "real" Indians, we have to live like we did hundreds of years ago.

Picture books like Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer (2000, Morrow Junior Books) push against those ideas. The protagonist is Jenna, a Muscogee Creek girl who is going to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow. The story of Jenna getting ready reflects what happens in Native communities when a young child is going to dance for the first time. Everyone helps. The cover shows Jenna at the powwow. Inside you'll find her walking down a tree-lined street as she visits friends and family members. At one point she feels a bit overwhelmed at all the work she needs to do to be ready, but her Great Aunt Sis tells her a traditional story about not giving up. Smith is enrolled with the Muscogee Creek Nation.

Native spiritualities are misrepresented as pagan and mystic, and rather than seen as religions with their own integrity, are cast as superstitions of primitive people.

Tim Tingle's How I Became A Ghost (2013, RoadRunner Press) bats down those two ideas beautifully. His middle-grade novel opens with these words on the first page: "Chapter 1: Talking Ghost, Choctaw Nation, Mississippi, 1830." Bam! Spirituality is there from the start. Not in a mystic way. It is an IS. A matter of fact. And nationhood, too! Right from the start.

This is a story about the Choctaw Trail of Tears, told from the vantage point of Isaac, a ten year old boy. Given its topic, it could be a very raw story, but Tingle's storytelling voice and humor (yes, humor) keep the focus of the story on the humanity of all the people involved. Tingle is enrolled with the Choctaw Nation and is working on a sequel to How I Became A Ghost. 

I'll close with a board book that features a Native language. In the U.S. and Canada, government policy was to 'kill the Indian and save the man' in boarding schools run by churches or by the government. Kids were forced to attend those boarding schools (starting in the 1800s) and were punished and beaten for speaking their own languages. The direct result was that many Native languages were lost. Today there are language revitalization programs in which elders who still speak their language are teaching it. In some places, language remained strong.

We All Count (2014, Native Northwest) is a board book for toddlers who are learning to count in English, but in Cree, too. Written and illustrated by Julie Flett, who is Cree Metis (First Nations in Canada), each page is beautifully illustrated, with the Cree word for each numeral written in a large font that complements the page itself.

Get those books! Order them from your local bookstore, and ask your librarian to get them, too. There are a great many that I could write about here, but instead, I'll direct you to my page of links to Best Books lists. Check out my gallery of Native Artists and Illustrators, too. Learn their names. Look for their books. And if you want to learn a bit more about sovereignty, read We Are Not People of Color.


Beverley Baird said...

Thanks for sharing these books. I have been reading several lately by native authors. Today just finished "For Joshua" by Richard Wagamese - very informative and moving.

KarenHT said...

Thanks for another outstanding post. I have been following your critiques since the early 90s. I look to your lists and resources like AILA whenever I'm ordering Native materials.
This year my library is celebrating Native American Heritage Month for the first time officially. It was a long time coming and has helped us raise awareness with programming and resources to teachers but I do get really frustrated with the entire Heritage Month or History Month method of celebrating people. It's an inclusion that's still exclusion. People tell me it's a step in the right direction. The thing is that once you take a step you really need to keep moving forward to go anywhere. Thanks for keeping us moving forward.