Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dear Teachers: An Open Letter about Images of Indians

November 17, 2015

Dear Teachers,

Each day when young children get home from school, parents ask how their day went and if they have any homework. For some parents, the homework their child brings home can be daunting because it has material on it that they haven't thought about in years. They have to "brush up" on it in order to help their children understand the concepts the child's homework is intended to reinforce. Some parents find homework annoying because it is so repetitive and their children could be doing something more engaging.

Last month on social media, Native parents circulated photos of worksheets and books their children were bringing home. Some of these photos were of cartoon-like images of Indians who greeted Columbus.

November is Native American month. Thanksgiving happens this month, too, so, some of the worksheets parents are sharing on social media are about Indians greeting the Pilgrims. Some just have random images of Indians on them because it is Native American month.

If I asked you, teachers, to look through your file of worksheets, some of you will see what I'm talking about. Smiling Indians handing corn to Pilgrims. Cute Indians sitting cross legged on the ground, tending a fire, next to a tipi. Color-by-number worksheets of Indians... We could go on and on, right?

For Native parents--and for non-Native parents who know these images are stereotypical--the homework itself is more than daunting or annoying. They know those worksheets carry messages of who or what Indians are supposed to be. They know those images are misinforming the children the worksheets are meant to educate. For them, these worksheets put them in a what-do-I-do about this moment. Some will point out the stereotypical image and, if needed, tell their child why it is stereotypical and not ok. Some will arrange to meet with the teacher. Some will express their frustration, with family and friends, in person and on social media. And some will keep silent because they fear that speaking to you, their child's teacher, will put their child in an awkward position.

For Native children, those images are one more silent assault on Native culture. These silent assaults, however, are ones their teachers are handing to them. My guess is that some of you, teachers, don't even notice those images on those worksheets.

I have empathy and respect for teachers. I taught elementary school in the 1980s. I know how hard it was, then, to work with the limited resources I had from the school itself, and from my own pocket. Teaching is even harder, today, than it was then. So I'm not writing this to make you feel bad.

I'm writing to ask you to take a few seconds to look--really look--at the worksheets you're going to use today, or tomorrow, or the next day, or any day. Do they have those images of Indians on them? If they do, set them aside.

A lot of you assume these worksheets and biased children's books don't matter because you believe there aren't any Native kids in your classroom. If you're basing that belief on an idea that Native people have dark skin, dark hair, high cheekbones, and personal names that sound Indian in some way, you're reflecting a stereotype.

I don't say any of this to shame you, or to embarrass you.

We all have a lot of ignorance about people who are unlike ourselves. I have had many moments of being embarrassed! I, for example, loved Five Chinese Brothers. I have very warm memories of reading it--memories that go all the way back to my early childhood years. I carried that book in my heart for decades. Then, in a graduate school course about children's literature, that book was one we looked at, and I realized how racist its depictions are... and I let it go.

I hope you'll read this letter as a virtual hug, of sorts, from a fellow educator who--like you--cares about teaching and what we teach to children. We're all learning, every day, how to do it better. I welcome any questions you have--about worksheets, or books. My entire website is for you. It's all free. For you.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

P.S. (added an hour after I hit upload on my letter):

My husband suggested I say a bit more about what teachers can do instead of the usual Thanksgiving activities. So! If you're working with very young children, remember your training. Early childhood education is centered on teaching children in a here-and-now framework. For them, the long-ago (when colonization began) is not best practice. For children at that age, if you want to do something about the holiday, take the what-I'm-thankful approach instead of a usual Pilgrims and Indians ones. Because you're working on their fine motor skills and use craft projects for that purpose, you can do arts activities about turkeys. For older children (3rd grade and up), check out American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving. If you want to take some time to unlearn what you've learned about Thanksgiving, you can start with a fellow teacher's post about Thanksgiving books: Kara Stewart's "Children's Books about Thanksgiving."


crwillingmcmanis said...

Nicely done. Thank you.

Unknown said...

This is such a warm, compassionate post. You're a kind person, Debbie. I don't think it can be easy for you. I admire you.


Ami said...

What they said! Nicely done, reaching out rather than lashing out. We don't see enough of that in the world today. Kudos!

Anonymous said...

Being compassionate is not going to help progress. I'm sorely disappointed in you Debbie Reese. Why can't you be angry and call these teachers idiots instead? It's internalized racism to do otherwise.

Unknown said...

Easy to call people idiots when you don't sign your name, Anonymous. Lots of different approaches help progress. No one person needs to--or can--do them all.


Unknown said...

I just posted this letter on my Facebook page. Thank you for the kind reminder, for parents AND teachers.

Lydia McClanahan said...

Thank you Debbie. As a veteran educator and instructional coach to many teachers across the country, I know that most time they just need the resources to be responsive to their students. I have shared information from your site before and will share these resources as well!

Trish Guevara said...

Thank you for writing this. My children this year have had a difficult time with Columbus Day and Thanksgiving activities at school. My older child (8 years old) made her own decision and refused to participate. She was asked to celebrate Columbus Day and color and cut out the figure of Columbus and she told her teacher no and explained why. To her teacher's credit, she realized it probably wasn't the best idea to do the project in the first place. It had never occurred to her how hurtful the project could be and wondered how many other native children in her previous classrooms sat in silence. I couldn't thank her teacher enough for being understanding that Columbus was not some hero to everyone.

My younger child (6 years old) had to draw pictures of kids in native "costumes" as part of a math worksheet for thanksgiving week. He thought long and hard about what he wanted to do and settled on the characteristics he was proud of and drew that- his long hair, his mocassin shoes, and his feathers that as a child he'd earned. Then he crossed out the incorrect words (costumes to regalia) and crossed out "Native Americans" and wrote Wampanoags. When his teacher asked him why, he said if you want to talk about thanksgiving and the people who were there- then address them by name. That is who they are, call them that. She respected him for his honesty and said she would correct it for the next year. It's nice to know that many when confronted by a child for inaccuracies, have been willing to see it from a child's point of view and correct it.

Though we often are told, no offense was invented, get over it- children pick up on the message. I hate that at 6 & 8 years old they have learned the hardest part about educational curriculum, that they perpetuate stereotypes that we as a people do not exist. And those who are left don't matter enough to be treated with respect. It's nice to know that out there are teachers who care enough to make the changes.

Debbie Reese said...

Thank you for sharing the experiences of your children, Trish. I am glad their teachers were receptive. I've found teachers to be receptive to me, too. Some--but not all--and what was most disheartening were the ones who only changed things when a Native kid was there. Once that kid and his/her family was no longer in that classroom, the teacher went back to the same-old.