Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Debbie Reese's Open Letter Regarding USBBY's 2017 "Indigenous Experience" Panel in Seattle

Eds. note at 9:00 CST on July 27th, 2017, Therese Bigelow, USBBY's Board President, announced that Nancy Bo Flood would not be on the panel. Bigelow said:
We are changing the program on Indigenous Voices in Children’s Literature. Nancy Bo Flood will no longer participate. Panel presenters are all from Canada which reflects the international scope of the conference theme. The panel had already begun working on their program together and the Fenton's, through Christy Jordan-Fenton, have requested that Sarah Ellis continue In her role as moderator. This change will be reflected on the program schedule as soon as I return to my home computer next week.

A few days ago, I was invited to join USBBY's page on Facebook. I accepted the invitation and saw posts there about its 2017 conference. Because it will take place in Seattle, I decided to take a look and see what they had planned.

I was--quite frankly--furious to see Nancy Bo Flood's name on the "Indigenous Experience in Children's Literature" panel. As regular readers of AICL know, I've been studying the ways Native peoples are depicted in children's literature for decades. In that time, I've come to know the work of many people who--like Flood--are not Native, but write books about Native peoples. Amongst that body of White writers, there are many instances in which the writer has done particularly egregious things.

Undermining Native identity and nations is one of those egregious violations.

That happens in Flood's book, Soldier Sister, Fly Home. When that book came out, I wrote two posts about it. One was about the Hopi content, the other was about the Navajo content.

The main character is Tess, a thirteen year old girl. Her father is white. A theme of the book is Tess trying to understand her mixed identity. Her Navajo grandmother has a key role in Tess's efforts to understand who she is.

As a child, this Navajo grandmother went to boarding school. U.S. government boarding schools (residential schools in Canada) were created in the 1880s by Richard Pratt. The goal was to 'kill the Indian and save the man.' Tess's grandmother didn't like what they did to her there, and so, she ran away.

She tells Tess about running away part way through Flood's story when Tess pulls a book of Emily Dickinson's poems off her grandmother's shelf and turns to a marked page. Her grandma asks her to read it aloud. Before she reaches the end, her grandmother joins her, reading the last stanza aloud together. She tells Tess that it is a good poem and says:
When I was in school, I thought, I am Navajo. I should not read that poem. It was written by a white woman. She could speak of death. We could not. But I read and reread that poem.
There are several ways to interpret that passage. The goal of the boarding schools was to "kill the Indian and save the man." I guess it worked on Tess's grandmother. She no longer observes Navajo teachings about speaking about death.

And now--as a grandmother--she's asking her granddaughter to read that poem aloud. Essentially, she's continuing the "kill the Indian" goal.

My guess is that most readers think that Tess's grandmother is really nice, kind, and helpful. But is she, really?

Is Flood -- the White writer who created that character -- a modern day Richard Pratt?

One of the other people on the Indigenous Experience panel is Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. With her daughter-in-law (who is White), she's written three stories from her childhood in boarding school. The stories are wrenching.

Do you see why having THIS particular White writer (Nancy Bo Flood) who created that kind of grandmother, sitting beside Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is just plain wrong?


I strongly urge Nancy Bo Flood to step down from the panel. This is not her place. I understand why she accepted the invitation but she should not have done so. In the conversation on the USBBY Facebook page, I asked for details as to why she is on the panel. Did they deliberately create a seat for a White writer was my specific question. Ed Sullivan, Chair of the planning committee, answered my question:
"The answer to that is no. I invited Nancy Bo Flood long after the other panelists were invited. She was already registered for the conference and presenting a breakout session on another topic, so I asked her if she would be willing to participate. Since cultural appropriation will be a topic of discussion for the panel, having someone who has been criticized for that can offer an interesting perspective to the conversation. When I invited Nancy, she stressed she was not Native American, and I am sure she will be quite clear about that on the panel when she speaks, too. I hope that answers your questions."
His answer prompted other questions. There is also a panel on Asian American Experience (both session titles use the singular "experience" which is also an error). It has one moderator and three Asian American writers. Why, I wonder, did Sullivan decide that the Indigenous panel needed a fourth person--a White writer--on it?

This is one of many similar confrontational conversations I've had with people in children's literature. Dominated by White people, they work pretty hard at defending the right to write whatever anyone wants to write. In the abstract, I support that concept, but on the ground, things are very different.

Our lived realities as Native people today, and those of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors, is one where White people were intent on taking and destroying our land, our lives, our languages, our ways of worship, and... our stories. The initial invasion has been followed by wave after wave of invasion.

With this panel, USBBY is continuing that invasion.

See Naomi Bishop's Open Letter Regarding the "Indigenous Experience" Panel at USBBY's 2017 Regional Conference. 


Unknown said...

A powerful post, Debbie. I have not been able to follow the USBBY conversation because I am not on Facebook (it keeps asking me to log in). Thank you.


Mia Wenjen said...

I would be really unhappy also if a white author was on an Asian American children's book panel, who say, depicted Asian Americans in a demeaning or racist way. For example, Dr. Seuss! If he was alive and on a panel for Asian American children's book authors for Horton Hears a Who (white savior) or If I Ran The Zoo (straight up anti-Asian racism), I would protest quite loudly.

Tenisha McCloud said...

It's past time to stop attending and presenting at these white-dominated conferences altogether. All of it is so tiring. As we now represent our #ownvoices in children's literature, let's too have our #ownconferences. And #ownlibraries, for that matter. This may be the only solution to these ongoing problems.