Saturday, February 01, 2020

An Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference

Devon Kerslake's Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture 
at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference* 
by Debbie Reese

Last year, Nancy Cooper (Ojibwe from the Chippewas of Rama First Nation) and Deanna Nebenionquit (Atikmeksheng Anishnawbek) invited me to be a featured speaker at the Ontario Library Association's 2020 Super Conference. Nancy and Deanna are planners for the Indigenous Stream. They wanted me to give the Indigenous Spotlight session. I accepted their invitation and spoke on January 29, 2020.

To prepare for it, I thought about concerns that Native peoples in my networks have been talking about in recent periods. Identity and fraudulent claims to Native identity are a primary concern. So, I settled on Politics, Ethics, and Native Identity as my topic. It was captured in real-time by Devon Kerslake, who sketched as I spoke. This is what it looks like (and isn't it the coolest?!):

To prepare for talks I give at a conference, I look to previous conferences to see what sorts of talks people have given. I saw that Tanya Talaga (Ojibwe) gave the 2019 Indigenous Spotlight talk. And, I saw that her remarks had been captured by Devon Kerslake, a graphic illustrator at Think Link Graphics:

I was psyched as I studied the visual artifact, or graphic recording of her talk (other phrases for this kind of work are story mapping and sketch notes). As I looked around the conference website, I saw that lectures given by other featured speakers had also been sketched out. In particular, I noted that there was one on intellectual freedom, given by James Turk. As I looked at it I saw the usual ideas that people put forth to discredit us when we object to something. I used content of Talaga's and Turk's lectures to frame my remarks. I don't know if I was successful or not. That was the first-time I've given a talk about that particular set of slides and that topic.

I didn't know that a similar record would be made of my talk!

As I set up my computer and tested the microphone, I saw a person come in and realized they were setting up to do one. I asked Nancy if she could take occasional photographs of it, as the illustrator worked.

My goal was to provide some personal historical context about identity, how Native identity was denigrated by state actors (federal government and its employees) in my personal family history, how identity can be monetized for personal gain, and the ethics--or lack of them--when a writer selects content for their stories.

What I'll do in the remainder of this post is tell you a bit more about the illustrations that the illustrator captured. When I have the illustrator's name, I'll be back to add it. I think it is Kerslake but will know for sure, later. [Update on Feb 3: I've heard from Devon Kerslake. It is, indeed, her work. I've added her name to the title of this post.]

The first things I said were about my tribal nation, Nambé Owingeh. I talked about growing up there, what I learned, and I showed some photos from there, including one of three-year-old me on my trike. The "best wheels" remark was about the hard rubber tires on that trike. They never got flat like the bicycle wheels would, later! I talked about liking school and getting a certificate from my teacher at the end of the year. I had the best grades that year. The "Naming Matters" part is about my name. My teacher was sure my parents did wrong in naming me Debbie. She insisted that Debbie is a nickname and not a proper name. Can you imagine that? The audacity of that woman! At the end of the year, she wrote Deborah on my certificate. I also talked about my grandfathers. My mom's father was Hopi. When he went to boarding school his name was changed, forever. My dad's father was White. His name was the same at his birth and death. The federal government ran those boarding schools and changed Native student's names. It was a political effort to turn us into white people. Obviously, it didn't work. We're still here, fighting to protect who we are: sovereign nations.

I showed the 2018 infographic that Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen imagined into being and that David Huyck drew and called attention to the data about Native people. It combines quantitative data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's metaphor that books can function as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. I call attention to the shards of glass at the feet of the Native and Children of Color, because in that 1% of books, a lot of the content is stereotypical, biased, or wrong. Here's the slide I used:

And here's how it was sketched:

I also talked at length about claims to Native identity, the ways that people speak of their Native identity (and how its shifts over time strike me as indicative of little to no connection with the people they claim to be from) and the benefits some writers receive.

For Bouchard, I talked about his 2016 video, "David Bouchard on Being Métis" and things he said. It begins with him saying "one of the nice things about being Métis is I have no plan." and that "When I was white I had a 10-year plan." I noted that his books are stereotypical and romantic or sentimental in tone, both of which I think obscure who we are as people. I referenced the letter he received in 2007 from the Metis Nation of British Columbia, stating they could not confirm his claim to being Métis.

When I spoke about Melanie Florence, I talked about the ethics of writing a story about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Back in 2017 when I read Missing Nimama I felt it was exploiting pain. I found her writings about why she wrote that book (to give voice to these women and their families) and a children's writing contest prompt she wrote (comparing missing and murdered Indigenous women to having some thing stolen from contest participants) to be insensitive. I believe firmly that some stories are best told by people with the experience necessary to share them with care.

From here on I'll use close ups of the post-talk image. The illustrator added color to what they had sketched during the talk. I continued with the "Is this your story to tell" question by referencing Rebecca Roanhorse and the stories she's chosen to tell in her adult books and her middle grade novel, Race to the Sun. These are stories taken from the Diné people. She is married into a Diné family. I recounted my initial support for her and Trail of Lightning and that I listened when Diné people objected to what she had done with their sacred stories and beings. I withdrew my support for that book because I agree with their objections. In several places, I have spoken or written about what we keep private. I've added "curtain" to Dr. Bishop's metaphor because Native peoples do, in fact, draw curtains on some of what we do (see, for example, page 390 of Critical Indigenous Literacies.)

(Note: A special thanks to Lisa Noble who was at the presentation, for suggesting I add these next two paragraphs and images.) A segment of my talk was about my personal family history and how that would shape my thinking if I was writing fiction. In my slides, I had this image. The top row is my grandparents, the second row is my parents, and the bottom is me. I said that I would feel comfortable writing about my life growing up at Nambé. I could write stories about riding my trike or bicycle, or playing in the river below our house (or any number of things we did!). Although I spent a lot of time at Ohkay Owingeh visiting my grandfather, uncles and aunts, and playing with cousins there (its about 25 minutes away from Nambé), I didn't grow up there and wouldn't feel ethical about writing a story from the point of view of a kid from Ohkay Owingeh. And though we went to Hopi a few times, I wouldn't create a character or story from a Hopi child's point of view. There's too much I don't know about the essence of what it means to grow up at Ohkay Owingeh or Hopi. My personal ethics mean that I wouldn't do it.

That personal history portion of my talk was captured in this sketch ("consider the ethics of identity"). At Nambé Owingeh I was taught what I can and cannot share. I have strong family relationships and friendships at Ohkay Owingeh but my personal ethics about respecting a tribal nations sovereignty and protocols over what they do not want shared means I would definitely not write a story about their sacred songs, dances, or stories.

I talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, which is the book that Jean Mendoza and I adapted from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz's book. I noted the mirrors for Pueblo children that I added to it (Po'Pay and the seed pot made by Nambé tribal member, Pearl Talachy) and the mirrors that Jean added for Muscogee children. I noted that in chapter ten, we wrote about activism, and I talked about how we used the book's index to decenter Whiteness.

This next illustration captures the Q&A. People wondered what to do about Bouchard's books. I asked them to think about why his books have such appeal. I used the phrase "tugging at your heart strings" to characterize the ways that we (readers) can be manipulated by text and image in ways that are not helpful to the sound education that teachers are expected to provide to children. Our responsibility as educators is to educate, not entertain. Entertainment is fine, of course, but not if the content of the entertainment is misleading or inappropriate. I suggested using such books with kids to teach them how to read critically. I issued a caution about DNA tests--well, it was more of a "don't do them!" statement, and I recommended Kim TallBear's book Native American DNA. The introduction to me and my talk was given by Feather Maracle. She referenced my work on Little House on the Prairie and the name change. In the Q&A someone asked me to talk about it, so I did. In answering that question I also talked about the backlash and security concerns when I speak at some places. In reply to a "what can we do" question, I asked people to speak up and do this work with me.

I think that's about it! As always, if something I said in this post (or in the lecture, if you were there or read/talked about it with someone) is not clear, let me know in a comment and I'll respond.

Additional thoughts about my trip to Toronto

The last event of my trip to Toronto was a visit to the First Nations House at the University of Toronto. There, we laughed, ate, and talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

Ishta Mercurio was at the First Nations House, too. She is one of the authors of a letter written to the Children's Book Guild in Washington DC over their treatment of Carole Lindstrom. Ishta, Julie Foster Hedlund, and Martha Brockenbrough's decision to write that letter embodies what I said in the Indigenous Spotlight Q&A (speak up).

A highlight: I met Joanna Robertson, author and illustrator of The Water Walker. She told me about her and Josephine Mandamin reading my review of the book as they drove together one day. I'll remember what she said, forever. I also met Samantha Martin-Bird and Robyn Medicine, who did a session on white fragility at the conference that drew fire from a conservative Toronto newspaper. Talking with them was way cool! And, the time I spent with Nancy Cooper, Deanna Nebenionquit, Jenny Kay Dupuis, and Feather Maracle was filled with affirmation and that strong sense of Native women, doing important work together.


Back to add the illustrated record of Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek's talk! I encourage you to head over to Twitter and see the tweets in the hashtag, #OLASC.

*On February 3, I heard from Devon Kerslake. She is the artist who sketched my talk. I've added her name to the title of the blog post.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Highly Recommended: Gitige - She/he Gardens

Gitige - She/he Gardens
by Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Anishinaabe consultants Tom Jack, Tara Dupuis, Marcus Ammesmaki, Jodie Locking
Photographs by Autumn Aubu't
Published in 2019
Published by Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

The first lines of Gitige - She/he Gardens are, "Here is a story about gardening and what happens with a little watering, sunshine, and children's special care." It's a story that unfolds in the photographs, as it follows young children in their garden through a growing season.

Gitige is the latest of several delightful board books Fond du Lac Band has created that incorporate  words in Anishinaabemowin (or Ojibwemowin). The others have all been reviewed or mentioned on AICL: Boozhoo/Come Play With Us, The Story of Manoomin, niimiwin/Everyone Dance, and Our Journey. Like several of them, Gitige is illustrated with photos of children from the Fond du Lac community. They show preschool-age children involved in the real work of gardening: digging, watering, working with adults, appreciating their plants, and sorting harvested food, as well as dressing up as flowers.

The photos on each page are labeled in English and Anishinaabemowin. At the end of the book is a page showing all the translations. One strength of the book is that the two languages are side-by-side on each page. There are nouns, verbs, phrases, and whole sentences for children to hear, see, and say.

Adults sharing the book can use the words in the captions to start conversations about the pictures,  encouraging children's oral literacy in either language.

An adult who wants to hear the pronunciations of many of these words can find audio by native speakers on The Ojibwe People's Dictionary web site.

Anyone expecting to see a Three Sisters garden in the book may be disappointed. These kids are growing sunflowers, carrots, and a riotous assortment of flowers as well as corn and squash. I found only one problem with the book. On the first page, it looks like the English equivalent of zhoomiingweni has been left off inadvertently. I don't know if that's true for every copy or if mine is the only one. In any case, with adult help, children can do the detective work of figuring out via the glossary which English word belongs there.

You can order Gitige - She/he Gardens and those other great board books from the Fond du Lac Head Start Web site. [Editing on 1/30/2020 to report that until Fond du Lac Head Start is able to update their books page, you can order the book by emailing Thanks, Sam Bloom for letting me know about that problem!]

And ...

Are you a Native writer or artist with an idea for a story? Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing would like to hear from you! Black Bears and Blueberries is a small Native-owned independent press dedicated to developing Native-themed books by Native authors and illustrators. They published and help to market Gitige. See their page of author info, or contact Betsy Albert-Peacock directly at

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Recommended: Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska

Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska
Written by Kaal.atk' Charlie Joseph (Tlingit), Hlii'ilaang Kun 'Lan-gaay
and HlGaa'xatgu 'Laanaas family members (Haida),
the Haayk Foundation, and Nancy Barnes (Tsimshian)
Illustrated by Crystal Kaakeeyaa Worl (Tlingit Athabascan)
Xaad Kil translations by Skil Jaadei (Linda Schrack), 
Kwiigaay I'waans (Phyllis Almquist), and Ilskyalas (Delores Churchill)
Sm'algyax translations by the Haayk Foundation
Published in 2019
Publisher: Sealaska Heritage
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Status: Highly recommended

Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska is part of Sealaska Heritage's Baby Raven Reads program. It's a multilingual board book -- three Tlingit songs, three Haida spoken-word poems, and three Tshimshian songs, each with English translation on the same page. Its companion CD features a bonus track: a Tlingit version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star sung by Keixwnei Nora Marks Dauenhauer.

Crystal Kaakeeyaa Worl's (Tlingit Athabascan) illustrations are quite appealing. Worl places formline figures amid washes of color and stylized natural features (such as clouds, water, flowers), and includes images of "everyday" tools such as a halibut hook and a berry basket. Some images are contemplative, and others have a lot going on. There's plenty to talk about with little ones on each page.

"Cradle songs" are not necessarily lullabyes! Don't expect to rock the baby to sleep with the book's companion CD. Some of these songs have a lively beat and are about activities like fishing for halibut and picking berries. Some are about family time -- like the Haida spoken-word piece that describes something that often happens when there's a newish baby at a family gathering. The English translation is:

Come, let us take the baby on our knees!
Come, let us take the baby on our knees!
Hand the baby to one another inside of her father's house, 
hand the baby to one another!

The sweet memories that one brings to mind! Handing babies around!

The book's back matter explains important facts about its content. "Most songs in Southeast Alaska Native culture are restricted from general public use because of clan or family ownership," the statement begins. Debbie Reese has pointed out many times that some aspects of Pueblo ceremonies and religious ways of being are not to be shared with outsiders. The metaphor she uses is that of a curtain drawn between those things and the parts of Pueblo life that can be shown to others.

The publisher goes on to say, "The songs in this book include traditional songs in the public domain and original works reprinted here with permission." As an outsider, I could be missing something, but to me it looks like Sealaska Heritage has made sure  all songs are carefully attributed. If there's a problem I haven't noticed, I hope someone will let us know!

The CD liner notes contain additional details. Two of the Tlingit songs are attributed to Kaal.atk' Charlie Joseph, and one to Clara Peratrovich. The Haida songs are "adapted from songs owned by" two families. The Tsimshian songs are contemporary, composed in English and translated into Sm'algyax by the Haayk Foundation. So it does appear that Cradle Songs shares nothing that ought to stay behind that curtain Debbie talks about.

Performers on the CD are Ed Littlefield (Tlingit), Skil Jaadei (Haida), David R. Boxley (Tsimshian), Nancy Barnes (Tsimshian), Nancy Evelyn Barnes, and Katie Price. They all enunciate the words in each of their languages so clearly that I can discern even the sounds that are unfamiliar to English speakers, such as differences in vowel length, and what language specialists call pharyngeal consonants. Most of the songs have repetitive wording, and all are short enough to be repeated in full in less than a minute. All that repetition is good for teaching beginners the sounds, syntax, and grammar of a language.

If you're a parent or grandparent concerned about Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian language preservation, Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska seems like a great addition to your family collection of books and CDs.  Even if you don't plan to learn or teach any of those languages, Worl's illustrations can spark conversations, and the English versions of the songs tell brief but interesting stories. Besides, research suggests that hearing different languages is good for infants' brains.

You can order Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska directly from Sealaska Heritage, and take a look at more of their language preservation resources, too.

Here's just one more of these cradle songs.

The English version is:

Whose little girl is that
Packing something up the hill?
What is that chubby little girl up to?
Is that my daughter?
That's her! That's her!

See what's in the arms of that "chubby little girl?" BOOKS! I love it! I hope Sealaska Heritage has more like this one in the works!