Thursday, March 25, 2021


On March 24th, Jean posted her review of Ella Cara Deloria: Dakota Language Protector. It is one of three terrific books published by the Minnesota Humanities Center. Read her review! Today, I'm sharing my thoughts on another book in that series. 

Highly Recommended!

Peggy Flanagan: Ogimaa Kwe, Lieutenant Governor
Written by Jessica Engelking
Illustrations by Tashia Hart
Published by Minnesota Humanities Center
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


A few months ago, when I saw the cover of this book on social media, I was psyched! Well, let me say that again: 

I was psyched!!!! 

Across Native networks, we've been deeply supportive of Native people who run for state and national offices--especially Native women. I had come to know about Flanagan from friends and colleagues in Minnesota, and I was thrilled when, in 2018, she was elected as the Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. 

That's Native context. 

Now, consider another context: biographies in children's literature. For a chapter in a book due out this year, Representations and Possibilities: Reading and Teaching with Diverse Nonfiction Children's Books edited by Thomas Crisp, Suzanne M. Knezek, and Roberta Price Gardner, Betsy McEntarffer and I did research on children's biographies of Native people. As you might guess, we found very few on women, very few by Native writers, and very few about Native people who were born after 1900. 

And now, consider state history standards. In their study of the standards, Dr. Sarah Shear and her colleagues found that eighty-seven of the state history standards to not mention Native history after 1900. 

Regular readers of AICL know that we write a lot about the need for books by Native writers that are set in the present day. They can function as a mirror for Native kids where they see a reflection of who they are, and a window for non-Native kids that can tell them that Native people are citizens or members of hundreds of distinct Native Nations and that we are here--in the present day. The state history standards are telling, aren't they? Kids are not taught that we are still here. Books like this biography of Flanagan fill a huge gap in what is available, but it ought to be inserted in those state standards documents, too!

If Betsy and I were writing that chapter on non-fiction today, we'd be including Engleking and Hart's biography of Peggy Flanagan. We might start with a close look at the cover. That, of course, is Peggy Flanagan, but study the illustration. 

On her blouse is a strawberry. Wild strawberries are a traditional Ojibwe food. Behind Flanagan are three flags. Not two, but three. One is the US flag, another is the Minnesota flag, and the third? Well--that's the White Earth Nation's flag:

Most readers may not notice the strawberry or the flag, but Ojibwe families will, for sure! Hart's illustrations and Engleking's words are mirrors of their identity. 

The subtitle for the book includes "Ogimaa Kwe." Those are Ojibwe words. Throughout the book, readers will find additional Ojibwe words--which adds another layer of the books mirror-like qualities for Ojibwe children. 

The biography starts in 1986 when Flanagan was in first grade in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It is recess time, and Peggy is outside, playing. But she’s thinking about the lessons they were doing before recess. Her teacher had been talking about Christopher Columbus. Peggy knows her people were here before he was, and she knows the impact of Europeans on Native peoples, so, she’s not looking forward to going back into the classroom where she anticipates they’ll keep talking about him. Hart’s illustration for that page shows three kids at desks, taking notes as a teacher writes on the chalkboard. We can see Peggy’s page. She’s not taking notes. Instead, she’s sketched a sad face. Here's that page:

That, too, is a mirror of Native experiences in school. For far too long, Native children have been in classrooms where a teacher puts that myth forward, uncritically. I'm glad that's in there, and I hope it is the nudge teachers need to stop doing that! 

As we move through the book, we learn that Peggy and her mother needed food stamps. That honesty is important. We also learn that Peggy found teachers who believed in her. When we move to Peggy's college years, we learn that she went to St. Cloud State University in 1998 but transferred a year later, to the University of Minnesota. There, we read about how excited she was to walk into a classroom and see someone who looked like her. That person is Professor Brenda Child. An aside: Dr. Child has written excellent books for adults but she also wrote the children's picture book, Bowwow Powwow, which we at AICL highly recommend. The last chapter is about Flanagan being sworn in as Lt. Governor of Minnesota in 2019, and the back matter includes an Ojibwe timeline and a set of questions for discussion. Those are precisely the kinds of things that make it possible for teachers to more readily use the books in the classroom.

The illustrator, Tashia Hart, is also a writer. I’ve got her Gidjie and the Wolves in my to-be-read pile, and I follow her on social media. She’s working on a romance novel! Anybody who reads romance novels knows that genre is flooded with white women writing dreadful books that are marketed as being about Native people. 

As I sit here, re-reading what I've written about Peggy Flanagan: Ogimaa Kwe, Lieutenant Governor, I think you can tell that the book resonates with me, tremendously. It does that in another way. The book came out in 2020. In the "About the Author" note, I see this:
She currently resides in Minnetonka and is isolating in Elklader, Iowa...
Isolating. It is the first book I read that referred to the pandemic and its impact on all of us. Somehow, Engleking's reference to isolation touches on a tender place. As I write this review, we feel that we see hope at the end of a long year. Part of that light is seeing another Native woman assuming a leadership role. Of course, I'm referring to Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo, who was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior. She has worn traditional Pueblo clothing for many events, including at her swearing in. 

We need a biography of her, and of Sharice Davids, too. She's Ho-Chunk and was elected to Congress to represent Kansas, in 2019. Haaland was also elected that year, to represent New Mexico. 

I best hit the pause button on this post! I highly recommend Engleking and Hart's biography of Flanagan. As I noted up top, Jean reviewed another book in this three-book series, and we've got one more to do! That'll be Kade Ferris's book about Charles Albert Bender! 

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