Friday, November 11, 2022

Ku'daa, University of New Mexico Native Alumni Chapter!

I am deeply honored that the University of New Mexico's Native American Alumni Chapter chose me to receive one of its Outstanding Alumni Awards for 2022.  I received this stunningly beautiful plate, painted by Sherry L. Aragon of Acoma Pueblo

Here's the flyer announcing the gala:

Due to prior commitments, I wasn't able to travel to Albuquerque for the gala, but I did send in a recorded message for them. The gala itself was on the same day as the Brackeen v Haaland oral argument at the Supreme Court on Nov 9. This is what I said:

Good evening. 

This morning, Native people from across the country were gathering in Washington DC or online to listen to the Supreme Court oral arguments in Brackeen v Haaland. 

I’m living in the San Francisco Bay area right now. Wherever I am, I talk about kids and books. or more precisely, the ways that stories in books tell others who we are. That work is why I can’t be with you tonight. I’m in the midst of working with teachers in this area. 

I tell teachers and librarians that our status as sovereign native nations has been left out of popular, classic, and award winning books. Those books shape what people know about us. They shape what the Brackeen’s know about us. Those books are part of why the Indian Child Welfare Act is at risk, right now.

Those books are a threat to our sovereignty. 

I’m grateful to UNM’s Native American Alumni Chapter for selecting me to receive this award. It acknowledges the importance of the work I do to help educators understand what is wrong with those popular and award-winning books. 

And it acknowledges the work I do to bring visibility to Native writers who are creating books that affirm who we are. 

In October, an absolutely terrific picture book by two Native people came out. That book is Forever Cousins. Written by Laurel Goodluck and illustrated by Jonathan Nelson, it is about cousins growing up together in the Bay Area. 


In the Author’s Note, Goodluck writes about the Indian Relocation Act. It is why she grew up in the Bay Area. She also writes about sovereignty! 

I talked about Forever Cousins in a workshop I did earlier this week. After the workshop, one of the participants approached me. She was deeply touched by Goodluck’s book. She is from Tesuque Pueblo, and like Laurel, grew up in the Bay Area. 

Forever Cousins is one book, but it sits amongst a growing number of books by Native writers and illustrators who are creating books that should be in every classroom, and every library.

Like many of you, I’m deeply worried about Brackeen v. Haaland, and, I am confident that as we continue to raise our voices and use books by Native writers, we are disrupting the harms done by older classics that misrepresent who we are. Buy books by Native writers, and talk about them to everyone you know. Help me to bring visibility to books that lift our children and our nations. 


I offer my congratulations to Nicolle Gonzales. She, too, was honored by the Native Alumni chapter. She founded the Changing Woman Initiative. Here's a video of her:

If you are able to support her work, go to the Changing Woman Initiative's website. Down at the bottom of the page is a Donate button. 

Sunday, November 06, 2022

"Never fear," said Gramps. "My great, great grandmother was one quarter Native Bear and I am ready to share."

This morning on Twitter, I saw a tweet that included a photo of a page from a Berenstain Bears book. The person who shared it characterized it as 'yikes' and most of the people who commented about it agreed. Because a lot of what we see online is satire or parody, I wondered if someone was playing around with the Berenstain Bears books. 

Some of the books have stereotypical content and are cringeworthy. In Berenstain Bears Go to Camp (published in 1982 by Random House) shows Grizzly Bob in a feathered headdress and fringed buckskin. In Berenstain Bears Give Thanks (published in 2009 by Zonderkids, a Christian publishing house) the bear family has a turkey named Squanto. This is supposed to be their dinner on Thanksgiving Day but Sister Bear objects and they decide to keep Squanto as a pet. 

I looked for the book where Gramps says his great, great grandmother was "one quarter Native Bear" and found it right away. It is in The Berenstain Bears Thanksgiving Blessings. Like Berenstain Bears Give Thanks, it is from Zonderkids, the Christian publishing house. It came out in 2013.

Thanksgiving Blessings is one of the too-many books that puts forth the feel-good Thanksgiving story (in this one, the "Native Bears" gave the "Pilgrim Bears" food and they all shared in a great feast), but it is also one of those that goes a step further by having a character claim to be Native. That character talks about what they will "share" with others. Some readers will see "share" and think it is a good moral lesson, but some of us read that and see it as an attempt to depict harmony that looks away from the facts of history.

Here, it is Gramps saying that his great, great Grandmother was "one quarter Native Bear." Here's a screencap of the page (I put the red arrow there to draw your attention to Gramps and this bogus claim):

And here's the text on that page:
The whole family helped set the table. It was, indeed, a magnificent Thanksgiving feast. 
"It's a shame there aren't any Native Bears here to share it with us," said Brother. 
"Never fear," said Gramps, seating himself at the head of the table. "My great, great grandmother was one quarter Native Bear an I am ready to share. Let's eat!"
If you follow Native people on social media, you know that there are many conversations about people who claim they are Native. Social media makes it possible for this topic to be more visible than ever before. 

I ran into these claims a lot in the 1990s when I was a student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). It had a stereotypical mascot they called "Chief Illiniwek." Before I arrived there, Native students, staff and faculty had been asking the university to get rid of it. 

Without fail, we encountered fans who claimed that they are part Native and--with that claim to Native identity--said that the mascot was a good thing. Some of them may have had an ancestor, but some of them were simply recounting family lore, and were using that family lore to dismiss Native people who resist being stereotyped and misrepresented via mascots, children's books, television shows, and movies. 

That dismissal is precisely what I see in Thanksgiving Blessings. Obviously, Mike Berenstain (his parents launched the Berenstain Bears books in the 1960s), uses Gramps and his "one quarter Native Bear" as an attempt to validate the bogus Thanksgiving story. 

If you have a family story that tells us an ancestor was Native and you have no idea what that ancestor's nation was, and you speak from that space of not-knowing, I urge you to stop doing that, especially if you're doing it to counter Native people who speak up about stereotypes, and/or biased and inaccurate information. You are harming the very people you claim to be. You are undermining us. Please stop! 

To learn more about fabricated or unsupported claims to Native identity, you can read through resources I've compiled: Native or Not? And if you see that sort of thing in a children's book, please let me know!