Rewriting the Indigenous stories for children

Debbie Reese (Photo by Durango Mendoza)

Debbie Reese: ‘We need more people speaking up about misrepresentations’ #RepresentationMatters

Debbie Reese, Nambé Pueblo, grew up not far from Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the Nambé Reservation participating in ceremonies and dance from a young age. Although, due to the history of exploitation of Native cultures, Reese was taught not to talk about ceremony with non-Nambé friends.

Although she admits it wasn’t until she got older that she began to be bothered by the misrepresentation of Native peoples.

“I was firmly and lovingly grounded in who we are as Pueblo people, and I think that's why biased depictions of history and Native peoples didn't bother me until I was older and saw that most people in the U.S. don't know what is accurate and what is stereotypical, biased, or just plain wrong,” Reese said.

This was made even more evident when she moved to the Midwest for graduate school at the University of Illinois. The school’s mascot, now retired, Chief Illiniwek wore imitation Lakota clothing, a fake headdress of dyed turkey feathers and often performed during halftime of various sporting events.

To understand why students and faculty were fine with this stereotypical mascot, Reese began to research how Native people were depicted in children’s and young adult books. This would ultimately become her dissertation and led her to being published through a variety of mediums, helping teachers and librarians learn how to analyze image and story.

In 2006 she founded, American Indians in Children’s Literature, which “provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.” One of the reasons she started American Indians in Children’s Literature was to make her research available to teachers who couldn't afford to join professional associations.

Since its founding, Reese says a lot more people are aware of misrepresentations than they used to be but there is always room to improve.

“We need more people speaking up about misrepresentations,” Reese said. “We're making gains but the big ones can happen sooner, if more people speak up. We also need to see more people buying books by Native writers.”

A few years ago, she was asked to adapt an academic book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, ‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,’ for middle-school and young adult readers. Reese said she would only take on the project if Jean Mendoza, a peer she had met in her PhD program at the University of Illinois, could do it with her.

Debbie Reese story art

Mendoza and the publisher, Beacon Press, both said yes.

“It was very hard, emotionally and intellectually, to do the adaptation. We spent three years reading and revising, doing additional research, trying our best to turn the facts of history in the original book, to words that would help teens read and grasp the enormity of violence, but also the power of Indigenous resistance,” Reese said of the process. “At every turn we kept in mind that Native teens would be reading it, too. We didn't want our words to hurt them. We strove for honesty but were careful of avoiding anything that would be gratuitous in any way.”

Mendoza said because the original book is so packed with information, part of the process included deciding what should and should not be included in their adapted version.

“We would start with Roxanne's text, read through it individually, and then get together in designated Google docs to talk about what we read and what we felt needed to be left and and what could be set aside,” Mendoza said.

She continued to say Reese is great to work with and praised her abilities to catch subtleties she may have missed.

“Her ability to track down sources, and alternative sources, is phenomenal,” Mendoza said of Reese, “as is her ability to think critically about the material and the events in history.”

Jean and Deb
Jean Mendoza, left, and Debbie Reese (Photo by Durango Mendoza)

Although the book hasn’t been out long, it was published July 23, it has received good reviews. Booklist, an American Library Association publication that critically reviews books said the following:

“This adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) should be required reading for all middle and high schoolers—and their teachers . . . . There is much to commend here: the lack of sugar-coating, the debunking of origin stories, the linking between ideology and actions, the well-placed connections between events past and present, the quotes from British colonizers and American presidents that leave no doubt as to their violent intentions . . . . The resistance continues, and this book urges all readers to consider their own roles, whether as bystanders or upstanders.”

In reading, ‘An Indigneous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People,’ as well as the original version, Mendoza hopes people will think more in line with the truth of the history of the United States.

“We (white people) need to understand that basically we are living well on stolen land. That is huge,” Mendoza said. “You can say those words in a matter of seconds but their implications go deep.”

Reese says its important for non-Natives students to realize much of what they were taught growing up isn’t necessarily the true story of what happened when it comes to Indigenous peoples.

“No child should be given untruths, but that's what most get, in today's classrooms. That fact has turned the U.S. into what it is today: a nation that thinks it is exceptional, when it never was and certainly is not, now,” Reese said. “Knowing the truth can help students grow into people who can disrupt the status quo, by attending protests and by casting votes, or running for office. So that justice is closer to the ways that Indigenous peoples define it.”

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
David Hollenshead
David Hollenshead

Of course the genocide should be common knowledge to all American high school students, just as the genocide and other crimes against humanity by the Third Reich are understood by most German students... Years ago a friend's Palawan wife wrote the first early reading book that actually featured illustrations of Palawan children, why didn't that happen before the 1990s... To be frank, I would have benefited from early teen book on being a half breed, as I would not have internalized all that hate from teachers and fellow students...