Friday, May 25, 2012

It Is Even More Complicated than Most People Know...

An "It's Complicated!" post by Debbie Reese, assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois

When Nancy Mercado invited me to submit a post for CBC’s “It’s Complicated” series, I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the audience of CBC’s Diversity Blog. In her invitation, she wrote that CBC defines diversity in terms of “cultural/ethnic/religious/class/sexual diversity.”

I’m complicating the definition by adding “nation” because while American Indians have specific cultural or religious ways of being that mark us as diverse from the mainstream, the most significant marker is our political status as sovereign nations. Within an Indigenous sovereign nation, you could find people who don’t have the hair or skin color, or other features commonly—we could say stereotypically—attributed to American Indians. I’ll complicate the discussion even further by saying that there are people who are citizens of sovereign nations, and, there are people who are descendants of someone who was/is a citizen of a sovereign nation. Going one step further in complication, there are sovereign nations that are federally recognized, some that are state recognized, and some that are not recognized at all.

Most people don’t know anything at all about tribal sovereignty and what it means. Without that knowledge, it can be difficult for outsiders to write stories that ring true to our experiences as American Indians. In fact, it can be difficult for someone of a sovereign tribal nation at one end of the country to write about a nation at the other end, but someone who knows their nation, its history, its ways of being, and the ways it has been misrepresented has a leg up on anyone else. They know that there is a lot they do not know, and they know that standard sources aren’t the place to go for the information they need to write a story that holds up to the eye of someone of that tribal nation.

That said, the first thing I look for when analyzing a story is whether or not the story is tribally specific. Being tribally specific means letting the reader know this is not a story about an American Indian, but that it is, for example, a story about a Muscogee Creek girl. The author can do that in an author’s note, or weaving that bit of information into the story.

Cynthia Leitich Smith does both in Jingle Dancer, a story in which the protagonists’ identity as Muscogee Creek is central to the story because she is going to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at a powwow. A gifted writer, Smith’s story is explicitly instructive without being didactic. Joy Harjo’s The Good Luck Cat is, quite simply, about a lost cat. It could be anyone’s story, but the illustrations tell us that the ‘anyone’ in this case is Native. The illustrations are replete with the sorts of material culture you find in the homes of Native people whose identity as Native figures prominently in their furnishings and art.

I have a lot more to say, and invite you to read my blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Since 2006, I’ve been writing about the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children’s and young adult literature. From the incidental sidekick to the protagonist, there’s a lot to think about in how it can be done well.


  1. Thanks, Debbie, for your blog. I thought that the term is Native Americans. I will use this term here instead of American Indians, but feel free to correct me. I'm happy to see here the book by Cynthia and will go and read it. As an outsider I wrote a Native American Musical about Mabel, a young Native American woman from Oklahoma. For about two years I met Native Americans and First Nation Canadians, attended events, watched APTN TV and learned a lot about your culture. Sadly, I found resistance to allow an outsider to write about your culture and put my project aside. One Native American from Minneapolis got angry and insisted that only her people should be allowed to write about her people. I understand that because of limited spots in any art form, some Native Americans feel that outsiders can take their spots, but making Native American popular will increase the spots for Native American artists. My view is that the best way to introduce Native Americans to all Americans is by universal stories, not specific stories that appeal mainly the Native Americans. Let me end on a positive note that one of the best song ever written is by Buffy Sainte-Marie.
    Best wishes.

  2. Debbie, thank you for sharing your thoughts and highlighting the significance of sovereignty (and Jingle Dancer, too, for that matter).

    In conversations about related cross-cultural writing, I tend to begin on a very basic, open, accessible level. "Have you visited the X Nation's website?"

    Folks are often shocked that (a) there's a still-functioning governmental system and (b) it's on the Internet.

    I remember one writer saying, "Wow. Okay, I don't even know what I don't know."

    Which isn't a bad place to start rebuilding. And of course the nations/citizens themselves are the best experts.

    More broadly, I'd also like to echo what others have said about diversity *within* underrepresented communities in the body of literature.

    At the risk of stating the obvious--there are Jewish African Americans and gay Chinese Americans and...well, I could go on. You get the point.

    Finally, I'd like to emphasize the importance of word of mouth in raising awareness of wonderful, inclusive children's-YA literature. It's great that so many speak out on issues (like whitewashing) as they arise.

    But in my experience, what makes the biggest difference is steadily, day after day, year after year, in small ways and big ones, continuing to shine a light on those titles.

    So to all, please keep talking and supporting the books that speak for and to you.

    Thanks again!

  3. I think the identification of people and culture through national alliance takes us past the tepee & igloo kinds of markers when it comes to writing about Native Americans or anyone, for that mater. It takes us to a deeper place and allows us to understand people through the lenses of their national alliances, and to understand from our own personal alliances what this means. To understand that Cyn Smith's characters who live in the city in Indian Shoes are just as Indian as the ones who live on the rez in Jingle Dancer. Even though the trappings are different the lenses they wear are the same because they come from the same nation, the same People.

    And I think that's something we writers of the dominant white American "culture" can understand, as soon as we let go of the belief that we ourselves have either one culture or, as some people seem to feel, are cultureless. (Schools especially try to perpetuate this belief.) When we come to recognize that we all have histories that encompass national alliances beyond American borders it becomes easier to see.

    My family has always identified proudly as Norwegian. Not Norwegian American, just Norwegian. And despite the fact that I was third generation, I felt this identity strong enough that I went to live in Norway when I was 20 and learned the language.

    It wasn't until many years later, however, that I came to understand just how deeply my identity as Norwegian affected how I saw the world. We would joke about it on one level, thinking that it wasn't really true, just funny, but I have come to understand that deeper than the jokes and stereotypes, it is there--even in the foods I grew up with, some of which I didn't recognize as Norwegian--they were just the foods we ate. Until I came to embrace multiculturalism, I tended to think that the whole white country was just like me. It wasn't. Our national blood alliances run deeper than many of us realize.

    This is a good thing and well worth embracing. Our diversity has not always been easy and it has most always led to prejudices. But if we can get a handle on it we will recognize that it is not something to erase with "deep down we're all the same" statements, but rather something to embrace as one of our strengths. We have many different lenses with which to view the world which will allow us to see many different solutions to the issues facing us.

    The value of our books is that we can, through writing, immerse people in different cultures and when we do so, we want them to see more than a few foreign words and a few different kinds of foods. We want them to learn how to the world from a different vantage point.

  4. There are a handful of books that I wish I'd had on my shelf when my daughter was young (she's 21 now). One is JINGLE DANCER. When my daughter danced (with dance as prayer in motion and not "for fun" or "performance" as it typically means in mainstream American culture) for the first time, it was a lot like what Jenna experienced. My mother and my sister's all helped me and Liz get ready.

    Last week, there was a discussion on a librarian listserv. One librarian said that when she read JINGLE DANCER aloud to a group of students in the midwest, a little girl abruptly called out "but she's normal!" That statement is powerful. It was a powerful moment for that girl to learn that we're part of today's United States. And imagine what it would have been for my daughter to be in that same class and have Native dance, family, and experience affirmed in the way that JINGLE DANCER does.

    Consider that imagined moment in contrast to what most people think is "real" Indians.

    Likely at top of the list is the kind Paul Goble shows us in his many-flawed-picture-books about American Indians. He cares about Indian people, I'm sure of that, but he fails because he likes us as an IDEA not as people---and a romantic idea at that!

    I should note, too, that I'm no longer teaching at the University of Illinois. I am currently a full-time (online) student in Library and Information Science at San Jose State. A long time dream has been to start a library/resource center at Nambe.

    Giora asks a question about what term to use... You can find that sort of info at my site. It is one of the first questions people ask me. I use both, Native American, and American Indian. Neither one is perfect. They both have histories that add up to reasons to--and reasons NOT to--use each one.

    Best practice is to use the name of the tribal nation you're referencing. When, for example, you talk about me, I want you to say "Debbie Reese, tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo" because your audience (friend, colleagues, etc) will say "huh?!" and you can say that Nambe is one of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, and that we're all different. The way we do things at Nambe is different than the way similar things are done at Zuni Pueblo, or Taos Pueblo. If they ask what "tribally enrolled" is, you can talk about citizenship, and how our governments make decisions about citizenship---just like the US or Canada.

  5. Debbie, I looked at your webstite which is full with information. I was curious to read your blog about the Native American hook in Meyer's TWILIGHT. On the upper right site you give lists for Top Ten Books that you recommend for libraries. Books that readers will learn and be educated about Native Americans. One literary agent told me that YA readers want to be entertained, not educated (they don't like preaching about culture/diversity ect.). While your background is academic with focus on education, you might want to have also a list of Top Ten Books for MG and YA readers to be in a Book Store. Best wishes to all, and thanks for the CBC Committee for give us an interesting and informative week.

  6. Yes! a tribe's website is a great resource, because even the best book and internet research isn't going to give as full a picture as you will get by talking to people. Often a website will have several contact people so that you can reach the source most likely to be helpful. A historian is a great place to start but sometimes what you need is the natural resources person or the head of tribal fishery or an artist or a musician. As a practical matter I've found that when I interview a tribal member, the more research I do ahead of time, the more comfortable I feel. It helps me ask a better question. Instead of, tell me everything you know about your dance traditions. Some thing more specific tends to lead to a better conversation. For example, who makes the artistic decisions about what is included in a dancers regalia? How has traditional regalia changed in your lifetime?

    Even better if you develop a rapport with a resource person and invest your time in traveling to a place where traditional dancing is done, and learn a few words of a tribal language and live for even a short while on the land where your story takes place, then you are more likely to get at a better question still. Why dance at all? What gives this particular art it's endurance? How does it feel to put on that regalia and step into the circle and dance? That's where deeper understanding comes from and it takes time, sometimes many years. Which is why word of mouth for an authentic and thoughtful book is so important. It's crazy to spend decades on a book unless that book is going to endure for decades, and good support from teachers and librarians can make it happen.

    1. Thanks, Cyn, for pointing people to tribal websites.

      Another suggestion: Be wary of typical sources (encyclopedias) because they've got the biases of the people who wrote them. A lot of writers think they've got a reliable source in the stories collected by ethnographers in the 1800s--the ones sent to reservations to collect our stories before we died out. These archives are flawed, too. Stories collected by Frank Hamilton Cushing (used as source material for at least two children's books) are not reliable. Writers think they're getting an authentic story in his work but they're not. He inserted things the Zuni people did not say, but that 'sounded Indian' such as "Souls of my ancestors!"

      One of the Pueblo people who worked as an informant for Elsie Clews Parsons made up stories and fed them to her as the real deal. In one of her books, she called that informant a liar. How, I wonder, did she figure that out, and, why did she determine the others weren't misleading her? My point is, those resources are unreliable. If you're going to use them, spend time reading research on that tribal nation and their stories---research you'll find in the journals used in American Indian Studies. I've got links to them on my site. Among them is Studies in American Indian Literatures. (As I typed 'literatures' it is automatically highlighted as a misspelled word. That points to institutionalized racism that wants us all to believe there is only one literature, not many. In AIS, we use peoples and literatures because there are many, not one).

      I'm a little uncomfortable with Rosanne's questions about dance traditions. Generally speaking, Native dance is not 'art' that endures. When you are thinking about what you want to know, consider how it would be if you were asking a similar question to someone in the Catholic church. Would you ask a bishop those questions about his mitre? The regalia and dance are more akin to a bishop and his attire and prayers than they are a square dancer and his attire and dance. Keep that distinction in mind.

      You may also find that Native people won't talk with you about that sort of thing. Due to appropriation and historical abuse and misrepresentation, a lot of us are protective of disclosing anything at all. From my earliest days as a little girl in our kiva, I heard "don't go talking about this to your teachers or your friends."

      And if your book gets accepted and your publisher hires an expert or insider to vet the book, don't do what Ann Rinaldi and Lynn Reid Banks did... Both rejected the feedback because it had too great an impact on the story they wanted to tell. In the end, their books were a disaster with respect to what they wrote about American Indians. Of course, their books did well because they were feeding the monster (with the monster being the public expectation of what Indians are like). We've got to stop feeding that monster.

  7. I like what Debby said about national affiliation being applicable in many situations. I know exactly what she means--my hometown is mostly Swedish, and I worked at a Swedish bakery in a nearby Swedish town in high school. My grandma grew up going to a Swedish Lutheran school and church. So even though my family is Swedish, Irish, Scottish, English, German, East Prussian, and just a tiiiny bit Cherokee and Choctaw, not to mention those English roots come via 8 generations in western Illinois, we mostly identify as Swedish on one side of the family, and that affects a lot of things.

    It's also important to think about nationality regarding characters in other situations. In Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, the characters would probably call themselves Mexican in the same way Debby describes, despite being Texans by birth. Many Latinos, though they are not members of sovereign nations the way Debbie is talking about, identify first as their nationality, and only second as Latino in a broader sense. (Though I'm sure there are also many Latinos who have been here "all along"--since the founding of the US--or whose families have been here so long that this might not be true for them.) As we've been saying all week, it's complicated, but I think it's also what makes individual characters in our stories so interesting in their backgrounds and worldviews, because we *aren't* all alike.

  8. Thanks for bringing up misinformation from older ethnographies. It makes the use of traditional tales particularly tricky--not impossible, but difficult. I'm hoping that with the spread of self publishing some tribes will chose to self publish those tales that are appropriate for a wider audience. It would make at least parts of the rich tradition of Native literatures easier to share with confidence in a classroom.

    The comparison between Native dance and Catholic litergy is a useful one in terms of appreciating the sacredness of each activity. It's less useful in understanding the proprietary nature of some dance traditions. There is nothing secret or private about liturgical vestments and prayers. Catholic bishops were among the first owners of printing presses so there is ample information written by the source for anyone who is curious. There's misinformation to be sure and plenty of appropriation of Catholic symbols in popular entertainment, but real answers to real questions are not difficult to find. What is, I think, harder for many people to understand is that some tribes have practices which are not intended for public knowledge and stories, songs, and dances which are the property of a person or group of people.

    I lived for a while just down the road from the hometown of the Grimms (not Portland. :-) Hanau, Germany.) Their fairytales are part of my heritage. I've read many of the original untranslated versions. However, when I see one of the multitude of retellings, I may appreciate its artfulness or be appalled at its crass commercialism, but what I don't experience is a sense of betrayal or cultural diminishment or condescension. That's an important difference to be mindful of. Writing anything at all takes a measure of humility. I think cross-cultural writing takes enough humility so that when you come across information integral to the story that challenges your assumptions, you make the story accommodate the truth rather than making the truth accommodate the story.