Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


‘If you don’t know the history … you’re going to make the same mistake’: Debbie Reese on banning books, Native culture, and speaking to the Mary Ann Key Book Club

Reese, along with co-author Jean Mendoza, wrote “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young Peoplean adaptation of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.”

Dr. Debbie Reese will be the speaker for the spring edition of the Mary Ann Key Book Club.
Dr. Debbie Reese will be the speaker for the spring edition of the Mary Ann Key Book Club.
Photo by Durango Mendoza

Co-authored by Jean Mendoza, Debbie Reese’s “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People — the 2019 adaptation of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s essential 2014 treatise “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” — has recently turned up on a list of banned books in Texas, created by lawmakers after the Republican uproar around the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools. 

At the same time, Dr. Reese will be the speaker for the spring edition of the Mary Ann Key Book Club, launched by Star Tribune columnist and book club co-founder Myron Medcalf and the Hennepin County Library as a way to engage readers and encourage community discussion.

Reese will appear virtually in Minnesota, but the state is often part of her studies of white writers appropriating Native culture, citing as she does a couple of novelists as the main culprits, who based much of their fiction in Minnesota: Laura Ingalls Wilder (of the “Little House on the Prairie” series) and William Kent Krueger (of the Cork O’Connor mystery series).


Article continues after advertisement

Reese, co-founder of  the 16-year-old center for American Indians in Children’s Literature, will be in virtual conversation April 19 (7-8:30 p.m.) with Medcalf, followed by the May 12 (7-8:30 p.m.) community discussion of “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People,” led by a panel featuring Sharon Day, Marlena Myles, Dr. Katie Phillips and Pearl Walker-Swaney.

MinnPost spoke with Dr. Reese last week from her home in New Mexico: 

MinnPost: What’s on your mind at the moment in terms of representation of American Indians in children’s literature? What are you talking to colleagues about right now?

Debbie Reese: What’s on my mind at the moment is the book bannings that are taking place across the country. This book (“An Indigenous History of the United States for Children”) is being boxed up in some schools in Texas and being taken away. That is a painful bit of information to know because we have heard from Native parents, about their kids carrying the book around and how much it has mattered to them. Because for the first time, they’re seeing history told in ways that respect the facts and respect their ancestors, fighting for them to be here in the present day. So the book mattered to the people that we are trying to reach, and we do also know that many teachers are using it as a way of planning lessons, so that’s exciting.

Article continues after advertisement

But really, the thing that stings is it being taken away. Because people think it’s going to make the unsaid white child uncomfortable to read the history that is the fact of this country. There’s a strong impetus to just turn away from that, and we’re finally making strong gains, and then to have a very small, local, politically inclined group of parents be able to interrupt that is deeply troubling. 

MP: What do you hear from Texas? What is the reasoning and how can they have any leg to stand on?

DR: It’s kind of a complicated thing to talk about. I think that if any of those parents who have objected to our book had actually read our book, they would be taking it to the school board meetings and reading aloud from it. That is not happening, which tells me they’re actually not reading the book. Somehow it got on those lists of books that would make kids uncomfortable and so it just got swept into that fear that’s taking place.

This is a book that has factual nuances and complexities and episodes from history that had been left out before that, and they matter because I think part of what [co-author] Jean [Mendoza] and I believe is that idea that a lot of people talk about, that if you don’t know the history, then you’re going to make the same mistake. And I think about the United States, its actions on a global scale, and they have repeated mistakes. And maybe if they had had more honest histories, earlier, it may have made a difference. Of course, we can’t know that, but we should have those kinds of histories be part of everybody’s education.

Article continues after advertisement

MP: Here in Minnesota, and nationally, it really feels like there is a strong moment of reckoning and learning this history … and then along with the push and new generations learning the truth, there’s this kickback against knowledge. Have you chewed on that at all? Is that just part of the human experience or the American experience — that the truth is met with denial? 

DR: These are cycles. I don’t know how to make it better, but there’s a tendency to think that “Oh, right, we don’t think that way anymore,” but it doesn’t take long at all to find someone who will think that way. So this idea that the United States is an exceptional place of people that are enlightened, racially or with regard to gender or sexuality, none of that’s true. It’s not an enlightened place, it’s not a special place, and it never was. So it’s better to talk about, I guess, the country as having aspirations. As human beings, as a nation, we aspire to something better than we are at present.

I do wonder if acknowledging that is threatening to the parents who are driving these campaigns because they feel like their land is at risk, or that the savages are going to come after them. I wonder what drives that, but I do think they feel like something that they hold dear is at stake and they feel threatened.

Article continues after advertisement

MP: For people who don’t have the book, what are you most excited to share about it at these events? 

DR: There is an infographic that circulates that combines data about the numbers of books published each year. 

It’s a couple of years old, and it combines data with the idea that metaphors in a book can be a mirror that in some way reflects who you are. So we are seeing an increase in mirrors for Native kids. We’re also very aware that a lot of those quote unquote mirrors are by non-Native people, and they create flawed content and so it’s not a good mirror. It’s cracked and broken, like a funhouse. Some of the mirrors are not good, but we’re slowly seeing that it gets better. 

As we were working on the book, we had that metaphor in our minds because we both have children who are Native. They’re adults now but we raised our children in Champaign-Urbana. We were both students and then professorship at the University of Illinois, where the mascot with stereotypical Indian (regalia) was pervasive … …and our kids went through those school districts where people liked that mascot. So we were acutely aware that we wanted kids to have the history that was put into the book that came from Roxanne’s book, of course.

We wanted them to feel some pride, feel that good reflection of that mirror, so we inserted ways to make that happen. So for the part of the book that talks about corn, and how corn was used by Native people, I thought back to my babysitter at Nambe Pueblo

She became a potter and made pots that have corn on them, so I wrote to her and said, “Pearl, can I have a photo of one of your pots to put in this book?” And she sent me a picture of it and we put it in the book and when she got her copy of the book, that family, her and her kids and grandkids, they all felt that surge of joy at seeing some piece of them in a book.

So we built in mirrors like that for Native children, and mirrors can be also language. I know that there’s such a resurgence of language revitalization in Minnesota and other tribal nations too, and parts of the book that talk about language, we included the Muskogee language and kind of in-depth sidebar about that language. So that functions as a mirror in that way, too. 

MP: What was your experience as a young reader? What books did the dominant culture throw at you and what books did you discover on your own and first love or despise?

DR: The school on our reservation is basically part of the covenant boarding school system that got started in the 1800s. My parents and grandparents all went to the day school and they went on to the boarding school in Santa Fe. I went to that same school in first grade and we did not have a library. Our library was a box of books in the local public library that the librarian brought to us every two weeks. I loved to read and I read as much as I could and I did really well in first grade and I got the certificate for the highest grade that year.

But I don’t remember loving a particular book like a lot of people will tell you, that they read such-and-such a book over and over again. I don’t have that memory. I just remember reading and liking to read. My first degree was in education, and when I asked my students to bring in books of Native content and one student brought in “Little Owl Indian” and handed it to me, and only then did I remember memorizing that book for the end of the year assembly at the day school when I went to first grade. And I picked that book up and I turned the pages and I was shaking with emotion, but then I looked at the Indians in that book and they were bright red, they were so stereotypical. There’s one guy standing with his arms crossed and one sitting cross-legged on the ground and there’s all these stereotypes.

I thought “Wow, I don’t remember that.” And maybe I don’t remember it because it was nothing like my experiences as a Native kid in a Native community taking part in Native ceremony. It just did not look anything like us. And so I think that my life experience growing up within Native community, acting as a buffer, where that kind of stuff just didn’t even matter to me. It was just like dinosaurs in the book. It just didn’t matter. It had no consequence for my experience, but moving to Illinois and seeing the mascot and arguing with people or trying to converse with people to tell them this is a stereotype, I thought just how much power those books with those kinds of images had on non-Native people who embrace mascots.

MP: What was your inspiration in founding American Indians in Children’s Literature and how has that inspiration changed or grown since you launched in 2006?

DR: Well, I took a job as an assistant professor in American Indian Studies at University of Illinois, and you’re supposed to publish your research in certain journals and certain publishers in order to get tenure. And that was very difficult for me because I very much am a teacher and I want to talk to teachers and I want to talk to librarians and those articles are not meant for teachers and librarians. They’re meant for other academics and they’re behind paywalls and teachers can’t afford the books. So I thought, “Oh, I know what I’ll do.” And I created the blog so I could share the work that I was doing and the things that I was learning, so I could make that available to the people who actually use the books.

So that’s what I did. And I have grown tremendously since then in how I think about books and who writes them. And there are some things that I would revisit today. Like one example is I used to think that a Native person could write a book about any Native nation. I no longer think that; I think you should write about your own nation. So that an Ojibwe writer would write an Ojibwe story. Because if a Pueblo writer wrote an Ojibwe story, the chances are they’re going to use the same problematic resources and reference books that a white writer would use and replicate the same errors.

So I definitely have shifted my thinking on that. And I have been much more vocal than ever before in the fact that we were raised to protect certain aspects of our ceremony, because of the long history of outsiders documenting and recording and using that history in ways that were ultimately harmful to us; these policies the government passed that outlawed our practice of religion for example, those kinds of things. 

So I have added to that metaphor that I talked about earlier: Windows, mirrors, sliding glass doors and curtains. We draw curtains against certain things because some of those things are none of your business; you don’t know us as well, to appreciate or understand what we’re doing, so we’re going to withhold it. 

MP: Here in Minnesota, I’m fascinated with Longfellow’s “Song Of Hiawatha,” and how that was poem-as-propaganda in 1855, written in Boston and based on flawed research, and has given all these places names here, including the fictional Hiawatha and Minnehaha. I’m obsessed with that story, I’ve written about it, and it’s all part of this.

DR: Well, I’m glad you’re obsessed with it, and I’m glad you’ve written about it, and I hope people listen to you! Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” is taken as gospel by a lot of writers. And parts of it get reproduced, to the point where you could find a picture book called “Hiawatha” in just about every library you went into and it will be that, it will be that! The nonsense of that! So we just recycle through and through and we really have to break that cycle. 

MP: Who are your favorite Native writers? What books do you regularly champion?

DR: I regularly champion Cynthia Leitich Smith. She’s a Muskogee Creek writer. In 2000, one of her books came out that I wished that I had when my daughter was first dancing, taking part in the traditional ceremonial dance. Her book is called “Jingle Dancer,” and it’s a picture book about a little girl who’s going to do that for the first time. It shows how the little girl goes to visit people in her family to get help as she prepares for the dance and that’s exactly what we do. The community comes together to help the child become ready for these things. I would have loved to have had that book when my daughter was doing that for the first time. So that will always hold a special place for me.

Her most recent book is called “Sisters of the Never Sea” and it’s her retelling of “Peter Pan.” I’m really high on that book right now and I wish that others would pick it up and read it because it’s her effort to really push back on one of the most destructive stories that we’ve ever had to contend with. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: The Disney movie is the movie that tells kids about who Native people are and it’s a mess. Her book pushes back on that. Her characters get taken to the islands, where there are actual Native people who were taken there, and not the kind of thing that you see in the “Peter Pan” stories.

It’s an echo of boarding schools, of kids being taken from their families and dropped on this island. It’s a nuanced but very powerful part of that book. I would love to see some curriculum writers turn that into this great big package that schools across the country can [implement] and that it will eventually lead us never to watch “Peter Pan” again.

And the other writer that I like very much is Eric Gansworth. Eric is Onondaga and he grew up on a reservation in New York. I grew up on a reservation in New Mexico and in many ways, our experiences are similar because of government policies, and I find mirrors in his work. His latest book is “Apple (Skin to the Core),” which centers on boarding schools. Another is a Minneapolis writer, Marcie Rendon. Her Cash [Blackbear] mysteries, or crime thrillers actually, are excellent. She brings things into her writing that are important, too; foster children and the like. 

MP: [In reaction to a Facebook post by author and University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Carter Meland], you recently spoke about the novelist William Kent Krueger and his and other white writers’ appropriation of Native culture in their books. What is most bothersome about the idea of white writers writing Native stories, and are there any white writers whose Native stories you feel especially strongly about — positively or negatively?

DR: I’m glad to hear Carter speaking up because I think it’s important that more Native writers speak up about these problematic appropriations. I think those books are doing tremendous damage, because what are the sources for the stories that these writers are telling in the books like the ones Krueger writes? “White man’s Indian” is a catchphrase. He’s creating “white man’s Indians,” not characters that a Native writer would create. “White man’s Indians” are typical, whether they’re brutally violent creatures or romantic or tragic. They’re not real. They are his fictions, and people who read those books affirm their preexisting misinformation about who we are, and some of those people select books for children’s libraries, or select books that are to be selected by a publishing house.

They continue to recycle those themes that I’m trying to interrupt with my work. So no, there aren’t any that I like. I feel really strongly about these books; I really don’t like them and I want people to know: They’re not harmless, they’re not entertainment, they are shaping what people are thinking and doing. And they miss nuances, too. You don’t grow up knowing what the house smells like after a rain in a certain village at a certain time of the year unless you lived in the place that gives a story meaning and depth.      

In children’s literature, the one I feel most strongly about is Laura Ingalls Wilder. People don’t remember how she depicted Native people. When I do workshops with librarians and teachers, I say, “Let’s look at that book.” We actually read passages from them and they’re surprised; they had no idea [the racism] was in it, they don’t remember it. And yet they’re handing those [“Little House on the Prairie”] books to kids day in and day out. 

MP: You use the words “depth” and “interrupt the cycle” a lot; that seems to be at the forefront of your work. With the book, blog and the center, that’s what you’re doing every day. There’s a chipping away at the so-called truth of this country and that’s got to be gratifying, yes?

DR: Yes, it is. And a lot of what you see on there is because a teacher or a librarian wrote to me and said, “Can you help me with this? I know it’s not OK. I know there’s something wrong. Can you help me see what’s wrong so that I can address it?”