Native Voices Roundtable: Sharing Stories & Talking Back (Part 2 of 2)
Yesterday, we posted Part 1 of this roundtable, including an introduction by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Here were the questions she posed to participants:
- How did you process–emotionally, intellectually, and/or on a pragmatic/outward response level–societal/media misrepresentations of Native people as a child? Did that change for you as an adult, and, if so, how?
- To what extent is your individual Nation well represented in the arts, including literature? Where would you point your own daughter to see her reflection or your dearest friend to be respectfully educated?
As a young person, I yearned for books about my community and culture. I remember reading one book about a First Nations longhouse, or it was set in a longhouse or pit house. I can’t remember the title, but it was likely written in the late 1960s or early ‘70s. I imagine the content was not well written or accurate, as tends to be the case with most children’s books about First Nations people from that period. I don’t remember the story itself, just getting lost in the images. The pictures were grainy and warm, possibly stonecut or pencil crayon. There was something unique about the images from that period.
It was clear to me that it was a book about the history of the people, but I wanted to know more, whether any of these people of the longhouse were my ancestors (they were not), and how I fit in. I think there were just so few resources that I tried to find a connection anywhere I could.
When coming across images at that age that were stereotypes of First Nations people, I would tend either to disassociate, go into denial, or experience a sort of kicked-in-the gut feeling. Usually those responses intermingled. At the time, of course, I couldn’t make heads nor tails of the feelings, as so much of that experience was internalized.
Sadly, as a child, what I took away from those conflicted feelings, is that one should not be “so sensitive.” Consequently, I spent too many years feeling I should keep to myself, keep my mixed ancestry to myself, and I avoided making the connections I’d needed to make. I wish I’d known earlier on and had access to books such as Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree (1983), the story of two sisters struggling to find their own identities. Culleton writes:
“Before she could reply, the other man voiced his opinion, and the two soon walked away, discussing their concepts of native life, without having allowed Cheryl to say one thing.”
I know this experience all too well.
As an adult, I studied fine arts at Concordia University and Emily Carr University of Art + Design. At that time, there was an Aboriginal Students’ Centre at Concordia. I remember feeling shy to join, but they were so welcoming. A group of about fifteen of us would get together to share our work and just connect. I had a son, just a baby at the time, and I would bring him along. It was there that I was introduced to what our First Nations Métis and Inuit communities and individuals were working on in a significant way during the mid-1990’s. I was gradually immersing myself in the work, whether it was film, fine arts, or literature. This is one of the projects a number of us worked on together at that time.
There are many Cree, Cross Lake/Norway House, as well as Métis and Cree-Métis artists whose work I admire. Here are just a few: Christie Belcourt, Kevin Lee Burton, Gil Cardinal, Sherry Farrell Racette, Rosalie Favell, Kurt Flett, Shannon Letandre, Leanne L’Hirondelle, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Dylan Miner, Tannis Neilsen, Skeena Reece, and Christine Welsh.
While publishing is slowly picking up momentum toward diversity, there are still too few First Nations, Métis and Inuit children’s books, too few Indigenous children’s books overall. There is some beautiful work out there that doesn’t make its way into the world as readily. As far as children’s books go, we need more that reflect the reality of our communities, contemporary as well as traditional historical books. They need to be written in an accurate and authentic way.
Categories can be challenging because categorization tends to compartmentalize the work. I personally appreciate having access to a First Nations, Métis and Inuit section in bookstores as I often go there first to check out resources. Yet at the same time, I believe those books could also be included in broader categories, whether that is picture books, children’s fiction, adventure books, poetry, non-fiction or information books, traditional stories, fantasy, or science fiction and so on.
There are some really good resources out there – notably Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL), and Lee and Low Books, dedicated to multicultural children’s books. There are also some really good resources here in Canada: the First Nation Communities READ program, Gabriel Dumont Institute (GDI), Goodminds, Inhabit Media (an Inuit-owned publisher), Pemmican Publications (promoting Métis authors, illustrators and stories), Theytus Books (a First Nations-owned and operated publisher of indigenous voices), and Strong Nations (First Nations, Aboriginal, Inuit, Métis, Indigenous and Native American book recommendations and resources).
Some of the Indigenous writers and storytellers I would point my nieces, son, and dearest friends to are Reneltta Arluk, Jeannette Armstrong, Maria Campbell, Leah Dorion, Dawn Dumont, Marilyn Dumont, Basil Johnson, Joanne Arnott, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Thomas King, Michael Kusugak, Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, Victor Lethbridge, Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle, Patricia Monture, Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, Aaron Paquette, Waubgeshig Rice, Eden Robinson, Gregory Scofield, Bev Sellars, Sharon Shorty, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Monique Grey Smith, Andrea Spalding, Ningeokuluk Teevee, Penny M. Thomas, Richard Van Camp, Katherena Vermette, Richard Wagamese, and Sheila Watt-Cloutier. These authors are a start. The resource guides above are also helpful.
Julie Flett is an award-winning author, illustrator, and artist currently living in Vancouver, BC. She is Cree-Métis. Julie studied fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal and Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. She received the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature for her book Owls See Clearly at Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer): A Michif Alphabet (L’alphabet di Michif). Most recently, Julie’s book Wild Berries/Pakwa che Menisu was chosen as the First Nation Communities READ title selection for 2014-2015. As the author and illustrator of the 2014-2015 selection, Julie is the first-time recipient of the 2014 Aboriginal Literature Award, sponsored by the Periodical Marketers of Canada.
The media and Indians. Always a tricky one. I was four the first time I saw an Indian on TV. This was the era of three TV networks and their local affiliates. The first Indian I saw on TV was my brother. I don’t mean this metaphorically. It was my real brother, four years older than me. He was on the local news, the star of a “feel good” segment on a new language revitalization program at the reservation’s elementary school.
The second Indian I saw was my mother. Her bowling team, reservation women, was selected for a local TV game show called Strikes! Spares! and Misses! on which bowlers received prizes for their performance. This is how non-existent Indians were on TV when I was a kid. These are the only examples I can conjure from my early childhood.
A year later, the first local independent TV station debuted, giving us a wider variety of programming options—mostly old shows in syndication and low-budget movies. Aside from the occasional glimpse of Buffy Sainte-Marie on Sesame Street, the three consistent Indians I saw in the media were men: Jay Silverheels as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick; “Iron Eyes” Cody, keeping America Beautiful, and Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack, a half-Indian war vet, doing barefoot martial arts in too tight jeans for social justice toward Indians.
No one I knew was really fooled by Iron Eyes Cody, the latest in a long line of non-Indians playing Indians in media. Though Jay Silverheels was Mohawk, from a nearby reservation, and though he had relatives who lived on my road, people from home didn’t seem to connect with him. Maybe it was Tonto’s subservient role, or the way Iron Eyes and Tonto dressed alike—Indians of a different era. Billy Jack was another matter. He dressed like a lot of guys on the Rez, except he had That Hat: a black dome-top western brim hat, with a beadwork hatband to clinch the pedigree. Since that time, That Hat has had an improbably long life.
Billy Jack is, by most aesthetic measures, not a good movie, but for a generation of Indian men, it was what we had. That alone should speak to the need for there being more than one voice for young people to hear. I don’t know to what degree this is true across Indian country, or if it’s even true for young people from my community today, but Billy Jack is alive and well among my middle aged Indian peers. As an adult, I’ve noticed a good number of guys on the Rez sporting That Hat, often at informal events, but sometimes at weddings, and even funerals. I’ve seen someone sporting it in the past year. Most people in America don’t know who Billy Jack was anymore. Why would they know the hero of four obscure drive-in movies from the seventies? But in this one small indigenous community, it lives.
I’ve never owned one of those hats, but I do know firsthand about making personal choices influenced by media. When I was eight, my mother had found a fringed buckskin jacket like Tonto’s, at a rummage sale. I couldn’t wait for that school year to start, but the jacket didn’t last long in my wardrobe. Kids on the bus—other reservation kids—tore at the fringe, until it looked like teeth in an unhygienic mouth. One of the assailants was a cousin of mine. What had so provoked these guys I’d known all my young life? I didn’t know, but in response, I chose a pacifist resolution and stopped wearing it, claiming at home that it wasn’t warm enough.
I lamented the loss of my jacket when it happened, but I’ve come to understand why Tonto did not speak to my peers the way Billy Jack had. They preferred a white actor to a Haudenosaunee actor. They wanted to signify “tough,” to be the denim-jacketed Indian who could stop a white town’s corrupt leader with one swift barefoot kick to the head, and dispatch his cronies with a few more before putting his boots back on. They didn’t want to be anyone’s kemo sabe, despite the word’s theorized Ojibwe origins (giimoozaabi). They wanted to signify defiance and strength, not accommodation. Those traits were desirable.
We had been children when the United States Congress used Eminent Domain to disrupt the lives of my entire community. Despite our formal, legal assertion of sovereignty, and our efforts at peaceful, and then more assertive protest, the United States took a significant part of reservation land. They partly justified this move because to use non-reservation land would “cause unwanted community disruption,” as if they were not causing exactly the same disruption in my home lands. This happened in my lifetime and the ramifications continue to this day.
We find the media images that give voice to our needs, and I can see why so many of my reservation peers have hung on to Billy Jack’s hat as a talisman of sorts, a glimpse of what might have been. I was never going to be tough enough to sport a Billy Jack anything, but in 1976, I got lucky and found a different media representation of my world.
Ted C. Williams, a man from my community, and a sort of second cousin of mine, wrote a book, The Reservation, and, improbably, was able to get it published. I was eleven at the time. The book was maybe a little challenging for me at that age, but its existence was a life changer for me. It showed me, a bookish kid, that there could be books about lives like mine, places like my home. I have no way of knowing if I would have become a writer without this one immeasurably important book, but it was certainly a guiding beacon that had not existed for me before.
In the time of my mother and brother’s appearances on local TV, my specific community, Tuscarora Nation, had a fairly lively group of traditional artists, but little in the way of contemporary artists. I’ve been fortunate that a group of contemporary artists just a little older than I am began professional careers slightly before I was at a professional stage of my life. Visual artists like Jolene Rickard, Rick Hill, Erwin Printup, Simon Brascoupe, and artists from other Haudenosaunee communities chose to merge their traditional sensibilities with contemporary aesthetics. They illuminated a bridge for younger artists like me. Gary Farmer, who has been called an indigenous National Treasure, spent part of his younger years here, and I occasionally run into him at community events. It’s nice to see young people in my community recognize him as their own celebrity.
For reflections to offer friends and family, I’d recommend Erwin Printup and Jake Swamp’s beautiful collaborative children’s picture book, Giving Thanks. It is an earnest and respectful version of our Thanksgiving Address for a young and broad audience. Ted C. Williams’s The Reservation will always be the gold standard for me, so I am just elated it exists. It captures my community at a point just before my life. In addition to showing me our stories were valuable, it also delivered my world in a way that would otherwise have been lost to me. He only published one other book, Big Medicine from Six Nations, and even that happened posthumously. Mohawk poet James Thomas Stevens has spent parts of his life in my community and has family here. His work, though often experimental in form and transnational in scope, sometimes includes nuanced glimpses of our shared world. Anishinaabe poet and intellect, Kristi Leora Gansworth has experiential connections to my individual Nation as well, though her work reflects the larger complications of living with multiple tribal influences. My own work will continue to explore my community because it’s a world I find rich with a sense of its own wondrous place in the world. If I Ever Get Out of Here, my first Young Adult novel, has been used in the seventh grade culture class here (the outgrowth of the language class I mentioned at the beginning of this piece). My hope is that it may do for some young person what Ted’s book did for me–that it will provide evidence our stories are as worthy as anyone else’s to tell.
In the publishing world, we are not exceptionally well represented. That said, we are a community of about a thousand people. That one writer has successfully sent work out into the larger world is remarkable. That five have done it this century seems like a major, delightful statistical anomaly. For this, I give eternal thanks.
Eric Gansworth (Onondaga) is a writer and visual artist from the Tuscarora Nation. He is Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College. His first YA novel is If I Ever Get Out of Here, for which he also recorded the audiobook. His other books include Extra Indians (American Book Award, NAIBA Trade Book of the Year) and Mending Skins (PEN Oakland Award). His play, Re-Creation Story, was selected for the Public Theater’s Native Theater Festival in New York City. He’s had numerous visual art shows, and his written work has been widely published. Samples may be seen at www.ericgansworth.com.
As a child growing up in the late 80s and 90s, I was exposed to misrepresentations of Native people in school and in the media. Disney hits like Pocahontas were actually very appealing to me. My favorite character was Meeko the little raccoon from the movie. I remember I had a stuffed animal raccoon and would sing to him. I never really thought about how these misrepresentations were brainwashing me to buy into lies. As I grew older, I began to recognize how historically inaccurate the movie and other movies about Native people were.
When I was growing up, people assumed I was Mexican because of my dark skin and dark hair and would say mean things to me and my sisters. People would yell at us for no reason in the grocery stores or at the movies. I would always say to them I’m Native American and speak only English.
I think most American adults are ignorant on Native American cultures because the U.S. Government purposefully excluded our cultures, languages, and people from society. When I went to college on the East Coast I was one of five American Indians at Smith College. I became aware of the ignorance of people. People would ask me, “What are you? Where are you from?” I told them I was half Native American (Pima) and half white and from Arizona. They would respond, “I’ve never met an Indian before.” I was the only Native person that they had ever met. It was strange because in Arizona and all over the US there are Native people, but these kids had never had any experience with a 21st century Indian before and did not know what to say to me. I would tell them that they should visit a reservation sometime and meet more Native people.
I think society has misrepresented Native people so much in literature (non-fiction and fiction), the media, and history that students don’t know the truth. As an adult I have dedicated much of my efforts in sharing my present day culture with friends, co-workers, and students so that they will gain a better understanding of what it means to be Native American in the 21st century. I invite my friends to come with me to the reservation to visit my grandparents. I speak out against stereotypes and misrepresentations of Native people every chance I get and have frank discussions with strangers about why misrepresentations are so harmful to society. How would you like it if people said your culture does this and that and it was all a lie? What if people told lies about your culture? What would you do if teachers made you wear feathers for Thanksgiving? How do we as Native people tell others to stop spreading lies and start telling the truth about us?
I’ve written emails to authors and publishers informing them that their work is contains stereotypes and misrepresentations of Native Americans. We are not all one tribe, we are 562 different tribes. We have different languages, food, and cultures. As an adult I feel responsible for speaking up and telling the truth so future generations don’t have to experience the harmful stereotypes and lies about their people that I have.
My tribe is not well represented in the literature. There are few books that represent my tribe, but there are more representation in the arts. We are a creative community. We are basket makers, musicians, and storytellers.
If I was to point my friend or daughter somewhere to be educated I would send her to talk with my grandparents. Grandparents and other elders are our most important resources, and the stories they share give me inspiration. My grandparents are living libraries full of stories and memories of growing up in Montana and Arizona before modern life and technology. I would also take my friend or daughter to our tribal museum and the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. to see collections on our tribe.
I hope that one day people will understand why they should stop misrepresenting other cultures in their writing. If an author wants to write fiction, and a publisher wants to publish it, then they should respect other cultures enough to write accurately.
If the author or the publisher is so misinformed they don’t know whether or not a depiction of other cultures is offensive, they shouldn’t publish it. If you leave out the lies, stereotypes, and misrepresentations, you will have a better story and a better book.
I once reviewed a book that had a character from my tribe. This book was full of stereotypes and inaccurate information about my tribe. I tried to speak with the author and publisher about the book, but they dismissed my comments and critiques. I think publishers and authors don’t care much about Native people. They are trying to make a profit so they don’t really care about complaints from one or two people. I feel very proud and thankful that I am a Native librarian in the 21st century and have the opportunity to speak up and share my thoughts and experience with others about being Native.
Naomi Bishop received her MLIS from the University of Washington iSchool in 2010. She is the 2016 American Indian Youth Literature Awards committee chair, a member of the American Indian Library Association, and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community (Akimel-O’odham/Pima). In 2009, she interned at the National Museum of the American Indian in Archives and Repatriation. She lives in Denver, Colorado and works as the Science and Engineering Reference Librarian at the University of Denver.
As a child I was not that aware of my own Native American heritage. I knew that my grandparents, and especially my grandfather who was quite dark-skinned and visibly Native, were raising me in a way that was different from many of my peers. I never experienced corporal punishment, for example. My grandfather told me that was the way his father raised him–to never raise a hand to a child but just to talk to them. My grandfather also told me of his leaving school in 4th grade–jumping out the window because they kept calling him a dirty Indian.
Perhaps that was why I usually identified more with the Native characters in the films and movies and radio shows I experienced as a child, even though many of those representations, even the “positive” ones, either bordered on stereotype or were full on stereotypes of Native people. Jay Silverheels as Tonto. The character of Red Ryder’s “Little Beaver” who rode “Papoose.” Straight Arrow. And then, when I was in high school, Michael Ansara (Syrian American and Klingon) portraying Cochise.
I also recall being disturbed as a child by the way Indians were mowed down by righteous cowboys and pioneers. And I recall hurtful remarks being made about my grandfather–that he was “as black as an Abenaki” for example, or using the “N” word about him. (Though there were far more people who respected him for his generosity and his kindness, running a general store where anyone and everyone could get things on credit, even when they never paid him.)
Did it change for me as an adult? Are you kidding? I would have had to be blind for it not to change. From my college years on I was deeply aware of the racism in the misrepresentations of Native people at every level in American culture. I was also able to meet and interact with elders of my own and other Native nations who were some of the most patient teachers anyone could ever hope for.
As an adult, a poet, then as a writer for young people (and adults), I have endeavored to provide very different images and more accurate portrayals than those that I grew up surrounded by. I am still doing that. There have been changes for the better. That is due, in large part, to the work being done by Native people in education and in the media. Native teachers, writers, filmmakers are doing valiant work (including my son, who maintains a Western Abenaki language site). But sadly, so much misinformation and prejudice still remain both in the US and Canada. Those of us who are Native authors still have an immense amount of work to do.
To be quite honest, one reason that I write what I write is because I could find virtually no honest representation of Western Abenaki people and culture in any books, whether they were for children or adults. We were frequently referred to as the bloody St. Francis Indians. That epithet was included in school textbooks in the state of Vermont, where the prevailing view was that there had never been any Native Americans in that state. That despite the fact that there are numerous archaeological evidences, to say nothing of the continuing presence of thousands of people of Abenaki ancestry.
Things were a bit better for the more Eastern Wabanaki peoples, such as the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy. And there are several recent picture books by writers from those tribal nations: Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin (Passamaquoddy); Kunu’s Basket by Lee DeCora Francis (Penobscot/Ho-Chunk); and Remember Me, Tomah Joseph’s Gift to Franklin Roosevelt by Donald Soctomah (Passamaquoddy) and Jean Flahive. But I will mostly confine myself to the Western Abenakis.
One of my books, The Winter People, was written to give an entirely different viewpoint of the 1759 raid on St. Francis by the Rogers Rangers. And my book, Hidden Roots, deals with the little known Vermont eugenics project that affected Western Abenaki people deeply in the early part of the 20th century.
There are other native people who are Western Abenaki or have Abenaki ancestry who are beginning to produce some very fine work for younger readers. The most recent example is Wabanaki Blues, a young adult novel written by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel. I also have to cite Cheryl Savageau and her picture book Muskrat Was Swimming, which was recently reissued. I would certainly recommend those books to my grandkids. I hope to see more work for young readers from Cheryl in the future.
However, and this is an industry wide problem, beginning writers who are Native American are still finding it very hard to connect with publishers willing to seriously consider their work. For some reason, I have been very fortunate as far as getting my own work published. But even when I strongly recommend a younger native author to a publisher they often do not accept that person’s work. Self publishing is sometimes the only way to get a book into print. Luckily, the new options offered through on-demand makes it easier and cheaper to do that.
Joseph Bruchac is a writer and traditional storyteller from the Adirondack Mountains region of northern New York, where he lives in the house he was raised in by his grandparents. His work often reflects his Abenaki Indian ancestry. Author of over 130 books in several genres for young readers and adults, his experiences include running a college program in a maximum security prison and teaching in West Africa. Winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, his newest book Four Directions, New and Recollected Poems appeared Fall 2015 from Mongrel Empire Press.