We’re Still HereDebbie Reese On Native People Telling Their Own Stories

In 2006, Debbie Reese started American Indians in Children’s Literature, a blog that discusses the representation of Native communities in children’s publishing from baby books all the way through the young adult genre. Since then, the blog has become a fixture of the digital book community thanks to the detailed, thoughtful, and thorough reviews of representation in children’s books on the site. Long before We Need Diverse Books came on the scene in 2014, Reese was challenging injustice in text.

For her trouble, Reese, like many other advocates, has encountered considerable pushback, especially from white authors; just last month, complaints about an unfavorable review blew up the comments on a months-old Reading While White post. Cries of victimization like these from privileged people unfamiliar with criticism are rife in the children’s book community. Bad takes on diverse children’s literature abound, including claims that these discussions are “toxic” and “reader protest” is ruining the fun. 

Yet these discussions are extremely important. In 2014, just 17 children’s books were written or illustrated by Native people. Of the 179 books about Black characters, only 68 had Black authors and illustrators. Similarly grim statistics dominate Latinx and Asian literature. Author Malinda Lo has crunched the numbers on LGBTQ YA specifically, finding a steadily upward trend, but still, mainstream publishers published less than 80 LGBTQ YA books in 2016. Information on disability representation isn’t even available, and it’s similarly difficult to find statistics on Muslim characters and those from other underrepresented backgrounds.

Reese, a tribally enrolled member of the Nambe Pueblo, isn’t an author, but she is a scholar with extensive experience in library science and education. Her work is extensively cited, and she’s an advisory member of Reach Out and Read, Reading is Fundamental, and numerous other organizations. In other words, she is extremely qualified to comment on how Native communities are depicted in literature, drawing upon her personal and professional experience and using a blog to make some of her work as broadly accessible as possible. Reese recognized that while trade reviews and academic journals don’t always make it to the right readers, a widely available platform provides more opportunities for conversation and education.

I wanted to learn more about Reese’s work and her approach to reviewing books in a climate that simultaneously pays lip service to “diversity” and expresses hostility toward those who draw upon their lived experience when storytelling and reviewing. She generously took time to talk with me about Native identity, white fragility, and, of course, what she’s reading and loving. 

Native identity is something that many non-Natives really struggle to understand. What has made anti-Native sentiment so difficult for people to talk about and confront?

Several thoughts come to mind. First, people are surprised we’re still here. They’ve bought into the idea that we no longer exist, so to suddenly find a Native person in their midst is a shock to them. If/when they get past that shock, they often go to their next idea—that we have to look a certain way. If we don’t, then we cannot possibly be Native. The expectation of what we should look like reflects predominant stereotypes.

Moving past that—trying to get them to understand that we’re sovereign nations and our identity is primarily about citizenship or membership in a specific nation—is beyond what some can handle in one sitting. All of this speaks to the power of stereotyping, bias, and misinformation in textbooks, children’s books, television, movies, etc. On top of that, when they finally are ready to believe we’re still here, so many move to the “Oh, you’re so wonderful,” which is icky because that sentiment is based on even more stereotypes. When you try to gently move them out of that space and [ask them to] just accept us for who we are…well, that doesn’t go well. And those who believe you from the start, but then move to “I’m part Native” and go on and on about what they know…that’s rough, too. So many don’t know what nation. What they know is similar to what the senator from Massachusetts knew: a family story with not much factual information to support it, and no interactions with a Native community either.

Why is it hard for people to talk about? A research study on that would be interesting! We can speculate that for some it is a feeling of guilt over what their own ancestors did. For others, it is a fear of saying the wrong thing and causing offense. Some of the hardest conversations for me are with those who mean well in their claims, or in their honoring embrace, but both of those are ultimately damaging to the well-being of Native Nations. Misinformation does good for nobody, Native or not.

Debbie Reese

Photo courtesy of Debbie Reese

Photo via Debbie Reese

There’s a lot of debate within the bookish community about the kinds of stories that are told and who should tell them. You lean toward the argument that only Native people should be telling their stories. Could you tell me a little about that?

I’m not a writer of fiction, but those of us from our communities—[who are either] raised there or know them in real ways—know what we share and what we don’t share. Because of histories of exploitations that led to government policies that prohibited us from our ways of worship, for example, we now literally draw curtains (I add curtains to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s mirrors/windows/sliding glass door metaphor) on what we do, when we do it, and with whom we’ll talk about it.

That knowing [of one’s community] also means intimate knowledge of issues that impact us and how we feel about them. I hasten to add that we’re not monolithic in our thinking, but we do lean in certain ways together because of a shared history of our communities.

Twitter has become a rich and complicated medium for conversations about representations in children’s books, and yet I often see these conversations reduced to “drama.” What feeds this incredible resistance to Twitter as a place for nuanced analytical conversations?

The same resistance we’ve always had, no matter where we speak, which is an unwillingness to hear the voices of people who say “This is not okay” when nobody has ever challenged you on that before. A good example is mascots. People say, “Why didn’t you object 50 years ago?” to this or that mascot. How do they know we didn’t?

Conversations about race in children’s books are often literally Black and white, or people speak in sweeping terms of “white” vs. “people of color,” sandwiching a huge swath of underrepresented groups under “people of color.” You have a great essay on your site explaining the numerous problems with calling Native people in the United States “people of color,” and I’m interested in the pushback on that. Why are people so resistant to this?

I think some of the resistance to it is driven by a belief that it rests on a rejection of Black people, who have been discriminated against for centuries. The tribal nations that disenrolled Black tribal members add to a “not you because you’re Black” feeling.

Others resist it because they object to the idea of federally recognized nations. “Recognized” makes it seem like a tribal nation is bowing to the whims of the U.S. government, and it certainly does have some power over us, but I stand on the fact that leaders of tribal nations were diplomats who entered into negotiations with leaders of other nations. The nation-to-nation relationship is significant. Nations—Native or not—evolve. Sometimes they make ill-advised decisions and do things that are harmful to someone. Native Nations do that, too. Then elections happen, and things change.

Debbie Reese

Photo via Debbie Reese

Photo via Debbie Reese

White people are super fond of “one dropping” Native identity (“my great great grandmother was…”). How does this desire to exotify Native culture via genetics without exploring cultural identity play out in children’s books?

There are people throughout the United States who, when a conversation has something to do with Native issues, say that they are part Native American. Generally, “part Native American” is all they know. A lot of people have a family story about an ancestor who was a “Native American princess.” For sure, there are people with Native ancestry—but the ways they use that tiny bit of info is harmful to those who are fighting ongoing exploitation of image or resources. Those folks who can’t name a nation mean well, but they tend to romanticize that identity and don’t understand how images are harmful. A second piece of that particular claim has to do with the “princess” part of it. Royalty is European. Early Europeans brought that societal framework with them here and imposed it on Native societies. Within Native circles, there is a joke that people are always claiming a female ancestor who was a princess, but don’t claim a male ancestor who fought invasions of our homelands.

I also want to say a bit about DNA: The Ancestry commercial where the woman finds out she is part Native American drives me over the edge. People are using that to substantiate a claim to Native identity, but those tests aren’t used by Native Nations. For an excellent article on that, people can read anything by Kim Tallbear. That’s her field of study, and her book Native American DNA is excellent.

It’s November, which means households across the country will be acting out an homage to colonialism—though some defend it with “It’s a time for family” and attempt to argue it has departed from colonialist roots. The truth of the first interactions between Europeans and Native people in the Americas is pretty well-documented and accessible, so what makes these mythologies persist?

I think those gatherings are a lot like playing Indian in scouts or Y-Indian programs when you’re a kid. You do those things because someone you love—and who loves you—did that with you. Stepping away from such things means a rejection of the warm feelings generated from that childhood time. For some it might mean coming to terms with racist ideas that their parents have about a wide range of people.

What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it?

Re-reading #NotYourPrincess, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. It is outstanding! You can read my review on American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Hands down favorite, though? Cynthia Leitich Smith’s picture book, Jingle Dancer. I wish I had it when my daughter danced for the first time. There was nothing like it in 1995, and so we did our own books with paper, markers, and my terrible stick figures. It worked fine, but when I saw that book, I was overwhelmed by it in so many ways.

It is about a little girl who is going to a dance for the first time. Her family and community helps her get ready, in every way. At one point she visits a cousin who is a lawyer. That cousin can’t be at the pow wow because she’s got a big case coming up. Fast forward to my present day…my daughter is now a lawyer and couldn’t be home for one of our ceremonial gatherings. She had lawyer work to do!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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