- SilencedVoices Taken from American Indian Characters in Children’s Literature
Take away the voice and it fundamentally exterminates the individual in that culture.Rebecca Tallent, “Killing with Silence, Not Even Softly”
As an Indigenous woman, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe in North Dakota, and an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, I am passionate about American Indian children’s literature. Through-out my eighteen years as a k–12 classroom teacher I sought to include American Indian literature into my curriculum. In 2012 I was thrilled to learn that Minnesota would, along with the English Language Arts (ela) Common Core Standards (see “English Language Arts” 2015), also adapt roughly twenty Indigenous literature academic standards. Many of these ela standards require inclusion of texts “by and about American Indians” to be used in k–12 curriculum. I believed this inclusion of American Indian literature standards would bring about a tide of culturally competent additions to the existing program of study. I also, naively, believed that all ela teachers would be excited and would jump at the chance to incorporate high-quality, authentic American Indian literature into their classes. What I experienced was far from it.
I have chosen to use the terms American Indian and Indigenous in this article. However, it is always best to use specific tribal affiliation when referring to an Indigenous person. Further study is needed on the use or misuse of American Indian terms in regard to children’s literature.
Growing up in southern Minnesota, I had all white teachers (many [End Page 364] of whom inspired me to become a teacher) and was one of only two American Indian students in my school. It was not the most ideal place in which to encounter Indigenous culture and literature. While I was completing my university degree and after I started my professional life, I was able to connect with and devour American Indian literature. It was my passion and became my all-encompassing pastime. In 2012 I believed that my fellow Minnesotan educators, more than fifteen thousand of them, would embrace my love and appreciation of Indigenous literature as the state adopted the more than twenty ela standards. Some of the Minnesota k–12 ela standards included the following:
Grade 4 220.127.116.11 Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures, including American Indian.
Grade 8 18.104.22.168 Determine a theme or central idea of a text, including those by and about Minnesota American Indians, and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
Grades 11–12 22.214.171.124 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including American Indian and other diverse cultures’ texts and how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.(“English Language Arts” 2015, emphasis added)
I had hoped all teachers of all backgrounds would be as thrilled as I was to see the new direction in literary diversity. My actual experience in discovering what my colleagues chose to teach in covering these ela standards was shocking, disappointing, and downright racist. The first book I encountered after the standards were enacted, one that my own child brought home, was the young adult novel Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, published in 1936. The book was riddled with stereotypes and cultural errors. It was rife with depictions of American Indian characters represented as filthy, savage, “Tonto” speaking, and blood-thirsty. Contemporary scholars state that words, in fact, do matter (Merskin 2010; Lambert and Lambert 2014). I was stunned that this was the book chosen to cover these ela American Indian literary standards. [End Page 365]
Not only have Indigenous peoples endured the historical taking of land as a result of treaties not upheld, the taking of our American Indian children from their homes as a result...