Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. She’s from the Upper Village (Yates family). Debbie enjoys teaching! She’s taught elementary school in public schools and in tow schools for American Indians. As a Former Assistant Professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign she taught Children’s Literature, Social Studies Methods (Elementary and Early Childhood), Politics of Children’s Literature, Intro to American Indian Studies and History of American Indian Education. She has maintained American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog since 2006.
I have always admired Debbie’s unflinching dedication to the rights of Native people. I recently asked her about the source of this courage. What helped her find and maintain her dedication to fighting continuously for the rights of Native people? She provided a deeply personal response.
Last month, Edi invited me to write a post about courage and activism. Cheerfully, I said I’d do it.
Being invited to write about courage makes me thing of a certain irony in a Native woman being asked to write about that courage.
Why, you ask?
Well! I write about the stereotypical depiction of Native people. One of those stereotypes is the courageous Indian brave who fought the good fight but lost anyway. On his pony, head hanging in defeat, he rides his pony past his tipi to the end of the trail—or according to the vanished Indian stereotype—right off the face of the earth. “Off the face of the earth” brings me to a popular stereotype. In this one, we exist only as spirits who are in the clouds or in the wind where our spiritual presence can (yep) give courage and guidance to White people who face adversity.
Let’s have a word, too, about that wise Indian. He lived in the woods or forest and didn’t use any of the white man’s technology. He lived off the land!
See what I’m getting at?
The reality? I’m nothing like that romantic and tragic image. Like I said above, I’m still here! Let me rephrase that. We’re still here. Still more reality! I’m a Pueblo Indian woman. That image (Indian on pony, riding past his tipi) I talked above up top? We Pueblo people don’t use tipis. There are over 500 different tribal nations in the US that are federally recognized by the United States government, and another 200 or so recognized by state governments, and still others who are trying to get recognition. And we’re all different!
More reality! I’m not a brave. I’m a woman. (Did you ever stop to wonder where all those braves in all those stories came from? Where are their women?! Where are their mom’s, their wives, their daughters?!
December arrived and opened with my mom’s birthday. When I called her that morning, we both struggled to say anything at all. This was the first time my mom would be celebrating her birthday without my dad sitting, or standing, or lying beside her. Since he passed away in June, we’ve talked with each other several times a day, almost every day. His passing left a big hole in our hearts and daily lives. Today (December 18th) marks six months since his death.
My dad, George Yates, was a remarkable man in many ways. I could share so many stories! Like the one about the plastic pumpkin that he turned into the coolest jack-o-lantern with blinking light bulb eyes. Or the one about the console he made for us to “buzz in” with when we played Family Feud. He was a way-smart electronics engineer who has U.S. patents on his designs, and high-speed cameras named after him. Let me, however, stay focused on what Edi asked for, which is how I came to be an activist. The answer? My dad.
My dad modeled a strong ethic of caring for others, and of social justice, too.
In 1958, he quit full-time school at the University of New Mexico to marry my mom and provide for her and the five children they would eventually have. There were four of us by 1964. He took good care of us, but he also looked out for boys in the village who’s fathers weren’t able to do things with them. I should point out that “village” refers to Nambe Pueblo. Nambe is a federally recognized Native Nation. My dad formed a Boy Scout troop and took a whole bunch of boys camping and fishing.
In the 1970s he was amongst a group of Native people that established the Native American Program in the College of Engineering (NAPCOE) at the University of New Mexico. This is, of course, the decade after the Civil Rights Movement during which people fought to right the wrongs of racism and discrimination. NAPCOE’s goal was to recruit and retain Native students, providing them with academic and community support while they took courses.
From 1964 to 2001, my dad worked in the Physics division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. During his years there he was on the American Indian Council, whose purpose as to recruit and advocate for Native employees.
You see what he was doing? He was actively doing things to help Native people, but he would never have called himself an activist. To him activists were people who marched and protested.
Today, as I reflect on his work for Native people, it is clear to me that he had an impact on me. When we were out and about and would run into someone, he’d introduce me with a great smile and a wink, telling the person that I was his daughter and that my work was all about “setting people straight” about American Indians. Readers of my work at American Indians in Children’s Literature know he pretty much nailed it with his “setting people straight” description
In recent years, we spent time talking about how we wanted to establish a tribal archive, library, and resource center at Nambe that would be of use to tribal members. I can barely speak that plan aloud right now, or even imagine what that space will be like. The lump in my throat is just too big to think about going there without my dad.
It was hard to “set people straight” in the weeks after his death but I slowly picked up that work again and as time passes, I’ll be able to return to our plan because the plan is not about me or him. It is about supporting and advocating for Native people. And when I do give voice to it again, my dad will be with me. I know it because the Native people have always been there and will continue to be there. The children will always be there.
My dad made me realize that just like most kids in the United States, Native children get up each morning and go to school. Unlike most children, though, they will come across stereotypes of Native people in far too many places. At the grocery store, stereotypes include those you see on Land o Lakes products, Calumet baking powder, Big Red chewing tobacco, and on Leinenkugel beer. Watching professional sports on TV, they’ll see stereotypes courtesy of the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins. Depending on the toy store, they might find toy headdresses they can wear, or, high end toy sets like the ones made by Playmobil, or new this year, ones Lego put out to capitalize on Johnny Depp’s depiction of Tonto in the remake of The Lone Ranger. At school, they will encounter teachers who insist on the merits of award-winning books that stereotype American Indians. Some of those books are old ones like Little House on the Prairie, Caddie Woodlawn, and Sign of the Beaver, but they come out every year in books like John Sciezka’s Trucksgiving and Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk.
Native children who come face to face with these images and keep on going? They’re the ones with courage. Statistics show the drop out rates of Native students to be sky high. Some of them don’t keep going. Combined with the struggles that any kid has to face (like poverty, broken families, substance abuse), it can be overwhelming.
Children. They’re what keeps giving me the motivation to pick up and critique yet another book with stereotypical depictions of Native peoples. Native children ought NOT to come face to face with these depictions in their books, and non-Native children ought NOT be mis-educated by those depictions. And, it began with my father.
To join me as I continue my work, visit my website and use what you find there to select books. Use what you find there, too, when you come across the books I write about. Help your child’s teacher or librarian grow in their understanding of the issues I write about.
Thank you, Debbie!
There are two posts left in this series. Next: Ari from Reading in Color.