banned voices: Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese

In 2019, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese released the young people’s edition of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. This book provides Native Americans a voice in US history. There’s an old African proverb, “he who controls the pen, controls the history”. It is, after all, a story. And, there’s power in story. 

From the publisher:

2019 Best-Of Lists: Best YA Nonfiction of 2019 (Kirkus Reviews) · Best Nonfiction of 2019 (School Library Journal) · Best Books for Teens (New York Public Library) · Best Informational Books for Older Readers (Chicago Public Library)

Spanning more than 400 years, this classic bottom-up history examines the legacy of Indigenous peoples’ resistance, resilience, and steadfast fight against imperialism.

Going beyond the story of America as a country “discovered” by a few brave men in the “New World,” Indigenous human rights advocate Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reveals the roles that settler colonialism and policies of American Indian genocide played in forming our national identity.

The original academic text is fully adapted by renowned curriculum experts Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza, for middle-grade and young adult readers to include discussion topics, archival images, original maps, recommendations for further reading, and other materials to encourage students, teachers, and general readers to think critically about their own place in history.


I have to first ask how you’re doing? So, so much going on our lives! How are you?

Debbie: For several reasons, I’m not as productive as I used to be before we started our adaptation, and before COVID. In happier news, my daughter was hired as the first Native lawyer at Stanford Law School. She moved to California in August. We plan to move there, too, and are looking forward to living close to her. The daunting part of a move: what to do with all my books! I can’t realistically take all of them with me.

Jean: Thank you for asking, Edi. I want to start with how happy I am about Debbie’s family’s positive news – and so happy for Liz, who I first met when she was 4 years old. You’re right that so much is going on in our lives. In October 2020, we lost my dear husband Durango. One of the positives in the months since then was getting a grant to put together an exhibit of his photography, writing, and assemblage, which is still up in two locations in Urbana, IL. It’s called Juxtapositioned: The Art and Words of Durango Mendoza. Some of our children and grandchildren were able to help with some of that. 

One of my long-range projects is to get Durango’s published writing into different formats because I think his words will be meaningful to young people today. That work gives me some purpose. And our friends (looking at Debbie!) and family members have been very thoughtful and kind and supportive. This is not made easier by the renewed empowerment of forces that seemingly wish to bend the moral arc of the universe away from justice. It feels like IPH4YP can contribute to stopping that trend, but there is much more work to be done. 

What reception did An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People receive when it was released?

Jean: A lot of people – educators, librarians, parents – told us they had been waiting to have a book like that. We got a lot of positive feedback from folks who read it. The book also got starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal and was on several end-of-year “recommended” lists. And it was an American Indian Library Association honor book. We also heard some expressions of concern about matters of importance that are not addressed the book. We often say that IPH4YP is a beginning, in terms of what it covers. We had a word count limit, and had to make some very painful decisions. Most people understand that, but we know that there’s also disappointment. We feel some of that ourselves. We also noticed a little pushback from the beginning – in forums like Goodreads and Amazon reviews – from people who objected to the focus, and said the book is biased. That was to be expected.   

photo credit: Agoyo Talachy-Duran

Debbie: The most heart-warming response for me was seeing Pearl Talachy sharing photos of herself holding the book. To make it as much of a mirror as we could, we drew from our personal lives. Like me, Pearl is from Nambé Pueblo. When I was little in the 1960s, Pearl babysat for me and my younger siblings. She became a renowned potter. When we adapted the chapter about corn and its significance, I remembered that she had done some seed pots with corn stalks on them. I invited her to send us a photo of one for the book. When Pearl received her copy she and her adult daughter went over to the kiva (a religious structure) and took photos of her holding the book.

How was this book different from other history books about Indigenous people?

Debbie: Most history books mention us in early pages and then forget about us, or they call us “First Americans,” as if we did not exist prior to this continent being called America. Our book is adapted from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States, which came out in 2014. As the titles indicate, both books center a Native point of view. The only children’s book I can think of, prior to ours, that centers an Indigenous point of view is Simon J. Ortiz’s book, The People Shall Continue. It is a picture book that came out in 1977 and was reissued by Lee & Low Books in 2017 for its 40th anniversary, that starts with our origin stories and moves forward through time. 

Jean: I wish our children’s and grandchildren’s history teachers had this book, and used it. 

Why do you think your has been challenged?

Debbie: As far as I know, there’s only been one challenge to our book. On Wednesday, September 15 of 2021, I started following the news about books being banned in Central York High School in Pennsylvania. I learned that many of the books on their banned list came from a list that had been put together by a diversity committee at the school. In short, a well-intentioned project was hijacked by a group of parents who are goaded into action by politics about critical race theory being taught in schools. In short, our book was challenged because it is on a recommended book list! I doubt that anyone challenging the books has actually read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. We are very direct about the harms done to Native peoples by people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln. I think that if a parent at that high school in Pennsylvania had actually read our book, they would have read aloud from it at school board meetings, because of what we say about those men. 

Jean: I saw an analysis of the Texas list; about ⅔ of the books on it had LGBTQ+ content. But many of the books also confront racism and interfere with “American exceptionalism” and the notion that the US has some kind of all-positive history. No doubt the people who don’t want IPH4YP used in Texas – those who’ve actually read it – object to its challenge to their romanticized settler-colonizer grand narrative, wherein the Europeans brought civilization to the wandering bands of so-called primitive savages, and won the continent fair and square because they were entitled to it and God was on their side. 

In one negative Goodreads review, the commenter said we were deliberately making students feel bad about themselves. That’s a theme, of course, in many of the challenges to “diverse books” in general – the adults involved want the world to believe that white children will feel helplessly bad about themselves if they know the actual history. Never mind that Indigenous kids, and people of color, have endured centuries of curricula that diminished or erased their history, their cultures. IPH4YP doesn’t say “White people are bad.” It does show that white people did serious systematic harm (as well as harm at the individual level), that the harm was based in part on their conceptions about race, and that there are ways for descendants of settler-colonizers to face history and go forward determined to learn and to take action to end and correct injustices.

What do you think challenging books accomplishes?

Jean: Supposedly, when books are challenged, they experience a bump in interest, reflected in sales and in library check-outs (assuming the library hasn’t had to remove it from the shelves). But book challenges are also intended to squelch discourse, to impede creation of a more just society – and they signal that certain ideas or identities are unacceptable or even dangerous. Will IPH4YP, or any of the books on the challenged lists, get that positive bump? That remains to be seen, I guess. Will the young people who read the books anyway feel encouraged and supported and informed? We sure hope so.

If you could add a new chapter or new book to update, what would you include?

Jean: We’ve talked about this a fair amount – “What if we ever have a chance to revise or add to?” It’s all hypothetical. But we have thought about strengthening the book by providing more of a through-line for some specific contemporary matters of concern. Some of our young readers would have liked to see coverage of Indigenous perspectives on LGBTQ+ issues. Also, there’s newer historical research to draw from about how some Indigenous groups aided/abetted/participated in enslavement of Black people and other Indigenous peoples, and that history reverberates now for the Black Freedmen and Black Indians. And we would want to give more space to Indigenous resistance in the 20th-21st centuries.  

Debbie: Soon after our adaptation came out, we heard from people about what they wish we had included. In response to their feedback we started a “Possible Revisions” series at the companion site we created for the book. At present we have two pages in the series. The first one is Slavery and Early Treaties and the second one is Instilling Fear, Past and Present. Another thought we have is with regard to the outstanding lesson plans and guide that Dr. Natalie Martinez of Laguna Pueblo wrote for the book. We’d like to see them added to the book if the publisher decides to do a second edition. In the meantime, here’s links to them:

Teacher’s Guide to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

Lesson Plans:
History of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (supports chapter 10 of the book)
Origin Narrative: Thanksgiving (supports chapter 3 of the book)
Indigenous Perseverance–Wampanoag Survival 400 Years After the Mayflower (supports chapters 2,
7, and the conclusion of the book)

Debbie and Jean, this has been a very personal project for you. Thank you for helping my readers understand the importance of disrupting histories that erase and disempower Native Americans.