Tuesday, June 15, 2021

From Indian Two Feet to Fry Bread

Tuesdays at TWT!
When I was a scrawny first-grader with a long blonde braid that swung back and forth across my back as I skipped down the hallway, I checked out an Indian Two Feet (cringe, right?!) book from my school library. For some reason, I fell in love with Indian Two Feet. I checked out every book in the series. I read them again and again. I made my two best friends play Indians with me at recess in a clover patch that we decided was our tipi. I always pretended to be Indian Two Feet (I used to marvel at my oldest daughter's bossiness, but looking back at my childhood play, nearly everything was my idea, and I always played the main parts), while my poor friends played the parts of Indian One Foot and Indian Three Feet (face palm). (Apparently we used up all our creativity imagining that clover patch was a tipi...)  

I couldn't tell you anything about what happened in those books now, although the name was obviously enough to make me terrified about what I'd find when I Googled them. (I found some read-aloud videos of one, and while the story isn't actually as problematic as I'd feared, the original illustrations are atrociously stereotypical, and not much better in a newer version.) But for some reason, my heart and mind were completely smitten with the idea of American Indians after I read those books. (It's entirely possible that these books may have been one of my first encounters with the fact that Native Americans even existed, and I know I wasn't alone.)

As soon as I finished all the Indian Two Feet books in our school library, I wanted to read every book about American Indians I could get my hands on! Fortunately, I was grade levels ahead in reading, with a mom who was passionate about reading, so when I wanted to read about something, I had more than the typical access to materials. I quickly moved on from Indian Two Feet (thank goodness) to devour a wide array of historical fiction, collections of traditional stories, biographies, and informational non-fiction. I researched Tecumseh for my 3rd grade biography assignment and ended up presenting my project in front of the whole school. I'm probably the only kid who ever read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (~ 500 pages) and A Sorrow In Our Heart (~ 800 pages) in their entirety before even becoming a teenager. (Sadly, I now recognize that even so much of that wide reading was problematic, mis-informed, embellisheddeficit-minded, or too anchored in the past.)

Luckily, my parents fostered my desire to learn in more ways than just with books. We attended powwows where I got to ask questions, hear traditional music, taste delicious foods, view beautiful artwork, and even participate in dances. (Powwow culture is VERY welcoming to visitors and a great way to learn about traditions! It's not weird if you aren't tribally enrolled; public powwows welcome everyone and the people are happy to share with you!) We visited countless museums, historic sites, and cultural centers. We attended every educational program we could find. I learned and learned, and slowly, the stereotypes so easily acquired gave way to a more accurate understanding of various tribes, their unique histories and cultural traditions, and some awareness of modern tribal life. More accurate books were published, and I started learning to discern reliable sources and problematic portrayals. 

When I got a middle school assignment to write to a famous author, I wrote to Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki author who sent me back a beautiful art print from one of his books. My 35 page senior thesis for AP Lit (I lost a few points for going over the recommended guidelines of 15-20 pages... but I was so excited!) explored themes and symbols of modern American Indian identity in works such as Ceremony and House Made of Dawn. My dad signed me up as a founding member of the National Museum of the American Indian when it opened, and I've learned so much from our trips there and the articles in the member magazine. 

Now, I'm so thankful to be able to share incredible books like Cradle Me and Fry Bread with my daughters and my students; books that show the beauty and resilience of modern American Indians with tribal specificity and cultural accuracy, and a sense that these people are still here. I'm thankful for tribally enrolled citizens who educate on social media and high-quality internet resources that make it possible to access information (and ensure its accuracy) more easily. From home this past year, I've learned about various tribal languages and history from amazing tribally enrolled members across the country through incredible virtual museum and library events.

And the more I learn, I realize there's just so much more to learn. My reading list and my Twitter feed grow. 

I also realize how uncommon this learning is for so many Americans. What would I know about American Indians if I hadn't done my best to learn about them for my whole life? What do most Americans know? Some stereotypes brought on by problematic childhood books. Great big holes in history classes, with a few quick sidebar notes that usually serve to further stereotypes. The impression that American Indians lived a long time ago, and/or in the West. Racist mascots and catchphrases that are so engrained in popular culture that it's easy to think they're ok, just like those old books. Even some recently published books (that you'd hope would be high quality) turn out to be problematic

When I Googled Indian Two Feet (and watched the read-alouds to see what it's really like), I was dismayed to find so many positive reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads. Too many reviews mentioned being excited to find a favorite childhood book to share with children, the beauty (?!) of the illustrations, and even using it to teach kids about American Indians (!!!!). 

We have to get this right. We, on this stolen land, need to to filter out the stereotypes, inaccuracies, romanticizations, and omissions and find the real stories of the people who were here long before us, and the people who are still here now. We can do better, especially with all that is available to us in this moment. We must do better.

I'll miss being able to share so many of my favorite childhood books with my girls, but I'm more grateful that they'll have access to books that affirm, honor, and accurately portray these important cultures. Please join us. 

Rainbow Girl enjoying the back pages of Cradle Me. 
She loves to point to each cradleboard and say either the name of the tribe or what the baby is doing (from the earlier text of the book).