How Children’s Books Fuel Mascot Stereotypes

By Aura Bogado Apr 07, 2014

Debbie Reese has been interested in children’s literature for decades, and is especially focused on the ways in which Natives are depicted in young people’s books. Her passion for books led Reese, who is a tribally enrolled Pueblo Indian from Nambe Pueblo, to review books for major journals but she says her reviews were edited down for being too extra-literary. So Reese started her own blog, titled American Indians in Children’s Literature. It’s a go-to site for anything and everything you ever wanted to know about Natives in young people’s books. We recently talked about representation, what the term “people of color” obscures, and why Rush Limbaugh is up for a major children’s book award.

Can you tell me how you became interested in Native representation in children’s books?
For several years I taught kindergarten and first grade and, of course, I used story a lot. I became interested in studying what’s called family literacy so in 1994 I went to grad school at the University of Illinois. [When] I got there [I] realized how much power the Chief Illniwek mascot had over what people seemed to believe they knew about American Indians. That took me by surprise; I grew up in northern New Mexico and lived in Oklahoma for awhile [so] there was never a question about who we were. Native people heavily populated the circles I traveled in so everybody knew what was the real thing and what was fake. At University of Illinois, which was very white, I wanted to understand why this mascot had so much power. I noticed that children’s books had the very same image of a character in a headdress that is so popular in mainstream America. Clifford the Big Red Dog, for example, dressed as an Indian for Halloween wearing a big headdress. He embodied the stereotypes of the stoic and stern Indian. I saw similar images in [a] Berenstain Bears book [among] others. So I was sticking with my interest in children’s literature, but looking at it in a more politicized way by focusing on what kinds of messages the books were passing along to children, to help me understand why people would be so attracted and attached to a mascot.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) tracks diversity in children’s books, and the New York Times recently highlighted that work. Can you talk about the quantity of Natives in children’s books–but also about the quality of those books?
What I found in my analysis of that CCBC study is that all except one of the books that were published by mainstream publishers, sell the best, and get promoted the most are by white writers. And all of those have problematic stereotypes in them. Some are really bad–like Susan Cooper’s “Ghost Hawk”— and some are not so bad, but with pretty bad context. So the major publishers really mess it up. It’s the small publishers such as Lee and Low and Cinco Puntos Press, that publish books by authors of color and American Indians, and those books are better. They don’t stereotype and they are just better books. But those books don’t get circulated in the same numbers because small presses don’t have the economic power to distribute like the big publishers do.

This brings me to the issue of how we frame diversity. I want to ask you whether you think it’s helpful to refer to Natives as people of color–or if this ultimately obscures political status. 
It absolutely works against our best interest to be placed in the framework of people of color. White children’s authors, for example, write about American Indians and civil rights. And my response is that it’s not about civil rights, it’s about treaty rights. And that’s an encapsulation of what goes wrong when you use a civil rights framework. To start with, people don’t know that we’re sovereign nations, that we have a political status in the United States, as opposed to a racial, cultural or ethnic one. So it’s easy to see why people fall into that multicultural framework. But it’s really not culture–it’s really politics. When people in education start developing these frameworks and chart out the ways that people of color have a history in the United States, they’ll slot us in there, too. But that collapses, erases and obscures our distinct political designation in the United States.

The Children’s Book Council has nominated Rush Limbaugh for an author of the year award for his children’s book title “Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.” It’s got an imaginary Native character named Freedom, who’s named that because she’s born on the Fourth of July. How did this nomination happen?
Everybody was shocked to see his name on the shortlist a couple of weeks ago, because no one took his book seriously in the children’s book community. And we learned that Author of the Year awards are determined by book sales. He had one of the highest selling children’s books on the list–it’s not about quality, it’s about sales. People were skeptical that anyone had really purchased his book. I do know, by looking at his website, that he bought and donated more than 15,000 books himself and has been donating them to schools. He was nominated, and now children get to vote. But I don’t have faith in online voting, so I’m not optimistic.

We’ve talked about some of the pitfalls, but what should people look for when they’re seeking out children’s books that fairly represent Natives?
The number one thing that I encourage people to do is to look first at the writer. I am committed to promoting Native writers. Generally speaking they bring a sensitivity to what can and cannot be included in children’s books; there are things that tribal people protect from the public eye, and Native people know what those are. Native writers give you a measure of confidence that what you’re going to get in that book is something that can be shared, and is accurate, and something that likely reflects that author’s experience as a Native person. The second thing is that a teacher or a librarian who is going to teach that book can hold it up, and say, “This book is by Eric Gansworth, he is Onondaga*, his people are here, he is a professor.” So all of the verbs that the teacher uses to introduce that book are in the present tense rather than in the past tense. So it provides a teaching opportunity so that children can learn about where that tribe is now, where that tribe was before, they can go to that tribe’s website and see that tribal people do use the Internet! It pushes against all kinds of stereotypes when you use book written by a Native writer.

If you had to list three of your current favorites, which ones would they be? 
Cynthia Leitich Smith’s “Jingle Dancer,” Eric Gansworth’s “If I Ever Get Out of Here,” and Tim Tingle’s “How I Became a Ghost.”


*CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this interview, Eric Gansworth was identified as Tuscarora. He is Onondaga