Friday, July 03, 2015

Claiming, Misrepresenting, and Ignorance of Cherokee Identity

Some books that we give to young children carry enormous weight. The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage is one example. It is about the Supreme Court's decision in 1967, in which they ruled that people could marry whomever they loved, regardless of race.

Richard Loving was white. The woman he loved.... is misrepresented in The Case for Loving. The author, Selina Alko, echoed misrepresentations of who Jeter was when she wrote that Jeter was "part Cherokee."

Jeter didn't say that she was part Cherokee. What she said was misrepresented

Indeed, her marriage license says "Indian" and when she elaborated elsewhere, she said Rappahannock. I wrote about this at length back in March of 2015.

Yesterday morning (July 2, 2015), I read Betsy Bird's review of Alko's book. This part brought me up short:
A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.
Actually, saying that it "brought me up short" doesn't adequately describe what I felt.

First, I knew that Betsy was referencing my post. I took her use of "side issue" as being dismissive of me, and by extension, Arica Coleman (who I cite extensively), and by further extension, Native people who speak up about how we are represented--and misrepresented--in society, and in children's books.  On one hand, I felt angry at Betsy. As a teacher, though, I understand that we're all on a continuum of knowing about subjects that are outside our particular realm of expertise.

Representation, and misrepresentation, of Native identity is important.

Because so many make that (fraudulent) claim, it strikes me as a significant wrong to see, in The Case of Loving, words that say Jeter was Cherokee when she did not say she was. It unwittingly casts her over in that land in which people claim an identity that is not really theirs to claim.

Here's another reason that Betsy's review (posted on July 2, 2015) bothered me. I read it within a specific moment in my work as a Native woman and scholar who is part of a Native community of scholars.

Andrea Smith misrepresents herself as Cherokee

On June 30, 2015 (two days before Betsy's review was posted), The Daily Beast ran a story about Andrea Smith, a key figure to many academics and activist who are committed to social justice, especially for women, and in particular, women of color. The focus of the article is Andrea Smith's identity. For years, she claimed to be Cherokee. She said she was Cherokee. But, she wasn't. She is amongst the millions of people who think that they have Cherokee ancestry. Some do, some don't.

I met Andy several years ago (most people know her as Andy). At the time, she said she was Cherokee. I had no reason not to believe her. I don't remember when I first heard that she might not be Cherokee, but I did learn (not sure when) that she had been asked by the Cherokee Nation to stop claiming that she is Cherokee. I don't know what she personally did after that, and she has not said anything (to my knowledge) since the story appeared in The Daily Beast.

Things being said about Andy, about being Cherokee, and about claims to being Cherokee, reminded me of David Arnold's Mosquitoland. There's so much ignorance about being Cherokee! That ignorance was front and center in Arnold's book. I'm deeply appreciative that he responded to my questions about it, and that he is talking with others about it, too. Those conversations are so important!

I view Andy's failure to address her claim to Cherokee identity as a dismissal of the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. It is a dismissal of their nationhood and their right to determine who their citizens are. Andy knows what the stakes are for Native Nations, and for our sovereignty. She knows what she is doing.

Jeter was adamant about who she was. My guess is that she knew what the stakes were, for her personally, and for the Rappahannock who, as of this writing, are not yet federally recognized as a Native Nation.

From Ignorance to Knowing

Betsy doesn't have the knowledge that Andy has. Few people do. Betsy is listening, though, as evidenced by her response to me this morning (see her comment on July 3). I am grateful to her for that response. She has far more readers than I do, and our conversation there will increase what people know, overall.

In that response, Betsy notes that Alko probably didn't have the sources necessary to get it right. Let's say ok to that suggestion, but, let's also expect that the next printing of the book will get that part right, and let's hope that editors in other publishing houses are talking to each other about this particular book and that they won't be releasing books with that error.

That error may not matter to a non-Native child or her parents, but it matters to a Cherokee child and her parents. It matters to a Rappahannock child and her parents. It should matter to all of us, and it will (I say with optimism and perhaps naively, too), because we're having these conversations.

By having them, I hope (again, optimistically and perhaps, naively), that we'll move to a point in time when the majority of the American population will understands what it means to claim a Cherokee (or Native) identity, and a population that ceases to misrepresent Cherokee culture and history. In short, we'll have a population that is no longer ignorant about Cherokee people specifically, and Native people, broadly speaking. Children's books are part of getting us there. They carry a lot of weight.

For now, I'll hit upload on this post, post the link in a comment to Betsy's review, and respond (there) to other things Betsy said. I hope you'll follow along there.


Further readings about Andrea Smith's claim to Cherokee identity:

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Dear Tim Federle: Some thoughts on Native content in BETTER NATE THAN EVER

Dear Tim Federle,

I read your piece, Book for Kids Raises Eyebrows Over Young Gay Character, at Huff Post. There, you said that Better Nate Than Ever features:
...a subplot about a teenager who's starting to notice other boys and beginning to wonder why.
That subplot made some parents uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that they decided to do what they could to prevent you from visiting the schools their kids go to. You quoted one such parent, who wrote a review that said
...homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this book.
I love what you said right after quoting that parent. You said
You bet it is.
I am with you on that. It is normal. It is natural. And I'm glad it is in your book. I want more books like that, too.

But. There's something else in your book that is presented as normal and natural. It happens on page 213. Freckles is sitting on a futon with his laptop. Nate joins him there:
I sit on the futon Indian style and can feel the weight of the day on my head, my eyes drift.
Indian style? Dang! That is a stereotype of how Native people sit. It is so pervasive that it has become "normal" and "natural" to write it, say it, and not notice it as a stereotype. Given the popularity of your book, might you talk to your editor and change that sentence so it reads:
I sit on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
Or maybe
I sit next to Freckles on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
Nothing is lost by taking out "Indian style." The gain? A Native kid doesn't have to see his culture stereotyped yet again, and non-Native kids (who doesn't have this in their vocabulary at present--seems it has really fallen out of use) don't get introduced to that stereotypical idea.

Now let's flip over to page 264-265. It is Halloween:
Kids are starting to appear in costumes, on the street, looking just like the kids back home. The getups aren't any better, and that really blows my mind; I'd think in New York the ghosts would be ghostier and the witches witchier. But I guess a kid's Halloween costume is the same everywhere. A bunch of little boys, smaller than me, come toward us, dressed as a pack of cowboys.
"Look out for Indians," Aunt Heidi says, and Freckles sort of fake-hits her and says, "Native Americans," and we sort of laugh.
For a second, I think that we're passing a pretty convincing caveman... 
That paragraph continues, but there's no more talk about cowboys or Indians.

I trust that you and your editor, David Gale, thought that passage would show an awareness of issues over the use of the word "Indian" to reference Native peoples. True enough, the word "Indian" is problematic, but using "Native American" instead doesn't "fix" the problem with the word, especially in this particular context.

Let's back up and see why that doesn't work. Freckles tells Aunt Heidi to use Native Americans instead of Indians. This is how that would read, if she did as he suggested when she saw little boys coming toward her dressed as cowboys:
"Look out for Native Americans," Aunt Heidi says.  
I don't think "Native American" is better than "Indian." Why she's said "Look out for Indians" is important. In the U.S., people hear the word "cowboy" and "Indian" comes to mind, because of all those cowboy and Indian stories and movies. In them, the Native men weren't seen as dads, or husbands, or sons in those scenarios. They were portrayed as blood-thirsty, savage, and primitive. Saying "Look out for Native Americans" instead of "Look out for Indians" leaves that portrayal intact. That's why the suggestion falls flat.

As with my question above about "sitting Indian style," let's imagine a re-write. Let's say you want to keep this in the story, so that your readers gain something about Native peoples as they read it. How about if Nate (instead of Aunt Heid) says "Look out for Indians" and then, Aunt Heid or Freckles says something like "Yay! Nobody in stereotypical Indian costumes!" Nate could say "Huh?" and Aunt Heid could say something like "I got a lot to say about that. Learned a lot when I went to see Bloody Bloody Jackson. I got there and there was a protest going on! Native people were there, objecting to that play." In case you missed that protest, Mr. Federle, here's one article about it: Native Americans protest 'Bloody Bloody Jackson.'

I'll close with this: I appreciate what you tried to do with the Native content. I understand that writers are afraid to write diversity into their books, because they're afraid they'll get it wrong and someone will say something about it. You took the risk, and, you goofed. But! These problems in your book can be fixed. I hope you attend to them, and, that you include an Author's Note, too, that tells readers why they're being revisited.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature