Dr. Debbie Reese Discusses Misrepresentation of Native Americans in Literature with the 8th Graders

Events · January 29, 2021
Middle School

By Eli Hetko, Associate Librarian

Throughout the year in their Individuals and Societies class, 8th Graders are examining the history of the United States from the “discovery” of America by Christopher Colombus through the Civil Rights Movement. Individuals and Societies Teacher Guillaume Roper-Sirvent and Librarians Maria Falgoust and Eli Hetko invited Dr. Debbie Reese, a scholar, and educator from the Nambé Owingeh nation, to come and speak with the entire 8th Grade to deepen students’ awareness of how Native Americans are way too often not taken into consideration in most historical, as well as fictional, books.

Dr. Reese shared about the work she does in providing critical analysis of Indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books on her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Dr. Reese then spoke about the process of adapting An Indigenous People’s History of the United States into a Young Reader’s edition. She provided a synopsis of several chapters from the book, mentioning the ways in which the book holds up a mirror for Native children by including both contemporary and historical points of reference. She also spoke about how different groups of people are seen with different sized “mirrors” in literature, and how these groups are (or are not) represented in literature, highlighting how as of 2018, only 1% of published children’s books reflected Native children. 

Dr. Reese also discussed her experiences speaking out against various examples of misrepresentation of Native people, such as against the use of stereotypical images of Native people as mascots, and erasure, the practice of leaving Native peoples out of stories entirely. Throughout her presentation, Dr. Reese encouraged students to take up ISB’s mission to become advocates and leaders. She stressed that to be advocates and leaders for all people, it is important to notice when whiteness and the English language are centered or presented as defaults, and to speak up against erasure and misrepresentation. 

Intrigued by the presentation, students asked insightful questions during the Q&A period of the conversation. One student asked, “What changes do you want to see from this book, and how long do you think it will take for this change to embed itself?” Dr. Reese answered that ISB students could actively be part of the change by speaking up and that the change in the publishing industry would follow demand. She encouraged students to think critically and to challenge what they find in books such as Little House on the Prairie. Another student asked for clarity on terms that are often used interchangeably, like American Indians and Native Americans. Dr. Reese replied that these terms are fine to use but are broad and that referring to an Indigenous person’s specific nation is preferable. Students also inquired about how one should go about correcting people who misrepresent Native people or their history, to which Dr. Reese replied that it depends on context but when it’s safe, speak out and say “let’s look at that again.” When asked about how she felt about members of a group making jokes about their own group, Dr. Reese brought in the example of the young adult memoir Apple:(Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth, in which the writer grapples with a slur applied within Native communities.

Dr. Reese’s visit resonated with the 8th Graders, and the students went on to continue the conversation in Individuals and Societies class. Some students even continued to do their own research after the presentation to learn more about the history of Native communities. The classes came away with a deeper understanding of how books can change our perception of historical and present-day events. They also learned how being a more mindful consumer of literature can have a positive impact on the publishing industry and gained a sense of how their advocacy, as well as consumer choices, can contribute to changing the market within the publishing industry by interrupting the status quo and shifting the conversation to give voice to people who are often underrepresented in literature.

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People is available for check out as an eBook via Sora or in print in the ISB Library collection. ISB’s Librarians also encourage students to check out the app Native Land, a mapping tool created with the goal of representing indigenous nations and lands on their own terms.


Thank you Dr. Debbie Reese for visiting our 8th Graders!