Monday, February 17, 2014

Past and Present: Indigenous Children's Literature

This past Saturday, I gleefully attended the JoLLE (Journal of Language and Literacy Education) Conference, which was masterfully organized by some of my colleagues here at UGA.  Many great scholars and educators presented at the conference, and I was able to attend one session that particularly fascinated me -- a workshop focused on Indigenous children's literature from Canada.

The presenters, Drs. Kristiina Montero and Spy Dénommé-Welch, discussed the current state of education for Aboriginal (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) students in Canada and then had us look through a selection of picture books by Indigenous authors.  One book that stuck out to me was When I Was Eight, by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton.

This story chronicles author Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's experiences attending a Canadian residential school as a young girl.  Margaret desperately wants to learn how to read, and she is unaware that the true purpose of her school is to "cleanse" her of her Inuvialuit identity so that she can assimilate into mainstream (white) Canadian society.  Initially unwilling to submit their child to this treatment, her parents resist sending her to the institution, but Margaret eventually gets her wish, only to endure the cruelty of the teachers who run the place.  A follow-up book, Not My Girl, relates ten-year-old Margaret's return home, where her family -- seeing the way that the school has changed their daughter -- holds her at arm's length.

These are tales so tragic that they're almost unbelievable.  But the same thing happened here in the United States at American Indian boarding schools, where educators sought to "kill the Indian and save the man" by severing Indigenous students' connections with their cultures and languages.

Tom Torino, a young Navajo man, before and after attending 
Carlisle Boarding School in Pennsylvania (image via American Indian Issues)

Disseminating these stories is crucial so that we don't forget past injustices, which caused so many Indigenous people pain through the loss of their culture and identity.

Toward the end of the conference session, one of my colleagues pointed out that there didn't seem to be many books about contemporary Indigenous characters in the room, and Drs. Montero and Dénommé-Welch agreed that it's fairly difficult to find these types of books.

While we need to remember the past, we also need to acknowledge the present and understand that Native people are still here.  Their lives and cultures aren't just relics hidden in history textbooks, museums, and heritage sites.  Fortunately, several authors (listed below) write beautiful, nuanced books about contemporary Indigenous characters, but we need more.  So if you know any Native writers who want to share their stories, encourage them!  We need to see more of the past and the present.

Some children's & young adult authors who have written about contemporary Indigenous characters:

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