The battle over what to call the second Monday in October, Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day, has been long standing and bitter. Today is a day that celebrates heritage: the heritage of Indigenous nations and also the heritage of Italian-Americans. We should not forget our country’s history, including both the Indian Removal Act and xenophobia against Italian immigrants. Learning about the struggles of other people is worthwhile in broadening one’s own view. It would seem that every group of people, immigrant or not, in America has been The Other at some point since 1492. That being said, Indigenous authors have been consistently under fire and that is what I would like to focus on today.
You may have heard the stirrings in the news about how the Central York School District in Pennsylvania removed an extensive list of books by people of color. The list was originally created to be a diversity reading list but was used as a removal list. This removal went into effect in August 2021, causing the school district’s own students to protest it. The issue of critical race theory and teaching white guilt was brought up in several parent concerns. The book ban was reversed on September 20, 2021, most likely thanks to the students’ efforts. There are five books by Indigenous authors on the banned book list:
- Fry Bread: A Native American story by Kevin Maillard
- The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- Indian No More by Charlene Willing Mcmanis and Traci Sorell
- We Are Grateful by Traci Sorell and Frane Lessac
In the 21st century we have seen a general trend towards banning Indigenous literature due to its mature content. This itself indicates we need to change rather than just feel guilty about the past. People feel distrubed by some Indigenous stories because the things that regularly happen to Indigenous children and teens should not be happening to any children or teens. Guilt does not do much, but change sings. It feels like things have been changing in publishing. I recently took over a YALSA Teens’ Top Ten club at my library and I now see how directly actual teen voices do reach ALA and the publishers.
There are other factors to this change and I want to talk about them. Sherman Alexie was one of the most popular and celebrated young adult Indigenous authors of the 2010s. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian won many awards as well as catching many challenges due to its mature content. I love the book. Fast forward to the #MeToo era and Alexie is now challenged also for his admission to sexual misconduct in the publishing industry. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is semi-autobiographical and so I presume Alexie suffered some of the abuses that his character Junior does. Trauma is a complex and generationally cyclical thing. Sherman Alexie has problematic past behaviors and has acknowledged them. It is a symptom of the larger problem that he was writing about though: the Indigenous experience in their own homeland.
The #MeToo era of publishing ushered in a conversation: Gatekeeping in Indigenous literary circles was leading to writers less popular than Mr. Alexie being ignored or silenced, specifically women. And honestly, since then I have observed an uptick in Indigenous YA lit: Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leticia Smith, or The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. I just finished Firekeeper’s Daughter and let me recommend that to you immediately. My parents had two Obijwe Firekeeper friends in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when I was a kid, so it was awesome to read about Daunis Fontaine.
Anyways, the Central York School District might be the most recent example of banning Indigenous authors but the same thing happened in Tucson, Arizona in 2010. Arizona HB 2281 restricted public school districts from offering any ethnic studies programs or any program that promoted resentment toward a race or class of people. This led to books about Indigenous people as well as Mexican people to be confiscated from schools. Later on in 2012, this was deemed by a judge to be a violation of state law.
There is a long history of censorship of the Indigenous community as a whole that needs to be acknowledged. That would be the systematic elimination of Native languages within the residential school systems. This is censorship in perhaps its most extreme form, to ban an entire language from its existence. A colleague of mine is the daughter of a residential school survivor. She works very hard to make sure her own children know who they are. This is not deep, far flung history by any stretch of the imagination.
These stories absolutely belong on the shelves of American public, school, and academic libraries. It has nothing to do with feeling bad about being white. Reading a book is one of the easiest ways to learn about someone different from you. You get insight into a writer’s mind when you read their words.
Holly Eberle is the Teen Programming and Outreach Librarian at the Algonquin Area Public Library District in Illinois. She received her MLIS from the University of Illinois in December 2015. In addition to intellectual freedom, she is also passionate about the opioid epidemic and getting Narcan inside every public library.