Thursday, March 14, 2013

Willful and Unintentional Racism and Ignorance at the University of Illinois

It is no surprise to anyone that a majority of UIUC students voted yes last week "in support of Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign."

The outcome of the vote reflects the lack of leadership at the university. When the mascot ("symbol" if you prefer) was retired in 2007, the university failed to fully address the ignorance that kept it in place for so long.

Instead of calling it a race-based or racist or stereotypical mascot, they blamed the NCAA for its end, saying they were ending it due to the NCAA policy about these mascots.

Instead of instituting broad campus-based educational efforts to help students and alums learn what is wrong with such mascots, they did nothing.

Instead of making a clean break with it, they let it live on in the hearts and minds of students and alums by way of the "Three In One..."

Pre 2007, when the mascot danced, it did so to a piece of music called the "Three In One." It has Hollywood "Indian" music that people mistakenly associate with American Indians. Post-retirement, that music was/is still played at halftime of basketball and football games. Fans solemnly rise when that music starts, and they cross their arms in front of them like the mascot did,

and they imagine the mascot doing its dance on the court/field. As with the mascot, they speak of how this behavior "honors" American Indians. Someday, some of them will look back on all of this, and feel a bit embarrassed.

Students and alum ought to feel indignant that an institution of higher learning allowed/allows ignorance to go unchecked. I believe the people who created that mascot meant well. I believe they and most of those who embrace that mascot today really mean to honor American Indians, but the way they're doing it is wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the two tribal nations the pro-chief group tried to get support from, issued statements condemning it. So have local and national Native associations and organizations. The American Indian Studies program at Illinois has several pages of information about it.

Rather than revere a stereotyped romantic image, students and grads can do something meaningful, like learning about why the Violence Against Women Act is important to us, or why Native people don't want the Keystone Pipeline on our lands.

Fans could spend time studying misrepresentations of American Indians that they've seen since early childhood, too. It starts with dressing up as Indians for birthday parties and Halloween:

 and continues through the play-Indian activities done at summer camps and by young men in the Order of the Arrow.

Seeing all of it from a critical vantage point can help fans understand why they embrace the mascot. Reading research studies on stereotypes, racism and bias can help fans develop their understanding of the origins and impacts of stereotypes.

Learning to think critically can help fans become informed allies of American Indians as we are, not as fans imagine us to be. I believe people must own their own ignorance, but I'm also aware that learning can't happen in a vacuum. The university has done nothing about that vacuum. It is a shame, and it reflects poorly on an institution of higher learning.

The current chancellor, Phyllis Wise, issued a statement letting students know that their referendum will not bring the mascot back, but she must do much more to help students and grads move past their current state of ignorance.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Post: Indigenous Knowledge and Children's Literature, by Katelyn Martens

Editor's Note: A few weeks ago, I gave an online lecture (via Skype) to the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums (TLAM) class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Library and Information Science. Here's a description of TLAM from their website
In its fifth year at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), TLAM is an experimental project to bring indigenous information topics to LIS education through service-learning, networking, and resource sharing with Wisconsin’s tribal cultural institutions. The TLAM Project currently encompasses a graduate topics course; the Convening Culture Keepers mini-conference series for Wisconsin tribal librarians, archivists, and museum curators; numerous community engagement projects with our partners; and a brand new TLAM Student Group.

Today's post on AICL is by Katelyn Martens, a student in the TLAM class. Published on the TLAM blog, I'm pleased to be able to share it here, too. Thanks, Katelyn! And check out her post about Sherman Alexie, too.  


“Indigenous Knowledge & Children’s Literature”*

Think about the types of children’s books you grew up reading. Were American Indians present? What did you learn about them? Was it factual or a misrepresentation? How did you know?

On Thursday, TLAM had the pleasure of chatting with Debbie Reese, a respected educator who is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Debbie is an advocate for authentic American Indian children’s literature, which led her to launch the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog in 2006. Through AICL, she challenges the all-too-common misrepresentation of American Indians in children’s literature and helps educators, librarians, and the general public find good materials.

Debbie highly recommends JINGLE DANCER

While Debbie shared her thoughts on sovereignty, sacred spaces, and politics, it was the issue of authenticity that I connected with the most. As a future school librarian, my goal is to have a well-balanced collection with titles that give students accurate, authentic representations of American Indian communities. To do that, though, especially with limited budgets, it’s essential that we all seek out reviews from respected, knowledgeable sources. AICL is a great place to start!

It’s especially important because, as Debbie noted, many books harbor “micro aggressions,” stereotypes that the majority culture may not even acknowledge but harm others. Clifford’s Halloween by Norman Bridwell (1986) is an example. Not only does Clifford wear a large headdress of feathers, he appears to be smoking a “peace pipe” and wears a serious expression. This image conveys many stereotypes to children, including that “Indians” are something to dress up as rather than people living in contemporary societies, working at contemporary professions, and living amongst the general American public.

It’s through librarian and educators in alliance with American Indian communities that we can present contemporary images, truthful histories, and well-researched stories to our young people. I’ll make a concerted effort to align my book choices with her suggestions.

Thank you, Debbie, for taking the time to share your knowledge with us!

-Katelyn Martens

Debbie’s recommendations on what to look for in children’s literature:
  • Books giving information in contemporary society
  • Tribally specific texts
  • Books affirming American Indian cultures – these must be well researched

She suggests that librarians and educators should:
  • Know at least one nation in-depth through reading and research
  •  Visit tribal websites with children in order to learn about their everyday lives
  •  Speak up for great children’s books so they stay in print
  •  Speak out on problematic texts in order to promote better alternatives

*Disclaimer: All personal opinions are my own and do not represent all members of the TLAM class, TLAM student group, Debbie Reese, or other affiliated parties.