Sweeping Indigenous Histories

Celeste Trimble, St. Martin’s University, Lacey, WA

In Redrawing the Historical Past: History, Memory, and Multiethnic Graphic Novels, editors Martha Cutter and Cathy Schlund-Vials remind readers of a speech that Toni Morrison gave at Portland State University in 1975 where she said, “No one can blame the conqueror for writing history the way he sees it, and certainly not for digesting human events and discovering their patterns according to his own point of view. But it must be admitted that conventional history supports and complements a very grave and almost pristine ignorance.” This year, after teaching a few sections of a course which, in part, is an overview of Indigenous histories of the Pacific Northwest, I have realized that this ‘pristine ignorance’ is sometimes because of a lack of information, and sometimes because of a strong and willful desire to maintain the settler colonial histories learned as children and throughout life. In my work as a teacher educator, I need to assist non–Indigenous adults in learning history through an Indigenous lens before they are able to bring these important histories to their own students. Children’s literature can be such a valuable resource for relearning histories, even for adults.

Sweeping Indigenous Histories

This July, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People was released. Originally published for adults and written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, it was adapted for young readers by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese as part of the ReVisioning American History Series at Beacon Press. An incredibly vital contribution to the field of children’s literature, this adaptation really does make Dunbar-Ortiz’ seminal text accessible to young readers who may have no prior knowledge of Indigenous histories. This text could be useful way beyond the 7th–9th grade level in the product description, as I frequently encounter adults with little to no understanding of the histories presented in this book.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s original text was published in 2014 before #NoDAPL activists continued the long history of Indigenous resistance in the struggle at Standing Rock. So, Mendoza and Reese, beyond their roles as adapters,(and “translators,” the word Dunbar-Ortiz delightfully used to describe the two in a conversation at Seattle Town Hall this week), wrote a final chapter, “Water is Life: Indigenous Resistance in the Twenty-First Century.” Additionally, their adaptation includes text features such as sidebar definitions of possibly unfamiliar terms. “Consider This,” another sidebar text feature that is found through the book, asks difficult questions surrounding the topic to inspire further inquiry. Photographs, maps, and other primary source materials, such as newspaper articles, also supplement the text.

Another important Indigenous history published this year in Canada is This Place: 150 Years Retold, an anthology of historical graphic narratives detailing “how Indigenous peoples have survived a post-apocalyptic world since Contact.” Eleven writers and ten artists contribute to this anthology of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit stories and histories, making it diverse visually as well as culturally. Alicia Elliott, in her brief and powerful foreword, reminds us that these are stories that have been whispered through generations but are now being told “loudly and unapologetically.” Each chapter includes an introduction by the author and a timeline of the history related to the story. Connecting the timeline of historical facts with the narrative and visual retelling of Indigenous experiences during these times is an exceptional way to help readers connect with and comprehend the text. This visualization of the historical imagination supports compassion and empathy building through emotional connection, while dates and concrete information allow readers to connect story to history.

Gord Hill, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation located on Vancouver Island, Canada, released The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book in 2010. This volume has zine–like qualities. It is quite short on some pages despite the long story. The images are black and white with handwritten text, but this does not diminish the power or the depth of the visual or narrative storytelling. Told with vignettes of individual examples of resistance from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 to the American Indian Movement in the 1960’s to the Aazhoodena/Stoney Point resistance in 1995, the stories span time as well as distance, including places now known as Canada and the United States.

These three texts together can support readers understandings of Indigenous histories in North America so that they are prepared to learn the histories of Indigenous peoples from the local lands where they reside. Readers must also remember that Indigenous histories are not solely North American, Indigenous histories are global.

Gavin Bishop has written a number of books sharing stories from the Māori side of his heritage. His award winning 2017 book, Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, centralizes the Indigenous perspective in New Zealand history. A physically large book, the stunning illustrations move through 65 million years of history, from an asteroid that destroyed most life on Earth, through the migration of Te Moana–nui–a–Kiwa to Aotearoa from other Pacific Islands, tribal disputes, European colonization, global immigration into New Zealand, contemporary wars, influential people, and environmental concerns. On each page, Indigenous perspectives, stories, and language are included. There is also a glossary at the end for Māori language words that are widely used in the text. In this history of Aotearoa/New Zealand, Indigenous history is not a chapter, but the foundation for the entire past and present history of the land and country.

These texts are examples of ways to combat the grave ignorance of Indigenous histories that prevails in most trade and textbooks for youth, instead supporting a revisioning that uplifts Indigenous peoples, correcting false and dangerous histories that continue to be circulated.

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