PHOTO CREDIT: DURANGO MENDOZA
Veteran educators and curriculum specialists Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese adapted Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s award-winning book—An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States—for middle-grade and young adult readers. In this encore interview, the authors of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People (ReVisioning History for Young People) told ASBJ’s Michelle Healy how preparing the book was at times emotionally and intellectually exhausting. “Early on, we began to feel the weight” of helping young readers grasp the “brutality of colonization” and the power of the ongoing Indigenous resistance, said Reese, a tribal member of Nambé Pueblo. “A fuller recognition of that resistance” is essential because young people, Native and non-Native, “NEED to know these things,” Mendoza said.
With discussion topics, activities, archival images, maps, and a recommended reading list, this adaptation continues to be a valuable school resource during November’s Native American Heritage Month and year-round.
(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
What messages do you hope readers take away from the book?
Mendoza: Indigenous sovereignty. Resistance. Resilience. You can’t have a full discussion of Indigenous experiences, from pre-1492 to the present, without keeping those realities in mind.
Reese: To bring a critical lens to everything. We were adapting the book during an uncritical embrace of “Hamilton, the Musical.” Teachers were and are taking students to see it, but author Lin Manuel Miranda chose not to include us, at all! So, the “history” students take from it is far from acceptable. In our adaptation, we invite readers to revise the musical with information they got from our book.
What are some cautionary signs that a book may not accurately present Indigenous peoples?
Mendoza: Books that place Native people only in the past, talking fractured English or very poetic-sounding speech. Books that lump all Native people together regarding histories, governance, language, and traditions. Books that relentlessly center on the experiences of colonizers and settlers, and make Native people’s experiences in their homelands tangential.
Any advice for schools observing Native American Heritage Month?
Mendoza: First and foremost, don’t do it just during that one month. Second, never assume that you have no Native kids in your classroom. Third, make sure all teachers and students recognize that Indigenous peoples were thriving in what are currently called the Americas long before any Europeans came. Make sure they understand that this fact was not accepted by Europeans and by those who founded the U.S. on Native homelands. Stop using materials that contain bias, stereotypes, or other misrepresentations of Native people.
More Native American studies programs are needed?
Reese: I’d like to see more schools— and more states—mandating a Native curriculum. Montana’s Indian Education for All is one example of a state program that is educating students in a just way. There’s no excuse for anybody not knowing the names of the Native Nations on whose homeland they stand on and where the peoples of those nations are, today. If school boards asked teachers to begin every lesson on Native peoples with present tense verbs, it could make a difference. Eventually, we won’t have to remind people that we’re here.
PHOTO CREDIT: BEACON PRESS