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Truth & Love: Dr. Debbie Reese's 2019 Arbuthnot Lecture

Rewatching Debbie Reese’s Arbuthnot lecture, “An Indigenous Critique of Whiteness in Children’s Literature”

By Alexis, 19, Eduardo, 19, Michael, 17, Charlie, 16 and Ashleigh, 13
(We start watching the lecture again, stopping the video, taking notes and texting)

Eduardo: There is a bit missing at the beginning, but it comes in just in time for Ms. Debbie to talk about teaching kindergarten and first grade.

Alexis: Ms. Debbie shares photos of reading to her daughter. “We read A LOT.”  So important for Indigenous elders and children to share books, which is why AICL is the best resource.

Ashleigh: There she is! She looks so beautiful and such a warm voice.

Eduardo: In 1993, her family moved on campus and encountered a racist ‘Indian’ mascot. “Trying to understand why people were so moved by that clearly ridiculous image changed me. I started studying and talking about Native depictions in children’s books.”

Alexis: Her daughter Liz pointed out to a teacher that a book with Native representation was wrong. The teacher didn’t understand. Liz was precocious and calling out stereotypes at a young age. She came out of her classroom with a George and Martha book. Liz said—“Mom, look, it’s George and he’s a TV Indian.” Children can inspire their elders! That’s an important reminder for me when we receive criticism for our work.

Michael: “For us, dance is not a performance or entertainment—it’s prayer.” Say it! From a young age our sacred beliefs are turned into cartoons. I accepted Scooby Doo Indians without being embarrassed—I even defended it when other people said it was bad. That’s messed up. Ms. Debbie about Liz: “I talked to her about what we look like and what they look like.”

Eduardo: I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but while I knew my mother’s family didn’t live in chickees, I believed Inuit people lived in igloos. I mean, it was on TV and in books—so it’s truth, right?

Alexis: If elders don’t discuss this with us early one, we start to rot inside even when we are innocent children. We think those ugly cartoons are us and we learn that’s how others see us. “Fighting for my daughter’s well-being shaped the work I do as a scholar and a critic.” And your fight has shaped ours!

Charlie: For real. Now she’s talking about “us.” How we work together to identify bad content, without taking it inside.

Eduardo: “What forces in society shape children’s books?”

Alexis: When Ms. Debbie got the call that she was selected to do this lecture, she said, “Are you sure? There’s a lot of people out there who don’t like me.” I love when Ms. Debbie laughs!

(When we got to this point, we stopped writing and watched. Hard to see her shaken by the people who said she shouldn’t have been chosen for the lecture and she was even nervous to answer the telephone and worried she would be booed.)

Eduardo: Getting heavy with Ms. Debbie talking about white-ness: Carlisle founder Pratt said, “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” Shares photos of her two grandfathers—one white, the other Hopi. But this doesn’t make her ‘half-Native.” I am not half Miccosukee, half Pardo. There may be familial conflicts, but cultural belonging is not percentages. Ms. Debbie’s mother’s father was in a residential school. He lost his name. Naming is important. Worksheet on ‘Native American Names’ went home from school. This is not happening somewhere else. This is here. We have to live with this in our lives today.

Alexis: We are not going to talk about every point from now on…

Eduardo: There will be a transcript.

Alexis: Yes, and I want to know everyone’s reactions. Is it what you were expecting?

Charlie: I thought it would be more formal. It was a personal story of how Ms. Debbie started doing this work.

Michael: She talked about the books that had problems too, up to the present.

Alexis: I really liked how she created the narrative. It was perfect. The personal and the political is under all of our lives. The images we see, how our parents try to protect us, and what we choose to do about it.

Eduardo: And the people she admires—the Diversity Jedi—who do the work with her.

Alexis: We’ll talk more about that, but I want to mention Jean Mendoza. She seems like a very good friend to Ms. Debbie and I’m very excited about the book they are adapting for young readers.

Charlie: Being 2S bi Black Seminole, I was glad that she highlighted the work of Black scholars and librarians and that she told the story about Ms. Edi’s joy over a book about a Black queer boy and how a nasty person attacked her for her happiness. Why does that writer think she knows anything about my life? Why did she have to get into that discussion?

Eduardo: I’m fascinated by the discussion of sovereign Native Nations and Tribes interacting with foreign nations. And glad she talks about Yuyi Morales' Dreamers, and how nostalgia appeals more to white people than seeing the beauty and suffering of so-called 'immigrant' lives. They are precious lives--parents and children. It's out ancestors' land, but we never have a say in who we invite in.

Ashleigh: That image of the Native girl looking in the broken mirror and so few books makes me sad. I am African American and Miccosukee, and I’m glad Ms. Debbie features the numbers for Black children too. African American and Native never chose U.S.A.

Alexis: “I don’t recall being upset by what I saw” in the terrible book Little Owl Indian. This part maybe strikes me the most till the end. Ms. Debbie stated talking about doing everything for  her daughter, but now she is talking about herself as a child encountering books. It’s powerful and honest. “I liked school. I liked to read.” A photo of little smiling Ms. Debbie with a reading certificate she earned. But the teacher wrote her name as 'Debra'—because that was more of an acceptable name to her whiteness. I feel something twisting inside of me in these parts of the lecture. It’s so close. “Little Owl Indian didn’t hurt me, but another series did.”

“I learned to read from the Tip series. Lingering in my [adult] mind was her coat and hat and roller skates….I internalized that ‘good life.’  [I can’t understand all the words—sorry if I am a little off.]

Charlie: “That good life” is what white people have and we live on the other side and people call the police if we go there, but we’re all supposed to want it.

Michael: It’s everywhere.  The ‘nice’ houses. Like how we all dream of snow and think that means Christmas, even though we live in Florida.

Eduardo: It’s a fantasy. Many white people don’t have it either--being read Goodnight, Moon every night by two loving parents. They create and buy into the fantasy, and they project it on us, so we always fall short. I think the way we live disgusts them. Like Ms. Debbie and her family in an adobe. Or how living in a trailer is supposed to be the lowest form of life.

Ashleigh: Um, my bedroom in our double-wide I decorated myself. Purple!

Alexis: What book or movies made you feel that way? I had that book The Courage of Sarah Noble. Indigo couldn’t stand The Indian in the Cupboard. Her class had to do dioramas. That’s another level—reading it and then having to depict a stereotypical Native man as a white child’s toy.

Charlie: Indigo.

Michael: Yeah, she’s not hear to talk about this or to hear and see Ms. Debbie say @ofglades and put our picture in the center. I thought she might mention us, but that was unbelievable.

Alexis: Ms. Laura is there, and Ms. Ebony, Ms. Edi, Ms. Zetta, Ms. Sarah, our beautiful Ms. Naomi--and DHJ! That’s an image by Julie Flett we chose. We had an image from the graphic novel version of Daniel Heath Justice’s story, “The Boys Who Became the Hummingbirds.” That was the story that Indigo felt the deepest.

Michael: It seems a long time ago, but it wasn’t.

Eduardo: Yep. We’ve gotten all this recognition since we lost her.

Charlie: It’s not fair.

Alexis: NO. IT’S. NOT.

Michael: I remember Clifford the Red Dog in the ‘Indian’ headdress. That was early. For a lot of us, Joseph Bruchac was the first writer not like that that we saw.


Alexis: My mom gave my Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer (which is as old as me!) and She Sang Promise: the story of Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole tribal leader. I was lucky, like Liz Reese.

Eduardo: Ms. Debbie said your name, Alexis.

Alexis: She said she can imagine me at the library recommending Cynthia Leitich Smith's Hearts Unbroken, which references Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here. That's what I do.

Charlie: The one thing I thought was that's a great book, but we can't all find ourselves in it. Not as many of our gen are allocishet.

Michael: Or abled. That's our fight. It's easy to feel forgotten. How can we make our cousins see that Indigenous isn't always enough?

Eduardo: Ms. Debbie posted a recollection of last week's lecture. She talks about the presence and participation of people of the Ho-Chunk Nation. One gentleman from the Bear Clan did a land recognition and also said that if anyone tried to interrupt the event, the Bear Clan would ask then to leave. KInship means protection.

Alexis: I worried a while about Ms. Debbie getting up to speak in a big forum. Then I worried about the Diversity Jedi gathering together. I'm sure people are saying nasty things behind backs. But it was good, and it's there forever. The truth was spoken on that night, with a lot of love. Ms. Debbie knew it was risky, but she didn't compromise. She's been treated as a non-human, but she still working for the kids--for us.

Ashleigh: This is how we feel about Ms. Debbie!!!!


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. To me, Debbie’s choice to center you and your work was the highlight of her brilliant speech. Also, my deepest thanks for your advocacy around intersectional inclusivity in Native gender-orientation representations. You are absolutely right about the need and necessity. I'm sorry I have not been more proactive in this regard. Please know that I’m framing strategies and making tangible efforts to highlight #ownvoices while also framing my various efforts with that in mind. Hopefully, you'll begin to see the fruits of that soon. Meanwhile, I am so grateful, ever-enlightened, and heartened by your contributions to the conversation. - CynLS

    1. I agree. I discovered @ofglades thanks to Dr. Reese's speech, and I'm so glad I did!

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