Monday, April 6, 2009

"American Indians in Children's Literature" Comments on a Recent Article in our Journal

This morning, I came across what looks like an interesting and informative blog called: "American Indians in Children's Literature." On the April 5th posting on the blog, Debbie Reese, a member of the Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico and a former school teacher who currently teaches in UIUC's American Indian Studies program, talks about an article that the Journal of Educational Controversy just published in its current issue. Our article was entitled, "Examining Images of Family in Commercial Reading Programs," and it was written by Judith Dunkerly and Frank Serafini. While generally favorable to the article, Debbie Reese raises some interesting questions about the author's account of Native American students in their study. We reproduce the post from her website below, so our readers can consider the concerns expressed and respond with their own thoughts.

Update: Our authors have notified us of an error in their article. The figure for Native American representation should be .9% and not 9%. We will make the correction in the article.

From the American Indians in Children's Literature Website:

Basal Readers
by Debbie Reese

Earlier today I read an article about a research study of basal readers (textbooks used to teach children how to read).

The researchers wanted to see how families are presented in the readers. Here's the citation. Click on the title to go right to the complete article.

Examining Images of Family in Commercial Reading Programs
Judith Dunkerly, M.Ed., Doctoral Student, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Dr. Frank Serafini, Ph.D., Arizona State University
Journal of Education Controversy, Volume 4, Number 1, Winter 2009

The study is definitely worth reading. Texts they studied are:

  • Harcourt Trophies
  • MacMillan-MacGraw Hill Readers
  • Scott Foresman Reading

What stands out for me is the content related to American Indians. In the Findings section of the article, this is under "Ethnicity."

"Ethnic diversity within the basal anthologies more closely mirrored the face of American society statistically. Nineteen (40 percent) of the basal anthology selections depicted Caucasians. Characters of Hispanic and African American descent were portrayed in eleven selections (24 percent) and nine selections (20 percent), respectively. There were seven stories featuring Asian or Pacific Islanders, which made up the other 16 percent. Comparatively, the student population of the school district under study is 9 percent American Indian, 6.6 percent Asian, 28.8 percent Hispanic, 13.8 percent African American, and 49.9 percent Caucasian, figures that are closely aligned with state and national statistics (Population Reference Bureau, 2000).

"While the percentages of race representations in the basal anthologies do favor Caucasians, they are at least comparable to the statistical composition of both national and local populations. However, it is worth noting that while overall portrayals of different ethnicities are fairly representative, 45 percent of children under the age of five are minorities. Coupled with data showing that Hispanics continue to be the largest and fastest growing minority group at 42.7 million people followed closely by African Americans at 39.7 million (U.S. Population, 2006), the comparatively representative portrayal of minorities in basal anthologies will not be so in the near future, if both publishing and population trends continue along the current pattern."


I read that first paragraph several times. None of the stories portray American Indians.

The researchers say the diversity in the readers "more closely mirrored" national statistics. And, they say, the local school district (unnamed) is "9 percent American Indian."

Again, none of the selections in the readers reflect American Indian families.

American Indians are absent from the readers, but, American Indians are absent, too, from the researcher's discussion. They give us that statistic (9 percent) but don't comment on it. To be fair, Dunkerly and Serafini were not looking at Native representation. Perhaps they've written about that elsewhere, and for the purpose of this particular article, it seemed to them unnecessary to note the lack of Native people. I hope, in fact, that they've written about it somewhere, because Serafini teaches in Arizona.

Many stories in readers like the ones Dunkerly and Serafini used for their study are drawn from children's literature. In their discussion of socio-economic status, for example, the researchers refer to Cynthia Rylant's story, The Relatives Came. There's a lot of books like The Relatives Came that publishers can use to portray Native families. One terrific example is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. I should head over to UIUC's school collection to see what the basal readers we've got available look like.

1 comment:

lovinginnocence said...

That really IS a puzzle. Native Americans capture so much of the imagination with their rich array of culture. The rest of us who call ourselves, "American" are truly illiterate if we do not understand these peoples. And I do think that, on the most part, Native Americans would be willing to teach, at least what they feel is appropriate for others, letting alone those things which are esoteric and reserved to them.

Am I wrong?