The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcript: Race in America: History Matters with Angeline Boulley & Kevin Gover

Placeholder while article actions load

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Good morning, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Arelis Hernández, a reporter for The Washington Post. As we mark Native American Heritage Month, joining me today are Kevin Gover, undersecretary for the Smithsonian’s Museums & Culture; and Angeline Boulley, author of the bestselling book Firekeeper’s Daughter. Her book will be adapted for a series for President Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company “Higher Ground.” Welcome to you both.

MR. GOVER: Good to be here.

MS. BOULLEY: Happy to be here.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, let’s start for both of you with your personal stories and reflections as we mark Native American Heritage Month. What parts of your heritage are you proudest of, and what do you wish there was more awareness about?

MR. GOVER: Well, I don’t know that I could pick out a part that I’m proudest of. You know, I just am Native. I’ve always known I was Native. There’s nothing about the past that I regret in my heritage. In my own life there’s plenty to regret. But you know, it’s just a fact of life for us. We are what we are. And I’ve always been proud of my family and my tribe and consider myself very much a part of that. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

MS. BOULLEY: I would echo that. I’m very proud of my family, my tribe, my cousins, and the strong indigenous women that I meet in every community who are taking care of family and community as well.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: What do you wish there was more awareness about, about your heritage or your background and Native communities across the U.S.?

MS. BOULLEY: I’ve said this before, and it’s that we are not relics of the past. We exist. We lead dynamic, vibrant lives. And for people to think of Native Americans only in the past tense does a huge disservice to us. And in "Firekeeper’s Daughter," my book, I actually made an artistic decision to write in first person present tense even though the story takes place in 2004 just to drive home that point of, we are here.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, Kevin, speaking of history, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the first pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621. Historians often say that what most Americans are taught or perceive about that history does not actually match what happened. Can you help us sort through the biggest misconceptions there?

MR. GOVER: Well, I can certainly try. And of course, the historians are right. First, it appears--you know, it did happen. There was this day when the pilgrims and Wampanoag people came together and enjoyed--in fact, it was for several days of feasting and that sort of thing. But it only happened once. It wasn't something that they decided, hey, let's do this every year. But instead, it happened that one time. And what we've done is build this entire mythology around that event. It disappeared from the record for over a century and only reentered upon the discovery of the journal of one of the pilgrim people, where they made literally in a footnote an observation that the Indians came over and we had these days of feasting, and that was it. And from that, though, we've created the entire, what I call the Thanksgiving industrial complex, where, you know, it's very interesting, all the ritual around it that, you know, Thursday we feast, Friday, yeah, we shop, Saturday and Sunday, we watch football. And so in some ways, it's--you know, it's just something that happens in a culture.

And what I want to point out is that is really one of the United States’, America's origin myths, that this day happened where the Indians and the Pilgrims came together and there was this wonderful giving of thanks and all this racial harmony, and when in fact, the truth is much more complex. And so--but as mythology, it really works for us, right? We enjoy it. We like the idea. But the idea was not the reality. And that works to the disadvantage of Native people, because we really become rendered imaginary and almost bit players in the drama of the creation of America, when in fact, Indians were key players in the development of the United States.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Angeline, as an educator, are the histories of Native communities taught in schools the way they should be?

MS. BOULLEY: No. Generally, no. I think that there are some promising things with states such as Montana with Indian Education for All, where teaching everybody accurate information about Native Americans benefits not only the Native students in the classroom and the community, but it benefits all students.

You know, every year, particularly around Thanksgiving, or Native American Heritage Month, we see--I don't know, on social media, I'll see video of some, you know, teacher acting foolishly or ignorant--you know, ignorant classroom activities that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and inaccurate information. And the flip side is not to erase Native Americans. It's to make sure that our schoolteachers and leaders and staff have accurate information, and that they understand the importance of representation, accurate materials, and that they make use of resources that are available, that are free to ensure that they're providing, you know, good, respectful, culturally responsive images of Native Americans in the classroom.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, Kevin, you've mentioned, you know, the mythology and sort of the narrative creation around Thanksgiving. But I wonder, is there anything else, something specific from--that you've come across in American education that you think is inaccurate or misleading when it comes to Native communities? I'm sure there are many, but if you could think of a specific example.

MR. GOVER: Yeah, well, I mean, Angeline put her finger on it. I mean, it's almost all wrong. And just to give you an example, I think most of us in school, when we were--when we were kids, learned about Squanto the friendly Indian who taught the pilgrims how to grow corn. And there was actually a historical figure named Tisquantum, and but what people don't know is that Tisquantum had been captured and enslaved by an English fishing vessel captain, actually taken to Europe in slavery, and somehow was redeemed and made his way back to his home in Massachusetts, only to discover that his village had been literally wiped out by smallpox. And so Tisquantum was a man without a country. His people were gone.

But interestingly enough, when the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims began to engage, Squanto was the go-between, because he spoke English. Now, I didn't know that. I didn't learn that until I was well into my 50s because I learned the same story everybody else learned in grade school that Squanto was this friendly Indian who, you know, taught the--taught the pilgrims to grow corn.

So, and that's just a small example of the actual richness behind these fairytales that we tell in school and that the kids learn. And the kids aren't to be faulted. The teachers aren't even to be faulted, because that's what they learned as well, when the real story is actually so much better, and we should make the effort to really understand the whole story.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Given that, Angeline you know, what is your advice to teachers who want to teach this history, a more accurate, broader, richer, as Kevin was saying, story of Native communities in the United States and North America?

MS. BOULLEY: Sure, access free resources. The best one I can think of is the American Indians in Children's Literature Blogspot, which is operated by Dr. Debbie Reese and Dr. Jean Mendoza. And every year they come up with best books for children in all different categories. They also provide reviews, which kind of shows you how to assess materials about Native American peoples. And they even have a special section on Thanksgiving and examples of, you know, some culturally appropriate lessons and activities that classrooms can do. So, it's a free resource: American Indians in Children's Literature Blogspot. I also recommend books such as "Lies My Teacher Told Me," by Dr. James Loewen, and "Rediscovering Columbus" is another book that I recommend.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Thank you so much for that. I mean, Kevin, I want to move into sort of the diversity of Native communities. I know there are vast differences in culture and ethnicity and language among the federally recognized Indian nations across the U.S. How and why is it important to understand that diversity?

MR. GOVER: Well, you know, Native nations were--could be as different from one another as France is from China. They really were very distinct cultures. And the cultures in turn very much reflected the deep history and the places in which they resided. And so, it is part of the human story to talk about how these cultures evolved and what they became and what they are now. So that--because it helps us understand whoever you are, it helps you understand yourself.

The other part is, though, that Indians were acting upon the world after contact in ways that are vastly underestimated, so that 60 percent of the world's current food crops were actually first created by Native scientists, Native agriculturalists here in North and South America. And so it's important that we--that we should know these things in order to better understand why the world is the way it is now and what our place is in it.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, Angeline, your area is now--it's literature, right? What role can literature play in this kind of understanding that Kevin is talking about? and why, secondly, is representation so important?

MS. BOULLEY: Because as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop has--is widely quoted, books for children and teens can serve as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors by which we can see ourselves reflected, see into the experiences of another person, and through, you know, wonderful books be able to step through and experience the lives of people who are very different from ourselves. And, you know, representation is important for having someone from that lived experience writing about it. I think you get a more truthful and nuanced portrayal, and that's very important.

And so, yeah, it's--you know, representation matters. And Dr. Debbie Reese has built on that windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors analogy to also add that some of those windows need curtains, and I paid particular attention to what stories I should not tell, particularly around ceremony that are intended only for those in ceremony. And so each, you know, community has their own, you know, guidelines or protocols for what we share, gladly share with others, and what we keep to ourselves. And I love to say books are good medicine. Stories are good medicine. Stories are how we learn what it means to be Anishinaabe. Stories are how we can help others to understand what it is to be Anishinaabe.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, I wonder if you both could share with me the first time that you felt either through story literature, media of other kinds, first felt represented. How old were you? What was it? And what did that feel like? Angeline, if you want to start?

MS. BOULLEY: Sure. Well, when I was 18, I first read a book that had a Native American main character. The problem is that the representation was problematic. And so there was that feeling of, wait, Native American young woman is the main character in this book. I've never seen that before. And then the other thought was, but this book plays into harmful stereotypes of, you know, the beautiful Indian maid and the daughter of the chief and things that just I knew as a high school student was hokey and not culturally responsible. I think, you know, Louise Erdrich, "The Round House," I could identify with that, other books, "Love Medicine" by her. She's just--yeah, she's everything to me.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Kevin, did you have any similar experiences?

MR. GOVER: Yeah, well, I grew up on 60s television and movies. And so I saw plenty of Indians in the popular culture. But they bore no resemblance to the Indians that I knew. And they were--they were all around. So, it was a long time, really, before I began to see depictions of Indians that even represented them as whole people, people with ideas, people with a sense of humor.

So, I think one of the first, though, would have to be the movie "Little Big Man." And what was so fun about it is, it's the first movie I remember where the Indians were funny. And the Indians that I grew up with, the Indians that that are in my family and in my tribe, they are funny. And so to actually get to see them, you know, have a sense of humor was really very meaningful to me.

You know, the literature at that time, there were a couple of giants. One was a book called "House Made of Dawn," which actually was, as I recall, received a Pulitzer Prize. And it was--it was a novel. And frankly, it was a little bit over my head when I was a kid. But still, I got enough of it to really realize that that Indians could be--could be represented in more complex ways and not speak monosyllabically and not just, you know, always be wearing feathers and all of that. And it was--N. Scott Momaday was the author of that book.

So, it took a while, but the end of the story is very happy. And we're seeing all these wonderful works that are coming out now in literature by people like Angeline, and likely Louise Erdrich. And we're beginning to show up better in the movies and on television. There's a new television show on--I think it's on the FX, on Hulu, called "Reservation Dogs." And at least to Native people, it is hysterically funny. And other people must appreciate it as well, because it just got renewed for a second season. So, it's happening. But, man, did it take a long time for Indians to become whole people in the popular culture.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, you walked right into my next question, Kevin, by referencing Reservation Dogs. And so, I'll pivot to Angeline. Angeline, what's the significance of the success of shows like "Reservation Dogs" where native actors and writers are telling the story?

MS. BOULLEY: It ties into there were a number of production companies that were interested in optioning my book "Firekeeper’s Daughter" for either a feature film or series. And I would tell each of those companies the same thing. Representation is paramount, not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera, in the writers’ room, and at every level of production. And so to see a show like "Reservation Dogs" that is all of that with the representation, and then to have it be a commercial success, I think it just shows that our stories are wonderful, they're real, they're everything. And the importance of having representation, that series would not have happened without Native creative talent. And so, you know, it's a view I feel strongly about. And I'm very thankful that President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and the team at Higher Ground Productions also views that as paramount.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: As part of getting at this more accurate storytelling, Kevin, what role do institutions like the Smithsonian have to ensure that these historical and contemporary narratives are told fairly, accurately, and truthfully?

MR. GOVER: They have a very important role, and a role in which they failed for most of the history of these institutions. And it's--it really is a stunningly simple proposition, that if you're going to present material regarding Native history and culture, you really ought to talk to the Native people whose history and culture it is. And yet, that was not the rule for--until really quite recently, in the last 30 years. And again, the good news is that that transition is taking place, and in no significant institution would think of presenting Native American material except in consultation with the appropriate Native American community.

So--and remember that, you know, outside the formal education system, museums are one of the most important places of learning. It's done informally. It's done through a variety of media. But museums really are places of learning. And just as important, museums remain among the most trusted institutions in our culture. And that's--that puts a great burden of responsibility on us to be correct and to be accurate, but also to be collegial and collaborative with the people who we’re depicting in our museums.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: No, I grew up in the D.C. area, so visiting the Smithsonian American Indian Museum was just a huge part of my childhood. And it's amazing that it's--the Latino Center is housed within the Museum of American Indian. So, you know, reaching out through the intersectionality.

I wonder, Kevin, sticking with you, how do you see the continued use of Indian mascots, symbols, and images? And is there--is a reassessment happening? Or are we still sort of too slow on that path?

MR. GOVER: We've been too slow forever. But it is happening. It's happening one by one. You know, every week, we read about another mascot at some high school, somewhere in the country, deciding that the mascot needs to go. It was a very big deal when the Washington football team finally gave in and changed its name. The Cleveland baseball team has followed. I think they literally are changing their name formally today. There are others in professional sports, the Kansas City football team, the Chicago hockey team, the Atlanta baseball team. They continue to resist. They continue to pretend that they are honoring Native Americans. But just watch one of those games and observe the conduct and ask yourself if you were Native, would you be honored by what those fans are doing? So, they've got to go, and they will go. It's just a matter of time.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Angeline, how does such racial stereotyping affect the social identity and self-esteem of Native youth? You worked for years with Native children in the school system? What--tell us what--you know, what are the perceptions? How does that affect their self-esteem?

MS. BOULLEY: To see yourself portrayed as a caricature, or the worst, you know, the most extreme stereotype either as this noble, wise person or this savage, you know, that whole noble savage dichotomy--you know, it does a disservice. I was a student at Central Michigan University. Their mascot still is the Chippewa. And I remember taking a group of students from the nearby reservation to a football game, and this was in the 1980s, and just the look on those students’ faces when they saw people acting foolish. And I just--I don't believe there's any place in sports or school education that justifies the use of Native American people and communities as a mascot. And I think the interesting--oh, I was going to say the interesting thing is when those schools that are like--cling to that identity, that mascot identity, and it's like they might find one Native friend that says, oh, I don't care, yeah, I like that, that's pretty cool. And it's like, no. It negates all of the other information and studies that have been done that show Native mascots are harmful.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Thank you so much for that, Angeline. Kevin, I want to sort of pivot to--we're running out of time, very quickly--to Deb Haaland, who became Interior secretary. What does it mean to have increased Native American representation in Congress and at the highest levels of government?

MR. GOVER: It means everything. You know, first, there is the reality of political power. Now there is a Native person who wields enormous power, not just over Indian Affairs, but over the national parks and the wildlife refuges, all of the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the dams operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. So that that is--that is a fact that having that power in the hands of someone who has our sensibilities, it can make a real difference.

But second, and equally important, it shows, you know, we need for our kids to be seeing themselves in these places of power and in these places, whether that be cultural power, economic power, political power, social power, whatever it may be. And so having "Reservation Dogs" on TV and having a Native woman serve as secretary of Interior really does matter, because then Indian kids can see, you know, I can--I can be that. I can--I can do things that in my world seem a little bit beyond my reach. But--and so it's just--it's great for the kids, and that that's why I was so pleased. We--she symbolizes something incredibly important in these communities.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Angeline, you have three children. Is that right? Is that correct?

MS. BOULLEY: Yes.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: I wonder if any of them are on TikTok talking about representation and native TikTok. Have you all tuned in at all or seen, you know, some of the trends and the education that's taking place on these apps?

MS. BOULLEY: Well, yeah, my daughter is very opinionated about social media. And I'm proud to tell her that I am on TikTok. I have a video that’s gone viral, and it talks about my, you know, journey to publication 37 years long from the spark of my story to publication, and all the phenomenal things, wonderful things that have happened since then, thanks to my publisher, Macmillan.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: I had to get into TikTok question. I'm sorry.

MS. BOULLEY: I know. I'm so proud of that video.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, so we're running to the end of the show. And I wanted to give you both a chance to answer this question. You know, how can this month be a time of reflection on the contributions of Native Americans in an enduring way all year round? Kevin, if you would like to start?

MR. GOVER: Yeah, it's a good question. You know, we always shudder a bit about Native American Heritage Month because, as Angeline was pointing out, it's also an opportunity to be caricatured, and certainly in the schools I grew up, you know, when teachers were having us make construction paper headbands and feathers and using Quaker Oats boxes for drums and that sort of thing. So, you know, just really to seek out--and it's becoming increasingly available, but seek out credible sources about Native history, whether it be a museum. I've seen a couple of interesting specials on PBS this month that tell true stories about Native America. Check out the literature both for children and for adults. And just, you know, make an effort to really educate yourself and don't settle for the for the cheap stereotype. Don't--you know, don't think you know about Indians until you've really made the effort to know. And we will continue on our side to produce material that that really helps the country understand who we were and who we are.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Angeline, you want to take a stab at that one as well?

MS. BOULLEY: Sure. If you've never picked up a book with a Native American author, please, during Native American Heritage Month, take that opportunity to experience one of the wonderful books written by these amazing Native American and First Nations authors. A couple I can name off the bat, Terese--Marie Bertino, "Heart Berries" by Terese Mailhot. Of course, everyone knows about "There There" by Tommy Orange. Darcie Little Badger, Dr. Darcie Little Badger has two books out. They’re phenomenal. I'll post links on my social medias. But just support Indigenous authors, because the ones that I know of now were writing tribal specific stories from our own lived experience. And that that makes all of the difference, because the representation I read when I was 18, it was general, and it was stereotypical.

MS. HERNÁNDEZ: Well, thank you both. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. But thank you, Angeline Boulley and Kevin Gover, for speaking with me today for Native American Heritage Month. We hope to have you back. And thanks to all of you for joining us today. Go to WashingtonPostLive.com to register for upcoming programs. I’m Arelis Hernández, and thank you for watching Washington Post Live.

[End recorded session]

Loading...