Getting to Know Debbie Reese - Higher Education
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Getting to Know Debbie Reese

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by Mary Annette Pember

Although Debbie Reese’s popular American Indians in Children’s Literature blog may not further her academic publishing needs, it feeds her first loves as a parent, teacher and librarian.

Reese, of the Nambé Pueblo tribe from New Mexico, is an assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She began writing her blog in May 2006.

Motivation to begin the blog grew out of her own frustrations as a parent and elementary school teacher over the dearth of accurate resources for teaching about American Indians. According to Reese, much that is taught about Native people in U.S. schools, from preschool through college, is laden with errors and stereotypes. The purpose of her Web site, she states, is to help people develop a critical stance when evaluating American Indians in children’s books.

“I wanted to write something for teachers, librarians and parents who don’t have the time to read academic journals,” she says.

The blog, entitled “American Indians in Children’s Literature: Critical Perspectives and Discussion of American Indians in Children’s Books, the School Curriculum, Popular Culture and Society-at-Large,” provides critiques of popular children’s books about American Indians, lists of recommended books and resources, holidays and Native- themed lessons, first-person stories by parents and teachers, images of Indians in children’s books and best sources for books about American Indians as well as information about native-related current events and topics.

Reese has been surprised by the blog’s popularity, which averages 500 hits per day. Links to her blog are listed on numerous Web sites of teacher, librarian and tribal organizations, including the Internet Public Library, ReadWriteThink and School Library Journal. According to data she keeps from her respondents, more than 75 professors within the academy use her blog in classes.

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She lists the blog among her academic publications but says she doesn’t know if it is valued. Since more and more professors are looking at the Internet as a venue for publishing and information, she maintains hope that eventually her online work will receive greater weight within the academy. Reese was just awarded “Best Writer of the Year for a Website” from the Wordcraft Circle, an organization for indigenous writers at Michigan State University.

Deeply grounded in her heritage, she is the only member of her family who doesn’t live on the reservation at the Upper Village of the Nambé Pueblo. Moving to Illinois in 2001 to work on her doctorate proved to be somewhat of a culture shock, she admits. She missed daily walks on land on which her ancestors had walked. But rather than succumbing to homesickness, she was determined to create a Native community at the University of Illinois. She was instrumental in creating an American Indian house — not just a wing, she jokes — on campus and a tenure-track American Indian studies program. The program is one that does not study American Indians, she states, but is one that works for and with Native people and communities.

Reese is currently working on her book, Indians as Artifacts: How Images of Indians Are Used to Nationalize America’s Youth. In the book, she questions the feel-good romanticized narrative in the United States about good Indians and bad Indians as often portrayed in books such as The Little House on the Prairie.

Future plans include setting up a center for the study of children’s books about Indians at the university, which, coincidentally, has the largest collection of children’s books in the country.

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Read Reese’s blog at http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com

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