Facing my stereotypes

I am a Californian by birth. I was raised in a city that included one of the many missions that dot coastal California, in my case the Mission San Jose. Like many grade school students in the East, my textbooks and teachers taught us the benevolent version of the establishment of these missions, without dwelling on the enslavement and disease that wiped out whole tribes of indigenous peoples throughout California. In high school, I participated in an archeological dig at the mission that resulted in discovering unmarked graves of some of those peoples, the Ohlone tribe. I was part of a ceremony that included the few Ohlone who were still alive, and have been the richer for it.

This holiday season, I received a book that I had requested, When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through. Edited by Joy Harjo and others, this anthology includes poems from 1678 to modern times and includes all regions of the United States. As a longtime staff member at Dartmouth, I have attended the annual Pow Wow’s sponsored by the Native American Studies department. This annual celebration brings current students and alumni together to continue the rich tradition of indigenous students educated at Dartmouth.

I have always considered myself to be unbiased and empathic in my interest in indigenous culture. Raised in the West, I had ample opportunity to spend time in Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana visiting family and many times crossing reservations to do so. Yet, as I began to tackle boxes in my basement from my childhood, I discovered the doll you see featured, and it brought me up short.

This doll was one of my favorites, in a collection of dolls given to me by my father and uncle, both who traveled extensively in Asia, South America, and Europe. Clothed in leather and beads, I even added a pin that was purchased on one of my childhood trips to give her more decoration. I vividly recall imagining what it would be like to live in a teepee and carry a baby on my back. I know somewhere in my basement there are black and white portraits of my brother and I dressed as a cowgirl and he as an Indian; which, given my age, were pretty common outfits for young kids in the sixties and seventies. As I got older, I began to read about Pocahantas, Sacagawea, and Chief Joseph and I remember visiting Little Big Horn and wondering why all the signs I read made it sound like the Indians were at fault for Custer’s Last Stand.

Like so many others who are questioning their upbringing, their education, and the sheer flood of stereotypes that we were all surrounded with, I am struggling. As a little girl I watched Peter Pan and wanted to be Tiger Lily. I still love attending Pow Wows and own many lovely pieces of jewelry made by Zuni, Pueblo, and Navajo artisans. Reflecting on my personal history, I have begun to come up with a plan.

As a librarian, I can point patrons to materials and resources that support indigenous perspectives in history and science. I can purchase books and I can put up displays. I can invite speakers and foster community engagement. In my current location, one can’t drive very far without encountering a town, a river, or a mountain that is an indigenous place name. Perhaps developing a website that explains the origins of these words which we are all so familiar with. As a community member, I can suggest that my local library purchase recommended materials from AILA.

I am not sure what I will do with my doll. Should I donate it to a museum? Or should I keep it, as an artifact that reminds me of how important it is, as a global citizen, to pay attention to how cultures are presented to others? I don’t have that answer yet, but, for now, I will keep her near as I read the poetry of those who have lived here far longer than my ancestors.

Lisa Ladd has just completed her MSIS degree at the University of Tennessee School of Information Science, with a concentration in youth librarianship. Focusing on diversity in collections, she continues to seek materials that represent diverse voices in literature. She is currently the Library Supervisor at the Kresge Physical Sciences Library at Dartmouth. Her perfect library position would be driving a bookmobile across the country and handing out free books.

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