though our experiences may be, we were all children once, and
I believe that reading children's literature helps us to see
... through the lens of that commonality.
- Linda LeGarde Grover
In Ojibwe tradition, as well as in all other
Native cultures that I know of, womanhood from birth until the return
to the spirit world is a sacred state, honored and respected. Countless
generations of storytelling, combined with observation and experience,
are the foundation of Ojibwe teaching and learning.
For girls, this has been intertwined with preparation
for the passages of the female life; the words themselves, ikwe
for woman and kwesens ("small woman") for girl, indicate a meaningful
seamlessness in the cosmology of tribal womanhood.
The position of Ojibwe woman is equal in status
and power to that of Ojibwe men; this concept is so basic to our
worldview that it is rarely even stated. Many Native women feel
that our cultural role, including our gifts and resulting obligations,
is beyond the constructs of majority American feminism, that "indigenous
feminism" as defined by majority feminists is not empowering and
inclusive so much as simply missing the point. We are Native women;
our culture honors womanhood.
The students in the American Indian Women course
that I teach, both Native and non-Native, have sometimes struggled
to understand (and to reconcile with some preconceived stereotypes)
the manifestations of female power and position in cultures unfamiliar
to them. As their teacher - a storyteller and an older Ojibwe woman
- I thought that they might find it helpful to apply their own experience
and knowledge to their questions by stepping back to their childhood
days through an examination of Native children's literature.
Diverse though our experiences may be, we were
all children once, and I believe that reading children's literature
helps us to see and learn through the lens of that commonality.
As adult readers we have the opportunity to return, however briefly,
to our less-experienced selves, and learn again as children.
The students chose storybooks with female "center"
characters from my own collection to read first in their childhood
personae, then as young adult women. The characters and their stories
became the springboard to then further research female roles in
diverse Native tribes past and present, against the backdrop of
federal Indian policies and the rise of contemporary feminism, including
the complexities and controversies of indigenous feminism.
Sharing and discussing the texts and illustrations
generated much discussion in class as they revisited themselves
as kwesensag, girls who became guests of the characters and cultures
within the stories.
Linda LeGarde Grover is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe
and associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University
of Minnesota Duluth. She is the author of the novel "The Road Back
to Sweetgrass," the short-fiction collection "The Dance Boots" and
the poetry collection "THE.INDIAN.AT.INDIAN.SCHOOL."
Linda LeGarde Grover recommends these children's books with female
characters by women authors:
Sacagawea by Lise Erdrich
For a Girl Becoming by Joy Harjo
Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse
Grandmother's Dreamcatcher by Becky Ray McCain
Sky Sisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose