Montana Community Unites to Save Sherman Alexie Book From Being Banned
By Adrian Jawort
Three parents spoke on behalf of those wanting the book removed from the 10th-grade required reading list. Objecting to the books “vulgar” use of inappropriate words and phrases, Gail Supola says the book has no educational value in regards to Native Americans and only perpetuates negative stereotypes against them.
Supola says about the media spotlight surrounding her, “During this whole process my words have been misconstrued greatly. I want to ensure that every parent and child is given the option or alternative—whereas known as a choice—about what they have to read without being afraid of persecution.”
Supola’s sentiments, however, were stifled by those of Alexie’s supporters, who waited up to two hours to speak on the book’s behalf. Afterwards, the school board unanimously agreed to keep the book in the required curriculum.
“You know the parts that are ‘controversial’ and ‘offensive’? They’re meant to be offensive for a reason: to show that yes, prejudices do happen. The racism and prejudices Natives face is real. It’s not in the past, it’s in the present, and will remain in the future unless we openly discuss it in classrooms and show why it is wrong.”
By Adrian Jawort
However, to fully ingest my accusation of “institutionalized racism” against my own beloved state‘s people, one only needs to go back just a few years ago and look at the contents of a book that was also actually banned in 2007 from a Laurel, Mont. high school’s curriculum: Blackfeet author James Welch’s American Book Award winning Fools Crow. Coincidentally, Laurel is just 15 miles from Billings.
Although Fools Crow is historical fiction, it was described by Dee Brown of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee fame as “the closest we will every come to understanding what life was like for a western Indian.” The book details the life of a Blackfeet man living in Montana in the post-Civil War era in which Plains Indians faced a transition of whites encroaching on their territory along with the continued wanton destruction of their lifeline that was the buffalo.
The book was not only challenged to be banned by Laurel parents, but high school students in Montana’s Bozeman and Helena towns who objected to the violence in it. Fools Crow details the Jan. 23, 1870 Marias Massacre in which a non-hostile Blackfeet camp was attacked and 173 men, women, and children were killed. Many more froze to death after their tipis were burned.
The camp was already weakened from a recent smallpox epidemic, and was made further defenseless by the fact most of the able bodied men were out hunting. Chief Heavy Runner was gunned down first while trying to approach the 200 U.S. cavalrymen with a paper showing he had friendly relations with the whites.
One student claimed the book left disturbing images in his head, while his mother argued that children were already exposed to too much violence via other mediums like TV and movies.
While it was the violent descriptions that disturbed students and parents, it’d obviously be naïve not to talk, write, or read about that period of time in Montana history without marking that as pivotal among its first indigenous inhabitants. The people who wanted it banned obviously didn’t care about that, however.
Have they ever objected to a book by a white author and demanded the school replace it with a book by a minority author? I doubt it.
Even if they object to books with too much sex and violence, the goal is similar. They want to censor anything that contradicts the Euro-Christian myth of America as a "shining city on a hill" where goodness and purity reign.
For more on our cultural values, see America = Captain Ahab and America's Culture Based on Violence.
Below: "Gail Supola, a mother upset by the selection of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, addresses a packed boardroom. Supola is asking School District 2 to remove the novel from its required reading list and tighten up its classroom opt-out policy." (Larry Mayer/Billings Gazzette)