In a powerful show of community unity Monday, about 150 people crowded the boardroom at the Lincoln Center to mostly support Sherman Alexie’s critically acclaimed 2007 novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
After a public hearing, the school board unanimously voted to keep the book in the required curriculum.
Alexie’s book is a coming-of-age adolescent tale about a boy transitioning from living on a reservation to going to a mostly white school. Problems seem to plague the awkward 14-year-old protagonist and poverty-stricken Spokane Native American, Arnold Spirit Jr.
Gail Supola represented three parents who’d requested the book not be on School District 2’s required reading list. She spoke of the novel’s coarse language via Alexie’s sardonic and oft self-disparaging narrator Arnold, and she lambasted the media for portraying her in a negative light.
“During this whole process my words have been misconstrued greatly,” she said. “I want to ensure that every parent and child is given the option or alternative – otherwise known as a choice – about what they have to read without being afraid of persecution.”
Supola deemed the book irrelevant to learning about Native American culture, as it only perpetuated crude stereotypes. The book, however, has been vetted through Montana’s Indian Education for All act.
IEFA was a policy written into the state’s constitution in 1972. Article 10, Section 1, states, “The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its education goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”
Supola read several passages she deemed offensive. She asked, “How does the statement, ‘If God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, he wouldn’t have given us thumbs. I thank God for thumbs,’ not cross the line between church and state?”
She added, “I fully agree that no one has the right to ban books, nor should anyone have the right to force children to read controversial materials. Rights are rights – no matter on which side you stand.”
The three parents who opposed Alexie’s book were far outnumbered by supporters, however. Roughly half the crowd comprised Native Americans, and dozens - many of them School District 2 students - waited up to two hours to speak in defense of the novel.
Young Native students told how they related to the narrator’s plight of going from a reservation to a white school while facing prejudices and culture shock. Students who described themselves as “middle class suburban white kids” said the book opened a world previously alien to them, even though it was just miles away on reservations.
An elderly immigrant citizen from Germany, Hannah Carter, said she immediately bought and read the book after seeing it was challenged.
“What it did to me was it brought back the grim situation when I grew up under the Nazi government in Germany,” she said. “We were blocked out and not allowed to read things in high school - those wonderful, wonderful stories and poems from Jewish writers.”
Under Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, “Only hatred was allowed. We could not discuss it with our teachers to ask why it was that way,” she said. “But I believe in our schools, and I believe in our teachers!”
Like several other students who spoke, Mia Anderson said once she started reading the book, she couldn’t put it down and read it one sitting. Noting it’s the only required book written during current students’ lifetimes, she said, “If you want us to love reading, then quit taking away the books we love.”
English teacher Glenda McCarthy, an Australian immigrant who also taught aboriginal children in Australia, was the one who proposed the book be put on IEFA’s required reading list - a fact she said she’s proud of. Although she sympathized with concerns about vulgarity, she said the book is realistic.
“The ugly things said to Arnold in this book are said to children in this district,” she said. “We need to understand the prejudices some of us endure, and generally that’s not people with my color of (white) skin in this community.”
McCarthy said the book isn’t merely about masturbation or profanity – although Arnold is a normal 14-year-old boy with active hormones.
“He prefers geometry and straight A’s,” she said. “He wants to excel and have an opportunity for something better than the unfortunate circumstances of 200 years of historical trauma he was born into. Arnold is a hero. I think that’s so needed in our district and community.”
McCarthy told the three anti-Alexie parents, “Although I support your right to choose what to read for your children, please don’t take this book from the rest of us.”
Senior High student Michael Sievert joked that as a white, middle-class, suburbanite teen, he was obviously an expert on Native American oppression. But joking aside, he said having no relatable experience with Indian characters like the ones represented in Alexie’s book was exactly why they needed it in high schools.
After also reading the book in a single reading and then recalling lively classroom discussions about it, he said, “It made me comfortable to empathize with a culture that many of my classmates had – to say the least – ‘mixed-feelings’ about, and legitimately form a connection with them. Alexie’s highly relatable prose actually made me think about Native American issues.”
Sievert said the challengers were not about choice, but wanting book options taken out entirely. He said “offensive” passages were taken out of context, and crude racism in the book is unfortunately how many Montanans view Indians.
“I hear slurs against them every single day in the halls of Senior High, and it’s vile,” he said. “Challenging this book effectively removes the discussion and knowledge we can glean from it.”
Christie Falls Down – whose sons Tim and Chad collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of the novel – said the book was personal to her. After Chad recovered from a two-week coma, he was severely withdrawn and they were worried he’d never be the same.
After intently reading Alexie’s book several times, however, “Something amazing happened,” Falls down said. “Chad talked and talked, and talked! I’m thankful for this book. I’m worried if it’s taken out of the curriculum, some student may miss the chance of being helped in some way.”
Student Bryce Curry – a friend of Chad’s – said although he’s white, the story provided a window into the lives of Native Americans he hadn’t had contact with until he was in seventh grade.
“This book clears up and gets rid of a lot of prejudices and misconceptions people have,” Curry said.
“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.”
Luella Brien, a Crow tribal member, recalled a time when as a journalism student at the University of Montana she experienced shocking bigotry in a classroom debate by a fellow student.
“This book is my story on paper. Here I was: an enlightened, senior year journalism student, and I was told to ‘shut up and go back to the rez!’” She wryly added, “So of course, I wrote a column about him.”
While working for The Billings Gazette, she says she’d set up interviews in the area over the phone while using a “professional” voice. When she’d show up to predominantly white suburban areas, however, she’d knock on doors and no one would answer.
“I was just a little too brown for their neighborhood,” she supposed. “The themes in this book happen to native students all the time. They’re ugly, they’re raw, they’re everywhere.”
As a communication arts instructor at Little Big Horn College on the Crow Indian Reservation, Brien has taught Alexie’s book to students who’ve always struggled with English in her developmental writing class. For most, it’s the first book they’ve ever read in their lives with great pleasure that they could relate to.
Brien concluded, “So why not give School District 2 students the opportunity to have these discussions in 10th grade instead of waiting until they come to my class? So when Sherman Alexie writes, ‘Books should give you a boner,’ that’s not a bad thing.”