Every year teachers everywhere begin a social studies or literature unit where they discuss Indigenous history and contemporary Indigenous issues. Depending on the country or province you teach in, the requirements of this unit vary. But for many teachers, the arrival of this unit means reaching for the old standby tome “Indian In The Cupboard” by Reid Banks.
You might have read this book in school and have thought nothing of it, but providing this book to our students is deeply problematic. What’s the issue? Though the story might initially seem innocent, it is an ethnocentric mess of misrepresentation, racism, anti-feminist undertones, and stereotype. This book is outdated and does not belong in our classrooms.
A critical read-through should be enough to realize that the representation of Indigenous peoples produced through this story is deeply problematic and unsuitable for the classroom. However, if you want to read more about why this book and others like it are so problematic you might like these articles:
But what book should you pick up for your students instead? Here is a quick list of great books for a range of ages to critically engage your students in dialogue surrounding contemporary Indigenous issues and history.
Lower Elementary: || A River Lost- L. E. Bragg || A Coyote Columbus- Thomas King || As Long As The River Flows- Larry Loyie ||
Middle School: || The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian- Sherman Alexie || A Stranger At Home- Christy Jordan-Fenton || Lightning Rider- Jaqueline Guest ||
High School: || The Inconvenient Indian- Thomas King || Ends/Begins- David Alexander Robertson (Part of a seven book series) || Walking In The Woods: A Métis Journey- Herb Belcourt ||
Whenever we discuss big issues like this with students it is important that more than one story is read. Any book will offer only one perspective, and it is the job of educators to be willing to critically engage with students about issues in the texts they read.
It can be difficult to explore complex and often uncomfortable realities surrounding the treatment of Indigenous peoples with students. But to reach for an outdated and racist book simply because it is more comfortable to teach or easier to avoid the ‘big issues’ is a disservice not only to Indigenous peoples, but to our students and ourselves.