About 150 people—half of whom were Natives—crowded into a Billings, Montana School District 2 boardroom in overwhelming support of Sherman Alexie’s critically acclaimed 2007 novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on Monday, November 11.
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.
Like many other students who spoke, Mia Anderson said once she picked up the book, she couldn’t put it down and read it in one sitting. “If you want us to love reading, then quit taking away the books we love,” she said.
English teacher Glenda McCarthy, an Australian immigrant who also taught aboriginal children in Australia, was the one who proposed the book be put on the required reading list for Indian Education For All—“a fact she’s proud of.”
Although she sympathized with parental concerns about vulgarity, she said the book is very realistic about what indigenous people encounter on a daily basis.
“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.”
Luella Brien, Crow, recalled how as a journalism student at the University of Montana she experienced shocking bigotry in a heated classroom debate by a fellow student. “Here I was: an enlightened, senior year journalism student, and I was told to ‘Shut up and go back to the rez!’ This book is my story on paper.”
Kristy Falls Down, Crow, whose sons Tim and Chad, Crow/Gros Ventre, collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of the novel, said the book was very personal to her. After Chad recovered from a two-week coma when he was younger, he was still severely withdrawn and she was worried he’d never be the same.
But after intently reading Alexie’s book several times while vacation, “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 to him into the lives of Native Americans as it cleared up misconceptions and prejudices locals have.
“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.”