This past week, I had the distinction of becoming one of a select list of authors banned by the Tucson United School District. Now this is no small feat. It turns out that the Tucson United School District (a city adjoining both the U.S./Mexico border and that of the Tohono O’odham, Yaqui and several other tribal nations) does not want to discuss Native American or Mexican American history—at least, as told by Native American and Chicano or Mexican American authors.
Hence, the decision to ban books in a 4 to 1 vote on Tuesday, January 10 by the school-district board. This is part of a larger state mandate banning Mexican American Studies. An estimated 50 books are being banned.
This morning, I am looking at one of the banned books, Rethinking Columbus: the Next 500 Years. The book, originally published in 1991 by Milwaukee-based Rethinking Schools, is intended to provide educators with tools to re-evaluate “the social and ecological consequences of the Europeans’ arrival in 1492” and was written in time for the quincentenary. That was the event the Chicago Tribune had promised would be the “most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.”
Perhaps a bit optimistic in retrospect. In the book, the question was asked, What were the consequences- both positive and negative of this “discovery,” or, in actuality, the blind luck of some poor navigation skills. Apparently this book is the pinnacle of what should not be read.
Rethinking contains writings of many noted and national award-winning Native works, including Buffy Sainte-Marie’s My Country, ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, Joseph Bruchac‘s A Friend of the Indians, Cornel Pewewardy’s A Barbie-Doll Pocahontas, M. Scott Momaday’s The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee, and others. As a side note, Sainte-Marie won an Academy Award, and Momaday won a Pulitzer Prize.
My essay “To the Women of the World: Our Future, Our Responsibility” was also included in the book. Interestingly enough, if I were going to ban one of my essays from a public school, this would probably not be the one. The essay is the transcript of my opening plenary address to the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women in 1995, held in Bejing, China. Other books and writings banned include those by famed Brazilian educator Paulo Friere and, in a multiracial censorship move, Shakespeare’s The Tempest was also banned.
Book-banning has a distasteful history. Catholic priests burned Mayan books in 1562, Nazi Germany banned 4,100 or so books from 193 to 1939. Various books have been banned at many times across the world, including in the U.S. The American Library Association actually sponsors a Banned Books Week (upcoming this September 30 to October 6) as an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. According to the American Library Association, “Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week.” Now those are some radical folks, those librarians.
Back to Tucson: Roberto Rodriguez, professor at University of Arizona, is among the nation’s top Chicano and Mexican American scholars. Rodriguez says, “The attacks in Arizona are mind-boggling. To ban the teaching of a discipline is draconian in and of itself.”
My response to the ban? Well, I’m traveling to Arizona next week. Probably going to distribute some new books and toast the First Amendment over coffee with some nuns, Natives and lawyers. And I am going to think about how special Arizona is. Take for instance the federal holiday of Martin Luther King Day: Arizona resisted celebrating the holiday until 1992, nine years after it was recognized by President Reagan. As well, Arizona also has some of the most controversial anti-immigration laws and search-and-seizure practices by law enforcement. Arizona is, in short, a leader of special thinking. Last time I was in Arizona, someone commented, “If states are the laboratory for democracy, Arizona is a meth lab.”
I am going to drink that coffee, and then I’m going to keep my eye on a piece of legislation that is the Internet equivalent to the banning of books by the Tucson School District: the legislation currently being debated in Congress, the SOPA and PIPA bills. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate companion, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) would strengthen protections against copyright infringement and intellectual property theft, but Internet advocates say they would stifle expression on the World Wide Web. House Bill 3261 would expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement and copyright holders to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods,” according to Wikipedia—the online encyclopedia that is opposed to the bill.
While I, among others, am opposed to intellectual pirates (having been attacked by such pirates this winter), I am also a proponent of free speech and intellectual freedom. The proposed bill would have some potential severe impacts on whistle-blowers and free speech. The bill will come up for debate in February.
In the meantime, Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac, whose children’s stories are a family favorite in the LaDuke household (and on White Earth KKWE Niijii radio 89.9 FM), ponders the Arizona decision: “ It made me wonder what the Tucson School Board would ban next—perhaps the Emancipation Proclamation? A school board and a community that cannot face sharing the truth of history with their children is one that is penalizing the very kids they may think they are protecting.”
I am a proponent of an independent mind, and that First Amendment is worth fighting for—I am sure of it. Many minds bring together great thoughts, which is how civilizations prosper. I think that Chief Sitting Bull’s quote, which graces the opening page of Rethinking Columbus may be the best comment yet: “Let us put our heads together and see what life we will make for our children.” That is, indeed, good counsel.
Winona LaDuke is an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg who lives and works on the White Earth Reservations, and is the mother of three children. She is also the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, where she works on a national level to advocate, raise public support, and create funding for frontline native environmental groups.