Q&A with Jean Mendoza

We’re honored to host Jean Mendoza for An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, which she adapted for young readers along with Debbie Reese. Mendoza will be here Tuesday, November 26th at 7 PM-– we hope you’ll join us! In the meantime, check out this Q&A with the author and bookseller Rachel R, who has read both the original text and the Young Readers Edition and came up with some thoughtful questions that led to a wonderful in-depth discussion on research, language, bias, and so much more. Enjoy!

Mendoza, credit Durango Mendoza
Photo by Durango Mendoza

Rachel R: The book regularly draws attention to how using specific words influences to our perception of history and our world, e.g. using “enslaved people” instead of “slaves.” Sometimes these conversations are more nuanced, such as the differences between ’tribe’ and ’nation’ and all the other colloquialisms used to refer to Indigenous peoples. This direct attention to how we write history was one of my favorite aspects of this edition for young readers, and this specificity of language speaks to the larger project of the book. What motivated you to discuss the importance of the language we use in this history? How do you see this direct engagement with word choice as significant to the writing of history itself?

Jean Mendoza: Indigenous voices have long been ignored or silenced in the telling of US histories. Non-Natives speak or write about Native people, and often get it wrong. Not only that, sometimes they put words into their mouths. For example, there’s a very well-known children’s book that consists of statements supposedly made by Chief Seattle, but there’s strong evidence that a series of non-Native people over the decades decided that’s probably what he would have said, and they made it up and attributed it to him. So we wanted to make sure to use the words Indigenous people use when they talk about themselves and their experiences. 

I guess you could say that “the history of writing history” in the US is full of examples of (mostly European-American) writers making decisions about what to tell and not tell their readers. US history books contain many stereotypes and tropes about Indigenous people: the Noble Savage, the Brutal Savage, the Defeated Indian at the end of the trail…. There are also huge gaps where they’re kind of invisible — where nothing at all is said about what Indigenous people were actually doing. The words of those historians and the mental images they create go forward in time. I was just reading an older book, one of the few about Native people of old Texas. The way the historian refers to the Indigenous people, and the quotes he chooses to share from white men of that time — sickening. I have to set the book aside because the net effect is so profoundly disrespectful of their humanity. A historian’s bias and negativism affect any reader’s perceptions in the present, and they affect Native people’s lives in the present. Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz, Dr. Reese, and I aren’t able to un-write the mistaken, untruthful, hurtful narratives in school textbooks and other histories, but we hope our work provides something closer to a whole truth. The whole truth would fill many books! But our purpose is to provide some strong verbal and visual counter-images, founded on respect for the full humanity of Indigenous people.

“A historian’s bias and negativism affect any reader’s perceptions in the present, and they affect Native people’s lives in the present.”

RR: This book moves between a history of the Indigenous peoples of North America and a history of the United States from the perspective of Indigenous peoples. Indeed, the title itself, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (for Young People), shows this dual purpose. And yet, the book never feels disjointed or at odds with itself. How did you find this balance? What were your different goals in representing both of these histories? What value do you see for readers, young or otherwise, in a history of the US from Indigenous perspectives, instead of a more ‘traditional’ history of Indigenous peoples?

JM: It’s good to hear that the book doesn’t feel disjointed!  We worked very hard to bring 9780807049396a consistent voice and a consistent but flexible focus to it. Much of the three years Debbie and I spent on the adaptation involved being miles apart on our laptops in Google Docs, reworking Roxanne’s original text so that we could preserve her meaning while expressing it in more teen-friendly language. We didn’t let go of a paragraph until we both were satisfied (or at least okay) with it. When we had a chapter completely drafted, we’d go through the whole thing again together and smooth out rough spots, and then take one more look to make sure, before we sent it off to the editor at Beacon. 

I’d say that a central goal in presenting both the pre-invasion history (as much as we can know it) and the colonization history was to show that the Indigenous presence on the continent has been a fact since time immemorial. Just this week there was a news story about scientists and people from the Nez Perce Nation uncovering evidence of a human habitation of some kind that’s over 16,000 years old, on present-day Nez Perce land. Think about that, how long Indigenous peoples have been on the continent. Long enough to develop over 500 languages different from all the others in the world, long enough to domesticate corn and other food crops. Colonization by Europeans started almost 530 years ago —  a lot has been packed into that relatively short time. 

As for the value we see in an Indigenous viewpoint — well, we believe that all young people in the US, Native or not,  want to know the truths about the country. One truth is that anywhere you go in what is currently called the United States, you’re on the homeland or former homeland of some Indigenous nation. And how did that come to be the case? 

The United States was conceived in war — not just against Britain but against the Indigenous nations who were here first. From the beginning, the United States government enacted policies and underwrote actions that can only be characterized as genocidal, with Indigenous peoples as the target. Eventually, by the early 1900s, those policies and actions morphed from open warfare into a series of efforts to assimilate Native nations or to dissolve them by law. And all along the way, Native people resisted colonization in every way they could. Being aware of that can, we think, be helpful to all young people as they come to terms with pressing current problems. Resistance to irrational unreasoning power is possible, and can be necessary when those who hold most of the power do not have the well-being of people at heart. That’s an aspect of the Indigenous perspective that ALL young people can understand and hopefully, take heart from.

Resistance to irrational unreasoning power is possible, and can be necessary when those who hold most of the power do not have the well-being of people at heart.That’s an aspect of the Indigenous perspective that ALL young people can understand and hopefully, take heart from.”

RR: This book covers quite a number of different Indigenous histories and relationships with early colonizers, the US government, and immigrants; though true throughout the book, this is most apparent in the chapter “In Bloody Footprints.” I can easily imagine a book of this size for each nation, tribe, or band. How did you decide when to focus more specifically on specific Indigenous peoples or talk more broadly? For those who are interested in writing history, what techniques would you suggest to write something both comprehensive and specific?

JM: I can’t count the number of times we said exactly that: “This Nation/region/situation needs its own book.” Often that would be our signal to start rethinking our goals for the passage or the section we were working on, so that we could start cutting words or reworking in order to maintain balance. The initial decisions about what the book would NOT include were made by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz when she wrote An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, the book we worked from. We rarely added a situation or incident that wasn’t in that book. The major exception is the final chapter on Standing Rock and Water Protectors; those events happened after the original book came out. Debbie and I wrote about them, with Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz’s approval. Also if we thought some additional information would help readers better understand something, we’d research it and write it up for a textbox. 

But we did our best to stay within the publisher’s word limit for the book. We had to leave out some events and situations. That was extremely hard. The histories of Indigenous peoples of Texas would be one example. Compared with what a person could have said about that, there’s very little in our adaptation. So we’re hoping that somewhere, some Native historians are putting together An Indigenous Peoples’ History for the region currently known as the state of Texas. And Alaska. And the Pacific Northwest. And the Ojibwe people. And … you get the picture.

Tips for writing history that’s comprehensive and specific at the same time … Just recognize that it involves hard choices, or else multiple books! I still regret some of the specifics we had to leave out. It helps, I think, to keep your guiding threads in mind. For example, we knew we would emphasize tribal sovereignty (that is, Native nations as self-governing entities), ongoing Indigenous resistance (centuries long) to being colonized, and the resilience of Native peoples in spite of efforts to wipe them out and take their land. That kept us from being tempted to add cultural details and so on, so the book remained centered on how Indigenous nations were affected by and dealt with the settler-colonial entity that became the United States. 

RR: Another writing question: how do you write a history like this that includes elements that are extremely violent and horrific? How do you make it compelling and interesting without downplaying the centuries of trauma?

JM: That was difficult in a couple of ways; another balancing act. We’re very mindful of intergenerational trauma associated with genocide as a factor in Indigenous communities, and in the lives of many Native students. So with them in mind, we avoided sensationalizing descriptions of massacres, battles, boarding schools — while making clear that significant terrible things were happening. For example, we could have said quite a bit more about killings of Powhatan people near Jamestown in 1610, or the massacre of Christian Delawares at Gnadenhutten in 1782, but we think that what we included is sufficient to get the point across.

We also based some decisions on what we thought might be interesting to young people we know, such as my grandkids, or Debbie’s daughter when she was younger. Another factor when dealing with a history that’s basically a report on endless efforts to get rid of Indigenous people, is that it was often terribly painful to us personally. Debbie Reese is a Nambe Pueblo woman, as is her daughter. My husband and children are Mvskoke (Creek). The Spanish tried to violently subjugate the Pueblos. That’s in Chapter 7. Andrew Jackson’s reputation as an “Indian killer,” which helped him get elected president, came partly from the massacre of Mvskoke women, children, and elders after an 1814 battle. That’s in Chapter 6. Similar situations came up many days when we were writing. We weren’t alone in that experience. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has said that the traumatic aspects of the history were part of the reason it took her several years to write the original Indigenous Peoples’ History. We found, on the other hand, that writing about Indigenous activism in the early- to mid-20th century could feel invigorating and encouraging. 

Find both editions of the book at our front information desk & join us 11/26!

RR: Another thing I loved about this edition were the boxes with extra facts, specific stories, activities, maps, and archival images. I found these helped me to engage how this book revealed my own inaccurate assumptions and how to reframe my perspective. I know you have, like, a doctorate in curriculum, so this is a big question, but how did you decide what got included in these sidebars and images?

JM: That was actually a fun part of the adaptation, so it’s good to know that has paid off for you as a reader! The original book for adults used no images or maps, and of course no classroom activities. So Debbie and I would be working along, and one of us would say, “X topic is related to what we’re talking about here, and readers might find it interesting, but it won’t fit well with these paragraphs” so we’d say “Textbox!” and compose a few sentences or paragraphs about that subtopic. For example, the Texas Rangers. One goal of the original Texas Rangers was to eliminate Indigenous resistance. So we have a box about the history of the Texas Rangers and the naming of sports teams. 

We found… that writing about Indigenous activism in the early- to mid-20th century could feel invigorating and encouraging.”

Sometimes we’d both be thinking, “We want readers to give extra thought to this concept” so we’d compose a “Consider This” box. Or one of us would remember a photograph we’d seen that would work as visual evidence of something important, and we’d go looking for it in online archives. And we’d always, always check its provenance. These days it’s far too easy to find images that have been faked or just misidentified. Debbie’s background in information science helped us find reliable sources of photos and archived documents. Beacon Press, our publisher, hired someone to make original maps to our specs. It’s one thing to know that the Navajo people were sent on a forced march from their homelands to Bosque Redondo — but if you can see, on a simple map, that they had to cross two rivers and a mountain range to do it, that has an entirely different impact.

About Jean Mendoza: Jean Mendoza holds a PhD in curriculum and instruction and an M.Ed in early childhood education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mendoza married into a Mvskoke (Creek) family for whom being Creek is an important part of identity.

About Rachel R: In addition to being a bookseller, Rachel R is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature and enthusiastic dungeon master. She spends her time, when not reading or writing or teaching, playing video games and hanging out with her one-eyed dog, Beatrice. The best book she read this year was Darkdawn by Jay Kristoff, the conclusion to the Nevernight trilogy.

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