Montana's Institutional Racism Behind Calls to Ban Alexie's Book

Adrian Jawort

In my hometown of Billings, Mont., the hoopla surrounding the group of parents who want to see Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, end its run as part of the Skyview High School’s curriculum came to full fruition at a community meeting to discuss its supposedly controversial content on Veterans Day.

Hundreds of people showed up and expressed their approval or disapproval of the coming-of-age adolescent tale about a boy transitioning from living on a reservation to going to a mostly white school among many other problems that seem to plague the awkward 14-year-old protagonist and Spokane Native, Arnold Spirit Jr. The book was not banned.

While words like censorship and book-banning Nazis dominated the pro-Alexie camp of the discussion, there are four other words that must be considered if one is to consider the American Indian side of the story: institutionalized racism in Montana.

It’s my understanding the complaints of one of the main offended parents, Gail Supola, actually seems to want to defeat stereotypes by not wanting them perpetuated further through Alexie’s perceptive and often self-disparaging narrator. But in forcing her opinion on others, she’d be denying the right of students themselves to decide whether the book is relevant - especially seeing as the urban Native population of Skyview’s students can obviously relate to the book.

To herself, Supola’s actions are undoubtedly the opposite of racist and a noble public service. And while Supola is entitled to her opinion about the pertinence of the book as an educational tool, going against her opinion is the heavy fact Alexie’s book has cleaned house in awards, including winning the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

However, to fully ingest my accusation of “institutionalized racism” against my own beloved state‘s people, one only needs to go back just a few years ago and look at the contents of a book that was also actually banned in 2007 from a Laurel, Mont. high school’s curriculum: Blackfeet author James Welch’s American Book Award winning Fool’s Crow. Coincidentally, Laurel is just 15 miles from Billings.

Although Fools Crow is historical fiction, it was described by Dee Brown of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee fame as “the closest we will every come to understanding what life was like for a western Indian.” The book details the life of a Blackfeet man living in Montana in the post-Civil War era in which Plains Indians faced a transition of whites encroaching on their territory along with the continued wanton destruction of their lifeline that was the buffalo.

The book was not only challenged to be banned by Laurel parents, but high school students in Montana’s Bozeman and Helena towns who objected to the violence in it. Fools Crow details the Jan. 23, 1870 Marias Massacre in which a non-hostile Blackfeet camp was attacked and 173 men, women, and children were killed. Many more froze to death after their tipis were burned.

The camp was already weakened from a recent smallpox epidemic, and was made further defenseless by the fact most of the able bodied men were out hunting. Chief Heavy Runner was gunned down first while trying to approach the 200 U.S. cavalrymen with a paper showing he had friendly relations with the whites.

One student claimed the book left disturbing images in his head, while his mother argued that children were already exposed to too much violence via other mediums like TV and movies.

While it was the violent descriptions that disturbed students and parents, it’d obviously be naïve not to talk, write, or read about that period of time in Montana history without marking that as pivotal among its first indigenous inhabitants. The people who wanted it banned obviously didn’t care about that, however.

This being said, one wonders what the reaction these Montanan anti-Welch parents would’ve gotten if someone objected to the violence and realism in let’s say Stephen Crane’s famously descriptive book, The Red Badge of Courage, or the WWI novel All Quite On the Western Front (a book marked for burning by the Nazi party).

Or what if someone objected to high school students reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with his bleak documenting of slaves being beaten severely over trivial infractions? Or just imagine the eye rolling if someone had objected to students learning about the Holocaust - as actually did happen when Montanan Holocaust deniers broached the subject with a local school.

But since Fools Crow was about local Native neighbors who had actual grandmothers, grandfathers, and relatives who died in the Marias Massacre, I guess that part of history is literally supposed to be white washed from curriculums and safely tucked away from local students actually ever learning about it. Their relatives might’ve done the killing, after all.

The dark continued history if Montana - whether it’s Welch’s detailing of U.S. soldiers throwing babies on a burning tipi or Alexie’s clever writings about the very real and relatable culture shock of leaving a reservation to attend an all white school where the only other Indian is the school mascot - continues to plague its people through willful ignorance. Understanding the Native point of view of history is detrimental to not only bridging potential divides, but combating the patronizing attitudes towards them.

While I’m pleased to see the overwhelming amount of support Alexie’s book has received, I’m saddened to see that to some parents - living in a land where there are 7 large Indian reservations representing 12 different tribes - anything that could be learned about how Indians lived or still live is still somehow being deemed “inappropriate” reading.

Marginalizing books to students about their peers who may come from the reservation just like Arnold Spirit Jr. did doesn’t do much for cultural understanding or learning either when you outright tell them books about these same students are essentially “wrong.”

A lifelong Montana resident, Adrian Jawort is a freelance journalist, poet, and writer. A proud member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, he is a frequent contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network, as well as Native Peoples Magazine, Cowboys & Indians, and many other publications.

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Anonymous's picture
A parent can limit the violence their child gets from the news media. The violent massacres of camps of women and children is history and should be part of our American history lessons. White washing our white ancestors actions does nothing to help being white and native peoples together.. Never in my schooling did we learn of the many horrible attacks by whites on helpless Native camps, only of the Indians seemingly unprovoked attacks of whites. Our children deserve better!
Anonymous's picture
There is a disturbing trend nationwide to "white wash" the Dominant Culture's history of what they consider "unsavory events." The Texas School Book Review Board's decisions influence many of the school texts across the USA. They are notorious for their revisionist rewriting of events like the Sand Creek Massacre, slavery, and the history of post Columbus genocide of Indigenous.peoples. Beware...be vigilant......
Anonymous's picture
i worked in Billings for a while. loved it. it's incredibly beautiful but when i had a chance to stay and work permanently there i said no even tho it would have been the perfect job and an incredible place to live. i am Cherokee, my mother was white so i do not look like it. i never had any problems but i saw the way native peoples were treated by white folk there and was ashamed. my daughter is dark skinned so i knew she would never fit in and be accepted in a town i had hoped to call home. racism is alive and well in the USA.
Anonymous's picture
I'm sorry, I just don't like Sherman Alexie's writing. It just seems like such exaggeration of Rez life. Maybe to get a laugh, but just stupid. When someone shows me a passage, I usually give a little laugh, but inside I'm thinking, "I'm so sure. That's dumb." To close, I'm 43. I've lived on a Rez since I was 12 and I've ALWAYS been in the lower socio-economic bracket.