Larry Mayer/Billings Gazzette
Gail Supola, a mother upset by the selection of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” addresses a packed boardroom. Supola is asking School District 2 to remove the novel from its required reading list and tighten up its classroom opt-out policy.

Montana Community Unites to Save Sherman Alexie Book From Being Banned

Adrian Jawort

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.

RELATED: Montana Student Fights to Keep Sherman Alexie Book on Curriculum

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.

Chad Falls Down, Crow/Gros Ventre, is one of the students fighting to keep Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" in Skyview High School. (Chad Falls Down)

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.”

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bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
I may be wrong and it would not be the first, but I think it is this kind of publicity that helps hasten the selling of controversial publications. Frankly, I think we have had far too many non-natives writing our history, conjuring fiction novels that essentially portray ALL natives as blood thirsty savages, alcoholics, living off Uncle Sam or on the brink of extinction. I don't condone vulgarity in any form, however there are far greater problems in the educational system that has failed every tribal nation and they continue with no end in sight. Our fight should be for greater funding, effective curriculum, more emphasis on turning out native teachers and programs that will drive down the rate of dropouts to mention only a few. On the other hand, I appreciate parents taking an active role in knowing what educational materials are being used in classrooms and voicing your opinions. And for that - there is no right or wrong.

Brigitte  Schmitt - France's picture
Brigitte Schmi...
Submitted by Brigitte Schmi... on
I'm French and I teach English in a middle school. I loved this novel and I bought the translated edition for my 14-year-old niece. This is the best novel I've ever read which can encourage younsters to see the bright side of life instead of indulging in their petty self-centered problems. It's a book about how to survive how get out of a dark life with a lot of humour and intelligence. I make my 14-15-year-old French students read it (in French of course !) and we discuss it. Last summer, my husband and I visited Washington State and we drove to Wellpinit, to Reardan. I have re-read the book again. So I support the Montana community to save the book from being removed in schools. I'm really sorry for this lady Supola to be so narrowminded. WITH LOVE FROM FRANCE

dewey pickering's picture
dewey pickering
Submitted by dewey pickering on
I am half Cherokree.My mother was of the Western Band,formed by the white`s after the " Trail Of Tears ". I have been on the resz. in Riverton,Wy. during Wound Knee and have seen first hand the way Natives are treated and as The FRIENDS I was with were Lakota Souix and Cheyanne I was treated the same.

wildremains's picture
Submitted by wildremains on
it is good to hear about parents Who are aware of & involved with the education of their children and hope the overwhelming support for Sherman's work to remain on curriculums at Skyview contributes to the enlightenment of those STILL IN THE DARK about suppression, oppression and....John Wayne's teeth.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
As a school librarian I'm very close to this issue. We typically have a Banned Books Week celebration in our library and featured every book that was on a banned list once or twice. Sherman Alexie's books are always on the lists because they tend to burst people's bubble about what it is to be an NDN in the 21st century. They'd rather see us as "honorable savages" fading away in history rather than the people we are today. As a once aspiring writer, I always told myself the best thing a new author could do is to get political and religious groups to try to ban my book. It's the best advertising possible. What is it with White People that they feel they have to right to rid the world of things they don't like? It happens with books, movies and music. In the past it happened with NDNs, wolves and Mexicans. Nature laughs at their attempt to mold her into something they consider "manageable."