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Indigenous Peoples Day: Children's Book Challenges Tales of Columbus


Monday, October 11, 2021   

By Sonali Kolhatkar for Yes! Media. Broadcast version by Eric Tegethoff for Washington News Service reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration

For generations, Indigenous communities in the United States have protested Columbus Day -- a centuries-old observance in the United States -- and for decades have led a movement to rename the second Monday in October from "Columbus Day" to "Indigenous People's Day."

Today, more than a dozen states have formally embraced Indigenous People's Day as part of a process to recenter Indigenous communities and end the glorification of settler colonialism.

It is precisely within this context that educator and author Oriel Siu takes on the historical myth of Columbus in her new children's book "Christopher the Ogre Cologre, It's Over." Using clever rhymes, but never avoiding the barbarity of colonization.

Siu, whose pen name is Dr. Siu, reimagines Columbus as a monstrous ogre who ravages the Americas. The new book is the second in a series of Siu's books whose protagonist is Rebeldita the Fearless, an "empowered, justice-seeker, border-smasher girl," and "a child born out of long-enduring Indigenous and Black resistances in the Americas."

Siu's first book in the series, Rebeldita the Fearless in Ogreland, was sparked by the horrors of former President Donald Trump's immigration policy enforcement that viciously separated immigrant families and prior to that, the mass deportations of undocumented immigrants under former President Barack Obama.

Siu is based in her home country of Honduras but lived and worked for years as a professor of Ethnic Studies in the United States. She spoke with YES! about what it means for parents and children to have access to books that reflect their diverse histories.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sonali Kolhatkar: Who is Rebeldita and how was she conceived?

Oriel Siu: Rebeldita is a character who is born out of resistances, out of 529 years of Black, Brown, and Indigenous resistances in the Americas. When I became a mother in Seattle seven years ago, I encountered a problem that many of us socially conscious parents face, and it is the lack of books that not only represent people of color and children of color, but also allow for their mind to expand outside of the White settler mentalities, paradigms, and imaginaries. There weren't enough books that would allow my daughter to know her history in an engaging way and in a way that would push her toward asking questions about where she lives, who she is, and where she comes from. In addition to motherhood, I also came to that conclusion through my work as a professor of Ethnic Studies in the United States for over 14 years. My 18- and 19-year-old students came into college classrooms with all these foundational "fairy tales" as the base from which they understand the Americas, the place where they live and where they are born.

Kolhatkar: Is Rebeldita modeled on your daughter or yourself?

Siu: She is modeled on all children of the Americas. She is a Black and Indigenous child. She is truly a product of the American experience. She knows that she lives on occupied lands and she wants to understand why and how. She wants to know how these ogres came to occupy this land and why it is called Ogreland. To that end she asks questions and through narrative she comes to beautiful conclusions that inspire action.

Watch Dr. Oriel María Siu read an excerpt from her book and share some of the reasons why she wrote it.

Kolhatkar: Was this book an effort toward rethinking "Columbus Day" as Indigenous People's Day and to recenter Indigenous people in the history of colonization?

Siu: It goes much further than just the day. It's aimed at shifting the paradigm, toward rethinking our school curricula, and decentering Whiteness and White Supremacy. It's not just for children of color or children of the United States, but for all children of the Americas. The fairytale of this person named Christopher Columbus who "sailed the ocean blue," and came to "discover" new lands is a lie that is taught not just in the U.S. but throughout the Americas and it continues to be taught in many European schools in Spain and England. It's a transnational lie and one that must be undone because it becomes ingrained in [our] minds and in the ways in which children and adults understand who we are, where we are, and how it is that our societies exist. It's such a fundamental and important moment in history for all of us to understand and to know and yet it gets taught in such a way as to continue to center and "hero-ify" White settler colonialism in the United States, the Americas, and abroad.

Kolhatkar: In your book, the people who the ogre, Christopher Cologre finds, are called the "Abya Yala." Who are they?

Siu: My books look at terms. A term like "the Americas" is also a way of continuing to impose names and terms that come from the period in which this entire continent was occupied, and genocide was committed, after which there was the enslavement of people, Black and Brown, and then Chinese folk and Asians. "Abya Yala" is one of the terms that original nations of the Americas-specifically in the center of the Americas-use to refer to the Americas. There are many other terms as well. I wanted to make sure that Abya Yala was centered in this children's book because it is inviting parents and teachers to begin to look at us through other terms outside of the White Settler paradigm.

Kolhatkar: In addition to the protagonist Rebeldita, you feature a grandmother figure in your book. Is she a representation of how histories and information get passed down orally from generation to generation through women?

Siu: Yes. In the White supremacist curricula that permeates our schooling systems we know that the White male patriarchal voice is centered in every single textbook. So, I needed to make sure that this abuelita, this grandmother figure, was very important in how children are able to understand and explore the history that has been robbed from them, the truths that have been robbed from them, by this "Ogre Cologre." She's interrupting the way in which we have understood and learned history. She interrupts it using oral traditions brought in via African traditions and Indigenous traditions from the Americas.

Kolhatkar: There are some disturbing scenes in your book such as images of children in chains-of course, it is a disturbing history. Often children's books tend to be very sanitized because perhaps adults think children can't handle it. Why was it important for you to show these scenes?

Siu: This is a conversation I have all the time, mostly with my White students, who ask, "Well don't you think these kinds of conversations are too painful or not appropriate for children of 4 or 5?" I don't even have to answer the question because my students of color always step up and respond, "Well, this is a conversation we have to have anyway, right?" White children grow up sheltered from understanding many of the realities and experiences of children of color. By the time they are 18 or 19 years old, going to college, they realize they've been lied to the entire time through their elementary and high school curricula. During our ethnic studies classes, White students realize, often for the first time, that they have been lied to. What do they do with that? It becomes a very important conversation in understanding how we can live in the same place through such different experiences for White and non-White children. Children of color and White children are fully capable of engaging the truth. It's the way in which we offer it to them and how we guide discussion and conversation so that these become productive critical conversations as opposed to hiding it, or lying, or brushing it off, or pretending it doesn't happen.

Kolhatkar: It seems as though for children of color especially, knowing the truth of the disturbing history can help them make sense of their world as they grow up?

Siu: Absolutely. That's one of the problems we have in the United States. Children of color, as of 2016, are now the majority. Non-White babies are now the minority, so they are having to grow up trying to figure out the things that don't make sense. We need truth to occupy their textbooks and we need to do it in a way that is empowering and not laying blame on anyone. Understanding our collective history in the Americas is not an attempt to blame White America for [how] we live in present times. It's an attempt to understand it so we can change it.

Kolhatkar: Ethnic Studies programs and Critical Race Theory curricula are under attack from the right-wing these days. Do your books help to counter such attacks?

Siu: Ethnic Studies is coming under a lot more attack, but it's always been a target because it is questioning and rewriting history from the non-White perspective. So, I'm very happy to be contributing children's literature to that area.

The White conservative fear against Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory is what is pushing all the hate that we see on a daily basis. I've seen my own students having grown up with these big lies as their foundation for understanding the Americas. And at the beginning of the semester, they sit with their arms locked, absolutely not accepting the fact that there is a woman of color in front of them who is a professor, and not wanting to engage with me. But once I begin to create a solid foundation, starting with pre-1942 history, and they begin to understand how it's related to everything-the environment, law, policies, health-their attitude tremendously changes and the questions they ask become different. We need to rewrite these transnational foundational lies because it makes a huge difference in how children and young adults later on conceive of themselves and their world.

Kolhatkar: How has your daughter responded to your books?

Siu: She's been as present and as active a participant as I have been. We actually wrote many of the phrases, verses, and rhymes of the first book together, so that was a very beautiful process. It is similar to the process of what I am attempting to do as a mother of a Black, Chinese, and Indigenous child. We have been having these conversations since she was born. Race is not a taboo subject in our home, so it feels very natural to her. What I'm attempting to do is to bring to children like my daughter, the books that represent their experiences and empower them through history.

Sonali Kolhatkar conducted this interview for YES! Magazine. She is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute.

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