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Montana Student Fights to Keep Sherman Alexie Book on Curriculum

Parents, teachers and students will meet with an ad hoc committee November 11 to discuss whether or not they will keep Sherman Alexie's book.
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A group of parents in a Montana community have been trying since May 2, 2013 to get Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian removed from the 10th-grade required reading list at Skyview High School in Billings, Montana.

Gail Supola, a concerned parent, will be among those meeting with an ad hoc committee on Monday, November 11 about her request to remove the book.

She says in her request for reconsideration of media to the school that: “This book does nothing to educate our children about the positives in Native American life, culture, traditions, beliefs, abilities or history. I think while reading a ‘required book’ you should learn something specific about the subject, in this case the Spokane Indians, or what is the point? After reading this book in its entirety, I know nothing more about the Spokane Indians than I did before reading it. The only thing this book accomplished was the reinforce the negative stereotypes of Native Americans.”

After her initial request to the school, a Review Committee was organized by the school, which read the book as well as numerous reviews and unanimously agreed on May 17 that it should remain on the reading list.

American Indian Graduate Center

Joel Frank

“This is a contemporary coming of age novel for young adults, which demonstrates the characters’ struggles with many issues that are still relevant today,” the review committee said in a May 17 letter. “The style of writing is humorous, sometime irreverent and portrays his own life struggles and trials in a public school setting.”

On June 10, 2013, Supola wrote to appeal the decision made by the review committee, who says: “This book is, shockingly, written by a Native American who reinforces all the negative stereotypes of his people and does it from the crude, obscene and unfiltered viewpoint of a 9th grader growing up on the reservation.”

Supola goes on to say that she doesn’t understand where this book fits into the guidelines for teaching about Native Americans required by the State of Montana.

“Having many Native American friends living on and off the reservations in our state, I can emphatically tell you that not all Native Americans are poor, unmotivated, uneducated, alcoholics who are predestined to die in car crashes.”

Supola’s original request to the school was pages long and included a breakdown of how many times certain cuss words appear in the book like the word “ass,” which according to Supola appears 20 times, and the word “boner,” which appears 14 times.

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Chad Falls Down, a Crow/Gros Ventre student, has taken up the cause because the book means a lot to him. He explained how some health problems when he was young ended with him in a coma. He woke up and did get better, but Alexie’s book was one of the first things he read.

“It woke up my mind again from the coma—helped me learn again,” he said “It feels like it had a lot to do with my life—it’s made a difference.”

Falls Down grew up on the reservation and that is where he learned about his culture, but he left after elementary school to get a better education.

“That’s when I realized people are racist,” he said. “This [Alexie’s book] is totally realistic, this isn’t sugar coating the past or future, or how government has truly made Native Americans the way they wanted them to be.”

Falls Down is a senior in the district and will be speaking at the meeting on Monday.

He said his speech will discuss that while there may be some derogatory things in the book, “it shows realism and shock… He’s writing on experience and the true side of Native American life.”

“I’ve seen some of the things this book talks about,” Falls Down said. “We all have to see it as it is, truthfully and realistically; the truth must be heard, even if it hurts your ears.”

Falls Down has a petition with about 200 signatures and started one on to collect more.

But Supola has a petition of her own, with more than 300 signatures according to the paperwork she submitted to the school.

Skyview High School Principal Debra Black said the ad hoc committee will decide Monday whether the issue will then go to the full board.

“There will be Native kids that are speaking to the committee Monday night that are in favor of keeping the book,” Black said. “This is a choice that we have made [making the book required reading] and it’s a good read for that age group.”