On Record: The Dance Boots

In Episode 2 of On Record Madeleine, Caitlin, Maddie, and Celia discuss The Dance Boots by Linda LeGarde Grover, a multigenerational novel about the Ojibwe community and its relationship with American Indian boarding schools, alcoholism, and violence.

Transcription

MADELEINE: These boarding schools were not something they went to willingly, and many tried to run away several times and were forced to go back. So it’s kind of a way to strip them of their culture, they cut their hair, they made it so they weren’t allowed to speak their own language and they even changed their names cause some of them didn’t transfer over well to English

CAITLIN: Culturally white-washing them.

MADELEINE: Exactly, yeah. 

[MUSIC]

MADELEINE: While our goal in this podcast is to tackle and address controversial topics, we are doing so from an analytical standpoint. Our goal is to educate ourselves and listeners through our discussions. No member of On Record supports racism, derogatory language, or offensive content. 

[MUSIC]

MADELEINE: Welcome to On Record, where we discuss controversial and underrepresented literature. We’re your hosts, Madeleine Bonnaillie…

CAITLIN: Caitlin Clement…

MADDIE: Maddie Willey…

CELIA: …and Celia Brocker 

MADELEINE: All right, so we’re back today with episode 2. We’re going to talk about The Dance Boots, by Linda Legarde Grover. However, Maddie found this really cool article on Twitter that we also wanted to touch on before we start talking about that. 

MADDIE: Okay, yeah. So, last week we talked about the Dr Seuss controversy and those books that are being pulled because of the imagery, and then recently there’s been news about a Captain Underpants book being pulled because it perpetuates passive racism. So it’s The Adventures of Ook and Gluk.

CAITLIN: Okay, yeah, cause I was just gonna ask what the title of the book was. 

MADDIE: Yeah, it was published in 2010, and it actually, I guess served as a spinoff of sorts from the main series. 

CAITLIN: Well, I mean, it seems like, you know, companies are at least maybe a little bit more aware with the whole Dr Seuss enterprise thing happening, and they’re like “Well, maybe we should look at the books that we have going on.” 

And you were talking about the author’s reaction to, you know, this news, and it seemed like he took it pretty well. I think he did a lot of good things. 

MADDIE: Yeah, he made a public apology and apologized for what happened. Also, he’s decided to donate any of his advance and royalties from that book to various nonprofits such as We Need Diverse Books, The AAPI, and Theater Works USA. And these are all organizations that either provide books to people for free, promote diversity in children’s books, and also just organizations designed to stop Asian hate. 

CAITLIN: So, I don’t know if you mentioned right off the bat what kind of racism it was, so it’s racism towards Asians, correct? 

MADDIE: Yes

CAITLIN: Okay

MADDIE: Yeah, and the author had said, at a point, he said he created the book to showcase diversity, equality, and nonviolent conflict resolution using principles found in Chinese philosophy. 

CAITLIN: Mmhmm

MADDIE: But he had recently also been alerted that it contained harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery. But yeah, he’s made a public apology, he feels, I mean, I think he’s taking it really well. He wants to do better, he’s doing the donations, so 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I guess in this case the author is actually alive…

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: …so, I mean, we don’t know exactly what Dr Seuss, you know, how his reaction would’ve been towards the book being unpubli – not unpublished, unpublished? 

MADDIE: Yeah, pulled.

CAITLIN: Pulled? Pulled? That’s what I – 

MADDIE: No longer published? 

CAITLIN: No longer being published. Yeah, thanks for that little news – 

MADDIE: Yeah 

CAITLIN: Book newsbreak.

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: But Madeleine, do you wanna get started discussing your book? 

MADELEINE: Yeah definitely. I was really excited about this book. I actually was kind of, when I was trying to decide my book, I just went on Barnes and Noble, and I was looking for books about American Indians written by American Indian authors. ‘Cause a lot of the really popular ones are actually written by white authors, which kind of skews the view that you can see on those books, and it kind of takes away from what they’re talking about a little bit. But yeah, so it’s The Dance Boots by Linda LeGarde Grover. And as we kind of mentioned in our snippet last week, it’s a multigenerational story about the Ojibwe community which is in Duluth, Minnesota. And it’s told in a series of small linked stories that were told to the main character by her aunt about her grandmother, her grandfather, and all her aunts and uncles who went through the Indian boarding schools up in Minnesota. 

CAITLIN: Sorry, did you say what time period this was around in? 

MADELEINE: Oh, this was the 1970s

CAITLIN: Okay

MADELEINE: But it looks back to the 1940s all the way to where she is now. So yeah, it was really cool because it’s told sort of by the niece who, she’s the first in her family to actually graduate high school. Everyone else in her family had been going through these Indian boarding schools and hadn’t actually had a conventional education outside of these. So it was kind of cool to look at her getting her masters looking back on her family and education and learning about the values of the Ojibwe tribe. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean, when I was looking over the notes that you produced for this book, I did think that it was interesting that, you know, it’s not something that always happens for a popular Native American book to be written by a Native American author. 

MADELEINE: Yeah, definitely

CAITLIN: Or someone representing the Native American culture. Which in it of itself is, you know, a problem. [laughs] Obviously. 

MADELEINE: Well, like the biggest ones out there are a lot of crime novels, ’cause there’s all “How people can police crimes if they happen in tribal land” or something, like the FBI doesn’t really go through, so it’s a lot of FBI agents or sheriffs and stuff that are going in and solving crimes in the tribal land. And so it’s interesting to actually have a story that talks about culture and is written by someone who is a part of that tribe. So yeah, I was really interested in this book. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I noticed that one of your main themes of the book was power and abuse of power, I don’t know if you want to explain that a little bit. 

MADELEINE: Yeah, so kind of, if you’re looking at this, you know, historically, American Indians don’t have a lot of power, we also like to erase their history and everything. And so, it kind of looks at boarding schools as a way to enforce power over tribes, but also the staff members in there and the power dynamics that come from being successful in boarding schools and not being successful and how that can move you up or down in success in the real world and how people view you in the book. It was definitely interesting looking at some of the disciplinarians and the people who run the boarding schools and how they kind of use this as a power trip to feel better about themselves by trying to assert their power over the children in these boarding schools. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, again, when I was going over your notes and getting a general overview of what the book was about, I saw that you mentioned that part about the boarding schools sort of being a part of this way to convert Native Americans to basically white culture, Christianity, that kind of stuff. And it was definitely very paralleled to the conversion or indoctrination of South America during the conquest, the Spanish Conquest. So, I mean obviously, I think we all know this, but history repeats itself. It just repeats itself in different forms with different groups of people. I think that book, this book, I mean, you can obviously take your side of this because you actually read the book. But I think that it explains that, and shows that maybe from a different angle, but, relatively well.

MADELEINE: Yeah. And I probably should have clarified when I’m saying boarding schools, what that actually means. Basically, when children became a certain age, a lot of—like the government went through the tribal census and tracked down children who were old enough to go to these boarding schools. And they were literally taken from their homes. And their parents had no way to stop it. And a lot of times the parents will try and hide their younger children to keep them at home longer. But these boarding schools were not something they went to willingly. And many tried to run away several times and were forced to go back. So it was kind of a way to strip them of their culture. They cut their hair, they made it so they weren’t allowed to speak their own language. And they even changed their names, cause some of them didn’t transfer over well to English. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, culturally whitewashing them. 

MADELEINE: Exactly

CELIA: Do you know how long those boarding schools were in practice? When did they start? When they ended?

MADELEINE: I wanna say they were still kind of going on until, like, the late ’60s

CAITLIN: Wow

MADELEINE: My great grandfather was actually in a boarding school, and he and his brother escaped several times but were always brought back again. So I’ve always heard stories about that. And my grandmother was never one who went to one. But yeah, it kind of ended around the ’60s, like a true enforcement of it. And then it kind of started dwindling out as it kind of got a little more progressive. 

CAITLIN: So were your relatives Native American?

MADELEINE: Yeah, My great-grandfather and my grandmother are both Native American. They’re Cherokee. 

CAITLIN: Okay

MADELEINE: I’ve kind of grown-up with her trying to track down her family. Cause there is a lot of separation of family and splitting of families and their members. That’s kind of what drew me to this book initially.

CAITLIN: Okay. Yeah, I was going to say, that seems like a connection for you. 

MADELEINE: Yes

MADDIE: What’s the general age range of the boarding schools?

MADELEINE: I was trying to kind of figure that out. Cause it depends based on how long you could hide your kids and stuff. But basically, it was like that kindergarten age. Like five or six or seven, when they first would go in. And usually around 17, they would start going and leaving the boarding schools. And usually, a lot of the boarding schools were trying to prepare them to help with white families. Like the girls who went through them. A lot of the times, they would be prepared to and taught to sew, and take care of the house, and help with the white women in the house. Then they would be successful when they were able to go and serve a family like that. 

MADDIE: Gotcha

MADELEINE: It was interesting reading that and hearing— cause I had always heard vaguely like what it was. But the actual purpose of what they were being taught to do. And it was never like ‘oh, we want you to be successful in a white society.’ it was ‘we want you to go and help people.’

CAITLIN: We want you to SERVE the white society, basically

MADELEINE: Exactly

MADDIE: To help the white society be successful. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, just so much systemic racism. It’s crazy. I mean, we are obviously talking about it a lot more than we have in the past, but there is still so much interwoven. It’s crazy to me. Every new thing that I figure out. Or every new perspective that I find, that I am like ‘yeah, that’s kind of effed up’

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: Never saw it like that, but now that that wool has been taken over my eyes. However that saying goes, the wool that’s over your eyes. It’s just crazy to me. 

MADELEINE: It was interesting too, just hearing about the education. Because even within the book, it shows how the boarding schools were changing, and how the views were changing. But one thing that I found, was that they were kind of Christian based boarding, a lot of them. Especially for the girls, they were taught by sisters. But they had this idea of being a successful boarding school student. Or successful mission school student. And I thought that was an interesting way to describe it. Like you’re saying, ‘we were successful in stripping you of everything that made you you. Now go out and do what we want you to do.’ But even within tribes, when they went back to the reservation, they would still say ‘oh my sister, she was one of their favorites there because she did everything she wanted and I was always an outcast because I couldn’t quite perform the same way.’ It’s basically saying “oh yeah, she beat me in changing who she was entirely.’ And it was still kind of this weird, not competition, but a way of ranking themselves even as these horrible crimes were being committed to them. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean, it’s a level of brainwashing. You know? 

MADDIE: Definitely

CAITLIN: 100%. Which is just so unbelievably sad. Because we have stripped Native Americans of their culture a lot. I mean obviously, there are still tribes out there, and reservations that are trying to hold onto these cultural things that they have. Just reading all of this makes me remember all of the history that I learned in high school and college about the crap and the shit that we did to Native Americans, and it’s just so sad. 

MADDIE: Yeah, and I feel like I heard a lot more about Native Americans when I was in elementary school. Not as much going into middle and high school. And I’m from Minnesota. I’m not up in the Duluth area where Grover is from but I mean, I’ve been around the area. I actually looked it up, and in Minnesota there are about 59 cities and towns that have place names that come from indigenous places, throughout Minnesota. Which, it just shows that their culture has been pulled from them and used in different ways and now a lot of people don’t even realize that those names are indigenous.

CAITLIN: Yeah it’s been reclaimed by white society, you know, like, yeah, it’s crazy. I mean just even places in Iowa, like, names that you’re like ‘oh that was, okay that was a Native American name. Good to know.’

MADELEINE: Yeah in Oklahoma we refer to them as the five civilized tribes. Not just like tribes but we acknowledge that they have their own government systems and areas but it’s because they’re the civilized tribes. Not just a tribe. One thing I noticed when I was reading the book and then also doing some research was the idea of good manners and what that kind of symbolized in the book. I kind of just pulled a couple quotes but they talk a lot about how her manners were flawless, they were traditional, they met reality with courage and mission school manners. There’s this big emphasis on having good manners, and being well behaved, and being an accepting host. It both comes from these boarding schools but also is something that’s ingrained into their society. It’s interesting because it’s not just like, you know, when you think of like, not like a gender kind of thing with men and women where there’s manners for both. But this was a societal thing in their tribes that having good manners and accepting your neighbor and helping your neighbor was something that’s a very traditional value for them. Even though it was kind of shifted in the missions schools, it was still kind of followed through and is still kind of prevalent. So, I don’t know, I wasn’t sure what people thought of like the idea of having traditional manners, or what manners can mean.

CAITLIN: I think manners can be tied to culture, a lot, you know. Depending on your culture depends on what is considered a manner and what is considered a proper, appropriate behavior. Obviously, there’s the white culture version of manners and the ones they push on every other culture but even just between countries behaviors and manners are different.

MADDIE: Different ways of greeting…

CAITLIN: Yeah.

MADDIE: …because in a lot of different areas, they have a bow. A respectful greeting with a bow.

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean, when I was studying abroad…yeah here I go with the study abroad…

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: [JOKINGLY] Did I study abroad? In Spain their greeting is to kiss you on both cheeks. And obviously in the United States, you don’t really, you know, we’re not that physical with people. So really experiencing that was definitely a bit different for me because I was like ‘Ohhh she’s kissin’ my cheeks, I don’t know what to do!’ But yeah it’s just so different everywhere you go depending on who you are, where you live, what culture you family is from.

MADDIE: Yeah, and I think manners are a very important part of these cultures because it’s just kind of how they interact with each other.

CELIA: And I think whatever culture you’re a part of, manners are kind of a way to establish the hierarchies that are in certain situations or in the room. It’s a way to establish who is the subordinate in the relationship because if you think about it, whether it’s children to parents or, you know, women to man or in like any kind of relationship, manners are typically used to describe who has more power in the situation.

CAITLIN: Yeah, Absolutely. That’s definitely a good one.

MADELEINE: Yeah i think that’s a good way to describe it because in the book you can also see the generational differences and manners. One of the characters it follows is Maggie and she is the grandmother. She’s basically the first one, or not first, mut she’s the main one they talk about in the boarding schools and how she has these like traditional manners and she has sons who think that how she, when people come into her house she receives them and she gives them all her food and money and anything they need to help them on their way even though she has very little. One of whose sons used this as her being, basically, being cheated out of all of her stuff and taken advantage of but the other one realizes that for her, giving and helping people is her way of having a rich life. So, like the difference between Maggie who grew up in a boarding school and really mastering, essentially, these values of good manners and giving to people and being generous, and having her sons who have two very different world views on what it means to help someone and what it means to be rich or poor. Seeing their differences on how she treats people and their manners. 

Alright, so one of the scenes I found interesting, and maybe it a minor spoiler but I don’t think it’s a huge deal, is towards the end of the book a few of the male characters, who went to the boarding school, they were sitting at a bar after coming back from being at war. They were just kind of talking to each other and they noticed Mr. Magoon, who was one of their disciplinarians at school, comes into the bar and he’s older and looking a little shabbier like life hasn’t been treating him well and they’re struck with this fear. For so many years he was this person who physically and mentally abused them, locked them up, basically just tormented them for his own pleasure essentially. It’s revealed that he’s actually “mixed blood” as they describe him. So he’s part Native American and part white and they call him a traitor and how he’s gone against his own people and how he’s taken pleasure in beating his own people’s children. So, I thought that was an interesting revelation that they do and how Mr. Magoon, this disciplinarian, who’s very well respected in these boarding schools and known to be like one of the head disciplinarians, realizing that he is both Native American and white and that he probably went through a boarding school himself and instead of understanding and sympathizing with the students now he chose to rise up in status and basically take the role of people before him. What does that say about how the conversion was so in depth that he felt it was better to go against his own people.

CAITLIN: Yeah, I mean, I think when you are trying to survive in a society and in a culture that completely disregards and thinks really lowly of the culture and the people you come from. I think that’s a huge pressure for them. Cause, you know, we are all human beings, and we’re all trying to survive in this world that we live in. And he saw, he recognized that he was of mixed blood and that, you know, having that white side of him, I guess, he saw that as a way to survive. As a way to make a situation better for himself, and I can see how the Native Americans, his people, would be angry with that. Because they are trying to preserve their culture that is consistently trying to be erased all the time. So I can see both sides. Obviously, I am not of Native American descent. I am a very white woman. [laughs] But looking at it from an analytical point of view, I can understand both sides. I can understand why he did what he did in order to survive. And I can understand his people’s anger towards that, in completely ignoring the culture and place that he came from.

CELIA: I think it says a lot about the cycle of abuse, too. Because if you find someone who has experienced abuse in their life, especially as a young child, they are either going to turn that abusive behavior that they internalized onto somebody else. Or they are going to turn it to themselves. And it’s going to just keep being a pattern. Because it is what you’ve been taught as a young child. It stays with you. Things that happen to you when you’re so young, it’s so hard to get those out of your head. 

MADELEINE: I think that’s a really good way of talking about it. A cycle of abuse. And a cycle of power. 

CAITLIN: I actually do have a little bit of an indirect personal connection. One of my cousins, he married a Native American. They currently live on a reservation in Arizona. I cannot remember what tribe she is from, so I feel bad. But I know that she always—, it’s funny because she always gets asked ‘oh do you know the language? Can you speak the language?’ and she’s always very reserved about it. It’s not something that she wants to outwardly talk about and do all the time. And I think that’s because she has been surrounded by the white culture that is the majority of the United States. And how it’s still there, that historical suppression is still there. That uncomfortableness that she has with her own culture. She still is in it, but she’s not in it, you know? It’s an interesting dynamic that I learned through my cousin. That she has these views on it. 

MADELEINE: I know when choosing this book, I chose this one because, in terms of racial issues, I think Native Americans and what happened to them has kind of been something that’s not really really talked about and kind of falls to the other issues that we have. So I thought that this was an important book because it’s something that still kind of happens. There’s a lot of tribes and stuff that don’t have running water. They’re still being discriminated against. And it’s just not talked about. So, I thought, finding something, and making sure we are learning the right history and understanding what’s going on, is a good way that we can start maybe acknowledging the wrongs we’ve done and actually start bringing that up. 

CAITLIN: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for bringing this book to our attention. I am definitely interested in it. I think I might actually read it. It seems really thought-provoking at least. 

MADELEINE: It’s a quick read.

CAITLIN: But we did want to leave you guys with a little bit to think about. So, MADDIE has a not so fun fact that is relevant to the book and the situation.

MADDIE: Yeah, so there is a city that is about an hour away from where I grew up. And in that city – it’s Mankato, Minnesota – and in that city, back in around 1862, it was actually the location of what is the largest mass execution in United States history. And it was a hanging, a mass hanging of 38 Dakota men. Which is crazy that even back in 1862 that’s still the largest mass execution and it’s held up from that time period.

[MUSIC]

CELIA: Thanks for listening to the Urban Plains podcast On Record. Join us next week where we will be discussing Real Life by Brandon Taylor, which tells the experience of Wallace, a gay black doctoral student in a predominantly white Midwestern PhD program. Check out our website urban-plains.com to listen to our podcast and follow us on our social media to get the latest news on all things On Record. 

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