Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bring It Back: The People Shall Continue


Ortiz, Simon. The People Shall Continue. Ill. Sharol Graves. Children’s Book Press, 1977. 23 pages. ISBN: 0892391251


First published by Children’s Book Press (now an imprint of Lee and Low Books), Simon Ortiz’ epic, poetic story of Native peoples, The People Shall Continue, begins with creation. It honors and reflects the differences among cultures (“Some say, ‘from the ocean.’ / Some say, ‘From a hollow log….’”) while also connecting the dots to demonstrate their similarities and cohesion (“The teachers and the elders of the People / all taught this important knowledge: / ‘The Earth is the source of all life… The people must be responsible to her.’”)

Never does the People’s story fall into the “it was a simple paradise” trope. As the People from the North, West, East, and South give and take meat, fish, corn, and hides to each other, there are cold winters, famines, and fights among them. Their leaders stress the need for patience and respect for each other and the Earth. Also absent is the “Columbus, the first European to discover the Americas, arrived out of the blue” narrative. In Ortiz’ story, the People remember visitors from a long time ago, who never stayed for long before returning home. Likewise, nothing about European invasion is sugarcoated; the Spanish, “heedless and forceful,” come “seeking treasures and slaves.” Soon, the English, French, and Dutch arrive as well, teaching about “a God whom all should obey” and claiming they are “special men of this God.” Thus, Ortiz names the specific invaders, and though he does not cite Christianity by name, he includes it as a means by which European invaders justified genocide.

As colonialism takes root, the People fight back. Here, for the first time, Ortiz names specific tribes and leaders: “In the West, PopĂ© called warriors from the Pueblo and Apache Nations. / In the East, Tecumseh gathered the Shawnee and the Nations of the Great Lakes, the Appalachians, and the Ohio Valley to fight for their People…” There is no submission, no “lambs to the slaughter” narrative; and, after over 300 years of war, from necessity, the People “began to settle / for agreements with the American government.” Next come the Treaties, then the missionaries, boarding schools, miners, railroads, forced resettlement--all are named for the destructive forces they were and are. And yet, Ortiz grounds everything the People endure with survival and hope: “All this time, the People remembered. / Parents told their children, / ‘You are Shawnee. You are Lakota… / This is the life of our People. / These are the stories and these are the songs. / This is our heritage.’”

The book ends with a new beginning. As the People learn and live history, they assert: “We must fight against those forces / which will take our humanity from us. / We must ensure that life continues. / We must be responsible to that life. / With that humanity and the strength / which comes from our shared responsibility / for this life, the People shall continue.” At this point, “the People”--which begins the book as a phrase that denotes Native peoples--expands to include all marginalized groups. In that expansion, that invitation, Ortiz preserves, protects, and honors the humanity of everyone who has been dehumanized by systemic racism, poverty, and oppression. In this poem, Ortiz suggests a way forward: Recognize our shared humanity. Work together. There are more of us. They cannot dehumanize us if we humanize each other.

I can see a multitude of uses for this book in classrooms, as well as within families and communities. An English teacher could dig into the language that somehow reaches the pinnacle both of melodic poetry and accessible storytelling. A history teacher could use it as a framework for an entire curriculum or unit. Book creators and publishers should take note of the last page, which models responsible bookmaking with a note that thanks people who helped by name, and also acknowledges that although the book is in English, it’s meant to be told orally by a tribal storyteller.

I would love to see this back in print, ideally with new art. Currently, while there is a wide variety of People portrayed (I am not expert enough to know whether the clothing and hairstyles are accurate), the backgrounds are one or two solid colors, and little storytelling happens in the pictures or in the turn of a page. I would so love to see what Julie Flett would do with this text, were she given the opportunity to re-illustrate it…

Please please please, bring it back!!

-Allie Jane Bruce