For readers, the new children’s book, “My Powerful Hair,” reads like a poetic tribute to Indigenous rituals and strength. The book also shows how powerful it can be when Indigenous creators tell a story about their culture, in their voices. Steph Littlebird, who did the lyrical illustrations for “My Powerful Hair,” says she welcomed the book as an opportunity to address “the idea that we weren’t the ones who got to tell our story.”
Too often, says Littlebird, Native American culture is not honored, such as when messages are sent by “fine art institutions that don’t consider our work fine art, or history museums that don’t consider not our story as valid unless they say it is valid.
Littlebird, 38, grew up in Banks and is an artist, writer, curator and registered member of the Grand Ronde Confederate Tribes. She is also the curator of “This IS Kalapuyan Land”, an exhibition created for the Five Oaks Museum in Portland, currently on display at the Pittock Mansion.
To celebrate “My Powerful Hair,” which has a March 21 release date, Littlebird and the book’s author, Carole Lindstrom, will meet young readers at two events on Sunday, March 26. At 11 a.m. the pair will be at Two Rivers Bookstore (8836 N. Lombard St.) and at 2:30 p.m. Littlebird and Lindstrom will be at the Pittock Mansion (3229 NW Pittock Drive).
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For “My Powerful Hair,” Lindstrom, who is Anishinaabe/Métis and a registered citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, was inspired by a traumatic family experience. As Lindstrom writes in an author’s note, when she was growing up, her mother had short hair and didn’t let Lindstrom grow her hair long. Lindstrom couldn’t understand why her mother, who had “beautiful thick black hair,” always kept her hair short.
“Until one day I found a photo of my grandmother and her two sisters, my great aunts,” Lindstrom writes. “All three had black hair cropped above the ears.” His mother, writes Lindstrom, said the photo was from “when they were forced into residential school in the early 1900s.”
Some of the Native American children who were forced to attend such schools and expelled from their families died of disease and abuse, Lindstrom writes. “Their languages, their ceremonies and their cultures have been stripped from them. The Indian boarding school motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”. “Lindstrom writes that once she understood how her grandmother taught long hair as a sign of ‘wildness’ and ‘savagery,’ she knew she had to let her own hair grow long” and break the vicious circle”.
The message conveyed in “My Powerful Hair” matches much of what Littlebird’s work is focused on. “I had done other little book cover projects before I was approached to do this book with Carole,” says Littlebird. “Working with Carole was a dream come true. She is something of a celebrity in the native community.
In addition to “My Powerful Hair,” Lindstrom is the author of “We Are Water Protectors,” which was a New York Times bestseller and Caldecott Medal winner.
“For me, this project, although it’s about Carole’s experience and her family’s experience, is directly related to the work I do as a curator,” says Littlebird. When creating the “This IS Kalapuyan Land” exhibition, for example, Littlebird acted as a guest curator for the Five Oaks Museum. Littlebird reframed what had been an existing exhibit about the Kalapuyan people of Oregon, one that reflected non-native and stereotypical ideas.
“As a permanent resident of Oregon and a descendant of the Kalapuyan people, I grew up in a state that exalted the mythology of the pioneers and the Oregon Trail,” Littlebird wrote in an essay on curating the exhibit. “This IS Kalapuyan Land”. “Even as an elementary school student, I realized that my tribal history was missing from textbooks and regional remembrance. I vividly remember being told my tribe was ‘extinct’ in a lesson in high school once, and even though I knew it wasn’t true, that belief is still pervasive among non-natives and shapes how outsiders perceive native culture. than “in the past”.
To reframe the old exhibit, Littlebird collaborated with David G. Lewis, a member of the Grand Ronde Confederacy and a researcher and educator who has studied tribal history, culture, colonization, and more. While Littlebird corrected skewed historical accounts, she also included artwork by contemporary Indigenous creators to demonstrate that Indigenous culture continues to thrive.
By changing the title from “This Kalapuyan Land” to “This IS Kalapuyan Land”, Littlebird was conscious of making it “both a museum exhibit title and a land acknowledgment”, as she wrote. “It is also a statement of perpetual stewardship by the Kalapuyan people. ‘We have always been here, we will always be here.’
As a sign in the exhibit at Pittock Mansion says, “Kalapuya is the name given to the tribe made up of related bands of people who live in the Willamette Valley and spoke similar dialects of the same language family. There are over 50 different ways to spell Kalapuya, including Calapooia and Call-law-poh-yea.
The Atfalati-Kalapuya were the Kalapuya of the Tualatin Valley who lived in what is today known as Washington County. Pittock Mansion is located on the border between the Atfalati-Kalapuyan people and the Chinook.
Having the exhibit on display at the Pittock Mansion, the 16,000-square-foot West Hills home of Henry Pittock, a 19th-century editor of The Oregonian, is significant, says Littlebird. “It’s really stimulating that we take up space. I’m sure that white man would roll in his grave. For us to take up space in his mansion, I’m sure I wouldn’t be okay with him.
A series of articles examining The Oregonian and its past promotion of “racist and xenophobic views,” as editor Therese Bottomly wrote in an apology to readers, appeared last October. One article focused on Pittock, publisher and majority owner of The Oregonian, and Harvey Scott, editor and minority owner.
“On the first day that Henry Pittock printed the Morning Oregonian as a daily in 1861, the proprietor and publisher declared that he wanted his paper to be ‘useful and acceptable to our people,'” the article notes. “Through what it covered and what it ignored, in landmark editorials and daily stereotyping, the newspaper left no doubt in the decades that followed about who Pittock’s ‘people’ were: white men.”
Littlebird, who earned her BFA in painting and printmaking from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, said, “I have to remind people why this story happened, and be in conversation with this story and recover from this story.”
Many Oregonians, Littlebird says, have no idea the state is home to “the nation’s oldest Indian school.” As a panel in the exhibit explains: “Between 1880 and 1885, Indian children were taken from their homes throughout the Pacific Northwest. The children were sent to the Indian and Industrial Training School at Forest Grove and forced to assimilate into Euro-American society. The school was moved to Salem in 1885 and became known as the Chemawa Indian School.
“I want kids to know this story,” says Littlebird, who hopes young people can develop empathy for Indigenous peoples and those who tell these stories. “It can be painful. My goal is to uplift the community. We have a lot of trauma that we face.
The Portland events for “My Powerful Hair” are part of a tour that takes Lindstrom and Littlebird to cities like Minneapolis and Austin. Littlebird moved to Las Vegas to work remotely during the pandemic. “I had a national fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and my lease was up,” as she says. She had friends in Las Vegas and the rents were cheaper, although Littlebird says she would love to move back to the Portland area, “but the rent is just ridiculous.”
Another example of how the rights of indigenous peoples are still under attack, Littlebird says, is a case in which the Supreme Court will decide the future of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The federal law was enacted in an attempt to prioritize Indigenous children who are in foster care or in the adoption system with Indigenous families. If the Supreme Court finds India’s child protection law unconstitutional, these protections will disappear.
“It’s something that’s happening that relates to both the book and the ‘This IS Kalapuyan Land’ exhibit,” says Littlebird. “Based on the current composition of the Supreme Court, the tribes assume that the ICWA is going to be overthrown. We are gravely concerned as a community about the overthrow of the ICWA. We have seen in history examples of ‘Indigenous children who are not treated ethically by non-Indigenous caretakers.’ The law was created in response to the era of Indigenous children being taken and placed with white families.
When people try to “return us to the past and say why are you complaining, move on,” says Littlebird, they don’t understand the importance of issues like the Supreme Court case. “If the ICWA is overthrown, our sovereignty will likely be overthrown,” she said. “We are about to be re-traumatized.”
503-221-8227; email@example.com; @Kristiturnquist
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