Group Discussion: #NotYourPrincess

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and MaryBeth Leatherdale is an incredible collection we highly recommend and we’re excited to be discussing it here today.

Summary: Whether looking back to a troubled past or welcoming a hopeful future, the powerful voices of Indigenous girls and women across North America resound in this book. In the same visual style as the bestselling Dreaming in Indian, #NotYourPrincess presents an eclectic collection of poems, essays, interviews, and art that combine to express the experience of being a Native woman. Stories of abuse, intergenerational trauma, and stereotyping are countered by the voices of passionate women demanding change and realizing their dreams. Sometimes outraged, often reflective, but always strong, the women in this book will give teen readers insight into the lives of women who, for so long, have had their history hidden and whose modern lives have been virtually invisible.

Crystal’s Review

Debbie Reese’s Review

Crystal: #NotYourPrincess is visually stunning. I love the attention to detail throughout the book like the use of borders and the pairings of text and artwork. The essay “The Invisible Indians” by Shelby Lisk (Mohawk) was accompanied by photos that illustrated how the stereotypes people have in their head render the actual people in front of them invisible. It made the text so powerful to have both parts. Do you all have any favorite visual pieces?

Audrey: I agree–this collection did a wonderful job of pairing beautiful artwork with powerful words. When I read, I typically don’t find myself backtracking, but I did more than once with #NotYourPrincess so I could go back and forth between the text and the art it had been paired with. My absolute favorite set is the poem “When I Have a Daughter” by Ntawnis Piapot (Piapot Cree Nation) with the piece Memories by Aura Last (Oneida).

Jessica: It’s so hard to choose a favorite — they were all incredible in their own way. Two stood out to me in particular. The first was A Conversation with a Massage Therapist by Francine Cunningham — I saw the picture first and didn’t realize the context until I read the conversation beneath it that portrayed a massage therapist casually throwing around harmful stereotypes during a massage session. The second one was Real NDNZ Re-Take Hollywood by Pamela J. Peters, which recreated classic Hollywood portraits with Native American actors. Both demonstrated how harmful stereotypes were in the different ways they manifested themselves, whether through media and Hollywood, or through everyday conversations.

K. Imani: This collection, the mix of artwork with the amazing poetry, was absolutely beautiful. For me, I can’t choose between the two poems of “The Things We Taught Our Daughters” and “Honor Song”. I found both to be extremely moving as both talked about reclamation of the feminine and and the power that women have inside of them.

Crystal: In “Reclaiming Indigenous Women’s Rights” Nahanni Fontaine (Anishinaabe) writes, “Patriarchy is quite simply the systematic oppression and regulation of women’s bodies, minds, and spirits. Patriarchy sets the markers and outlines the box of what we can and cannot do; say or cannot say; think or cannot think; express or cannot express; live or cannot live.” Fontaine has clearly delineated patriarchy and the colonial legacy. Her essay, along with many other pieces here, not only explains how we got to where we are, but also marks out a path for the future. I think this is such a powerful text and I’m excited that young women, and specifically young indigenous women, could have this book available to them.

Audrey: I think that path for the future is one of the most important themes in #NotYourPrincess. The women in these pages are resilient, and several times they address past (and current) violence, pain, and other trials. Yet the collection always circles back to the triumph of survival and hope for the future. Fontaine’s essay really cuts to the heart of #NotYourPrincess. So does the opening text of the book, from Leanne Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg): “I am always trying to escape—from dangerous situations, from racist stereotypes, from environmental destruction in my territory, and from the assault on my freedom as an individual and as part of the Nishnaabeg nation. As an Indigenous person, I have to escape in order to survive, but I don’t just escape. I hold this beautiful, rich Indigenous decolonial space inside and around me. I am escaping into Indigenous freedom. I am escaping into Indigenous land and my Indigenous body.”

Jessica: I loved how everything was connected together in the book. Patriarchy and colonialism and oppression were all tied together, and then a goal was laid out of not just escape, but escape to a space of freedom and equality. And all this is possible through the strength of generations of women. I’m glad I read #NotYourPrincess all in one go, since it allowed me to see all these themes and works of art flowing together.

K. Imani: The theme of fighting the Patriarchy and colonialism throughout the book made me want to stand up and clap for all of these artists. These are women recognizing their power and owning it. Jessica Deer’s essay, “We Are Not A Costume” was so poignant specifically when she simply states “While someone may think they look supercute as an “Indian Princess” or as “Reservation Royalty” for a fun and harmless evening, they have the privilege of removing that costume at the end of the night. Indigenous women and girls do not. We have to deal with ongoing marginalization and the lingering effects of colonization, like a culture that normalizes violence against us.” I can imagine many young girls reading this passage, find their voice, and speak out against in justice towards marginalized peoples.

Crystal: This book shares so many examples of female role models. There are mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins and more. I couldn’t help but start to think about the women in my life who taught me what it meant to move through the world as a woman. The book invites such wonderings and offers some awesome role models. I’m eager to see the responses from young indigenous women reading this. I think it could be extremely encouraging.

Audrey: I agree! “What’s There to Take Back?” by Tiffany Midge (Hunkpapa Lakota) was all about her role models of Indigenous womanhood–real role models, not terrible stereotypes like Tiger Lily. Many of the pieces in #NotYourPrincess are about connection with past and future generations and learning from others. I also really enjoyed the piece “Living Their Dreams” with the photo spread of athletes Shoni Schimmel (Umatilla), September Big Crow (Tsuu T’ina Nation), Ashton Locklear (Lumbee), and Brigitte Lacquette (Ojibwe). It’s not often that I see professional athletes held up as role models for young women, so I loved seeing all of them in powerful, confident poses, representing four different sports, and talking about their experiences.

K. Imani: I agree with both of you. “What’s There to Take Back?” was another one of my favorites as well because the examples that Midge gave for true role models were all kick-butt women. I can see so many young girls being inspired by learning about Indigenous women who are out there fighting the good fight and are being awesome. I especially enjoyed the passage titled “Good Medicine” which was an interview with Janet Smylie. I found her story to be inspiring and a wonderful message for young girls who are struggling to know that they can overcome their challenges and achieve.

Crystal: In “Dear Past Self,” Isabella Fillspipe (Oglala Lakota) wrote, “If you have something to say Say it. Life is too short to sit in silence. And stop trying to please other people.” I really wish teen me had heard such things enough times to believe them. This is a message many young women could benefit from.

Audrey: There are so many wonderful lines in #NotYourPrincess, and I hope that this book makes its way into the hands of many girls and women, especially Indigenous girls and women.

Jessica: Yeah, the focus on different generations — past, present, and future — Indigenous women was incredible.

Audrey: One of the quotes that stayed with me after I finished was by Tanaya Winder (Duckwater Shosone): “As Indigenous women writers and artists we are continually trying to exist, live, and love in a world that doesn’t always show its love for us. This means, part of the artist’s call is to turn past traumas on their heads, upside down, inside out, lift it up then put it back down as something changed and transformed so that others can find something beautiful or hopeful in it. For that beauty and hope to exist we as Native American women must dive headfirst into the muck, ugliness, stark darkness of that wreckage. This is what we do–we recast wounds in unending light. And so, light, love, and courage are circles we keep coming back to.” It’s a powerful message, and  I find that a lot of creators from other marginalized groups have embraced similar philosophies when writing about their own communities.