For readers, the new children’s book, “My Powerful Hair”, reads like a poetic tribute to native rituals and strength. The book also represents how powerful it can be when Indigenous creators tell a story about their culture in their voices. Steph Littlebird, who created the lyrical illustrations for “My Powerful Hair,” says she welcomed the book as an opportunity to respond to “the idea that we haven’t been the ones to tell our story.”
Too often, Littlebird says, Native American culture is not honored, as when messages are sent by “art institutions that don’t consider our work art, or history museums that don’t consider our history valid unless they say it is valid.”
Littlebird, 38, grew up in Banks and is an artist, writer, curator and a registered member of the Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes. She is also the curator of “This IS Kalapuyan Land,” an exhibit created for Portland’s Five Oaks Museum, 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 couple is at Two Rivers Bookstore (8836 N. Lombard St.) and at 2:30 p.m. Littlebird and Lindstrom will be at Pittock Mansion (3229 NW Pittock Drive).
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For “My Powerful Hair,” Lindstrom, who is Anishinaabe/Métis and an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, drew on a traumatic family experience. As Lindstrom writes in an author’s note, when she was growing up, her mother had short hair and wouldn’t let Lindstrom grow her hair long. Lindstrom did not understand why her mother, who had “beautiful, thick black hair,” always kept her hair short.
“Until one day I found a picture of my grandmother and her two sisters, my great-aunts,” writes Lindstrom. “All three of them had black hair cut above their ears.” Her mother, Lindstrom writes, said the photo was from “when they were forced into an Indian boarding school in the early 1900s.”
Some of the Native American children who were forced into such schools and sent away from their families died of disease and abuse, Lindstrom writes. “Their language, ceremonies and cultures were taken away from them. The motto of the Indian boarding schools was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Lindstrom writes that once she understood how long hair was taught to her grandmother to be a sign of “wildness” and “wildness,” she knew. she had to let her own hair grow long, “and break the vicious circle.”
The message conveyed in “My Powerful Hair” echoes much of what Littlebird’s work focuses on. “I had done some other small book cover projects before I was approached to do this book with Carole,” says Littlebird. “Working with Carole was a dream come true. She’s kind of a celebrity in the Aboriginal community.”
In addition to “My Powerful Hair,” Lindstrom is the author of “We Are Water Protectors,” which was a New York Times bestseller and a Caldecott Medal winner.
“For me, this project, even though it’s about Carole’s experience and her family’s experience, it’s directly connected to the work I do as a curator,” says Littlebird. For example, in creating the exhibit “This IS Kalapuyan Land,” Littlebird served 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, stereotypical ideas.
“As a lifelong Oregonian and descendant of the Kalapuyan people, I grew up in a state that exalted pioneer and Oregon Trail mythology,” Littlebird wrote in an essay about curating the “This IS Kalapuyan Land” exhibit. “Even as an elementary school student, I realized that my tribal history was absent from school books and regional memory. I distinctly remember once being told that my tribe was ‘extinct’ in a high school history class, and even though I knew it wasn’t were true, that belief is still prevalent among non-Natives and shapes the way outsiders view Indigenous culture. We are seen as existing only ‘in the past’.”
In reframing the old exhibit, Littlebird collaborated with David G. Lewis, a member of the Grand Ronde Confederation and a researcher and educator who has studied tribal history, culture, colonization and more. While correcting skewed historical narratives, Littlebird also included artworks made 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 land recognition,” as she wrote. “It is also a declaration of eternal stewardship by the Kalapuyan people. ‘We have always been here, we will always be here.’
As a panel in the exhibit at the Pittock Mansion says, “Kalapuya is the name of the tribe made up of related groups of people living in the Willamette Valley who spoke similar dialects from the same language family. There are more than 50 different ways to spell Kalapuya, including Calapooia and Call-law-poh-yea.”
Atfalati-Kalapuya were the Kalapuya of the Tualatin Valley who lived in what is now known as Washington County. Pittock Mansion is located on the border between the Atfalati-Kalapuyan people and the Chinook.
Having the exhibit displayed at the Pittock Mansion, the 16,000-square-foot West Hills home of Henry Pittock, a 19th-century publisher of The Oregonian, is meaningful, Littlebird says. “It’s really empowering that we’re taking up space. I’m sure the white man would be rolling in his grave. For us to be taking up space in his mansion, I’m sure it wouldn’t sit well 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, the editor and minority owner.
“On the first day Henry Pittock printed the Morning Oregonian as a daily newspaper in 1861, the owner and publisher said he aimed for his paper to be ‘useful and acceptable to our people,'” the article states. “Through what it covered and what it ignored, in landmark editorials and everyday stereotypes, the paper left no doubt in the decades that followed who Pittock’s ‘people’ were: white men.”
Littlebird, who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and printmaking from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, says, “I have to remind people why that history happened and to be in conversation with that history and get over this. story.”
Many Oregonians, Littlebird says, have no idea the state is home to “the longest-running Indian school in the country.” 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 Forest Grove Indian and Industrial Training School 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 people and for those who tell these stories. “It can be painful. My purpose is to uplift the community. We have a lot of trauma that we struggle with.”
The Portland events for “My Powerful Hair” are part of a tour that will take Lindstrom and Littlebird to cities including 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 rent was cheaper, although Littlebird says she would like to move back to the Portland area, “but the rent is just ridiculous.”
Another example of how indigenous peoples’ rights are still under attack, Littlebird says, is a case where the Supreme Court will decide the future of the Indian Child Protection Act. The federal law was enacted to try to prioritize placing Native children who are in the foster care or adoption system with Native families. If the Supreme Court finds the Indian Child Protection Act unconstitutional, those protections will be gone.
“This is something going on that relates to the boats and the book and the ‘This IS Kalapuyan Land’ exhibit,” Littlebird says. “Based on the current composition of the Supreme Court, the tribes assume that ICWA will be overturned. We are deeply concerned as a community about ICWA’s overturning. We have historically seen examples of Native children not being treated ethically by non-Native caretakers. The law was created in response to the era in which Native children were taken and placed with white families.”
When people try to “put us in the past and say why are you complaining, get over it,” Littlebird says, they don’t understand the importance of issues like the Supreme Court case. “If ICWA is overturned, our sovereignty will likely be overturned,” she says. “We are being re-traumatized.”
— Kristi Turnquist
503-221-8227; email@example.com; @Kristiturnquist
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