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Critical discussion of American Indians in children's books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society-at-large.
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This morning, Drew Hayden Taylor (author of The Night Wanderer), posted a photo of children's books... in Switzerland. Taylor is there to give some lectures. Here's the photo he shared on Twitter (sharing it here with his permission):
He captioned it with these words:
Some of the children's books on Native people available in Switzerland book stores. I brought the wrong wardrobe.
Within Native circles, we sometimes joke about what people expect us to look like. And when we don't, they think we aren't "real" Indians. Depictions in children's books, no matter where they are published, carry a lot of power. They shape those expectations, and because those images are so bad, are a reason I write about them so much. It isn't one image here or there. It is pervasive.
Some of the words on the covers ("Minitou" and "Winnetou") tell me the people who wrote, illustrated, and published those books were/are deeply influenced by Karl May's stories, which were nothing more than stereotypes of Native peoples of the U.S.
I may see if I can get copies of one of those books, or at least see some of them online in greater detail. If you know of others, let me know.
They are worth studying, for those of us who study stereotypes, but I think their factual misrepresentations mean they ought not be given to young children.
There are many great books, Taylor's included, that you can give to them! See the lists at my Best Books
If you like scary books, or know a teen who does, give them Taylor's The Night Wanderer
. I vividly recall reading it, in a hotel room at a Native writer's conference. Once the sun went down, I did not want to look out the window.
Kelly DiPucchio and Mary Lundquist's one little two little three little children arrived today. You may recall I wrote about it recently in my "Debbie--have you seen" series. Published by Balzer & Bray (an imprint of HarperCollins) in 2016, it is definitely going onto my not recommended list.
Based on the Kirkus review, I was wary of the book. Here's one page that the Kirkus review referenced:
And I concur with Kirkus's reviewer. Having that "snow-cozy" igloo and that "stick-cozy" _____ on the same page as a child playing with blocks is a misstep. Kirkus called that stick-cozy item a teepee and on Twitter I said tipi, but in retrospect, I was wrong to call it a tipi. It isn't a tipi. It is a THING. A toy. Just like the ones you see at department stores. In fact, I look at that "stick cozy" and think that Lundquist might have used one of the department store items as a model for her "stick-cozy." See?
Then, Lundquist put that "stick-cozy" over in the park, too, where everyone is playing. Why? So they can.... play Indian?! Course, I don't see anyone in feathers but it isn't a big leap to imagine kids doing that very thing.
DiPucchio's text is, the synopsis says, an "exuberant reinvention of the classic children's rhyme." An adult reading the book aloud can "sing" it using that "one little, two little, three little..." tune. You know which one it is.
The Kirkus reviewer wonders if this is meant to be a multicultural book. I think they're right. The families/couples shown on the pages include this one, which is great.
Overall, though, I think it is one of those books that throws Native peoples under the bus. It asks us to celebrate multiculturalism using a racist tune as we gaze at illustrations that infantilize a Native structure.
There's absolutely no reason for this. None. I do not recommend DiPucchio and Lundquists "exuberant reinvention" of the racist "One little two little three little Indians" rhyme and hope you reject it, too.
Last evening (May 14th, 2016), I did a search on Twitter to see what people were saying about Sherman Alexie's appearances at Book Expo and BookCon. He had some terrific things to say, like this (quoting a tweet from the Publishers Weekly account):
Sherman Alexie won't sell movie rights to his books b/c he doesn't want his books whitewashed and non-Native actors #thebookcon.
In scrolling through the tweets, I also saw one from a person who read Thunder Boy Jr.
to kids in storytime, and then had the kids pick new names. That was--and is--a primary concern for me. Last year, a cousin's little boy brought home a worksheet where he had to pick a Native American name. Here's a photo of the worksheet:
It is hard to read. Here's what it says:
What name would you choose if you were a Native American? Although Native Americans gave their children names just as your parents did for you, they were very different. They also may have many names throughout their life. The elders named the children and adults within the tribe. Some came as dreams or visions from the elder which was a sign for naming the person. Others go along with the personality or characteristic of that person. A Native American name may tell about what the person does well or wants to do, something that may have happened on the day of that person's birth, or something else that has specific meaning relating to that person. Sometimes Native Americans didn't like their names because they may have been degrading. For example: Would you like to be called Talks Too Much, Buffalo Woman, Lonely One, Lazy Elk, or No Particular Tribe? Since animals were a large part of their religious world, they were often used when naming a person. For example: Running Deer, Brave Hawk, Thunder Bird, Quiet caterpillar, Wild Cat, Sly Fox or Swimming Dolphin. Part of the nature were common too since Native Americans worshipped their land. For example: Strong Wind, Running Thunder, Lightning Bolt, Shining Sun or Happy Weather. Once the elder named the child or adult, they have a ceremonial feast and that elder and newly named person formed a bond. Now it is your turn! A Native name can say quite a lot about you! Give it a try!
Think of an animal or part of nature
Think of a characteristic about yourself
Put them together!
Write your name and a description of why you chose your name on the template. In the box, draw a picture of yourself as a Native American. Below there is a circle. Here you will create a symbol for your name. Since they didn't have an alphabet or written language they often used symbols to write their names. Make it simple! Too much detail would take too much time to write your name over and over again!
I uttered one "oh my gosh" after another as I read that worksheet (where did the author find those names, and why is "Buffalo Woman" seen as degrading?!), but let's stick with my concern: the monolithic or pan-Indian character of that worksheet. There are over 500 federally recognized nations in the United States. Amongst them is tremendous diversity of language, ceremony, and yes, naming.
None of the major review journals noted problems with the pan-Indian character of Alexie's picture book. Did others, I wondered? I went over to Goodreads to see. On April 14th, 2016, Jillian Heise, who (at the time) was teaching Native children, wrote
I see my students on these pages, most especially my favorite, with the male grass dancer regalia, and wish there were more chances for them to see themselves, and others to see them, in the pages of picture books.
I appreciate the book, and feel it is important, but wonder if it may somewhat confuse those who haven't been taught about cultural naming traditions. Might they read this and see it as a silly thing instead of the deeper meaning usually given to it? Because of that, I wish there had been an end note to add some more perspective within the larger conversation.
Kudos to Jillian! She's got the context to understand why the lack of specificity in the book is a concern.
In emails with Roger Sutton a couple of days ago, we briefly touched on my review of Alexie's book. He said "how we respect insiders and outsiders at the same time" is "a big question." I think we all want to get to a place in children's literature, textbooks, movies, etc. where we're all represented, accurately, and where students and consumers don't need help understanding the cultural, religious, history, etc. of the story or information being conveyed. In many places, for example, I've applauded Daniel Jose Older's video
asking writers not to use italics for non-English words. He's pushing the status quo in terrific ways. Given the shifting demographics in the United States, that place (where things aren't so darn white) is going to come, eventually. We're getting there.
In the meantime, for some peoples and some topics, readers are going to need some help, within the pages of the book. Thunder Boy Jr.
is a perfect example of the need for that help. I bought three copies of the 100,000 that were printed. One of them is mine, one is for Jayden (my sister's grandson), and the third copy is for his class. It is a class of Pueblo Indian children who probably have gone through their naming ceremony. We (I'm Pueblo, too) have specific ways in which we receive our names. My parents named me Debbie when I was born. A few weeks, I received a Pueblo name. I'm not going to provide details about that because ceremonies are not something we disclose. There are reasons for that, including the fact that our religious ceremonies (naming is part of that) were outlawed by the US government. Another is that people who are searching for identity and meaning in their lives gravitate to Native peoples and "go Native" in superficial ways that are harmful to Native peoples. The children in that classroom, secure in who they are (like Jillian's students), will likely enjoy the story.
As I've noted, 100,000 copies of the book were published. I'm hoping that Little, Brown (the publisher) will include a Note in the next batch, providing a "do not use this book as an activity for which kids pick a Native American name," an explanation for why that is not a respectful activity, and a bit of information about Native naming. If you've got a copy, or if you get one of the 100,000 copies, I hope the information I share here is helpful.
I'll start with some tweets I sent out this morning:
Inevitable: Tweet from someone who read Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr. to kids and then did activity where kids picked their Indian names.
Fact: Imagine being a Native kid in that class, who already has a name, given to them in ceremony, being asked to make up a new one.
Question: Would it help adult readers NOT do that activity if there was a note inside the book about Native peoples and naming?
A truth: A white teacher asking a Native kid to choose a new name harkens back to boarding schools where teachers asked Native kids to point to a blackboard to choose a new name.
That last tweet is a reference to Luther Standing Bear and what he wrote in his My Indian Boyhood
. He was Lakota. In the foreward to the 2006 edition of My Indian Boyhood
(first published in 1931), Delphine Red Shirt (she's Oglala Sioux) wrote that:
Lakota children are named at birth by their parents or by close relatives. Standing Bear's brothers' names, Sorrel Horse and Never Defeated, signified brave deeds that their father had been known for: he once had a sorrel horse shot out from under him, and he displayed heroic characteristics in battle, causing the people to remember him as never having been defeated. As Standing Bear later recalled, "In the names of his sons, the history of [my father] is kept fresh." Standing Bear's father was a leader who killed many to protect his people. Thus, like his brothers, Ota K'te (Plenty Kill) was also given a name that held significance.
Ota K'te kept his boyhood name until it changed to Mato Najin, or "Standing Bear," later in his life, according to Lakota custom. In the old tradition, he would have earned a new name through a heroic or brave deed, but by the time he reached an age when he could prove himself worthy, the Lakota people had been confined to the Pine Ridge Reservation. He took his father's name, Standing Bear, and at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he took the name Luther.
In his My People the Sioux
(first published in 1928), Standing Bear writes that when he got to Carlisle, an interpreter came to the room where they were and said to them (p. 138):
'Do you see all these marks on the blackboard? Well, each word is a white man's name. They are going to give each of you one of these names by which you will hereafter be known.' None of the names were read or explained to us, so of course we did not know the sound or meaning of any of them.
The teacher had a long pointed stick in her hand, and the interpreter told the boy in the front seat to come up. The teacher handed the stick to him, and the interpreter then told him to pick out any name he wanted. The boy had gone up with his blanket on. When the long stick was handed to him, he turned to us as much as to say, 'Shall I--or will you help me--to take one of these names? Is it right for me to take a white man's name?' He did not know what to do for a time, not uttering a single word--but he acted a lot and was doing a lot of thinking.
Finally he pointed out one of the names written on the blackboard. Then the teacher took a piece of white tape and wrote the name on it. Then she cut off a length of the tape and sewed it on the back of the boy's shirt. Then that name was erased from the board.
This went on for all the kids. In class when the teacher called the roll and the person whose name she called didn't stand, she'd look at the tape and make that child stand up and say 'Present.' That is how they learned what their new names sounded like, and that they should respond to the name when it was said.
All of that information is specific to Luther Standing Bear and Lakotas.
I understand that Alexie, in his classroom visits, is telling kids that the boy in the story is Spokane. Speaking as a teacher, I would love to see that in the book, and information about the ways that Spokane's name their children. At some point in the future, my hope is that the diversity within Native America will be common knowledge, and such notes won't be necessary. We aren't there, yet, and while I don't want Native writers to feel a responsibility to explain things to non-Native readers, I think it is, for now, necessary that their books include helpful notes.
Providing that information in a Note to Readers respects the writer's way of telling a story as they choose to tell it, and respects the outsiders need for more information with which to understand that story. It is one answer to Roger Sutton's question about how we can respect insiders and outsiders at the same time.
Previous posts on Thunder Boy Jr.
Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review of S. D. Nelson's Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.
Nelson, S.D., Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015; grades 3-6 (Hunkpapa)
A basic criterion for good historical fiction is that facts about people who actually lived and events that actually happened must be accurate, and any deviations must be clearly pointed out. This is especially important in books for young readers. Fictionalized biographies and autobiographies must contain the same facts and the characters must be portrayed as if the books were nonfiction. All illustrations must accurately reflect the time and place as well.
In neither text nor art does Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People meet these basic criteria. Rather, there are distortions of history and factual errors on just about every page.
Tatanka Iyotake (Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down) was a father and grandfather, Sun Dancer and holy man, warrior and leader. He did not refer to himself as “Sitting Bull,” because that was not his name. Only at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where he spent a short time in 1885, did he autograph picture postcards as “Sitting Bull,” in the cursive writing he was taught to sign his name. Yet here, Tatanka Iyotake consistently refers to himself as “Sitting Bull,” rather than his actual name:[i] “Later I would earn the name Sitting Bull—he who, like a mighty buffalo, would not back down.” (page 4)“Forever after I was known as Sitting Bull, symbolizing a powerful buffalo that holds his ground and never backs down.” (page 6) LaPointe (pages 26-29) tells a different story: After having a vision while he was part of a small group scouting for buffalo, young Jumping Badger’s father, Returns Again, had taken the name, Tatanka Iyotake. When Jumping Badger was 14, he joined a raiding party on an encampment of Crow and counted first coup. In recognition of his son’s bravery, Jumping Badger’s father had a giveaway of horses to those who needed them. And then he took the name, Jumping Bull, and bestowed his own name, Tatanka Iyotake, on his son. LaPointe’s version substantiates Utley’s story (pages 14-15). Although Utley ascribes symbolism to this name, LaPointe does not. AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN PAST TENSE Towards the beginning of his narration, “Sitting Bull” talks of his own people in the past tense, thereby prompting young readers (and their teachers) to relegate Indian peoples to the past. On page 3, for instance: My band of people calledourselves the Hunkpapa. We were one of seven Lakota tribes that lived on the Great Plains of North America. Outsiders called all of us the Sioux. We believed that there is a living spirit in all creatures and things. We called this sacred spirit Wakan Tanka, or the Great Mystery. Into this land of mystery I was born. (emphasis mine) Further, Tatanka Iyotake would not have described his home territories as the “Great Plains of North America.” And “Sioux” was not just a convenient term for outsiders; rather, it’s derived from the pejorative, “nadouessioux” (adder snakes), by which their Ojibwe enemies referred to the Lakota/Dakota peoples. In addition to these errors, fanciful language such as “into this land of mystery I was born” is not the way that Indian oral autobiographies from the 1800s were dictated—even before they were recorded and translated into English. Then there’s the bragging. It’s everywhere, and unlike how Tatanka Iyotake, who was known to be a humble person, would have spoken of himself.[ii] From an early age, I sensed that I would be a strong warrior. My arrows flew more swiftly and true to their mark than those of the other boys. My weapons seemed to have “medicine power” that gave me added strength. (page 4) INAPPROPRIATE HEADING QUOTES The heading quote on page 2 reads: Wakan Tanka . . . Wherever the sun, the moon, the earth, the four points of the wind, there you are always. —Sitting Bull This heading quote, a fragment of a prayer, is set at the beginning of “Sitting Bull’s” narrative of his early life, above an illustration of three boys riding their ponies and facing a description of Jumping Badger’s childhood. Nelson cites the quote to Utley (page 144), but Utley’s complete version of Tatanka Iyotake’s prayer is: “Wakantanka, pity me. In the name of the tribe I offer you this peace pipe.[iii]Wherever the sun, the moon, the earth, the four points of the wind, there you are always. Father, save the tribe. I beg you. Pity me. We want to live. Guard us against all misfortunes and calamities. Pity me.” According to Utley, this was an offering and appeal for the wellbeing of his people—on the day before and at the same place that Custer and his men fell. It was a prayer uttered by a grown man for a specific reason, and did not have anything to do with Jumping Badger’s childhood. In the section in which “Sitting Bull” describes his first kill (page 5), the narrative reads: In 1841, when I was ten years old, I killed my first buffalo. I galloped my horse alongside the young horned animal, loosing my arrows into his ribs. My pounding heart thrilled with excitement and fear. When the buffalo fell, I howled like a wolf in triumph. And yet, as I stood over the fallen creature, I also felt sadness deep inside me. I knelt close to my first kill, and whispered into his ear, “Thank you, Brother Buffalo, for giving your life so that my people will live.” (emphasis mine) Although it’s expected that this young person would thank his kills as he’d been shown, the way that Tatanka Iyotake later told his story is fundamentally different from this version: no heart pounding with excitement and fear, no howling like a wolf, no deep sadness. Rather, Tatanka Iyotake’s story forefronts generosity, one of the core values. In LaPointe’s biography (page 15), the young Jumping Badger chose and downed a particularly large bull, ate a portion of the liver to thank the spirit of the buffalo as he had been instructed to, and told his mother to take some of the choice portions of the meat to a widow and her children. (And Tatanka Iyotake would not have used a numbered year as a reference point—this appears to have been inserted for the benefit of non-Native readers.) On page 6, “Sitting Bull” describes his first coup, which earned him his adult name. Here, he relates (for the benefit of young readers) information about his people: My Lakota people were warriors, feared and respected. We needed to be fierce in order to survive. We constantly struggled with other tribes over the use of hunting grounds. Our enemies…were always trying to steal our horses. So we did the same to them. At fourteen years of age, I earned my first eagle feather during a raid against our Crow enemy. On horseback, yelping and shrieking, I closed in on a mounted warrior and chopped him with my tomahawk. (emphasis mine) Terms such as “feared,” “fierce,” “yelping” and “shrieking” are not how Tatanka Iyotake would have described himself or his people. Rather, they are derogatory terms frequently used by outsiders. And on page 6, accompanying the text about “warriors,” is a photograph of eight Lakota men standing together. The caption is “A Sioux war party, c. 1880,” but there doesn’t appear to be anything in the photo that would identify them as a “war party.” When the photograph was taken, appending this kind of stereotyped caption was done to promote sales; here, the author perpetuates the stereotype rather than questioning it. On page 8, “Sitting Bull” narrates: Many years before I was born, strangers began to come to our land. Their pale skin was curious, so we called them wasichus [sic], or white men. At first they were few in number and said they only wanted to pass through the territory. They claimed they came in peace to trade for furs and buffalo robes. The wasichus [sic] offered amazing treasures and wondrous trinkets in exchange—horses, guns, wagons, kettles, knives, beautiful glass beads, coffee, sugar, and much more. Sometimes my people traded buffalo robes. Other times, we raided the wagons of the intruders and took what we wanted! As the story goes (Marshall, 2007), when a group of Sicangu Lakota hunters along the Missouri River encountered two starving white men digging up a cache of tallow, they were dubbed Wasin icupi, or “they took the fat.” “It’s entirely likely,” Marshall writes, “that the Lakota word for whites—wasicu—evolved from that tongue-in-cheek description of two hungry white men.” But the word does not refer to pale skin or whiteness as suggested here. Both Marshall and LaPointe, fluent Lakota speakers, refer to the word, “wasicu,” as spelled the same way in singular and plural forms. I’ve also heard the plural pronounced as “wasichun,” with a slight nasal “n” at the end. But not “wasichus.” TRADING WITH THE INTRUDERS By the use of the terms “amazing treasures” and “wondrous trinkets” to describe the items the emigrants offered to trade for the valuable buffalo robes, the Lakota people appear wide-eyed, childlike and easily scammed. The Lakota people indeed welcomed European goods that were useful for everyday life—such as guns, knives, needles, iron pots and pans, tin plates, and wool blankets. But coffee, sugar and glass beads were not essential and none of this was seen as “amazing” or “wondrous.” It seems unlikely that the Lakota people at that time, who successfully used camp dogs and pony drags to haul their belongings, would have had use for heavy, cumbersome covered wagons that could not be taken apart at camp, with their huge wheels that dug into the trails. And it’s unlikely that the emigrants would have wanted to trade them anyway. People raided the intruders’ wagons for a number of reasons, not just to “take what [they] wanted.” Rather, they saw the wasicu disrupting and endangering the buffalo herds, spreading infectious diseases (such as smallpox and cholera), trampling grasslands and cutting timber. Thousands upon thousands of heavy, overloaded wagons rutted the 2,200-mile Oregon Trail, which the people sarcastically dubbed the “Holy Road.” The emigrants littered the area with all kinds of detritus—including discarded household goods, rotting food and dead horses, mules and oxen; and even dead humans, hastily deposited into shallow graves all along the way. And the ruts, which were 50- to 60-feet wide and five- to six-feet deep, frightened away the game animals and disrupted age-old migration patterns. The heading quote on page 10 reads: You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of bacon fat, some hardtack, a little sugar and coffee. —Sitting Bull Here, the author cites Marrin (page 92), but this quote does not appear to be in Marrin’s book. It’s actually in Utley (page 73), and the context, which Nelson omits, is that it was Tatanka Iyotake’s challenge to a group of Assiniboines: “Look at me. See if I am poor, or my people either. The whites may get me at last, as you say, but I will have good times till then. You are fools to a make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.” As a challenge, above, Tatanka Iyotake, as a representative of his people, makes a political point. But in the abbreviated quote, “Sitting Bull” just throws out a taunt. The text on page 10 has “Sitting Bull” describing the whites’ slaughter of entire herds of buffalo, (which occurred between 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed; and the mid-1870s). But in the text on page 11, Nelson supports the quote on page 10, a reaction to the US’s “insistence” (see next section) that the Lakota sign “treaty papers that would allow their people safe passage through our land” in exchange for which they would receive “rations of food—flour, bacon, sugar, and such.” To add to the confusion, all of a sudden, “Sitting Bull” is taking up his lance and leading “our people in many battles against the wasichus [sic].” On page 11 (first paragraph of text) “Sitting Bull” says, The United States government said that we Lakota must sign treaty papers that would allow their people safe passage through our land. In exchange, the government would give us rations of food—flour, bacon, sugar, and such. I refused to sign any treaties. We heard stories of terrible battles being fought between the U.S. soldiers and distant tribes. We were told that great forces were marching toward us. Their intention was the complete conquest of our people. (emphasis mine) At that time, the Lakota were in a position of power, and the wasicu were pleading for them to sign papers ensuring the emigrants safe passage. At that time, the US government was not yet a threat with “great forces marching” toward the Lakota, with “the intention of complete conquest,” so for Tatanka Iyotake to be thinking in those terms would be more the author’s futuristic projection than Tatanka Iyotake’s prediction. Here, the author spends more text and illustration on “Sitting Bull’s” description of battle gear: In preparation to fight, we warriors always prayed to Wakan Tanka for strength. We tied feathers in our hair and painted our bodies and our horses for combat. We believed doing so gave us medicine power. Often I painted my face red and my body yellow. I painted my horse with lightning bolts and hailstones. In the art that accompanies the second paragraph of text (on page 11) are three young men readying themselves and each other for battle. “Sitting Bull” says, “I painted my horse with lightning bolts and hailstones.” And on page 18, Nelson depicts Tashunke Witko (His Horse is Crazy) as being painted with lightning bolts and hailstones. Tashunke Witko’s battle paint did indeed include a lightning bolt on his face and blue hailstones on his chest and shoulders, but there is nothing to suggest that Tatanka Iyotake’s war pony was painted with a similar design; it’s more likely that the author just made it up, based on Tashunke Witko’s battle paint. HARD LESSONS OF KILLDEER MOUNTAIN The heading quote on page 12 reads: We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children. —General William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S. Army, 1866 Nelson correctly attributes this quote. However, the text that follows (page 13) describes the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, a deadly offensive led by Brigadier General Alfred Sully two years earlier, in 1864. In describing the aftermath of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, “Sitting Bull” narrates: The U.S. Army won the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, but it takes many battles to win a war. I did not plan to surrender. Instead, I intended to teach the wasichus [sic] a lesson. Later that summer, I led an attack against a wagon train of white settlers heading west under military guard. On horseback and in close combat, I tried to push a soldier from his mount. He pulled his pistol and shot me through the hip. I was the one who learned a hard lesson. (page 14) What “hard lesson” did “Sitting Bull” learn? Don’t get too close to a soldier? And why is he using the terms “wasichus” [sic], “white settlers,” and “trespassers” interchangeably? On pages 16-17, “Sitting Bull” discusses the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. “Great conflict,” he says, was caused because “the wasichus [sic] did not understand” that the Lakota “did not have one leader who represented all our different tribes.” [T]hey picked Indians who favored their intentions and declared them to be chiefs. These so-called chiefs signed treaties, but they did not represent the will of all the Lakota people. This caused great conflict, because many Lakota refused to honor the treaties, and the U.S. government then claimed we were in the wrong. We were not in the wrong. We had not agreed to their invasion. Of course, the US government “understood” very well Lakota political organization. This was no “misunderstanding”—it was a divide-and-conquer political manipulation, forced on the Lakota peoples. Tatanka Iyotake understood this well—he, along with Tashunke Witko and others, were astute leaders, not easily scammed. “Sitting Bull” continues: The agreement created the Great Sioux Reservation (in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska). On this reservation the U.S. government would teach my people a new way to live—to farm, to speak English, and to follow the ways of the Christian religion. In exchange, the chiefs promised to end the violent fighting among tribes and stop all raiding against white settlers. They agreed to allow settlers safe passage on wagon roads and new railroads to be built through what had once been Indian territory. (emphasis mine) Here, “Sitting Bull” abruptly switches time spans: In a discussion about an event that took place in 1868, he mentions South Dakota, which became a state in 1889; and Nebraska (which had already become a state), in 1867. And the Treaty of Fort Laramie was far from an “exchange” of cultures, as “Sitting Bull” implies here—it was the enactment of a massive land grab that devastated the Lakota peoples. The heading quote on page 18 reads: I will do to the Americans as they have done to me. It is not my wish to go to war, but I must. I never told you before that I was a chief; today I tell you I am one. —Sitting Bull Nelson’s correctly cites this quote to Utley (page 205), but cuts off the important first part of what Tatanka Iyotake said. What he actuallysaid was this: I wish you to tell the Grandmother that I will do to the Americans as they have done to me. It is not my wish to go to war, but I must. I never told you before that I was a chief; today I tell you I am one. In the midwinter of 1878-79, there was a crisis in which Tatanka Iyotake attempted an alliance with the Crows, who then were allowed to cross the border into Canada and launch a successful horse raid that ran off nearly 100 Lakota head. Humiliated and infuriated, Tatanka Iyotake saw the Crow as surrogates for the Americans and poured out his indignation to the Queen through Major James M. “Long Lance” Walsh. By editing out the first eight words of what Tatanka Iyotake said, and by not providing the historical context, Nelson implies an incorrect historical link between this quote and the text on the next page. Also on page 18, “Sitting Bull” narrates: One of Chief Red Cloud’s warriors resisted and continued to live free on the prairies with a band of Oglala. His name was Crazy Horse. In battle, he painted a thunderbolt down his face and hailstones on his shoulders and chest. He fought like a thunderstorm. I liked that man. Tashunke Witko (His Horse is Crazy) was a Thunder Dreamer who, just before battle, painted a thunderbolt on his face and hailstones on his chest because he had received these instructions in a vision when he was young. “[Fighting] like a thunderstorm” has nothing to do with Tashunke Witko’s battle paint. And the relationship between Tatanka Iyotake and Tashunke Witko was more than mere friendship; they were staunch allies, warriors and leaders who always had each other’s back. In the accompanying illustration, lightning bolts are going through Tashunke Witko and his horse while both are in motion, and there’s an iconic image of a Thunderbird in the upper right corner. Tashunke Witko is wearing an eagle feather—which he was instructed never to do. Rather, he wore the tail feathers of a red-tailed hawk. And his hair was not black, it was brown. On page 19, “Sitting Bull” narrates: Leaders from our seven different bands agreed that we needed one leader to help unite our people against the wasichus[sic]. Many times those leaders had seen my success in battle. They had heard my songs of prayer to Wakan Tanka. They believed me to be a Wichasha Wakan, a holy man who would always put his people first and save them from destruction. A respected man named Four Horns turned to me and made the proclamation: “For your bravery on the battlefields and as the greatest warrior of our bands, we have elected you as our war chief, leader of the entire Sioux nation. When you tell us to fight, we shall fight; when you tell us to make peace, we shall make peace.” Hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho also joined us. Together, we would be strong—like a herd of buffalo that never backs down![iv] Four Horns—the “respected man” to whom “Sitting Bull” refers in Nelson’s version—was actually Tatanka Iyotake’s uncle. As the most respected Hunkpapa leader, he was concerned that, with white encroachment growing daily, his leadership needed to be passed on to another strong Wichasha Wakan—his nephew—whose reputation was above reproach. According to LaPointe (page 50), both Tashunke Witko and Gall were in agreement with Four Horns that a strong new leadership was necessary. According to Utley (page 87), this kind of office had never existed and, in fact, was “alien to Sioux thinking about political organization.” And, although not everyone supported this idea, Tatanka Iyotake’s leadership—along with Tashunke Witko as second in command (until his assassination in 1877)—was able to hold the people together who stood against US depredation of their lands for 23 years. Nelson oversimplifies this difficult and contentious, yet necessary, political reorganization as occurring because leaders had “seen [his] success in battle,” “heard [his] songs of prayer to Wakan Tanka,” and “believed [him] to be a Wichasha Wakan…” In his artwork on this page, Nelson depicts three men, sitting on the ground, cross-legged. “Sitting Bull,” in the center, is dressed in full regalia. He is holding a Calf pipe in one hand and a braid of sweetgrass in the other, together reminiscent of the imperial sword and scepter. To “Sitting Bull’s” right, a painted warrior offers him a bow and four arrows; and to his left, Tashunke Witko, in full battle paint (and with black hair and eagle feather), offers him a rifle. To Four Horns and the other leaders who joined him, this move was about unity and strength. Nelson’s interpretation—in text and artwork—is that this move was all about “Sitting Bull,” the individual. The heading quote on page 20 reads: I am tired of being always on the watch for troops. My desire is to get my family where they can sleep without being continually in the expectation of an attack. —Red Horse After having defeated Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Greasy Grass Battle, people were exhausted and many—demoralized, looking into the future—broke off and began to head toward the agencies (reservations) set up by the US government. At Cheyenne River in 1877, Red Horse explained why he was leaving. But, accompanying Red Horse’s comment—without context—are photos of Custer’s camp in the Black Hills in 1874, as well as portraits of Custer and the other generals. And the text leads up to the battle in 1876—all before Red Horse’s comment. The next few pages of text as well describe the Sun Dance camp before the Greasy Grass Battle and the battle itself. This is all, at the least, confusing. The heading quote on page 23 reads: I will give my flesh and blood that I may conquer my enemies! —Lakota Sun Dance vow Nelson cites this generic “Lakota Sun Dance vow” to Marrin (page 39), who does not attribute it. According to LaPointe (page 44), the Wiwang Wacipi (Gazing at the Sun as You Dance) “is a ceremony an individual performs for the health and welfare of the people. It is also a fertility ceremony for the continued existence of the Nation.” LaPonte also describes Tatanka Iyotake’s prayer the day before Greasy Grass Battle: He selected a place to pray and put his offerings in a circle. He filled his Cannupa, sang a Thunder song, and prayed for the large gathering of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho camped just below. He prayed and asked that the people might live and that the spirits would protect and have pity on them. He finished his prayers, smoked his Cannupa, and then returned to camp. It was the evening of June 24, 1876. For the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota peoples, it’s unlikely that the Wiwang Wacipi, one of seven sacred rites given and taught to the Nation by White Buffalo Calf Woman, would be an attempt to strike a bargain with the Creator. Nor would it be about what one would do to people; rather, who one is in relationship with people. Sundance continues today with every detail intact. Although old photographs can be found and a few disreputable people who call themselves “Sundance Chiefs” allow outsiders to witness and even participate in Sundance, traditionalists do not allow this sacred ceremony to be photographed or illustrated. Here (on page 22), the author has painted his version of Sundance for all—including children—to see. And he doesn’t mention White Buffalo Calf Woman. In this book, “Sitting Bull” explains Lakota beliefs and ritual to the child reader in a way that Tatanka Iyotake never did and never would have. On pages 24, there’s a brief account of the advance—and quick retreat—of General George Crook and his soldiers, accompanied by some Crow and Shoshone, at the Rosebud Creek, where Tatanka Iyotake’s people were encamped. Here, “Sitting Bull” says, “My arms were so swollen that I could not join in the fight. Crazy Horse led our warriors in a daylong battle that routed Crook and his bluecoats.” Actually, it had not been Tatanka Iyotake’s role to lead this battle, and no “excuse” was necessary. He had already fulfilled his role. On page 25, “Sitting Bull” says, Some asked if the battle was the fulfillment of my Sun Dance vision. Regretfully, I had to tell them that a greater assault was to come. Still, the feeling of victory filled everyone’s heart. Our thundering drums and our deep-throated songs echoed the valley. “Thundering drums” and “deep-throated songs” notwithstanding, Crook’s defeat left more than a “feeling” of victory and there were no regrets. According to LaPointe (p. 65), “Tatanka Iyotake told the people this was a great victory, but it was not the vision he had received at the Wiwang Wacipi.” On pages 26-28, “Sitting Bull” describes the Greasy Grass Battle: The screaming horses, yelling men, and hail of bullets raged like a thunderstorm. Arrows filled the dust-choked air. The fearless Crazy Horse yelled out, “Ho-ka hey! It is a good day to fight! It is a good day to die! Strong hearts, brave hearts, to the front!” More than one thousand Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho swarmed over the bluecoats like angry ants. Purple prose notwithstanding, one might wonder how Tatanka Iyotake would have known what “the fearless Crazy Horse yelled out.” Tatanka Iyotake wasn’t there. As “Sitting Bull” narrates: I rode among the tipis, shouting encouragement. “Brave up, boys. It will be a hard time. Brave up!” As the people’s chief, I directed all warriors toward the fight. Actually, LaPointe writes that Tatanka Iyotake’s role was different. As he was preparing for battle, Tatanka Iyotake’s mother told him that he would better serve the people by defending the camp and letting the younger warriors prove their worth. “The wisdom of women was much respected and admired,” LaPointe writes (p. 69), so Tatanka Iyotake, “who had the ultimate respect for his mother’s advice…accepted her wisdom and bowed to her wishes by not participating in the battle. Instead, he guided the vulnerable noncombatants to a safe place.” Tatanka Iyotake’s vision had predicted victory, and, indeed the Greasy Grass Battle was a rout. Gall’s arrival, writes Marshall (pp. 53-55), “probably turned Custer’s offensive pursuit into a defensive action.” Warriors surrounded the bluecoats, some of whom dismounted to form ineffective skirmish lines. Breakaway troops who ran for the high ground found themselves pursued from the rear. And other disorganized troops panicked and were cut down. “Between Crazy Horse’s thunderous charge and Gall’s sharpshooting riflemen,” Marshall writes, the battle was quickly over. As LaPointe points out (p. 70), “The fight with the Long Knives lasted as long as a hungry man eats his meal.” “Sitting Bull” continues: Warriors expect fierce combat. But it was wrong for Custer to attack a group including so many women and children. As our enraged fighters overwhelmed his, Long Hair realized too late that he had made a terrible mistake. Many Lakota believe that Custer saved one last bullet for himself; that would explain the hole in his left temple. He knew what awaited him if he fell into the hands of the people he had wronged! Of course it was “wrong” to invade a camp of thousands of people, most of whom were noncombatants. But it happened all the time. There was the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, for instance; and the Washita Massacre (by Custer’s own Seventh Cavalry) in 1868. So, it would be difficult to believe that, in a sudden realization that “he had made a terrible mistake,” Custer shot himself. Yet, on page 29, right in the center, Nelson depicts Custer, with long hair, in his famous buckskin jacket, shooting himself in the head. Only that’s not what happened. We know that Custer was among those shot and killed at the Greasy Grass. We know that he had cut his hair short and had not worn his usual buckskin jacket because he did not want to be recognized. In June 1976, Smithsonian Magazine published an article by artist Eric von Schmidt, who investigated in detail the battle and its aftermath.[v]Von Schmidt’s work didn’t determine who killed Custer, but it sheds light on the way that he was killed: “Custer was not killed by arrows,” von Schmidt writes. According to Lieutenant Godfrey, “He had been shot in the left temple and left breast. There were no powder marks or signs of mutilation.” This emphasis on the lack of powder burns and mutilation was meant to dispel rumors that Custer had committed suicide and had been horribly mangled by the Indians.
0 Comments on Beverly Slapin's Review of S.D. Nelson's SITTING BULL: LAKOTA WARRIOR AND DEFENDER OF HIS PEOPLE as of 5/14/2016 4:32:00 PM
As I continue thinking about Sherman Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr., I wonder about the responsibility of the editorial team. Back when A Fine Dessert was published, some people pointed out that the editorial team has responsibilities, too, for the book. Some argued that, in the end, the author and illustrator have final responsibility because their names are on the book. Others countered that they don't have as much authority as one might think.
This post is some of my thoughts on the role of the editor.
Alexie writes primarily for adults. His name, books, and then his films (Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing) were well known in Native circles. When he wrote The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian he became widely known in children's and young adult literature. In one interview, he said that Diary sold over a million copies. He heard from a lot of readers about how much that book mattered to them, and so, he wanted to do something similar for younger readers. Hence: Thunder Boy Jr.
The first print run for Thunder Boy Jr. is 100,000 copies, which is rare for a picture book. The publisher is Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (they also published Diary). Their decision to print 100,000 copies tells us they expect the book to do well. Its status this morning as "#1 Best Seller" in the Children's Native American Books category at Amazon tells us they were right.
As I noted yesterday, Alexie is making a lot of appearances. I assume the publisher is paying for all of that.
Alexie's editor, Alvina Ling, is fully aware of the intense discussions in children's literature regarding the topic of diversity, racism, stereotyping, bias... all of that. She's steeped in the world of children's literature. I think--and I could be wrong--but I think Alvina knows that we're pushing very hard against monolithic images of Native peoples.
Alexie may not know. When he talks about children's books, his go-to title is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. That's a really old book. I've never seen Alexie speak or write about a children or young adult book about Native peoples written by a Native writer, so I wonder if he's aware of that particular body of literature?
In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, we know which tribal nation his characters are from. Why is that information missing from Thunder Boy Jr.?
Did he think it was too much information to include Thunder Boy's tribal affiliation in the story, somehow?
Was he unable to figure out a way to do it without yanking readers out of the story?
If he was writing with a Native reader in mind, did he think that specificity was unimportant?
If Alexie and his editor talked through all of that, I again end up at the place I was yesterday: an author's note would have been the place to address all of this.
It is possible that Alexie didn't know about author's notes in children's literature, but his author knows all about them and why they're important. Is the lack of one ultimately her error?
There is another framework to situate Alexie's book and choices within... There's a contentious conversation taking place amongst Native people, regarding enrollment or citizenship within a federally recognized tribe. Or--rather--the disenrollment of people who were formerly enrolled in those nations. Some weeks ago there was a hashtag campaign objecting to the disenrollments. You can read about it at Indian Country Today's article, 'Stop Disenrollment' Posts Get More than 100K Views
Read, too, their story on Alexie's views on disenrollment: Sherman Alexie Gives Disenrollment the Bird.
Is the lack of specificity his way of embracing kids whose families are being disenrolled?
No doubt, I'll be back with additional posts on Alexie's book. No book exists in a vacuum. It is in the world, being read by people who are also in the world.
See my first post on his book How to Read Sherman Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr.?
uploaded on May 12, 2016.
Back in February, I pre-ordered a copy of Sherman Alexie's picture book, Thunder Boy Jr.
It arrived on Tuesday (May 10, 2016). The illustrations are by Yuyi Morales.
Alexie is doing a significant promotional campaign for the book. He was on The Daily Show two nights ago. Forbes had a story about the book. So did Bustle, Entertainment Weekly... you can do a search and find many others.
That's cool. I am happy that a Native writer is getting that level of exposure. In some of these stories, Alexie speaks about invisibility, representation, and similar issues of concern to Native people. Bringing these topics to a broader audience is very important. Because he is much loved by the American public, Alexie is a person who can influence how someone thinks about an issue.
In a nutshell, Thunder Boy Jr.
is about a little boy whose father, Thunder Boy, named him Thunder Boy Jr. at birth. But, Thunder Boy Jr. wants his own name and identity. This is definitely a universal theme. Lot of kids and adults wish they had a different name.
Alexie's much-loved humor is front and center of this story. Because Thunder Boy's dad is a big man, his nickname is Big Thunder. The words "Big Thunder" are extra large and bold on the page, inviting readers to boom it out as they read it. That makes it all the more inviting as a read aloud. If his dad is Big Thunder, that means Thunder Boy's nickname is Little Thunder, and that is not ok with him:
That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart.
Some will love seeing the word fart; others will not. Here's that page. See Thunder Boy's little sister? I look at the illustration of the two kids and my heart goes right to my sister's grandchildren and memories of them playing and dancing together at my niece's wedding last week. I think they'll like this book very much.
Here's Jayden and Ellie on the dance floor. When her sandal slipped off, she sat down right there on the floor. He kneeled beside her and tried to get it back on, but those straps slide all over and he couldn't figure it out. It was endearing to see them together trying to puzzle through it. He'd look at her other shoe to see if he could see how to make it all right again. I stopped filming when he started looking around for help, and of course, I helped her so they could pick up where they'd left off.
|Jayden and Ellie|
In Thunder Boy Jr.
we see a warm and loving Native family. I like that, a lot. I see that warmth in Jayden and Ellie's relationship with each other and their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.
Moving back to Alexie's book: Thunder Boy Jr. tells us this his name is not a normal name. His mother, whose name is Agnes, and his sister, whose name is Lilian, have normal names. He hates his name. He wants a name that sounds like him, that celebrates something cool that he has done. He climbed a tall mountain, so maybe his name could be Touch the Clouds. He loves playing in the dirt, so maybe his name could be Mud In His Ears, and so on.
That's where the story, for me, goes into a place that makes me wonder how to read it. Let me explain.
If I read it as a Native kid whose community, friends, and family engage in banter about naming and give each other nicknames, cool. It is delightful.
And if I imagine it being read by a reader who likes and respects Native peoples, I can see why they would like it, too. For that reader, though... The move to possible names that celebrate "something cool that I've done"? I know the not-liking-your-name theme resonates, but do they also like it because it fits within mainstream "knowledge" of how Native people are named?
What Alexie has given us is a pan Indian story.
By not being tribally specific, his story obscures the diversity that Native writers, scholars, activists, parents, teachers, librarians, lawyers... have been bringing forth forever. We aren't monolithic. We're very different in our histories, religions, material cultures, and yes, the ways that we give names. Moving into that name play collapses significant distinctions across our nations.
I noted above that I got the book on May 10th. Do you know what was going on then?
We were in the midst of a horrible "TrumpIndianNames" hashtag. Last week, Donald Trump took a swipe at Elizabeth Warren's claims to Native identity (her claim is a problem, too, that I've written about elsewhere
). The response to him was the TrumpIndianNames hashtag where Democrats, progressives, independents--a wide swath of people, in other words--had a grand time coming up with "Indian names" for Trump. All of that, however, was at our expense. People thought they were very clever. Native people, on the other hand, were quick to object to Native ways of naming being used in this way.
So, that is the context from which I read Thunder Boy Jr.
If I stand within a Native community, the book is delightful. If I stand outside of it, in a well-meaning but ignorant mainstream US society, the book takes on a different cast.
Is that fair to Alexie or to his book? I'm thinking about that question and don't have an answer. I know for sure that if a white writer had done a book that played with Native names, I'd be very critical. Indeed, I was very critical when Jon Scieszka did it in Me Oh Maya
and I was very critical when Russell Hoban did it in Soonchild
Is it ok for Alexie to do it because he is Native? Does the book represent inside-humor that marks it as ok? I don't know.
In an interview with Brian Lehrer
, Alexie said that Thunder Boy doesn't like the name because it was assigned to him, and wasn't a name he had given himself. He wants a name that measures something he has done. Alexie said:
This calls back to ancient tribal traditions of many peoples, Native Americans included, where the transition to adulthood involves getting a new name that measures something that you've done, or is predictive, something that your elders hope you become.
None of that information is inside the book. What he said on Lehrer's show is lacking in specificity. In the interview he said "many peoples, Native Americans included" but given the existing ignorance of Native peoples, I think that the book would be much improved by an author's note that provides parents, teachers, and librarians with information about naming.
Last thing I want to note is the page where Thunder Boy says that he loves powwow dancing and that he is a grass dancer. I love the illustration, from above, of him dancing.
But the drums in the top right? From what I know about powwow drums, that's not quite accurate. Usually, there's a single drum with several drummers, and the drum is on a stand. It doesn't sit on the ground or floor.
In sum? A mixed review. That's where I am right now. I really do think that my concerns with the pan Indian character of Thunder Boy Jr.
could be addressed with an author's note. Perhaps there will be one in the next printing.
Some time back, someone (on Twitter, I think) asked me what I think of writers using the "one little, two little, three little Indians" in a new way. I don't recall the conversation itself; I only recall that I was asked about adaptions of that rhyme.
Today, I've got an email from someone asking me if I've seen Kelly DiPucchio's picture book due out on May 3rd 2016 from Balzar + Bray. Now, that first question makes sense! DiPucchio has done that adaptation, and my guess is that the question was from someone who saw the book.
Here's the title of DiPucchio's book, as presented on the cover:
My guess is the number words are in italics to set them off, so that they can be read aloud apart from the other words. DiPucchio's book is illustrated by Mary Lundquist. Here's the synopsis:
From bestselling author Kelly DiPucchio, with illustrations by Mary Lundquist, comes a charming new picture book in the vein of Liz Garton Scanlon’s All the World and Susan Meyers’s Everywhere Babies.
One Little Two Little Three Little Children—an exuberant reinvention of the classic children’s rhyme—is pure read-aloud, sing-along joy and an irresistible celebration of all kinds of children and families.
The kids on the cover are of varying skin tones, in modern clothing. Hmmm.... A "reinvention"? Does it succeed?
The Kirkus review
Facing this page is a trio of homes: “Snow-cozy, / stick-cozy, / brick-cozy houses,” and herein lies the rub: the igloo and teepee depicted here are juxtaposed with a child making a structure of building blocks, undermining efforts at multicultural inclusion by falsely equating these so-called “snow” and “stick” structures with toys. These depictions also bring to the forefront the text’s similarities to versions of the rhyme referring to “One little, / two little, / three little Indians” that have been roundly critiqued as racist, or, even more egregiously, other versions that use the n-word. The appearance of another teepee on the outskirts of the closing illustration is perplexing—is it a plaything like the soccer goals? Or just a visual balance for the ice cream truck? Or something else?
If it is intended to be "multicultural" I would guess that Native children are included, too, but are they? I think... not. That said, why try to reinvent this particular rhyme?! If I get this book, I'll be back.
A reader sent a DM (direct message on Twitter), today, to ask if I've had a peek at Summer of Lost and Found
by Rebecca Behrens. It is due out on May 24, 2016. I haven't seen or heard of it. Thanks, S., for writing to ask me about it!
As I read the synopsis, I sighed. Another story about Roanoke and the lost colonists. I get the fascination with it, but, frankly, would love to see major publishers (like Aladdin) give us books by Native writers! Whether they set their stories in the past or the present, at least teachers and librarians would be able to use present tense verbs to talk about the author and their nation.
As it is, Summer of Lost and Found
looks to be yet another story that presents Native peoples in the past, and a Native spirit or ghost like presence that makes life interesting for present day White characters. No surprise to see it being promoted by the author of Blue Birds
From the author of When Audrey Met Alice comes a sweeping middle grade novel about a city girl forced to spend her summer in North Carolina, where she becomes involved in a centuries-old mystery, turning her once boring vacation into an adventure she never could have imagined.
Nell Dare expected to spend her summer vacation hanging out with her friends in New York City. That is, until her botanist mom dragged her all the way to Roanoke Island for a research trip. To make matters worse, her father suddenly and mysteriously leaves town, leaving no explanation or clues as to where he went—or why.
While Nell misses the city—and her dad—a ton, it doesn’t take long for her to become enthralled with the mysteries of Roanoke and its lost colony. And when Nell meets Ambrose—an equally curious historical reenactor—they start exploring for clues as to what really happened to the lost colonists. As Nell and Ambrose’s discoveries of tantalizing evidence mount, mysterious things begin to happen—like artifacts disappearing. And someone—or something—is keeping watch over their quest for answers.
Am I unfairly pre-judging this book? Some would say yes. If/when I get it, I'll be back with a review. But seriously... I'm not optimistic. There's plenty going on RIGHT THIS MINUTE that should make life interesting for White characters. That should move them from a place of ignorance about Native peoples, to one where they're motivated to do something about the many injustices that Native peoples face, today. Instead, it seems children's book publishing is... happy to keep giving us long-ago-far-away stories that don't unsettle the injustice of now.
On April 27, 2016, Jessica Donaghy posted The Top 100 Children's Books on Goodreads. To determine which chapter and middle grade books should be "on every kid's shelves" they "looked for the best reviewed books, all with average ratings above a 4.0 (a high bar that cuts out giants like Ramona and Huck Finn)."
|Stereotypical representations: thumbs down|
Of course, such lists get circulated on social media.
The Children's Book Council tweeted it, and then John Schu tweeted it, which is how I saw it.
Looking it over, I gotta give it a thumbs down for the Native representations on it. Come on, people! How about, when you look at these kinds of lists, you ask yourself about Native representations on it. We all have to speak up for change to happen!
I'm thrilled to see several authors of color on the list. I see Jackie Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming
. And Kwame Alexander's Crossover
, too. And Pam Munoz Ryan's Echo.
And several titles by Sharon Draper. And Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
But what about Native writers? None. Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House
ought to be on here, don't you think? Nothing on it by the most prolific Native writer either! I mean Joseph Bruchac.
What about Native characters or stories that aren't stereotypical? Again, none. Here's the list of titles. The ones in bold are ones that have stereotypical Native characters. Those two? The grunting and animal-like Indians in Little House on the Prairie
and the stereotypical Tiger Lily and playing-Indians of Peter Pan.
What did and did not got onto this list reflects two things: a visibility problem, and, a refusal to let go of books with stereotypical content. What will you do about that? Who else is missing, I wonder?
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Amulet, by Kazu Kibuishi
Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
The Arabian Nights
Avatar: The Last Airbender, by Gene Luen Yang
Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova
A Bear Called Paddington, by Michael Bond
The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley
Bone, by Jeff Smith
Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander
The Borrowers, by Mary Norton
The Boxcar Children (#1), by Gertrude Chandler Warren
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Road Dahl
Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
Crossover, by Kwame Alexander
Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede
The Devil's Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
Drama, by Raina Telgemeier
Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan
El Deafo, by Cece Bell
Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull
The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Gracefully Grayson, by Ami Polonsky
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
Grimm's Fairy Tales
A Handful of Stars, by Cynthia Lord
Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling
The Hobbit, by J. R. Tolkien
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford
Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
Into the Wild (Warriors), by Erin Hunter
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling
The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis
The Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin LevineLittle House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers
Matilda, by Roald Dahl
The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo
Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
My Sweet Orange Tree, by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Name of this Book is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper
Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave BarryPeter Pan, by J. M. Barre
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan
The Red Umbrella, by Christina Diaz Gonzales
Redwall, by Brian Jacques
Ranger's Apprentice, by John Flanagan
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, by Eleanor Coerr
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
See You at Harry's, by Jo Knowles
Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar
The Skin I'm In, by Sharon G. Flake
Smile, by Raina Telgemeier
So Be It, by Sarah Weeks
Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper
The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly, by Luis Sepulveda
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume
The Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson Levine
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein
Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne
The Land of Stories and the Wishing Spell, by Chris Colfer
Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver
Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle
Among the gems of 2015 is Theo Tso's Captain Paiute: Indigenous Defender of the Southwest.Captain Paiute
is published by Native Realities. As you can see by the cover of this comic, Captain Paiute is a superhero. An Indigenous superhero, that is! A Paiute one. Already we have so much good going on!
Theo Tso is Paiute. He created Captain Paiute because the Native characters he saw in comics were sidekicks, mystics, or shamans who spoke in that ridiculous TV style (like when Tonto tells the Lone Ranger how he found him in the pilot episode
: "Me hunt here in canyon often." and "Me help Kimosabe." and "Here hat. Me wash in stream, dry in sun, make whiter." and "Here gun, to kill bad men."and "Kimosabe, me help you fight outlaw.")
To develop Captain Paiute, Tso drew on what he knows, about his own nation. Depictions of Native peoples also figured in his thinking. You can listen to him talk about that in an interview
he did with A Tribe Called Geek. Stereotypes of Native people include the monolithic image of Indians as nomadic peoples who live in tipi's. Some nations did--and do--use tipi's, but some--like the Paiute's--were farming communities and had different kinds of homes. Another dimension of that monolithic image of Native peoples is that Native peoples of today are dancers, or artists. Some are, but we are far more than that... as Tso tells us!
By day, Captain Paiute works for his tribe as a water hydrologist. After high school, he went to college where he studied science. It was in his lab that he realized he had powers:
See that beaker with sulfuric acid? It spills on his hand, but his hand heals. He realizes, then, that he has powers. Those powers were given to him when he was a child. Both his parents were killed in a car wreck. He survived. In that moment, he was chosen by Pah, the Paiute Water Spirit, to be the one who would help the Paiute people fight the harm that were going to come.
With his parents gone, he lives with his grandfather. From that grandfather, he learns Paiute history. By reading Captain Paiute
, kids can learn that history, too.
On the cover, that is water coming forth from Captain Paiute's hand. To him--but to everyone--water is precious. It should be used carefully. From the interview
at A Tribe Called Geek, I gather that the coming stories will be about caring for the environment.
I love what Tso has done with Captain Paiute.
I highly recommend it!
print copy for $3.00 or a digital copy for 99 cents.
And check out Tso's Facebook
page. He's got a sneak peak
at the second issue. See that owl? For Paiute's owls signify death. Owls, then, figure in Captain Paiute's vulnerability.Update: May 3, 2016
Tso submitted a comment. I'm copying it here, for your convenience:
Thank you for the kind write up! Check out www.warpaintstudios.net for more information and comics and where I'll be at to buy other issues and merchandise!
This morning I read Monica Edinger's post, titled Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation? about the "Hindu festival of Holi being taken and reconfigured by a company of white Germans into a hipster event in Brooklyn and abroad." Dance, for example, as defined by the mainstream (white European or European American) is seen as a cultural expression. The image to the right reflects several different kinds of dance. (The image is from Gender Roles in the Art of Dance.)For some peoples, dance is religious, not cultural. Some of their festivals are religious in nature.
Reading the links she provided, and thinking about all the examples in which people or characters in books or movies dress up in feathers and fringe, I realized that the question she and many others ask ("is it Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation") can lead us down the wrong path. Here's why.
If we step away from the phrase "Cultural" and ask if what we're viewing or thinking about doing is religious, might that help people step away from doing things that are, in fact,
Two years ago, I was asked about Target, by Patrick Jones. Published in 2014 by Lerner, I read part of it then, and am returning to it now.
Target is in the "Alternative" series of books Jones writes. Here's the description, from the publisher's website:
Urban, accessible books spotlight diverse characters struggling with mental and emotional health issues and family hardships in an alternative high school environment in St. Paul, MN."Accessible" means high interest, low reading level. Edith Campbell has an overview of the series at her site: The Alternative Series. And, FangirlJeanne has an in-depth review of Bridge at her site (link to review of Bridge added on April 30, 2016).
A summary of Target
In Target, the "diverse" character is Frankie, a Dakota teen from the "Riverwood Reservation." My guess is it is a pseudonym for the Prairie Island Indian Community, which is Dakota, and has a reservation but it could be one of the other three Dakota communities in Minnesota: Shakopee, Upper Sioux, or Lower Sioux.
Frankie and his mom have moved from the reservation to St. Paul because Frankie was getting into a lot of trouble.
As Frankie unpacks, one of his prized possessions is a letter, handwritten by "Chief Yellow Lark" that his grandfather framed and gave to him. Another prized possession is his dad's pearl handled revolver. Frankie had been getting into trouble with the "First Nation Mafia" gang on the reservation. The solution was to move to St. Paul to be closer to his dad, Franklin Brave Eagle Smith, who is in prison for things he has done as "one of the First Nation Mafia chiefs."
In St. Paul, Frankie takes up with two cousins, Jay and Billy Creech. They're in that First Nation Mafia and taking over, because a bunch of the older guys (like Frankie's dad) are in prison. Jay has a First Nation Mafia tattoo. Frankie had one, too, but his mom had it removed before they moved to St. Paul.
Egged on by Jay and Billy, Frankie hits a Latino kid from another gang, the Twenty-sixers, on the first day of school and gets suspended. To get Frankie away from Jay and Billy, his mom decides to enroll him in Rondo Alternative High School. Hanging out with them anyway, he robs a convenience store and starts selling cigarettes at school.
At school, he does a report on Paul Newman, and when asked by the teacher what he likes least about Newman, says that it is messed up that Newman played the part of an Indian in Hombre. He and his dad, at various points in the story, talk about what the white man has done to the Indians.
Whenever he visits his dad, he also has to visit Jay and Billy's dad (Frankie's uncle), who is also there in prison, along with three other relatives that Frankie has to visit, too. Jay and Billy live with their mom, who is usually drunk and doesn't supervise the boys.
At one visit to the prison, Frankie is stunned to see that his dad is missing an eye. It was taken by a member of the Twenty-sixers gang, and his dad wants Frankie to do the same to someone in the gang.
Later he visits his grandfather on the reservation and when he returns, his mom tells him to meet at her office, where a woman says a prayer in Ojibwe to a crowd there. There's a smudging, but Frankie's heart isn't in it.
Frankie is sweet on Sofia, a Latina at school who used to be in the Twenty-sixers. She's out now and doesn't approve of Frankie's involvement with his cousins. Her interest in him encourages him to stay away from them and not join the gang.
He's especially uncomfortable with his dad's request to revenge him and on a subsequent visit, his dad tells him his failure to act has made all the First Nation Mafia members targets. Later, Frankie learns that the person he's got to kill is Luis, who he's also started hanging out with, along with Sofia.
Frankie and his mom drive to the reservation because Frankie wants to talk with his grandfather. While there, they talk about the first time Frankie got into trouble and his grandfather had him do a vision quest that didn't work because it wasn't Frankie's choice.
Back at school, Frankie grows increasingly afraid of the gang fighting. He goes back to the reservation and goes through a purification ceremony and when he gets back to St. Paul, tries to stay away from his cousins, but they won't leave him alone. Leading them to believe he's going to kill Luis, he goes with them to the part of town where the Twenty-sixers hang out, and leaves them there to fend for themselves.
Returning home, Frankie grabs the framed prayer and his father's pearl handled revolver, picks up Luis and Sofia and returns to the reservation where he asks his grandfather to say the prayer aloud. The reading happens as Frankie, his grandfather, Luis, and Sofia stand by a "small, empty grave." Then Frankie drops the revolver and "everything it represented in his family's life" into the hole and kicks dirt over it.
Returning to St. Paul, he and his mom move to a different apartment. It is farther away from the prison. Puzzled by that distance, his mom tells him (Kindle Location 697):
“A true brave eagle wouldn’t live in a cage. You needed to see his cage,” his mom said.
“You just wanted me to see the prison?” Frankie mumbled, confused.
She was clear-eyed now. “The path you were on, the friends you had, the choices you made,” she said. “We didn’t move here so you could see your father. We moved here so you could see your future, Frankie. And change it.”That conversation is the end of the story.
In the author's note, Jones writes that the source of the prayer is Kenneth Cohen's Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, published in 2003 by Ballantine Books. He thanks Brent Chartier for his expertise on ceremonies, like smudging, that he learned about while working at an American Indian health clinic in Michigan.
Analysis of the Native content of Target
In the author's note, Jones names Cohen's Honoring the Medicine as the source for the prayer that figures prominently in Frankie's heart. In the story, Jones doesn't tell us anything about "Chief Yellow Lark" or his tribal nation. I looked at Honoring the Medicine and see that Cohen says it was written by a "Leni-Lenape medicine man." Looking around elsewhere, I see "Chief Yellow Lark" identified as Lakota. Or Blackfoot. "Chief Yellow Lark" appears in a lot of new age and holistic healing books and web sites.
I'll keep looking, but I've yet to find "Chief Yellow Lark" in a reliable Native source. I'm curious why Jones chose Honoring the Medicine as his source for a key plot point in Target. I'm also curious why he chose Brent Chartier as a source on smudging.
If an outsider to Native peoples is going to write a story with Native characters and content, it is vitally important that the sources be reliable, and that they be Native. I think Jones should have spoken with Dakota people and read materials written by Dakota people. Doing that, he'd know how much he should--or should not say--about ceremonies.
Jones tells us that Frankie's grandfather does ceremonies and wants Frankie to do them, too. I'm pretty sure that a Dakota man wouldn't have framed a prayer written by a Leni-Lenape, or Lakota, or Blackfoot man and give it to his grandson. He'd give him other things, specific to Dakota ways.
In real life, gang activity is a major issue on reservations and in urban areas, as well.
I understand why Patrick Jones would want to write a high interest/low reading level book for youths caught up in gang activity, but I think Dakota kids, and those from other nations, too, would roll their eyes at Target.
Non-Native kids might be moved by the "wisdom" of that prayer. Cohen (author of Honoring the Medicine) was, and presumably, so was Jones--but the places I find the prayer itself cast it in a troubling space of romanticization and misrepresentation.
I cannot recommend Target by Patrick Jones.
My copy of Lois Lenski's Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison includes an excerpt from Lenski's autobiography. In it, she writes that she was surprised to win the Newbery Medal for Strawberry Girl in 1946, because she thinks Indian Captive is her "major and most scholarly work."
Indian Captive came out in 1941, with this cover (Lenski did the illustrations, too):
Most people are likely familiar with the more recent cover:
As I write, Indian Captive is ranked at #31 on Amazon's list of paperback biographies for children--and it is ranked at #2 on Kindle biographies for children. Here's the summary, from WorldCat:
Fictionalized account of Mary Jemison. She was captured by the Seneca Indians when she was a child and lived with them all her life.The chances that you read Indian Captive in school are pretty high. These captivity stories--of white girls/women captured by Indians--are very popular. The Newbery Honor adds to its allure.
There was, in fact, a woman named Mary Jemison. She was born in 1742 or 1743 and died in 1833. Before she died, she worked with James E. Seaver on A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, which was published in 1824.
One thing that struck me right away is Lenski's depiction of Jemison's hair. In the original edition, you see that Lenski depicts Jemison as having blonde hair. That is inaccurate. Jemison's hair was, according to Seaver, "a light chestnut brown." My guess is that Lenski changed it to fit the story she was telling.
Part of that story involved the names she uses for Jemison. In chapter one, there's great fear of an "Injun" attack. Pa doesn't seem afraid. Molly (Lenski used that nickname rather than her given name, Mary) asked Pa why he isn't afraid. He says (p. 8):
“Why should I be afeard?” laughed her father. “There’s nothin’ to be scared of. The Injuns’ll never hurt you, Molly-child! Why, if they ever saw your pretty yaller hair, a-shinin’ in the sun, they’d think ’twas only a corn-stalk in tassel and they’d pass you by for certain!”Many works depict Native characters who are fascinated by the hair of white characters. Were they? Maybe. I need to look for evidence of Native fascination with the hair and skin of white people. Certainly we find a lot of that sort of thing in writings of White people who describe skin color in derogatory or exotic ways.
Here's how Lenski depicted the Native women fawning over Molly's hair:
It reminds me of a scene from Game of Thrones (source of photo:
Is it fair to compare those two images? Maybe, maybe not. I do think they capture that idea that Whiteness is special.
After Molly is captured, her captors get her ready to be sold. Lenski describes the Indians looking at her teeth, but... (p. 49-50)
...the thing that pleased them most was Molly’s hair— her pale yellow, shining hair, the color of ripened corn. They took it in their hands; they blew upon it and tried to braid it; they let it rest like corn-silk soft upon their palms. They looked at it as if they had never seen such hair before.It is possible that Jemison's hair was blonde during her teens and became darker (the light chestnut brown that Seaver described) as she got older, but I think Lenski's choice was deliberate. She needed Molly to have blonde hair because the name Lenski has the Seneca Indians give her, is Corn Tassel. This happens on page 60 when Molly is adopted to fill the place of a Seneca man who was killed the year before:
They touched her white skin, they stared into her blue eyes, they caressed her soft, silky hair. It was her hair that pleased them most. It made them think of blooming corn-stalks, of soft, fresh corn-silk, of pale yellow ripened corn— the dearest things in life. So when they gave her a name, there was only one that they could think of. They called her Corn Tassel that day and for many a long day thereafter.In fact, the Seneca people who took her in did give her a name, as reported by Seaver, but there's no mention in his book of her hair color or the name, "Corn Tassel." Instead, this is what we read (Seaver, Kindle Locations 394-395):
I was made welcome amongst them as a sister to the two Squaws before mentioned, and was called Dickewamis; which being interpreted, signifies a pretty girl, a handsome girl, or a pleasant, good thing. That is the name by which I have ever since been called by the Indians.
I think Lenski didn't want to call her Dickewamis, or an English translation, either. She chose Corn Tassel instead. I want to think about that choice a bit more. We could say that, by changing the name, she was being dismissive of the Seneca's.
To her credit, Lenski didn't use "squaw" anywhere in her book. Simply avoiding that derogatory term is not enough, however. As I read Indian Captive, I found that biased, outsider depictions remain intact.
The Seneca man who was killed, Lenski tells us, went to "the Happy Hunting Ground." In a lot of writings by outsiders, that phrase is used to depict a Native heaven. It is used as if all of us, regardless of our very diverse and distinct spiritual or religious practices, go to the "Happy Hunting Ground." As far as I can tell, that phrase came from James Fenimore Cooper. My research into his use of it is ongoing.
In Seaver, there is no mention of being mistreated by the Seneca women who adopted her. Lenski, however, does have her mistreated (hit and kicked) by "Squirrel Woman" who is not only mean, but unattractive. Eventually Molly doesn't cry when Squirrel Woman strikes her. At one point, Molly thinks that, "like an Indian," she is learning to bear pain. That is another stereotype: the stoic, unflinching, noble Indian.
Another problematic idea that emerges as the story progresses, is that the Seneca's have something to learn from Molly: compassion. Molly and a boy become friends. When he kills a turkey, Molly is unhappy. A Seneca elder tells her (p. 174):
“The Senecas are the richer for having a daughter like you, Corn Tassel,” said the old man. “They have much to learn from the pale-face. Sympathy, love for our brother, is what we all most need. That you can teach us as no one else can, little one. Perhaps that is why the Great Spirit led you to come to us. Perhaps only you, in all the world, could do this for us and that is the reason that you became a captive!”
That passage is deeply unsettling. It lets stand the idea that Native peoples were cruel, aggressive, and warlike, and that the White people who attacked them and encroached on their homelands were the ones who can teach love and sympathy.
There is much more to know about Jemison and her role in Seneca history. As I did the background research to write this review, I began reading Mark Rifkin
's study of her/depictions of her in When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty.
He writes that in white writings of her, the focus is on her Whiteness and the incredible aspects of her capture and life as a White person living with Indians. It is, he writes, a racialized discussion. Far more important, he argues, is her adoption and what it meant to Native Nations and their sovereignty. Through her adoption, she became Seneca. Through her adoption, she owned Seneca land. I'll be studying Rifkin's chapter on her, and looking for others, too.
For certain, Lenski's Indian Captive
is flawed. It relies and draws on stereotypes.Indian Captive
was written 75 years ago. It need not be read today by schoolchildren. Doing so, I think, keeps stereotypical ideas of Native people and history intact. Teachers ought to be challenging those stereotypes and bias, rather than affirming them. If you know of a teacher who is using it to teach children about stereotyping and bias, let me know.
Lenski, Lois (2011-12-27). Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison
. Open Road Media Teen & Tween. Kindle Edition.
Rifkin, Mark. (2011) When Did Indians Become Straight: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty. Oxford University Press.
Seaver, James E. (2013-08-08). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison: Complete With Original Illustration. James E. Seaver. Kindle Edition. (also available online: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/w00087.html)
Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review of Susan L. Roth's Prairie Dog Songs. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.
Roth, Susan L., and Cindy Trumbore, Prairie Dog Song: The Key to Saving North America’s Grasslands, illustrated by Susan L. Roth. Lee & Low, 2016; grades 1-6 Based on the cumulative song, “Green Grass Grows All Around,” each double-page spread in Roth's book includes a verse from the song, a collage, and information that focuses on prairie dogs, environmental destruction of the grassland ecosystem and the return to biodiversity. Younger readers are encouraged to engage with the art and sing along with the lyrics on each page (and music and separate lyrics in the back matter). The text for older readers is more informative. Roth’s signature illustrations, rendered in paper and fabric collage, will especially appeal to young children. Each page-and-a-half spread reflects the daytime and nighttime skies and clouds in mostly blues and greens, and the earth in mostly browns and greens. As well, the animals—from the littlest prairie dogs to the huge buffalo—hold their places in this delicate ecosystem, and it appears that Roth has carefully placed each blade of grass as well. According to the publicity sheet: Prairie Dog Song traces the history of the grasslands from the first settlers who arrived in the 1800s to the scientists working to preserve them. For thousands of years, grasses covered the area of North America, stretching from the south of Canada to the north of Mexico and creating what is still one of our most important and wide-reaching ecosystems. The tiny prairie dog was its caretaker, burrowing into the ground and keeping the soil rich enough to sustain many other species. But what happens when we humans chase away those tiny caretakers? Unfortunately, this otherwise engaging picture book is fatally flawed, in that there are only four short references—dismissive ones at that—to the Indigenous peoples who, despite the many attempts of the settlers and government forces to dislodge them, continue to return and maintain the land. All of these references appear in the text for older readers; there is nothing in the lyrics or illustrations that refers to Native peoples. This text is towards the middle of the book (unpaginated): For thousands of years, prairie dogs lived alongside the Native peoples of the grasslands. Some Native groups survived by gathering plants and hunting the big animals, including bison, that ate the rich grass near prairie dogs’ burrows. Other groups were both hunters and farmers, growing crops such as corn, beans, and squash. Then, in the 1800s, the United States government began forcing Native peoples from the grasslands so the land could be offered to settlers. The settlers saw fine, fertile areas where they could graze their cattle and horses and grow crops. The covered the land with fields, ranches, houses, and roads that destroyed the prairie dogs’ territory. Within sixty years of the arrival of farmers and ranchers, most of the prairie dogs were dead. The settlers did not understand the role prairie dogs played in keeping the grasses healthy.... Prairie dogs, the animals that ate them, and the animals that lived with them began to disappear. So did the bison, which were hunted for their skins. (emphasis mine)
There are also two short and strange references in the back matter timeline:
(1) Prehistory: In what is now Janos Biosphere Reserve, in Chihuahua, Mexico, live hunter-gatherers who leave behind petroglyphs and arrowheads. (2) 1689: Military outpost established to protect Janos from Apache raids, although Apache still venture frequently into area.
This “disappearance” or dismissal of Native peoples in a discussion of the history of the land and a particular ecosystem is nothing less than a justification of colonialism and genocide. None of the major reviewers—Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journa1 gave this book starred reviews—seems to have noticed this, and children will not, either. Unless they are Native children. So it seems to be fitting to end this review with Indigenous peoples have the last word. The following is part of a statement released by the Assembly of First Nations in Canada:
Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. First Nations peoples have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity. It is also based on the subsistence needs and values extending back thousands of years. Hunting, gathering, and fishing to secure food includes harvesting food for self, family, the elderly, widows, the community, and for ceremonial purposes. Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril.
For the earlier grade levels noted, Prairie Dog Songis not recommended; for older students who may be learning how to read critically or for college students taking courses on deconstructing texts in children’s literature, maybe.
Earlier this year, several people wrote to ask me about Carole Estby Dagg's Sweet Home Alaska
, a story set in Alaska, in 1934, about the Matanuska Colony (also called the Palmer Colony). The map to the right shows you where the colony was.
Published by Penguin Random House (one of the Big Five publishers in the U.S.), Dagg's book came out in February of 2016. It is pitched at middle grade children.
Here's the synopsis for Sweet Home Alaska
This exciting pioneering story, based on actual events, introduces readers to a fascinating chapter in American history, when FDR set up a New Deal colony in Alaska to give loans and land to families struggling during the Great Depression.
Terpsichore can’t wait to follow in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s footsteps . . . now she just has to convince her mom. It’s 1934, and times are tough for their family. To make a fresh start, Terpsichore’s father signs up for President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project, uprooting them from Wisconsin to become pioneers in Alaska. Their new home is a bit of a shock—it’s a town still under construction in the middle of the wilderness, where the residents live in tents and share a community outhouse. But Terpsichore’s not about to let first impressions get in the way of this grand adventure. Tackling its many unique challenges with her can-do attitude, she starts making things happen to make Alaska seem more like home. Soon, she and her family are able to start settling in and enjoying their new surroundings—everyone except her mother, that is. So, in order to stay, Terpsichore hatches a plan to convince her that it’s a wonderful—and civilized—place to live . . . a plan that’s going to take all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise Terpsichore can muster.
As the synopsis indicates, the story is based on fact. President Roosevelt did create the Palmer Colony project for people to make a fresh start. The synopsis tells us that Dagg's story an "exciting pioneering" one, but anytime I see "pioneering" in the context of stories like this, I wonder about the people whose lands were being made available to those "pioneers."
In her author's note, Dagg writes (p. 290):
A notable omission in accounts I read of the Palmer Colony was reference to the people who were in Alaska for thousands of years before the colonists: the various Eskimo, Aleut, Athabaskan, and other Indian tribes. Since I married into a part-Native family, I was concerned about this omission, but finally decided not to create contacts with Native peoples if the colonists themselves did not mention them. However, I hope as many readers as possible will visit the Anchorage Museum to learn more about the original colonists of Alaska.
I'm curious about the "part-Native family." Are the people she's referring to as "part-Native" citizens of their tribal nation? Generally used, "part Native" means that someone in your ancestry was, or is, a Native person from a specific tribal nation. Quite often, though, people who use "part-Native" aren't aware that stating a Native identity goes hand-in-hand with being a citizen of that nation. This citizenship is not about being "part" Native. If you're a tribal citizen, you're a tribal citizen, period.
I'm uneasy with the phrase "the original colonists of Alaska." Alaska Natives were not "original colonists." They are the first peoples of that land. Their homelands were colonized--in this case--by the families who were part of this federal project. I anticipate some people will think that I'm being hypercritical in pointing to "original colonists" as problematic, but it is important that we pay attention to words and what they convey. If we were to accept Dagg's description of Aleut, Athabaskan, and other Indian tribes as "original colonists" we start down a slope that says it wasn't their homeland from the start. That it belonged to... nobody, and therefore, any rights they have to that land can be dismissed.
And, Dagg's suggestion that readers visit the Anchorage Museum... It makes me wonder if she had Native readers in mind. She was probably thinking of white kids.
An appropriate aside: Not long ago I read a spot-on comic by Ricardo Caté of Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo. He has been doing Without Reservations
for several years. The one I'm thinking of is of a Native kid in a museum asking something like "what kind of a field trip is this?! We have all this stuff at home." Biting, and brilliant, too.
Back to Dagg's book...
Who were the "pioneers" involved with the Palmer Project? People who were living in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in 1934. The Palmer Museum has this info:
To be chosen from the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, only "honest-to-God" farmers, couples between the ages of 25 and 40 with Scandinavian backgrounds would be considered. In exchange for a $3,000, 30-year loan, each family would be given a 40-acre tract of land, a house, a barn, a well, and an out-building. Those families that chose tracts with poor soil conditions and hilly landscape were given 80 acres. In all 203 families were chosen for the colony.
Dagg's character, Trip (short for Terpsichore), and her family are one of those families. When Dagg and her sisters learn about the plan to move there, here's what they say (p. 5)
“I'm not living in an igloo!" That was Cally, shaking her head in horror, which made her ringlets bob. “I’m not eating whale blubber!” That was Polly. Her ringlets bobbed too.
They are, in short, putting forth information they hold about Alaska Native homes and foods, and, they're rejecting it. That passage tells us that, although Dagg chose not to create Native people for her characters to interact with, she didn't leave Native peoples out altogether. She introduced stereotypes, but left them intact. That was an opportunity for her to push back on them, but she didn't. Indeed, if she'd had Native peoples in mind as she developed this book, she could have created Native characters who could, in fact, push back on the information that Cally and Polly have in their heads. What she did do, is have Trip's dad say that they're not going to the Arctic Circle, and that the Matanuska Valley is much like northern Wisconsin. This, I assume, is sufficient to tell the girls that they won't be living in an igloo or eating whale blubber, but it leaves exotic ideas about Alaska Natives intact.
Actually getting to Alaska means getting there by ship. As they're boarding, someone sings a song Trip recognizes, but they change the lyrics (p. 44):
Terpsichore recognized the tune. It was Gene Autry’s version of “Springtime in the Rockies,” but they had changed the words. Terpsichore laughed along with the crowd at the new words: “When it’s springtime in Alaska and it’s ninety-nine below . . . Where the berries grow like pumpkins and a cabbage fills a truck . . . We want to make a new start somewhere without delay. So, here we are, Alaska, AND WE HAVE COME TO STAY!”
Curious about the song, I looked it up and so far didn't find those lyrics. The first line is easy to find but the rest, I think, is Dagg's own writing. Reading the words "we have come to stay" may seem jovial and innocuous to some, but to me, they're pretty aggressive. Music is a big part of Sweet Home Alaska
. The family has a tough go of it once they're there, but at the end, they sing "Home Sweet Home." They're there to stay. Again, this may seem innocuous, but ending with that song tells readers that, indeed, they were there "TO STAY."
Though a lot of people are going to love Dagg's book and its echoes of Little House,
I think it is worse than Little House
because it was written in the last few years. Dagg's editor is Nancy Paulsen. The creation, publication, and marketing of Sweet Home Alaska
tells us that writers like Dagg, and editors like Nancy Paulsen, have a long way to go.
I do not recommend Sweet Home Alaska.
And, I do not recommend The Smell of Other People's Houses,
Note (April 18, 2016): Thank you, anon, for letting me know that, partway thru the review, I had spelled the author's name incorrectly (as Dabb instead of Dagg). I've corrected those errors.
In 2011, one of the clues on Jeopardy was "The National Museum of the American Indian." None of the contestants selected a clue in that category until they had no choice:NMAI
(the National Museum of the American Indian) made a video
of that episode. The image (above) is from their video.
On April 12, 2016, "Native Americans" was the category. Just like in 2011, contestants avoided it. Martie Simmons
, snapped a photograph of it and put the photograph on Twitter and on Facebook. It is circulating widely in Native social media (a shout out to Martie for letting me use her photo):
One of the contestants responded to her:
What does this avoidance point to? Fear of saying the wrong thing? Or, fear of their ignorance being on national TV? Or, fear of answering the question wrong and hurting their chance of winning?
The same thing happened
in February of 2014, too. The category then was African American History:
This avoidance is, to say the least, disappointing. Frank Waln
, a hip hop artist from the Rosebud Reservation responded to it, too, on Twitter. He said:
"This [is] what 100s [of] years of erasure and colonial propaganda masquerading as history does."
If you missed his interview on NPR's here & now
on April 6, 2016, listen to it and his music, too.
Teachers and librarians: this points to a huge gap. Our job is clear. Start with getting books written by Native writers
In the last couple of months, I've been reading a lot about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Prior to this study, I knew about it because ICWA is something most Native people know about.
Right now, though, I'm doing a scholarly study of it because ICWA is in Emily Henry's The Love that Split the World. Her depiction of ICWA is troubling.
Of late, I've asked friends and colleagues to send me titles of works in which a character is adopted or fostered out of their Native community. I'm compiling a list and have read several of the items. The majority are by Native writers, some of whom are writing of their own experience as children. The majority of items on my list are meant for adult readers.
Amongst the suggestions are a few books that aren't by Native writers. Tim Green's Unstoppable is one. Green is a former NFL defensive end. I read his book over the weekend and, for several reasons, I am marking it as not recommended. For one, the main character is Native, but we aren't told anything about his tribal nation or heritage. As the synopsis below indicates, he is adopted (twice, actually) but ICWA is not mentioned in the reviews or in Green's novel. I'll say more about that later. My guess is that Green and his editor and the people who reviewed Unstoppable had no idea there is a federal law about adoption of Native children.
Published by Harper as a middle grade novel, Unstoppable came out in 2012. Here's the synopsis:
If anyone understands the phrase "tough luck," it's Harrison. As a foster kid in a cruel home, he knows his dream of one day playing in the NFL is a longshot. Then Harrison is brought into a new home with kind, loving parents—his new dad is even a football coach. Harrison's big build and his incredible determination quickly make him a star running back on the junior high school team. On the field, he's practically unstoppable. But Harrison's good luck can't last forever. When a routine sports injury leads to a devastating diagnosis, it will take every ounce of Harrison's determination not to give up for good. When Unstoppable opens, thirteen-year-old Harrison is living with Mr. and Mrs. Constable, as a foster child. Mr. Constable is a farmer who uses foster kids as laborers. He often whips them with his belt.
I begin with summary...
This foster home is the 4th one Harrison has been in. In his previous placements, he got in a lot of fights and was characterized as "an untamed and untamable beast" (p. 7). The fights he got into, though, were ones where he was defending himself or other vulnerable kids from bullies. That didn't matter, however, and he ended up with Mr. Constable, a man who was known as able to "cure even the hardest of bargains" (p. 7). When the story opens, Harrison has made Mr. Constable angry but he doesn't beat him as badly this time, because the next day, they are going to see the judge (p. 8):
“Just got a call from the lawyer. Seems your momma’s got some funny notions again. Raised a ruckus at the county offices on Friday."Constable's employee, Cyrus, tells Harrison (p. 9):
"Your momma’s a tramp and a druggie. She cast you off like garbage, and once a woman does that there ain’t a judge in creation hands her back her kids, so don’t you get so smart.”Harrison realizes that he's stronger than Cyrus now, and that he would win if he fought Cyrus next time he tried to beat him. While bathing that evening, he takes care to scrub his nails, behind his ears, and between his toes because he didn't want to look like, or smell like a farm boy when he sees the judge, and (p. 10):
He might even see his own mother. Cyrus’s cruel words about her came back to him and his ears burned with shame and hate. Maybe that was why he had been ready to fight.He goes to bed, feeling hopeful about the upcoming meeting with the judge. In the pages that follow, we are given a description of the town and the courthouse. This is farm country but we don't know what state. When they get to the courtroom, Harrison looks around for his mother. His case is called and we learn his last name is Johnson and that his mom's name is Melinda Johnson. She's not there, though. Mr. Constable mutters (p. 15):
“All this fuss and she’s too drunk to show up.”Realizing she's not there, Harrison's heart sinks. The judge asks Mr. Constable's lawyer for the adoption papers, reads them, and then says (p. 16):
“Then,” the judge said, examining the papers, “given the trouble Ms. Johnson has caused in all this and her apparent lack of responsibility— as well as respect for this court, I might add— all leads me to believe that the best course of action for this young . . . boy is to make him the legal and permanent son of Mr. and Mrs. Brad Constable.”Looking at Mr. Constable and his lawyer, Harrison has a sense of foreboding. The papers are signed, and then, there's a ruckus as someone forces open the courtroom doors. It is Harrison's mother. He feels his insides (p. 19-20):
melt like butter in a hot pan.
His mother’s dark frizzy hair shot out from her head in all directions. She wore a long raincoat and Harrison didn’t know what else besides a dirty pair of fluffy pink slippers. He could see the red in her eyes from across the room and the heavy bags of exhaustion they carried beneath them.
Liquid pain pumped through his heart.
“That’s my baby!” Harrison’s mother screeched as the bailiff and a guard held her arms. “You can’t do that to my baby!”
“Order in this court!” The judge pounded and glared, but it had no effect. “Order, I said, or you’ll be in contempt!”
Tears welled up in Harrison’s eyes. He felt like a split stick of firewood, half shamed, half aching to hold her. He started toward his mother, but Mr. Constable’s big hand clamped down on the back of his neck so that the nerves tingled in his head.The judge orders the bailiff to take her into custody for contempt. Mr. Constable and Harrison leave the courtroom. Outside, Harrison asks where his mother is, but Mr. Constable tells him that Mrs. Constable is his new mother. They return to the farm. Harrison thinks about all the other kids there, who have also been adopted by Mr. Constable (p. 22):
While they didn’t seem to mind, Harrison had never—and would never—stop thinking of Melinda Johnson as his one and only true mother. Later that day, Mr. Constable and Harrison get in an argument and then a fight. The outcome of the fight: Mr. Constable falls into a stall where a cow giving birth kicks, and kills him. Harrison runs away and is found by a kind woman named Mrs. Godfrey. She knows all about the brutal Constables. She takes him to a doctor, and then to a juvenile center. A few weeks pass. One day, Mrs. Godfrey tells him that his mother is gone. He thinks she's moved away, but Mrs. Godfrey tells him she passed (p. 28-29):
Harrison didn’t cry. He just blinked at her and watched a tear roll down her nose and drop off the end of it, spattering onto the table where they sat.
“Was she sick?” he whispered, his eyes on the spattered drop.
“I think she was very sick, and very tired, and I think she’s in a place now where she’s at peace and watching you and loving you just like she always did.”
Harrison stared at the broken tear for a long time before he spoke. “Mr. Constable said she didn’t.”
“Harrison, most people in this world are good, but some are bad. Mr. Constable was a very bad man, and he was a liar. That’s all I can say about it.”Then she tells him she has some good news. She has found him a new foster home, with her daughter Jennifer (who is a lawyer) and Coach (Jennifer's husband, who is an English teacher and a football coach). Harrison will call him Coach, like everyone else does (later, both ask him to call them dad and mom).
When Jennifer shows Harrison his bedroom, he sees a bookcase full of books. She pulls one out, by Louis L'Amour, and hands it to him (p. 33-34):
“I think you’ll like this.” She handed him the book. “My brothers loved The Sacketts. It’s a family that comes to America when it was a new land.”Coach is excited about Harrison's size and interest in playing football. His first day at his new school is difficult. Football practice is mixed, too, but Harrison is excited, nonetheless. The second day starts off badly, too. When a teacher threatens him with a ruler, he takes it from her and breaks it in half. She calls security and he ends up in the principals office. When the principal suggests that they should find a different school for Harrison, his foster mom says the teacher's threat may be a hate crime (p. 121):
“Hate crime?” Mr. Fisk’s rosy cheeks turned pale green. “This boy isn’t a minority.”
Jennifer raised a single eyebrow. “Obviously you haven’t looked closely at his records. His maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Native American.I finished the book but am not going further with summary. Harrison's identity as a Native person is not the emphasis of Green's book. Harrison is going to be diagnosed with cancer. That, essentially, is what Unstoppable is about. The diagnosis occurs on page 199 of the novel, which is 342 pages long.
And now, some interpretation...
Other than reading that he is big (strong), we don't get a physical description of Harrison. Because Mr. Fisk says "this boy isn't a minority" we can assume that he looks white.
But he's not white, as Jennifer said. When his mom comes into the courtroom, he describes her "dark frizzy hair." When Jennifer says his maternal grandmother is "full blooded Native American," he isn't surprised. That tells me he knows he is Native...
But what nation? Does Jennifer not know? She knows enough about racial justice to characterize the situation as a hate crime, but she--and her mother (Mrs. Godfrey, the social worker)--apparently don't know about ICWA, which, in real life, has bearing on placements of Native children.
In real life, someone like Mrs. Godfrey is required, by ICWA, to notify his nation. I'm assuming that the author (Tim Green) knew nothing about ICWA. I'm assuming most of you also know nothing about it. It doesn't matter one bit that his grandmother was "full blooded." His identity, described in fractions, is irrelevant. Each nation determines its citizenship. And when someone is a citizen of a nation, they're a citizen, period. If a woman is a US citizen, has a relationship with a citizen of France that results in pregnancy, and the baby is born in the US, that child is a citizen of the US. The woman might be White, or she might be African American, or Asian American... you get the picture. Skin color, or race, or ethnicity, or religion... none of that matters. She is a citizen of the United States, and her baby, born in the US is also a citizen of the US.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978. The Native American Rights Fund has a very useful document on its website, intended for educational and informational purposes. There, they write that ICWA:
established minimum federal jurisdictional, procedural, and substantive standards aimed to achieve the dual purpose of protecting the right of an Indian child to live with an Indian family and to stabilize and foster continued tribal existence. In Federal Indian Law, Matthew Fletcher (he's a Professor of Law at Michigan State University, and director of its Indigenous Law and Policy Center) provides a history of ICWA. In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act.
In the years prior to that, testimony from Native people was gathered. The conclusion based on that testimony: between 25 and 35 percent of all Native children, nationwide, had been removed from their families, and 90 percent of them had been placed in non-Native homes. It was characterized as a systematic, automatic, and across-the-board removal of Indian children from Indian families.
In the hearings, Fletcher writes (Kindle location 18416-18418):
[W]itness after witness would testify to the automatic removal of Indian children, often without due process. Byler [Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs] testified that at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, state social workers believed that the reservation was, by definition, an unacceptable environment for children and would remove Indian children without providing services or even the barest investigation whatsoever.Others testified that rather than step in and offer assistance to families that were struggling, state agencies would wait for the families to reach a crisis point and then step in, only to take the children from their homes.
That's exactly what I see happening in Unstoppable. Clearly, Harrison's mom was struggling. Was she receiving assistance she should have received? Given the characterization of Cyrus and Mr. Constable, we know they're racist and what they say about his mother is racist, but nowhere is any of that racist depiction of her challenged. With nobody countering it, are stereotypical ideas of Native people as dysfunctional affirmed? I think so, and, that is unacceptable.
If this was a real-life case, would her case be an example of a state agency stepping in and taking her child without due process? Certainly, Harrison did not receive due process in the courtroom when the evil Mr. Constable adopted him, but he didn't receive it when the kindly Coach and Jennifer adopted him, either. Again--I assume that Tim Green didn't know about ICWA when he wrote the book, and neither did his editor.
Is ignorance an excuse?
Some will say yes. Others will say it doesn't matter, because, after all, "its fiction."
I disagree. Ignorance is not an excuse, because ignorance about Native people is the norm. That norm is not acceptable. Writers, editors, reviewers... most are ignorant about who we are. Fiction has tremendous power to shape what we think and know. It need not feed ignorance. Indeed, when the audience is children or teens, it ought to be called out when it feeds ignorance.
Green's Unstoppable feeds ignorance. As such, I do not recommend it.
Indeed, Unstoppable does precisely what ICWA was meant to stop from happening. Harrison was adopted by a kind white family. But what book was he given to read, right away, in that white home? Louis L'Amour's Sackett's Land: A Novel. I excerpted that passage above. Remember what Jennifer said about the Sackett family as she handed it to him? "It’s a family that comes to America when it was a new land." Quite honestly, I find that passage grotesque. Books like that dismiss and undermine who we are as Native peoples. This wasn't "new land" to us. It was, and is, our homeland. Jennifer is, in my view, doing a version of "kill the Indian and save the man" and so is Tim Green.
Unstoppable and what happens in it are why ICWA matters. Why, I wonder, did Green make his main character Native? I'll be thinking about this book for awhile as I continue to develop my review of Emily Henry's book. Are there others out there, for children or young adults, that I should add to my list?
Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review essay of Anne M. Dunn's Fire in the Village. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.
Dunn, Anne M. (Anishinabe-Ojibwe), Fire in the Village: New and Selected Stories. Holy Cow! Press, 2016.
Everyone knows a circle has no beginning and no end. In Fire in the Village, Anishinabe elder and wisdom-sharer Anne M. Dunn shows us a world in which everything in Creation has life, in which everything has volition, in which everything needs to be thanked and respected. It’s a world inhabited by mischievous Little People and wise elders; by four-leggeds, two-leggeds, flying nations, swimmers and those who creep; by hovering spirits and the children who can see them, and by haunting flashbacks that just won’t go away. Like points in a circle, each story has a place that informs the whole. Here are 75 stories of how things came to be and how the humans (some of them, anyway) came to understand their responsibilities to all Creation. Stories of how the Little People can make huge things happen and how elders and children may be the only ones who understand and respect them. Stories about why butterflies are beautiful but can’t sing, why Tamarack drops its needles in winter, and why, every season, Anishinabeg give great thanks to the sap-giving maple trees. And gut-wrenching stories of the horrors inflicted on innocent little children in the Indian residential schools and stories of internalized racism and stories of good, loving parents who have alcoholism. One of my favorite of Anne’s not-so-subtle stories (that reminds me of the US and Canadian governments’ failed attempts at cultural erasure of Indian peoples) involves an elder woman’s dreams to create a monument to fry bread, and the Department of Fry Bread Affairs—“suspicious that the women were engaged in resistance and eager to crush any possibility of dissent”—finds a way to destroy their Great Fry Bread Mountain and outlaw the women’s Fry Bread dances. But, if you know any history, you know that the struggle continues. Without didacticism, without polemic, Anne gives each story the attention it needs so it can speak its own truth. How a little boy finds the perfect gift for his grandma. How a bear reciprocates for an elder woman’s generosity. How the Little People encourage an old man on his final journey. How a drum dreamed by a woman long ago can bring healing to the community. Ojibwe artist Annie Humphrey’s beautifully detailed black-and-white pen-and-ink interior illustrations, together with the cover’s bright eye-catching colors in Prismacolor colored pencil, complement Anne’s tellings and will draw readers into the stories. Children can enjoy acting out many of Anne’s stories about how things came to be, and some of the others as well. But, please—pitch the fake “Indians” with costumes, headdresses, wigs and face paint; also, the “woo-woos,” “hows,” “ughs,” and “hop-hop” dances. The most effective “costumes” I’ve seen were plain t-shirts and jeans for the two-legged characters, and minimal decorations to denote the four-leggeds, flying ones, swimming nations and those who creep. In her Foreword, Anne writes: The storyteller is usually a recognized member of the community, one who carries the stories that must be told. Perhaps young tellers will arrive to carry them forward. So our stories will continue to be passed from generation to generation. “Some stories are told more often, she also writes, “because those are the stories that wantto be told. They are the ones that teach the vital lessons of our culture and traditions.” Depending on what lessons are being imparted, some stories may be for everyone, some for children, some for initiates, and some for adults. I would encourage parents, classroom teachers and librarians to use the same caution with this written collection. As in the old times, when the people were taught by example and by stories, Anne sits in a circle with her audience and relates teachings and events from the long ago, from the distant past, from almost yesterday, and from now and beyond tomorrow—because every day, you know, brings a new story. If you listen for it. As Anne ends some of her stories, “That’s the way it was. That’s the way it is.” ‘Chi miigwech, Anne. I’m honored to call you friend.
This "have you seen" post is, more or less, a note to myself to put Katherine Marsh's The Night Tourist on my list of books to read. Of late, I'm finding/learning about several books that are set in New York City and have Native content--in the form of ghosts or Indians-of-the-past.
The Night Tourist came to my attention as I read an article in the March 27 edition of The Washington Post. Written by Katherine Marsh (author of The Night Tourist), the photograph at the top of her article is what caught my eye. Here's a screen cap:
That soldier, with machine gun, standing in front of a book display is, of course, chilling. As my eyes moved to the books on the shelves, I realized the soldier is standing in front of a wall of Tintin books. The one on the top shelf, 3rd from the left, is Tintin in America.
It is one of the much loved Tintin books have stereotypical, racist, derogatory content.
As I started looking into Tintin articles to link to in this post, I found an article in Salon: Tintin's racist history: Symbol of Brussels solidarity is uncomfortably divisive
. In it is a link to an article in Vox: How Tintin became the symbol of solidarity in the Brussels attacks
. The Vox article is mostly a series of tweets of Tintin crying.
I don't know if Marsh chose the photo that was used with her article. She doesn't mention the Tintin books. My guess is that someone in the editorial department at the Post has read the Vox article and thought it a good choice, given that Marsh writes children's books. The image did something else for me: it caught my eye and led me to look at Marsh's first book, which (as noted above) has Native content of the no-longer-around kind, but it also captures the importance of children's books.
Far too many people look down on children and the books created for them, but they're important. They shape the ways we view the world. How they do that is something that needs more attention. When I read Marsh's book, what will I find? Does that book add to the misinformation that Native peoples no longer exist? If/when I read her book, I'll be back. If you've read it, let me know what you noticed when you read it.
|Debbie, have you seen...|
A reader writes to ask me if I've read Journey Into Hawk Country
. I haven't. Here's the synopsis from WorldCat:
An illustrated children's version of the journal of a young Dutch trader, Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, who journeyed into the land of the Iroquois Indians, a Mowhawk tribe that controlled the trade routes in the area, in 1634, seeking to bolster the Dutch trade in what is now New York State.
It came out in 2006 and there's quite a lot written about it. Here's one well-sourced essay, written by Melissa L. Melon: Our Minds in the Gutters: Sexuality and Reader Responsibility in George O'Connor's Graphic Novel, Journey into Mohawk Country
If I get the book, I'll be back.
In January, a reader wrote to ask me about Dark Energy
by Robison Wells. I got an ARC (advanced reader copy) from Edelweiss and read it last week. I have a lot of questions. The book itself will be released on March 29, 2016. Let's start with the synopsis:
We are not alone. They are here. And there’s no going back. Perfect for fans of The Fifth Wave and the I Am Number Four series, Dark Energy is a thrilling stand-alone science fiction adventure from Robison Wells, critically acclaimed author ofVariant and Blackout.
Five days ago, a massive UFO crashed in the Midwest. Since then, nothing—or no one—has come out.
If it were up to Alice, she’d be watching the fallout on the news. But her dad is director of special projects at NASA, so she’s been forced to enroll in a boarding school not far from the crash site. Alice is right in the middle of the action, but even she isn’t sure what to expect when the aliens finally emerge. Only one thing is clear: everything has changed.
The synopsis doesn't tell us that Alice is "half Navajo." Her dad is white; her deceased mom was Navajo.
Back in January, I noted that I was interested in the author's note.
I'll begin with it. There, Wells writes that he used to live on the Navajo reservation. Because he wanted to be respectful "of the tribes and ancestors of tribes mentioned in the book" he sent the manuscript out to several readers. He names seven individuals (Orlando Tsosie, Sammy Jim, Thomas Begay, Angelina Begay, Nadine Padilla, Susie Sandoval, and Thomasita Yazzie). Some of their surnames are clearly Navajo. Wells listened to what they had to say:
The small amount we see of ceremony and meeting with the Elders is a very whittled down version of a real Navajo ceremony. Originally we saw all of it, but the Navajos I spoke to--with only one exception--said it was too sacred to depict. I cut it back and and back until they were satisfied.
I am glad to read that Wells cut it more than once until his readers were satisfied. But--I have many questions, because equally important to the story Wells tells are Pueblo peoples. He doesn't say he sent the manuscript to Pueblo Indian readers. I'm not sure what I'd have said...
Let's back up.
From the synopsis, we know an alien ship has crashed in Iowa and that Alice's dad has to go there. The boarding school Alice is sent to is the Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. Soon after Alice and her dad get to the site, the aliens start to emerge. The US government welcomes them and through a translator, figures out they call themselves the Guides. All but two are housed in a tent city next to the giant ship.
The school's gifted and talented student body is important to the story. Alice and her friends befriend the two Guides (these two are a brother and sister). Brynne, one of the Minnetonka students, tests the DNA of the girl alien (they call her Coya) and finds out that she's not an alien at all. She is human. Another student who is into languages records some of Coya's words, analyzes them, and figures out that Coya and her brother are speaking a Pueblo language:
"Keresan is a language spoken by half a dozen tribes in New Mexico. They're Pueblo tribes. Acoma, Laguna--those are the ones I've been to. There are others to the east."
"...the DNA databases I've searched say they're not any one of those tribes, but they have markers for being an older tribe that those are descendants from."
"the language is like a puebloan nation, but not. And the DNA is like a puebloan nation, but not. Are we talking about the Anasazi here?"
The conversation continues, with Brynne and Rachel giving the rest of the group some information about the Anasazi, including that the preferred name is Ancestral Puebloans.
So--Coya and her sibling and the Guides who were on that ship are not aliens. They're Ancestral Puebloans who were abducted by some bad aliens (they're called Masters), who we'll learn later, look like lizards. These bad aliens enslaved the Ancestral Puebloans and used them as incubators for parasites the Masters grow till they become like the Masters, too. How all that becomes known is laid out in the story in a gruesome discovery when Alice and her friends go onto the ship and find bloody rooms where, Alice's dad tells her, they think thousands committed mass suicide after puncturing their abdomens.
Are you unsettled by any of that? I am, and while that part of Dark Energy
has nothing to do with ceremony, it does a few things that I would have asked Wells to revisit.
This alien abduction idea is one that appears here and there. As I did some research, I read that tourists tell tour guides at Chaco Canyon that abduction story. It is part of an X-Files episode, too. All of this feeds into New Age activity that is harmful to the sites, which have significance to us today. Will Dark Energy
inadvertently encourage that abduction idea? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, consider sacred or significant aspects of your own spiritual or cultural or religious life and how they are (or could be) exploited by others who don't understand those ways.
I wonder if Wells took the feelings of Pueblo people into consideration? Why did he not ask Pueblo readers to read his manuscript? I think I can offer an answer. The entire story is dependent on abducted Ancestral Puebloans. If I said "no, don't go there," I can't imagine how this story could be told. Can you?
Another thread that I am uncomfortable with is the ways in which Alice and her friends go about teaching "our culture" to Coya. There are places in the story where Alice says something that tells us she's well aware of politics, history, and oppression of Native peoples, but there are other places where that orientation disappears, like when teaching Coya "our" culture. Alice is clearly a US teen, into things most other US teens are into, but for me, she slips in and out of a Navajo orientation in ways that I find jarring. At one point she talks sarcastically about small pox, and then at this "our culture" part, there's this:
It was amazing the things that she didn't have any concept of: awards, winning, competition, prizes.
And there is another part where another student (he's from India and has applied for US citizenship) and Alice are talking about what the government will do with the Guides. He says:
"I wonder what they'll do about the Guides' citizenship. They landed in America--does that make them American? It's not like we can load them on a bus and send them back to where they came from. Besides, from what you said, putting them on a bus would just be shipping them back to Mesa Verde, right?"
"I don't see us creating a new little nation for them, I said. "We've seen how well that's worked out in the past, with Native American reservations."
"I don't know what they'll be," I said. "These Guides are going to need a lot of education, and they don't have any money. Are we just going to give them free houses?"
See? Her voice, her orientation, her political knowledge.. it seems uneven, or, inconsistent.
As the story draws to a close, Alice and her friends are running, along with Coya and her brother, to the Navajo reservation where a ceremony will be done by a Hopi man who talks of monsters who came from the sky, and, a bundle with the skull of one of those monsters. It isn't clear to me who does a sandpainting of the ship... is it a Navajo man or the Hopi one? I can't tell, but, we learn that the Hopi learned how to kill the monsters, using a poison they make from juniper berries, dried insects, and dried flowers. Arrows are dipped into that poison. Alice and her friends go to Chaco Canyon, the Masters/Monsters arrive there.
Alice talks with one (through a translator mechanism that Coya and her brother have been using). It is angry. It asks her if she knows what her friends have cost his people. She says they're her
people. It replies:
"What do you mean 'your people'? These slaves were taken from this weak little planet more than eight hundred of your Earth years ago. We took only what we needed--we bred the rest. Your population is exploding. You seem to have more than enough to spare a few."
Some dramatic fighting ensues, but those poison tipped arrows do the trick. The four Masters/Monsters are killed.
These parts about enslavement are meant to make a point about enslavement of Africans and they're the part about history that the Kirkus reviewer referenced, but I don't know... It doesn't sit well with me.
What Wells does in Dark Energy
is too over-the-top and, as noted earlier, the abduction/alien theme plays into New Age abuses of our ancestral sites. I've read and re-read what I've written here, trying to bring it into a useful and coherent sharing of my thoughts, but I feel confounded by what I read in Dark Energy.
Obviously, I've decided to stop trying and just hit the upload button.
Published in 2016 by HarperCollins (a major publisher), I conclude with this: I do not recommend Dark Energy
by Robison Wells. I invite your thoughts.
Last year, I referenced S. D. Nelson's Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People in an article I did for School Library Journal. I hadn't read it then, and haven't studied it yet, but have had some questions about it (hence, it is now in my "Debbie--have you seen" category). I do have a copy and want to say a few words about it. (Update: It was published in 2015 by Abrams.)
I'm critical of books wherein the writer has invented dialogue for a real person. As a scholar in children's literature who works very hard to help others see biased, stereotypical, inaccurate, romantic and derogatory depictions of Native peoples in children's books, invented dialogue looms large for me.
In short: I need to know if there is evidence or documentation that the person actually said those words. This concern holds, whether the writer is Native or not.
In Nelson's Sitting Bull, the entire text is invented dialogue--and invented thoughts.
It is constructed as a first person biography. It is presented to us as if Sitting Bull is telling us his life story, after he's been killed. Along the way, we have some dialogue, but mostly we have what Nelson imagines Sitting Bull to have thought.
On February 1, 2016 in The Stories in Between, Julie Danielson wrote:
Increasingly, today’s readers also want to see dialogue attribution in the back matter of biographies. That’s because invented dialogue is still a touchy subject. You have those who think that it has no place and that any sort of made-up dialogue puts the biography squarely in the category of historical fiction. Then you have those who think such dialogue is acceptable, helps bring the story to life, and can still be considered nonfiction. In 2014, Betsy Bird wrote here about her changing feelings on the subject (“In general I stand by my anti-faux dialogue stance but recently I’ve been cajoled into softening, if not abandoning, my position”), which made me nod my head a lot.
Here’s where I (and many others) draw the line: if a biographer invents dialogue or shifts around facts in any sort of way, they need to come clean about this in the back matter. A great example of this is Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, the story of con artist Robert Miller, published last year and named a Kirkus Best Book of 2015. There’s a line in the starred review of the book that states: “The truth behind Miller’s exploits is often difficult to discern, and Pizzoli notes the research challenges in an afterword.”
"Come clean" is, perhaps, a loaded way to characterize what Danielson is calling for, but I think it is an important call. I want to know what Nelson made up.
Clearly, this is not a hard and fast rule. If it was, Sitting Bull
would not have been selected as an Honor Book by the American Indian Library Association. And--this isn't the first time the field of children's literature has looked critically at invented dialogue. Myra Zarnowski's chapter, Intermingling fact and Fiction
, published in 2001 in The Best in Children's Nonfiction,
has a good overview.
If I do an in-depth look at Sitting Bull
, I'll be back. For now, though, I am not comfortable recommending it, and I may revisit what I said about his Buffalo Bird Girl
when I wrote about it, back in 2013. It, too, is a biography.
I anticipate questions from readers who wonder if S.D. Nelson ought to get a pass on invented dialogue because he is Lakota. My question is: did he work with any of Sitting Bull's descendants as he wrote the story? Did any of them read the manuscript? If they did, and they found it acceptable, I'd love to see that in the book. On the cover, in fact! If I do hear anything like that, I'll be back to update this post.
|Debbie--have you seen...|
Adding Erin Petti's The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee
to my "have you seen" series. Here's the synopsis:
Eleven-year-old budding scientist Thelma Bee has adventure in her blood. But she gets more than she bargained for when a ghost kidnaps her father. Now her only clues are a strange jewelry box and the word “Return,” whispered to her by the ghost. It’s up to Thelma to get her dad back, and it might be more dangerous than she thought—there’s someone wielding dark magic, and they’re coming after her next.
No mention in the synopsis of a Native character, but Thelma's best friend, Alexander, is "part Native American."
I've got an ARC. If/when I read it, I'll be back!
Terrific news! Tomson Highway's Dragonfly Kites is available again--this time with art by Julie Flett!
Fifteen years ago, I learned about three delightful picture books by Tomson Highway. Illustrated by Brian Deines, each one had a great story that was presented in English and in Cree. Fox on the Ice
, Caribou Song
, and Dragonfly Kites
were published by a major publisher (HarperCollins) in Canada but went out of print. In 2008, I was able to get copies of them
In 2013, Fifth House reissued Caribou Song
with a new illustrator, John Rombough. It went on to win the picture book award from the American Indian Library Association. Highway is Cree; Rombough is Dene.
While the art Deines did in the early 2000s was realistic and had appeal for that realism, I gotta say that I really like Rombough's work. It is visually arresting and provides the opportunity to teach children about different kinds of art. I highly recommend Caribou Song
I am thrilled that Fifth House is giving us DragonFly Kites
this year. The illustrator is one of my favorite artists: Julie Flett. Here's the synopsis for Dragonfly Kites
Joe and Cody, two young Cree brothers, along with their parents and their little dog Ootsie, are spending the summer by one of the hundreds of lakes in northern Manitoba. Summer means a chance to explore the world and make friends with an array of creatures.
But what Joe and Cody like doing best of all is flying dragonfly kites. They catch dragonflies and gently tie a length of thread around the middle of each dragonfly before letting it go. Off soar the dragonflies into the summer sky and off race the brothers and Ootsie too, chasing after their dragonfly kites through trees and meadows and down to the beach before watching them disappear into the night sky.
As kids do, Joe and Cody befriend animals. One summer their pet was a baby Arctic tern they named Freddy. Another summer, they were fond of a baby loon that they named Sally. And on another summer, they were watching two baby eagles (not paginated):
They named one Migisoo, which means "eagle" in Cree. The other they named Wagisoo, which doesn't mean anything but rhymes with Migisoo.
Migisoo! Cracks me up! Here's that page, and look! That dog? That's Ootsie:Dragonfly Kites
will be at the top of my lists this year! And of course, I wonder... will Fifth House be giving us the third book (Fox On Ice)
, too? I hope so!
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Friday (April 8, 2016), I used Skype to give a long-distance talk for the Spotlight on Books conference in Minnesota. In the Q&A, I was asked about Jamake Highwater's Anpao. I've mentioned that book in many talks but have not yet done a stand-alone post here. Yesterday's question prompts me to finally do it.
Anpao came out in 1977. It won a Newbery Honor in 1978. The book was published in one of the many eras in which US society realizes its body of literature is too white.
Anpao was put forth as the work of a Native man, but "Jamake Highwater" was a pen name for a man named Jack Marks. He was not Native but for many years, he was receiving large grants intended for projects developed by Native people, including some by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
In 1983 Akwesasne Notes published an article by Highwater, in which he talked about being treated as a "second class Indian" because he had mixed heritage. Seeing that article, Hank Adams began meticulous research on him. Adams, Vine Deloria Jr., and Suzan Harjo worked together to get an expose published the following year, in Akwesasne Notes.
Does it matter that Highwater was not Native (he is deceased)? I think it does. In school, teachers often assign Author Studies--in which students are asked to read other items the author has done, study the works individually and as a whole, and see what sort of observations they may make in changes in an author's work over time. In most of the items I see about "Jamake Highwater," I don't see anything (in materials for children/teens) that includes the fact that he was not Native. They take his writing, then, as the writing of a Native person.
That leads me to Anpao as a work of literature. Can it be used to teach children or young adults about Native people?
My answer: no.
In the author's note, Marks/Highwater tells us that the character, Anpao, is a "central Indian hero" created by him from stories from Plains and Southwest peoples. I'm from one of those nations of the southwest. In one way after another, we're different from the Plains peoples. Just what did Marks/Highwater do to create this character? What did he take from the Plains, versus the Southwest peoples to make this "central Indian hero"?
As he travels, Anpao tells stories. But as he tells them, they are presented as if they belong to Anpao, this "central Indian hero." Everything, if we go along with the story, belongs to, and/or comes from, Anpao, the "central Indian hero." That, ironically, is precisely what the author did in creating this "Jamake Highwater" identity. He took from others, and called what he took, his own. That appropriation is a pattern in his work.
In Native American Representations, First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations (Bataille, 2001), Kathryn Shanley (a professor in Native American Studies at the University of Montana) analyzed one of his other books (The Primal Mind), and writes that Highwater (p. 38):
"felt he could take license with archived materials and claim the experiences contained in them as if they originate from his own personal knowledge and insight."
Shanley goes on to discuss that so many were duped by Highwater because he spoke in ways that met their expectations of what and how a Native person would be. In that expectation--driven by stereotypical and romantic ideas of who we are--Native people who do not speak
in that way are seen as "not Indian." Anpao
was published in 1977, but now--39 years later--Native writers are still faced with that sort of rejection of their work.
That is the status quo! Books with mystical Indians--like the grandmother in Emily Henry's The Love That Split the World--
are scooped up by major publishers.
That has to change. Everyone in children's literature has a responsibility to work towards that change. In the Summer 2015 issue of Children and Librarians
, Kathleen T. Horning included Highwater's fraud in her article, "Milestones for Diversity in Literature and Library Services." I hope you do your part. For further reading:Fool's Gold: The Story of Jamake Highwater, the Fake Indian Who Won't Die
by Alex Jacobs, in Indian Country Today Media NetworkAround the Campfire: Fake Indians
by Dean Chavers, in Native Times. An Open Letter to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post
by Hank Adams