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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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Several weeks ago, I was tagged in a Twitter conversation about William Grill's The Wolves of Currumpaw. The title rang a bell but I've not been able to recall why. Since then, I've had a chance to spend time with Grill's book.
Here's the synopsis:
The Wolves of Currumpaw is a beautifully illustrated modern re-telling of Ernest Thompson Seton's epic wilderness drama Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, originally published in 1898. Set in the dying days of the old west, Seton's drama unfolds in the vast planes of New Mexico, at a time when man's relationship with nature was often marked by exploitations and misunderstanding. This is the first graphic adaptation of a massively influential piece of writing by one of the men who went on to form the Boy Scouts of America.
The picture book is due out in the U.S. on July 12, 2016 from Flying Eye Books in London. It came out there in May. As the synopsis indicates, it is about Ernest Thompson Seton (founder of the Boy Scouts of America) and a wolf.
However, when I started to read the book, I was taken aback at two things: the illustrations of Native peoples, and, the absence of them from the text itself.
The first words of the book set its time and place: "The Old West, New Mexico, 1862."
The illustration shows an empty expanse of trees and in the distance, some mountains. New Mexico became a territory of the United States in 1848. By 1851, there were over 1000 US soldiers in the territory.
Later in The Wolves of Currumpaw
, we learn that the story itself is set in Clayton, New Mexico, which is located in the northeast corner of the state. That means it was in the area of the country that was the homelands for Plains tribes like the Comanches, Cheyennes, or Kiowas.
The first full sentence in The Wolves of Currumpaw
is on page 5:
Half a million wolves once roamed freely across North America, but with the arrival of European settlers the habitats of the animals began to change.
On the facing page, the text is:
These were the dying days of the old west and the fate of wolves was sealed in it.
See? No mention of Native peoples for whom that area was their homelands. How convenient. Most people, by default, use "settlers" to describe those people. That word is seen, by some, as neutral. Others use "invaders" or "occupiers" or "squatters" to call our attention to the political and imperialism that was going on.
Reading the illustrations on page 5, however, the story is a troubling mix of inaccuracy, stereotyping, and a deeply disturbing image of what is meant to be an Native man on his knees, arms raised as if praying or pleading, in front of three soldiers who have their guns aimed at him. Here's the full page:
Numbering the images left to right, row by row, here's the story I discern and my thoughts on that story, too:
1. The US flag is shown as moving from the East Coast across to the West Coast. That's a graphic depiction of Manifest Destiny. I think white people were using the Santa Fe Trail to move to New Mexico. One problem with that depiction of the movement of white people is that it obscures history and the actual movements of Europeans into the southwest. The Spanish invaders were in the southwest long before the 1800s.
2. A white man in a red coat, and his child, are scoping out the land, deciding where to put their house. We don't know where that house is located, specifically. Somewhere near Clayton, New Mexico, but where? And what is the history of that particular land and who it belonged to at that moment in time? Since this book is, ultimately, about wolves, I guess we're not expected to ask those questions. That is not what the book is about, I imagine people saying. Those who put forth that response think I, and others who raise such questions, have "an agenda" as if they, themselves, don't! They do. Their push back is evidence of their agenda.
3. The white man's home is finished.
4. A white man in a black coat, shaking hands with an Indian man. Why? Did they, just at that moment in the story, meet?! Are they saying hello to each other? We don't know. Because we don't have enough information, I'm using "Indian" to describe the man. If Grill was being tribally specific, he might have told us the man's tribal nation. But again--this book is not about Indians, so, to Grill and those who read it as such, I'm probably asking an annoying question.
5. An Indian man on horse, hunting buffalo.
6. White men with rifles, killing many buffalo.
7. White men proud of how many buffalo they have killed.
The illustration of the man standing on a huge pile of buffalo skulls is based on a famous photograph dated 1892. Here they are, side by side. On the left is the original photograph
, housed in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. A handwritten note on back says "C.D. 1892 Glueworks, office foot of 1st St., works at Rougeville, Mich."
The handwritten note on back is 1892; Grill's book is set 30 years earlier in a different state. Does it matter? Yes! The wholesale slaughter of buffalo is one of the darkest moments in US history. Consider, for example, what General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1868 to General Sheridan:
"[A]s long as Buffalo are up on the Republican the Indians will go there. I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all. Until the Buffalo and consequent[ly] Indians are out [from between] the Roads we will have collisions and trouble" (Smits, 1994).
Grill's use of the photograph is apparently a set-up for the next image...
8. An Indian man points to buffalo skulls on the ground. We can interpret that to mean he's giving the white man heck for his role in the slaughters. Without a doubt, Native peoples objected to what white people did, but Grill's telling of history is a wreck. What happens in the next few illustrations is deeply disturbing.
9. White men build fence right through Indian tipis. The Indian man appears to be saying "stop" to the white man.
10. The white man and the Indian man fight.
11. The Indian man, on his knees, appears to either pray or plead with three U.S. soldiers as they level their rifles at him.
12. Indians being led away.
It is hard for me to come up with words to describe #11. I wonder how Grill came up with that particular illustration? What did he read? Why did he think an illustration like that ought to be part of the story he tells? Did his editor ask him about it? What did he say? It is, of course, a brutally violent image. And while that sort of thing did happen, historically, it does strike me as the sort of thing that most people would deem as being inappropriate for seven year old readers (the book is marked as being for children aged 7 - 14 years). But it isn't noted in the review from Publisher's Weekly
or from Kirkus
either. Did they notice it?
And that last image, of the Indians, being taken away by armed men on horses. That marks the end of Native peoples in Grill's book. The sentence at top of the next (facing) page is:
These were the dying days of the old west and the fate of wolves was sealed in it.
No mention of Native peoples in that sentence, and no reference to Native peoples in the set of illustrations below that sentence either. From there, the story moves to how the white people's livestock is being killed by wolves, and so, the wolves are killed.
In the next dated section (1893) the story shifts to a legendary wolf. There's a reference in the text there:
Old Lobo, or the King, as the natives called him, was the great leader of a notorious pack of grey wolves.
On the next page, Grill gives us names for the wolves (Lobo, Grey Wolf, and Blanca) and white people (Seton, LaLoche, Tannery, and Calone). But, no tribal or personal names.
Overall, we're meant to admire how smart Lobo is, and we're meant to be troubled by what Seton does in his effort to kill Lobo. It is gruesome in parts, and, his use of Lobo's mate (Blanca) as a lure is unsettling. In the end, Lobo dies in captivity. Again, I wonder about the book and its use with young children. The final chapter is about Seton's turning about. Full of regret he becomes a key figure in protecting wolves and other wildlife. In 1902, he founded the Woodcraft Indians.
I truly do not understand the thinking behind this story. It is gratuitous in its violence. If the point is to understand a man's turning point, do we really need page after page about the things he did to try to kill this wolf? Some of it is meant to tell us the wolf was cunning, but the bulk of The Wolves of Currumpaw
is about trying to capture that wolf.
That image of the three soldiers with rifles pointed at the Indian man... that, too, is gratuitous. The history is wrong, the story us needlessly violent, and as such, I can't recommend The Wolves of Currumpaw.
And I do not understand why Publisher's Weekly
gave it a starred review. This review feels ragged as I read and re-read it. I may be back to polish it, but my inability to get to a place where I feel it is ready to share is an indicator of how messed up it is.Works Cited:
Smits, David D. The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865-1883.
In The Western Historical Quarterly
, Vol 25 #3, Autumn, 1994, pp. 312-338.
Cammie McGovern's Just My Luck is new this year (2016) from HarperCollins. A reader wrote to ask me about it, because Indian in the Cupboard is part of the story.
I started reading it two days ago and kept setting it aside. The main character is a 4th grader named Benny. His brother, George, is in 6th grade, and is "medium-functioning autistic" (p. 16). I hope Disability in Kidlit finds someone to review it. Some time back, I read their review of Anne Ursu's The Real Boy. I love that book. One thing that stood out in the review was that the story is told from the perspective of the autistic child, rather than from outsider's who gawk at him. There are pages in Just My Luck where it feels like someone is gawking at George.
I got to page 49 and paused. At that point in the story, Benny is with his older brother, Martin, who is on his first date with Lisa. They go into a Barnes & Noble, where Lisa asks Benny what he's reading (p. 49):
She said she knew it sounded childish but her favorite books were still the Little House on the Prairie series that she read when she was in Mr. Norris's class. "I just love them," she said."
Benny has a crush on Lisa, and so, he says he loves them, too. He's never read them, but their mother used to make them watch the TV show. Two weeks later when she's visiting their house, Benny pretends to be reading Little House in the Big Woods.
Lisa exclaims that it is her favorite book.
I wonder if McGovern read that book recently? In Little House in the Big Woods
, Pa tells the girls how he, as a young boy, would play that he was a mighty hunter stalking wild animals and Indians. Stalking Indians. Do you remember that part of that book? Do you know any other book for kids that has someone hunting another person or people?
I wanted to throw Just My Luck
across the room when I got to that part and I want to ask McGovern if she remembers that passage.
On page 64, Lisa tells Benny that Mr. Norris read Indian in the Cupboard
aloud to them when she was in his class and that he dressed up as characters, too. That was five years back. Benny is in Mr. Norris's class now and he's not done anything like that. Benny tells his mom that Mr. Norris wasn't reading Indian in the Cupboard
to them, so, his mom gets the book from the library and starts reading it aloud, doing the voices as she does (p. 72):
It turns out he's [Little Bear] not only alive, but he's a real person from history, an Iroquois who's fighting battles with the French and English. So Mom has to talk like him, which George loves because he doesn't talk very well. George keeps laughing until Mom tells him it isn't really funny. "In fact," she says, "it perpetuates a lot of negative stereotypes about Native Americans, which is probably why Mr. Norris isn't reading this book out loud to his class anymore."
Then she keeps on reading. She's decided, apparently, that she's going to perpetuate those stereotypes herself. That doesn't add up, does it? And it doesn't seem very caring of her to lay into George like she did, either. She's deliberately being an animated reader, which prompts a response from her autistic son, and she scolds him?! And keeps reading?!
Throughout the next chapters, Benny thinks about toys coming to life. He wants a cupboard so he can bring his Legos to life. Several times, he thinks about Indian in the Cupboard
as he develops the idea for how he'll use his Legos to make a movie. Later, they find out why Mr. Norris isn't doing the things he used to do. It isn't because he's recognized the problems in Indian in the Cupboard.
It is because he's got to take care of his own autistic son, and he's exhausted. He has no time or energy to do the things he used to do.
I don't like Just My Luck.
If Disability in Kidlit reviews it, I'll be back to point to their review. For now, the Native content alone is enough for me to say that I do not recommend Just My Luck.
This particular "Debbie--have you seen" is here, not because someone asked me about it, but because it was recommended on child_lit a few days ago because it has an Ojibwe character.
The character in The Case of the Portrait Vandal is "Raining Sam" as shown in the synopsis:
There's a vandal in the Capitol City Museum of American History, and he or she is intent on defacing priceless artifacts. Raining Sam, the son of the Head of Educational Programs and local Ojibwe tribe member, is determined to get to the bottom of things before anything else can be destroyed. But when Raining himself is considered a suspect, he and his friends must race against the clock to unmask the real culprit and solve the museum mystery before it's too late.
The name, "Raining Sam" and then "Raining" as his first name throughout is a bit of a stumbling block for me. But I do like this part about Wilson (Raining's friend):
Wilson knew about Raining's interest in American history, especially the history of his own people, the Ojibwe. The tribe had been on the continent known as North America a lot longer than some other people.
I also like the part where Wilson can tell that their two friends are approaching because Wilson knows what their footsteps sound like (p. 15):
"Amazing," said Raining, standing up from his spot at the table. "And people think we're supposed to be the trackers." It bugged Raining that people he met still assumed certain things about North America's indigenous people."
The book is part of a mystery series starring four kids whose parents work in museums. Here's a screen capture of them. On the far left is Wilson. Next to him is Amal. By her is Clementine, and, that's Raining on the far right.
Published in 2015 by Capstone, there's a copy of The Case of the Portrait Vandal
on the new books shelf in my local library. I'll be back when I get a chance to read it. It
Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer's I Am Not A Number
, illustrated by Gillian Newland and due out from Second Story Press on October 4th of this year (2016), is one of the books I will recommend to teachers and librarians.
Dupuis is a member of the Nipissing First Nation
In 1928, Dupuis's grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, was taken to a residential school in Canada. "Residential" is the term used in Canada for the schools created by the Canadian government. They are similar to the government boarding schools in the U.S. These were schools designed to "christianize" and "civilize" Native children. Some of them were mission schools where efforts were made to convert the children to whatever denomination ran the school.I Am Not A Number
opens with a frightening moment. An Indian agent is at their door, to take Irene and her brothers to residential school. When Irene's mother tries to keep Irene, the agent says "Give me all three or you'll be fined or sent to jail." Irene's parents, like many Native parents, were coerced into giving up their children.
When Irene arrives at the school and tells the nun (it is a mission school run by the Catholic Church) her name, she's told "We don't use names here. All students are known by numbers. You are 759." Irene thinks to herself that she is not a number, hence, the title for the book.
Her hair, as the cover shows, was cut. That happened to children when they arrived at the schools. It was one in a long string of traumatic moments that Native children experienced at residential or boarding schools.
Another was being punished for using their own language. At one point, Irene gives another girl a piece of bread. The girls speak briefly to each other in their language, Ojibwe. One of the nuns hits Irene with a wooden spoon, telling her "That's the devil's language." The nun drags Irene away for "a lesson." The lesson? Using a bedpan filled with hot coals to burn Irene's hands and arms. It was one kind of abuse that children received, routinely.
Irene's story ends on a different note than many of the residential and boarding school stories. She and her brothers go home for the summer. What she tells her parents about her time at the school moves them to make plans so that Irene and her brothers don't go back. When the agent shows up in the fall, the children hide in their dad's workshop. The agent looks for them, but Irene's dad challenges the agent, saying "Call the police. Have me arrested." In a low, even voice, he tells the agent that he (the agent) will never take his children away again. In the Afterword, Dupuis writes that her grandmother was only at the school for that one year. Her father's resistance worked. She was able to stay home, with her family.
Residential and boarding school stories are hard to read, but they're vitally important. In the back matter, Dupuis and Kacer provide historical information about the residential school system. They reference the report the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
(the TRC) released in 2015, too. The work of the TRC is being shared in Canada, and books like I Am Not A Number
should be taught in schools in Canada, and the U.S., too. In my experience, schools don't hesitate to share stories of "savage Indians" who "massacre" those "innocent settlers." In fact, the Native peoples who fought those settlers were fighting to protect their own families and homelands. Depicting them as aggressors is a misrepresentation of history. The history of the US and Canada is far more complex than is taught. It is way past time that we did a better job of teaching children the facts.
I'll end with this: I'm thrilled whenever I see books in which the author/publisher have opted not to use italics for the words that aren't English ones. There's no italics when we read miigwetch (thank you) and other Ojibwe words in I Am Not A Number.
Kudos to Second Story Press for not using italics.
Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins is set on San Nicolas Island, a small island off the coast of Santa Barbara California. In the Author’s Note at the back of the book, O’Dell writes that “[t]he girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853, and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas” (p. 187). Because nobody could understand her language, her given name is not known. Named Juana Maria by the Mission priest who took her in at Santa Barbara Mission, she died six weeks after her rescue. To anthropologists, the people of the island are known as Nicoleños.
In his story, O’Dell changes Juana Maria’s status to a twelve-year old girl named Karana. As the story opens, Karana and her little brother Romo are digging roots when a ship arrives. On board is a Russian captain named Orlov who has come with forty of his (Aleut) men to hunt sea otter. Based on past experiences, Chief Chowig (Karana’s father) and Orlov have a tense discussion about what the Ghalas-at will receive in return for the otters that will be taken from the waters that abut the island. Months later when Orlov readies to leave without holding up his end of the bargain, a fight breaks out. Most of the men of Ghalas-at, including Chowig, are killed. Two years later, the survivors are rescued. After the rescue ship leaves the cove, Karana realizes Romo is not on board. She jumps ship to stay with him and wait for another rescue ship. Soon after, wild dogs kill Romo, and Karana is alone until her rescue.
Her years on the island make survival a central theme of the story. During that time, she builds several shelters, makes weapons that only men are supposed to make (according to tribal traditions), finds food, fights wild dogs, befriends a large dog that she thinks came to the island with the Russian ship and then when he dies, tames a wild dog that she thinks was fathered by the large dog. She survives an earthquake, a tsunami, and several harsh winter storms.
At the close of the story, she is leaving the island. Based on the text, she has been there at least four years. On page 162, the text reads that two years have passed since the Aleuts had been on the island. At that point, Karana stopped counting the passage of time. One spring, there is an earthquake. As she makes a new shelter, she sees a ship and at first, she hides from the two men who come ashore. She decides she wants to be with people again, and rushes down to the cove but the canoe is gone. Two years pass and a ship returns. This time, she doesn’t hide. When the ship leaves, she is on board with her dog and two caged birds.
A few words about Scott O’Dell
Born in Los Angeles, California in 1898, O’Dell died in 1989. He spent the first thirty years of his adult life working in Hollywood as a cameraman and writer. In 1920, a California newspaper misprinted Odell Gabriel Scott’s name as Scott O’Dell. Liking the misprint, Scott legally changed his name and from then on, was known as Scott O’Dell. In 1947, he became the book editor for the Los Angeles Daily News (Payment, 2006).
In addition to his writing, O’Dell spent time with his father on his orange grove ranch, where he visited ranches of Spanish families of the Pomona Valley and listened to their stories of the past. This led him to write three novels for adults, and a history of California.
In 1957, O’Dell published Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal History and Guide. Therein, he references Helen Hunt Jackson’s articles, published in 1882 in Century Magazine, about the mistreatment of the Cupeno Indians of California. He also references her novel, Ramona, published in 1884, saying her novel “had about the same impact as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Overnight, the country was aroused to the plight of the Southern California Indian” (p. 52). Country of the Sun includes two pages about “The Lost Woman of San Nicolas Island”.
O’Dell developed the story into a book-length manuscript and showed it to Maud Lovelace (author of the Betsy-Tacy books). She persuaded him “that it was a book for children, and a very good one” (Scott O’Dell, n.d.). Lovelace penned the biography for O’Dell when he won the Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins. She concludes the biography with “Scott O’Dell’s life brought him naturally a knowledge of Indians, dogs, and the ocean; and he was born with an inability to keep from writing. So he gave us the moving legend of Karana” (p. 108).
In his acceptance speech, O’Dell referenced animal cruelty and forgiveness as themes that are present in his book. He also spoke at length of Antonio Garra, a Cupeno Indian man who, just before he was executed under bogus charges, said “I ask your pardon for all my offenses, and I pardon you in return” (O’Dell, p. 103). O’Dell went on to say that this man, of a peaceful tribe, is unknown to the world because he was peaceful rather than “like Geronimo” (p. 103). Karana, he said, belonged to a tribe like Garra’s. He concluded his speech saying that Karana, before her people were killed, lived in a world where “everything lived only to be exploited” but that she “made the change from that world” to “a new and more meaningful world” because she learned that “we each must be an island secure unto ourselves” where we “transgress our limits” in a “reverence for all life” (p. 104).
Acclaim and Critiques of Island of the Blue Dolphins
Island of the Blue Dolphins received glowing reviews and went on to win the Newbery Award. It was made into a movie in 1964 and has since been made into audio recordings several times. The National Council of Teachers of English listed it on its “Books for You” in 1972, 1976, and 1988. In 1976, the Children’s Literature Association named it one of the ten best American children’s books of the past 200 years (O’Dell, 1990). It is the subject of numerous amateur videos on YouTube and there are volumes of lesson plans written for teachers. Over the years, the cover has changed several times. As of this writing, it has 734 customer reviews on Amazon.com. Thirty-three readers gave it one star, while over 600 gave it four or five stars.
In 1990, Island of the Blue Dolphins was republished, with illustrations rendered by Ted Lewin, and an introduction by Zena Sutherland. A fiftieth anniversary edition was published in 2010, with a new introduction by Lois Lowry. She showers O’Dell’s novel with praise, noting that he “masterfully” brings the reader onto the island (O’Dell, 2010). In 2010, School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird listed it as one of the Top 100 Children’s Novels (Reese, 2010). In 2010, the book was listed in second place on Amazon’s list of “Bestsellers in Children’s Native American Books” (Reese, 2010).
In the academic literature, Maher (1992) writes that Island of the Blue Dolphins is a “counterwestern” that gives “voice to the oppressed, to those who lost their lands and their cultures” (p. 216). Tarr (1997) disagrees with that assessment, asserting that the reader’s uncritical familiarity with stereotypical depictions of American Indians is the reason it has fared so well. Moreover, Tarr (2002) writes that the stoic characterization of Karana and her manner of speaking without contractions are stereotypical Hollywood Indian depictions rather than one that might be called authentic. Placing the novel in a social and historical context gives depth to Tarr’s statement and also explains why it is so popular.
Island of the Blue Dolphins in a Social and Historical Context
In the years preceding the publication of Island of the Blue Dolphins, America was enjoying the heyday of Hollywood Westerns that depicted savage Indians who terrorized settlers and captured their women, and heroic White men who courted Indian maidens and bemoaned the way Indians were treated by Whites. John Ford’s Stagecoach(1939) follows a stagecoach of travelers who must be mindful of Indian attacks. Broken Arrow (1950) featured Jimmy Stewart as a man in love with an Apache girl and who, out of love and sympathy, tries to help make peace between the Apaches and the U.S. troops. In The Searchers (1956), John Wayne plays the role of a man on the search for a White girl who had been abducted by Indians.
Some of the research that went into Country of the Sun reappears in Island.Presumably, O’Dell conducted his research during the 1950s. That decade was a devastating time for several American Indian nations, a time during which their identity as sovereign nations was again under government attack. It is useful to review how they came to be known as sovereign nations.
From the moments of their arrival on the continent now called North America, Europeans encountered well-ordered nations or tribes of Indigenous peoples, each with its own territories and forms of governance. Recognition of that nationhood is evident in the treaties European heads of state made with their counterparts amongst the 500+ sovereign Indigenous nations (Deloria and DeMallie, 1999). In the treaties, lands were ceded to the United States in return for federally provided health care, housing, and education. As time passed, various entities wanted to nullify the treaties, thereby discontinuing federal funding to tribes and making available lands held by tribes. Desire for land, coupled with the rampant corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs that had federal oversight for the tribes, led Congress to terminate its nation-to-nation relationship with the tribes through a policy outlined in House Concurrent Resolution 108 (Wilkinson and Biggs, 1977) that led to several public laws enacted by Congress, including the California Rancheria Termination Act (Public Law 85-671). Through the Termination period (1953-1962), over one hundred bands, communities, and rancherias (California Mission Indians) in California were terminated (Nies, 1996). Given his care to include mistreatment of California Indians in the 1800s, it is curious that O’Dell does not reference any of the Terminations in Country of the Sun.
Emma Hardacre’s Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island
As noted, Island of the Blue Dolphins is based on the life of Juana Maria. At the time of his research, the resources he had available to him about Juana Maria were newspaper accounts and articles about her. Emma Hardacre’s “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” was first published in Scribner’s Monthly in 1880, and then again in 1950 and 1973. Hardacre begins by noting that Robinson Crusoe is a work of fiction, whereas the story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island was true. In Santa Barbara, people spoke less and less about the “widow, between twenty and thirty years of age” who leapt from the ship to be with her child who had accidentally been left behind (p. 75).
Years later, a Mission priest named Father Gonzales commissioned Thomas Jeffries to go to San Nicolas to see if she was still alive. Jeffries (p. 277):
found the remains of a curious hut, made of whales’ ribs planted in a circle, and so adjusted as to form the proper curve of a wigwam-shaped shelter. This he judged to have been formerly either the residence of the chief or a place of worship where sacrifices were offered. He had picked up several ollas, or vessels of stone, and one particularly handsome cup of clouded green serpentine.
More interesting to Jeffries was the abundance of sea otter. Soon after his return to the mainland, he returned to the island with George Nidiver and a crew of Indians on an otter hunt. For six weeks, they hunted seal and otter. Leaving the island, a sailor said he thought he saw a human figure calling to them, but the figure vanished.
On their third trip to hunt at the island, Nidiver saw a footprint and exclaimed that the woman was alive. The next day, Nidiver found a basket that contained “bone needles, thread made of sinews, shell fishhooks, ornaments, and a partially completed robe of birds’ plumage, made of small squares neatly matched and sewed together” (p. 279). In their search of the inland, they found “several circular, roofless inclosures [sic], made of woven brush. Near these shelters were poles, with dried meat hanging from elevated crosspieces” (p. 279). Not finding the woman, they determined the footprint was older than they thought, and some thought that she was probably dead. Fishing continued for several weeks. Nidiver believed she might be alive and hiding and decided to look until he found her or her remains.
A search was organized. They found the whale bone house, where “rushes were skillfully interlaced in the rib framework; an olla and old basket were near the door.” (p. 279). Climbing over slippery rocks, they found fresh footprints and followed them up a cliff. Brown, a fisherman, saw the woman in an enclosure and approached her. A pack of dogs growled at him but ran away when she uttered a cry that silenced them. She did not see Brown approaching. Hardacre reports that “the complexion of the woman was much fairer than the ordinary Indian, her personal appearance pleasing, features regular, her hair, thick and brown, falling about her shoulders in a tangled mat” (p. 280). She was anxiously watching the men below her dwelling. Brown signaled to the men that he had found her and that they should approach. When he spoke to her, she ran a few steps, then (p. 280):
instantly controlling herself, stood still, and addressed him in an unknown tongue. She seemed to be between forty and fifty years of age, in fine physical condition, erect, with a well-shaped neck and arms and unwrinkled face. She was dressed in a tunic-shaped garment made of birds’ plumage, low in the neck, sleeveless, and reaching to the ankle.
She greeted the other men and then set about preparing a meal for them that consisted of roasted roots. Through gestures, they communicated that she was to go with them. She understood immediately and put her things in pack baskets.
On board their ship, Brown wanted to preserve her feather dress, and so made her a petticoat of ticking. He gave her a man’s cotton shirt and a neckerchief. She watched Brown closely as he sewed, and showed him how she used her bone needle to puncture the cloth and then put thread through the perforations. Through gestures, she told Brown of her years on the island, how she made fire “by rapidly rubbing a pointed stick along the groove of a flat stick until a spark was struck” and that she was careful not to let it go out, covering her home fire with ashes to preserve it. She ate fish, seals’ blubber, roots, and shellfish, and she used bird skins for clothing. Her main dwelling was a large cave on the north end of the island.
On arrival in Santa Barbara, people flocked to Nidiver’s home to see her. Through gestures, she told Nidiver’s wife that dogs had eaten her baby and how she grieved its loss. She also communicated her dread of being alone, her years of hope for rescue, and at last, resignation at being alone. Nidiver was unable to find anyone amongst the Indians in the Missions who could understand her language. They learned some of her words: “A hide she called to-co (to-kay); a man, nache (nah-chey); the sky, te-gua (tay-gwah); the body, pinche (pin-oo-chey)” (p. 283). She was so gentle and modest that some believed she was not an Indian, but “a person of distinction cast away by shipwreck” (p. 283). She got weaker and weaker and when she was near death, Nidiver’s wife asked Father Sanchez to baptize her. He did so, giving her the name Juana Maria. She was buried in a walled cemetery and the mission fathers “sent her feather robes to Rome. They were made of the satiny plumage of the green cormorant, the feathers pointing downward, and so skillfully matched as to seem one continuous sheen of changeful luster” (p. 284).
The academic resources on the people of San Nicolas Island were scant at that time that O’Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins. Archeological studies post-1960 have generated a richer body of materials. Pre-1960, O’Dell likely drew from resources he used when writing his history of California. These included Kroeber’s handbook. He reports that her speech (language) was “thoroughly unintelligible” to Chumash Indians in the area and to Indians from Santa Catalina Island as well (p. 634). Most dwellings, Kroeber wrote, “were reared on a frame of whale ribs and jaws, either covered with sea-lion hides or wattled with brush or rushes” (p. 634). Dugout canoes “may have been burned from drift logs” (p. 634). Seals, water birds, fish, and mollusks were the primary source of food, supplemented by roots. He concludes with “whether the toloache cult or the image form of mourning anniversary had reached the island must remain in abeyance; and as to society, there is total ignorance. Ghalas-at has been given as the name of the island. This is perhaps the native or the Chumash pronunciation of Gabrielino Haras-nga” (p. 635.)
O’Dell may have read a study published in an archeological journal in 1953. Meighan and Eberhart’s study stated that “ethnographically, almost nothing is known of the tribe” and that there was a “virtual absence of trade goods, in particular glass beads” (p. 109). They reference the possessions of the woman as follows: “a well made sinew rope 25 feet long and one-half inch in diameter, thought to have been used in snaring sleeping seals” and, “sinew fishing line; bone and abalone shell fishhooks; bone needles; bone knives, and a knife made of a piece of iron hoop stuck in a rough wooden handle” (p. 112). Items found on the island include mats and skirt fragments made of eel grass, grass skirts, woven bags, woven baskets, stone knives with wooden handles, a stone drill with a wooden handle, wooden knife handles, a wooden ladle, an arrow shaft, a wooden dark foreshaft with bone bars, a drill with wooden shaft and stone point, harpoon points, a great many mortars and pestles, steatite dishes and bowls, stone beads and pendants, bird and sea-lion claws used as pendants, stone ground spoons and ladles . Meighan and Eberhart report four Nicoleno words: “tokay (hide), nahchey (man), taygway (sky), and pinoochey (body). Bird bones were used to make beads, whistles, awls, and fishhooks. Fish and shellfish were the primary source of food, including abalone, rock scallops, mussels, limpets, and sea urchins.
Clearly, these two key sources say little was known about the people of Ghalas-at and the woman at the heart of O’Dell’s novel. And yet, he was able to write a novel of 186 pages. With this survey of the source material of that time, I turn to a close read of specific passages from the story.
A Close Read of Island of the Blue Dolphins
In the following table, the left column contains a selection of material from the story. In the right column are notes specific to the information in the left column. Some of the passages are not addressed in the Discussion following the table; they are retained in the table for further research.
| || |
“I remember the day the Aleut ship came to our island” (p. 9)
“I” is Karana. On page 12, O’Dell tells us the name of the island: Ghalas-at. The Aleut’s are an Indigenous people from what came to be known as Alaska. During the time of the novel (1835), the Aleuts were enslaved by Russians and forced to hunt sea otters (Pullar, 1996).
Karana describes Romo, her 6-year old brother: “He was small for one who had lived so many suns and moons” (p. 9)
Writers often use the cliché “many moons ago” when writing from an Indian point of view. Though it is obvious that people who do not speak English would have words in their language for sun or moon or the passage of time, the “many moons ago” idiom, inserted into the mind/mouth of any Native character obscures the diversity of language.
When Romo sees the Aleut ship, he describes it as “a small cloud” (p. 10).
In Country of the Sun
, O’Dell recounts a Cahuilla legend, “The Lost Spanish Galleon” (p. 147) that begins with Cahuilla men seeing a Spanish galleon and thinking it was a cloud.
As Orlov comes ashore, “Half the men from our village stood at the water’s edge. The rest were concealed among the rocks at the foot of the trail, ready to attack the intruders should they prove unfriendly” (p. 12).
In Country of the Sun
, when the Spanish galleon is sighted, O’Dell writes “The Cahuillas hid themselves behind rocks along the shore” and their chief “cautioned his people to remain hidden” (p. 148).
When Captain Orlov comes ashore and begins negotiations with Karana’s father who is chief of the people at Ghalas-at, Karana is surprised that her father gives Orlov his seldom used and secret “real” name (Chowig) because “if people use your secret name it becomes worn out and loses its magic” (p. 13).
Look for: Names and their power.
“Karana” is the protagonists’ secret name. Her common name is “Won-a-pa-lei” which means “The Girl with the Long Black Hair” (p. 13).
The translation does not make sense, given the likelihood that all the girls would have long black hair.
The Aleuts come ashore, and Karana sees “a tall man with a yellow beard” (p. 12).
In Country of the Sun
, Yuma Indians and a “bearded” Spanish captain come ashore (p. 148).
The night Orlov arrives, her father “warned everyone in the village of Ghalas-at against visiting the camp. “The Aleuts come from a country far to the north,” he said. “Their ways are not ours nor is their language” (p. 17).
From O’Dell’s Country of the Sun:
The night the Spanish came ashore, “Darkness fell and the Cahuillas went silently back to their village and held council far into the night. The older men, who had heard tales of Spanish greed and ferocity, were in favor of abandoning the village and taking the women and children into the mountains. But the younger men, proud of their heritage as warriors and jealous of it, prevailed” (p. 148). They lay plans for an attack.
Each night, people in the tribe “counted the dead otter and thought of the beads and other things that each pelt meant” (p. 23).
Karana does not like the slaughter of the otters she regards as friends she would have fun watching as they played. “It was more fun than the thought of beads to wear around my neck” (p. 23).
This is O’Dell’s first mention of beads. Presumably, the negotiations that took place when Orlov landed included beads but this was not specified.
In Country of the Sun:
The next morning, the Spanish gave each of the Indians “a handful of beaded trinkets” (p. 149).
The beads story works because it plays on the idea that Indians are not smart enough to know that their land and resources aren’t worth more than beads. Williams’ analysis of Dutch, Manhattan, beads is excellent.
Karana’s father sends young men “to the beach to build a canoe from a log which had drifted in from the sea” (p. 24).
Kroeber: Canoes “may have been burned from drift logs” (p. 634).
Orlov and his men prepare to leave without paying for the otter pelts. Chowig speaks to Orlov, who signals his men to bring a black chest to the island: “Captain Orlov raised the lid and pulled out several necklaces. There was little light in the sky, yet the beads sparkled as he turned them this way and that” (p. 27)
The archeological record (Kroeber/Meighan & Eberhart) does not list sparkly beads recovered on San Nicolas Island.
Items Karana has in a basket she carries onto the rescue ship: “three fine needles of whalebone, an awl for making holes, a good stone knife for scarping hides, two cooking pots, and a small box made from a shell with many earrings in it” (p. 42).
References to these items are in the historical record.
Karana’s sister, Ulape, “had two boxes of earrings, for she was vainer than I, and when she put them into her basket, she drew a thin mark with blue clay across her nose and cheekbones. The mark meant that she was unmarried” (p. 42).
An assumption that Karana and her people had the same ideas of beauty (vanity) that O’Dell did.
After she leaps off the boat and is back on shore, “The only thing that made me angry was that my beautiful skirt of yucca fibers, which I had worked on so long and carefully, was ruined” (p. 47).
An assumption that Karana and her people held the same ideas of beauty that O’Dell did.
Romo declares that, as son of Chowig, he is now Chief of Ghalas-at. Karana replies that before he can be the chief, he must become a man: “As is the custom, therefore, I will have to whip you with a switch of nettles and then tie you to a red ant hill” (p. 51).
O’Dell’s likely source for this is Kroeber’s Handbook of the Indians of California, Volume 2.
On page 672, he describes “The Ant Ordeal” that may have been part of the “Toloache Initiation” of Luiseno boys: “The boys were laid on ant hills, or put into a hole containing ants. More of the insects were shaken over them from baskets in which they had been gathered. The sting or bite of the large ant smarts intensely, and the ordeal was a severe one, and rather doubtfully ameliorated when at the conclusion the ants were whipped from the body by nettles.”
Romo has “a strong of sea-elephant teeth which someone had left behind” (p. 50).
Meighan references sea-lion claws used as pendants.
Karana needs weapons: “The laws of Ghalas-at forbade the making of weapons by women of the tribe, so I went out to search for any that might have been left behind” (p. 58.)
Thinking the chest Orlov left may have an iron spearhead, Karana digs up the chest and finds it “filled with beads and bracelets and earrings of many colors” (p. 59). There are no spearheads in the chest.
Reference to beads draws on “primitive” (stupid) Indians who sold Manhattan for beads.
Karana “wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women—if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself” (p. 61).
Future research on weaponry.
“There was a legend among our people that the island had once been covered with tall trees. This was a long time ago, at the beginning of the world when Tumaiyowit and Mukat ruled. The two gods quarreled about many things. Tumaiyowit wished people to die. Mukat did not. Tumaiyowit angrily went down, down to another world under this world, taking his belongs with him, so people die because of him” (p. 82).
This story, from the Cupeno Indians, appears in Country of the Sun
in “Revolt in the Mountains” as follows: “One of the most dramatic and current [myths of creation], as recounted by Salvador Cuevas, a Luiseno, has the world and everything in it created by the gods Tumaiyowit and Mukat. The gods quarreled and argued about their respective ages. They disagreed about many things. Tumaiyowit wished people to die. Mukat did not. Tumaiyowit went down, down to another world under this world, takig his belongings with him, so people die because he did” (p. 47). It is also in Kroeber’s Handbook, on page 692.
Karana uses several words that she says are in her language:
“Won-a-pa-lei” means “the girl with the long black hair” (p. 13)
“sai-sai” is a kind of fish (p. 85)
“rontu” means fox eyes (p. 105)
“zalwit” means pelican (p. 107)
“naip” means fish (p. 107)
“gnapan” is a thick leaved plant (p. 115)
“Mon-a-nee” means “Girl with the Large Eyes” (p. 160)
“Rontu-Aru” means “son of Rontu” (p. 169)
None of these words are in Kroeber or Hardacre.
O’Dell had little to go on in creating the worldview of Karana and her people. To flesh out the story, he inserted his prior research on other California tribes, inserting their ways into the Nicoleno tribe, as though one peoples’ way of being was interchangeable with another. O’Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins prior to the development of multicultural literature and the attention to specificity, so it may be appropriate not to judge him too harshly for doing it. He also drew from popular stereotypes and clichés of American Indians, including the stories in which American Indians traded their land for a string of beads. An American embrace of stereotypes and clichés led to—and guaranteed—the success of the novel.
Island of the Blue Dolphins is a lot like most books and media about American Indians that give the audience the kind of Indians that America loves to love (Shanley, 1997). O’Dell gave us both: the savage ones (the Aleuts), and the gentle ones (Karana’s people). In a spirit of generosity, it is possible to justify why his story met with such success but how do we justify an embrace of it in the present time, when we know so much more about accuracy and authenticity of representation? And why do even our leading scholars fail to step away from the book? For example, in her introduction to the illustrated version, Zena Sutherland conflated the story of Juana Maria with the fictional story of Karana. She incorrectly refers to the Lost Woman as Karana, instead of Juana Maria. She says that she was twelve years old (Juana Maria was a mother, not a child), and that Karana’s brother died on the island (Juana Maria’s child died). The real person is lost in the embrace of the fiction character, Karana. Is sentiment in the way?
There is a fascination, a nostalgia, and a yearning for the romantic Indian and all that “Indian” means to people who think the best life anyone could have is one of the Indian of yesteryear, living in the pristine wilderness, where the weight of the world is not on your shoulders, where you can breath clean air, and drink clean water.
This nostalgia also captures the imaginings of the perfect childhood, but neither one is—or was—real. As such, Island of the Blue Dolphins is a perfect example of a book at the center of the canon of sentiment (Stevenson, 1997). Indeed, the canon of sentiment “exists to preserve—to preserve the childhood of those adults who create that canon and to preserve the affection those adults feel for the books within it” (p. 113). A good many adults imagine the childhood O'Dell described and the survival that Karana experienced. We like to think we could survive, too, and a story like this one lets us see how that could happen.
Nonetheless, the story is lacking in its accuracy and suitability for informing children about American Indians. Will there come a time when there is a critical mass of gatekeepers rejecting works like this? I hope so. Sentiment is no excuse for ignorance.
Deloria, V. and DeMallie, R. J. Documents of American Indian Diplomacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Hardacre, Emma. (1971). The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. The California Indians: Source Book, edited by R. F. Heizer and M. A. Whipple. Berkeley: University of California Press, 272-281.
Kroeber, A.L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Lovelace, M. H. (1961). Scott O’Dell: Biographical note. The Horn Book Magazine, 37,
Maher, S. N. (1992). Encountering others: The meeting of cultures in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Sing Down the Moon. Children’s Literature in Education, 23(4), 215-227.
Meighan, C.W. and Eberhart, H. (1953). Archaeological resources of San Nicolas Island, California. American Antiquity, 19(2), 109-125.
Nies, J. (1996). Native American History.
New York: Ballantine Books.
O’Dell, S. (1957). Country of the Sun: Southern California, An Informal History and Guide. New York: Thomas E. Crowell Company.
O’Dell, S. (1961). Acceptance paper. The Horn Book Magazine, 37, 99-104.
O’Dell, S. (1978). Island of the Blue Dolphins. Trumpet Club Edition. New York: Dell Publishing Co.
O’Dell, S. (1990). Island of the Blue Dolphins. With illustrations by Ted Lewin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Payment, S. (2006). Scott O’Dell.
New York: Rosen Pub. Group.
Pullar, G. L. (1996). Alutiiq. Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. Edited by Mary B. Davis.
0 Comments on A critical look at O'Dell's ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS as of 6/16/2016 10:06:00 AM
A librarian in Nebraska wrote to ask me if I've seen Cammie McGovern's Just My Luck. Released on February 23, 2016 from HarperCollins, here's the synopsis:
Critically acclaimed author Cammie McGovern's middle grade debut is a powerful and heartwarming story that will appeal to readers who loved R. J. Palacio's Wonder, Ann M. Martin's Rain Reign, and Holly Sloan's Counting by 7s.
Fourth grade is not going at all how Benny Barrows hoped. He hasn't found a new best friend. He's still not a great bike rider—even though his brother George, who's autistic, can do tricks. And worst of all, he worries his dad's recent accident might be all his fault. Benny tries to take his mom's advice and focus on helping others, and to take things one step at a time. But when his dad ends up in the hospital again, Benny doesn't know how he and his family will overcome all the bad luck that life seems to have thrown their way.
Just My Luck is a deeply moving and rewarding novel about a down-on-his-luck boy whose caring heart ultimately helps him find the strength to cope with tragedy and realize how much he truly has to offer his friends and family.Just My Luck
, the librarian wrote, references Indian in the Cupboard.
There's a copy in my local library. I'll pick it up, read it, and be back with a review.
Back in 2008, I started reading John Smelcer's The Trap. I read only a few pages, and stopped reading, because those opening pages reminded me of my childhood, living with my grandmother. I shared those memories and immediately heard from people in Alaska, that Smelcer is not Native.
At a Native Studies conference a few months later, I learned a lot more about Smelcer's claims to Native identity. As I came to know, the mere mention of his name raises the ire of Native and non-Native scholars who work in Native literatures. People have concerns about his claims to Native identity, and concerns about his writing, too.
Here's one example specific to his writing.
In March of 2016, colleagues in Native literature began posting on social media about two poems by Smelcer, published online at The Kenyon Review. Some wrote to the editor, David Lynn. The two poems were subsequently removed. They were replaced with a statement said that they were being removed because they had already been published elsewhere, which is against the Review's policy. A few days later, that statement was gone. David Lynn had a new one up:
In the Spring issue of KROnline, we published two poems by John Smelcer, “Smoke Signal” and “Indian Blues.” I appreciate the many readers who have contacted us to point out that these poems contained damaging stereotypes of Native people. I deeply regret the manifest distress this has caused and take full responsibility. We will continue to welcome—and to seek actively—Native voices, and those of other underrepresented communities, to all Kenyon Review publications.Digging in a bit, I learned that those two poems are in Smelcer's Indian Giver. When I looked up that book, I saw that it--like all of Smelcer's other books--had glowing praise from very prominent people. This was something I'd noticed back in 2008. Among the people Smelcer lists as having praised or collaborated with him are John Updike, Carl Sagan, Noam Chomsky, Allen Ginsberg, Chinua Achebe, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.D. Salinger, Lucille Clifton, the Dalai Lama, and Jack Zipes.
In the case of children's literature scholar Jack Zipes, I looked up the item Smelcer says he co-wrote with Zipes. I wrote to Zipes, too, to ask about the co-written item, and it turns out, Zipes answered a series of questions Smelcer sent to him by email. In his presentation of that interview, however, Smelcer puts it forth as a piece of co-writing. On his website, he wrote:
With Jack Zipes, John co-authored "The Story Telling Instinct: Why Fairy Tales StickI've interviewed people before for articles but would not characterize the product as a "co-authored" item. Have you seen that done before?
Recently, John Smelcer wrote about me at his website, saying several things that are not true. The document at his site is 23 pages in length. The first 21 pages are his account, going back to 1994, when his identity was first questioned at the University of Alaska. As you'll see, Smelcer offers a great many letters and documents that suggest he is Native by birth. Some of this is new. In the past he has said he is adopted, as Diane Chen of School Library Journal found in 2009. In her review of The Great Death, she wrote:
When I read the author’s website, I learned he listened to the stories of this time and place as told by his adopted grandmother and her sister. When I first encountered John Smelcer's work in 2008, the man who adopted him (Charlie Smelcer) told me that Smelcer is not Native by birth. All in all, it is very confusing. Here's the link to the page where he writes about his identity: John Smelcer's Ethnicity & the University of Alaska Anchorage. (Note: I have saved a pdf of the page I saw on June 9th, 2016.)
Here are screen shots of the last two pages of the 23 page document, followed by direct quotes from the screen shots, and my response to them.
(1)Smelcer wrote: "You’d think the attacks would end now, but a woman named Debbie Reese continues to criticize me on the Internet, saying that I have no business writing books about Alaska Natives or Native Americans, not even about my own grandmother, who implored me for years to write my novel, The Great Death, about a pandemic that devastated Native communities all across Alaska nearly a century ago, including my own tribe."
My response to: I have never said that John Smelcer has no business writing books about Alaska Natives or Native Americans, or his grandmother. With this blog post, I ask Smelcer to provide evidence for that statement.
(2)Smelcer wrote: "In her blog, this dishonest woman accused me of “culturally appropriating” the Native words and phrases I used in the novel [The Great Death], purposefully concealing from readers the fact that I speak Ahtna fluently, am the only tribal member who can write in it, and that I published a dictionary of the language in 1998 (foreword by Noam Chomsky), a fact easily checked on my website, which was listed on the back of the book as well as on the audiobook."
My response: I have not reviewed The Great Death at my blog or elsewhere. I did not say Smelcer was "culturally appropriating" the Native words and phrases he used in the novel. I did not purposefully conceal from readers that Smelcer speaks Ahtna fluently, or that he is the only tribal member who can write it, or that he published a dictionary of the language. With this blog post, I ask Smelcer to provide evidence for that statement.
(3)Smelcer wrote: "In April 2016, she posted a review of my poetry book Indian Giver on amazon.com in which she admitted that she hadn’t seen or read the book yet, but she gave it a one-star rating nonetheless (all other reviews by people who actually read the book gave it five stars). She included in her byline that she’s a member of the American Library Association. I’m certain the ALA doesn’t condone censuring books before they’ve even been read."
My response: In April of 2016, I posted a comment at Amazon, on the page for Smelcer's Indian Giver. The page had incorrect information in the "About the Author" section, that said (note, specifically the text I put in bold):
The Great Death was short-listed for the 2011 William Allen White Award, and nominated for the National Book Award, the BookTrust Prize (England), and the American Library Association’s Award for American Indian YA Literature.
To submit a comment, Amazon's interface requires that you give the item for which you are commenting a star (or 5 stars). I gave it one star so that I could say:
Please note an error in the "About the Author" section and the "Awards" section of this page.
The American Library Association does not have an award for American Indian Young Adult Literature.
When I receive a copy of Smelcer's book, I will update this note with a review of the book itself.
Debbie Reese, Member, America Library Association
Below is a screen capture of my comment. As I believe my comment shows, Smelcer is misrepresenting my words.
(4)Smelcer wrote: She even emailed the 22-year-old newspaper story to folks who wrote blurbs for the book encouraging them to retract their praise and to shun me. One of the other deceits she and her friends use often is to say that my writing “perpetuates stereotypes about American Indians” to discourage librarians from ordering my books. Again, she conceals the fact that the books include endorsements by Native American writers, historians, and scholars who praise the contents.
My response: On the Amazon page for Indian Giver, I saw that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was being quoted as having said Smelcer is "One of our most brilliant poets." I correspond with her frequently, particularly of late because Jean Mendoza and I will be adapting her Indigenous People's History of the United States for young adult readers. Given my correspondence with her, I could verify that blurb. I asked her about him and I did send the newspaper articles to her. Smelcer says I sent these articles to others who wrote blurbs. With this blog post, I ask Smelcer to provide evidence for what he is saying.
I wrote to Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz to ask her about it. She told me she had been introduced to him and that he told her he is Native. Later he sent her the draft of Indian Giver. In good faith, she provided him with a blurb that is being used to market that book, but her words are also on the cover of Stealing Indians. She didn't read Stealing Indians. It strikes me as disingenuous for Smelcer to use her words for one book to praise a different one, and his doing that makes me wonder about all the blurbs on all the other books. Are they legitimate? Or is Smelcer dropping the names and words of all those people here and there to give him credibility? For most of them, we can't find out because they're deceased. Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz has written to Smelcer, asking that he not use her words to promote his work. He is ignoring her. She has also written to his publisher, to no avail. I did not encourage Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz to retract her praise or to shun him.
I have not said Smelcer stereotypes American Indians. In fact, because I found the controversy over his identity so unsettling in 2009, I did not finish The Trap and did not read subsequent books. I am currently reading his latest young adult book, Stealing Indians, and will post a review when I finish writing it.
(5)Smelcer wrote: "In early 2008, I had a candid telephone conversation with Debbie Reese, offering to provide her many of the documents presented in this article. She told me flatly that “she didn’t care what I sent her, that nothing would change her opinion, and that she planned to destroy me and make sure that no one would ever publish my writing again.”
My response: I have never spoken with John Smelcer, in person or on the telephone. I never said, to anyone, that I was going to destroy John Smelcer and make sure that no one would ever publish his writing again.
Smelcer wrote: "Friends who have contacted her on my behalf have reported similar responses."
My response: I received a letter from Larry Vienneau much like the one in Smelcer's document, but I did not respond to it.
I don’t understand her obsession with me. She heartlessly obstructs my sole means of providing for my family and for my daughter’s future. How many emerging Native voices has she silenced over the years? How many deserving books have been disregarded by the industry because of her? There are over 500 tribes in America. In no way does she represent or speak for all Native Americans. She is not even a spokesperson for her own tribe. If you are in the publishing industry—a librarian or magazine or journal editor or a literary prize committee member—please stop empowering this bully.
My response: I am not obsessed with Smelcer. I am a scholar in children's literature. As such, I study children's books about Native peoples. People in the children's literature community know my work, and that I advocate for Native writers. As a critic, I review children's books, drawing from print resources, and from colleagues in Native Studies, too. I do not purport to speak for all Native Americans. I am not a spokesperson for my tribe and never said that I was. Again, I am a scholar in children's literature. I stand by my work, and when my review of Smelcer's Stealing Indians is ready, I will stand by it, too.
A reader wrote to ask me about The Hill by Karen Bass, due out in August from Pajama Press. Here's the synopsis:
Jared’s plane has crashed in the Alberta wilderness, and Kyle is first on the scene. When Jared insists on hiking up the highest hill in search of cell phone reception, Kyle hesitates; his Cree grandmother has always forbidden him to go near it. There’s no stopping Jared, though, so Kyle reluctantly follows. After a night spent on the hilltop―with no cell service―the teens discover something odd: the plane has disappeared. Nothing in the forest surrounding them seems right. In fact, things seem very wrong. And worst of all, something is hunting them. Karen Bass, the multi-award-winning author of Graffiti Knight and Uncertain Soldier, brings her signature action packed style to a chilling new subject: the Cree Wîhtiko legend. Inspired by the real story of a remote plane crash and by the legends of her Cree friends and neighbours, Karen brings eerie life―or perhaps something other than life―to the northern Alberta landscape in The Hill.
In its review, Kirkus says there's also a Wesakechak, and that Bass provided an author's note about her research. I will definitely get The Hill
and be back with a review.
A reader wrote to me about Tara Lazar and S. britt's picture book, Normal Norman. Published in March of 2016 by Sterling Children's Books, here's the synopsis:
What is "normal?" That's the question an eager young scientist, narrating her very first book, hopes to answer. Unfortunately, her exceedingly"normal" subject—an orangutan named Norman—turns out to be exceptionally strange. He speaks English, sleeps in a bed, loves his stuffed toy, goes bananas over pizza, and even deep-sea dives! Oh, no: what's a "normal" scientist to do? A humorous look at the wackiness that makes us all special— and a gentle reminder that "normal" can't ever be defined!
The reader noted a page in the book where a bear is playing with puppets... one of whom is an Indian. Here's that image:
Why is that puppet there? When I get to a bookstore or library, I'll see if I can figure it out.
On Friday, June 4th, Zetta Elliott and I were in San Francisco for the 2016 Association of Children's Librarians of northern California's annual institute. If you're on twitter you can find some of the gems from the daylong conference using the hashtag #ACLInst2016. Our remarks were taped. Here they are:
Here's Zetta's opening remarks:
And then, Zetta and I sat down for a brief conversation:
And last, I was part of a panel, moderated by Nina Lindsay. Here it is:
Thank you, Meredith Steiner, for inviting me to spend the day with you! At various times during the day, people I was talking with said that the information and conversations were better than what they've had opportunities to partake of, before. I heard "depth of thinking and interaction" that I think marks the entire day. We weren't celebrating kids books or writers. We weren't shying away from hard questions, either. If anyone who was there (or who watches the videos) wants to talk more about anything, please let me know!
Paula wrote to ask me about A.R. Kahler's Shades of Darkness. Published by Simon & Schuster, it is a 2016 young adult book whose main character, Kaira Winters, is "some unknown blend of Native American bloodlines" (p. 10).
Here's the synopsis:
American Gods meets The Secret History in this suspenseful start to a brand-new fantasy trilogy about a girl named Kaira Winters, the murders that keep happening at her artsy boarding school, and the lengths she must go to in order to protect the people she loves.
When Kaira Winters decided to go to Islington—a boarding school deep in the woods of Michigan—she thought she could finally get away from everything she has tried so hard to forget, including some things from her past that she refuses to believe ever actually happened.
Everything seemed great until the bodies of murdered students started appearing all over campus. The victims seem to have been killed in some sort of ritual sacrifice. And even worse, Kaira’s dreams are giving her clues to the killer’s identity.
Though she tries to resist, Kaira quickly realizes that she is the only one who can stop the violence, but to do so she must come to terms with her past. She’s going to have to listen to the voice that is buried deep within her…the one that claims to have unimaginable power…the one that claims to be an actual goddess.
But even if Kaira can harness the power within her, will it be enough to stop the darkness that has fallen over her school? And if it is strong enough, then what’s to stop the goddess from wreaking her own havoc once she’s released?
Course, I have lots of questions. This power within Kaira... is it because of her "unknown blend of Native American bloodlines" -- or not? "Goddess" gives me pause. Why did the author find it necessary to make Kaira's identity of an "unknown blend of Native American bloodlines"? It seems decorative rather than substantive.
Another passage that caught my eye as I read the preview is the one about a Korean character, Jane (p. 9):
Her family was Korean, though she'd lived in the States for so much of her childhood, her accent was flawless.
Lot to look at in that sentence, like that last word: flawless. Does Kaira think a person whose speech retains aspects of a mother tongue is flawed?
If I get a copy of Shades of Darkness
, I'll be back with a review.
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)
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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.