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Among the projects I'm doing this summer is a do-it-yourself paint job of the exterior of our house. On days when it isn't too hot or humid, I enjoy being out there, scraping paint and listening to an audiobook.
Today, I started listening to Julia Alvarez's Before We Were Free.
Published in 2002 by Knopf Books for Young Readers, it won the Pura Belpre Award
Chapter one opens with this:
"May I have some volunteers?" Mrs. Brown is saying. We are preparing skits for Thanksgiving, two weeks away. Although the Pilgrims never came to the Dominican Republic, we are attending the American school, so we have to celebrate American holidays.
That opening was unexpected. But because I've read one of Alvarez's other books, my ears perked up. Where, I wondered, would this particular scene go in Alvarez's skilled hands! Mrs. Brown picks Anita (the protagonist) and her cousin, Carla, to play the parts of two Indians who will welcome the Pilgrims because,
Mrs. Brown gives the not-so-good parts to those of us in class who are Dominicans.
Mrs. Brown then gives the two girls a headband with a feather sticking up like one rabbit ear. She asks them to greet the Pilgrims, being played by two boys wearing Davy Crockett hats. Anita thinks
Even I know the pioneers come after the Pilgrims.
Mrs. Brown asks Anita/the Indian to welcome the pilgrims "to the United States" but Oscar raises his hand and asks:
"Why the Indians call it the United States when there was no United Estates back then, Mrs. Brown?"
Some kids make fun of him. Anita hates it when the Americans make fun of the way the Dominicans speak English. Mrs. Brown tells him that
"It's called poetic license. Something allowed in a story that isn't so in real life."
Beautifully done, Ms. Alvarez! I'm hooked.
A reader of AICL wrote to ask me about Gary Paulsen's Mr. Tucket. I read a copy of the book via the Internet Archive. Here's my notes, summarized by chapter. Sometimes I put my comments in italics beneath each chapter. This time, you'll find my thoughts on the book in the THOUGHTS at the end of the summary of chapters.
First, though, let's look a bit at Gary Paulsen. He's a prolific author and quite well known for Hatchet and the sequels to it. The Hatchet series is also known as Brian's Saga, because the protagonist is a kid named Brian who survives a plane crash, alone, in the Canadian wilderness. Hatchet was a Newbery Honor Book in 1987.
Published in 1969 by Funk & Wagnalls, I think Mr. Tucket was Paulsen's first book. It, too, is about survival.
Protagonist: Francis Alphonse Tucket, age 14
Date: June 13, 1848
Place: Oregon Trail
Francis's family is part of a wagon train moving from their farm in Missouri. While in Kansas, they'd been worried about Comanche's but all through Kansas, they hadn't seen "a feather--let alone an Indian" (p. 8).
The wagon train is in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Francis receives a rifle for his 14th birthday. He's out practicing, behind the wagon train and out of sight of everyone. He is captured by "six Pawnee men and one older warrior" (p. 9) who are not wearing paint, which he thinks means it is a hunting party. He struggles, they knock him out. He wakes up at their camp where "the ugliest old person" (p. 10) he's ever seen looks down on him. The person, who has a wrinkled face and toothless mouth, smiles down on him.
The old woman is wife of the old warrior in the hunting party. When Francis wakes, she puts a rope on him and shows him off at each lodge. Boys kick him. He fights the boys, decides it isn't worth it, and smiles at the old woman. She removes the rope. He is attacked by three boys. The fight is stopped by (p. 14):
"a short, wiry Indian with his hair in one braid. At the bottom of the braid there was one feather, hanging straight down. The man wore plain buckskins, unbeaded moccasins, and carried a rifle in his left hand. It was Francis's rifle."
Francis argues with the man. Aiming the rifle between Francis's eyes, the man warns him not to be stupid or insult elders, and walks off.
Three weeks after being at the camp, Francis learns that "the brave" with his rifle is named Braid and that he is the leader of their war parties. He is not a chief. There are scalps braided across his doorway to his lodge. One morning he led a party of more than 40 warriors out of camp. When they return, Francis sees a blonde scalp and figures the Pawnees had attacked the wagon train with his family. His suspicion is confirmed when Braid throws a china doll at his feet. It is his sister's doll. The council decides to move the village. They travel for ten days to the southern edge of the Black Hills. There, Francis meets a white man who comes to the village: Mr. Jason Grimes.
"Squaws" and children crowd around Grimes, who Francis thinks of as a mountain man. He wears fringed buckskin, plain moccasins, and a derby with a long feather sticking straight up from the band. The people in the village prepare a celebration. At night there is a frenzy of dancing. Francis wakes that night with a hand over his mouth. It is Grimes, with a plan for how Francis can get away.
Francis takes off on a mare Grimes swiped for him. He rides the mare, loses it, and keeps walking. At dark, he falls asleep.
Francis wakes to the smell of coffee. Grimes is there. He tells Francis he followed Braid and five or six others as they tried to find him by following the mare's tracks. Having gone upriver without the mare, Francis--now called Mr. Tucket by Grimes--is safe. He learns that Grimes lost his arm after a fight with Braid.
Grimes teaches Mr. Tucket how to use the rifle and be aware of surroundings.
Francis asks Grimes why he is friendly with Pawnees after having lost his arm due to the fight with Braid. Grimes says Pawnee can't help the way they are, that nobody can. Then he says the Pawnee call themselves "the People" and that they "live with the land" or, (p. 50):
"by nature--the same nature that makes a she-bear gut you if you mess with her cubs. Braid costing me my arm is about the same as a she-bear took it. I couldn't get mat at a bear and I couldn't get mad at Braid, and I couldn't hate the whole Pawnee tribe because of a mistake."
The mistake was that Grimes wasn't successful in preventing Braid from cutting his arm up. Francis asks questions that make Grimes uncomfortable. Why does he trade pelts for gunpowder and lead that the Pawnees then use on white people? Grimes says he is not a war maker. He doesn't want to kill Pawnees or whites. If he does kill Braid it will not be over land. That desire for land is what farmers like Francis's family wants. He asks Grimes to leave him at a settlement. Grimes says the closest one is Standing Bear's Sioux village.
They ride into the Sioux village where "the children's howling was earshattering" (p. 56). At the center of the village, (p. 56)
"a small channel opened in the crowd to the right and an Indian, who limped, came through. He was short, bowlegged, and stocky, but he moved with a smoothness that make Francis think immediately of a cat. It must be Standing Bear, Francis thought, and he was not smiling."
Grimes speaks in Sioux to Standing Bear, who tells him that Braid asked Standing Bear to keep an eye out for Francis. This strikes Grimes as unusual because the Pawnee and Sioux are enemies, but it turns out the mare Francis escaped on was Braid's personal horse. Because of that, Braid is willing to talk to enemies, with the hope of getting his mare back. Grimes talks with Standing Bear, apparently asking Standing Bear if he can trap beaver on Standing Bear's lands. He gets that permission, and then sets up a wrestling match between Francis and a boy in the village. It starts with Standing Bear "snorting" something in Sioux to both boys. Francis wins the match. His winnings are a horse and outfit.
Francis tries out the horse. He and Grimes leave the village.
Francis puts on, and likes, his buckskin outfit. Francis and Grimes set out to hunt antelope using an old Indian trick in which Francis will wave a white rag, which makes the antelope curious. They want to see what it is. When they do, Francis is to shoot a young antelope. They get one and eat twelve pounds by dark.
They visit Spot Johnny. He has an Indian wife named Bird Dance and two boys: Jared, John and Clarence. Bird Dance speaks perfect English. Spot tells Grimes that Braid is thinking of taking over the Pawnee nation, and gathering items like powder for the tribe. Braid has also been raiding wagon trains. Spot says Braid is stupid, wanting to make "a clean sweep" and "driving all whites from Pawnee territory" (p. 91).
Grimes then asks Spot about the Crows, saying (p. 92):
I spent a week coming across their stomping grounds and didn't see a one. Usually I get shot at at least once."
Spot says they're hunting and that he's also heard they've broken into small bands. "Too many war chiefs" (p. 92) and are raiding and taking what they can.
Francis and Grimes leave Spot Johnny's place. They see a wagon train, but Francis chooses to stay with Grimes.
They enter an area where Grimes is careful to cover their tracks so that "the best Kiowa tracker in the world" won't be able to find them. They're near the edge of the Crow territory. They settle near beaver ponds.
Jim Bridger comes for a visit and tells Francis and Grimes about a Crow family nearby.
Francis and Grimes trap two hundred beaver, skin and stretch their pelts.
Two miles from camp, five Crows "painted for war" (p. 129) fire arrows at Francis. He races back to camp, with them chasing and firing arrows. Grimes shoots two, and one is thrown from his horse and injured. Grimes and Francis plan to get the others.
Grimes and Francis come upon two of the Indians (p. 136):
"In front of them, not ten feet away, two painted faces and bronze chests rose. Two arrows were pulled back on taut strings. Two Indian throats let out a roaring sound."
Francis wounds one; Grimes kills him. The other "brave" got away. Grimes and Francis start tying beaver pelts to horses, and then leave. Back at their camp, ten Crow "braves." The leader says they will start out to find Grimes and Francis at daybreak, and help Laughing Pony (the one who was thrown from his horse).
Grimes and Francis run into a heavy snowstorm but keep running the horses until Francis's mare stumbles. They stop for the night.
The next morning they set out again, rest again, and then when they get started they see smoke. Grimes thinks it is from Spot Johnny's camp but that there is too much smoke.
When they arrive at Spot Johnny's camp, everything is on fire and there are many bodies. Grimes says it was "Braid and his boys" (p. 154). Two miles away, Spot Johnny's trading post and wagons from a wagon train are also on fire. There are twenty-three dead Pawnees, too. Grimes and Francis don't find Spot or his family outside, and Grimes is sure they were in the burned trading post. There are farmers at the wagons. Grimes asks them when they were attacked and says it is time for him to "do something about Braid" (p. 156). He asks the farmers to keep Francis as he rides off and if he doesn't return, that Francis gets his ponies and pelts, and that the farmers should take Francis with them.
Francis gets away from the farmers. He rides hard to catch up to Grimes. He sees Grimes and Braid in a meadow, on horses, racing towards each other, both "stripped to the waist and carrying rifles" (p. 163). They shoot at each other, and "the one-armed and one-braided men" fall near each other. Braid is dead. Francis is shocked that Grimes goes to scalp Braid. He realizes Grimes is like the Indians, and "in a way, a kind of animal" (p. 165) and that he (Francis) is not. He gets on his horse and sets out for Oregon.
Though I am glad to see that Paulsen used specific tribes (examples: Pawnee and Kiowa) in Mr. Tucket
, it is disappointing that the Native characters are, nonetheless, portrayed as animal-like rather than as human beings. The Pawnee children howl, for example, in chapter two. In chapter eight, Grimes frames the Pawnees as being like bears. In chapter nine, Standing Bear (a Sioux) moves like a cat. None of this characterization is used for the white characters.
Paulsen's Standing Bear is Sioux. There was a man named Luther Standing Bear/Ota Kte (Ota Kte is his Lakota name), born in the 1860s, who wrote several books, including My People the Sioux
. There was a Ponca leader named Standing Bear. He was born in 1829 and died in 1908. He is known for leaving his reservation, without permission, to take his son's remains to their homelands to bury them there. Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve's book
about him is on my list of children's books to review. I wonder if either of them was the inspiration for Paulsen's use of that name for that character? Both are men of significance, and I was annoyed to see that name for this character.
I'm also curious about the name of the Pawnee man: "Braid." He wears a braid, and my guess is, that braid is why he's called Braid. To me, it sounds silly. I searched for images/photos/illustrations of Pawnee men to see how they wear feathers. Paulsen's Braid wears a feather at the end of his braid, pointing down. That seems silly, too, and I didn't find any examples of a feather being worn that way. I'm not saying it isn't possible--anything IS possible--but when we have an outsider (Paulsen) creating characters from a nation (Pawnee) and a time period over 100 years ago, I think Paulsen is on a slippery slope.
The wrestling. I can't find any support for wrestling, in any tribe, that looks like what Paulsen describes. I do find it, however, in boy scout manuals! There is a lot in those scouting guides that gets labeled "Indian" that isn't part of Native traditions anywhere. I would love to find some kind of evidence of it, though, so if YOU find it, do write and let me know where it is! This wrestling reminds me of the "Indian burn" that is part of kid lore in the U.S.
Scalping. Braid does it. A lot. It is a brutal, savage act. Overall, Paulsen characterizes the Native people as more like animals. The scalping that Braid does fits in a savage framework, with Pawnees portrayed as less-than-human. At the end of the story, Francis chooses to abandon his friendship with Grimes when Grimes behaves like a Pawnee and scalps Braid. We are supposed to think that Francis has higher morals, that he's choosing not to be animal-like. BUT. What we--as readers--ought to reject is Paulsen's characterizations of Native people. He gives us is a narrow depiction that serves a narrative that encourages readers to think Native people were less-than White people, and therefore, it was ok to take Native land. And, it obscures a lot of the violence directed at Native people, too. There were bounties on Native men AND Native women and children, too. Bounty hunters would collect their money by showing the scalps of Native men, women, and children. Paulsen gives us one White person who scalps, but in Paulsen's story, he is the exception. He's shown to be outside-the-norm, but the fact is, Whites scalping Native people happened a lot. Here's an excerpt of a proclamation from 1755
that specifies how much a person would receive when he would "produce the scalp":
For every Male Penobscot Indian above the Age of twelve years that shall be taken within the Time aforesaid and brought to Boston Fifty Pounds.
For every Female Penobscot Indian taken and brought in as aforesaid and for Every Male Indian Prisoner under the age of twelve Years taken and brought in as aforesaid Twenty five Pounds.
For every Scalp of such Female Indian or Male Indian under the Age of twelve years that Shall be killed and brought in as Evidence of their being killed as aforesaid, Twenty pounds.
Paulsen's point of view is Francis's--a 14 year old white boy--but, as the reviewer of his third book
) said, Paulsen doesn't develop characters. He uses stereotypes. When we, as a society, know so little about Native peoples--past and present--such stereotyping is a serious issue. The reviewer points to that issue, saying:
"Classroom use for social studies, however, would require careful and critical analysis by teachers and students."
I spent an hour or so looking over videos students/teachers have made about Mr. Tucket
I see no evidence of careful or critical analysis. Though Paulsen sometimes had his white characters use 'man' or 'men' to refer to the Pawnee men, he mostly used "brave" or "warrior" for men and "squaw" for women. In careful or critical analysis, I'd like to see teachers looking at words like that, because they create a distance, or a barrier, in thinking about Native men and women as people, just like any other people.
is definitely a very popular book, as evident in its reprintings. Here's some of the covers I've found. First is one that looks like it could be the original cover, from 1969:
Here's one I found a lot. Looking at a preview online, I saw a copy from 1995, that, with this cover, was in its 25th printing.
And here's what I think is the most recent cover:
In an interview
, Paulsen says he learned a lot from reading a particular series. What are kids who read his Mr. Tucket
series "learning" about Native people? Regular readers of AICL know that I'm critical of authors who use "Indian" rather than a specific tribe, but when an author uses a specific tribe and gives us stereotypes anyway, that is equally problematic. I cannot recommend Mr. Tucket.
In the last few days, I've been looking at picture books about Christopher Columbus. Peter Sis did one, titled Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus.
Sis has won a lot of major awards for his work in children's literature, but none (that I know of) for his biography of Columbus.
Published in 1991 (likely timed to coincide with the 500 year 'anniversary' of Columbus landing in the New World), the reviewer at Publisher's Weekly
called it flat, while the one at Kirkus
called it uncontroversial, and the reviewer at School Library Journal
said to "make room on your crowded Columbus shelf" for this one.
Sis grew up in Czechoslovakia. In a 2009 article in Bookbird
, Sis wrote (p. 45):
I grew up with the myth of Columbus's voyage and his discovery of the "new world." I thought I had found a perfect explorer in him. Someone who was determined to find the way, just like me. I remember how surprised I was by the voices raised against Columbus and against the consequences of his "conquest." It sounded especially strong on the 500th anniversary of his voyage and it scared me. I was not used to this "free" discussion and I still have to remind myself that everyone has a point of view, even today.
His use of quotes around the word 'conquest' suggests he doesn't agree with the people who raise voices against Columbus. He probably wouldn't like what I have to say about this illustration (I took this photo with my phone today while at the library reading books about Columbus):
The page on the left shows Columbus when he "landed on a beach of white coral, claimed the land for the King and Queen of Spain, knelt and gave thanks to God, and expected to see the treasures of the Orient..." Not a word about the people he is looking at...
He juxtaposes the illustration of Columbus-the-man with the one on the right. It is a statue of Columbus. It reminds me of the one in Barcelona. Looking closely, I think the figures gathered 'round the statue are schoolchildren. Makes sense, maybe, if he images them to be the children who are intended readers of his book. Fair enough, but nonetheless, the juxtaposition bothers me. On the left are Native people. On the right are children. Another read of the two pages is to equate Native people with children. That is, unfortunately, all too common in children's literature and society, too. Surely you're familiar with the phrase "wild Indian" as used to describe children who are a bit out of control...
Needless to say, I don't recommend Sis's book about Columbus. If you want to read the article in Bookbird,
its title is "My Life With Censorship" and it is in volume 47, issue #3, in 2009.
Earlier this week, a colleague wrote to me about a new picture book about Christopher Columbus. This morning, I was e-talking with Annette Wanamaker, editor of Children's Literature in Education, about an article in CLE about Columbus! I read it right away.
In "The Columbus Myth: Power and Ideology in Picturebooks About Christopher Columbus," Christina M. Desai shares results of her analysis of depictions of Columbus in picturebooks published since 1992. She looked at a representative sample of over 30 books and found that little has changed. Native peoples are still being misrepresented and stereotyped.
She also points to something very troubling:
In her defense of humanities education, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum (2010) warns that, as emphasis on the humanities declines in the U.S., curricula are increasingly designed to advance economic growth. She posits that such curricula will "present national ambition, especially ambition for wealth, as a great good, and will downplay issues of poverty and global accountability" (p. 21). The books examined here certainly exemplify such a curriculum and promote its agenda, by glorifying conquest and profit at the expense of ideals such as human rights and self determination.
That paragraph reminded me of Floca's Locomotive.
Though his picture book is about early trains in the US, it is also about conquest and profit at the expense of Native peoples. Locomotive
won the Caldecott Medal this year. I found it lacking
. Floca responded to my critique.
I think Floca's win and Desai's article tell us how little we've come in terms of a humane society. If you don't have access to Children's Literature in Education,
ask your librarian to get a copy of Desai's article. It has a lot to mull over for those of us who read, review, and recommend children's books.
Here's the citation:
Desai, Christina M. (2014). "The Columbus Myth: Power and Ideology in Picturebooks About Christopher Columbus," Children's Literature in Education.
A few days ago (June 11) was E.B. White's birthday. Most people know--and love--Charlotte's Web
and Stuart Little.
Do you remember his reference to Indians in Stuart Little
It is that part where he's fixed up a birchbark canoe and plans to take Harriet out for a ride in it. There's a string tied to it, though, that he can't untie. He's really annoyed. Harriet says they could go anyway and let the string drag behind them. Stuart is not keen on that at all. On page 122, he says:
"Did you ever see an Indian paddling along some quiet unspoiled river with a great big piece of rope dragging astern?"
Harriet says that they could pretend they are fishing, but Stuart says
"I don't want to pretend I'm fishing."
As his prior statement suggests, he was imagining Indians. I don't know that it'd be accurate to say he was playing Indian. He wasn't doing anything with feathers and paint, but he definitely has an image in mind of an Indian in a canoe. Nice that it wasn't an image of an Indian on a horse!
Curious if he'd written anything else about Native peoples, I started digging a bit and found a poem
called "An Indian Burial Mound" published in 1922 in Art and Archeology.
It is as follows:
The sculpted buttes cut cameo-wise
Against the bold blue skies,
Above the grave.
No catafalque, no lordly marble tomb;
But,--in his native hill side carved,-a room
His bones to save.
The tomb profaned, simple would show his needs;
A shard or two, a strand of turquoise beads
The spirit crave.
Here ruled his tribe before we bade them go.
Here buffalo and deer paid tribute to his bow.
Here lies a brave!
Time for some analysis! That'll come. Later. Gotta run for now!
On Sunday, the American Indian Library Association
(AILA) presented its 2014 Youth Literature Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada at the annual meeting of the American Library Association. Choctaw author Tim Tingle was the keynote speaker at the event.
Tingle's How I Became A Ghost
won the middle school award. I could not be in Las Vegas but have been following happenings there via social media. On Monday, American Libraries Magazine
posted an article
about the AILA event. In it, Michele LeSure included an overview of Tingle's remarks:
Tingle spoke about the trials his family endured being discriminated against for being Choctaw tribal members, and the importance of documenting these types of stories. He said the recent decision to revoke trademark rights to the Washington Redskins team name and logo gives Native Americans a big opportunity to raise these types of issues in public discourse, so “we will never be ghosts.”
recounts some of that discrimination his family experienced. His note to teachers in that book is exceptional. In his books, Tingle brings forth difficult moments in history in which Native peoples were discriminated against. How I Became a Ghost
is about the Trail of Tears, and House of Purple Cedar
opens with the burning of a Native boarding school in which Choctaw girls were burned to death. Though we would correctly assume that the characters in his stories would be bitter, they aren't. They recognize the humanity in all people, including those who hurt them. Tingle is a master at giving us history in a way that lets us examine brutality and compassion.
Tingle's keynote remarks indicate his courage in taking up current examples of that discrimination. Specifically, he addressed the Washington football team's racist name. He is absolutely right in saying that the public discourse on mascots creates an opportunity for us to examine all misrepresentations of Native people. One of those misrepresentations is the thought that we no longer exist. Here's a couple of tweets that captured more of Tingle's remarks:
Get his books for your classroom, school, or home library. And get them from small bookstores, too! When you booktalk or introduce them, you can say "Tim Tingle is Choctaw." That two letter word (is) will go a long long way at helping your students and patrons correct the misinformation they may carry about us as being extinct.
Some months ago, I began to see information about Aaron Carapella's map, "Native American Nations - Our Own Names & Locations." It is an admirable and ambitious project, and it held a great deal of promise... But.
The ways in which Carapella writes about the project is a bit off-putting. For example, he writes that "We also honor the Indigenous Nations of this land by giving them ownership of their own names for themselves." I don't know who "we" is (Carapella and his team?) but how do they have the power to give any nation ownership of its own name? Doesn't that sound a bit silly? It is not a small point. The whole point of the map, as I understand it, is to make it clear that Native Nations had concepts of nationhood prior to European contact. That included the names they used--and use--for themselves. Saying that he gives them ownership of their own names does the same thing outsiders did.
The map itself, he tells us, has the "original names" that a nation used (Numuunu instead of Comanche), but that sometimes, the name on Carapella's map is a "given name" because the original one is not known. As far as I can tell, the map itself does not tell us which ones are original and which ones are given.
Because of the massive amount of inaccurate information about American Indians that circulates in a wide range of media, it is especially important that a map such as Carapella's be accurate. I took a look at the part of the map that has Pueblo Indians on it. Carapella shows the current pueblos (some of them are not in what I deem "accurate" locations), but he's also got one on there (Piro) that he would probably put in his "numberless" category -- which I take to be no longer in existence. I think that Piro ought to be in a different font so that we know it is "numberless."
I cross checked the spellings he used for the pueblos and found several errors. That's too bad. That information is easy to get from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. In my cross-check, it looks like it may have been Carapella's source, but I could be wrong. Still, those spelling errors make me wonder about the spelling of other Indian nations on the map. From a colleague, I learned that Carapella made similar errors with tribes in California.
If you bought a map already and want to make corrections to the errors for the Pueblo Nations, you can do this as a learning activity with students. First, get out Carapella's map. Second, look at the spreadsheet below (downloadable from Carapella's site). The right column is what Carapella calls "given" names. Third, find that given name on the website for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and see what is listed there as the "traditional" name for that tribe. Fourth, see if it matches what Carapella has on his map. If not, make a correction.
You could also look at the tribal seal. For example, on the page for Nambe, the traditional name is listed as "Nambe" but our complete name is on the tribal seal: "Nambe O'Ween'Ge."
As noted above, Carapella's project is ambitious and has a great deal of potential but I think it needs some visual way of conveying important information ("given" versus "original" names; existing versus "numberless" tribes) and I also think it needs to be sourced.
Twice within the last few weeks, people have written to ask me about the "Native American Zodiac" that is popping up on social media. Here's the graphic that is circulating:
Obviously, I've drawn a red X over the graphic to provide a visual comment on the "Native American Zodiac." If you're a regular reader of American Indians in Children's Literature
, you know that there is no such thing as a "Native American" tribe.
"Native American" and "American Indian" are broad terms for the Indigenous peoples of the United States. Within those terms are hundreds of different Native nations. We are all over the country, from north to south and east to west. We are not monolithic in the ways we speak, dress, govern, or, in the stories we tell. Things like a "Native American Zodiac" obscure and collapse who we are, and they encourage ignorance!
As I look at the
"Native American Zodiac"
I wonder who made it?!
To someone unfamiliar with Native peoples and our nations, histories, and cultures, it might seem cool, but to those who know, it is bogus.
I view it as akin to New Age appropriation and misrepresentation of Native ways of being and urge you to reject it, AND, if it pops up on your social media, let your friends, family, and colleagues who are sharing it know that it is bogus.
One of the things I look for when reading a traditional story rooted in a Native Nation is an attribution of where the story was heard, and from whom. In Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend, Montileaux gives us that information right away in a two-page introduction.
Montileaux heard this story from Alex White Plume, a Lakota elder and storyteller. In a radio interview
, Montileaux says more about the story, assuring readers that he is retelling the story as it is told. Initially, White Plume was reluctant to have a traditional story put into print. When he saw what Montileaux had done, he gave him his blessing. In the radio interview, Montileaux also says that Agnes Gay, the woman who did the Lakota translation, works as an archivist at the Oglala Lakota College. She, too, verified the integrity of Montileaux's telling of that story.
|Photo credit: Joel Ebert, Capital Journal, South Dakota|
The care Montileaux took with the story marks the story itself as distinctive. His art adds a beautiful dimension to the words on the page.
Montileaux's style reflects the ledger art of the 1800s, developed by Plains Indians who drew on ledger pages
using pencil, ink, and watercolor. The photo shown here is of Montileaux working in his studio (link to story: A Lakota Legend, Flying Off the Pages
A third quality of the book that marks it as distinctive is that it is a bilingual text. Above, I noted that Agnes Gay did the translation. Throughout the book, readers can see/read the story in Lakota. Here's a scan of one of my favorite pages:
At that point in the story, the young man on the horse is riding into camp after having spent many months away, looking for and training horses. The horses were new to the people and regarded as a gift from their creator. With them, the people were able to do more than they could before. But, they abused that gift, using it to dominate other peoples on the Plains. The gift was taken away from them. Hundreds of years later, horses return with the conquistadors.Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend
is a fascinating story that pays tribute to the stories Native peoples have told for hundreds of years.
I highly recommend
Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend.
Montileaux is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend
is published by the South Dakota State Historical Society. Support small bookstores by getting a copy from Birchbark Books
Is Paul Goble's The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses
one of your favorite books? It won the Caldecott Medal thirty-five years ago. Let's take a look at it.
Here's the first paragraph in the story:
The people were always moving from place to place following the herds of buffalo. They had many horses to carry the tipis and all their belongings. They trained their fastest horses to hunt the buffalo.
With the word 'tipis' in that paragraph Goble suggests that these are Plains people. The buffalo are another clue that suggests the story is one belonging to the Plains tribes.
As the story begins, we learn of "a girl" (we are never given her name) who loved horses. People in the village see that she has a way with them. One day when she is out with the herd of horses, a huge storm erupts. She leaps onto one as the herd races in fear. When the horses stop that night, the girl looks around and realizes that they are lost. The next morning she wakes to the neighing of a handsome stallion who tells her he is the leader of the wild horses that roam the hills. He welcomes her to live with them. She and her herd are happy.
Meanwhile, her people spend the next year looking for her. One day, two hunters see the stallion and the girl, too. She's on a horse, leading a colt. They call and wave at her. She waved back, but the stallion drove her and the herd away from the hunters. Other men join them in an attempt to reach the girl, but the stallion keeps them away from the girl and the colt. But, the girl's horse stumbles, and she falls. The hunters take her back to the village. She was happy to see her parents but she is sad. She misses the colt and the wild horses. At night, the stallion calls to her. The girl is lonely and gets sick. Doctors ask what would make her happy again, and she says she wants to return to the wild horses.
The stallion and wild horses come to the village. The people give the horses blankets and saddles and they give the girl a beautiful dress and the best horse in the village. The girl gives her parents a colt, and she rides away, beside the stallion, reunited with the herd. Each year, she brings her parents another colt. But one year, she doesn't return at all.
Then, the hunters see the stallion again. Beside him is "a beautiful mare with a mane and tail floating with wispy clouds about her." They believe the girl is that mare, that she has become a wild horse, too. The story ends with:
Today we are still glad to remember that we have relatives among the Horse People. And it gives us joy to see the wild horses running free. Our thoughts fly with them.
Nowhere in The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses
do we have any sources for that story. As noted earlier, Goble's use of 'tipis' suggests a Plains tribe. What we know as the Great Plains is a vast area. Here's a map
from the Smithsonian:
See how that area stretches from the north to south, spanning at least 1500 miles? See the 20 or so tribes listed in that area? There's a lot more than just those 20. They don't speak the same language and they don't tell the same stories.
The question is, who does this story about a girl who became a wild horse belong to? It'd be good to know. If it is a story Goble came up with, then it isn't a Native story, is it?
Though it won the Caldecott, and though a lot of people love Goble's art, I think it is (past) time to set aside The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses.
What do you think?
Bruchac, Joseph, Killer of Enemies. Tu Books/ Lee & Low, 2013; grades 5-up First, a pre-review story…. Years ago, Joe Bruchac was giving an evening reading at a local East Bay indie bookstore. Readers of his short stories and poetry, young and not so young, filled the room. For lack of available seats, a few friends and I stood in the back. Joe, holding his hand drum and one of his books, walked to the podium, looked around, and, as was his wont, greeted the audience in Abenaki. I waved to him from the back, and he acknowledged me this way: “And kwai-kwai to my friend, Beverly Slapin, who actually likes…(two-second pause here)…some of my books.” Remember that, Joe? I just love Joe’s latest young adult thriller, Killer of Enemies! If there’s one thing known for sure, it’s that Lozen, the famed and much-honored Chiricahua woman warrior, was no wimp. She rode in battle with Geronimo and with her brother Victorio, and their enemies—Mexican and American—knew and feared her. It’s been said that, from time to time, the spirits visited Lozen, that she could find water in the desert, and that she could locate enemies and read their thoughts. It’s been said that she led a large group of fearful women and babies, riding their panicky horses, across the surging Rio Grande—and then returned to battle the American forces. Like her namesake, 17-year-old Lozen is a warrior and a hero. In this post-apocalyptic thriller, a mysterious force named Cloud, arrived from beyond Jupiter, has destroyed much of humanity and rendered useless all advanced technology. Lozen’s family, with many others, is held under marshal law in a walled fortress called Haven, ruled by four deranged and despotic semi-human overlords (the “Ones”) with bio-enhancements that no longer work. Holding her family hostage—and on the whims of any of them—they send her out to battle genetically modified monsters (“gemods”), such as giant birds of prey, a beyond huge anaconda, and many more. Drawing strength from her wits, her prayers, her supernatural powers inherited from her namesake, her family’s and tribe’s histories, her tracking and fighting skills, and the allies she encounters—natural and supernatural—Lozen is determined and unafraid. Since this is not the first apocalypse her family’s survived, Lozen has inherited, as she would say, mucho generational experience: It was lucky for me in particular that my youthful skills included such…anachronistically useless pursuits as hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, tracking, and wilderness survival at a time when the wilderness itself was barely surviving. Those esoteric and…outdated interests can be blamed on or credited to my family, especially my uncle and my dad—stubborn descendants of a nation that had been targeted for destruction in more than one century yet still survived. Aside: Whenever I receive one of Joe’s young adult novels, I open to a random page to see how he’s chosen to grab video-game-obsessed pre-teens. Here’s a sample: One nice thing from being entombed when you are not yet a corpse is that it gives you plenty of time for thinking. That is also one of the worst things about being in a situation like this. It seems as if no matter what you think about, it all comes down to: Crap, I’m trapped. Joe embeds Lozen’s story in a cultural framework that makes sense to his readers, Native and non-Native alike. Picking up an eagle feather was and is a big deal, for instance, and Lozen does not feel the need to step out of the narrative to give the reader an ethnographic exposition. When she has time, she says a complete prayer; when she’s on the run, she simply says, “thank you.” Unlike many young adult novels about Indian people—and in particular, Tanya Landman’s sloppily researched and abysmally written Apache Girl Warrior—the Lozen in Killer of Enemies is a confident, pragmatic, fearless young woman who understands the power of dreams—and who knows who she is, what she comes from, and what she has been given to do. Young readers might recognize the similarities between post-apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic life, such as the guarded compound of Haven and the 19th century prisons called reservations and Indian residential schools. They also might recognize the similarities between the deranged post-apocalyptic Ones and contemporary one-percenters, who enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. As well, older readers might recognize some of Lozen’s quips as taken directly from an Alfred Hitchcock thriller containing a nightmarish shower scene, a campy Broadway musical not involving birds, a TV series about a patriarch’s superior knowledge, the title of a Ray Bradbury novel (itself based on a Shakespeare play), a Kevin Costner movie, a snipe at the language-challenged Tonto, a line from a poem by Robert Frost, and many more. There’s also a host of puns and other word plays and a helpful Bigfoot with laugh-out-loud Jewish cultural markers (“So sue me”). All of this is a treasure trove for talented classroom teachers and school librarians. For those readers who are unduly thrilled by videogame-inspired carnage, there is this from Lozen: When Child of Water and Killer of Enemies finished destroying nearly all—but not all—of the monsters that threatened human life in that long ago time, they did not feel the thrill of victory. What they felt was sickness. Taking lives is a precarious job, one that can end up polluting your spirit and burning your heart. When you touch the enemy in battle, it unbalances you. The Hero Twins would have died if it had not been for the healing ceremonies that were used to restore their balance, to cool their interior, to soothe their spirits, to clean the dust of death from their vision. And finally, I thank Joe for incorporating a Muslim love interest for Lozen—Hussein, the gentle gardener and musician, who survives torture by the Ones—and who joins Lozen’s family on the run. Just as Indians in general and Apaches in particular are all-too-often treated as savages in children’s and young adult books, Islamophobia is rampant as well. Brisk pace and nonstop action—an adrenaline rush with large helpings of gore, drama and hilarious wordplay—move Lozen’s narrative in a page-turner that left me hungering for a sequel that I’m pretty sure is on the horizon. Killer of Enemies is highly recommended.
Comic book fans! Keep your eyes peeled for INC Comics. INC is Indigenous Narratives Collective. First up from INC is Arigon Starr's Annumpa Luma--Code Talker.
If you follow national news about American Indians, you're probably familiar with the Code Talkers. Yesterday's New York Times
ran a story
about Chester Nez, a Navajo code talker who served in WWII. Mr. Nez passed away on June 4, 2014. Because of the sensitivity of the work they did, code talkers could not tell their families what they did. In recent years, those restrictions have been lifted.
Starr's comic reaches back to World War I. In Annumpa Luma
, she deftly provides readers with a solid chunk of history. The comic opens with Choctaw soldiers in the trenches. They're talking Choctaw to each other... and the idea of their language as a code begins to take shape. They wonder if anyone will be open to their idea, because in government boarding schools, they were punished for speaking their language. Meetings take place, a test is devised, and the code is implemented. This is all conveyed through the perspective of Corporal Solomon Louis. His reunion with his wife, when he returns home, is heartwarming.
On the final pages of her comic, Starr lists the names of the Choctaw soldiers, and says that in 2013, the Choctaw Code Talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. Below is a screen capture of part of the congressional record from 2004 (and the full text specific to the Choctaw Code Talkers), when legislation regarding the code talkers was first introduced.
Using a popular format--comics--Starr and INC Comics shine a bright light on a little known piece of history. I look forward to seeing what else they give us. Order your copy of Annumpa Luma for $5.00 from INC
Here is part of the U.S. Senate's Congressional Record for June 7, 2004
. CHOCTAW CODE TALKERS is highlighted in the image to the right because it is what I was searching for in the record. Sioux, Comanche, and Sax and Fox code talkers in the Act were recognized for service in WWII. If you click on the link above for the congressional record, you can read the entire act. Because I'm writing about Starr's comic, I'm providing the entirety of what TITLE III says.
SEC. 301. FINDINGS
Congress finds that--
(1) on April 6, 1917, the United States, after extraordinary provocations, declared war on Germany and entered World War I, the War to End All Wars;
(2) at the time of that declaration of war, Indian people in the United States, including members of the Choctaw Nation, were not accorded the status of citizens of the United States;
(3) without regard to this lack of citizenship, many members of the Choctaw Nation joined many members of other Indian tribes and nations in enlisting in the Armed Forces to fight on behalf of the United States;
(4) members of the Choctaw Nation were--
(A) enlisted in the force known as the American Expeditionary Force, which began hostile actions in France in the fall of 1917; and
(B) incorporated in a company of Indian enlistees serving in the 142d Infantry Company of the 36th Division;
(5) a major impediment to Allied operations in general, and operations of the United States in particular, was that the fact that the German forces had deciphered all codes used for transmitting information between Allied commands, leading to substantial loss of men and material during the first years in which the military of the United States engaged in combat in World War I;
(6) because of the proximity and static nature of the battle lines, a method to communicate without the knowledge of the enemy was needed;
(7) a commander of the United States realized the fact that he had under his command a number of men who spoke a native language;
(8) while the use of such native languages was discouraged by the Federal Government, the commander sought out and recruited 18 Choctaw Indians to assist in transmitting field telephone communications during an upcoming campaign;
(9) because the language used by the Choctaw soldiers in the transmission of information was not a European language or on a mathematical progressions, the Germans were unable to understand any of the transmissions;
(10) the Choctaw soldiers were placed in different command positions to achieve the widest practicable area for communications;
(11) the use of the Choctaw Code Talkers was particularly important in--
(A) the movement of American soldiers in October of 1918 (including securing forward and exposed positions;
(B) the protection of supplies during American action (including protecting gun emplacements from enemy shelling); and
(C) in the preparation for the assault on German positions in the final stages of combat operation sin the fall of 1918;
(12) in the opinion of the officers involved, the use of Choctaw Indians to transmit information in their native language saved men and munitions, and was highly successful;
(13) based on that successful experience, Choctaw Indians were withdrawn from front line units for training in transmission of codes so as to be more widely used when the war came to an end;
(14) the Germans never succeeded in breaking the Choctaw code;
(15) that was the first time in modern warfare that the transmission of messages in a Native American language was used for the purpose of confusing the enemy;
(16) this action by members of the Choctaw Nation--
(A) is another example of the commitment of Native Americans to the defense of the United States; and
(B) adds to the proud legacy of such service; and
(17) the Choctaw Nation has honored the actions of those 18 Choctaw Code Talkers through a memorial bearing their names located at the entrance of the tribal complex in Durant, Oklahoma.SEC. 302. CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate shall make appropriate arrangements for the presentation, on behalf of Congress of a gold medal of appropriate design honoring the Choctaw Code Talkers.
In the spring of 2004, students in Education 493: Examining Alaska Children's Literature. The course was taught by Esther A. Ilutsik for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Reviews are on the website of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network.
Among the reviews is Martha Stackhouse's review
of Barbara Joosse's Mama Do You Love Me.
She points out errors in the book and recommends it, as long as the errors are pointed out.
Here's an excerpt:
The story has to have been after contact because the pictures are very colorful and the atikjuks, the outer part of the parka, are made from cloth. In looking at the pictures, the maklaks appear to be soft sole, where we mostly use hard crimped soles. The strings on the maklaks are tied forward, when we tie them towards the back. The mother also is wearing feathers in her braids. I have never seen an Inupiaq woman wear feathers before. This may be a cultural blend with the Interior Indians. The animals are cute, drawn mostly for kids. However on the page where the daughter asks "how long?" (No page numbers through out the book) there is a Yupik looking mask up in the sky. The inner part of the mask would be a better representative of the Inupiaq mask but the appendages to it makes it more like a Yupik style mask. On that same page, there is a puffin howling at the moon. There are no puffins in the northern regions of Alaska.
In her conclusion, Stackhouse says the book can be used as long as the teacher points out the errors. There's so many errors! So many that if I was teaching elementary school, I'd use the book as an example of how writers make mistakes. Do head over to the site and read the entire review
Katherine Kirkpatrick's Between Two Worlds is another fail from Random House, a major publisher. It is getting good reviews, which represents another fail in the reviewing world.
The protagonist in Kirkpatrick's story is supposed to be an Inuit teen, Billy Bah, who was the seamstress for Robert E. Peary, one of the white men who claimed to reach the North Pole (I used 'white' deliberately because all the fuss over "first" white men to reach this or that place always make me pause).
As I read Between Two Worlds I thought
"this does not strike me as an insider's voice."
There are certain things about Inuit people that most people take to be fact. Here's two: They rub noses. The men get trade goods by offering sex with their wives as their unit of trade. Generally, there's a kernel of truth in such things, but when they seep into an outsider's conscience as THE thing(s) they know about a people, that outsider "knowledge" is vividly on display as ignorance and stereotype.
The degree to which that "knowledge" has come to pass as legitimate information explains 1) why Kirkpatrick could write such a book, 2) why her editor at Random House would not spot the outsider perspective, 3) and why reviewers give the book a thumbs up.
So. Rubbing noses. Everyone knows that is the way Eskimos kiss, right?
Wrong! It is actually a gesture of affection called a kunik by those who do it. In this article
, David Joanasi, of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
, says "When you're an infant and a little kid, your parents and older siblings sniff you and rub your face with their nose", and Erin Eckman, who is Inupiaq and works for the Alaska Native Heritage Center
said "Growing up in Alaska, I only really saw women do it to babies."
Kirkpatrick uses "rubbed noses" 17 times. I noted who is rubbing noses in parentheses.
p. 28: "We rubbed noses..."(sisters, parting)
p. 49: "We rubbed noses." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 52: "We rubbed noses, ..." (little girl/woman, greeting)
p. 68: "I rubbed noses..." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 74: "Sammy, rubbed noses..." (woman/little boy, greeting)
p. 77: "...rubbing noses..." (girl/girl, greeting)
p. 85: "We rubbed noses." (husband/wife, working together)
p. 132: "one last time, rubbed noses..."(woman/little girl, parting)
p. 133: "We rubbed noses." (father/daughter, greeting)
p. 137: "We rubbed noses." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 142: "...we rubbed noses." (husband/wife, greeting and prelude to sex)
p. 145: "...rub noses..." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 147: "But we rubbed noses." (husband/wife, in bed)
p. 149: "We rubbed noses." (woman/little girl)
p. 200: "...rubbed noses..." (husband/wife, during argument)
p. 230: "...we rubbed noses..." (husband/wife, greeting)
p. 232: "We rubbed noses." (woman/boy)
For the most part, Kirkpatrick uses rubbed noses to convey affection. Though I think she over-uses the phrase, we might think she's using it correctly. But, that is not the case...
That wife-trading I pointed to above? It happens in this book, too. A lot. Early on, Billy Bah's husband, Angulluk (that is his name but mostly she thinks of him as "Fat One") tells her that he's had three offers for her from men on the ship that has arrived at their village. Angulluk has chosen red-headed Duncan to trade with. Later that night when Billy Bah is with Duncan in the sailors quarters, she's thinking that he might "pounce on me like a bear as other sailors had." Note what she says. Other sailors. Plural. As it turns out, Duncan isn't like those pouncing sailors. He sits back and they talk for awhile. Billy Bah asks Duncan why he wanted her rather than Ally, who Billy Bah thinks is prettier. Duncan tells Billy Bah that he wanted her because she can speak better English than Ally, is smart, and he likes her long hair. Billy Bah moves closer to Duncan, who says he would never hurt her (p. 42):
Then he pressed his lips against mine. I drew back.
"No! Kiss me on the nose, never on the lips."
"Our people don't do that," I said. "We don't like it."
See? That passage tells me Kirkpatrick does not know as much about rubbing noses as we might think! I've read some of her interviews. In one
, she says that the inspiration for her book is Boreal Ties
, which is a book of photographs of the Peary relief expedition. I read that and wondered what else she used as resources. I flipped to the back of her book and read the Historical Notes. She relies heavily on the work of Josephine Peary (Robert E. Perry's wife). Reading the excerpts there felt just like reading the story itself. Outsider perspective.
I have to stop for now, but maybe I'll be back with more to say about Katherine Kirkpatrick's Between Two Worlds.
But like I said up top, it is a fail from Random House. I do not recommend it.
A couple of weeks ago, Oregon's ban on same sex marriage was struck down. I was happy about that. In my timeline on Twitter, I saw this image:
I replied to the person who sent it out, noting that the Oregon Trail signaled loss for Native people. She thanked me. She 'got it' immediately.
Today I got a tweet from T. J. Tallie, a queer black scholar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. The tweet is to an essay titled Failing to Ford the River: "Oregon Trail", Same-Sex Marriage Rhetoric, and the Intersections of Anti-Blackness and Settler Colonialism
. Here's an excerpt:
The game offers challenges to American children, presenting them with the potential of a variety of means of death (dysentery, exhaustion, drowning, or others), while erasing the Indigenous peoples who were starved, removed, or otherwise subject to settler violence in the very same project. Indeed, the game offers a collective investment for American students into histories of colonialism and domination, notably through the participation in a game that structures simultaneous removal and forgetting of the very presence of Indigenous peoples, while celebrating the survival and endurance of white pioneers.
There's more. Lots more. I want you (readers of AICL) to read it and think about Tallie's words the next time you read or review (or write) a book about the Oregon Trail. Just now, I searched children's books at Amazon using "Oregon Trail" and got a list of 334 books.
This excerpt From Tallie's essay is about African Americans:
The history of the Oregon Trail is not simply a story of anti-Indigenous settlement, however. The history of the Oregon Territory, and subsequent state of Oregon, is one of profound white settler investment in anti-blackness as well. Beginning in 1844, Oregon Territory passed its first exclusion law, banning African-American immigration into the region, and in 1857, had the dubious distinction of becoming the only free state in the United States to have officially codified anti-black immigration into its constitution (decided by popular vote, no less), which was ratified the following year...
What is on your shelf? What does it say about Native people? African Americans?
Take some time to read Tallie's essay
. Share it with others. And let's all think about what we saw, write, share, and endorse about the Oregon Trail.
One of the big names right now is Gayle Forman. Her book, If I Stay, is big and gonna be a movie, too. So--I figured I ought to take a look at the book. I opened the preview at Amazon and read the first page. I stopped reading...
The book opens on the morning of a snowfall. Not a lot of snow, but enough that school is cancelled (p. 3):
"My little brother, Teddy, lets out a war whoop when Mom's AM radio announces the closures."
Really? Did Teddy run around the house going woo-woo-woo by patting his hand over his mouth as he said "woooo"?!
"War whoop" is one of those phrases that yank me out of the story an author is telling.
If you look up "war whoop" you'll see that it is defined as being specific to Native people, but you probably already knew that, right? That is, if you even noticed that phrase as you read it (assuming you read Forman's book).
It isn't an innocuous expression. Subtly it affirms stereotypes people carry around. You know what I'm talking about.. The idea that Native people were warlike, barbaric, and savage. Another phrase like that? "On the warpath."
The truth? Native people were fighting to defend our homelands and to protect our women and children. You know damn well that you'd fight, too, and you'd definitely be yelling.
Gayle Forman did not have to use "war whoop" to describe the exuberance her character felt. Nothing is lost if she'd just said "My little brother, Teddy, shouts with glee when Mom's AM radio announces the closures."
Given that her book is going to be on the big screen---what will we see when that scene is turned into a script? Goodness! I hope Teddy doesn't emerge from his bedroom in a headdress. If you're reading this, Gayle, maybe you can make sure THAT doesn't happen.
For now, I'm not getting her book, and this post will be added to AICL's "All you do is complain" page.
Saturday morning (May 31, 2014) I woke early with a feeling of joy and excitement. Several hundred miles away from me, a group of eight men and women were in New York City, getting ready for their session at Book Con 2014 (BookCon is part of Book Expo America, BEA for short). The weeks, days, and hours prior to their session were--for me--a roller coaster of highs and lows. I cannot imagine what it was like for them. What follows is the story of We Need Diverse Books as I experienced it. It is my thank you and shout out to a group that sparked a moment and movement that may mark the turning point in the all white world of children's books...
In April, two things happened. BEA announced a panel of blockbuster kidlit writers. That panel was composed of four men and a cat. And, BookCon announced its line-up of authors. This "blindingly white" situation prompted indignation amongst a lot of people. A group was formed. That group is We Need Diverse Books. Their goal was/is to promote books that showcase and promote diversity of content, and diversity of authors that create that content. On May 28th, Aisha Saeed wrote about the upcoming trip to NYC.
I followed the campaign when it was launched in late April, offering help as I could behind-the-scenes, but mostly I used social media to promote the We Need Diverse Books campaign. This is the first graphic the WNDB team released:
Gorgeous, isn't it? The energy radiating from the team was inspiring. With twitter driving it, the campaign took off around the world. Media covered it. The result? BookCon invited the team to do a session in NYC on Saturday morning.
On the 29th (Thursday), I made a graphic with the WNDB logo and location info for their session. I started to tweet it:
On Friday morning (May 30), excitement was building. Ilene Wong
of the WNDB team sent this tweet:
My excitement grew when I saw tweets of photos of large displays announcing the location of the WNDB session:
That excitement was tamped down a bit as I read tweets from Cheryl Willis Hudson of Just Us Books
. She was walking through the exhibit halls at BEA, looking for books within the diverse framework. She didn't see much, but did take photos and sent them out. Aren't they terrific? Here's her photo of Because They Marched
at the Holiday House booth:
And here's a photo she snapped of Jacqueline Woodson signing books. See what Cheryl said? "Long line" --- cool!
Here's more photos Cheryl sent out:
As I read tweets from Cheryl and those in the We Need Diverse Books hashtag on twitter, I saw that Cinco Punto Press had tweeted a photo of Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar.
It was there, on their table, at BEA. I retweeted their photo:
There were to be two other sessions at BEA that focused on diversity. I tweeted info on them, too. One was "Multicultural Publishers in Conversation." Here's that flyer. As you can see, Just Us Books
and Cinco Punto Press
were scheduled for that conversation on Saturday at 12:45.
Here's the flyer for the third session, "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?":
But look! See the time slot in the red bar at top of the graphic? Saturday, 10:00 AM... The same time as the We Need Diverse Books session! I was stomping mad about that, with various obscenities whirling in my head. Then I saw this set of tweets by Ellen Oh (retweeted by Ilene Wong):
What obstacles, I wondered? I figured one was the overlap of the WNDB session and the conversation with publishers session, but Ellen said "obstacles" (plural), so what else went wrong?! Lights out for me... I went to bed.
Early Saturday morning I was up and catching up on tweets from the night. I learned that the hard copy of the conference program did not have the WNDB session in it.
People at the Javits were sending out tweets and photos:
And Jacqueline Woodson
snapped a way-cool photo of Matt de la Pena
arriving at her house. They were going to head over to the Javits center together.
As 10:00 AM drew near, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tweets from the conference were growing in number.
I saw that the WNDB team had created swag!
And panelist Grace Lin
had a "cheat sheet" handout with ways that booksellers can hand-sell books to consumers who shy away from books by or about people of color (get the pdf from her blog
I wondered how big the room was but when the first photos of the room (as it filled up) started to come across twitter, I estimated 200 chairs. This photo was taken by Ilene Wong, as she notes, 35 minutes before the panel started.
And of course, people in the audience were taking/tweeting LOTS of photos of the panelists:
The room itself filled up and people were turned away (media reports later said there were 300 people in the room, with people in the aisles and three-deep along the back wall). Meanwhile, in the room, the panelists received a terrific reception from the audience:
Panelists delivered powerful remarks that were tweeted and retweeted. Again and again I wished I was in that room rather than hundreds of miles away. I was glad to see tweets indicating that Matt de la Pena
had a few things to say about the shut down of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson Unified School district. Over and over, I was glad for twitter. The emotion captured in photos was astounding.
An unedited audio of the session is now available
at the We Need Diverse Books tumblr. No doubt the panelists and WNDB team was bursting with joy once the session ended. Marieke Nijkamp's tweet captures some of their emotion:
I was especially moved by Mike Jung
's tweets as he left the conference:
It was VERY poor planning on the part of BEA to offer WNDB and the "Where are the People of Color" session at the same time. I assume it and the "Multicultural Publishers in Conversation" session were both in the program.
A curious thing, though, was the floor announcement, as captured in this photo tweeted by Daniel Jose Older
(photo taken by Tiffany D. Jackson
). See the title for the session? How small it is in comparison to the titles of other sessions? And doesn't it look like it was pasted on there? Why?!
Of course, Daniel's jab ("Diversity is so awesome!!!!) is directed at conference planners, and not diversity itself. I don't know if he made it to the 12:45 session. Cheryl Willis Hudson was there and tweeted some photos. Here's one:
Today (June 2, 2014), several recaps of BEA were loaded online. I especially liked what Lyn Miller Lachmann
said in her piece, and what Allie Bruce
said in hers. Both are committed to diversity, and their commitment shows in their writing. I loved hearing the voices of Ellen Oh
, Lamar Giles
, and Jacqueline Woodson
in their interview with NPR
. Claire Kirch's recap for Publishers Weekly is here
. Among the things you'll read is that WNDB is working with the National Education Association, and that Lee and Low is launching a "New Visions Award
." The big news? That a book festival is being planned...
A good many people have been pushing for diversity for a very long time. With respect to Native people objecting, I think back to William Apes, a Pequot man who was raised by a white family for a portion of his childhood. He read the books they gave him, and because of what he read, was afraid of Indians! He wrote about that fear as an adult, in his Son of the Forest,
published in 1831.
In June of 2014, it feels like some substantial change will take hold because the demographics in the country are shifting dramatically. I am optimistic. And--I look forward to meeting members of the WNDB team
in Washington DC in 2016 at a festival of diversity in children's books! The plans are in the works. Till then, AICL stands with We Need Diverse Books. This is a cheesy closure but I'll use it anyway... STAY TUNED.A special note of thanks to Cheryl Willis Hudson of Just Us Books for all that she shared from BEA.
Last week, Sharon H. Chang tweeted a couple of images from a 1987 copy of Where's Waldo that I am adding to AICL's page, The Foul Among the Good. Here they are:
My response?May 29, 2014
Yes, in fact, I've seen that a lot in children's picture books and in dog photos created by people who apparently don't know much about Native peoples. For us, feathers are not playthings. They are sacred. I am guessing you know that eagles are protected in the United States. I'm guessing that you do not know that there are also laws that recognize that eagle feathers have religious significance to Native people. If you want to know a bit more about it, the New York Times ran a story about this in 2011.
I'd also like to note, Waldo, that your depiction of "Indian" people is stereotypical. You drew a tipi, the fringed clothing, and what I think you meant to be a "peace pipe." There are over 500 federally recognized Native Nations in the U.S. Rather than anything meaningful, you're giving your readers monolithic imagery that doesn't do anyone any good.
I'm hoping that line in your post card, the dog, and the tipi are gone from later editions of your book.
Sincerely,Debbie ReeseAmerican Indians in Children's Literature
I spent an hour today in a twitter chat hosted by First Book
. The chat was part of the We Need Diverse Books
In the chat I advocated for authors who are Native.
Right away--as usual--a white writer posed a question about white writers, asking the First Read host if authorship of a book matters.
Not surprisingly, First Book said that authorship does not matter. Diversity of characters is what they're after. That's the answer you get from, I'd guess, every publisher.
I persisted, though, because I do think it matters. Here's why:
Just about every book a kid picks up has white people in it. And, just about every book is written and illustrated by a white author or illustrator. For literally hundreds of years, white kids have seen themselves reflected in the books they read, and they've had the chance to see people who look like them as writers and illustrators of those books. By default, they've been able to see a possible-self. By default, they could imagine themselves as the writer or illustrator of that book. It may not have been a conscious thing, but it was the norm. The default. The air they breathe. Every day.
I want that for Native kids. I want them to see books written and illustrated by people who look like them. I want them to be able to think "Hmmm... I could be a writer, too, just like Cynthia Leitich Smith!" or "Hey! I could be an illustrator, too, just like S. D. Nelson!"
I understand that white authors and illustrators feel threatened by my advocacy, but my advocacy is for Native children who deserve the same affirmations white kids get all the time.
It is also important that kids who aren't Native see books written and illustrated by Native people. Why? Because there are far too many people who think we no longer exist. There are far too many people that think we were primitive people who grunted and ran around half naked. When reading or booktalking a book written by or illustrated by a Native person, the parent/teacher/librarian can say "Eric Gansworth is Onondaga
." That two-letter word, IS, is a powerful one and communicates a great deal to kids. That parent/teacher/librarian can then say "The office for the Onondaga Nation
is in New York."
I'm closing this post with a tribute to Native writers and illustrators. That tribute is photos of them. They are in no particular order. I'll keep adding to this gallery, because I don't have time right now to be comprehensive. I'll do my best, and I welcome you to write to me to let me know to add someone I've missed. Each person's tribe is beneath their name. If there are errors, I apologize, and please let me know.
American Indians in Children's Literature
A Gallery of Native Writers and Illustrators
|Cynthia Leitich Smith|
Turtle Mountain Chippewa
|Nicola I. Campbell|
Nlel7kepmx, Nsilx and Metis
|Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve|
|Richard Van Camp|
Standing Rock Sioux
|Lee DeCora Francis, and her boys|
|Jan Bourdeau Waboose|
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
A few hours ago, my daughter called to tell me she'd finished her last exam of the semester. With joy and enthusiasm, she said she was finished with Year One of law school.
I was happy to hear her voice as she described that last exam and reflected on the year. I carried her joy through my day. And then, a hour ago, I was on Twitter when a colleague tweeted a photo from Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that I talk about that book more than any other. It is the one I wish I'd had when my daughter was a three year old and dancing for the first time at home. Our dance, by the way, is like prayer. Not entertainment, and not performance. Prayer. Everyone helps get ready for that first dance. Smith depicts that in Jingle Dancer.
But the particular page that I'm thinking of right now is this one:
That is Jenna on the left. On the right is Jenna's cousin, Elizabeth. At that point in Smith's story, Jenna is visiting Elizabeth. Elizabeth can't be with Jenna on that special day. She's got a big case she's working on. You see, Elizabeth is a lawyer.
Need I say more about why that page is special to me today? Your book continues to give to me, Cyn. Thank you.
"According to her nomination form, she was the recipient of the 2013 Virginia Matthews Scholarship Award for her “sustained involvement in the American Indian community and her sustained commitment to American Indian concerns and initiatives.” Her award-winning blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, shined the spotlight on the Arizona law that led to the recent shutdown of the Mexican American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District. According to the American Indian Library Association, Reese not only works with the Nambe community and “she strives to inform the dominant culture about issues facing Indian people today.” --Melissa Anderson, SJSU
Dear First Book,
I've been tweeting at you over the last week or so, especially in the last 24 hours. Some might think I'm being unfair to an organization that is doing good work.
I agree that you are doing some pretty good work. The list of books you have on your "Native Interest" page? For the most part, it is an impressive list. It includes a good many Native authors. That, in and of itself, is unusual. So, I am very glad to see it. It isn't perfect, though, and I'd really like to see some books come off that list, including:
Island of the Blue Dolphins --- Yeah, I know. It won the Newbery and is on umpteen lists of favorite books. It isn't on my list of favorites. Far from it! It has stereotypes, bias, and misinformation. I'm sure Scott O'Dell meant well, but he goofed. Given its ubiquity in American society, I am concerned that teachers, parents, librarians---whomever it is that orders books from your site---will see it and spend their precious dollars on it because they recognize the title. They may have fond memories of it that prompt feelings of nostalgia. But! I think it ought to be set aside in favor of books that do a far better job of providing children--via fiction--information about Native peoples.
Starfish --- I was astounded when I read that new book. The stereotypes and sensationalism in it are evidence, I think, of how powerful stereotypes of Native peoples are within the minds of writers (like Crowley) and editors at big publishers (like Hyperion).
You, First Read, are a non-profit. You're not trying to make money, right? You're trying to give kids good books, and you're especially interested in diversity. Seems logical to me that you'd stay away from books like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Starfish.
Your page on Native American Heritage Month needs some work. You link to New Age music. Not cool. You feature Pocahontas: Princess of the New World. She was not a princess! The whole idea of royalty is European. Promoting that book, you promote misinformation! There are far better choices, many of which you actually have on your Native Interest list! Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, or Kunu's Basket are both excellent.
That page links to New Age music rather than Native music. In a tweet, I suggested you use the Black Lodge Singers instead. Their kid pow wow songs are terrific!
Your CEO, Kyle Zimmer, gave an interview to NPR this weekend. Zimmer noted that the We Need Diverse Books is the most recent effort to call attention to what some of us call 'the all white world of children's books.'
I wish that Zimmer had named the men and women who created this latest effort. Most of them are people of color. (For the record, I'm not one of the creators of WNDB.)
In an earlier blog post and in a twitter chat with First Book, I advocated for Native writers/illustrators because I think the identity of an author/illustrator makes a difference. It presents a child with a possible-self, which is a phrase used in psychology. It means 'what I imagine as being possible for myself as an adult.' That idea is more commonly known as a role model.
Imagine what a boost it would be for the children of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, if they'd heard the name of their mom or dad on the radio! White kids hear the names of people that look like them all the time. They get that in books, too. All the time. Lot of possible selves.
That is not the case for children of color. You can do that, First Book. You can offer lots and lots of possible selves.
I want First Book to use their power and influence to do precisely that. Feature and promote writers and illustrators who are outside what we call 'the mainstream' or 'the norm.'
As reported on your website, First Book, you are making a difference. Step up your game. You have nothing to lose and the entire country as everything to gain by such a move.
First Book! Step up your game!
American Indians in Children's Literature
Sweet! Sometimes, that exclamation (Sweet!) means something is endearing, and sometimes, it means something is way cool. Both meanings apply to Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis.
Kulu is an Inuktitut term of endearment. The babe who is the sweetest kulu in this book is Inuit (Inuktitut is one of the languages spoken by Inuit people). I got it yesterday. The sense of peace and promise in Kalluk's book was just what I needed on a particularly trying day. See the cover?
Kalluk's words and Neonakis's art work beautifully together as we learn Inuit values in which people and animals coexist as caretakers of the land. In Kalluk's hands, this is not the stereotypical one-with-the-animals story that we see all too often.
This is a terrific book for those who have a newborn in the house... And for those of us who just need a book that rights the world for us, that reminds us of that world in all its richness.Sweetest Kulu
is another great book from Inhabit Media
. By the way! If you're interested in Native music, you ought to add Kalluk to your playlist. She is a throat singer. Check out this video
. She was performing in New York with a cousin. You MUST ALSO watch the set of short videos here
If you're Kickapoo author/illustrator Arigon Starr, you gotta be dancing every time you pick up Super Indian and read what Charlie Hill, one of the best Native comedians ever (sadly, he passed away a few weeks ago), had to say about Super Indian:
"Great Scott! The long awaited indigenous super hero has arrived."
If you never saw Charlie Hill perform, those words probably don't move you the way they do me. His humor was perfect. His voice as he told jokes and stories? Perfect.
In Super Indian,
Starr's own wit shines. From minute details in the art to the words on the page, I found a lot to like about Super Indian.
Starr opens with a jab at those who create The White Man's Indian. By that, I mean prose riddled with "ancient" and "proud" and "noble" and "fierce" and "sacred quest" and "mystical knowledge." Those words and more are on the very first page, but they're there to tell you that you will not
find that guy in Super Indian.
Instead, we have Hubert Logan who, as a boy, "attended a birthday party for the local bully, Derek Thunder." At that party, the boys "consumed mass quantities of commodity cheese tainted with "Rezium," an experimental element developed by Government Research Scientist Dr. Eaton Crowe."
My guess is that most readers of AICL are going "huh?" because they don't know what commodity cheese is, but I guarantee that Native people on reservations know exactly
what that is, and they're laughing (like I was) as I read that part of the intro.
Cheese aside, Hubert is kind of like Clark Kent: a studious guy in glasses and braids. He works at the Leanin Oak Bingo Hall. "Leanin Oak" is another joke, by the way! It is a poke at a line of over-the-top greeting cards with bogus Native proverbs and the like. Hubert's alter ego is Super Indian. He's got some side kicks, and a dog, too that lends his own thread to the stories in volume one.
Volume one has three different stories in it. After introducing us to the characters we'll meet as we read Super Indian,
we begin with "Here Comes the Anthro." It is a perfect opening. The art shows a scary looking anthropologist on the cover, about to grab Super Indian.
Yep--that title is another jab. This one is at the discipline that has been causing Native people headaches (to say the least) for a very long time. I gotta pause here, and drop in Floyd Crow Westerman's song, "Here Come the Anthros" so that you get a full sense of what anthropologists mean to Native people:
Starr's anthropologist is German. I think him being German is a jab at Karl May, a German writer who wrote a bunch of novels about Native people. Goofy ones, that is, that--unfortunately--people don't see as goofy. Starr clearly had a good time writing Super Indian.
If you're Native or well-versed in Native life as-it-is (not as outsiders imagine it to be), you'll like Super Indian.
One of the characters is a blogger! How cool is that?
Back in 2012, Indian Country Today
published an interview with Starr
. Check it out. It has good background info. Go to the Super Indian website
. Order a copy
of Super Indian,
and if you're a fan of comics, keep an eye on the Indigenous Narratives Collective
of Native American comic book writers and artists. Good stuff.
By: Debbie Reese
Blog: American Indians in Children's Literature
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, grave robbing
, Julia Mary Gibson
, middle grade
, middle school
, not recommended
, Pub year: 2014
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In Copper Magic, twelve-year-old Violet Blake is digging by a stream near her house in Michigan and finds a "talisman" -- a copper hand that she comes to call "the Hand." Violet feels that this hand has some kind of power. She thinks she can use it to make wishes come true. Course, her first wish (for a new dress) does come true (actually she gets TWO new dresses), so she's thinking about how she'll use it to get her mom and little brother back home. Her mother is half Odawa.
Well, it turns out there was more than just that copper hand in the spot where Violet was digging. There's also a skeleton there that is dug up (another kid finds it), reassembled, and displayed as a curiosity in a local hotel.
Cue some fake Hollywood Indian music...
Can't be messing around in them Indian burial grounds, right?! We've seen THAT enough times in movies and TV shows to know that messing with bones and artifacts means bad things are gonna happen. And of course, bad things happen to the people in Copper Magic. Lots of bad things. A wicked storm. Lake water behaving in odd ways. Death. Before all that happens, Mercy (Violet's new friend) talks about how there might be a curse on the grave... Violet and her mother (remember--her mom is half Odawa) have special powers, too. They can see things other people can't.
Cut that fake Hollywood Indian music, that is, and an emphatic "Cut it out!" as my parents would say when I was doing something wrong.
Cut it out, Julia Mary Gibson!
Cut it out, Susan Cooper!
Cut it out, Rosanne Parry!
"Cut what?" you may wonder... Quit writing about Native spirituality! You mean well, but you don't know what you're doing. From a place of ignorance, you're adding to an already-too-tall pile of garbage that gets circulated as information about Native people.
A good many writers have a moment in their life that touched them in such a way that they feel they must write about Native people. Gibson's moment is described in her Afterword. When she was eleven years old, she and her family found some bones near their summer cottage in Michigan. "[A]n expert" said they were "most likely American Indian but not old enough to be archeologically significant" (p. 329), so her grandfather "pieced together a skeleton and mounted it on plywood." Her "superstitious" grandma didn't like it and insisted the bones be reburied. This took place in the late 1960s or early 1970s (my guess, based on Gibson's bio at Macmillan
that says she was born "in the time of Freedom Rides and the Vietnam War").
Gibson goes on to say that her grandfather didn't know better.
In Copper Magic
, Violet is Gibson. The person who puts the skeleton on display is Mr. Dell, a hotel owner intent on increasing his business. The superstitious person who wants the bones reburied? Well, that is Mrs. Agosa, an Odawa woman who tells Violet to "Watch out for ghosts out by you" because "mad ghosts can throw out curses" (p. 134).
and many other writers poke around a bit and pack their stories with bits of info that make it sound like they know a lot about American Indians. Gibson does that in Copper Magic
when she has some of her characters talk about grave robbing and why it is wrong. She also does that when she has Mrs. Agosa talk about the hotel owner burning her people's village and orchards because he wanted their land. In the Afterword, Gibson tells us that part of the story is true (p. 330):
"The real people of the Chaboiganing Band were yanked from their houses by a crooked land grabber and the local sheriff, who flung kerosene over homes and orchards and burned down the whole village, just as Mrs. Agosa tells it."
The burning of that village is important information. It is what major publishers like Macmillan (publisher of Copper Magic
) ought to make known. I wish Gibson had made it the heart of her story. Instead, she chose to tell a story about grave robbing, curses, and mystical Indians. There's more to the "mystical Indians" theme... Interspersed throughout Copper Magic
are pages about two ancient women: Crooked Woman and Greenstone. Those parts of Gibson's novel are presented in italics. They feed the mainstream monster of stereotypical expectations--where people love to read about "mystical Indians" and our tragic history.
In Copper Magic,
Violet's dad is a steady voice saying that Indian graves deserve respect and ought to be left alone. Violet parrots some of what he says but doesn't really understand. Ironically, Gibson is more like Violet than she realizes. Her understanding is superficial. Violet wants to use the hand to get what she wants. Gibson uses the childhood story to do what she wants.
As you may have guessed by now, I don't like what Gibson has done in Copper Magic.
And of course, I do not recommend it. Copper Magic
is another FAIL from a major publisher.