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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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Dear Claire Kirch,
In your article, today, you wrote this about Kate Gale's essay in Huffington Post:
The article--which can be seen in full in these screen shots captured by PW--attempted to defend AWP against recent complaints about the lack of diversity represented in its programming, as well as the lack of transparency in its actions. Gale's article, however, featured inflammatory language that drew its own backlash. (Among other things, the article referred to Native American as Indians.)
Really, Claire? If you were Kate Gale's editor, you'd suggest she change this sentence:
I pictured David Fenza saddling up a horse, Stetson in place, going out to shoot Indians.
so it reads like this:
I pictured David Fenza saddling up a horse, Stetson in place, going out to shoot Native Americans.
Really? I'm astounded. Tell me, Claire, why you think that's better. Seems to me you're as clueless as Gale. I hope you'll take time to read what I wrote yesterday: About Kate Gale's post, "AWP Is Us."
But even if you don't read what I said, please tell me why you think it would be better if Gale had used Native American instead of Indian.
American Indians in Children's Literature
Yesterday (8/24/2015), I read Kate Gale's post, "AWP Is Us." Here's a screen cap of the second and third paragraphs in her post:
Gale recounts being at a dinner where a woman leaned over to her and said that AWP hates Native Americans. She writes that she took out a pen and paper and asked the woman who, at the AWP office, hates Indians. Gale says that she imagined David Fenza saddling a horse and going out to shoot Indians. She says the woman fumbled around and couldn't tell her who the "Indian hater" was.
Her unstated conclusion is that the woman's remark has no merit. I take whatever fumbling there was as a sign that the woman was astounded at Gale's response. Reading Gale's post, it is clear that her demeanor towards the woman was aggressive.
What are the conditions in Kate Gale's world, in her head and heart, that prompt her to hear the words "hate Native Americans" and imagine someone getting on a horse to shoot Indians? She probably thinks her imaginings are clever. Those imaginings, however, illuminate a lot about what-is-wrong-with-literature, and with AWP, and with a huge swath of society.Past Tense
I wonder if Gale has Native friends or colleagues? I wonder if she reads Native writers? The answer to those questions may be yes, but none of them came to mind in her imagining. Instead, she went to a historical time period. That reflects the tendency to think of Native peoples as part of the past, not present.Shooting Indians
I wonder if Gale is aware that, today, Native people are on the list of people most likely to be killed by law enforcement?
Here's a chart from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, published on August 26, 2014:
Gale's imaging (horse/Stetson) sound like something out of a Western, but let's consider a common phrase: off the reservation. That phrase goes back to a period when, if a Native person left a reservation without permission of the government agent, that person could be shot. Indeed, Carlos Montezuma's mother left the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, without permission, to try to find her little boy. She was shot in the back, and killed, by an Army scout.
My point is that Gale's imagining's aren't funny.
They aren't clever. They are offensive.
Her post was much discussed amongst Native writers and scholars yesterday. Those conversations continue, today. Will there be a response from AWP? from Gale?
We're not the only group that objects to what she said. Others are responding, too. Just before I hit the upload button, I saw a tweet from AWP:
Will Gale have one, too? Will this and other high profile AWP problems, prompt change within AWP?
I'm reading an ARC (advanced reader copy) of Erin Bowman's Vengeance Road.
Here's my notes as I pick up and start to read Vengeance Road. Summary is in standard font. My questions, comments, observations are in italics.
Notes on August 23, 2015
The front cover: Cactus, skulls (human and animal), pistols.
Debbie's thoughts: This is a western. The back cover
: Blurb tells me the story is about 18 year old Kate Thompson. Her father is killed "for a journal that reveals the secret location of a gold mine."
Debbie's thoughts: Hmmm... an old west story, something to do with gold mines. Anytime a story is about the west and mining, I wonder if it'll include the fact that those mines were on Native homelands. I wonder if it'll include the violence Native peoples endured by those who staked claim to those homelands. The map
that appears on two pages, after the title, CIP, and dedication pages: Dated "Arizona Territory, 1877.
Debbie's thoughts: I don't see any Native spaces on the map. It has things like "Thompson Homestead" but I think it is fair to say the map erases Native presence from their homelands. Obviously, we're talking about point of view. I wonder who made the map? Was it made by someone in the story? Carlos Montezuma was born, in Arizona, around 1866. He was afraid to be kidnapped. By then, Native peoples were doing all they could to protect their homelands, AND, protect their families from being abducted and forced to work in mines. I'll need to get Ned Blackhawk's book, Violence Over the Land, out again if I need/want to say more about this! Chapter 1
Kate (the protagonist) is at the river "yanking a haul" on her Pa's plot of land, which she calls "the best plot of land 'long Granite Creek" (p. 1).
Debbie's thoughts: wondering how that plot of land came to be his? And what makes it best? I think yanking a haul means hauling water. A search of Google maps tells me that Granite Creek is north of Prescott and southwest of Flagstaff.
Smoke and yelping cause Kate to head to the house but it is too late. Her father is dead, swaying from a tree, and the house is on fire. She sees figures riding away and shoots at them. One falls. Scene switches to the Quartz Rock Saloon in Prescott (five miles away), where Kate, dressed like a boy, is watching the person who fell. She's sure he won't last long. She listens to conversation around her, which includes "a pair of uniforms from Fort Whipple" who are "hammering 'bout the Apache."
Debbie's thoughts: Apache. First mention of a tribe. That's important, but will there be context for the existence of that fort? And, context for why the Apaches are the subject of conversation?
The guy leaves the saloon. Kate follows him to an outhouse where she yanks open the door and points her pistol at him. He's inside it, sitting on a pot that is set into a wooden seat in the outhouse. He isn't using the outhouse for its purpose; he's sitting in there to look at his gunshot wound.
Debbie's thoughts: Small point, but a pot inside an outhouse? Doesn't make sense to me.
He tells Kate that her dad had a secret, told to him and his friends by Morris, a clerk at Goldwaters. He won't tell her what that secret is. She shoots him.
End of chapter 1.
Debbie's thoughts: Bowman is using the shoot-em-up style of writing in a way that will definitely appeal to readers who like this style, but it is, so far, very much within the master narratives of US history. By that, I mean the praise of prospectors who set out to "strike it rich" on resources that belonged to someone else. Of course, that someone else is dehumanized in these stories. "Savage Indians," you know, who don't "properly use the land" -- which justifies what was done to them, in the name of capitalism and manifest destiny. Yeah, I didn't use caps for manifest destiny. Just don't want to right now.
That's it for now. Other things to do before I start chapter 2, but hitting the 'publish' button on this. I'll be back.
Hey all... you know that Pocahontas did not marry John Smith, right? Check this out:
Here's the synopsis:
In this book, children learn the story of Pocahontas. Famous for helping maintain peace between the English colonists and Native Americans, this brave Indian woman befriended the settlers at Jamestown, saving the life of their leader, Captain John Smith, whom she later married.
I wonder if the synopsis is wrong? Does the book actually have that error in it?
I'm at the Oak Park Public Library, in Oak Park, Illinois for the afternoon. While here, I thought I'd take a look to see their holdings about Pocahontas. I found Pocahontas: Princess of the New World by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz. Published in 2007 by Walker Publishing Company, its title is the first indication that it is not a book that can provide young children with solid information about Pocahontas.
Pocahontas was not a princess!
On that fact alone, librarians can
deselect (weed) books about her that
say she was a princess.
Here's the opening paragraph from Krull's biography of her:
Sounds like a European princess, doesn't it? And therein is a clue: if it sounds European, it probably is, and here's why. When Europeans first came to the homelands of Native peoples, the incorrectly applied their knowledge of how European societies are structured to Native societies. We know better now, and have for a long time, and yet, we still see the word "princess" used in children's books about Pocahontas.
The "Storyteller's Note, or What Happened Next?" (presumably written by Krull), begins with this:
"All the information we have on Pocahontas is from English sources--we have nothing from her perspective. Dramatic accounts of her role are often inaccurate."
Interesting, eh? That word--inaccurate? It applies to Krull's book, too. She also says that she's tried to make sense of "the known facts" and that she has, especially, used Helen Rountree's Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries
and David Price's Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation,
both of which are listed in her sources. However, Rountree doesn't use the word "princess" anywhere. Price uses it twice, without explanation. The first source Krull lists is Paula Gunn Allen's Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat.
Princess is not one of the words she used in her book title, and, in the book itself, in several places, she puts "Indian Princess" in scare quotes.
So what are we to make of Krull's use of that word?
My recommendation is to remove this book from your shelves. If children in your library are using it to do research on Pocahontas, they are being ill-served by Pocahontas: Princess of the New World.
Yesterday's email from Publisher's Weekly included two items that caught my attention.
First is a new book due out this year: Vengeance Road. As far as I can determine, the author, Erin Bowman, is not Native. Here's a screen capture from the Amazon site, which tells us there is "a young Apache girl" in Vengeance Road (see 3rd line from the bottom of this screen capture).
I don't know who did the trailer
for the book, but it has a dreamcatcher in it. The book is set in 1877. Given that date, I don't think the dreamcatcher belongs in this story. Is there one in the book? I'll let you know when I get a copy. Or--if you've read it, do let me know!
Second is an announcement of a book deal, with the title The Evaporation of Sofi Snow
I visited the author's website and don't see anything there that indicates she is Native either. The blurb makes me uneasy because her character is "Native American" and named "Sofi Snow" and there's going to be some hunting. Oh, and the title has "evaporation" in it, which means changing from a solid to a gaseous state... Is Sofi going to evaporate?! I'm having serious doubts about this character!Vengeance Road
is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The Evaporation of Sofi Snow
is from HarperCollins. Both are major publishers. Will these two books be ones I recommend? We'll see.
Before hitting upload on this post, I'll say this: I do not contend that a non-Native person cannot or should not write Native characters. They can, and they should, but they must be done with care so that they don't affirm existing stereotypes or introduce new ones.
A colleague in children's literature asked (on Facebook) how people of color, or people who write about people of color, would like the skin tone of characters of color to be described. Specifically she gave this example: a character who is Latina and has "caramel skin." Because there are objections to using food to describe skin color, she asked people of color and writers who create characters of color to weigh in: what would they prefer to "caramel skin"?
The question itself assumes that a character who is Latino/a will have skin coloring that means they won't visibly look white, or, that they won't be mistaken for white by other characters in the story. The question embodies the fact that the character's identity matters to the story.
Growing up in the southwest amongst people who might be called Latina or Hispanic or Spanish or Mexican or Mexican American, I know that there's a wide range of skin color amongst them, but, because northern New Mexico is an area in which people deeply identify with their specific heritage, I also know that the color of their skin is not what makes them feel Latino/a, or Hispanic, or Spanish, or Mexican, or Mexican American, or.... Pueblo Indian. Certainly, we've all experienced prejudice or acceptance based on our appearance, but I don't think skin color is what any of us would say as one of the first things we say about ourselves.
I think my colleague's larger point is that characters are more than the color of their skin, and I think she's pushing people to dig more deeply so that a character's culture is the defining feature, or, a feature that shapes how they move about in the story. We all know, too, that physical description is somewhat of a default when writers introduce a character. Writers want us to visualize that character's physical presence, but the descriptors used often take the whole story off the rails.
Because this colleague and I have talked before about Native people and our status as members/citizens of a specific tribal nation rather than people of color, I assume she was thinking specifically about people who aren't Native but are "of color."
But, because so many people include Native peoples in the "people of color" framework, I decided to write this post in response to her question.
First--read my post, "We Are Not People of Color" to understand why the phrase doesn't work well when talking about Native peoples. Some of us do have "color" that makes us look, in appearance, like societal expectations of what a Native person looks like (dark hair, dark skin), but some of us don't. This video from the Cherokee Nation makes the point very well:
See the range in appearance that I'm talking about? It makes the case that assumptions about skin color and a Native person's identity are likely to get a writer in hot water. I cringe opening a new book. Invariably, the descriptions of Native characters reflect those assumptions.
I love when Native writers, like Cynthia Leitich Smith, speak back to those expectations in their stories! Here's the opening of her story in Moccasin Thunder
, edited by Lori Marie Carlson.
Published in 2005 by HarperTeen, Smith's story starts on page 33:
I love that story--and others in Moccasin Thunder,
I appreciate my colleague's question about skin color, but I also gotta say it was (for me) a bit uncomfortable. In essence, she was asking "How shall I describe your skin color?" I imagined sitting with someone who wondered what I would like them to say about my skin color. Would they ask the question if we were face to face? As I imagined that conversation, I looked down at my hands and wondered what I'd say. I definitely felt unsettled, imagining the conversation, even though the question is meant to help people avoid pitfalls. I'm usually more than happy to help people with questions, but this one... this morning... it just feels icky. I might be back to this post to say more about that icky feeling later, if I figure it out! For certain, I'd want to be described as a tribal member at Nambe. Indeed, I'm often asked how I should be described for a brochure or poster announcing a lecture I'm giving. I say that I'm tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo. That description means a lot. It opens doors to conversations that are rooted historically in the land, and in the political landscape of U.S. government/tribal nations. My skin color doesn't open that door.
An aside about nationhood: Did you notice the people in the video say "I am Cherokee" rather than "I am part Cherokee"? That is important. It speaks to their nationhood. I don't know anyone who says "I am part American." Do you? Or "Part of me is a citizen of the U.S."
People write to me asking about the merits of this or that nonfiction book or series, which one(s) I recommend, etc. Keeping up with them, and/or writing a comprehensive review is daunting, and something I have not done. A lot of nonfiction has photographs that I like. For example, Marcia Keegan's books (listed below in the not recommended section) are about Pueblo people. I like the photos! The captions... not so much. I'm pretty sure Pueblo kids would like those photos, too, and I'd love to sit with them and write new captions for the photos. Maybe we'd use a Sharpie! And we could re-write problematic text, too! That would be an excellent activity, showing them that books have errors--that, in this case, the kids know more than the author... that books are not perfect.
Though I've not done any reviews of series, I can offer this:
In A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, you'll find a section titled "Reviews: Photoessays of Indian Children."
I strongly encourage you to buy A Broken Flute and read the reviews in their entirety. You'll learn a lot from studying those reviews. That study will help you in your collection development (decisions on what to get/what to weed) in the future. Here's my sorting of the reviews into three categories, recommended/recommended, but some parts uneven/not recommended and in two parts. First are books that stand alone, and second are books in a series.
- Earth Daughter: Alicia of Acoma Pueblo
- Mayeros: A Yucatan Maya Family
- Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead
Jenness, Aylette and Alice Rivers. In Two Worlds: A Yup'ik Eskimo Family
LaDuke, Winona and Waseyabin Kapashesit. The Sugar Bush
McMillan, Bruce. Salmon Summer
Rendon, Marcie. Powwow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life
Rose, LaVera. Grandchildren of the Lakota
Thompson, Sheila (Carrier). Cheryl Bibalhatsl/Cheryl's Potlach
Recommended, but some parts uneven
Brown, Tricia. Children of the Midnight Sun: Young Native Voices of Alaska.
Gravelle, Karen. Growing Up: Where the Partridge Drums Its Wings
Kendall, Ross. Eskimo Boy: Life in an Inupiaq Eskimo Village
Sola, Michele. Angela Weaves a Dream: The Story of a Young Maya Artist
Wolf, Bernard. Beneath the Stone: A Mexican Zapotec Tale
Garcia, Guy. Spirit of the Maya: A Boy Explores His People's Mysterious Past
Hazen-Hammond, Suzan. Thunder Bear and Ko: The Buffalo Nation and Nambe Pueblo
- Apache Rodeo
- Arctic Hunter
- Buffalo Days
- Cherokee Summer
- Day of the Dead: A Mexican-American Celebration
- Lacrosse: The National Game of the Iroquois
- Potlatch: A Tsimshian Celebration
- Pueblo Storyteller
- Totem Pole
- Pueblo Boy: Growing Up in Two Worlds
- Pueblo Girls: Growing Up in Two Worlds
Mott, Evelyn Clarke. Dancing Rainbows
Reynolds, Jan. Frozen Land: Vanishing Cultures
Wood, Ted, with Wanbli Numpa Afraid of Hawk. A Boy Becomes a Man at Wounded Knee
Recommended, but parts uneven
"My World: Young Native Americans Today"
Published by Beyond Words, in association with the National Museum of the American Indian
- Belarde-Lewis, Miranda. Meet Lydia: A Native Girl from Southeast Alaska
- Secakuku, Susan. Meet Mindy: A Native Girl from the Southwest
- Tayac, Gabrielle. Meet Naiche: A Native Boy from the Chesapeake Bay Area
"We Are Still Here"
Published by Lerner
- Braine, Susan. Drumbeat... Heartbeat: A Celebration of the Powwow
- Hunter, Sally. Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition
- King, Sandra and Catherine Whipple. Shannon: An Ojibway Dancer
- Mercredi, Morningstar and Darren McNally. Fort Chipewyan Homecoming: A Journey to Native Canada
- Nichols, Richard and D. Bambi Kraus. A Story to Tell: Traditions of a Tlingit Community
- Peters, Russell M. Clambake: A Wampanoag Tradition
- Regguinti, Gordon. The Sacred Harvest: Ojibway Wild Rice Gathering
- Roessel, Monty. Kinaalda: A Navajo Girl Grows Up
- Roessel, Monty. Songs from the Loom: A Navajo Girl Learns to Weave
- Swentzell, Rina and Bill Steen. Children of Clay: A Family of Pueblo Potters
- Wittstock, Laura Waterman and Dale Kakkak. Ininatig's Gift of Sugar: Traditional Sugarmaking
- Wittstock, Laura Waterman and Dale Kakkak. Sugar Bush: Ojibway Maple Sugarmaking
- Yamane, Linda. Weaving a California Tradition: A Native American Basketweaver
"The Library of Intergenerational Learning: Native Americans"
Published by PowerKids/Rosen
Kavasch, E. Barrie.
- Apache Children and Elders Talk Together
- Blackfoot Children and Elders Talk Together
- Crow Children and Elders Talk Together
- Lakota Sioux Children and Elders Talk Together
- Seminole Children and Elders Talk Together
- Zuni Children and Elders Talk Together
"The World's Children" (exception is Grandchildren of the Lakota by LaVera Rose)
Published by Carolrhoda/Lerner
Hermes, Jules. Children of Guatemala
Pitkanen, Matti A. The Grandchildren of the Incas
- Children of the Sierra Madre
- Children of the Tlingit
- Children of Yucatan
One more thing!
Another reason to get a copy of A Broken Flute
is its guide to evaluating photo essays! Here's a photo of the top part of it:
I am always grateful to readers who write to me. Sometimes they write with a question. Sometimes they write to thank me for a review. Sometimes, they send me something to take a look at. This morning's mail had one of the later.Helen Therese Frank writes
Tricia wrote to tell me about a page in Babar Comes to America. As I read her email, I remember seeing that book in a bookstore and snapping a photo of the page she sent to me. I'd lost track of it and am grateful to Tricia for sending it along so I can include it in AICL's Foul Among the Good page.
Published in 1965 by Random House and again in 2008 by Abrams, Babar Comes to America is by Laurent de Brunhoff. One of the places Babar visits is the Grand Canyon, where "Babar and Arthur pay a visit to the Indians":
To source this new title about America, de Brunhoff and his wife were invited to the United States in 1963, with expenses paid by the American publisher and several American companies who are acknowledged in the text and illustrations (Hildebrand, 1991).
Presumably, de Brunhoff and his wife were actually at the Grand Canyon, but what Indians did they see there? Was there really one called "Chief Sitting Bull" who was telling "hunting tales" and "the legend of the White Buffalo"?! Was he sitting on a drum? Was he barefoot?!
It is possible--but not likely--that de Brunhoff saw a "Sitting Bull" but this all strikes me as the imaginings of an outsider who was there but didn't understand what he saw. Rather than depict what he saw with accuracy, de Brunhoff turned to stereotyping when he created this in 1963.
Why, I wonder, did that page go unchanged when the book was published again in 2008? Who, I wonder, edited the book at Abrams? If changes can be made to Curious George playing Indian
, I think they can be made to Babar Comes to America,
too. What do you think?
This is the second post I've done on Babar. The first one was about Babar's World Tour.
Do you have a Twitter account? Do you follow Native writers! Some tweet a lot, some a little. Some tweet about books, some tweet about their nations, and some tweet about a wide range of topics.
If you know of Native writers/illustrators who I haven't listed here, submit their name/Twitter ID in a comment and I'll add them to this list. These are primarily Native writers or illustrators whose work has been discussed on AICL.
Nicola I. Campbell
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Drew Hayden Taylor
Richard Van Camp
Dear Editors at Aladdin/Simon & Schuster,
A reader of AICL wrote to ask me about Frank Asch's Popcorn. It is an older book (pub year 1979, from Parents Magazine Press) that I haven't written about before. As a former elementary school teacher, I do remember one of the books about Sam (the bear). Not this one, though. Perhaps I saw it and decided not to use it. With good reason. In it, Sam (the bear) is having a Halloween party. Here he is in his costume:
Here's the old cover:
And, here's the new one, published in 2015 by Aladdin/Simon and Schuster. The synopsis at Amazon tells us "This refreshed edition of a beloved classic features the original text and art with an updated cover."
It must have made a fair bit of money for you, Aladdin, to be giving it to us again in 2015, with this "updated" cover---but it has outdated material! Do you not follow any of the national conversations around stereotyping of Native people? Or, about mascots
Giving children this book, in 2015, suggests that either you're ignorant of those conversations and the research studies
about the harm of such imagery, or, you know about it and don't care.
It is definitely a Book to Avoid. And, it is definitely another book for AICL's "Foul Among the Good" page.
Any chance you can 'stop the presses' so to speak? Or maybe recall what you've already sent out?
American Indians in Children's Literature
A few years ago, Oyate removed its Books to Avoid page. A great many people miss that page and write to me asking if I saved those reviews. I didn't--but they aren't gone forever! They're available on the Wayback Machine.
In order to fit within the 200 character limit on "Labels" (the labels are on the right and serve as an index of what is in the post itself), I am creating several pages of the links, arranging them alphabetically. This is the last set.
I'm also going to save a pdf of each one, just in case the Wayback Machine goes down.
Waldman, Neil. Wounded Knee
Wargin, Kathy Jo. The Legend of the Petoskey Stone
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie
A few years ago, Oyate removed its Books to Avoid page. A great many people miss that page and write to me asking if I saved those reviews. I didn't--but they aren't gone forever! They're available on the Wayback Machine.
In order to fit within the 200 character limit on "Labels" (the labels are on the right and serve as an index of what is in the post itself), I am creating several pages of the links, arranging them alphabetically. This post includes B thru I.
I'm also going to save a pdf of each one, just in case the Wayback Machine goes down.
Banks, Lynne Reid, The Indian in the Cupboard (and The Return of the Indian)
Cooper, Michael L., Indian School: Teaching the White Man's Way
Dalgliesh, Alice, The Courage of Sarah Noble
Edmonds, Walter D., The Matchlock Gun
Jeffers, Susan. Brother Eagle, Sister Sky
Irbinskas, Heather, The Lost Kachina
A few years ago, Oyate removed its Books to Avoid page. A great many people miss that page and write to me asking if I saved those reviews. I didn't--but they aren't gone forever! They're available on the Wayback Machine.
In order to fit within the 200 character limit on "Labels" (the labels are on the right and serve as an index of what is in the post itself), I am creating several pages of the links, arranging them alphabetically. This post includes M through T.
I'm also going to save a pdf of each one, just in case the Wayback Machine goes down.
Marrin, Albert, Sitting Bull and His World and additional comments
Martin, Bill and John Archambault, Knots on a Counting Rope
Mikaelsen, Ben. Touching Spirit Bear
Rylant, Cynthia. Long Night Moon
Speare, Elizabeth George. Sign of the Beaver
Taylor, C.J., Peace Walker: The Legend of Hiawatha and Tekanawita
Turner, Ann. The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl
This week, Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is holding its one week residency. On July 13th, Jane Resh Thomas gave a lecture there.
Based on what I read at On Kindness, On Intention, and On Anger in Children's Writers by V. Arrow, Thomas's remarks were primarily about race. As I read responses--online and privately--to what she said, I have several thoughts.
One: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest in the accurate representation of people who are not white.
Two: she gave voice to concerns of white writers who feel threatened by the new (to some) and renewed interest and commitment to publish writers who are not white.
Discussions on social media are evidence that people were clearly uncomfortable with what Thomas said. Was she, herself, uncomfortable as she delivered that lecture? Does she, today, feel unfairly criticized by what people are saying? Are you a white writer who agrees with what Thomas said? Do you think the criticism directed at her, today, is unfair? Mean, perhaps?
As a Native woman and mother, I ask that you set aside your feelings of discomfort. Instead, I'd like you to think about the millions of children of color, and Native children, who've read horrible things about themselves in the thousands of books that white writers have written.
Did you know, for example, that Little House on the Prairie
has "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" in it three times? Can you imagine how a Native child feels reading that line?
Let me tell you. A few weeks ago, a young Native boy visiting me saw that book on my table. His eyes widened and his voice rose as he said:
Is that Little House on the Prairie? I had to quit that book.
He shook his head a bit as he talked about the Indians stealing furs. And then his voice got even louder when he said
That part where it says 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian? That's when I really had to quit that book!!!
It is for that child, and millions of other children like him, that I do the work I do on my site and in my lectures and workshops.
It is uncomfortable for writers who read criticism of their work that points out that ideas and words they've carried in their head all their lives is problematic. These ideas and words appear on the page as a norm for one of their characters. For some, having it pointed out to them generates a huge feeling of embarrassment. For others, there is a defensive reaction, too.
As I read V. Arrow's post, knowing that she was in that room as a student--that she is someone who wants to be a writer of children's books--I knew that she took a great risk in writing her post. As I read through twitter conversations about what she shared, I was glad to see established writers like Anne Ursu and Laura Ruby thanking her for that post. Later, Mary Rockcastle (the director of the program) issued this statement:
Our MFAC program at Hamline is committed to creating a truly diverse and inclusive community. Where ALL of our students can create and do their best work without the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that gets in the way.
A faculty member's words yesterday sent the absolute wrong message about how we should deal with each other's anger and pain--as a community and as a culture. It is unacceptable to deny, denigrate, minimize or otherwise deepen this pain.
Our goal is to educate each student about how this happens, how we purposefully or unintentionally get it wrong, so it does not happen again. So the community we've been building learns, grows, and prevails.
I gather that everyone was required to attend Thomas's lecture and that there were others that they could choose from. I hope that the program selects someone to deliver a required lecture each residency term--a lecture that takes up this moment at Hamline. It was one moment--one hour in a day--but it was far more than that. For Hamline, the stakes are high right now. I read tweets from people who said they were crossing Hamline off the list of writing programs they're applying to.
The stakes are high for Hamline, but they're far higher for the children and young adults who will read the books Hamline students write. It is 2015. For over one hundred years, people have been objecting to the ways that people of color and American Indians are portrayed in children's books. This is not new to me and others who have studied children's literature, but to far too many people, it is a new discussion because it is beyond the spaces they spend their time in.
Hamline can bring it into that space.
Every intervention individuals and institutions make is absolutely vital so that we all get to a point in time when all children can read books that are free of the noise and pain of ignorance, intolerance, and denial in the larger world that intentionally, or not, denies our existence and humanity.
Over the last few weeks, people in American Indian, Native American, or Indigenous Studies have been deeply engaged in discussions of identity, trying to help people understand what it means to be a member or citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
This discussion was prompted when the identity of a key person in this area of research and teaching was featured in an article in The Daily Beast on June 30, 2015. The person is Andrea Smith. The identity she claims is Cherokee.
Several years ago, Smith asked David Cornsilk of the Cherokee Nation to help her verify her belief that she was Cherokee. In an Open Letter at Indian Country Today Media Network, David goes into great detail on his findings (bottom line: she's not Cherokee). Many people knew about this and hoped that Smith would 1) stop saying she is Cherokee, and, 2) that she would take steps so that people would stop calling her Cherokee when they introduce her at lectures she is invited to deliver.
She didn't do either one. It was only a matter of time before her misrepresentation of her identity would become more widely known.
The article at The Daily Beast pulled heavily from a Tumblr page that documented a long history of Smith's efforts to get her claims verified. This led to many blog posts and discussions on social media and at Native news sites.
I wrote a post (on July 3, 2015), too, because lack of knowing what it means to be Cherokee results in a lot of problems in children's literature. They range from:
1) claims that are, in fact, empty (when will every copy of "Forrest Carter's" The Education of Little Tree be moved from autobiography to fiction, if not removed entirely from the shelves?).
2) ignorance in portraying Cherokee culture, as seen--for example--in David Arnold's Mosquitoland, or Francesa Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series, or P.C. and Kristin Cast's House of Night series, or Gail Haley's Two Bad Boys, or Martina Boone's Compulsion.
3) mis-identifying people as Cherokee when they say otherwise, as was done in Alko's The Case for Loving.
As I packed for a family trip to North Carolina on Thursday, July 9, 2015, my head was filled with what I'd been reading about Andrea Smith.
Our first stop was in Atlanta. Along the walls in the passageway from Terminal B to Terminal A is an exhibit of Atlanta's history. It includes panels on the Cherokee Nation. I stood there looking at the exhibit and thought about Cherokee people I know, and what their ancestors have been through. Sometimes, my Cherokee friends and colleagues are furious over another instance in which they are misrepresented or when someone on a national level (like Elizabeth Warren
) says they're Cherokee. Other times, they are weary.
Like their ancestors, they persevere.
On Saturday morning, David Cornsilk was out and about in Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation. Being out with family and friends in the Cherokee Nation isn't unusual for David. Later that day, he wrote about it on his Facebook page. With his permission, I share some of what he said, here:
Today seemed different though. Every Cherokee I came into contact with gave me a heightened sense of what it means to a part of the Cherokee community. At breakfast I saw cousins and old friends, all Cherokees. When I went to the estate sales I saw and visited with Cherokees. And again, at the theater, the room was filled with the people I and my family associate with, Cherokees. As I looked around the room I saw the faces of Cherokees laughing, joking and socializing. These are spaces that fill my memory from childhood to the present.
As these contacts built in my minds eye on what is just another Saturday, I was suddenly struck by a profound truth in the context of the Andrea Smith controversy. Even if she could prove some smidgen of Cherokee ancestry, of course she can't, but if she could, what I experienced today, in just four short hours, was more Cherokee community and culture than someone like Andrea will experience in a lifetime.
After the movie and the see-Ya-later hugs from my grandchildren, their innocent little Cherokee selves facing a world that wants nothing more than to take everything away from them, I became more resolved to fight harder for their future as citizens of the Cherokee Nation, to defend their tribe's sovereignty from all comers. Because like the saying we hear so often, the land is not ours, it's only borrowed from our children, so too is our sovereignty.
When someone says they are Cherokee without any concern for the rights of the tribe, they erode the sovereignty and self-determination that rightfully belongs to our children and grandchildren. As the current defenders of that sovereignty, our generation must do all we can to defend what is not really ours, but our grandchildren's.
David knows what it is to be Cherokee, what life is like for someone who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
What he shared brings me back to you, Writer Who Thinks You Are Cherokee. Are you an Andrea Smith? Did someone in your family tell you that you're Cherokee? Did you use that story to identify yourself as Cherokee? Does that identity inspire you to create stories to "honor" Cherokees? Or some other Native Nation?
If the answer to those questions is yes, hit the pause button. If you're not living life as a Cherokee, you're likely to add to the pile of misrepresentations Cherokee people contend with, day in, and day out. Do you really want to do that?
But returning to Andrea Smith, and speaking now, to my friends and colleagues in activist circles: please reconsider inviting Andrea Smith to deliver a keynote lecture at your conference or workshop. My request may sound mean-spirited or unfair to her, but consider the Cherokee Nation itself. Consider the Cherokee children David speaks of. Do you want to, as Smith is doing
, thumb your nose at their sovereignty? Their rights to say who their citizens are? Do you really want to do that?
Over 2000 libraries have H. A. Rey's Curious George Learns the Alphabet on their shelves. The book was first published in 1963 by Houghton Mifflin. Here's the bottom of the 't' page:
With that foot in the air, I think it is fair to say that George is doing what he (Rey, really) thinks is some kind of Indian dance. Regular readers of AICL know that I find this sort of play problematic because it immediately lapses into stereotyping.
As noted above, the book was first published in 1963. But, it has been published again and again... most recently (I think), in 2013, with a set of flashcards. That year (2013) was the 50th anniversary of the book, hence, a special 50th Anniversary edition. The local library doesn't have it. I wonder if the 't' page was revised? Do you have that version on your shelf? If yes, I hope you'll take a look and let me know.
Two years ago I read--and recommended--Kamik: An Inuit Puppy Story, a delightful story about a puppy named Kamik and his owner, a young Inuit boy named Jake. In it, Jake is trying to train Kamik, but--Kamik is a pup--and Jake is frustrated with the pup's antics. Jake's grandfather is in the story, too, and tells him about sled dogs, imparting Inuit knowledge as he does.
Today, I'm happy to recommend another story about Kamik and Jake. The author of Kamik: An Inuit Puppy Story is Donald Uluadluak. This time around, the writer is Matilda Sulurayok. Like Uluadluak, Sulurayok is an Inuit elder.
As the story opens, the first snow of the season has fallen. Jake thinks that, perhaps, he can start training Kamik to be a sled dog, but Kamik just wants to play with the other dogs. Of course, Jake is not liking that at all! Anaanatsiaq (it means grandmother) sees all this going down. She reminisces about her childhood, telling Jake how her dad taught her to train sled dog pups--by playing with them:
In her storytelling of those memories, Anaanatsiaq is teaching Jake. Then she fastens a small bundle on Kamik and suggests Jake take Kamik out, away from the other dogs, for a picnic. They set off walking.
After awhile, Jake opens the picnic bundle. Inside, he finds things to eat, but he also finds a sealskin and a harness.
Playtime training, then, is off and running!
Things get tense, though, when Kamik takes off after a rabbit in the midst of a darkening sky, and Jake realizes he hasn't taught him the command to stop. The rabbit, as you can see, gets away.
Jake is scared, but in the end, Kamik gets him home, where he learns a bit more about sled dogs and their sense of smell.
Through Kamik, Jake, and his grandparents, kids learn about Inuit life, and they learn some Inuit words, too. A strength of both these books is the engaging, yet matter-of-fact, manner in which elders pass knowledge down to kids. Nothing exotic, and nothing romanticized, either.
I highly recommend Kamik's First Sled
, published in 2015 by Inhabit Media.
Back in April of 2015, I learned about Martina Boone's Compulsion: Heirs of Watson Island. Published in 2014 by Simon Pulse (which is part of Simon and Schuster), the protagonist is a teenage girl named Barrie who moves to a plantation in South Carolina to live with her aunt Pru. The setting is present day.
The island where the plantation is located is haunted, and the house is falling apart. Later, we'll read about malicious Cherokee spirits called "yunwi" who are doing things (loosening screws and the like) to the house at night so that the next day, things come apart when touched. Outside in the garden, however, they are helpful. If Pru leaves food out for them, they will tend the garden.
This is my first post about the book. I've not finished reading it yet. My decision to post right now, before I finish it, is deliberate.
The book is set in Charleston. I started reading it Wednesday afternoon. That night, nine African Americans were murdered in Charleston. When I woke up on Thursday, my social media feeds were about the murder of nine people who were killed in a historically black church of deep significance, by a white person who said [Y]ou've raped our women...
I read the news stories and then, returned to Compulsion. I came to a part that brought me up cold. On page 150, Cassie (one of the main characters), tells Barrie:
...my theater group and I do Gone With the Wind at night, in front of the ruins.
I read that line and paused. I imagine a lot of readers will pause, too, but that a lot more won't. Most will just keep on reading. Far too many people don't see the novel or movie as racist. (The "ruins" are what is left of Cassie's family plantation.)
After I ruminated on that for a while, I read on. I wondered if Boone (the author) would, in some way (through a character or through the narration), critique Cassie or her group for doing that play.
I didn't find anything more about it until I got to page 237. Barrie and Eight (her love interest) are at the play. The play opens with Cassie and two boys coming onto the stage. They're wearing "aristocratic costumes" and are followed by
...a girl dressed as a slave, who balanced glasses and a pitcher of lemonade on a tray.
Barrie and Eight are engrossed by the production (p. 238):
Neither of them moved again until the audience gasped when Rhett Butler came on stage, played by a light-skinned African-American boy.
"Oh, that's brilliant," Barrie whispered. Everyone around her whispered too, but then the magic of the play took hold again.
When the play is over, Eight wonders "if that was nerve or genius." Barrie replies that it is both. End of discussion. I assume they're talking about casting an African American as Rhett. And, I assume that the girl playing "the slave girl" is white.
I have a lot of questions at this point.
Why were they doing that play in the first place? Since the author includes it without comment, is she among the millions who don't see it as problematic? Or, who have nostalgic attachments to it, such that they can't set it aside?
Why "a light-skinned" boy? Why not just say "African American boy"? Was it necessary that he be light skinned? What does it mean to have an African American boy in this racist play? It reminds me of Ann Rinaldi's My Heart Is On the Ground,
in which a Native girl happily plays a Pilgrim in a Thanksgiving play.
I assume that we (readers) are supposed to think that Cassie is enlightened for casting a light skinned African American as Rhett. We're supposed to think that there is racial progress in Boone's Charleston. I don't see racial progress at all, but I wonder if Boone imagined me, or any person who casts a critical eye on Gone With the Wind
as a reader of her book? As presented, it reminds me of The Help
where good white people help black people.
In interviews of her, I've read that Boone's characters are going to change over the three books. Maybe Boone is going to have Barrie and Cassie step away from Gone With the Wind.
Maybe they're going to say "it was dumb for us to do that" or something like that. That is what characters do, right? They change over the course of a story.
I want to poke at that idea a bit.
Let's assume that by the end of the trilogy, Barrie or Cassie (or both of them) reject Gone With the Wind
. Readers will move with them to that point. It'll be a win for social justice. But who is it a win for?
Some readers will applaud when Barrie or Cassie see the light. But what about black teens who already see that light? They are asked to be patient until Barrie and Cassie see that light. They, who are the target of racist acts today, have to be patient.
I find it deeply disturbing. The instant that the play is mentioned, somebody in the book has to say WTF so that immediately
, readers will think differently.
Am I making sense? Do you get what I'm saying? Help me say it better so that writers won't do what Boone has done.
There's so much more to say.
The white man who murdered nine African Americans in Charleston said "you rape our women." Did you know that there are heated discussions within some circles about whether or not Rhett raped Scarlett
? In Boone's book, Rhett is African American. My guess? Boone and her editor had no idea that some would read Rhett-as-African-American as a negative rather than the plus they intended it to be.
Once I hit upload on this post, I'll return to Compulsion.
I have a lot of notes about the Cherokee witch and the voodoo priest. As a Native reader, I gather I'm supposed to be patient
, too, as a white writer speaks to white readers about racism, in the past, and in the present, too.
This is my second post about Martina Boone's book. In April of 2015, I learned about Martina Boone's Compulsion: Heirs of Watson Island. Published by Simon Pulse (which is part of Simon and Schuster) in 2014, the protagonist is a teenage girl named Barrie who moves to a plantation in South Carolina to live with her aunt Pru. The story is set in the present day, but the past is very much a part of Compulsion.
The island where the plantation is located is haunted and the house is falling apart. Having read it, I do not recommend Compulsion.
Notes as I read:
On page 61, Barrie is at the river. She sees a ball of fire hovering over the water. It gets dimmer and the river itself seems to be burning. The flames travel to a "shadowed figure of a man." Cupped in his hands is an ember (that is all that remains of that fire ball):
A cloak of black feathers covered his back and shoulders, and a matching feathered headdress melded into his long, dark hair.
He turned suddenly and looked at Barrie--straight into her--with eyes that were only lighter spots in a face painted with a war mask of black and red.
She blinks and he's gone, but "her heart was a drumbeat in her throat, war drums pounding, pounding a retreat" (p. 62).
Page 145: Barrie is with her cousin, Cassie, who tells her the history of the island. When the Carolina colony was being settled, the governor was gambling with Thomas Watson, a pirate. There are two other pirates gambling that night: John Colesworth and Robert Beaufort. Descendants of all three figure in Compulsion.
Watson accused the governor of cheating. Later when it came time to give out land grants, the governor took revenge on Watson by giving him land on a haunted island. Barrie asks, "Haunted?" and Cassie replies:
"Yes, haunted. Thomas Watson's island was inhabited by the Fire Carrier, the ghost of a Cherokee witch who had cleared his tribal lands of malicious spirits, yunwi, and pushed them down the Santisto until they'd come to the last bit of land surrounded by water on every side. The Fire Carrier bound the yunwi there, and kept them from escaping, with fire and magic and running water."
Early on, Watson had tried many times to build a mansion on that land but overnight, whatever he'd built during the day disappeared. Another pirate, Colesworth, offered (p. 145):
"to get one of his slaves to trap the Fire Carrier and force it to make the yunwi behave."
The slave was a voodoo priest, Cassie tells Barrie (145-146):
"He trapped the Fire Carrier at midnight when the spirit came to the river to perform his magic, and he held the Fire Carrier until the witch agreed to control the yunwi and make them leave Thomas Watson alone."
Then, they made the yunwi
give Watson back everything they'd taken from him. And then they trapped the Fire Carrier again and demanded that he help Beaufort win a woman's heart. That woman was already in love with Colesworth, but thanks to the Fire Carrier, Beaufort seemed to know whatever the woman wanted. Eventually, he won her over and they were to be married, but Colesworth had the voodoo priest capture the Fire Carrier one more time, hoping to get the woman back. But the Fire Carrier was tired of being used. He overwhelmed the voodoo priest and put a curse and gifts on the three men. Future Colesworth generations would be poorer and unhappier than the Watsons. That's the curse. The gifts? The Watson's would always find what they'd lost, and the Beauforts would always know how to give others what they wanted.
Barrie is a Watson. Cassie is a Colesworth. Because of the curse, she's poor and wants Barrie to use her gift of finding things to help her find the Colesworth valuables, buried by an ancestor before the Yankees burned Colesworth Place down. Barrie isn't sure she wants to help her.
That night, Barrie heads out at midnight and sees the Fire Carrier again. She sees him better this time (p. 159):
The glistening war paint on his naked chest, the feathers in his clock and headdress stirring in the breeze...
He wears that red and black mask again. He stares at her again and then walks away. This time, she sees shadows, too, and realizes they are the yunwi.
And, she smells sage burning. She thinks he wants something from her.
Later when she is talking with Pru, Barrie learns that her aunt feeds the yunwi
at night and that they take care of the garden. When they're outside, Barrie feels a tug from the woods. Pru tells her not to go there.
On page 273 she goes outside again at midnight. This time she's in socks. As she runs about, she gets cuts from gravel and shells on the path. She slips and cuts her palm, too. She washes the blood of her her palms in a water fountain. It seems her blood runs in ribbons through the water, and that she can see human figures in the shadows. She sees the Fire Carrier again. He points to something behind her. She looks at the top of the fountain and sees a spirit. It is a woman whose torso and legs are a column of water. Barrie asks her what she wants, and she says "You have given blood." and then "We accept the binding." As she walks back to the house she realizes the yunwi
are swarming around her bloody footprints. She pulls off her socks and throws them to the yunwi,
telling them to "eat up." It occurs to her that she can use those bloody socks to barter. She grabs them back up and tells the yunwi
that they'll have to give back things they took from her. Turning back to the house she finds her missing things and missing screws, too, that they'd taken when making mischief in the house. She throws the socks back down to the yunwi
and tells them not to break anything else, or take anything else, either, from her or anyone else. Through her blood, Barrie has power over the yunwi.
From there, the yunwi
are around her a lot but don't figure much in the story. They more or less accompany her around.
Fast forward to page 375 when Barrie's gift draws her out to the woods. With Eight, the two walk towards a particular tree that is pulling at her:
"I've heard of this tree." Eight followed her toward it. "The natives around here used to call it the Scalping Tree and hang the scalps of their enemies on it."
The tatters of Spanish moss did look eerily like scalps. Barrie shivered despite the still-warm air. "Why?"
"I don't know. I don't even know which tribe it could have been. None of them, probably. The Fire Carrier was Cherokee, but since he brought the yunwi here from somewhere else, he clearly wasn't local."
Barrie finds the spot that is pulling at her, digs, and they find a metal box that has keys that gives them access to a room, and a staircase to a tunnel. There's a pull from there, too. Barrie and Eight (and the yunwi
) go down the stairs, unlock another door and find that lost treasure Cassie wanted her to find. That's not the source of the pull, though, so they go a bit further. The yunwi
find the source first: two skeletons. Barrie and Eight hear something behind them and see that Cassie has followed them. She grabs the bag of treasure and takes off, locking them in that tunnel. Barrie asks the yunwi
to get them out but they don't go near the door. Why? Because the door is made of iron, and iron hurts them.
Barrie and Eight decide to head on through the tunnel. The yunwi
go with them. Eight says it may have been an escape route "during the Yamassee uprising" or "other Indian raids before that." When they come to a fork, they choose one and follow it. Barrie realizes the yunwi
have stopped at the fork. They watch, forlornly. "[S]he was leaving them locked up here alone in the dark" (p. 398). She tells them she'll come back and let them out. That tunnel is to an iron door they can't get through. They try the other one and eventually find one that doesn't have the magical protection (things don't rot) that the others do. She gets out but runs into Ernesto (he's got tattoos all over, speaks Spanish) and Wyatt (Cassie's dad) who, it turns out are drug runners.
While tussling with them, the hour turns to midnight. She smells sage, and the Fire Carrier sees her struggling. He sends fire that causes Ernesto and Wyatt's boat of drugs to explode. She gets away, climbs out of the water and sees the Fire Carrier, up close (p. 422):
In the rushes before her, the Fire Carrier stood close enough that the war paint on his face and chest shone slick with grease. Veins stood out on his arms, and every lean muscle of his chest and stomach seemed defined and ready to spring into action. But apart from the feathers on his clock and headdress stirring in the night air, he was motionless. He watched her.
She sees that he's about her age. His eyes are sad. She wonders why he's been doing this midnight ritual of lighting the river on fire year after year. She understands he wants something from her. He heads off to the bank and she realizes she can almost see through him. Hearing splashing she's afraid it is Ernesto or Wyatt, but it is Eight. In the next (final) chapter, Wyatt is dead. Cassie and Ernesto are missing. The bodies from the tunnel are brought out (they're Luke and Twila. Luke was Barrie's great uncle and Twila was Eight's great aunt. They're part of a rather layered mystery element of the Compulsion.
Barrie thinks about how the Fire Carrier saved her life. No mention of the yunwi.
The end. Of this book, that is. Compulsion
is the first of a trilogy.My thoughts on the Native content of Compulsion
When we first meet the "Fire Carrier" of this story, Boone gives us things commonly (and stereotypically) associated with Indians: feathers, painted face, drums. This land was haunted before Barrie's ancestor was given this land. I may have missed it, but I don't recall reading why that land was haunted.
We know the Fire Carrier is there now, and that he's ghost-like (remember Barrie can see through him), so he's definitely haunting that land now. He, we read, is a Cherokee witch. If you look up the yunwi, you'll likely find references to Cherokee Little People. If you go to the Cherokee Nation's website, you'll find information about them
. Some of what Boone tells us about the yunwi aligns with information at the website, but Boone's yunwi are cannibals. Remember? They swarmed over her bloody footprints. That doesn't fit with what I read on the Cherokee Nation site, but it does fit with some false but common ideas of Native peoples as being cannibals. It is odd, too, that Boone's yunwi can't go near iron. I don't see that on the Cherokee site, either. From what I understand, the Little People are independent, acting on their own, significant to Cherokee ways of being in, and understanding, the world. But Boone's yunwi can be controlled by... a white girl. Echoes of Indian in the Cupboard
Then there's that scalping tree... Setting aside the outlandish idea of a "scalping tree" let's look at what Eight said about that tree. He assumes it can't be associated with the Cherokees because they weren't "local" to that area. Maybe... but maybe not. The South Carolina website
tells us Cherokees were in South Carolina at the time it was established as one of the 13 colonies.
In all honesty, I find the Native content of Compulsion
to be inaccurate and confusing. And troubling, too.
As I read, I came across some other troubling content. Cassie is in a play. The play? Gone With the Wind.
I came upon that part the day after the murders in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. It stopped me cold. I wrote up my thoughts
, then, right away. Nothing I read as I continued alleviated those concerns.
I'm also unsettled by Ernesto.
It seems to me that Boone has, unintentionally, wronged three distinct groups of people and readers in the US: American Indians, African Americans, and Latinos. What will she do in the next two books of this trilogy? In an interview
, she indicates her character will grow through the series, but I've given that idea some thought and find it wanting.
I'm closing this post with a quote from Anonymous, who submitted this comment to my previous post about Compulsion
I find the idea of a reader -- particularly a child -- having to wait to see herself humanized an inherently problematic one. Yes, it might accurately reflect the inner journey many white people take, but isn't the point that our dehumanizing views were always wrong? And therefore, why go back and re-live them? Such ruminations could definitely be appropriate in an all-white anti-racist group, in which the point is for white people to educate each other, but any child can pick up a book, and be hurt--or validated--by what's inside. Asking marginalized readers to "wait" to be validated is an example of white dominance as perpetuated by well-intentioned white folks.
Need I say that I do not recommend Compulsion
Yesterday (June 23, 2015), I read Sophie Gilbert's article in The Atlantic, "In Defense of Pocahontas: Disney's Most Radical Heroine."
My first reaction to Gilbert's article was anger. I was incensed at her because she said this:
The main problem with Pocahontas--as expressed by several Native American groups, including the Powhatan Nation, which traces its origins back to Pocahontas herself--is that over time, she's come to embody the trope of the "Good Indian," or one who offers her own life to help save a white settler.
In short, Gilbert dismissed Native views. In her article, she quotes from the Powhatan Nation's statement on the film
. I trust that she read the second paragraph, which says:
Our efforts to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.
She's done the same thing Disney did. The thrust of her article is "in defense" of the film. To her, it doesn't matter what the Powhatan Nation said. She doesn't say who the other "Native American groups" she referenced are, or what they said about the film. But again, whatever they said doesn't matter, because she sees fit to write "in defense" of Disney.
I tweeted at her about that dismissal. She replied. Here's a screen capture of that exchange:
And then she followed up with "I was talking about the narrative of the movie, just to clarify." I don't understand her clarification, because the narrative in the movie is what the Powhatan Nation was talking about, too. At the end of their statement is this:
It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes "entertainment" and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation.
Gilbert is doing the same thing Disney did. She is promoting this dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation and all the people who are led astray by the narrative of that film.
By focusing on "female agency" and an "environmentalist message," Gilbert is throwing millions of people under the bus. She's not alone in doing that, though. It happens a lot in literature, with people defending books like Touching Spirit Bear.
It has inaccuracies, too, but people think its message about bullying is more important that those inaccuracies. Or, Brother Eagle Sister Sky
, which has problems, too, but people think its environmentalist message is more important than its inaccuracies.
Something else is always more important than getting the facts right when Native people are being misrepresented. That's where Gilbert stands. She's getting called out by people for the article. Take a look at her Twitter account: Sophie Gilbert
One thing she was criticized for was her use of 'tundra' to describe the setting for The Lion King
. In response, she changed it to 'savanna' and said "sorry for the embarrassing lack of geographical knowledge."
Based on her response to others who criticized her defense of the movie, I doubt that we're going to see a tweet from her that says "sorry for the embarrassing lack of respect for Native voices."
Gilbert objected to one person's tweet that suggested she was speaking from within a white privilege space. She called that a personal attack. What, I wonder, shall we call her dismissal of Native voices?
For further reading:The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators,
by Cornel Pewewardy.Who Was Pocahontas: Frightened Child or Exotic Sexual Fantasy?
, by Steve Russell.Pocahontas' First Marriage: The Powhatan Side of the Story
, by Phoebe Farris
When I get a book written by a Native person, my heart soars with delight.
In the mail yesterday, I got a copy of Robbie Robertson's Hiawatha and the Peacemaker.
For now, I'm focusing on the words. To start, I flipped to the back pages and read the two-page Author's Note, in which Robertson tells us that he was nine years old when he was told the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. Here's the last paragraph in Robertson's note. When I read it, my delight grew:
Some years later in school, we were studying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem about Hiawatha. I think I was the only one in the class who knew that Longfellow got Hiawatha mixed up with another Indian. I knew his poem was not about the real Hiawatha, whom I had learned about years ago, that day in the longhouse. I didn't say anything. I kept the truth to myself.. till now.
Robertson has done us all a huge service. Teachers and librarians everywhere can ditch all those books with "gitchee gumee" in them. With Hiawatha and the Peacemaker
, young people can--as Robertson said--learn about the real Hiawatha. And, given that Robertson includes the fact that Peacemaker had a speech impediment, I think people within the special needs community will find Robertson's book an invaluable addition to their shelves.
I would love to be at the American Library Association's annual conference next week. At the closing session on Tuesday, June 30th, Robertson and Shannon will have a conversation with Sari Feldman, the incoming president of the association:
Before I sign off on this post (I'll be back with a more in-depth look at the book later), do make sure you get a copy of Sebastian Robertson's biography of his dad: Rock and Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story
! It is terrific.
Turning your calendar to July? Looking for books to recommend to kids and teens? Ones that portray all of us who are The People of the U.S.?
Given yesterday's Supreme Court decision, maybe you're looking for a book in which the author presents two dads, not as the main theme, but as a natural part of life? Take a look at When Reason Breaks
by Cindy L. Rodriguez. It is on our list!
Download a tri-fold pdf
of the Summer Reading 2015 list that I worked on with Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Sujei Lugo, Nathalie Mvondo, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. Some background about the list is in my post
on May 25, 2015. See Lyn Miller-Lachmann's annotated list
, too! Credit for the trifold goes to Sujei Lugo.
Dear Tim Federle,
I read your piece, Book for Kids Raises Eyebrows Over Young Gay Character, at Huff Post. There, you said that Better Nate Than Ever features:
...a subplot about a teenager who's starting to notice other boys and beginning to wonder why.
That subplot made some parents uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that they decided to do what they could to prevent you from visiting the schools their kids go to. You quoted one such parent, who wrote a review that said
...homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this book.
I love what you said right after quoting that parent. You said
You bet it is.
I am with you on that. It is normal. It is natural. And I'm glad it is in your book. I want more books like that, too.
But. There's something else in your book that is presented as normal and natural. It happens on page 213. Freckles is sitting on a futon with his laptop. Nate joins him there:
I sit on the futon Indian style and can feel the weight of the day on my head, my eyes drift.
Indian style? Dang! That is a stereotype of how Native people sit. It is so pervasive that it has become "normal" and "natural" to write it, say it, and not notice it as a stereotype. Given the popularity of your book, might you talk to your editor and change that sentence so it reads:
I sit on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
I sit next to Freckles on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
Nothing is lost by taking out "Indian style." The gain? A Native kid doesn't have to see his culture stereotyped yet again, and non-Native kids (who doesn't have this in their vocabulary at present--seems it has really fallen out of use) don't get introduced to that stereotypical idea.
Now let's flip over to page 264-265. It is Halloween:
Kids are starting to appear in costumes, on the street, looking just like the kids back home. The getups aren't any better, and that really blows my mind; I'd think in New York the ghosts would be ghostier and the witches witchier. But I guess a kid's Halloween costume is the same everywhere. A bunch of little boys, smaller than me, come toward us, dressed as a pack of cowboys.
"Look out for Indians," Aunt Heidi says, and Freckles sort of fake-hits her and says, "Native Americans," and we sort of laugh.
For a second, I think that we're passing a pretty convincing caveman...
That paragraph continues, but there's no more talk about cowboys or Indians.
I trust that you and your editor, David Gale, thought that passage would show an awareness of issues over the use of the word "Indian" to reference Native peoples. True enough, the word "Indian" is problematic, but using "Native American" instead doesn't "fix" the problem with the word, especially in this particular context.
Let's back up and see why that doesn't work. Freckles tells Aunt Heidi to use Native Americans instead of Indians. This is how that would read, if she did as he suggested when she saw little boys coming toward her dressed as cowboys:
"Look out for Native Americans," Aunt Heidi says.
I don't think "Native American" is better than "Indian." Why she's said "Look out for Indians" is important. In the U.S., people hear the word "cowboy" and "Indian" comes to mind, because of all those cowboy and Indian stories and movies. In them, the Native men weren't seen as dads, or husbands, or sons in those scenarios. They were portrayed as blood-thirsty, savage, and primitive. Saying "Look out for Native Americans" instead of "Look out for Indians" leaves that portrayal intact. That's why the suggestion falls flat.
As with my question above about "sitting Indian style," let's imagine a re-write. Let's say you want to keep this in the story, so that your readers gain something about Native peoples as they read it. How about if Nate (instead of Aunt Heid) says "Look out for Indians" and then, Aunt Heid or Freckles says something like "Yay! Nobody in stereotypical Indian costumes!" Nate could say "Huh?" and Aunt Heid could say something like "I got a lot to say about that. Learned a lot when I went to see Bloody Bloody Jackson.
I got there and there was a protest going on! Native people were there, objecting to that play." In case you missed that protest, Mr. Federle, here's one article about it: Native Americans protest 'Bloody Bloody Jackson.'
I'll close with this: I appreciate what you tried to do with the Native content. I understand that writers are afraid to write diversity into their books, because they're afraid they'll get it wrong and someone will say something about it. You took the risk, and, you goofed. But! These problems in your book can be fixed. I hope you attend to them, and, that you include an Author's Note, too, that tells readers why they're being revisited.
American Indians in Children's Literature
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Some books that we give to young children carry enormous weight. The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage is one example. It is about the Supreme Court's decision in 1967, in which they ruled that people could marry whomever they loved, regardless of race.
Richard Loving was white. The woman he loved.... is misrepresented in The Case for Loving. The author, Selina Alko, echoed misrepresentations of who Jeter was when she wrote that Jeter was "part Cherokee."
Jeter didn't say that she was part Cherokee.
Indeed, her marriage license says "Indian" and when she elaborated elsewhere, she said Rappahannock. I wrote about this at length back in March of 2015.
Yesterday morning (July 2, 2015), I read Betsy Bird's review of Alko's book. This part brought me up short:
A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.
Actually, saying that it "brought me up short" doesn't adequately describe what I felt.
First, I knew that Betsy was referencing my post. I took her use of "side issue" as being dismissive of me, and by extension, Arica Coleman (who I cite extensively), and by further extension, Native people who speak up about how we are represented--and misrepresented--in society, and in children's books. On one hand, I felt angry at Betsy. As a teacher, though, I understand that we're all on a continuum of knowing about subjects that are outside our particular realm of expertise.
Representation, and misrepresentation, of Native identity is important.
Because so many make that (fraudulent) claim, it strikes me as a significant wrong to see, in The Case of Loving,
words that say Jeter was Cherokee when she did not say she was. It unwittingly casts her over in that land in which people claim an identity that is not really theirs to claim.
Here's another reason that Betsy's review (posted on July 2, 2015) bothered me. I read it within a specific moment in my work as a Native woman and scholar who is part of a Native community of scholars.
On July 30, 2015 (two days before Betsy's review was posted), The Daily Beast
ran a story about Andrea Smith
, a key figure to many academics and activist who are committed to social justice, especially for women, and in particular, women of color. The focus of the article is Andrea Smith's identity. For years, she claimed to be Cherokee. She said she was Cherokee. But, she wasn't. She is amongst the millions of people who think that they have Cherokee ancestry. Some do, some don't.
I met Andy several years ago (most people know her as Andy). At the time, she said she was Cherokee. I had no reason not to believe her. I don't remember when I first heard that she might not be Cherokee, but I did learn (not sure when) that she had been asked by the Cherokee Nation to stop claiming that she is Cherokee. I don't know what she personally did after that, and she has not said anything (to my knowledge) since the story appeared in The Daily Beast
Things being said about Andy, about being Cherokee, and about claims to being Cherokee, reminded me of David Arnold's Mosquitoland.
There's so much ignorance about being Cherokee! That ignorance was front and center in Arnold's book. I'm deeply appreciative that he responded to my questions about it, and that he is talking with others about it, too. Those conversations are so important!
I view Andy's failure to address her claim to Cherokee identity as a dismissal of the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. It is a dismissal of their nationhood and their right to determine who their citizens are. Andy knows what the stakes are for Native Nations, and for our sovereignty. She knows what she is doing.
Jeter was adamant about who she was. My guess is that she knew what the stakes were, for her personally, and for the Rappahannock who, as of this writing, are not yet federally recognized as a Native Nation.
Betsy doesn't have the knowledge that Andy has. Few people do. Betsy is listening, though, as evidenced by her response to me this morning (see her comment on July 3). I am grateful to her for that response. She has far more readers than I do, and our conversation there will increase what people know, overall.
In that response, Betsy notes that Alko probably didn't have the sources necessary to get it right. Let's say ok to that suggestion, but, let's also expect that the next printing of the book will get that part right, and let's hope that editors in other publishing houses are talking to each other about this particular book and that they won't be releasing books with that error.
That error may not matter to a non-Native child or her parents, but it matters to a Cherokee child and her parents. It matters to a Rappahannock child and her parents. It should matter to all of us, and it will (I say with optimism and perhaps naively, too), because we're having these conversations.
By having them, I hope (again, optimistically and perhaps, naively), that we'll move to a point in time when the majority of the American population will understands what it means to claim a Cherokee (or Native) identity, and a population that ceases to misrepresent Cherokee culture and history. In short, we'll have a population that is no longer ignorant about Cherokee people specifically, and Native people, broadly speaking. Children's books are part of getting us there. They carry a lot of weight.
For now, I'll hit upload on this post, post the link in a comment to Betsy's review, and respond (there) to other things Betsy said. I hope you'll follow along there.
Further readings about Andrea Smith's claim to Cherokee identity:
- Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity, by Joanne Barker, posted on June 30, 2015
- Four Words for Andrea Smith: 'I'm Not an Indian', by David Shorter, posted on July 1, 2015
- On the Politics of Distraction, by Joanne Barker, posted on July 2, 2015