Sunday, March 29, 2015

AICL's Recommended/Not Recommended reads in 2014

I received a request from a person asking if I could write up a comprehensive list of books I read during 2014, with links to the page on which I wrote about the book. This isn't a list of books published in 2014. It is books I read in that year. Some are old, some are new. I'm bleary eyed from working on the list. I think it is complete but I may have missed some thing!

Some of you may look at the books on the Not Recommended list and say to yourself "Really?! You set a high bar!" or something like that. Keep in mind that I read within a larger context than just one book. John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, for example, has one passage about Native people. We could argue about its merit (as took place in the comments!) but I read such passages within a societal context that continues to publish books and media that misrepresent Native peoples. It isn't just one book. It is lots of little bits in lots of books. It adds up to a whole lot of misrepresentation.

Recommended




Not Recommended


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THE CASE FOR LOVING by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, but, what to do with what Jeter said about her identity?

New this year (2015) is The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko. Illustrations are by Alko and her husband, Sean Qualls.

The author's note tells us that Alko is a "white Jewish woman from Canada" and that Qualls is an "African-American man from New Jersey."

The story of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving resonated with Alko and Qualls. Their case went before the United States Supreme Court in 1967. Here's the synopsis posted at Scholastic's website:

For most children these days it would come as a great shock to know that before 1967, they could not marry a person of a race different from their own. That was the year that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Loving v. Virginia.
This is the story of one brave family: Mildred Loving, Richard Perry Loving, and their three children. It is the story of how Mildred and Richard fell in love, and got married in Washington, D.C. But when they moved back to their hometown in Virginia, they were arrested (in dramatic fashion) for violating that state's laws against interracial marriage. The Lovings refused to allow their children to get the message that their parents' love was wrong and so they fought the unfair law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court — and won!
The Loving case is of interest to me, too. We all ought to embrace its outcome. As the synopsis indicates, the story is about the love Jeter and Loving had for each other, and how, using the court system, laws against their desire to be married were struck down. We need to know that history. It is important. In her review in the New York Times, Katheryn Russell-Brown noted its strengths. She also said something I agree with:
Alko’s calm, fluid writing complements the simplicity of the Lovings’ wish — to be allowed to marry. Some of the wording, though, strikes a sour note. “Richard Loving was a good, caring man; he didn’t see differences,” she writes, suggesting, implausibly, that he did not notice Mildred’s race. After Mildred is identified as part black, part Cherokee, we are told that her race was less evident than her small size — that town folks mostly saw “how thin she was.” This language of colorblindness is at odds with a story about race. In fact, this story presents a wonderful chance to address the fact that noticing race is normal. It is treating people better or worse on the basis of that observation that is a problem.

As Russell-Brown noted, the "language of colorblindedness" doesn't work.  As a grad student in the 90s, I read research that found that the colorblind approach sent the opposite message to young children.

The Case for Loving also provides us with an opportunity to look at identity and claims to Native identity.

When I first learned that Alko and Qualls presented Mildred Jeter as part Cherokee (as shown in the image to the right), I started doing some research on her and the case. In some places I saw her described as Cherokee. In a few others, I saw her described as Cherokee and Rappahannock. That made me more intrigued! In the midst of that research, I also re-read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Rain Is Not My Indian Name and really appreciate--and recommend it--for lots of reasons, including how Smith wrote about Black Indians.

I continued my research on Jeter and found a particularly comprehensive source: That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia by Arica L. Coleman. It was published in 2013. Coleman's book has a chapter about Jeter.

Drawing from magazines, newspapers and court documents of that time and more recently, too, Coleman describes the twists and turns that impacted Mildred Jeter's identity. Most crucial to her chapter is information Jeter gave to her.

Jeter did not identify herself as Black. In an interview on July 14, 2004, she told Coleman (p. 153):
"I am not Black. I have no Black ancestry. I am Indian-Rappahannock." 

In The Case of Loving, we read about Mr. and Mrs. Loving going to Washington DC to get married, returning home to Virginia with their marriage license, and, being awoken late one night by the police who asked Richard what he was doing in bed with Jeter.

He pointed to their marriage certificate hanging on the wall.

The marriage certificate--an image of which is in Coleman's book--shows us columns for the male and female applying for the license. Here's the information in the female column:

Name: Mildred Delores Jeter
Color: Indian

She identified as Indian. In Central Point (that's the town they lived in), Coleman writes, there was a (page 161-162):
"racial hierarchy that granted social privileges to Whites, an honorary White privilege to Indians (i.e. access to White hospitals and the White only section of rail and street cars), and no social privilege to Blacks."
Isn't that fascinating? There's more. In 1870, Mildred's parents* the Jeter name was listed on census records as mulatto. By 1930, they* people with that name were identified as Negro. She was born in 1939. But, Coleman writes (p. 164):
The Jeter surname is also listed in the Rappahannock Tribe’s corporate charter (1974) as a tribal affiliate. Many claim, however, that the Jeters are descended from the Cherokee who allegedly began to intermarry with the Rappahannock during the late eighteenth century. According to one anonymous informant, “The situation regarding Indian identity in Caroline County is very complex. There was a time when many in the Rappahannock community believed that they were Cherokee because that was all they knew.” Neither Mildred nor her brother, Lewis Jeter, supported the claim that their father was Cherokee.
A 1997 article in the Free Lance-Star reports that she said she was Indian, with Portuguese and Black ancestry. In 2004 Coleman asked her about the Black ancestry, prefacing her question with a reference to the Rappahannock's historic association with Blacks, Jeter told Coleman that the Rappahannock's never had anything to do with Blacks.

That denial of Black ancestry is striking, particularly since the Supreme Court case was based on her being Black. If I understand Coleman's research, Jeter thought of herself as Indian when she married Loving. When their case went before the Supreme Court, she was regarded as Black. In the last years of her life, she said she was Indian. What was going on?

Her ACLU lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, and Virginia's Assistant Attorney General, Robert McIlwaine--needed her to be Black. Her Indian identity had the potential to derail the arguments they were putting forth.

See, there was an act in Virginia called the "Racial Integrity Act" that was intended to preserve the purity of the White race. In early drafts of that act, white meant a person having only Caucasian blood. But that definition was replaced by the "Pocahontas Exception." The Racial Integrity Act was passed in 1924.

When I read "Pocahontas Exception" --- well, I think it fair to say that my eyebrows shot up and that I leaned towards the screen (reading an e-copy of the book)! What is THAT?!

The Pocahontas Exception allowed Whites to claim to be white, as long as they had no more than 1/16 of the blood of an American Indian.

Chief Justice Earl Warren was presiding over the Loving case. Presumably, he knew about her Indian identity and therefore asked about the Pocahontas Exception. I hope I am correct in my reading of Coleman's research when I say that Warren let it go when he heard McIlwaine's reply to his questions. The law, McIlwaine argued, did not apply to this case because Virginia had two populations of significance to its legislature: a bit over 79% were white and a bit over 20% were colored; therefore, the number of Native people (at less than 1%) was insignificant. Moreover (p. 170):
It is a matter of record, agreed to by all counsel during the course of this litigation and in the brief that one of the appellants here is a white person within the definition of the Virginia law, the other appellant is a colored person within the definition of Virginia law. 
Significant/insignificant are my word choices. McIlwaine didn't use them and neither did Coleman. They are words that resonate with Native people because research studies on race typically have an asterisk rather than data for us, because relative to other demographics, we are deemed too small to count. Indeed, a group of Native scholars have written a book about some of this, titled Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education. 

With intricate detail, Coleman documents how the news media was hit-or-miss in terms of what reporters said about Jeter's race. One day it was "negro" and the next--in the same paper--it was "half negro, half Indian" and then later on, it was back to "negro." In the final analysis, Coleman writes, writers generally describe her as an "ordinary Black woman" (p. 173).

In The Case for Loving, Alko uses "part African-American, part Cherokee" but I suspect Jeter's family would object to what Alko said. As the 2004 interview indicates, Mildred Jeter Loving considered herself to be Rappahannock. Her family identifies as Rappahannock and denies any Black heritage. This, Coleman writes, may be due to politics within the Rappahannock tribe. A1995 amendment to its articles of incorporation states that stated (p. 166):
“Applicants possessing any Negro blood will not be admitted to membership. Any member marrying into the Negro race will automatically be admonished from membership in the Tribe.”
I'm not impugning Jeter or her family. It seems to me Mildred Jeter Loving was caught in some of the ugliest racial politics in the country. As I read Coleman's chapter and turn to the rest of her book, I am unsettled by that racial politics. In the final pages of the chapter, Coleman writes (p. 175):
Of course, Mildred had a right to self-identify as she wished and to have that right respected by others. Nevertheless, viewed within the historical context of Virginia in general and Central Point in particular, ironically, “the couple that rocked courts” may have inadvertently had more in common with their opponents than they realized. Mildred’s Indian identity as inscribed on her marriage certificate and her marriage to Richard, a White man, appears to have been more of an endorsement of the tenets of racial purity rather than a validation of White/ Black intermarriage as many have supposed.

Turning back to The Case for Loving, I pick it up and read it again, mentally replacing Cherokee with Rappahannock and holding all this racial politics in my head. It makes a difference.

At this moment, I don't know what it means for this picture book. One could argue that it provides children with an important story about history, but I can also imagine children looking back on it as they grow up and thinking that they were misinformed--not deliberately--but by those twists and turns in racial politics in the United States of America.

Updates to add relevant items shared by others:

Kara Stewart pointed me to a news story from a Virginia TV station:
Doctor's quest to engineer a 'master race' in the early 1900s still hurting Virginia Indian tribes 

Kara's comment prompted me to search for information on the Racial Integrity Act. I found that the Library of Virginia has a page about it.

Update, March 18, 7:25 PM:
Just saying again---you must get a copy of Coleman's book. In other chapters, she talks about the Pocahontas Exception and how it was written to accommodate "the White elite who said they were descendants of the Indian princess Pocahontas and the English colonist John Rolfe." Here's one excerpt (p. 5):
It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons. 

*Update, March 23, 12:05 PM:
Professor Coleman read my review and noted an error in what I said. I've used the cross-out option to indicate what is wrong and inserted the correct information. Mulatto/Negro were specific to the Jeter name, not to Mildred's Jeter's parents.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

National Museum of the American Indian: Newsletter for Teachers

Anytime you're in Washington DC, I hope you visit the National Museum of the American Indian. I was part of our tribal delegation when it opened several years ago. My daughter and I carry warm memories of that day. It was powerful and affirming in so many ways. I've worked with several people there, as well as attending some of their webcasts.

Today I want to point you to their newsletter for teachers. Five issues are available online. Here's a screenshot of the most recent one (Winter 2015):



Back in 2009, I wrote about When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans that is featured in the newsletter for Winter 2015. In that second paragraph above, Renee Gokey pointed to the selection criteria developed at the American Indian Library Association for its Youth Literature Award, a rubric for evaluating books, and my page of Best Books.

Visit the NMAI site and read the newsletters! In the current one, you'll see two more wonderful books on the first page: Sweetest Kulu and House of Purple Cedar. 

The newsletter talks about Never Alone, too, which I haven't looked at, but know is highly regarded by many of my colleagues.

And--there's a note, too, about what is coming in the next newsletter: how to engage children in difficult topics, like Indian Removal.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Game developer: "I decided to prove her wrong"

In October of 2014, I wrote about an educational game called Kachina. It was still in development and being previewed at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). It, according to their website, is the oldest and largest conference of game developers. It has gone from "about 25 developers in the living room of a notable game designer 27 years ago, to a week-long conference for more than 23,000 industry insiders."

Earlier this month (March 2015), I read a fascinating article about that game developer and what he did in response to my review. The game was developed by Ben Esposito. At this year's conference, Esposito gave a presentation in the conference's "Failure Workshop." He noted that he'd read my post about his game and...
"I decided to prove her wrong. I would make the most authentic game. It would be heroic... I am quite embarrassed about this."
He goes on to tell about how--once he started doing research--he saw that he was wrong. Prior to that,
the depth of his research on the topic had been, well, liking the look of those [Kachina] dolls.
He told that story to a packed room. Early on, he stuck with the "Kachina" theme and
showed a series of screenshots showing some frankly awful ideas
and then started talking to professors of Indigenous cultures. Someone told him to talk to the Hopi tribe. So he did. And...
After talking to people of the tribe for a while, listening to them about their art and their stories, he had his apocalyptic moment. "They're people."
I realize that a lot of people will say "well, duh!" to that admission, but I appreciate his honesty and his sharing. He could have shelved the game and walked away to redesign a new game, but he made a different decision.

Ben Esposito 
shared what he learned 
with his colleagues. 
At a major conference. 
To a packed room. 
What he did is a model of 
what writers in children's and 
young adult literature can do. 

Here's the closing two paragraphs from the article, by John Walker. Walker's comments and response are also worth noting. Esposito and Walker's willingness to share their thinking is terrific:
I love Esposito’s story. I want to defend him, champion him for his good intentions, his benevolent desire to communicate something. And I struggle along to the same conclusions, that sometimes a story is not your story to tell. “If it’s really important to tell someone’s narrative,” he adds, “let them tell it.” If someone is not in a position to tell their story, maybe look at ways to help it get told. But don’t assume it’s yours to tell.
“When you get called out,” Esposito finished, “shut up and listen. Examine your position. Learn from them. Learn to shut up.”
I followed/follow the Gamer Gate conversations. This one is remarkably different. Read the comments to Walker's article. Reading and thinking about this inspired me to create a new label:

AICL Thanks You! 

AICL thanks Ben Esposito, John Walker, and organizers of the conference for creating the space for developers to share failures with each other. Failures provide learning opportunities. They can be embarrassing, too, as Esposito admitted, but don't we all have those moments? About something we're ignorant about? We've all been there. It is human. What we do once we know otherwise is key.

I wonder---might writer's conferences have a "Failure Workshop," too? Wouldn't that be cool?


Update, March 16, 3:42 PM

I received an email that suggested that my idea of a "Failure Workshop" suggests that all non-Native writers will fail in their attempts to create Native characters. I do not think that at all. It is definitely possible. Flynn did it in On the Move. Definitely, writers have erred in depictions of people who are 'other' to themselves. I suspect they talk about that with their closest friends, but I think so much could be gained by more public conversations, like those that happen at the gaming conference. People who sign up to present in the Failure Workshop are people, just like the people who write children's and young adult books. What is it about that conference--that space--that makes it possible for them to share as they do? Maybe someone in SCBWI could investigate and find a few well-established writers who would be willing to do this sort of thing.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Open Letter to David Arnold, author of MOSQUITOLAND

Dear Mr. Arnold,

Thank you for responding to my critique of the "Cherokee" content in Mosquitoland.  No doubt, many people in children's literature are thinking well of you for what you said, but the conversation cannot end there.

With Mim and her "war paint," you--inadvertently--are doing what generations of Native people have fought against for hundreds of years.

Misrepresentations of Indigenous peoples are of such magnitude that, in 2008, the United Nations issued its Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There are studies of the harm that misrepresentations do to Native and non-Native youth. In 2005, the American Psychological Association issued a statement about stereotyping. Last year, the National Congress of American Indians issued a report on this matter (NCAI's first national campaign took place in 1968).

Yesterday (March 12 2015), I read the USA Today review of Mosquitoland. I trust you did, too. I hope you cringed at the lead. For those who didn't see the review, here's a screen capture of the opening lines:



See "slap on some war paint" in the first line of the review? That is what a major newspaper honed in on: "war paint' and how it can get you through the day. Let's look at what Mim does when she puts on her "war paint" (Kindle Locations 694-697):
I start with the left cheek, always. This habit is king, and it must be exactly the same, line for line. The first stroke is a two-sided arrow, the point of which touches the bridge of my nose. Then, a broad horizontal line across the forehead. The third stroke is an arrow on my right cheek, mirroring the first one. Next, a thick line down the middle of my face, from the top of my forehead to the bottom of my chin. And lastly, a dot inside both arrows.
Now let's look at the finished image, from the trailer for the book:



As you know, Mr. Arnold, people are praising Mosquitoland for its look at mental illness, medications, and Mim's perseverance.

Few people (in reviews or on social media), however, are talking about the stereotypical imagery you deployed for Mim's perseverance. That "war paint" gets her "through the day" (as the USA Today reporter said). Let's look at some of that "war paint" and how it is used to get fans through a game.

This is the mascot at Florida State:



This was the mascot at the University of Illinois. Though it is officially retired, fans continue to paint their faces in the ways that the mascot did:



Here's fans of the Cleveland baseball team:



Here's a fan of the Washington pro football team:



Those four individuals--and thousands of others--stood in front of a mirror, just like Mim did, and picked up the items they used for their "war paint" as they got ready to rally their team against a foe.

I suspect you had none of this in mind as you wrote those words above, describing how Mim puts on her "war paint" or when you and your fellow author (Jasmine Warga, the woman portraying Mim) worked on the trailer. I watched that trailer on your website. It is gone from there, now. I hope you took it down in response to my review. If that is why you took it down, I think I'm right in saying (above) that I hope you cringed as you read what the USA Today reviewer said about war paint.

The question is: what to do now?

In my response to your comment, I suggested that you talk with editors and other writers about stereotyping. Looks like you ought to add others to that list, too. I realize this is awkward. How does an author say "this was probably not a good idea" without hurting the sales of your book? I'm well aware that my criticism leads people to buy the book to see what you did for themselves, thereby elevating its sales, which suggests to the industry that people want MORE books like it.

We definitely need more books about the mental health of young people, but not ones like Mosquitoland that add to the problems of Native people, who--like those with mental health--are misunderstood and denigrated in far too many places.

Given the widespread praise of your book and the fact that you've sold your second book already, I think you actually have a secure platform from which to educate others about the problems in using tribal peoples as you did. You're getting requests for interviews; please use those interviews to educate your readers. I read that there is a possibility for Mosquitoland to become a movie. Please use whatever power you have to keep that stereotyping out of the script.

This, Mr. Arnold, is an opportunity to educate others.

Sincerely,
Debbie



Update, Saturday March 28 2015

This morning, Mr. Arnold submitted a reply via the comment option. I'm pasting his response here for the reader's convenience:


Dr. Reese,
Since reading your open letter, I’ve taken some time to listen and process. First, I assure you this conversation is not about book sales. In Mosquitoland, I wrote the best book I possibly could, and I am very proud of the outcome; whatever successes or failures I may have, my governing principles are always to be as honest and compassionate as possible.
You also suggest that I speak with editors and other writers about stereotyping—know that I’ve been doing just that. This process has led me to have conversations with those in my personal circle (my editor, my agent, my publisher) and other authors in our larger publishing community about a range of characters and backgrounds, discussing how we reach out to those communities we mean to portray in fiction.
While I would love to share my own intentions behind Mim’s actions, I do not believe it is the author’s place to discuss intention. Saying “see, what I meant by that…” is a slippery slope, one that robs readers of their own unique interpretations. As I mentioned in my previous response, our interpretations of Mim’s actions are quite different. That said, I think having dialogue is less about agreeing with everyone at the table, and more about a person’s desire to sit at the table to begin with.
Mim puts lipstick on her face and calls it war paint. Over the last few weeks, you have made me aware of how those actions might display harmful stereotypes of Native Americans. While that was certainly not my intention, I apologize for the impact it has had in reflecting those, or any, stereotypes. I could not agree more that a healthy portrayal of diverse characters and cultures is important in literature, and moving forward I hope my work contributes positively to that discussion.
David Arnold



Saturday, March 07, 2015

David Arnold's Cherokee protagonist in MOSQUITOLAND

Note: Please scroll down to see David Arnold's response to this review. See Open Letter, too. 



Some weeks ago, I saw a screencapture (that's it to the right) from the video trailer for David Arnold's Mosquitoland. In it, his protagonist, Mim (her given name is Mary), is putting on her "war paint." (If you're unfamiliar with the book, read the synopsis for Mosquitoland at the author's website.)

About one third of the way into the book, we learn that Mim thinks of herself as Cherokee. Her mom, we learn, is the source of her Cherokee identity. In a letter to her aunt Isabel, Mim tells Isabel that her mom told her to (Kindle Location 1161)*:
“Have a vision, Mary, unclouded by fear.”
That, we read, is an old Cherokee proverb (Kindle Locations 1163-1164):
that her mom told her, and hers before that, and so on and so forth, all the way back to the original Cherokee woman who coined the phrase.
An old Cherokee proverb? Where, I wondered, did the author find that proverb? Why, and what, does he know about Cherokees? I did a search and found "Have a vision not clouded by fear" on several websites of "inspirational stories" and books of that genre. I've traced it to A Cherokee Feast of Days: Daily Meditations by Joyce Sequichie Hifler. She attributes the proverb to "a Cherokee leader." The title suggests that the meditations are Cherokee but some of them are from people of other tribal nations. Sometimes Hifler includes that nation, sometimes she doesn't. Did Arnold read Hifler's book, I wonder? Or did he find it elsewhere? If you're reading this, Mr. Arnold, please let us know.

Mim tells Isabel (in the letter) that she's so proud of her Cherokee heritage that she (Kindle Location 1166-1170):
started lying about the degree of Cherokee blood in my veins. I was something like one-sixteenth, but honestly, who wasn’t, right? So I claimed one quarter. It just sounded more legit. I was young, still in middle school, so I went with it the way kids that age do. The more admiration this garnered from teachers and friends, the closer I felt to my ancient ancestry, my kinswomen, my tribe. But the truth will out, as they say. In my case, this outing took on the sound of my mother’s unending laughter in the face of my principal, when he told her the school was going to present me with a plaque of merit at the next pep rally: the Native American Achievement Award. 
There's a lot to unpack in that passage. Mim clearly knows something about blood quantum, and "who wasn't, right?" tells us that she knows that a lot of people say they're Cherokee. So, she thinks it sounds "more legit" if she says she's "one quarter" rather than "one-sixteenth." That tells us that she is not, in fact, knowledgeable about Cherokee citizenship. Here's the fact: on the Cherokee Nation website's page about citizenship, the very first line is this:
Cherokee Nation citizenship does not require a specific blood quantum.
Mim is, in fact, one of the "who" in "who wasn't [part Cherokee], right?" She is one of the many who make that claim without knowing what it means.

Because her mom laughed at the principal when he wanted to present Mim with the Native American Achievement Award, my guess is that her mom is laughing at the principal and maybe Mim, too, for thinking Mim has Cherokee ancestry.

That Mim would feel close to her "ancient ancestry" suggests to me that she is operating with a romantic idea of "Cherokee" identity. She could have said Ojibwe. Or, Pueblo. The tribe itself doesn't matter. And why did her mom laugh? Was she laughing at the principal for thinking Mim had done something worthy of an award? Or was she laughing that the principal believed Mim's claim of one-quarter Cherokee blood?

Mim continues in her letter (Kindle Locations 1171-1173):
Needless to say, I never received the award. But even today, there are times— most notably when I wear my war paint— when I really feel that Cherokee blood coursing through my veins, no matter its percentage of purity. So from whatever minutia of my heart that pumps authentic Cherokee blood, I pass this phrase along to you: have a vision, unclouded by fear.
Her words tell us that she makes a connection between Cherokee blood and that phrase.  Cherokee blood and courage go together. Or as I said earlier, the Cherokee part doesn't matter. It could be a different tribe. It doesn't matter, because in her mind, Indians and courage and war paint go together.

Mim's letter continues (Kindle Locations 1174-1175):
Not sure what made me think of all this Cherokee stuff. Maybe it’s the plethora of cowboy hats and boots I’ve seen today. Politically correct? Probably not. BUT I’M ONE-SIXTEENTH CHEROKEE, SO SUCK IT.
I assume her "politically correct" question is there for someone who would say 'hold on there' to all that she's shared about her Cherokee identity. She seems to be wondering if what she shared is/is not "politically correct" but the capitalized text tells us that because she is 1/16 Cherokee, she can say whatever she wants. She closes her letter to Isabel by sharing another "Cherokee proverb" (Kindle Locations 1177-1178):
When you were born, you cried while the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries while you rejoice.
I found that "proverb" in Who Will Cry When You Die by Robin Sharma. In that book, it is described as being an "Ancient Sanskrit saying." Sharma also describes it as something his father said to him. I don't find the phrase anywhere as something said by a Cherokee. So again, I wonder where David Arnold found that phrase? Surely he is aware that the Cherokee people do not speak Sanskrit (Sanskrit is an official language spoken in India).

Mim signs her letter as "Chieftess Iris Malone." Later, she calls herself a "War-Crazed Cherokee Chieftess." And then towards the end of the book she's in her mother's bedroom. She picks up the lipstick and wonders (Kindle Locations 3397-3403):
What would it be like if she walked in the room right now? If she found me painting my face like some politically incorrect Cherokee chieftess? What would I tell her? The truth, I hope. That in my longing for originality and relational honesty and a hundred other I-don’t-know-whats, this action, while strange and socially awkward, makes more sense than just about anything else in my world. And even though it’s cryptic and more than a little odd, sometimes cryptic and odd are better than lying down for the Man. Maybe I would tell her how the war paint helped get me through a time when I felt like no one else cared about what I wanted, or who I was. Maybe I could muster the courage to speak those words so few people are able to say: I don’t know why I do the things I do. It’s like that sometimes.
Mim knows that what she's been doing with the lipstick is not ok. She tells us that the war paint she does is cryptic and odd, but that it has helped her when she felt alone. Does the strength she gains from doing that justify it?

As I write, Arnold's Mosquitoland is listed as a bestseller in three categories at Amazon: Marriage and Divorce (in the teen category and the children's books category, too) and it is listed in the #2 spot for Depression & Mental Illness.

No doubt, its publisher, editor, and author are delighted. I would love to join them in that delight, but I can't. Arnold's book is touching the hearts of many readers, but it is also adding to, or affirming their misunderstandings of who Cherokee people are. Or, maybe they recognize that the Cherokee parts are not ok but they see something of themselves in Mim, so they're willing to look away from the Cherokee parts.

It is troubling to me that, in a book about young people who struggle with mental health, people are willing to look away from the problematic Cherokee parts in Mosquitoland. Would they do that if they knew that Native youth commit suicide at higher rates than any other group in the country? I am not saying books like Mosquitoland that misrepresent Native life are causes of suicide, but surely, misrepresentations don't help anyone feel good about themselves, do they?

In an interview about his book, the reporter asked him about criticism "from at least one Native American on Twitter" about the war paint. I assume the reporter had my earlier critique in mind. Arnold says that the criticism kept him up at night, but that he stands by the book, "for many reasons." Those reasons aren't included in the interview. He also says that:
"...in this broader conversation about diversity in literature, as a straight, white male, oftentimes it's going to be my role to sit down, to be quiet, to listen and to learn. If there are things I can learn from people I've offended, that's exactly what I want to do. I want to be a better writer and I want to be a more sensitive human. I'm completely willing to have these conversations, for sure. Mim makes a lot of questionable decisions, but across the board I felt the need to be completely authentic to her character."
What he says about being willing to have conversations is puzzling to me. On January 26, I tweeted at him:


I also tweeted this:



Soon after I sent those tweets, I was asked if he'd replied to me. I went to his Twitter page and saw this:



The tiny print says "You are blocked from following @roofbeam and viewing @roofbeam's Tweets." I was surprised. Why did he do that? Was it my use of "WTF" in that second tweet? Or, was it that there were two tweets? Or three? A couple of days later, I read @donalynbooks tweet (she praised Mosquitoland) and I tweeted at her (and Arnold), asking her if she had any thoughts on the warpaint in the book. She didn't reply.

I posted my initial post on Mosquitoland to my Facebook wall. Here's a sampling of the comments.

A Native poet said:
That "warpaint" idea is kind of appalling and creeped me out.
A Cherokee writer/storyteller said:
Sigh. Just once I wish they would pick on someone else!
A Cherokee librarian wrote:
slowly bangs head against desktop...
A Cherokee writer said:
Part Cherokee, huh? Which part?

I think any of those individuals, in addition to myself, would be interested in having that conversation you referenced in the interview, Mr. Arnold. I can't tweet this to you (because I'm blocked) but I trust that someone will share this post with you.

_________________

*I used the cut/paste option in Kindle for excerpts I used in this post. Each time I did it, an automatic citation was generated. Here is the citation: Arnold, David (2015-03-03). Mosquitoland. Penguin Young Readers Group. Kindle Edition.

See my post comparing review excerpts for Mosquitoland on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites. Amazon is selective in not-helpful ways.

The Cherokee Nation has a TV station online. Watch it and think about the people you meet there, versus the ones you read about in books like Mosquitoland. 

_____________________________

Update, March 9, 2015
David Arnold submitted a comment. For your convenience, I am pasting his comment here:


Hi Dr. Reese,
I appreciate your analysis of my novel; your honest, personal assessment has provoked reflection on my part, truly.
While writing Mosquitoland, my priority was the absolute authenticity of Mim’s character. In her own words, “Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multi-dimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.” Among other things, writing Mim was my attempt to embody the notion that a smart, self-reliant protagonist might make a slew of emotional leaps and questionable decisions over the course of a novel. As much as I would have loved to apply my own adult clarity to her blurred lens, I did not feel it was honest to her character to do so. 
When I read a book, the last thing I want is the author leaning over my shoulder, telling me all the things he or she meant. In turn, I balk at the idea of trying to explain my own intentions to readers. I will say that our interpretations of Mim’s reasoning—given the entire context of the book—are very different. I tried my best to walk the line of character authenticity and author responsibility; from reading your posts, it’s clear you believe I failed in this regard. I want you to know I hear you, and I appreciate your point of view.
Please know that your evaluation of my book has shed new light on some important issues for me, and moving forward, I will strive to be more aware.
David Arnold

Update: Monday, March 9 2015

Thank you, Mr. Arnold, for your response.

It reminds me of some of the conversations I've had elsewhere, like with Roger Sutton, about how a character is portrayed. With Roger, the discussion was about white children who were playing Indian. In a review I worked on for Horn Book years ago, I called that activity stereotypical. He disagreed--and disagrees--with my use of that word. Horn Book is more interested in "how well" an author develops something rather than what their character says or does. I think both are important, especially given the extreme whiteness of the industry in the past---and the present, too, and a concerted effort to address diversity in children's literature.

Mim is playing Indian. She is your creation. I think you had her doing that to accomplish a specific goal related to her emotions/emotional well-being. In that regard, you/she are a lot like the mascots created by white people. They suit a white person's purpose. They're a device. A means to a goal.

To you and the readers who are praising your novel, the means doesn't matter. To me and a lot of Native people, the means does, in fact, matter a great deal. In one of his poems, Simon Ortiz wrote that Indians sure are handy (to white people). Someday, that will end.

Perhaps you can help us bring that to an end, by engaging fellow writers in discussions about things like this. I imagine that you've already had conversations with your editor about it, and I hope you find a way to talk about it with others. I realize it is hard. It is, after all, your book. Your creation. As such, it is dear to you. Our kids, though, are dear to us. I hope you let that thought--of Native kids who may read this book, or will be treated in certain ways by others who read this book--foremost in your mind.

Debbie

Updates: March 13

I now have access to Mr. Arnold's page on Twitter.

I've written an open letter to Mr. Arnold, based on the USA Today's review of his book.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Seed beads, Indian Camps, and Black Indians in Cynthia Leitich Smith's RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME

A request for a blurb about a favorite book with a Native teen character prompted me to re-read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Rain Is Not My Indian Name. I've recommended it several times, here on AICL and elsewhere, but I haven't done an in-depth review essay about it yet.

Smith is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. "Citizen" means that she is amongst the people the Muscogee Nation counts as a citizen. Their page on Citizenship has a lot of useful information.

A lot of people don't know that each Native Nation has its own way of determining who its citizens or tribal members are. A lot of people claim they're Native but don't know what Nation. For them, it is more of a romantic idea based on a family story about an ancestor who someone in their family said was Indian. Often, that ancestor was "a princess." A common experience for me--indeed, for a lot of Native people--is the well-meaning person who approaches me at a lecture (or online) and tells me they are part Indian. If they reference an Indian princess, I--as gently as I can--tell them there was no such thing, that the idea itself is rooted in European's who erroneously viewed Native peoples with a European lens in which royalty was the rule. There's a lot to read about Native identity. I suggest Eva Marie Garroutte's Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America. 

Quick! What comes to mind when you hear "American Indian" or "Native American"? Chances are, the image you have is one of Native peoples of the past, not present. And, that image in your mind is likely one that reflects a stereotype, not reality, in terms of who we were and who we are. Smith's book can interrupt that stereotypical imagery. Set in the present--not the past--it is a terrific story.

Let's take a look, together, at some parts of it that stand out to me.

The Subtle

Cassidy Rain Berghoff is the main character in Rain Is Not My Indian Name. When the story opens, it is New Year's Eve. Rain is minutes away from being 14. She's out with Galen--a childhood friend--but they're tentatively moving from friendship to a romantic relationship. He's got a birthday gift for her: a pouch that she immediately recognizes (p. 6):
I remembered seeing it last June, displayed on a Lakota trader's table at a powwow in Oklahoma City. Aunt Georgia had taken Galen and me on a road trip to visit family, and he had trailed after me down crowded aisle after aisle.
Later that day at the powwow, Galen had gone off to get popcorn, but clearly--he'd been observing Rain as they walked down those aisles and seen her linger over that pouch. Sweet! In her description of that pouch, Smith tells us it has seed beads. Most readers probably won't notice that detail, but Native ones do! There's a huge difference in a pouch made by a Lakota person and one you'd buy at a tourist shop that sells "Indian" beaded items. The one with seed beads is exquisite. The one from the tourist shop is tacky. Rain knows the difference; Native readers of Rain Is Not My Indian Name will know the difference, too.

After Rain and Galen say goodnight and head for their homes, Galen is struck by a car and dies on his way home. Rain learns about it the next morning (her birthday). The phone rings, waking her. She stretches, beneath her star quilt. She's devastated when her grandpa tells her about Galen. Of course, she doesn't say more about the quilt, but it is another point that Native readers will notice. Star quilts figure prominently in Native culture. Here's one (to the right) made by a dear friend, Chantelle Blue Arm.

I chose this one (Chantelle has done many beautiful quilts) because she titled it Cotton Candy. In the moments before Galen gives Rain the pouch, she thinks back to second grade field trip when Galen had persuaded her to leave the group with him in search of turquoise cotton candy.


The Explicit

Understandably, Galen's death is a blow to Rain. She pretty much retreats from life for six months, which moves the story to the end of June. Her aunt, Georgia, is coordinating an Indian Camp. Her brother, Fynn, has been hinting that he wants her to sign up for it (p. 12):
But Indian Camp? It sounded like the kind of thing where a bunch of probably suburban, probably rich, probably white kids tromped around a woodsy park, calling themselves "princesses," "braves," or "guides."
My guess is that many of you--especially if you are regular readers of AICL--are nodding your head. Indian-themed camps are a mainstay of American culture that feed stereotypes! Rain's aunt, however, is not doing a camp for white kids. This one is for Native kids. Rain speculates that her aunt is thinking about what Native kids learn in school (p. 13):
At school, the subject of Native Americans pretty much comes up just around Turkey Day, like those cardboard cutouts of the Pilgrims and the pumpkins and the squash taped to the windows at McDonald's. And the so-called Indians always look like bogeymen on the prairie, windblown cover boys selling paperback romances, or baby-faced refugees from the world of Precious Moments. I usually get through it by reading sci-fi fanzines behind my textbooks until we move on to Kwanza.
Rain's got some attitude--and I love it!

See the baby-faced refugee to the right?! Rain is obviously indignant at having to deal with this sort of thing year after year.

She has a way to cope, but let's step into reality for a moment. Native kids in today's schools have to deal with this every year. Why should they have to deal with that at all?!

What Rain did was check out. She disengaged. I'm using "disengaged" deliberately. The word is in a 2010 report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, about Native youth and their experiences in school.


And the complexities of African American and American Indian history

Now let's take a look at a racial issue Rain struggles with.

The character, Queenie, is African American. Prior to the time of the story, Rain and Queenie were good friends. That started to shift when Rain learned that Galen and Queenie were interested in each other, romantically. In one of her journal entries (they open each chapter), Rain recounts a conversation she and Galen had about dating African Americans (p. 28):
Galen's bangs fell forward: "Would you go out with a black person?" he asked.
Somewhere in my memory, I'd been told it was okay to be friends with black people, but not more than friends. "I guess," I answered. "Worried about your mom?"
Later (but still in the time before the story opens), Rain and Queenie's friendship ends when Rain learns that Queenie has hurt Galen.

Rain ends up going to Indian Camp--not as a participant--but as a journalist. Her assignment is to take photos of the camp for a news story about the camp.  She is surprised to see Queenie there. The reporter, Flash, asks Queenie a question (p. 69):
"What brings you here?"
Queenie squared her shoulders and asked, "Don't you mean 'Why is an African-American girl at a Native American program?"
"Sure," the Flash answered, pen perched, "that's exactly what I meant."
The three Native kids at the camp and Rain observe this interaction, which suggests they have the same--but unspoken--question (p. 70):
Queenie spoke clearly, like she wanted to make sure the Flash didn't misquote her--like she'd have a lot to say about it if he did. "My aunt Suzanne has been tracing our family tree for the reunion next month at her place in Miami," she explained, "and, come to find out, one of my great-grandfathers was a Native American."
The word cousin sneaked onto my tongue, and I didn't like the way it tasted. As if stealing Galen hadn't been enough, now Queenie was barging in on my cultural territory. Granted, she was no guru-seeking, crystal-wearing, long-lost descendent of an Indian "princess," but still... 
Then, Flash asks her (p. 70):
"What tribe, Nation, or band?" 
We'll come to find out that Queenie's great grandfather was Seminole. The Black Indian thread in Rain Is Not My Indian Name is important. It speaks to Black readers with similar family stories, but it does so with integrity. Rain could so easily have been dismissive of Queenie, but Smith went elsewhere, smoothly describing what-to-do with that family story: research. Queenie's aunt is doing research.

More and more stories about Black Indians are appearing in the news media and taken up in museums and documentaries. Read, for example, Gyasi Ross's Black History Month, Indian Style: Natives and Black Folks in This Together Since 1492. See, too, the National Museum of the American Indian's exhibition, Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.

All of this makes the Black Indian thread in Smith's book especially important in today's society.

Coming out this year (2015) are two books in which writers take on Black Indians. I read--and love--Gone Crazy in Alabama--by Rita Williams Garcia. I'm waiting for the published copy to review it.

Already out is The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. I haven't read it yet, but what I can see online indicates that Mildred Jeter is identified as "part African-American, part Cherokee."

In my initial research about Jeter, I saw her described as Cherokee, but I also saw her described as Rappahannock. In my second round of research, I read a chapter about her in That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia by Arica L. Coleman, an assistant professor in Black Studies at the University of Delaware. I'll say this for now: in that chapter, Coleman chronicles the way that race and racial identity are put forth, used, and manipulated by the justice system and the media. It is astonishing.

~~~~~

I opened this post by noting that someone's question prompted me to re-read Rain Is Not My Indian Name. I read it when it came out in 2001. It won Smith distinction from Wordcraft Circle as one of 2001 Writers of the Year in Children's Prose.

That same year, Smith wrote an article for Book Links that offers incredible insights about developing Rain and Queenie, and about insider/outsider perspective. It is online at ALA: Native Now: Contemporary Indian Stories. In 2011, Smith wrote a reflection on the books tenth anniversary: 10th Anniversary of Rain Is Not My Indian Name.

Rereading it now--14 years after I first read it--I want to shout from the rooftops to everyone about Rain Is Not My Indian Name. If you don't already have it on your shelves, get a copy and read it. And share it. It is exquisite and has something in it for every reader.

Updating to include books I'll use as I research this topic more:

  • Chang, David. The Color of the Land
  • Forbes, Jack. Africans & Native Americans
  • Krauthamer, Barbara. Black Slaves, Indian Masters
  • Littlefield, Daniel. The Cherokee Freedmen; Africans & Creeks; Africans & Seminoles
  • Miles, Tiya. Ties that Bind
  • Miles, Tiya and Sharon Patricia Holland (Eds). Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: Diaspora in Indian Country
  • Naylor, Celia. Africans and Cherokees
  • Purdue, Theda. Slavery & the Evolution of Society
  • Saunt, Claudio. Black White & Indian