Sunday, December 06, 2009

Albert Marrin's YEARS OF DUST: THE STORY OF THE DUST BOWL

Over on Heavy Medal, a blog at School Library Journal, I posted my concerns with Richard Peck's new book, A Season of Gifts. In the course of discussing/defending the book, Jonathan Hunt (one of the blog hosts) referenced another book. That book was Albert Marrin's Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl. In A Season of Gifts, a preacher is given a box that may or may not have remains of a "Kickapoo Princess" inside. The preacher agrees to rebury the box and waxes poetically in his sermon. As you might imagine, I find the discussion of bones problematic from the get-go. I am working on an essay about that aspect of the book. 


In his post, Jonathan correctly describes the preacher's speech as hokey, sentimental, and, stereotypical in the way it situates Indians in nature. Then, he says, he came across another passage that was like that in Albert Marrin's Years of Dust. Jonathan quoted the passage, which I will quote here as well (it appears on the final page of Marrin's book, p. 122):


Chief Seattle, a leader of the Suqamish tribe, understood our place in nature.  In 1855, President Franklin Pierce offered to buy Suquamish lands in what is now the state of Washington.  Before accepting the president's terms, Seattle is said to have reminded the American envoys of some basic truths.  "Will you teach your children what we have taught our children?  That the earth is our mother?" the chief asked.  Then Seattle answered his own questions.  "What befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth . . . The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth . . . All things are connected like the blood which unites us all.  Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.  Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."


Then Jonathan tries to equate the fictional preacher in A Season of Gifts with a real person: Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Nation. He asks why it is not ok for Preacher Barnhart to use that sort of language, when, he says, it was ok for Seattle to use it. 


When I read Jonathan's words and the excerpt he quoted, I chuckled to myself, thinking that Marrin had done sloppy research, quoting---not Seattle---but Ted Perry, the person who wrote a version of Seattle's speech for use in a made-for-TV movie in the 1970s. And, I wondered how he could equate a fictional character with a leader of an American Indian Nation.


Among my comments to his post, I said "oops!" and then something snarky about white-guy-Marrin quoting white-guy-Perry. Maybe I should not do that sort of snarky writing. I know it rubs some people the wrong way. 


I could say, instead, non-Native-Marrin quoting non-Native-Perry...  Or maybe I should say sloppy-researcher-Marrin quoting fiction-as-fact...  Or maybe I shouldn't say anything like that at all. My point is, what are your sources???!!! What is the bias in those sources??? Are you using sources critically???



But setting my rant aside for now...

Jonathan said he'd check into Marrin's source for that speech and let us know. I was surprised (and not) to learn that Marrin's source was....  Al Gore's book, Earth in the Balance! Oops again!!! Now, we have this:


Non-Native-Marrin quoting Non-Native-Gore quoting Non-Native-Perry.


I decided it was time to get Marrin's book, and, Gore's too, and take a look at both books. 


The cover of Marrin's book includes, across the top, "Recipient of the 2008 National Endowment for Humanities Medal."  An impressive accomplishment for Marrin. His Sitting Bull and his World won the 2001 Carter G. Woodson Book Award and the 2000 Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Non-Fiction. I wish the selection committees had been able to read Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin's review of the book...  They probably wouldn't have chosen Sitting Bull and his World for either award! Do read the review... once you do, you'll be a bit embarrassed that you or anyone would think the book was worthy of the label "nonfiction."



Back to Years of Dust...  As I flip through it, I love the images on the pages. Photographs, posters, newspaper clippings. Good stuff! Or some of it is...  Some of it is not so good....



Looking right now at page 11 in the section titled "The Great Plains World." there's a sidebar titled "The Buffalo and the Indian." The second sentence is:
 "These hunters [Lakota and Cheyenne] ate buffalo meat at every meal, several pounds at a time." 
Several pounds of buffalo meat at every meal? Really? That'd be one big hamburger! (Want a laugh? Watch Sesame Street's Grover the Waiter in "Big Hamburger.")


The illustration at the bottom of the sidebar is a reproduction of a 1901 painting by Charles Schreyvogel titled "Doomed." It shows an Indian man on horseback, wearing a feathered warbonnet, lance held high, about to plunge it into a buffalo. 

Who was Schreyvogel? I read a little about him in an article called "Racism, Nationalism, and Nostalgia in Cowboy Art" by J. Gray Sweeney, published in Oxford Art Journal in Vol. 15, No. 1, 1992. Here's what Sweeney wrote (p. 72):


The third painter revered by the modern cowboy artists of today is Charles Schreyvogel. Schreyvogel painted about one hundred works in the years from 1900 to his death in 1912, and although he visited the West briefly, his work was executed entirely in his studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he frequently posed his 'manly' German-American compatriots on the tin roof of his apartment overlooking New York City. One of his sources of information about Native Americans derived from sketching actors in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows. [...] It seems perfectly comprehensible how such representations of war-like Indians would have met the cultural expectations of Schreyvogel's urban audience in New York City around 1910 whose only knowledge of Native Americans was from dime novels and wild west shows. As such the image is disturbingly indicative of the cultural mind-set of the last half of the nineteenth century that approved genocide. One critic of the day put it this way: Schreyvogel is more than a historian of the Indian. He is giving us an invaluable record of those parlous days of the Western frontier when a handful of brave men blazed the path for civilization and extended the boundaries of empire for a growing nation.



Ouch! Ouch! And OUCH again!!! Nineteenth century? Ironically, the date of the painting is almost 100 years ago....  Why did Marrin choose that art?! Probably because it reflects what he knows! Sweeney closes the article by discussing how popular this art has become for collectors, and, as subject matter for scholarly studies of its ideology. That scholarship is attacked, as Sweeney says (p. 79):


[R]ecent attacks by conservative critics make it abundantly apparent that the supporters of western art are willing to do everything in their power to protect the cherished fantasy of America's 'winning of the West' promoted in this art. 


Moving along in Years of Dust, I come across another winner in terms of source...  At the bottom of page 14, Marrin quotes from Laura Ingalls WIlder's On the Banks of Plum Creek, where she writes about grasshoppers on the Great Plains. Would you be ok with students in your classroom citing Wilder as though what she provided was a work of non-fiction?


It is interesting to me that in the text---not the illustrations or photographs or sidebars---Marrin does not mention American Indians. When he starts talking about buffalo on page 12, he says 

The lord of the Great Plains was the American bison, or buffalo. When the first Europeans reached the New World, some 40 to 60 million buffalo roamed the region in their endless search for pasture.



And on the next page, he talks about Laura Ingalls Wilder. His final paragraph in that section says (p. 16):

The Great Plains, then, was (and is) a harsh land. Despite the hardships, Americans still saw the plains as a place of opportunity. A place where, through hard work and good luck, they could buld a better future. And so, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, settlers flocked to the rolling grasslands west of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, the arrival of settlers would change the delicate ecology of the plains.


The one mention American Indians get in this section is the sidebar. In the text itself, the indigenous people of the Great Plains don't get any attention at all. Marrin talks about Europeans, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and, Americans, but, not Indians.



Course, that changes in the next section, "Conquering the Great Plains."



Marrin starts by talking about Daniel Boone, pioneers, Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, and, an army officer who was mapping the land who said that the Plains were unfit for cultivation. Then Marrin says (p. 20)


Flat, treeless, and dry, the grasslands were fit only for wild beasts and nomadic Indians. 


Marrin sounds like Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie! What does that say about the Wilder apologists who say "that's what they thought back then." Marrin isn't quoting the Army officer at that point. Those are Marrin's words.



Most people were only moving through the Plains, headed for the West Coast. But then after the Civil War, some decided they wanted to become cattle ranchers. To do that, they needed to get rid of the buffalo, which the Indians depended on for food. Here's what Marrin says (p. 22),


"Progress," as white people saw it, demanded that both the buffalo and the Indians should go.

Hence, the wholesale slaughter of buffalo began, followed by moving Indians onto reservations. Marrin's next section "The Coming of the Farmers" is a good example of bias in selection of information to include. He talks about the Homestead Act, how it offered public land to any citizen or immigrant intending to become a citizen.  Public land? Wait! What? How did that happen? I guess it doesn't matter. 

In this section, Marrin includes a sidebar titled "For Want of Rain" that is about the Anasazi. In the sidebar, Marrin writes (page 32): 

The drought drove the Anasazi away, but it is unclear where they went.

Let's see... when did Marrin's book come out? 2009??? What research did he do??? From Wikipedia to the online Encyclopedia Brittanica, I see something I've known for a long time.... the Anasazi are ancestors of the Pueblo people! (That's me. Pueblo person, Debbie Reese, enrolled at Nambe, established in its present location in 1200 AD). 

What do you think so far? I'm on page 32 of a book that 128 pages long. One fourth of the book, and, I think its kind of a mess. Worthy of a medal? I don't think so, and I'm not even at the part of the book that Jonathan Hunt quoted from! I'll flip to that page...


Oh but wait!!! As I flip pages, I spy with my little eye on page 55 and 56, some more Indians. On page 55 is a sidebar "The Hopi Snake Dance." Marrin provides a photograph of "a snake priest." The caption is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy telling us about snake dances. I wonder what my Hopi friend, Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert, would think about this: 


These dances are prayers or invocations for rain, the crowning blessing in this dry land. The rain is adored and invoked both as male and female; the gentle steady downpour is the female, the storm with the lightning the male... The snakes, the brothers of men, as are all living things in the Hopi creed, are besought to tell the beings of the underworld man's need of water.


On page 56 is an 1899 photograph of a Hopi "snake priest with a snake in his mouth in the Hopi snake dance." Hmmmm...  Does Marrin know that those photographs are off limits? That the Hopi people disallowed photographs of their dances because those photographers did not understand what they were photographing and/or describing???


On page 102 is something rather intriguing about this famous photograph.





Taken by Dorothea Lange, it is known as "Migrant Mother." Lange was working for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the lives of Dust Bowl refugees. Lange described the woman as a hungry, desperate mother who told Lange that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the fields, and, birds her children killed. She has just sold the tires from their car to buy food. The photo was taken at a pea picker's labor camp in California.



But!!! Marrin tells us...


Forty years later, the two older children in Lange's photo remembered the incident differently. Their mother was FLorence Owens Means, a full-blooded Native American who had left Oklahoma ten years earlier, and so was no Dust Bowl refugee, as the photo suggests. The family had not been living on frozen peas and dead birds. Nor had Mrs. Thompson sold her tires. Her husband had taken the car for repairs, and she had moved to the pea camp from another camp. Before leaving, she had left word for her husband to come to the new location. She looked worried in the picture because she was not sure he got the message.


Lange, the children recalled, had promised not to publish the photo, but had done exactly that. It appeared on March 10, 1936, in the San Francisco News, agove First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's weekly "My Day" column. Thompson saw the picture and felt betrayed. For the rest of her life, she resented Lange's use of her image for publicity. Thompson was an active woman, who had helped organize farmworkers' unions. "She was a very strong woman," said daughter Katherine, seen in the photo of her mother's right shoulder. "She was a leader. I think that's one of the reasons she resented the photo--because it didn't show her in that light. (5) "What upsets us is that people are making money out of our mother's pain," (6) said daughter Katherine. 


I did not know anything about that woman being Native... I'm going to have to look into that! I'll see what I find and follow up when I have more information.

Again, back to the reason I started this particular study...  The speech attributed to Seattle. Hunt quoted Marrin who cited Gore who doesn't cite anybody. 


Here's what Gore wrote on page 259:


Native American religions, for instance, offer a rich tapestry of ideas about our relationship to the earth. One of the most moving and frequently quoted explanations was attributed to Chief Seattle in 1855, when President Franklin Pierce stated that he would buy the land of Chief Seattle's tribe. The power of his response has survived numerous translations and retellings:



How can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people...


If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his firt breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. 

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. 

One thing we know: Our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator.

  
A few years ago, Jean Mendoza and I did some work on Brother Eagle Sister Sky, illustrated by Susan Jeffers. My copy of that book is at the office, so I can't do a line by line comparison of Gore's excerpt to the text in Brother Eagle...  

I will, however, point you to our analysis. It is in our article, Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls, published in Early Childhood Research & Practice, Volume 3, #2, Fall, 2001.  In it, we talk about several children's picture books. Here's what we said about Brother Eagle, Sister Sky:


The text of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky has an interesting history. According to a 1993 memorandum from the Washington/Northwest Collections office of the Washington State Library (see Appendix I), at least four versions of the speech attributed to Seattle have appeared through history. In January of 1854, he spoke at length during negotiations involving the Suquamish, the Duwamish, and the U.S. government. Historians agree that the speech was translated into Chinook jargon "on the spot" since Seattle did not speak English. The first print version of what he said was not published until October 29, 1887, in a Seattle Sunday Star column by Dr. Henry A. Smith, a witness to the 1854 speech who had reconstructed and translated the speech from his notes. In the late 1960s, poet William Arrowsmith rewrote the speech in a somewhat more contemporary style, though it is still similar to Smith's version (Ellen Levesque, personal communication, September 29, 1993).
Later, Ted Perry created another version for "Home," a historical program about the northwest rain forest televised in 1971 (Jones & Sawhill, 1992). This version was constructed as if it were a letter to President Franklin Pierce, though "no such letter was ever written by or for Chief Seattle" (Ellen Levesque, personal communication, September 29, 1993). A shortened edition of the "letter" was exhibited at Expo '74 in Spokane, Washington.

At the end of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Susan Jeffers writes, "The origins of Chief Seattle's words are partly obscured by the mists of time." She mentions Smith's version and states that, like Joseph Campbell and unnamed others, she has adapted the message. Readers and listeners are left with the impression that the book offers perhaps an abridged version of the actual speech. The Suquamish tribe's Web site reproduces the 1854 1887 version, which addresses with great depth of feeling the state of Native-White relations in that place and time. In it, Seattle reluctantly, and perhaps with some anger, agrees that he and his people will move to a reservation, on the condition that they be able to visit their ancestors' graves without interference. Environmental responsibility does not appear to be the topic.



Take a look, too, at what Paul Chaat Smith wrote about the book. At the top of his page is a quote from Brother Eagle, Sister Sky that is a lot like what Gore quoted. Sigh. Big, big sigh. 


Sloppy research by Gore. Sloppy research by Marrin. Should Marrin's book be considered for any award, from anyone? I don't think so. If you have read Marrin's book, and want to weigh in on the discussion, head over to Team Nonfiction: The Second Wave.



I'll post there, letting readers there know that I've done this post.



------------
Update, 12:27 PM CST, December 7, 2009
Julia Good Fox directed me to a NY Review of Books essay about Dorothea Lange and the Migrant Mother photograph. Here's some of it, but do read the entire essay. Interesting!

In 1958 the hitherto nameless woman surfaced as Florence Thompson, author of an angry letter, written in amateur legalese, to the magazine U.S. Camera, which had recently republished Migrant Mother:
...It was called to My attention...request you Recall all the un-Sold Magazines...should the picture appear in Any magazine again I and my Three Daughters shall be Forced to Protect our rights...Remove the magazine from Circulation Without Due Permission...
Years later, Thompson's grandson, Roger Sprague, who maintains a Web site called migrantgrandson.com, described what he believed to be her version of the encounter with Lange:
Then a shiny new car (it was only two years old) pulled into the entrance, stopped some twenty yards in front of Florence and a well-dressed woman got out with a large camera. She started taking Florence's picture. With each picture the woman would step closer. Florence thought to herself, "Pay no mind. The woman thinks I'm quaint, and wants to take my picture." The woman took the last picture not four feet away then spoke to Florence: "Hello, I'm Dorothea Lange, I work for the Farm Security Administration documenting the plight of the migrant worker. The photos will never be published, I promise."
Some of these details ring false, and Sprague has his own interest in promoting a counternarrative, but the essence of the passage, with its insistence on the gulf of class and wealth between photographer and subject, sounds broadly right. "The woman thinks I'm quaint" might be the resentful observation of every goatherd, shepherd, and leech-gatherer faced with a well-heeled poet or documentarian on his or her turf.
It also emerged that Florence Thompson was not just a representative "Okie," as Lange had thought, but a Cherokee Indian, born on an Oklahoma reservation. So, in retrospect, Migrant Mother can be read as intertwining two "mythical cult-figures": that of the refugee sharecropper from the Dust Bowl (though Thompson had originally come to California with her first husband, a millworker, in 1924) and that of the Noble Red Man. There is a strikingly visible connection, however unnoticed by Lange, between her picture of Florence Thompson and Edward S. Curtis's elaborately staged sepia portraits of dignified Native American women in tribal regalia in his extensive collection The North American Indian (1900–1930), perhaps the single most ambitious—and contentious—work of American pastoral ever created by a visual artist.

4 comments:

maclibrary said...

I came from the Rasco from Rif site. This was very enlightening. I am going to share with my third grade teachers who study different American cultures.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, I responded to your criticisms at Heavy Medal in a new post, "Years of Dust."

Jonathan

Rob said...

Good job, Debbie. You can read about the Dorothea Lange photo here:

Migrant Mother Was Cherokee

M. Sakiestewa said...

"I wonder what my Hopi friend, Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert, would think about this:"

See my blog post titled "I is for Indian Village - Photographs and Hopi Protocols"

http://beyondthemesas.com/2009/12/16/photographs-villages-and-hopi-protocols/