Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thoughts on Sharon Creech's WALK TWO MOONS

Have you ever used Google Earth? It's a fascinating tool that lets you look at a place (like your hometown) via satellite photographs.

A few years ago, I started seeing "lit trips" online.  Using Google Earth, people put together a webpage that shows places named in any given book. A few days ago while reading Open Culture, I came across a site called Google Lit Trips, where "lit trips" for books are categorized by grade level. There, teachers have uploaded the lit trips they created.

Google Lit Trips is a great project. As a person who loves technology, travel, and children's literature, I find great value in the project itself.  I wondered what books teachers have created lit trips for...

In the K-5 category is Holling Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea. It's an old book, published in 1941. It won a Caldecott Honor Medal, which attributes to its staying power. In it, an Indian boy (his tribal nation is not named and he does not have a name) carves an Indian in a canoe (from the illustration, the canoe is about ten inches long) and puts it into the water in Canada.  The Indian--called "Injun" by some characters--travels to the Great Lakes, the ocean...   I can see the allure of doing a Lit Trip for this book, but I wonder what the teacher does with the word Injun?

In the 6-8 grade category is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. Her book is the focus of today's post.

Walk Two Moons won the top prize in children's literature--the Newbery Medal--in 1995. Obviously, the committee believed the book is extraordinary. As I noted on Feb 17, 2010, the book is on the Top 100 list of novels on Elizabeth Bird's blog, A Fuse#8 Production. There, Elizabeth writes:
The plot as described by School Library Journal reads, "13-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels west with her Grams and Gramps to Lewiston, Idaho, the destination from which her mother did not return. As Sal entertains her grandparents with stories of her friend, Phoebe, who sees "lunatics" around every corner, threads from many life stories are seamlessly entwined. This pilgrimage wonderfully mirrors the journey of discovery that is adolescence, as Sal's search for the truth about her mother becomes a journey of discovery about much more."

Most of what I've read about the book focuses on the themes of loss, grieving, acceptance. Here, I provide a close reading of the Native content in the book.

In an interview, Creech says that the idea for the story came from the fortune in a fortune cookie. This is from the Scholastic interview:
How did you come up with the title Walk Two Moons?
I had discovered a fortune cookie message in the bottom of my purse and the message was: “Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.” I realized that everything that I was trying to say in this book had to do with that message; that you need to get to know someone well before you form an opinion about them, and in a way, that's what we writers are doing every day with our characters. So I liked the parallel there.
The words on that fortune sound familiar, right? Perhaps you know the phrase as "never judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes." The Yale Book of Quotations has the "walk a mile in his moccasins" phrase listed in its "Modern Proverbs" section as follows:
Never criticize anybody until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
Lincoln (Neb.) Star, 10 Oct. 1930. This 1930 usage is actually worded "never criticize the other boy or girl unless," etc., described as an "Indian maxim." Later versions sometimes refer to "shoes" rather than "moccasins."
I've never seen the "two moons" variation, but, I'm not doubting that Creech found it in a fortune cookie. Above it is called a maxim. Other places, I've seen it called "An American Indian proverb." It, like so many other Indian "sayings" is poetic, sounds cool, just like an Indian might say, etc. Kind of like "happy hunting grounds" but did it, in fact, originate with an American Indian?! Research to do on that... 

In the interview, she said that the saying itself captured what she was doing with the story, so, she used it for the title. In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, she said:
My cousins maintain that one of our ancestors was an American Indian. As a child, I loved that notion, and often exaggerated it by telling people that I was a full-blooded Indian. I inhaled Indian myths...  I crept through the woods near our house, reenacting these myths, and wishing, wishing, for a pair of soft leather moccasins. (I admit --but without apology--that my view of American Indians was a romantic one.)
"without apology" --- I find that remark unsettling. Substitute "American Indians" with, say, "African Americans." One romantic view of African Americans is the one of happy slaves. Might Creech be unapologetic for holding a romantic view of African Americans as happy slaves? I'm thinking about "without apology" and what it means. 

Going back to the saying (walk two moons), and Creech's notion (her word) that she is part American Indian...  Both are significant to the story that is Walk Two Moons

The name of the main character is Salamanca (or Sal, which is short for Salamanca). She is thirteen years old and has long black hair---so long, in fact, that classmates ask her if she can sit on it. The book is realistic fiction, meant for ages 10 to 14 or thereabouts.

Sal lives in Euclid, Ohio with her dad. Creech herself grew up in South Euclid, Ohio. In 1957, Creech was 12. Her family took a trip from Ohio to Idaho. In Walk Two Moons, Creech recreates that trip. Hence, what she includes in the book are childhood memories.

I'll assume then, that the setting for Walk Two Moons is also 1957. But when I do that, some aspects of the story don't make sense.

On page 7, we learn that Sal's parents thought her great grandmother's tribe was called Salamanca. So, they named their daughter Salamanca. Later, they found out the name of the tribe was actually Seneca. (Note: There is no tribe named Salamanca.) We aren't told how old Sal was when her parents figured out what the correct tribal name is.

This Seneca heritage is from Sal's mother, who is called Sugar. Her family name is Pickford. Sal says that these grandparents "stand straight up, as if sturdy, steel poles ran down their backs. They wear starched, ironed clothing," they never laugh, and they work very hard at being respectable.  Grandmother Pickford's name is Gayfeather. Her single act of defiance is to name her daughter Chanhassen (p. 16)
It's an Indian name, meaning "tree sweet juice," or--in other words--maple sugar. Only Grandmother Pickford ever called my mother by her Indian name, though. Everyone else called my mother Sugar.
What, I wonder, was Gayfeather acting in defiance of? Being respectable? Or, was she defying her husband? Was her husband white? Did he not like that his wife was Indian? It seems that Gayfeather wants to pass an Indian identity down to her daughter, but why doesn't she tell her daughter what tribe they are? Was Gayfeather trying to live like a "civilized" Indian? An assimilated one who'd been through government boarding school?  And the name, Gayfeather...  It is the name of a plant, and it sounds plausible as an Indian name, but it also sounds-like-an-Indian-name that someone (in this case Creech) made up.

I looked up the word chanhassen, and found a town in Minnesota called Chanhassen. According to the town's website, Chanhassen is a Dakota word that means tree with sweet sap, or sugar maple tree. I also found it in American Place-Names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary, published in 1970. The entry there reads (p. 86)
Chanhassen MN  From two Siouan words, coined by R. M. Nichols, 'tree sweet juice,' to mean maple sugar.
Clearly, Creech used the latter in naming Sal's mother Chanhassen. Note that the Place-Names dictionary says it is from two Siouan (Sioux) words. The info on the Chanhassen town website says it is a Dakota word. Dakota's are Sioux.

Nobody, however, calls Sugar by her Indian name, Chanhassen, except her own mother who gave her that name.

Let's imagine Creech imagining Salamanca's parents as they try to think of a name for their child. Sal's mother says "Let's name her after my great great grandmother's tribe. I'm not sure what it was...  It started with an S. Maybe it was Salamanca." Her father says "Ok, we'll name her Salamenca."

Creech could have said Sioux, because that is the source of the word Chanhassen, but instead, she chose  Seneca as her character's tribal heritage. So, Gayfeather, a Seneca woman, gave her daughter a name based on Sioux words. Ok, that's plausible.

For whatever reason, Gayfeather does not tell Chanhassen/Sugar their tribe, or, if she does, Chanhassen/Sugar doesn't remember it. That may be the case because they aren't living amongst that tribe, nor do they have any contact with them.

Sugar grows up, gets married, and has a child. She wants to give her daughter the name of her tribe as her daughter's personal name. Except, she can't remember "Seneca" and names her "Salamanca" instead.  

Later, Sal's parents find out the actual name was Seneca, not Salamanca. As the story unfolds, we learn that Sal's mom was proud of her Seneca heritage. We don't know how old Sal was when this remembered conversation took place: (p. 57): 
My mother had not liked the term Native Americans. She thought it sounded primitive and stiff. She said "My great-grandmother was a Seneca Indian, and I'm proud of it. She wasn't a Seneca Native American. Indian sounds much more brave and elegant." 

Recall that Sharon Creech has a cousin that said they are part American Indian, and that Creech herself likes that idea...   This "part American Indian" family story is familiar. There are a lot of people who, through a family story, believe that they have American Indian heritage. They don't know the name of the tribe, but, they have a certain love of romantic, noble, heroic Indian imagery. They know very little about who American Indian people were, or are....  Hence, Sal's mother (and maybe Creech, too) likes "Indian" because it sounds "more brave and elegant."Brave and elegant fit in the romantic image.

Earlier in this post I said that some aspects of the story Creech tells don't make sense. The discussion of Native American is one example. That phrase, Native American, was not in use in 1957. It is unlikely that Creech, in school in the 50s, had a teacher who taught her students to say Native American instead of Indian. That teaching came later, possibly in the 70s in a handful of places, and more with the passing of time. This is an instance of "presentism" --- a word in literary analysis that means an author has put today's ideas into someone of the past. The hotel name is another example (p. 74-75):
     That night we stayed in Injun Joe's Peace Palace Motel. On a sign in the lobby, someone had crossed out "Injun" and written "Native American" so the whole sign read "Native American Joe's Peace Palace Motel." In our room, the "Injun Joe's" embroidered on the towels had been changed with black marker to "Indian Joe's." I wished everybody would just make up their minds.
That last line, "I wished everybody would just make up their minds" gives me pause. Who, or what perspective, does that reflect? It sounds to me a lot an emotion that emanates from someone who derisively says "PC run amok." But again---the time period doesn't make sense, IF we say the book is set in 1957.

If, however, we say the book is set in, say, the 1990s when it came out, Creech's references to Native American, and Injun make sense.

But! When Sal and her grandparents stop at Wisconsin Dells, they see Indian dances. In talking with Native colleagues and friends in that area today, they said there used to be dances done there at a place called Stand Rock, or Standing Rock. Here's what Creech writes (p. 56)
     Gram and I poked our noses into an old fort, and then sat on the grass watching a group of Native Americans dance and beat drums.

There's more on p. 57:
     The crowd was clapping, the drums were beating. I was all turned around and could not remember which way we had come. There were three signs indicating different parking areas. The drums thundered. I pushed further into the crowd of people, who were now clapping louder, in time with the drums.
And more on page 58: 

     The Indians had formed two circles, one inside the other, and were hopping up and down. The men danced in the outer circle and wore feather headdresses and short leather aprons. On their feet were moccasins, and I thought again about Phoebe's message: Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.
     Inside the circle of men, the women in long dresses and ropes of beads had joined arms and were dancing around one older woman who was wearing a regular cotton dress. On her head was an enormous headdress, which had slipped down over her forehead.
     I leaned closer. The woman in the center was hopping up and down. On her feet were flat, white shoes. In the space between drum beats, I heard her say, "Huzza, huzza."
Apparently, what 12-year-old Creech saw in 1957 was a dance program put on for tourists. The dancers were, in fact, Native dancers. The crowd of tourists would (not knowing any better) clap along with the drums.

Sal's/Creech's description of dancers "hopping up and down" bothers me.

The dance itself sounds like a Round Dance, which is a social dance. Click on this youtube video to see one being done. (Note: the people in the video are not wearing traditional clothes. But see? They're not hopping.)  I'm not sure how Sal's grandma ended up in the middle, with the Indians dancing around her. That doesn't make sense either. And that headdress she's wearing? Where did she get that? There's no mention of it at all anywhere in the story.

After Wisconsin Dells, they stop at Pipestone National Monument. Sal watches Indians working in the quarry. She asks one if he is a Native American. He says he is "a person" (p. 73), and Sal asks if he is a "Native American person" (p. 73). He replies, "No, I'm an American Indian person." and Sal says that she is, too, "in my blood."

Again (as in the hotel name), Creech, through Sal, shares a view of these different phrases. In this case, she creates a Native character who, presumably, grew up with his Native community (unlike Sal or her mother), and he, like Sal's mother, prefers 'American Indian' to 'Native American.' He validates Sal's mom, and Creech, too.

Sal and her grandparents then smoke a peace pipe with "an American Indian person" and then decide to buy two pipes to take with them.

You can, in fact, buy pipes there that are made by Native people.  I suppose it is possible that a visitor to the monument might find "an American Indian person" sitting outside under a tree smoking a pipe much like someone would smoke a pipe they buy at a cigar shop, but it doesn't quite fit with  how those pipes are typically used by the various tribal nations who use them.

In several places, Sal talks about her mother's love of Indian stories. Here's an excerpt from page 150-151:
   My mother once told me the Blackfoot story of Napi, the Old Man who created men and women. To decide if these new people should live forever or die, Napi selected a stone. "If the stone floats," he said, "you will live forever. If it sinks, you will die." Napi dropped the stone into the water. It sank. People die. 
     "Why did Napi use a stone?" I asked. "Why not a leaf?"
     My mother shrugged. "If you had been there, you could have made the rock float," she said. She was referring to my habit of skipping stones across the water.
That story is similar to a much longer story called "The Blackfeet Creation" that appears on page 145 of George Bird Grinnell's Blackfeet Indian Stories, published in 1913. Grinnell was not Blackfeet. He was an outsider to the Blackfeet, studying them (and others, too, like the Pawnee), and publishing books about them in the early 1900s. I haven't studied his work, so I don't know if it is reliable as a source of stories about the Blackfeet.  In Grinnell's book, Napi created a woman and child out of clay and then made them human. They walked to a river together (p. 148-149):
     As they were standing there looking at the water as it flowed by, the woman asked Old Man, saying, "How is it; shall we live always? Will there be no end to us?"
     Old Man said, "I have not thought of that. We must decide it. I will take this buffalo chip and throw it in the river. If it floats, people will become alive again four days after they have died; they will die for four days only. But if it sinks, there will be an end to them." He threw the chip into the river, and it floated.
     The woman turned and picked up a stone and said, "No, I will throw this stone in the river. If it floats, we shall live always; if it sinks, people must die, so that their friends who are left alive may always remember them." The woman threw the stone in the water, and it sank.
     "Well," said Old Man, "you have chosen; there will be an end to them."
     "Not many nights after that the woman's child died, and she cried a great deal for it. She said to Old Man, "Let us change this. The law that you first made, let that be the law."
     He said, "Not so; what is made law must be law. We will undo nothing that we have done. The child is dead, but it cannot be changed. People will have to die."
I don't (yet) know if Grinnell's account is, in fact, a story that the Blackfeet people tell. It sounds a lot like the Christian story of Creation, so it is possible that the story emerged as a result of missionaries and their influence on the Blackfeet. It is also possible that Grinnell changed the Blackfeet story as he listened and then recorded it according to his perspective.

And, it is possible that Creech found a different version of the story. Hers differs from Grinnell's with regard to who threw the stone. Creech specifically selected a story about life and death, because Sal is struggling to make sense of life and death. At some point, I may return to this particular portion of Walk Two Moons and study Grinnell's work.

Same goes for the story she uses near the end of the book (p. 278):
When I drive Gramps around in his truck, I also tell him all the stories my mother told me. His favorite is a Navajo one about Estsanatlehi. She's a woman who never dies. She grows from baby to mother to old woman and then turns into a baby again, and on and on she goes, living a thousand, thousand lives.
Where, I wonder, did Creech find that story? I found some information about Estsanatlehi in the American Folklore Society's journal (see Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society, Volume 5, 1897) that says the English translation for Estsanatlehi is Woman Who Changes (p. 34):
The name Estsanatlehi is derived by syncopation from estan, woman, and natlehi, to change or transform. She is so called because, it is supposed, she never remains in one condition, but that she grows to be an old woman, and in the course of time because a young girl again, and so passes through an endless course of lives, changing but never dying.
Note the publication year of 1897. Again, we have an account by an outsider. In this case, it was Washington Matthews, a major in the U.S. Army who later lived amongst the Navajo people, reportedly making friends with them and gaining admittance to ceremonies to which they did not generally admit white people. And again, I may at some point study Navajo texts about Estsanatlehi and compare them to what Matthews recorded.

Like the Napi story that Creech excerpted above, I expect there's a lot more to this Navajo story than is related by Creech. Like the Napi one, it is about life and death. Hence, Creech chose to use it in telling Sal's story.

There's more...  Sal and her grandparents visit the Black Hills in South Dakota, and Sal wonders if her mother hated having white President's faces carved in Sioux Holy Land. She says (p. 179):
    It was fine seeing the presidents [on Mt. Rushmore], but you'd think the Sioux would be mighty sad to have those white faces carved into their sacred hill. I bet my mother was upset. I wondered why whoever carved them couldn't put a couple Indians up there too.
Her choice of the word 'sad' points to the tragic Indian "plight" - the romantic image that Creech is unapologetic for in her speech. That unapologetic stance resulted in a book with a lot of romantic and stereotypical imagery. Creech incorporated a lot of information about identity, too, but it doesn't work--at least for me.

She's an outsider to Native culture, trying to write a story as if she's an insider. But her story is based on outsider's writings, and outsider's understandings, and it doesn't work. Yes, the book won a Newbery Medal, but if the committee had analyzed the Native content, I'm not sure they would have made the same decision. For the committee and all the people who love the book, it seems to me that the Indian content doesn't really matter. It is simply a device, or, a decoration on a story about a young girl coming to terms with life and death. All of this Indian decoration is embraced by readers because readers, too, know little about the life and death of Native people.

In the end, Creech's story unapologietically adds to the already too large body of stereotypical "knowledge" people carry around with them.

23 comments:

Marlette said...

Very Good Review Debbie... I'm sure that it won an award for matching all the right stereotypical imagry with the stereotypes the panelists had in their own heads...
Probably why our Native writers (the few that are out there) aren't in the top 100...

Just a thought.

Heather said...

HI Debbie,
I am including a link for an article that was in my local paper this weekend.
Cree Filmmaker explores how Hollywood depicts aboriginals

Thought you would be interested if you haven't seen it already.

Debbie Reese said...

Heather,

Yes! There's been a lot of buzz within Native circles about the film. You can watch a clip here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqVmqK5Nbuk

Anonymous said...

The story is told from the point of view of a girl who was not raised in a Native American culture. It is not a research paper on any tribe or culture. It is a story. Are topics for stories off limits to suthors unless they are an expert in all cultures mentioned in the story?

Sharon Creech said...

re: [Creech is] an outsider to Native culture, trying to write a story as if she's an insider."

Not true. I am an outsider to Native culture, writing the story of a young girl who is also an outsider, who, like many of us, has only bits and pieces of her 'history', and many, many of those bits and pieces are not the 'true' versions you require.

Yes, this girl romanticizes and stereotypes, but that is true to this thirteen-year-old girl. A year later, she might also explore her Italian side or her Irish/French side and, having only family myth and fantasy to go on, get those 'wrong,' too. But 'wrong,' according to . . .?

Also: That you think this book is set in 1957 is interesting, but not accurate.

It is important to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. Many of your assumptions about this book and its source material are inaccurate, but you are free to assume whatever you wish.

Anna said...

Debbie--

Interesting thoughts on this novel. I'm thinking I need to reread this book, and look at it from another viewpoint.

Just a quick note about the time period--I always assumed it took place more in the modern era. The characters in this book are cross referenced in some of Creech's other novels--which seemed modern day to me.

Thanks again for your thoughts--although I liked this book when I read it, I am willing and able to look at it through another lens. I'm glad to have someone bringing these issues to me as a reader/teacher/librarian.

Anna Zbacnik

Debbie Reese said...

Sharon,

THANK YOU FOR RESPONDING TO MY CRITIQUE. I AM USING CAPS (NOT TO SHOUT), BUT TO DISTINGUISH YOUR COMMENTS FROM MINE.

Re: [Creech is] an outsider to Native culture, trying to write a story as if she's an insider."

Not true. I am an outsider to Native culture, writing the story of a young girl who is also an outsider, who, like many of us, has only bits and pieces of her 'history', and many, many of those bits and pieces are not the 'true' versions you require.

OK, SAL IS AN OUTSIDER, TOO. SHE, LIKE YOU, CARRIES ROMANTIC IDEAS ABOUT WHO AMERICAN INDIAN PEOPLE ARE.

THAT SO MANY PEOPLE CARRY THOSE IDEAS IS, FOR ME, EVIDENCE THAT WE (ESPECIALLY THOSE OF US INVOLVED IN EDUCATION) NEED TO COUNTER THOSE BITS AND PIECES OF HISTORY WITH ACCURATE INFORMATION.

Yes, this girl romanticizes and stereotypes, but that is true to this thirteen-year-old girl. A year later, she might also explore her Italian side or her Irish/French side and, having only family myth and fantasy to go on, get those 'wrong,' too. But 'wrong,' according to . . .?

I'M NOT SURE, SHARON... I THINK A BOOK FILLED WITH STEREOTYPES ABOUT ITALIANS, OR IRISH, OR FRENCH, IS DIFFERENT THAN ONE FILLED WITH STEREOTYPES OF AMERICAN INDIANS.

ONE DIFFERENCE, FOR EXAMPLE, IS THAT READERS WOULD RECOGNIZE THE ITALIAN/IRISH/FRENCH STEREOTYPES AS STEREOTYPES. ON THE OTHER HAND, MOST PEOPLE SEE STEREOTYPES OF AMERICAN INDIANS AND DON'T KNOW THEY'RE STEREOTYPES.

Also: That you think this book is set in 1957 is interesting, but not accurate.

I SUGGESTED IT WAS SET IN THAT TIME PERIOD BECAUSE OF THE DANCES SAL SEES AT WISCONSIN DELLS. THEY DON'T TAKE PLACE ANY LONGER. MAYBE THEY DID IN THE MID 90S? IS THAT WHAT YOU'RE SAYING?

It is important to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction.

IMPORTANT TO WHOM? WHEN YOU WROTE YOUR BOOK, WHO DID YOU IMAGINE AS YOUR READER? DID YOUR IMAGINED READER INCLUDE CHILDREN WHO ARE HO-CHUNK, OR OJIBWE, OR BLACKFEET, OR LAKOTA, OR SENECA?

Many of your assumptions about this book and its source material are inaccurate, but you are free to assume whatever you wish.

I HOPE YOU COME BACK TO MY BLOG, AND THAT YOU CONTINUE THIS CONVERSATION, SHARON. I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SOURCES YOU USED.

YOU ARE A GIFTED AND SUCCESSFUL WRITER. WHAT MIGHT YOUR NEXT BOOK ABOUT SAL LOOK LIKE? MIGHT YOU HELP HER DISPLACE THE ROMANTIC BITS AND PIECES?

Blindian said...

Please don't say "substitue Native Americans for African Americans" as though African Americans have more privilege than Natives or get more respect. You're playing oppression olympics. People can and DO romanticize black history all the time. There is currently a pop singer named Lady Antebellum, Patrick Buchanan said blacks should be grateful for slavery, and presidents annually lay wreathes on a memorial for Confederate soldiers to give a few examples.

Beverly Slapin said...

Author Sharon Creech writes of Debbie’s critique of WALK TWO MOONS, “It is important to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction.” Of course it is.

Writing in the narrative voice, Sharon Creech has skillfully created—with a keen focus on character development and dialogue—a bright 13-year-old girl, her best friend and her goofy grandparents. It’s clearly fiction, but it’s believable fiction, the kind of stuff that grabs middle readers who can easily identify with the ways that Salamanca Tree Hiddle sees her family, her friends, and her world.

But this beautifully written and compelling story is deeply flawed by the “Indian” material that appears to be thrown together with no cultural or historical context and really has nothing to do with anything Native. So, middle readers who are Indian will not identify with many of the ways that Salamanca Tree Hiddle sees her family, her friends, and her world. Rather, some of these youngsters may not even understand why they get dull, throbbing stomachaches at school.

The implication that fiction has no impact on all of our children is just not true. Children receive culture from parents and other relatives, from teachers, from reading, from television, from everything they see and hear and read. All children do because culture is not static.

With few exceptions, Native cultures in children’s fiction written by cultural outsiders are trivialized, minimized, dehumanized and just plain invented. I doubt that Sharon Creech’s description of Salamanca as a cultural outsider who romanticizes and stereotypes about her own Indian heritage mean much to Indian youngsters who pick up this book or have it foisted on them.

The professional reviewers raved about this Newbery Award-winning book, and the only review I found that mentioned more than a few words about its Indian content was a New York Times piece by Hazel Rochman, who snidely commented about “arguments from the authenticity watchdogs.”

I just had a long phone conversation with a friend and colleague, who is an Indian mama of an eight-year-old boy. She had this to say, and allowed me to post it. “For our children,” she said, “reading a fiction book that dehumanizes Indians is just as powerful as hearing a teacher telling them that Indians don’t exist. These fiction books are as damaging as so-called non-fiction books.”

“Culture identification doesn’t end at a particular age; it’s a lifelong thing,” she said. “My son has been Ojibwe all his life, he’s been around the drum since he’s been an infant, he knows the name of our land. But he doesn’t say that he’s Indian, because ‘Indians’ are what he learns about in school, ‘Indians’ are the ones white children pretend to be at Halloween, ‘Indians’ are dead, ‘Indians’ aren’t real. It’s a disconnect, and it’s painful.”

So, yes, as Sharon Creech wrote, “it is important to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction.” But calling something “fiction” does not excuse throwing in a bunch of stereotypes that non-Indian middle readers will not understand to be stereotypes—and that might very well be added to the overwhelming body of “literature” that causes pain to Indian youngsters.

This is not a discussion of who has the “right” to write about what. It’s just a matter of doing the right thing—or not.

Debbie Reese said...

Blindian---You're right. There is insensitivity to African Americans and I certainly don't want to add to that with my work and analyses.

Anonymous said...

"But this beautifully written and compelling story is deeply flawed by the “Indian” material that appears to be thrown together with no cultural or historical context and really has nothing to do with anything Native."

I disagree. I think Debbie just did an excellent job of showing its connections and explaining that the story is told from an outsider perspective.

"The implication that fiction has no impact on all of our children is just not true."

No one has asserted this.

"I doubt that Sharon Creech’s description of Salamanca as a cultural outsider who romanticizes and stereotypes about her own Indian heritage mean much to Indian youngsters who pick up this book or have it foisted on them. "

I disagree with this as well. I think you are trying to deny "Indian youngsters" something vital in the reading experience. Reading about people unlike ourselves is as important as reading about people just like ourselves. That there are so few books that mirror the lives of Native American children doesn't mean that books that don't mirror their experience are bad. I think that attitude is detrimental to the children.

You appear to be angry that the book is not a mirror experience for a Native American child. While I agree that it is not a mirror, I am uncomfortable with your anger at it.

I am uncomfortable because I believe your insistence on a "mirror" has an unfortunate side effect of insisting on ONE true version of Native American Experience. ONE story for all Native Americans. It's as if you are saying there is only one kind of Native American to be. As if one book could satisfy all requirements.

We don't need to say "This book should have been about something else," as much as we need more books. I am more interested in promoting more books than I am in criticizing the fair to middling ones already written.

Bo said...

Debbie Reese wrote in her conclusion: "All of this Indian decoration is embraced by readers because readers, too, know little about the life and death of Native people.

In the end, Creech's story unapologietically adds to the already too large body of stereotypical "knowledge" people carry around with them."

But I would argue that the story of this girl is embraced by readers because of the honesty of Sal's perception of her world and experiences, her questions and reflections about her experiences. This perception includes her experience with Native American not as decoration, not as stereotype, but as another set of eyes, stories or experiences that lead toward understanding. Sal's journey is one we all share, the experience of life and death. And then acceptance.

Nancy Bo Flood

Debbie Reese said...

Bo,

Can you elaborate, using examples?

Thanks.

Bo said...

Hello again, I would like to respond to your request but I need you to clarify: elaborate and give examples about which specific ideas? Thank you, Nancy Bo Flood

Debbie Reese said...

You said that Sal's perceptions of Native Americans lead toward understanding and acceptance.

Understanding of what? And by what reader?

Acceptance of what? And again, by what reader?

Shell- said...

Anonymous, I think that the anger doesn't stem from the fact that it doesn't mirror a Native child's life. It stems from the fact that it perpetuates false stereotypes and false cultural knowledge. That is a huge problem for Native children and for all children, who aren't able to balance romanticized fiction with actual truth because things aren't being written with the actual truth. I wish mainstream authors would move past romanticism and see that the real stories are worth telling too.

clg said...

I finished reading the book 2 days ago. I just read this essay today. I do not see what the big fuss is about. I am not American Indian, and I do realize this story is fiction. If the story was written as non-fiction, then I can see why you would want it to be exact. Think back to when you were a young person (12 or 13 years old). I believe that Creech has told this story exactly as if a child, who was an outsider, of that age would.

I believe the setting is in more modern times. Who cares if they no longer have the visitor entertainment at that one location. Maybe Creech saw it when she was a girl and wanted to include it in her story. Remember...it is fiction.

With regards to the stereotypes, the stereotypes in this story are not overbearing. It is not as if Creech has said something like "the Injuns were wearing war paint and there chests were bare as they rode away on their bareback horses". This is what I would perceive as a stereotype that would be damaging. Creech's language, while it might not be exactly accurate, is still very well written and entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Kinda late to this. Originally found this through the Neil Gaiman thing, and read on because I found your blog informative. I know nothing about Native American culture, so I was interested in seeing much how many stereotypes I've picked up and hopefully correct that.

I just felt frustrated at some of the previous comments about how it's fiction and that people will be able to distinguish between stereotypes and fact.

I'm not Native American, but I am an Asian American and pretty much exclusively read fantasy/sci-fi books all my life. Though there's been some strides recently, the majority of fantasy and sci-fi are written by white males, with white protagonists and often the opposing side are dark skinned. Occasionally they'll have the noble barbarian as part of the 'good side', but only in contrast with the civilized good white culture. Obviously these books are fiction.

How has reading only white heroes affected me? I realized about a year ago that I have a habit of automatically assuming that any character I read is white. Even if they're described as "brown skinned", because obviously they're white with a tan. This is just one the obvious effects. Less obvious ones include subconscious racism towards blacks that I'm trying to get pin down and change.

The point is, even when something is fiction, if children are reading books with Native American stereotypes, with no real alternatives that contain realistic portrayals, then all they're going to carry away is a distorted version.

Racism is much more subconscious these days, which is why it's important to have accurate portrayal of different cultures in fiction. Even when it's just only fiction(or in my case, only fantasy).

Going on in the subconscious vein...it's a lot easier to point out outright stereotypes, but it's the smaller stuff like inaccurate versions of tribe stories that are more subversive. Those are the things that readers will subconsciously pick up on and add to their views of what they think Native American culture is like.

I wish writers would be more aware and careful.

Sorry for the length and slight derailment into racism in general, rather than Native American stereotypes. It's just that I feel like I've read all these arguments before in regards to the under representation of people of color in fantasy/sci-fi.

Maura said...

Professor Reese, thank you for this post. As an outsider (white, non-native) I read this book (uncritically) as a child; and more recently, had planned to teach it in 7th grade English. I'm glad to have stumbled on your thoughts, as you look at Creech's decontextualized and romanticized use of stereotypical imagery. You probably have something like this on your blog, but what books should have been in that top 100?

Debbie Reese said...

Maura,

Please call me Debbie. Top right is a link to a list of recommended books. Off the top of my head...

HIDDEN ROOTS
by Joseph Bruchac

BIRCHBARK HOUSE
by Louise Erdrich

RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME
by Cynthia Leitich Smith

MY NAME IS SEEPEETZA
by Shirley Stirling

BIRCHBARK HOUSE
by Louise Erdrich

Lya said...

Dear Debbie, I stumbled on your blog through the Neil Gaiman graveyard statement, but stuck around to browse the archives. Like Maura I read Walk Two Moons uncritically as a middle schooler, and your close reading of the text has blown me away. I have lots of things to say about the topics you post about, and I hope to stay around long enough to say them, but at the moment I really have nothing productive to contribute to the discussion besides THANK YOU.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Lya,

Thanks for stopping by, and please do, when you have time, post your thoughts about WALK TWO MOONS or any other posts you read here.

Debbie

Anonymous said...

Your comment that Italian-American stereotypes are recognized as such is not true. How many depictions in films do not include the mob?
The assumption that all Italian-Americans have mob connections is rampant.

My son was summarily fired from a job because he questioned his work schedule. The manager said she acted out of fear because "he's Italian and I'm afraid he'll have someone beat me up." Her words to his labor lawyer.