Friday, February 11, 2011

Indians in Leo Politi's SONG OF THE SWALLOWS

Among the Caldecott Medal books I studied for my presentation at the Children's Literature Symposium at Florida State University-Sarasota last week is Leo Politi's Song of the Swallows. It won the Caldecott in 1950.

Cover and publisher's synopsis:

Every summer, the swallows leave San Juan Capistrano and fly far away, to a peaceful green island — but they always come back in the spring, on St. Joseph's Day. Juan loves las golondrinas, and so does his friend, Julian, the gardener at the mission.

This year, Juan plants a garden in his own yard. There's nothing he wants more than for the swallows to nest there. And on St. Joseph's Day, his dream comes true.




Based on comments and reviews at Amazon, Library Thing, Goodreads and similar sites, readers respond positively to the story. In fact, the story of the swallows is something that I, too, could respond positively to, but I'm continually pulled out of the story by what I know about the history of the missions.

Below, my analysis is in italics. Summary and quotes from the book are in plain text.

On the first page we see Juan (shown on the cover) on his way to school. To get there he goes through the gardens at the Mission and stops to speak to Julian, the Mission's bell ringer. That conversation takes place in the garden, and is shown on the second double-paged spread in the book. Juan and Julian stand in front of a statue, looking up at it. Julian tells Juan "the story of the Mission" as follows:
"Long, long ago," Julian told him, "the good brothers of Saint Francis came to this country from across the sea. Father Junipero Serra and the brothers walked along the wild trail through the wilderness. With the help of the Indians they built many mission churches." 
For me, several of Julian's words leap out:

The "good brothers"
The "good brothers of Saint Francis" were Spanish missionaries who traveled to an area of the United States that became California. "Serra and the brothers" weren't the first ones to walk along that trail in 1776. In fact, they were there in a second attempt to set up a mission. The year before, the Indians rebelled and drove "the good brothers" out of the area, forcing the brothers to abandon their missionary work. Indian men in that area had, for several years, been fighting soldiers who raped their women. Edward D.  Castillo quotes Serra who, in 1773, wrote (emphasis mine):
In the morning, six or more soldiers would set out together, with or without the permission of the corporal, on horseback, and go to the far distant rancherias, even many leagues away. When both men and women at sight of them took to their heels--and this account comes from the father, who learned of it from the many declarations and complaints of the gentiles--the soldiers, clever as they are at lassoing cows and mules, would catch Indian women with their lassos to become prey for their unbridled lust. At times some Indian men would try to defend their wives, only to be shot down with bullets.
Castillo notes, too, that male and female children in the missions were victims of sexual assaults. His article is "Gender Status Decline, Resistance, and Accommodation among Female Neophytes in the Missions of California: A San Gabriel Case Study," published in 1994 in American Indian Culture and Research Journal. So... calling them "good brothers" is, for me, problematic. 


Father Junipero Serra
Serra is a controversial figure amongst American Indians, especially in California. In the 1930s, the process to have him canonized began.  In "Junipero Serra's Canonization and the Historical Record," historian James A. Sandos writes that in December of 1948 in Fresno a historian and two priests testified before an ecclesiastical court about Serra's record. (Note: Sandos article is in The American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 5, Dec 1988, pp. 1253-1269).

That, coincidentally, is the same year that Song of the Swallows was published. Sandos writes that, as "Father President" of the missions from 1769 to 1784 when he died, Serro "gave directions for his Indians to be whipped" (p. 254) when they failed to live according to church precepts. Sandos also states that Carey McWilliams wrote a popular history of California in which he said that the missions were like concentration camps. McWilliams' work was based on the work of a physiologist named Sherburne F. Cook at the University of California, Berkeley. 

The Catholic Church was, understandably, not happy with any of these publications and their efforts to see the missions from the point of view of Indians. I wonder if Politi followed any of that controversy?


"With the help of the Indians..."
What kind of help was it? By then, there were Indians who had become Catholics and did help build the churches, but the missions were constructed primarily through forced, unpaid labor, and not through the methods suggested by "help of the Indians." 

Still on that same double-paged spread are these words:
"The Missions were like little villages," Julian said. There the Indians learned to make shoes and harness, blankets and hats, tools and pottery--many of the things they needed in their daily life."
Does Politi mean for us to think that the Indians learned how to do all of that from the "good brothers" in the Mission? That they were shoeless and without blankets, hats, tools, and pottery before the "good brothers" arrived?! As Sandos writes, ideas about Indians as primitives had long been set aside by historians who knew that was not the case. 

Yet, Politi gave his readers primitive Indians and the Caldecott committee either agreed with his portrayal of them, or, didn't think it was important enough to sway them from selecting the book for the Caldecott Medal. 

In all honesty, it is hard for me to enjoy the story about the swallows. The content on the first pages gets in the way. I wonder how the book is used with children? Does anyone point to the inaccurate information at the beginning? Does anyone pause to wonder about the accuracy of that information? Do you?

There's more to say about Serra and Indians... In the 1980s, Rupert and Jeanette Costo published Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide in an effort to stop Serra from being canonized. It was filled with the writings, scholarship, and testimony of California Indians who did not think Serra was worthy of saint status. The pope ignored it and advanced Serra to beatification on December 11, 1987. 

Further reading:
"Retired Bishop Apologizes for Mistreating the Miwoks"
"California Indians Critique Lesson Plans on California Missions"


UPDATE, Feb 12, 2010
Leo Politi wrote Little Leo two years later. On the cover, Leo is in an "Indian chief suit."

2 comments:

Laughingrat said...

Yet, Politi gave his readers primitive Indians and the Caldecott committee either agreed with his portrayal of them, or, didn't think it was important enough to sway them from selecting the book for the Caldecott Medal.

Sadly, it probably didn't even occur to the committee to consider the point of view of the original inhabitants. I bet it never crossed their mind. :(

For what it's worth, it seems unlikely that such an old children's book, even an award-winner, is in wide use or circulation today, except among children's lit students. Obviously there are many exceptions, but still, lots of the old Newbery and Caldecott winners are out of print or considered passe by today's children's book standards. I work for a large public library system in a major metropolitan area, for instance, and we do not as a rule keep circulating copies of all of the Caldecott winners, for instance. So hopefully, some of these more objectionable books are not falling into kids' hands quite as readily as they once did.

As someone who does enjoy classic picture-books, though, I'm really enjoying this examination of older Caldecott winners.

Debbie Reese said...

Laughing rat,

Can you check circulation statistics? I'd like to know how many copies you have and how often it/they circulate.