Friday, January 18, 2019

Not Recommended: Two Roads, by Joseph Bruchac

Two Roads: A Creek Boy in Search of His Place in the World by Joseph Bruchac (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Several months ago, Debbie (and others) wrote about problems that can arise when Native people write as outsiders about other Native peoples. Like white writers, they may be participating in cultural appropriation. They may perpetuate misinformation or disclose matters that should be kept "behind the curtain" (see page 390-391). Since then, I've been working on a detailed post about portrayals of Mvskoke Creek people in recent children's literature -- including stories by Native authors who aren't Creek. Today's post uses part of that larger project.

My husband and children are Mvskoke Creek and I am white. I'm always on the lookout for books about Creek people to share with them and our grandkids. When Bruchac's Two Roads: A Creek Boy in Search of His Place in the World came out in 2018, I looked forward to seeing how he represented Creek lives. Bruchac is not a citizen of the Muscogee nation; he's from the northeastern US and has written about his Abenaki heritage.

The story structure of Two Roads is such that the main character, Cal (age 12), has no idea that he's Creek until several chapters in. As far as he's concerned, he and his dad (a veteran who was wounded in WWI) are just "knights of the road," hoboes cut loose from their everyday lives by the death of Cal's mother and the loss of their farm to the Great Depression. They live by a code of ethical conduct; they watch out for each other and for those who might be victimized by thieves, racists, and other bad folk. Then Cal's father decides to get involved in a movement to force the government to pay WWI veterans some money they were promised. He can't take Cal with him. He decides to place Cal in the Indian boarding school where he spent many years himself, giving the protagonist a lot to deal with. Cal's going to be separated from his dad. He's going to live at a boarding school. He's "Indian," not white as he always assumed. And what is that supposed to mean, he wonders.

Two Roads has been getting a mostly favorable reception. But reading it raised some questions.

It appears that the author did his research into hobo life during the Depression, Indian boarding schools before and after World War I, and the “Bonus Army” that Cal's father joins. Bruchac also addresses some important issues like passing for white, surviving assimilationist policies, and discovering relatively late that your (racial/ethnic) identity isn't what you thought.

But amid that valuable food for thought were some things that were hard to swallow. I'll focus on two.

First: language issues. Both the Abenaki's language and English differ a lot from Maskoke, the Creek language. That might not have been a problem if the author had prepared adequately.  But several times when Bruchac's characters spoke Maskoke, my "I-know-10-Creek-words" self thought, "That doesn't seem right!" I took my questions to two relatives who have studied, spoken, (and in one case, taught) Maskoke for a long time. I also consulted our Creek dictionary and listened to the Muscogee Nation language app. (Download it for free!)

I found that Bruchac gets one word right:  stahitkey refers to a white person (that’s more or less a phonetic spelling). But he gets several others wrong. A word that means black person is pronounced, approximately, staluhstey, not "staluskey," as Bruchac has it multiple times. A typical Maskoke greeting is generally pronounced something like hens-chay or hess-chee -- not "hers-key," as Bruchac has it. A word for thanks is pronounced muhDOH, not mu-to, as in the book. And when Cal's friend shouts to begin a stomp dance, let's just say that Cal doesn't hear those words quite right, either.

The author mentions that he knew the Mvskoke poet Louis Oliver (Little Coon) and modeled/named a character in Two Roads after him. Maybe Mr. Oliver taught Bruchac some Creek words years ago? But Bruchac could easily have double-checked his memory of those words with a quick visit to the Muskogee Nation language program Web site, or that free language app.

Second concern: Bruchac’s description of the Creek boys' stomp dance leaves out some key information. He correctly has Cal distinguish the Creek ceremonial dance tradition from what he calls the more "dramatic" dances of some western Native nations. Stomp dance involves singing and stepping to a rhythm maintained by women wearing rattles on their ankles made of pebble-filled turtle shells (or more recently, empty evaporated milk cans). The women's role in the dances is essential.

Granted, Creek girls would have had a hard time getting out of their boarding school dorm to join the boys for secret night-time stomp dances, especially carrying shell-shaker ankle bracelets. The eyes of the staff were trained much more on them than on the boys, evidently. Still, the Creek boys who befriend Cal never say a word about missing the shell shakers. Yes, they're doing their best to keep up traditions under difficult circumstances. But some of Bruchac's Creek characters grew up knowing about stomp dance, and the absence of the women and their rattles would be significant enough that surely somebody would mention it to Cal -- something as simple as "At home, we'd have the shell-shakers." But in Two Roads, they don't acknowledge the absence. 

The inaccurate language and inadequate perspective on stomp dance give a sense that the author's understanding of the specifically Creek content is ... thinner than it would be if he were Mvskoke Creek. Thinner than it should be for a book about Creeks.

Also noted: some glaring inconsistencies in the storytelling, and some plot points that called for too much suspension of disbelief. But the central concerns about Creek language and ceremony are what really pulled me out of the story Bruchac seeks to tell in Two Roads. It probably wouldn't pass muster with readers on the Creek side of our family.

When our two younger sons were kids, we shared several of Bruchac's books with them. I had high hopes that this would be one I could recommend to the next generation. But no. And that’s a major disappointment.

-- Jean Mendoza

NOTE: An earlier version of this blog disappeared due to technical difficulties.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Not Recommended: WHAT I CAME TO TELL YOU by Tommy Hays

A reader wrote to ask if I've read What I Came To Tell You by Tommy Hays. It was published in 2013 by Egmont, and it has some Native content that the reader is concerned about.

This post started out as a "Debbie--have you seen" but as I looked at it, I quickly changed its title to Not Recommended.

What I Came To Tell You is doing quite well, in part, because Hays created a passage where one character uses the word "Hillbilly" to hurt another. More on that in a bit.

First, the book description:
Since his mother died earlier this year, Grover Johnston (named after a character in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel) has watched his family fall to pieces as his father throws himself into his work rather than dealing with the pain. Left to care for his younger sister, Sudie, Grover finds solace in creating intricate weavings out of the natural materials found in the bamboo forest behind his North Carolina home, a pursuit that his father sees only as a waste of time. But as tensions mount between father and son, unlikely forces conspire to help the Johnstons find their way. 
The new tenants in the rental house across the street who have come from deep in the Carolina hills seem so different from the Johnstons, but become increasingly intertwined with them in unexpected ways. Classmates, neighbors, teachers, and coworkers band together, forming a community that can save a family from itself. 

What I Came To Tell You is told from the point of view of Grover. One of the new tenants who moved from "deep in the Carolina hills" is a girl named Emma Lee.

The "hillbilly" scene unfolds in chapter 4, in school, in the classroom. The teacher, Mrs. Caswell, is delivering a lesson on Cherokee Indians. Caswell, we learn later, has asked the other kids to make friends with Emma Lee.

At recess, Ashley invites Emma Lee to play foursquare with her and her friends. Then, Ashley leads the group over to where the boys are playing basketball and tells them they want to play a new game. What game, the boys ask. Instead of HORSE, Ashley says, looking right at Emma Lee, she wants to play H-I-L-L-B-I-L-L-Y.

Quick as can be, Emma Lee slaps her. Of course, she gets in trouble for hitting Ashley. In class, Grover tells their teacher what happened and they have a discussion about the word. Ashley is embarrassed and ends up apologizing to Emma Lee. 

In chapter 10 is this scene where Grover is out in the forest, engrossed in his weaving. Suddenly he realizes he's not alone (p. 121):
Emma Lee was sitting on the sycamore stump.
"How long have you been sitting there?" he asked, his heart racing.
"A while," she said.
"I never heard you," he said.
"We're one quarter Cherokee. We know how to sneak up on people." She smiled. 
Now--it'd be great if Hays would push back on that stereotype, wouldn't it? But, that doesn't happen. Hays has his Cherokee character uttering a stereotype about Native people. It isn't the first time he does that, though. Way back on page 24, Grover sees Emma Lee, reading. Reading is fine but ...
She sat like he'd often seen her, with her legs crossed Indian style, her elbows on her knees and her head bowed over a book in her lap. 
Indian style? Oh dear! (Honestly, I uttered something other than "oh dear" when I read that.)

Course, these two are the main characters, so a friendship does develop. Later in the book, Grover and Emma Lee are sitting in a room that is lit only by candlelight. The room is cold, so Emma Lee goes to get some blankets:
She came back in, carrying blankets, gave him one, then she wrapped herself in the other. In the flickering candlelight, she looked like an Indian princess sitting in front of a campfire.
Indian princess?! (Imagine my reaction to that.... not a good one, for sure.)

All the good that Hays does in that passage about the word, hillbilly, is undone by these stereotypes of Native people! He's created a Cherokee character to push back on a hillbilly stereotype, and he's used stereotypes of Native people to do it. That is messed up, right? Please say right.

What was Hays thinking? His book was chosen for several distinctions, including a Fall 2013 "Okra Pick" by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. What were they thinking?! So much ignorance... still. What can you do to interrupt it? Speak up.

If you know Mr. Hays personally, talk to him about it. He definitely needs to hear from people because he teaches creative writing. Folks, we can be creative but need not stereotype anyone. Especially in writing for children.

Published in 2013 by Egmont, What I Came To Tell You, by Tommy Hays, is not recommended.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Highly Recommended! "Don't Pass Me By" by Eric Gansworth, in FRESH INK (edited by Lamar Giles)

Eric Gansworth's story in Fresh Ink: An Anthology, edited by Lamar Giles, is one of those that makes my heart ache for Native kids and what they experience in school.

The story is titled "Don't Pass Me By." Four words, packed with meaning. They're never used in the story itself, but they are very much a part of what we read in the story.

Don't pass me by, Doobie could say to Hayley. They are Native kids in the 7th grade. They're from the same reservation but Hayley's dad is white and she can pass for white. Doobie can't. He's the target of harassment that she doesn't get. She can--and does--walk right by Doobie. Though they know each other, she doesn't acknowledge him until they're on the bus back to the reservation.

Don't pass me by, Doobie pretty much says to Mr. Corker. He's the Health teacher. For this particular lesson, the boys stay with Mr. Corker and the girls go with Ms. D'Amore. The lesson? Parts of the body. The activity? Label the body parts on the first worksheet. For the second worksheet, Mr. Corker hands out two boxes of colored pencils. One box is flesh; the other is burnt sienna. He expects the boys to color the boy on the worksheet with the flesh pencil, and to use the burnt sienna pencil to draw underarm and pubic hair. Other Native boys in the class do as expected, but Doobie uses the burnt sienna pencil for the body and his regular pencil for the hair. He's added a long black sneh-wheh, like his own. When class is over he turns in his worksheet after everyone else has left. Mr. Corker looks at it and says (p. 52):
"I see. Hubert. But you know, the assignment wasn't a self-portrait."
"It was," if you're white," I said.
And, he continues (p. 52):
"Your pencils only allowed for one kind of boy," I said. 
As he's telling Mr. Corker all this, he thinks about older siblings and cousins who didn't make trouble with assignments like this. His stomach is in knots as he talks with Mr. Corker. He begins to understand why those siblings and cousins chose
" be silent, to think of yourself as a vanished Indian. Everywhere you looked, you weren't there."
Native kids are in that position every day in school... asked to complete assignments that don't look like them, by teachers who don't see them... Who refuse to see the whiteness that is everywhere.

See why this story makes my heart ache? Gansworth's story is one that will tell Native kids like Doobie that they are not alone. And it has a strong message for teachers, too: Don't be Mr. Corker.

And if you're not a Mr. Corker, I'm pretty sure you know plenty of teachers who are... and you can interrupt that. You can be like Doobie.

Get several copies of Fresh Ink. I reviewed Gansworth's story, but its got twelve others from terrific writers: Schuyler Bailar, Melissa de la Cruz, Sara Farizan, Sharon G. Flake, Malinda Lo, Walter Dean Myers, Daniel José Older, Thien Pham, Jason Reynolds, Aminah Mae Safi, Gene Luen Yang, and Nicola Yoon. I highly recommend it. Published in 2018 by Random House, it is one you'll come back to again and again.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Not recommended: Pocahontas (a pocket bio)

According it its website, Macmillan's "Pocket Bios" are "pocket-size picture book biographies" that are "full of personality" and that introduce readers to people of the past and present using "simple storytelling and cheerful illustrations."

Given the oversized head, seems they're trying to appeal to consumers who are buying those other series with oversized-headed people on the covers. Ugh!

A quick look at the bios they have planned for this "Pocket Bios" series tells me they think they've hit on something that will line their pockets (yeah, I'm being a bit snarky).

They plan to release Pocahontas in March of 2019. Over on Edelweiss, I found some interior pages. Take a look at how they depicted John Smith's "she saved my life" moment:

Tied to a tree?! Hmm...

Did she, in fact, save his life? That's not clear. Some say his life was never in danger, and that what happened was a ceremony. None of the accounts I've seen say that he was tied to a tree. What is the source for this, I wonder? The name associated with the book, sometimes as author but usually as illustrator, is Al Berenger.

Macmillan: have you no shame? Well--that's not a good question, is it. For publishers--especially the Big 5--bottom line means they'll publish crap like this because it will sell.

Don't waste your money, librarians!

This book is definitely not recommended.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Not Recommended: HAMILTON (the musical)

In 2017, I saw Hamilton in Chicago. Before I went, I listened to the soundtrack and studied the lyrics. Today's post is my notes on the lyrics. As you might expect, they are rooted in who I am: a Native woman who has spent the last 30 years studying and critiquing representations and misrepresentations of Native people.

I did a short thread on Twitter after I saw it in 2017. (These next sentences inserted on Jan 5 for your convenience). The hardest moment for me was when the people in the theater were sobbing when the two fathers stand behind empty chairs and sing about the future their children would not have (they're dead). I could not stop thinking of all the Native fathers and mothers whose children had been killed by the likes of those two men and those who invaded Native homelands.

In August of 2016, Dr. Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, published Where are the Natives in Hamilton at her blog, Native Appropriations. I would especially like to link to Native critiques of Hamilton. If you know of one, please let me know. I'm also interested in critiques by anyone who is also asking where the Native people are in the musical. If you've had conversations with others about Miranda's erasure of Native peoples, I'd like to hear about them.

Sometimes, I publish a post-in-progress to give people a look at what I'm doing before I'm finished. I'm doing that today with this review of Hamilton. Each time I add to it, I will begin the addition with an italicized note that includes the time and date of the addition. My notes will consist of brief summary, my comments in italics, and links to items related to my comments.


I am publishing my notes on Act I: Song 1. Alexander Hamilton at 12:52 PM on December 28, 2018. I welcome your comments here, on FB, or on Twitter. I'll add to this post, as time and energy permit. 

Act I
Song 1. Alexander Hamilton

Aaron Burr introduces us to Hamilton, asking how this particular man came to be "a hero and a scholar." John Laurens speaks next telling us that Hamilton worked so hard that by the time he was 14 years old, he was in charge of a trading charter.

Then, Thomas Jefferson tells us that while slaves were being slaughtered and "carted away across the waves," Hamilton kept his guard up, ready to "beg, steal, borrow or barter" to be a part of something.

Debbie's comments: Most people think of Andrew Jackson as the person most responsible for the Indian Removal Act--commonly called the Trail of Tears--but the idea originated with Jefferson. See his letter to William Henry Harrison, written on Feb 27, 1803.  As you will see when you read his letter, Jefferson was quite ready to do whatever it took to get Native lands. 

More of Hamilton's history is delivered by James Madison, Burr, and Hamilton himself. Eliza Hamilton tells us that Hamilton's mother died, and George Washington tells us that a voice inside told him that he had to fend for himself.

Debbie's comments: Most people think well of George Washington, but Native people do not. Did you know, for example, that a group of Seneca Chiefs wrote to Washington on Dec 1, 1790, to tell him that they called him "Town Destroyer" in their language and that when that name is heard, their women "look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling lose to the neck of their mothers."? 

Then Burr tells us that learning to fend for himself included "scammin' for every book he can get his hands on, plannin' for the future" and then, "see him now as he stands on the bow of a ship headed for a new land, In New York you can be a new man."

Debbie's comments: I'm noting that Miranda wrote "headed for a new land" instead of "headed for a new world" which is how people then and now--speak of what Native people had called home for thousands of years. So--Miranda chose "new land" instead of "new world." Why? Was he aware of the problems in that "new world" phrase? Or was it because "land" and "man" ("be a new man" is the last line) rhyme better? What do you think? 

That ship gets to New York and Burr says "Another immigrant, comin' up from the bottom."

Debbie's comments: That line is one reason so many people are enthralled by this musical. It frames America as a nation where immigrants can have the American dream. Every dollar of those dreams, though, came from lands that belonged to Native peoples that were in the way of the riches the immigrants wanted. 

Part 1 of Act 1 ends with people saying they fought with Hamilton, died for him, trusted him, loved him, and one of the final lines is Burr, saying "I'm the damn fool that shot him."

--Update, Friday, December 28, 1: PM--
On Twitter, Dr. Jeff Berglund told me about The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. It is a two-act play by Ishmael Reed and will be at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City from Jan 4 through Jan 7, 2019. The website for the play says:

“The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda" is a two-act play by Ishmael Reed, about a playwright who is misled by a historian of white history into believing that Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a musical based upon this falsehood. Other historians would agree with Hamilton's grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, author of The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton, who writes, "It has been stated that Hamilton never owned a negro slave, but this is untrue. We find that in his books there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others." The ghosts of those slaves who were trafficked by Hamilton attempt to educate Miranda, including Harriet Tubman who teaches him about “The Underground Railroad.” 
The main issue of the times during which "Hamilton" takes place was the expansion into Native American territory, yet no Native Americans appear in "Hamilton." Two Native American scholars educate Lin-Manuel Miranda about Washington and Hamilton's policy regarding the Native-American presence. Not only are Native-Americans omitted from “Hamilton", but so are white indentured servants, even though indentured servants worked on both the Washington plantation and the estate of his wealthy father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler. After his education, Lin-Manuel Miranda confronts Ron Chernow, the author of "Hamilton." It is Ishmael Reed’s hope that this play will form a rebuttal to the musical "Hamilton," which has misled thousands of students.

If I lived in NY, I'd be in the audience for sure. I hope to hear from people who do attend! And, thanks, Jeff, for the info! Back again at 1:33 PM to say that I started looking for interviews of Ishmael Reed about his play but haven't found anything yet. I did find a terrific article he wrote for Counter Punch on August 21, 2015: "Hamilton: the Musical:" Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders... and It's Not Halloween. Go read it!

--Update: Dec 29 2018, 10:46 AM--

I received two excellent comments about Hamilton. I am pasting them here (in the body of the post) so that people can see them (a lot of people choose not to read comments to posts). The first is from Ava Jarvis:
By all rights Hamilton the musical should make people uncomfortable, and the fact that it doesn't make more people uncomfortable is just very... 
Well, I'd call it "very assimilative." There's a very pervasive way that society takes what the mainstream considers perverse (like people of color, black music, etc) and assimilates it and changes it to make it palatable for the mass audience. Cultural phenomena like the white legend of Pocahontas are a very clear example of this process.
Hamilton is also a case of this, but very different. Whereas the white legend of Pocahontas is not intended to bring Native Americans into the mainstream as anything other than "one with nature" resources to be possessed and exploited by white socio-economic-political structures, Hamilton has the effect of incorporating non-Native POC into the history of white power structures so that we (I speak as a Vietnamese person, so I'm a non-Native POC) will feel affection for and subliminally support the history of our oppressors.
And it... grudgingly... works to do that. Even for me. I feel the thrill of hearing rap music on the Western musical stage, so traditionally white in terms of music; I see people of color on that stage in prominent starring roles and my heart sings; it is too, too easy to forget that this is a siren song to accept that US history was just when it was clearly very much not. 
So, unfortunate as it is, because of how history is, the effect of Hamilton feels very horrific to me. I would actually say that, reflecting on the effects the musical has on my mind, it's almost Lovecraftian in the way it urges me to forget every crime committed by the US government on multiple continents and in multiple countries, including my own family's ancestral home. To forget that I have friends and acquaintances and followers who've suffered greatly at the hands of the US government.
Hamilton urges us to forget the genocide, the slavery, the racism, the usurpation of foreign democracies, and nowadays draconian and cruel immigration "policies", and does it in such beautiful tones that it is so easy to remember the fantasy called "America" instead of the bloody true reality.
We can't forget that reality. If we do, we will not change it; we just end up accepting white power structures instead of resisting them. 
And I think Miranda was very, very purposeful in leaving out Native Americans. It would ruin the narrative effect he was going for. I really, really don't think he did this by mistake.   

The second one is from Dina Gilio-Whitaker and begins as a response to Ava's comment:

I certainly cannot say it more beautifully or concisely than Ava Jarvis above has stated it. I have not seen Hamilton, nor will I because I’m not really interested in paying to be entertained by false historical narratives. I will say, however, that I am deeply suspicious of anything by Lin Manuel Miranda. I didn’t know who he was until I reviewed Disney’s film “Moana” two years ago for Indian Country Media Network ( i’d post a link to it but the link is not working due to the technical issues involved in creating the new Indian Country Today site). 
I was part of a media junket that was treated to a full day at Disney’s Moana studio, in which they paid for several International journalists to come and be part of this tour (raising the questions of conflicts of interest immediately). I might add, that I received no travel benefits from the Disney company given that I live in Southern California. Anyway, I was very critical of the film in my final review of it, and I was later referred to by one of Disney’s staff to my editor as having “terrorized” them because of the tough questions I raised. My written critique was very balanced, but did note how Disney went so far out of its way to erase the colonial histories of Polynesia while it created a work of art that would make people fall in love with it without realizing its bigger problems, and also noted the kind of money the company would make of the images of other peoples cultures. 
The way it did this was by creating what they called the “oceanic brain trust“, a collection of Polynesian artists, elders, and other cultural people to lend a sense of authenticity to the film. All of those people were bound by non-disclosure agreements, which meant that they could not talk about what they were being compensated to be part of this “trust,” naturally raising suspicions for many in the Polynesian community who were also critical of the film. Too many people benefitted monetarily from the film to think more deeply about what they were contributing to. This is just one of the problems the film raised. 
Manuel wrote the music for Moana. He is an entertainer, not a historian. His job is to make people feel good, not to tell an accurate story. In Moana he does this at the expense of telling the truth, and to make people not think about the fact that Hawaii is basically an illegal, fake state. Although Miranda is Puerto Rican, he was raised in mainland US with a degree of economic privilege, and his father was a Democratic Party operative. He is steeped in party politics, and appears to be committed to multicultural liberalism, which is never about understanding history in terms of colonialism. It is thus no surprise that he would bring a sanitized pop culture rendition about Hamilton. Making people feel good pays a lot better than making them rethink their hideous history. 


I am publishing my notes on songs 2, 3, 4, and 5 on Sunday, Dec 20, 2018 at 3:45 PM. My last note on the lyrics for Act I, Song 1 is that Burr was saying he's the fool that shot Hamilton. 

Act I. 
Song 2. Aaron Burr, Sir

The year is 1776; the place is New York City. Hamilton introduces himself to Burr because he'd heard that Burr had finished Princeton in two years and he wanted to do that, too. The two agree to have a drink together. Burr advises Hamilton to stay quiet about what he's for and against. When they get to the bar, they meet Laurens, Lafayette, and Mulligan, who are talking about joining the revolution. Burr tells them he's going to sit it out. Hamilton is taken aback by Burr and asks him "If you stand for nothing, Burr, what'll you fall for?"

Song 3. My Shot

Laurens, Mulligan, and Lafayette sing "ooh, Who are you" and wonder what Hamilton is going to do. Hamilton replies that he's not throwing away his shot. "Just like my country" he says, he is "young, scrappy and hungry." He brags about his brains and says that they are "a colony that runs independently" and that Britain "keeps shittin' on us." He says King George taxes them and then goes on a spending spree. He won't ever "set his descendants free, so there will be a revolution in this century." Lauren sings that they'll never "be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me." Burr cautions them to lower their voices. He's on their side but thinks they sould be careful. They sing "When are these colonies gonna rise up?" Hamilton sings of how they'll "roll like Moses, claimin' our promised land." Song 3 ends with them all singing about how it is time for them to take a shot.

Debbie's comments: Hamilton's question to Burr (about what he'll stand for) are about integrity. They tell the audience we should like Hamilton. He's a good guy, with principles! But if you're a Native person, where is Hamilton's care for the Native people who called New York City their homeland? If Britain is shitting on the colonies, what -- in fact -- are the colonies doing to Native people? Hamilton calling the colonies "our promised land" affirms American beliefs--then and now--that God made this land for them and did things like clear the land of Native people via smallpox, on their behalf. [Back at 4:00 PM to add that what is currently known as Manhattan was homeland for the Lenape people.]

Song 4. The Story of Tonight

Hamilton sings that "when our children tell our story..." they will tell about that night when Hamilton, Laurens, Mulligan, and Lafayette are together in the pub, planning the revolution. They "raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away."

Debbie's comments: The irony in those four men singing about freedom... This "our story" part is worth noting, too, because "our" does not include Native people. Later in the musical, there's a "who will tell your story" song. 

Song 5. The Schuyler Sisters 

Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy are the Schuyler sisters. Burr sings that they're there (downtown) to gawk at the men at work. Angelica says she's looking for "a mind at work." She's read Common Sense by Thomas Paine. The sisters sing "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" and Angelica says that when she meets Thomas Jefferson she's going to tell me to include women. They sing that they "just happen to be" in the greatest city in the world (Manhattan).

Debbie's comments: More irony as they sing "all men are created equal" when so many men didn't view enslaved African as equal and told themselves a convenient lie, that Native peoples were inferior to them.  


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Highly Recommended! Christine Day's "Unexpected Pursuits: Embracing My Indigeneity & Creativity" in OUR STORIES, OUR VOICES

Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing up Female in America came out in 2018. Published by Simon and Schuster, the editor--Amy Reed--describes it as a love letter from the authors to young people who, after the 2016 election, were hurting or afraid for the future.

It includes Christine Day's "Unexpected Pursuits: Embracing My Indigeneity & Creativity." As I read her essay, I highlighted one passage after another. It reminded me of Cynthia Leitich Smith's Hearts Unbroken. In both, I found truths about life for a Native teen in the US.

Day's essay ranges from her experiences in high school and in college in Washington. In high school, she was uneasy. She gives us a snapshot of her experiences in history, science, and English courses. When Day recounts a teacher who didn't pronounce the name of her grandmother's tribal nation right, she describes a physical reaction. Her cheeks burned and her bones turned to ice. "He wasn't saying it [Nez Perce] right." She knew something that her teacher did not. What to do with that knowledge?

That 'what to do' moment is something Native children and teens have to deal with all the time.

There are exceptions. Day had a high school teacher who taught them about bias. She had a college program that centered Native experiences. Like Day, our daughter had a teacher that stood out for the right reasons. Like Day, our daughter found affirmation in a programs designed to see Native people, as we are.

There's so much in her essay that I want to note! The way she refers to places. The way she reflects on appropriation. The words she uses! The light she sheds on things like the Indian Child Welfare Act!

I highly recommend her essay--not just for young adults--but for everyone. It will affirm the experiences of Native teens, and their parents, too. As I read it, I highlighted parts of it but there were times when I was blinking back tears, too. This is powerfully written.

Here's how she ends:
My name is Christine Day. I’m descendant from four Indigenous nations and an enrolled member of the Upper Skagit. I’m a graduate student, working toward my master’s degree in Indigenous Research and Documentary Film Production. I’m currently filming interviews to accompany my film, my future thesis. And I’m also working on projects in prose. I still haven’t given up on those. 
I’m a work in progress. I’m young, and I’m growing; I always have been. And it’s taken me a long time to understand this. But listen: You are never alone in these in-between places. Your thoughts, your complex feelings, your unknowable questions—they mean something, and they’re important.

Day has a book coming out in 2019: I Can Make This Promise. It will be published by HarperCollins. I'm watching for it and hope you do, too.

Friday, December 21, 2018

William Flood and Nancy Bo Flood: A History

On Dec 19th, I recommended the wonderful illustrations that Jonathan Nelson did for First Laugh: Welcome, Baby! and briefly noted my concerns with Nancy Bo Flood (she is listed as the second author of that book). This post is a follow up to that review.

At this point (2018) I have a ten-year history with Nancy Bo Flood and her husband, Dr. William Flood. Some people are aware of this history. Some will be upset that I've written it up here because to them it will feel mean-spirited and unkind. I hope that you can set aside your emotional attachments to Flood and other White writers and see my history with them from an Indigenous point of view that is embedded within a much longer history of interactions between White and Indigenous people.

The history of White people taking from Native people is hundreds of years long. Most of you know about that, and some of you think it is horrible. Some of you go down that "to the victor go the spoils" way of thinking. Those "spoils" include Native stories. There are a great many non-Native people who made and make careers by using something that belongs to Native people.

The history of White people taking from Native people is also filled with White people befriending Native people out of a genuine sense of caring--about our souls. I'm talking here about missionaries who go (yes, it still happens) onto reservations and into Native communities with the goal of converting us to their particular religion.

And, the history of White people taking from Native people is also filled with White people who befriend us because they have found themselves living in or near our communities.

Of that latter group, I wish they could form those friendships without saying "look at me and my Native friend." Or, "look at the good I do for my Native friends!" Or, "I worked with them and they asked me to write this story about them." Or, "I taught their kids and I learned from them and so, I am able to write books about them that you should buy because I know what I'm talking about." Or, "Look! My book has a note inside from my Native friend or colleague. You can trust what you read in my book."

They mean well. But, I wish they could see past their good intentions. What they're doing is exploitation. Ultimately what they are doing is the same as those who take without care. And all those who help get their books published, you are complicit in the taking and exploitation. You can rationalize it any way you want to, but ultimately, you're complicit.

I know--that sounds harsh. I know plenty of people will read this and think I should just be quiet or that I am wrong. You'll find examples to counter what I'm saying here. There are always exceptions but my larger concern is that we should all ask why someone feels the need to justify their tellings of Native story by pointing to their work with Native peoples. Anybody can do good work without using our faces and our names to justify your work. Can't you just do good without holding us up as evidence of your good work?


In 2007 or 2008 I received an email asking if I was interested in serving on the Advisory Board for a new initiative within Reach Out and Read. It was to be the American Indian/Alaska Native Reach Out and Read project (ROR AI/AN). I don't have that email or ones through 2009 because I changed computers and email providers and am not able to retrieve them. I do have ones from 2010 through 2014.

The two doctors who were starting the American Indian/Alaska Native initiative of Reach Out and Read were Dr. William Flood and Dr. Steve Holve. By the time they had written to me, I had already had a lot of experience with well-intentioned people who did not see the problems in children's books that I was seeing.

I had a long phone conversation with Dr. Flood or Dr. Holve. I remember it clearly. I remember where I was standing (just outside my mom and dad's home at Nambé; I was visiting them when the call came through) as we talked. I remember telling them that I had strong points of view on the ways that Native people were depicted in children's books, who wrote them, etc.

Whichever doctor it was, they assured me that the sort of expertise I'd bring to that project was precisely why they had contacted me. With that assurance, I said yes, enthusiastically. I was excited, thinking about how we would get books by Native writers into the Indian Health Service clinics.

The doctors had invited another individual with history and expertise in Native writing/books to serve on the board. Things looked good!

But then...

We learned that the doctors had done some work on a video they wanted to play on the televisions in the waiting rooms. We were asked to provide input on the video.

In it, a Native woman was shown reading and recommending a book written and illustrated by a non-Native writer. Though I don't have an email that confirms my memory, I think the book was one of those written and illustrated by Paul Owen Lewis. It could have been Frog Girl or Storm Boy. Lewis says similar things about each one. Looking at the covers, you'd likely conclude that these are Native American stories.

They aren't.

Paul Owen Lewis is not Native. In the author's note, he tells us that Frog Girl is "an original creation" that is "carefully composed entirely of Native story elements in both its narrative and its art." He also says it is an adventure story that reflects Joseph Campbell's "three rites of passage" in which
"... a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. In no place is this universal theme more powerfully represented than in the rich oral traditions and bold graphic art of the Haida, Tlingit, and other Native peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America."
The other individual and I expressed our concerns with it and books like it. Our concerns were met with resistance. Anybody could write what they wanted to, we were told. That's true, of course, but that wasn't the point. Instead of problematic books like Frog Girl, we argued, why couldn't the project select and promote books by Native writers? We were getting nowhere. That second person resigned from the board. I don't recall what happened after that and don't have emails to help me reconstruct what happened.

Then, on July 16, 2010, I received an email with the subject line "Welcome to Reach Out and Read for AI/AN sites." It gave us several updates, including one that indicated the video project was still being worked on. I asked for an update about the concerns that we'd discussed previously.

Dr. Flood replied that ROR AI/AN had discussed them at a meeting and that those present had determined that the project goal was to encourage parents to read to their children, and that it "is not our goal to tell parents what to read, or what not to read. That would be a form of censorship and that is not our role."

As you might imagine, I was frustrated.

The entire reason I and the other individual were asked to be on the board was to bring our expertise on selecting books to the project so it could provide children with books that were accurate, respectful, and ideally, written by Native writers. Our objection to Lewis was being characterized as censorship.

I'd had similar conversations elsewhere, on listservs of writers, editors, librarians, professors, and reviewers who work specifically in children's literature. Whenever I or anyone talks about the importance of insider perspective (what is referred to, today, as #OwnVoices), someone invariably raises the accusation of censorship.

Somewhere in all those listserv conversations, I had become familiar with a person named Nancy Bo Flood. I had been to her website, which has photographs of her on it. In those children's literature conversations, she had been saying things that were similar to what Dr. Flood had said.

Then one day I realized that the emails I was getting from Dr. Flood and the ones I was getting from Nancy Bo Flood were from the same account! Below is a screen cap of the top of an email I got from Dr. Flood. The photo is of Nancy but the name on the email is her husband (I blocked out part of his email address):

In my mind, several threads started to come together. I remembered that she said somewhere that she was teaching Native students in Flagstaff. She had also said that her husband was a doctor in that area.

I wondered what all (children's books) she had written.

I did a search at Amazon and saw that, together, Nancy and William had published Pacific Island Legends: Tales from Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Australia in 1991 from Bess Press which is "retellings of their [people of the Pacific] traditional legends" (p. xiii). Without a doubt, the Floods and the third author, Beret E. Strong, felt they were doing a good thing with this book. In the preface, they wrote (page vii):
"Legends that were once part of an oral tradition become available to readers throughout the world. They cross oceans, continents, even generations. These legends speak a universal language. People everywhere and throughout history wonder about the questions found in these stories: How was the world created? Why do we have both good and evil? Why do families fight? What is the meaning of life and death?"
Clearly they understand the significance of the stories to the people the stories belong to, but their appraisal--that the stories speak a universal language--erases the distinct aspects of those people. Finding that book, I understood why Dr. Flood was so resistant to our concerns about Frog Girl. He had, in short, a conflict of interest.

The Flood's aren't alone in appropriation of Indigenous stories, and they certainly are not the first White people to do it and to think well of themselves for doing it. The historical record is full of White people doing that sort of thing and people are doing it today. Take a look, for example, at For Your Consideration: Part 2 at Indigo's Bookshelf: Voices of Native Youth and their critique of Rosanne Parry.

Today many people are growing in their understandings of appropriation. Today, items taken from tribal nations are being returned.

Stories don't have the legal protections that artifacts do but increasingly, tribal nations are writing protocols and policies that ask outsiders not to use their stories. Those documents don't have a section that says "if you have a good friend who is of our nation (or if you taught our kids, or lived near or in our community), go ahead with what you want to do." Those documents are being written because appropriation keeps on going. It started hundreds of years ago and continues, today. And--it is harmful to the well-being of tribal nations.

In 2017, the USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People) selected Nancy Bo Flood to sit on a panel titled "Indigenous Experience in Children's Literature." I objected. So did Naomi Bishop. And Naomi Caldwell. And Christy Jordan-Fenton. Our objections are available on a round up post I did about them. Eventually, USBBY announced she would not be on that panel.

From what I read, she had been asked to be on it because people (like me) had objected to her appropriations and USBBY felt that she could speak to concerns of outsiders writing Native stories. My guess is she would cite Native friends who she's asked for help with her books. In other words, she'd use those friendships to justify her appropriations.

-----Editing on Saturday, Dec 22, 2018, in response to Therese Bigelow's comment on Facebook, suggesting that I use Ed Sullivan's response to my query regarding how Flood came to be on the Indigenous Experience panel. He said:

I invited Nancy Bo Flood long after the other panelists were invited. She was already registered for the conference and presenting a breakout session on another topic, so I asked her if she would be willing to participate. Since cultural appropriation will be a topic of discussion for the panel, having someone who has been criticized for that can offer an interesting perspective to the conversation. When I invited Nancy, she stressed she was not Native American, and I am sure she will be quite clear about that on the panel when she speaks, too. I hope that answers your questions.

-----End of addition on Dec 22, 2018-----

Her writings and the objections are what got her onto that USBBY panel. In essence, she was going to gain even more visibility from an international organization. That's great for her career as a writer. What was she going to say? Was she going to use her friendships to assure people that it was ok to do what she did? If yes, she would be giving other White writers a how-to guide for appropriating Native stories.

But--does that sound like genuine care for us?

To me, obviously, it does not. Ultimately, what she's doing is no different from that group that claims "to the victors go the spoils." It might feel different, but it really isn't.

First Laugh did not need Nancy's name on it, did it?  That her name is on the cover is troubling. It doesn't have to be there. The only person who is served by it being there is Nancy. Ultimately, she's gaining from her name being there, from her work with Rose Ann Tahe.

I've got more to say but am hitting the 'publish' button this blog post because I promised someone I'd do it as soon as possible. I may be back to say more, later. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts. If there are things I've said that are unclear, let me know. This has been a very hard post to write. It also occurred to me that, perhaps, Nancy Bo Flood was going to use her time on the USBBY panel to say she wasn't going to keep on, as she had been, but First Laugh tells us otherwise. Again, I welcome your thoughts.

Previous posts about Flood: