Thursday, November 15, 2018

Open Letter: "Trail of Lightning is an Appropriation of Diné Cultural Beliefs." Does the Letter from the Diné Writer's Collective Mark a Turning Point?

On November 5, 2018, Indian Country Today published Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs. It is from the Diné Writer's Collective and is signed by Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, Chee Brossy, Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, Tina Deschenie, Jacqueline Keeper, Dr. Lloyd Lee, Manny Loley, Jaclyn Roessel, Roanna Shebala, Jake Skeets, Dr. Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, and Orlando White.

All the people that signed the letter are Diné (Navajo). They write poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Some are professors or teach writing. As far as I know, this letter is the first of its kind. These writers are telling everyone not to appropriate Diné culture and beliefs.

Although their letter is specifically about Rebecca Roanhorse and her book, Trail of Lightning, they name others, as well:
There are other examples of literary appropriation of our culture by non-Navajos. Notably Tony Hillerman and his "mystery" books that appropriated and continue to profit off Navajo culture and stories without shame — all while portraying us inaccurately. Once again, there was no Diné "board" or "intellectual property committee" that denounced Hillerman’s use of our property (in the 1970s-90s when he published the bulk of his books) for his gain and it has gone largely unchecked. We think of other non-Navajo writers such as Oliver LaFarge, Scott O’Dell, the infamous Nasdijj aka Timothy Barrus, who constructed Navajo people and our stories from an outsider’s perspective. 
Hillerman, LaFarge, O'Dell, and Barrus aren't Native. Though Hillerman and LaFarge did not write specifically for children or teens, O'Dell did. His Sing Down the Moon came out in 1970. Published by Houghton Mifflin, it won a Newbery Honor Medal in 1971. I have not read Sing Down the Moon but can see that O'Dell brought what he thinks of as Diné spiritual beliefs into his novel (p. 44):
"Jesus Cristo," Rosita said, "is like all our gods if you put them together. He is Falling Water and Spider Woman. But he is not cunning like Falling Water, nor is he vengeful like Spider Woman."
The Diné writers go on to say (I've highlighted a few words):
In doing so [constructing Navajo people our stories from an outsider's perspective], a disservice was done to the Navajos, as it also reinforced old and new stereotypes. Furthermore, Roanhorse’s appropriation, especially as an in-law who married into and lived on the Navajo Nation homeland and as an Indigenous relative, is a betrayal of trust and kinship. We do not want to let such breaches of faith and cultural contract slide any longer. So we write this letter objecting to the book.
Are the writers going to speak up about other books and writers in the future? It sure sounds like it to me, and while it makes me nervous for writers, I also welcome the letter because I think it can have a positive impact on writing.

During Twitter conversations, someone asked if other Native writers have been challenged for writing stories of a Native people that is not their own. Two people came to mind: Joseph Bruchac, and Tim Tingle. Bruchac's Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two came out in 2004 from Dial Books. There are passages of ceremony in that book. More recently, Tingle wrote a series about the Long Walk. Published by 7th Generation, it featured a teenager named Danny Blackgoat. In the third book, there is a chapter called Grandfather's Healing during which Danny recites a prayer.

Did Bruchac or Tingle do what Roanhorse did? The fact is, I don't know. I am of Nambé Pueblo. I don't know what is appropriate regarding the use of Navajo spiritual or cultural ways. When Trail of Lightning came out, I promoted it on social media because I believed Roanhorse had the guidance necessary to share what was ok to share. But then I started to hear from Navajo readers who had concerns over its content. After much thought, I withdrew my recommendation of Trail of Lightning, and as best as I've been able to do, I've inserted a note to that effect on social media in spaces where I had recommended it. That may strike some as an extreme act on my part. Why did I do that? Because Native spiritual ways are so horribly misunderstood and misrepresented in books and films. Instead of the respect that ought to be accorded to our belief systems, they often get characterized as folk or fairy tales rather than sacred stories that guide our lives. The Nov 2018 Scholastic book club flyer is a recent example (red x and words to the left of the image are mine): 




I've shared the Diné letter in several places because I think what they said is important. Some have responded to the letter (not necessarily to me, specifically) by asking questions like 'who gave the Diné writers authority to write this letter?' As the writers indicated, the Diné Nation does not have a committee that has oversight over this but they are--as citizens of a sovereign nation--defending that sovereignty and acting to safeguard their spiritual beliefs. We could turn that particular question onto a writer and that writer's cultural advisors: who gave them authority to write/endorse the book's contents?! Indeed, who gave me (Debbie Reese) authority to review books, at all? Clearly, some of these conversations go nowhere but other ones can help us with our work.

What does the letter mean, for AICL, and for me as a critic and scholar of representations of Indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books?

For now, it means that I will be even more careful in what I do in my review and analysis of children's books. This is where I am, today:


  • when I use the #OwnVoices tag, I will only use it for a book by a Native writer who is writing of their own nation. And I will take care to identify the nation of the writer who is writing outside their own nation. Joseph Bruchac's newest book, Two Roads, is about a Creek boy. We have not yet reviewed it on AICL but when we do, we'll note that Bruchac is Abenaki. Earlier this week, I saw an announcement that, in 2019, Tim Tingle will have a Choctaw detective book out for middle graders.  He's Choctaw; the character is Choctaw, so that would be an #OwnVoices book.
  • when I see any references to the spiritual or religious ways of Indigenous people in a not-own-voices book I am reviewing, I will include a note that I cannot speak with authority about that particular content. If there is a note in the book about a sensitivity reader, I will note that information, but also note that there is a continuum of what people think regarding what can and cannot be shared. Roanhorse's Trail of Lightning is a good example of that. She's not Diné, but Diné readers disagree in their determinations of what can and cannot be shared. 

At this moment, I am most concerned when the content is about religion or spiritual practice. I don't think that other subject matter (like events of the Long Walk) is as problematic but for sure, I'll be paying closer attention than ever before.

One thought is this: how to enforce any of this? Well, the fact is--nobody can enforce anything. This is not a question of a body or bodies of people forcing something to be undone. This is a question of ethics and decision making.


I think that scholars of Indigenous literature will be citing the Diné letter in the future. I don't know what that will look like. Will they embrace it? Or will they reject it, in parts or in its entirety? What do you think about it? If you work as an editor in a major publishing house, has anyone brought this letter to an editorial meeting? Will you take it to the next one you attend? Have you seen the contents of the letter being discussed as a conference yet? Has it been discussed in your social media networks? If you have any thoughts to share, or, if you have seen things said that you'd like to bring to this post, please submit them in a comment.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

NOT RECOMMENDED: The Oregon Trail - The Race to Chimney Rock

A few days ago, people started sharing the books that Amazon has listed as "Best Children's Books of 2018." In the ages 6-8 category, Amazon has The Oregon Trail: The Race to Chimney Rock. 

As you might imagine, it is in that category of books that AICL usually describes as NOT RECOMMENDED.

Published on September 4, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it is book 1 in a 4-book series. The series is like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books where readers make a decision about what they want to do at a specific point in the story. Instead of an adventure, readers of this series choose their own trail. The publisher of The Race to Chimney Rock made a marketing decision that people who liked the Choose Your Own Adventure series and/or those who liked playing the Oregon Trail video game, would buy this series. That Amazon lists it as one of the best books of 2018 tells us that the publisher was right. With this series, it is adding to its profit margin--but miseducating children. Of course, that doesn't matter. What matters more and more in the US is $$.

If we were being accurate about history, the information kids get would be different than what they get in this book. Here's the first sentence in the book (p. 7):
You are loading up your covered wagon to head out to Oregon Territory, where a square mile of free farmland awaits your family. 
The first decision point happens several pages later, but if I was editing that book, I'd edit that sentence a bit, add some more information, and offer a decision point right away. It might be something like this:
As you and Pa load your covered wagon to head out to Oregon Territory, he tells you about the square mile of free farmland you are going to claim. You had read Section 4 of the Donation Land Act of 1850, and know that land was only available to certain people. You know it was designed to displace even more Native peoples from their homelands, and that to get land, you had to be a "white settler" or "American half-breed Indian." You know the law is wrong and racist. What do you do?
If you speak up, turn to page __. 
If you decide to keep quiet, turn to page __. 
I don't have an edit or suggestions beyond that, but I wonder what kids would come up with in a class where their teacher helps them map out different choices than the ones in Race to Chimney Rock? The teacher would have to begin by providing students with an in-depth unit about the history of the area that came to be called the Oregon Territory. It would take a lot of preparation, but wouldn't it be interesting to see it, in action?

It'd have content in it kind of like what Joseph Marshall has in his book, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. That book is set in the present day. A Lakota grandfather takes his grandchild, Jimmy, on a road trip. At one point, the grandfather asks Jimmy if he's heard of the Oregon Trail. Of course, Jimmy says yes, and his grandpa says (p. 29):
"Before it was called the Oregon Trail, it was known by the Lakota and other tribes as Shell River Road. And before that, it was a trail used by animals, like buffalo. It's an old, old trail." 
Isn't that terrific? I think Marshall's book is terrific, and I wish publishers would stop putting out books about the gold rushes (there was more than one) and the Oregon Trail! Those books glorify periods of history--and in that glorification, mislead readers about the facts of history. Teachers who use the books, uncritically, are mis-educating their students. To conclude, I do not recommend The Oregon Trail: The Race to Chimney Rock. I've got notes stuck in my copy here and there... there's so much wrong! Avoid it. If you already bought it for your child, see if you can get your money back. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

NOT RECOMMENDED: DR. CARBLES IS LOSING HIS MARBLES by Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot

Published by HarperCollins in 2008, Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot's Dr. Carbles is Losing His Marbles! gets a Not Recommended label right away.



The first chapter, "Squanto and Pocahontas" starts out with this illustration:



The narrator for Dr. Carbles is Losing His Marbles is a kid named A.J. He hates school. That's him in the foreground of the illustration. He tells us that it is time to go home (end of the school day) but the school secretary announces that they all have to go to the all purpose room (p. 2-4):
So we were sitting there, bored out of our minds, when suddenly two American Indians came running down the aisle! They were wearing feathers and head-dresses. They jumped onto the stage, whooping and hollering. 
But they couldn’t fool us. We knew exactly who they were. 
“It’s Mrs. Roopy!” yelled my friend Michael, who never ties his shoes. Mrs. Roopy is our librarian.
“And Mr. Klutz!” yelled my friend Ryan, who will eat anything, even stuff that isn’t food. Mr. Klutz is our principal, and he has no hair. 
“Klutz?” said Mr. Klutz. “Never heard of him. I am Squanto, a Patuxet Indian who helped the Pilgrims survive their first years in America.” 
“And I am Pocahontas,” said Mrs. Roopy. “I helped the English colonists when they arrived in Virginia in 1607.” 
Mrs. Roopy always dresses up like somebody else. She never admits she’s the librarian. 
Mrs. Roopy is loopy. 
“Thanksgiving is coming up,” said Mr. Klutz. “To celebrate, we want to introduce you to a friend of ours.”
Their friend turns out to be a turkey... dressed like a pilgrim woman:


The principal says that if every class makes "a beautiful Thanksgiving display," he will marry the turkey. Everybody cheers, the turkey gets scared, and takes off. Kids freak out. Just then, the school board president, Dr. Carbles, walks in, learns what is going on and fires the principal. There's very little to do with thanksgiving as the story continues.

As noted above, Dr. Carbles is Losing His Marbles was published in 2007 by HarperCollins. The first e-book was published in 2008 and in 2015, Scholastic started publishing it, too.

There's so much wrong with the opening pages of this book. Both, Gutman (with his words) and Paillot (with his illustrations) are giving kids stereotypical, biased, and factually problematic information. They created that content and their editors approved it. Because it part of a series, it doesn't get reviewed closely by the review journals--and because it is a series, librarians purchase the books. Why, Gutman? Why, Paillot? And why, HarperColllins and Scholastic, are you publishing this?



Sunday, November 11, 2018

At last! A writer incorporates a critical take on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE! The writer? Emma Donoghue.

That's a long title for a blog post, but that's what I want people to see right now.

In 2017, Arthur A. Levine (an imprint of Scholastic) published Emma Donoghue's The Lotterys Plus One. Though I've not had time to turn my notes on that book into a blog post, it is one of the rare instances in which a non-Native writer does ok in their depictions of Native content. Here's the description of The Lotterys Plus One (I highlighted the word 'multicultural'):
Sumac Lottery is nine years old and the self-proclaimed "good girl" of her (VERY) large, (EXTREMELY) unruly family. And what a family the Lotterys are: four parents, children both adopted and biological, and a menagerie of pets, all living and learning together in a sprawling house called Camelottery. Then one day, the news breaks that one of their grandfathers is suffering from dementia and will be coming to live with them. And not just any grandfather; the long dormant "Grumps," who fell out with his son so long ago that he hasn't been part of any of their lives. Suddenly, everything changes. Sumac has to give up her room to make the newcomer feel at home. She tries to be nice, but prickly Grumps's clearly disapproves of how the Lotterys live: whole grains, strange vegetables, rescue pets, a multicultural household... He's worse than just tough to get along with -- Grumps has got to go! But can Sumac help him find a home where he belongs?

See that "multicultural household" in the description? On the first page of the book, we get the details (I highlighted the word 'Mohawk'):
Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and a man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow... and grow some more.
The household, described by some as being hippy-like, is one where there's an awareness of societal ills, like racism. We see that Donoghue take a poke at Little House on the Prairie in the sequel The Lotterys More or Less (published in 2018).  On September 24, 2018,  Dr. Rob Bittner tweeted a photo from an advanced reader copy. The book has since been published. The passage he tweeted is on page 194:
She's trying to find that wonderful Christmas scene in Little House on the Prairie, but she keeps coming across racist remarks about savages, so she gives up.
Here's a screen cap of that passage:



"She" is nine-year-old Sumac. The word "savages" is used three times in Little House on the Prairie (note: the Christmas scene occurs earlier in the book than the passages below. Before then, the ways that Native peoples are characterized as less-than-human is racist):

  • "...so many of those savages were coming together..." is on page 284
  • "...at night they heard the savage voices shouting." is on page 286
  • "...more and more savage warriors were riding..." on page 305

It is terrific to see that characterization described as racist. I wonder how readers will respond to it? Will they notice? Some will, for sure. Dr. Bittner did; I care enough to write a post about it, and I bet Native kids will notice it, too. If you have any thoughts on it or see people commenting on it, let me know!

Friday, November 09, 2018

Native Trailblazers, or In Search of “500 Brave Native Americans”


Grandson Will, age 8, sings along to Pete Seeger at the top of his lungs:

“’Tis advertised in Boston, New York, and Buffalo.
500 brave Native Americans
A whalin’ for to go –”

He’s got the lyrics wrong; it’s "500 brave Americans," and I smile because he’s adorable. But then I think, "Wait, though! 500. Brave. Native Americans!"  

In US history classes, kids like Will hear about the bravery of non-Native "explorers"/"discoverers"/Pilgrims/settlers/revolutionaries/pioneers/frontiersmen/the US cavalry.
Sure, they may hear Indigenous men referred to as “braves.” But will they learn about 500 specific, courageous Native people? Or 100? Or even … five?

You know whose names they’ll hear, of course – Pocahontas. Squanto. Sacagawea. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo. In other words, they’ll learn about some Native people who are viewed as helpful to the colonizers, and some of the ones who fought colonization of their homelands. Will (who's now 12) tells me that he and his classmates definitely don’t hear about contemporary Native people whose courage and commitment make a difference NOW in their communities and in the wider world. 

But we know that all kids benefit from the affirmation that Native people ARE STILL HERE and are deeply INVOLVED in the heavy lifting to make the world a better place. It would be Something if, by the time they graduated high school, every student in the US could name a couple dozen Indigenous people who've made a positive difference.  

Native kids, of course, may have first-hand knowledge of family members who are writers, artists, activists, scientists, and so on. But it's challenging to find reliable information for young people about noteworthy contemporary Native people. Biographies tend to be problematic. Most are not the work of Native writers. Though supposedly factual, they often contain the same biased language and distorted window on Native lives often seen in fiction. And they're usually about figures in the distant past. 

An important exception is the Native Trailblazers Series for teen readers. It’s put out by 7th Generation Press. Each book features 10 or so profiles of significant people or groups, most of them still living. 

The text is straightforward and engaging, and includes lots of direct quotes, so readers see what people say about their own lives and work. The series includes the following four books by journalist Vincent Schilling (St. Regis Mohawk):

  • Native Athletes in Action: Revised Edition (2016) (Review of 2012 edition)
  • Native Men of Courage: Revised Edition (2016)
  • Native Defenders of the Environment (2011) (Published before Standing Rock, it profiles some folks who later became NoDAPL water protectors in 2016-2017.)
  • Native Musicians in the Groove (2009)
That’s 40+ brave, committed, smart, and talented Native Americans right there. There are several other books in the series, written by Schilling and by other Indigenous authors. (Schilling also hosts the Native Trailblazers radio program.) 

I haven’t read them all yet – but I feel confident in saying that the Native Trailblazers series is worth a look. 

-- Jean Mendoza

Friday, November 02, 2018

Highly Recommended: WHEN WE PLAY OUR DRUMS, THEY SING by Richard Van Camp + LUCY & LOLA by Monique Gray Smith

When We Play Our Drums, They Sing by Richard Van Camp and Lucy & Lola by Monique Gray Smith are two outstanding books... in one. Here's the covers:


If you get one, you will have the other. They are bound together in a single volume. When you flip the book over to see the back cover, what you see instead is the cover of the other book. And when you get to the end of each story you'll find these resources:

  • Language Guide
  • Reader's Guide
  • Author's Note

Van Camp's author's note tells us that his mother went to Residential school. He tells us that he recently worked up the courage to talk with his mother about her experiences. In her note, Monique Gray Smith writes that her family members were also in the schools. Both stories provide "insider perspectives" or to use the hashtag used today in literature circles to describe books like this, #OwnVoices.

In the United States, the schools are called boarding schools. These "exceptional nations" -- the US and Canada -- tried to stop Native people from being Native people. But those "exceptional nations"  failed.

Van Camp and Smith and their many books demonstrate the resilience of the people in their families--and the resilience of Indigenous peoples. Both stories are about modern-day kids, their families, and their communities. In them, you'll find pain, but you'll also find beauty in the characters and the writing, too. I highly recommend When We Play Our Drums, They Sing and Lucy & Lola. 

Note! Published in 2018 by McKeller and Martin, you can get them directly from them. Hit the link for instructions.


Thursday, November 01, 2018

Apple, Echo, and the Importance of “More Than One Book"

Two Native high school girls, two unique stories about not fitting in, and about trying to make sense of Indigenous heritage/ancestry when something has disrupted their place in a Native community....

Most regular readers of this blog won’t need to be convinced that it takes more than one story about a group of people to adequately portray that group’s experience. Still, we know that in classrooms and in library collections across North America, the pickings are usually slim when it comes to books by and about Native people. So “the danger of a single story” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns about is very real.

Right now I’m revisiting that point -- yet again -- via two recently published books with contemporary Native teen girl protagonists. Dawn Quigley’s (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) debut novel Apple in the Middle (2018) is set in Minnesota and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. The protagonist, Apple, meets her Native family members for the first time, the summer after her sophomore year in high school.

Katherena Vermette’s A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars (2017) is a graphic novel. Echo, the main character, is 13 years old. She is Metis, as is Vermette. The story is set in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Apple’s mother, who was Turtle Mountain Chippewa, died after giving birth to her. Apple grew up with her dad and stepmother (both white), in their upper middle class suburban world, where she feels like she never quite fits. She carries a sense of guilt for her mother’s death. She’s a bit prickly, and more than a bit socially awkward. Since an incident of open racism during grade school, she has tried to look as white as possible. Her father’s reluctance to tell her about her Native family hasn’t helped. As a narrator, Apple has a lot to say. She can be rude, impulsive, and loud, with a biting sense of humor, but she begins to dial it all down somewhat as she gets to know her Turtle Mountain relatives.

Of her sense of not fitting in, Apple says, “I call it the Ping-Pong effect because you’re the ball, and nobody ever wants you in their space. Have you ever felt like that? Never really belonging anywhere, but trying your darndest to run between two lives only to find you’re always stuck in the middle.”
Apple may feel that she's constantly running, but Echo’s days in Pemmican Wars seem to involve just putting one foot in front of the other, with tremendous effort.
Unlike Apple, Echo is nearly silent. She’s emotionally isolated at school and in her foster placement, and moves as if something is draining all her energy. She spends most of her time with her earbuds in: Guns n Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers. The only time we see anything like a smile on her face is when she finds some graphic novels about Metis history on a library shelf. She’s in a new school and knows nobody, though her history teacher seems to “see” her. When she falls asleep, she dreams herself into events from First Nations history, and it’s in those dreams that she seems to feel most alive -- and where she has a friend.

Her mother stays in some kind of institution – rehab or mental health facility, maybe – which hints at why Echo is in foster care. Echo opens up slightly when she visits her mom. She speaks, asks questions about their family's Metis background, tells her mom what she is learning. The history class, the dreaming, and her relationship with her mom may be what eventually help her find her place. (That's "eventually" because Echo doesn’t find resolution in Pemmican Wars. Vermette’s second Echo book is due out in December, and we can hope that things will be looking up for her protagonist.)

The changes Apple and Echo go through in their respective stories are very different from each other, though both characters move toward a stronger sense of who they are, and what being Indigenous means (or can mean) to them, as they deal with racism, school, family issues, and so on. Young people deserve to get to know both of them.  Their stories belong on the same shelves (and in the same gift bag!) with Cynthia Leitich Smith’s 2018 release, Hearts Unbroken, whose protagonist Louise faces the effects of personal-level and community-wide racism while navigating peer relationships and romance during senior year. 

Three brand-new, strong Indigenous female teen main characters -- now there's a gift for your students, your teen patrons, your children, and your grandchildren!

(Recognition is due Katherena Vermette’s collaborators on Echo – illustrator Scott B. Henderson and color artist Donovan Yaciuk. Because Echo speaks so seldom, it’s on the illustrations to convey key details about her life. And they do so with subtlety and grace! For example, the letters WPG on the front of a bus Echo rides signal that she's in Winnipeg. Or so I'm told.)

--Jean Mendoza