Thursday, July 13, 2006

"Indian" words: Teaching about Indians, Part II

In children's books (and TV, movies, etc.) there are many words that are used to denote Indian people, their artifacts. These words are used uncritically, generally accepted as appropriate or correct. I want to poke at that usage a bit, prompting readers to pause a moment to think about those words.

For starters, there are over 500 different American Indian tribes/nations recognized by the US Government at the present time. Add to that the tribes/nations recognized by a state government and all those not recognized by the federal or state government, let alone the numbers of tribes/nations that existed prior to 1492, and you've got a huge number. They did not speak a common language, religion, material culture, etc.

Nonetheless, in children's books, a baby is a papoose, a woman is a squaw, a man is a brave or chief, and when they die, they go to the happy hunting ground.

The reality? Each tribe has its own word for baby, woman, man. If you're reading a story set at Nambe Pueblo (that is where I am from), and the author uses a word for woman, that word should be the Tewa (language we speak) word: kwee.

Course, the English word grandma would be fine, too.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Finding Books by Tribal Name

A reader asked if there is a resource that lists recommended books by tribal nation. I don't know of such a list, though I certainly understand that it would be tremendously useful to teachers and libraries looking for books specific to their geographic location.

Most of the resources I know of are comprehensive. That is, they include reviews of books they recommend, and books they do not recommend. They may list books in an index by tribe, but they do NOT recommend all the books they review. This is the case in A Broken Flute (edited by Seale and Slapin), Through Indian Eyes (edited by Slapin and Seale) and American Indian Themes in Young Adult Literature (by Paulette F. Molin). The Critical Biography at the Smithsonian groups books by region. Here's the link: (

These are all resources you can consult, but please remember!!! Being included does NOT mean the book is one that is being recommended. Same goes for books I mention in my blog posts. If you see a book title, make sure you know what I'm saying about it. (For example, in an earlier post, I mentioned Brother Eagle Sister Sky, but I do NOT recommend that book.)

Of course, any book listed on my "Recommended" list is there because I think it is of value and should be in every school and public library.

A word about the books sold by Oyate ( They are very careful in selecting books they sell. That is why I list them as "best resource" for getting these books. AND, they have books that don't get attention from major review journals. Let me explain... Books published by the big publishers (Dial, Scholastic, Harper Collins) have BIG budgets. They send copies of their books to the major review journals. Small publishers can't afford to do that. In terms of Native-authored children's books, a good chunk of them are published by small publishers, and some are self-published. So, great Native lit is overlooked. It needs word-of-mouth attention. To grow this body of literature, all of YOU have to buy it, and you have to ask for more of it. You can do that by writing to publishers when they publish something you like (or when they publish something you don't like, too). A publisher's mailing address or website is usually printed inside the book.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Marcie Rendon's POWWOW SUMMER (1996)

Back in the mid 90s I was reviewing for children's lit review journals. I was sent LOTS of books to review. Most were pretty dismal, but there were some gems in there, and Marcie Rendon's book Pow Wow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life was one of those gems. Her book (called a "photo essay" because it uses photographs to tell a story) follows an Anishinaabe family through a summer.

Like Muskrat Will Be Swimming (see my blog on July 6, 2006) by Cheryl Savageau, it is just what we need to help kids know that American Indians didn't vanish or ride off into the sunset. Savageau's book is a work of fiction. Rendon's is non-fiction. Get both.

Rendon has a website. I'll note it here, and add it to my links to Native writers websites.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Happy Hunting Ground"

In the landscape of words and phrases that are somehow associated with American Indians is "Happy Hunting Ground."

I spent a half hour or so, just now, trying to figure out where/when it entered common usage. So far, all I find suggests it dates back to the early 1800s, and that it is a paradise or heaven for American Indians....

Personally, I intensely dislike the phrase. Ann Rinaldi used it in at least one of her books, and I just ran across it in Lois Lenski's Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, first published in 1941. On page 59, Lenski writes:
After a time their grief subsided and they rejoiced to remember that their brother had gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds above the sky.
I'll spend more time digging on that phrase... Who said it first? Was it an American Indian? What tribe? Why? Skeptic that I am, I'll bet it was a non-Native person... A writer perhaps, or maybe a hobbyist! The hobbyists were (and are) pretty prolific at coming up with "Indian lore."

Update at 8:40 PM: Amazon has a nifty option, that allows you to search the text of a book. On a hunch, I searched James Fenimore Cooper's books and found he used "Happy Hunting Ground" in Pioneers, on page 760. That book came out in 1823. (Last of the Mohicans came out in 1826.) Any librarians reading the blog? If you can find an earlier reference, that'd be terrific!

A reader asked about CADDIE WOODLAWN....

When my daughter was in 3rd grade (eight years ago), one evening while doing reading homework, she said "Mom, I don't get it." She's a smart kid, so when she told me she didn't get it, I knew something was up. I asked her what she was doing. She held up Caddie Woodlawn. I knew right away what was coming. I was well into my graduate work by then, which centered on representation of Native Americans in children's books. Given UIUC's mascot ("Chief Illiniwek), Liz and I had (by then) many conversations about racism and representation and stereotyping.

By then, I had met and collaborated with Beverly Slapin at Oyate on some work. One evening, I talked with her about Liz and Caddie Woodlawn. The upshot of that conversation was that Liz dictated an essay to Beverly. The essay is called "Liz's Story" and it is in A Broken Flute, available from Oyate Here's part of what Liz said, back then, as an 8 year old:
And so we were reading it and when we got to the second chapter, it said, I'm not sure exactly what it said, that the Native Americans were sneaking around like dogs, and they picked up Caddie Woodlawn by her hair, and they were acting like dogs sniffing a bone. In another part it said that the Native Americans were massacring, murdering, and scalping the pioneers and made belts out of their hair and skin. They made the pioneers seem like angels and the Native Americans like inhuman monsters. I felt hurt inside, my eyes were watering, and I felt like I wanted to cry. But then I thought, there's something I can do about this.
In the remainder of her essay, she goes on to talk about how, the next day, she went to her teacher and the group to tell them how she felt about the book, that she wanted them to drop it. Due to the careful work of the teacher prior to this (social justice), the group had great empathy and agreed to choose a different book. Liz's best friend at the time was also in the group. She said she didn't want them to pick a book that made white people look bad.

In the end, I bought 10 copies of Erdrich's Birchbark House and that is what they read.

This episode brought out a lot. The teacher chose this book because they were studying historical fiction, and she wanted them to read something located in or near the Midwest. She was using best practice in that regard. And, it was convenient because there were multiple copies of the book available at the school. She thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct a flawed book, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.

Liz and I talked more about that episode. She said that when they (they were taking turns reading aloud) came to the phrase "Indian John," the boy who was reading at the time stopped and asked for a conversation about that name, suggesting they should change it (drop the "Indian). They talked about it, doing a fine job of applying critical skills. There were 5 kids in the group. In round robin style, each spoke about what they thought of the suggestion to drop "Indian." Child one said drop it. Child two said drop it. Child three said drop it. Child four was Liz's best friend, and she said she thought they should leave it as the author intended. Liz was next. Think of her dilemma. Follow her heart and vote to drop it, thereby leaving her best friend all alone in her vote? Remember---these are smart kids, but they're only eight years old. Liz voted with her friend, but they lost the vote anyway, and from that page on, the group did did not read aloud "Indian" when they came to that character's name.

I encourage everyone to get A Broken Flute. There are many essays in it, but also hundreds of reviews of books with American Indian content. A Broken Flute and Through Indian Eyes, both available from Oyate, are the very best resources out there to help teachers and librarians gain understanding and knowledge necessary to help them do a better job of teaching about American Indians.