Friday, September 08, 2006

Tintin in America

Yesterday's assignment in my class at UIUC was for each student to bring a children's book about American Indians to class. I'll talk more about what they brought in a later post, but for now, I want to talk about a specific book: Tintin in America.

One of the students brought Tintin in America. The author, Herge, is Belgian, and the book was published in Belgium in 1932. I will get a copy and read it, and invite anyone who knows the book to send me your thoughts (dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com).

In the book, Tintin goes to "Redskin City." From what I saw, the Indians are stereotypical characters in feathered headdress and buckskin. On the cover of the book, Tintin is tied to a post in front of two tipis. An Indian appears to be calling to others to join him; he brandishes a tomahawk in one hand and points to Tintin with the other.

An old publication date (1932), originally published in another country... But it was published here, too, in 1979, by Little, Brown. I'll spend some time reading and thinking about this book. There is a fan website called that says:

"Hergé had wanted to write a story about the oppression of the Indians in the USA, but his boss, Father Wallez fancied a story about the Chicago crime syndicate that would help illustrate how corrupt the USA really was. (Don't forget that Wallez was all in favour of a strong and unified Europe - without the rightist Hitler - type associations). That was not exactly what Hergé had in mind, so on page 16 he lets gangster Bobby Smiles flee to Redskincity, a town near an Indian camp. However, to stay out of trouble with Wallez, Hergé used the Indians to expose American corruption with the scene where the 'whites' found out about the oil on the Indian reserve, they established a town and oil industry within 24 hours.
Finding a publisher for this book in the USA was impossible. Even in the mid-1940s, American publishers insisted that Hergé replaced the 'coloured' people featured in the comic with 'whites'. Then again, the USA was not the only country that gave Hergé a hard time publishing this comic. Most foreign publishers (i.e. non-Belgian or French) seemed to have problems with the almost apocalyptical scene in which the soldiers move out the Indians of the reserve, and the speed in which the new town is created."

A lot of people here and around the world object to the treatment of American Indians. As the author of tintinologist says, Herge wanted to write a story about the oppression of American Indians in the United States.  In doing so, however, he uses stereotypical imagery. Does that imagery inadvertently negate what they're trying to accomplish? And what about people who don't know it is stereotypical?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

American Indian Library Association’s “American Indian Youth Literature Award”

For many years, individuals with the American Indian Library Association have worked toward establishing an award for outstanding children’s books about American Indians. Yesterday (September 5, 2006), they announced the first three recipients of the award.

Here is the portion of their press release with details about the books:


"Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story," by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, illustrated by Sam Sandoval, and published by the University of Nebraska Press is the winner for the picture book category. Accompanied by rich watercolor illustrations, the text relates a culturally vital tale from the Salish people of Montana about the significance of the gift of fire and how it should be respected.

Louise Erdrich is the winner of the middle-school award for "The Birchbark House," published by Hyperion Books for Children. Setting her book in the middle 19th century, Erdrich paints a detailed portrait of Ojibwa life through the experiences of 7-year-old Omakayas who lives on the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker on Lake Superior. "The Birchbark House" was Erdrich's first novel for young readers, and the first book she has illustrated. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and lives with her two daughters in Minnesota.

Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

The young adult award is "Hidden Roots," written by Joseph Bruchac and published by Scholastic Press. The book is set within the historical framework of the Vermont Eugenics Program, a Native American sterilization program in the 1930s, and tells the story of the haunting effects of this shameful and tragic deed on one of the Abenaki families victimized by it. Author of more than 70 books for adults and children, Bruchac is of Abenaki ancestry and is a nationally recognized professional storyteller living in Greenfield Center, New York.


Thank you, AILA, for establishing this award. Awards do a lot for the longevity of a book. As demonstrated on this blog, and by people who've done this work for many decades, some pretty awful books get printed again and again. They’re hard to displace, but I am hopeful that awards like this one will help change that. We must not forget, though, that the bottom line is sales. All three books are available from Oyate.

If we don’t buy these books for ourselves, for our children, for their friends, for their teachers, they will go out of print, even if they are designated as award winners.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD, Review by Beverly Slapin

[Note: Yesterday’s post (written by Jean Mendoza) was about a children's book called They Were Strong and Good. Today, you can read Beverly Slapin's review of the book. Her review is also in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children.]
Lawson, Robert, They Were Strong and Good, illustrations by the author. New York: Viking Press (1940, 1994). Unpaginated, b/w illustrations, grades 2-3

Originally published in 1940 and republished in 1994, They Were Strong and Good is described by the author as being “the story of my mother and my father and of their fathers and mothers.”
"When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota—tame ones. My mother did not like them. They would stalk into the kitchen without knocking and sit on the floor. Then they would rub their stomachs and point to their mouths to show that they were hungry. They would not leave until my mother’s mother gave them something to eat."
Look very closely to find what was changed in the 1994 edition:
"When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota. My mother did not like them. They would stalk into the kitchen without knocking and sit on the floor. Then they would rub their stomachs and point to their mouths to show that they were hungry. They would not leave until my mother’s mother gave them something to eat."
This illustration is of a Black woman—a bandanna-wearing “mammy”—brandishing a broom at two Indians who are running away with stolen food.
In another section, the 1940 text reads:
"When my father was very young he had two dogs and a colored boy. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilius and Numa Pompilius. The colored boy was just my father’s age. He was a slave, but they didn’t call him that. They just called him Dick. He and my father and the two hound dogs used to hunt all day long."
And the 1994 text reads:
"When my father was very young he had a Negro slave and two dogs. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilius and Numa Pompilius. The Negro boy was just my father’s age and his name was Dick. He and my father and the two hound dogs used to hunt all day long."
This illustration is of a Black youngster dressed in rags, carrying two dead animals, walking behind his young white master. Several other illustrations also show Black people dressed in rags, in various positions of servitude.
They Were Strong and Good received the Caldecott Award in 1941, which even for that time period is a little surprising, given its stereotypical and derogatory depiction of both Native and African-American people. The 1994 edition is not improved by its minor textual changes. It was a horrid little book then with its sense of white entitlement and superiority and it’s a horrid little book now. In order for some children to be proud of their cultures, should other children be made ashamed of theirs?
—Beverly Slapin

Monday, September 04, 2006

Jean Mendoza: Reflections on THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD

[Note: Today’s post is by Jean Mendoza, professor in Early Childhood Education at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Jean and I are both former schoolteachers and have collaborated and commiserated many times as we raise our children in a college town that embraces a race-based mascot (“Chief Illiniwek”). See our article "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom".]

The list you shared several weeks ago of top-selling paperbacks is disturbing, and resonated with an experience I had recently. 

I’ve been revisiting Louise Erdrich's Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and Four Souls. Recently, I noticed on a colleague's door a big poster of Caldecott (children’s book) Award winners, going 'way back. There on the bottom row was Robert Lawson's contribution to the "canon": They Were Strong and Good, a mostly uncritical look at some of that author's forebears. It contains the following lines (if I remember right):
"When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota--tame ones. My mother did not like them. They would stalk into the kitchen without knocking and sit on the floor. They would rub their stomachs and point to their mouths to show that they were hungry. They would not leave until my mother's mother gave them something to eat."
In contrast, Erdrich’s accounts of the fictional lives of Nanapush, Kashpaws, and Pillagers reflect a different historical and personal reality situated in essentially the same locale at about the same time as Lawson’s family stories.

For an adult reader, Erdrich provides a kind of unintended backstory for Lawson's superficial and bigoted child-directed comments about those "tame Indians". In order for the Lawson forebears to settle in Minnesota, the land had to be taken from families whose own forebears had made their lives on it, and from it, for millennia -- forebears who could undoubtedly have been described as “strong and good” themselves.

Obviously we are to assume that Lawson’s “tame Indians” were too lazy or incompetent to get food on their own, choosing instead to rudely enter the rightful home of Lawson’s hardworking family to beg. Erdrich’s characters may have been fictional, but the waves of disease, famine, and land theft were horribly real to the actual indigenous people of Minnesota & the Dakotas. What a small, shallow, relatively ahistorical world-view Lawson’s book expresses, despite the array of countries his ancestors hailed from!

Lawson does not seem to question what might have led up to the situation he describes. Did none of his strong/good ancestors ever say, “Hm; we prosper while others in the same space starve. How did this come to pass?”

In Four Souls, Erdrich has a (Euro-American) character describe a particular house:
“On the most exclusive ridge of the city, our pure white house was set, pristine as a cake in the window of a bakery shop.”
In the preceding chapter, however, Ojibwe elder Nanapush tells a more complete story of that house: the origins of the stones, the brick, the iron – and most importantly (as it turns out), the wood.
“Once this stone had formed the live heart of sacred islands,” says Nanapush; but now to the couple who occupy the house, that stone “was a fashionable backdrop to their ambitions.”
Not sure where to take this line of thought now, except that this experience makes me wish that if a teacher, parent, or librarian is going to recommend that a child read They Were Strong and Good simply because it has the Caldecott stamp of approval and seems like a good All-American story, that teacher/parent/librarian would first read Erdrich’s books.

There’s another “All-American” story behind Lawson’s – one that any child in the US ought to have access to, so that he or she doesn’t construct a false picture of how the US came to be.

I guess then the next step would be for that adult to recommend Erdrich’s children’s novels, The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence to the same child. In fact, ideally the child would have read Birchbark and Silence BEFORE giving Strong and Good a second glance. Then Erdrich’s picture of Ojibwe life can become a lens through which the child can consider the picture of “tame Indian” life Lawson presents.

Books like Lawson's seem never to fade into richly-deserved oblivion. A visit to the reader reviews indicates that They Were Strong and Good is still making some people feel fine about themselves, 60-some years after it was awarded the Caldecott, which means that it continues to be a tool for the disinformation of children, whether or not teachers, librarians and parents mean for it to be so.

By the way, I appreciated the comments from the mother whose daughter kept encountering Education of Little Tree. Thanks for the account of what critical reading and writing can look like (and feel like). Many people have written eloquently about the problems that book has and presents, and still it manages to be beloved of many who resist any questioning of its value – and who are determined to continue its legacy of bigotry and lies.

I’ve asked this question before in other circles and had interesting replies: Is there, or should there be, some kind of “ethics of aesthetics”, that would have an answer to the notion that, for example, an author's background or bigotry "doesn't matter because the book was well-written". Is an award for illustration, for example, a good enough reason to keep Strong and Good in print and on Recommended lists, when it perpetuates negative images of Native people (not to mention an apparently sympathetic or apologist view of slavery)?

At what point might an author, an illustrator, a publisher, a librarian, a teacher have a responsibility to say no to what's in a book in the interest of "doing no harm" to the child reader? Always, sometimes, never? And then, what constitutes "harm"...

---Jean Mendoza