Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reaction to Slapin’s review of Touching Spirit Bear

Beverly Slapin’s review of Touching Spirit Bear (posted here on September 20th) has generated discussion on a listserv sponsored by the American Library Association and other places as well.

I share some of the discussion and my responses here. I paraphrase a response and use italics to differentiate it from my response.


It is well written and a great story. Teen boys who are bullies need books like this to learn about the consequences of their behavior and that there are other ways of behaving. Errors regarding Tlingit culture are excusable because the book has so much value for bullies.

Debbie: Is it ok to use and misrepresent one culture (in this case Tlingit) because someone else (bullies who are presumably not Tlingit) stand to gain?


I will continue recommending the book because it was favorably reviewed and is on so many award lists.

Debbie: How knowledgeable are the people who wrote the reviews? When Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart is on the Ground came out, it was favorably reviewed and it was likely headed for Recommended Books lists. But our critique headed that off, because, I think, people knew that the information in the critique was (and is) irrefutable, and that it was irresponsible to laud the book.


IT IS FICTION! JUST A STORY! It doesn’t matter if it is accurate or not.

Debbie: If a work of fiction said that 2+2=7, everybody would know it was a mistake. But we, as a society, know so little about American Indians that we don’t know when American Indian cultures are being misrepresented, stereotyped, or otherwise inappropriately used.

American society is so enamored with a narrow, romantic view of who we (remember, I am Nambé Pueblo Indian) are that it is not open to criticism that gets in the way of wholeheartedly endorsing or recommending a book. People who love the book and don’t like Slapin’s review may feel the criticism is an attack on them, on their personal values. Critiques like Slapin’s are not personal attacks, but they can feel that way when the book under critique is well loved.

If there was only one book like Touching Spirit Bear out there, then maybe it wouldn’t matter. But there are more flawed stories about American Indians than there are good ones. All those flawed ones contribute to the misperceptions American have about American Indians.


I’m out of time and will have to stop here. Your comments in the "Comments" option are welcome.

Monday, September 25, 2006


Like most people, I feel warm and happy when I find some aspect of my life in an unexpected place (provided, of course, that it is presented accurately and with integrity). Such was the case several years ago when I came across Children of Clay: A Family of Pueblo Potters, a photo essay by Rina Swentzell.

Published in 1992 in Lerner's "We Are Still Here" series of photo essays, I especially like Children of Clay because of its photographs of pueblo people (in this case, from Santa Clara Pueblo). From the baby on the cover to the children and adults throughout the book, readers see Pueblo people working and playing in the present day.

Teachers looking for an art lesson or activity that is related to American Indians might consider clay projects. Using Children of Clay with your students, they can see Pueblo kids making things with clay. You can teach your students that:

1) American Indians did not vanish or become extinct.
2) Pueblo Indians are in New Mexico.
3) There are 19 Pueblos (there is a map of them in the book).
4) They are all different, with different names and locations.
5) There are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations in the US today.

A note of caution: Young children could easily develop an idea that "Pueblo Indians make pots." While that is true for some, it is important to tell your students that not all of us are potters.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Jean Craighead George's JULIE OF THE WOLVES

First published in 1972 by Harper & Row, Julie of the Wolves won the Newbery Medal in 1973. It is included on a wide range of recommended book lists. It is available in audio and video; there is a sequel to it. Numerous teacher's guide and activity books are available for teachers to use when teaching the book. This is the summary of the Julie of the Wolves (from the Library of Congress):
"While running away from home and an unwanted marriage, a thirteen year old Eskimo girl becomes lost on the North Slope of Alaska and is befriended by a wolf pack."
A few days ago on child_lit (an Internet listserv for discussion of children's books), a subscriber posted a link to a review of the book on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network webpage. The reviewer, Martha Stackhouse, is Inupiaq. She points out misrepresentations and misconceptions of Inupiaq culture, and says

 "I humbly would not recommend the book to be put on school shelves."

Spend some time on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network pages. Read Martha Stackhouse's review of Julie of the Wolves. There is much to learn on their site about this and many other popular children's books set in Alaska (i.e. Gerald McDermott's Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest).

To find the book reviews, go to Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature, and click on "Examining Alaska Children's Literature" and "Critiquing Indigenous Literature for Alaska's Children."

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Native Americans and Thanksgiving

Reenactments of historical events are a much loved pastime. I first came across one 12 years ago in Illinois. On a field were people dressed as knights, carrying all manner of weaponry. I thought it was a movie set, but learned it was a group that does this on a regular basis.

In school, we teach children to do reenactments, like "The First Thanksgiving." Lots of time is spent making hats and headdresses and other articles of clothing, and, talking about "The First Thanksgiving."

But is this particular reenactment best practice? Is it educationally sound? Certainly, it is fun for some of those who do it, but should teachers and children be doing it at all?

Teachers work very hard, but receive little respect for their work. And, they are underpaid, too, often spending chunks of their too-small salaries to buy things their schools cannot provide. Due to lack of time and resources, teachers often recycle activities from one year to the next. I think Thanksgiving reeactments are one of those things that gets recycled. Developing new ways of teaching about Thanksgiving will take time and money. Before that can happen, however, teachers must learn more about Pilgrims, Indians, and "The First Thanksgiving."

They can start with Deconstructing the Myths of "The First Thanksgiving," a free resource by Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin, available at Oyate. At the bottom of "Deconstructing the Myths" are two lists of recommended books. It includes three lists of books: 1) Recommended Books about Thanksgiving, Also take a look at their  "Books to Avoid" about Thanksgiving.

Not surprising, but still disheartening, is the number of books on the first two lists. Dow and Slapin's short list includes only one work of fiction: Jake Swamp's Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, published in 1995 by Lee and Low. The other five children's books on their list are non-fiction, and one is a teacher resource. In contrast, there are over 80 books on the "Books to Avoid" list, but it doesn't have to stay that way.

Teachers are a powerful group. You can effect change. Because of teachers' letters telling them that children were using "Indian Red" to color Indians red, Crayola changed the name of their "Indian Red" crayon to "chestnut." With Thanksgiving coming up, perhaps teachers can push publishers to give them better books. To find contact information for them, go to Children's Book Publishers at Kay Vandergrift's website on children's literature. (You'll have to hunt around on a publisher's website to find their "contact us" page with addresses and phone numbers.)

Obviously, we need more books on Dow and Slapin's recommended list, but they won't be written unless people ask for them.