Thursday, September 28, 2006

Joseph Bruchac's HIDDEN ROOTS

[Note: This review is by Beverly Slapin of Oyate. I am grateful to her for sending me her reviews. Early in my graduate work, I read Through Indian Eyes: The Native Perspective in Books for Children, edited by Slapin and Seale. It marked an important moment in my work. In the field of children's literature, it is a touchstone, and its sequel A Broken Flute: The Native Perspective in Books for Children is equally important. As is clear to regular readers of my blog, I link to Oyate often, suggesting you order books like Hidden Roots from there. I would not do that if Oyate was a for-profit bookseller. Oyate is a not-for-profit organization that is doing very important and necessary work on a shoestring. ---Debbie]


Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Hidden Roots. Scholastic Press, 2004. 136 pages, grades 5-up

Living with his family in a tiny town in upstate New York, 11-year-old Sonny is surrounded by secrets. His parents live in solitude, and so does he. Questions are forbidden, and silence is enforced by his father, who explodes into violence without warning. His only friend is Uncle Louis, who comes around mostly after Sonny’s father has left for work. The old man is tied to the land in ways that Sonny is just beginning to know. As they walk in the woods together, make camp and do a lot of listening, Uncle Louis shows Sonny the relationship among all things. “Is it all right, us praying like Indians that way?” Sonny asks. “Long as no one sees us,” Louis answers.

Taking place in the early 1960s, Hidden Roots is rooted in the Vermont Eugenics Program that began some thirty years before and left the Abenaki people, for generations, “hiding in plain sight.”

Slowly, Sonny begins to understand how a Jewish librarian’s parents’ secret saved her life and how Indians had to pretend they weren’t Indian: “Sometimes people jes have to do the hardest things for their children,” Louis says. The hardest things, such as giving your children away so they can survive.

When Louis can no longer contribute to the silence and shame, Sonny begins to understand the “whys” of having to leave your home in the middle of the night, having secrets hanging heavily in the air, having to keep your head down and not bring attention to yourself, having to watch your father’s self-hatred turn to violence, having been told your grandfather is your “uncle” because he still lives in the Indian way. And Sonny begins to come to know that roots—even hidden roots—run deep.

Hidden Roots is for all those Indian families whose lives were interrupted by the eugenicists and for all the elderly mothers who still whisper to their adult daughters, “You better get your hair cut, or everybody’ll know you’re an Indian.” For all those who see their lives in this story, and for all those who never knew and now bear the responsibility to bring about change.

In a poem called “Rez Kid” (in Above the Line, West End Press, 2003), Joe Bruchac writes,

…hidden roots still give you strength.

There will always be another day.

The wind will always remember our name.

No matter how many roads they build,

the earth under our feet is our mother.

Joe Bruchac has written an honest, truth-telling story that may well be the most important book this prolific writer has ever produced. Thank you, Joe. You have done a good thing.

—Beverly Slapin

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."