Saturday, September 30, 2006

I will be home (Nambe Pueblo) for a week and won't be posting until I return.

Friday, September 29, 2006


I have used Basic Skills Caucasian American Workbook in classes and workshops. My experience is that people find it helpful in understanding what it feels like to have your culture presented by someone who knows little about it (or, more accurately, misrepresented by someone who knows little about it).

In the workbook you will find familiar worksheets. There are segments to read that have unfamiliar words followed by phonetic spelling to help pronounce the words. Blocks of text are followed by fill-in-the blank statements. There is a glossary. There are pages about education and schools, religion, and dating. The illustration on the front cover is of a man at a golf course.

Some people strongly object to the ways that the authors present Christianity, which makes the case beautifully about what is wrong with the ways that Native cultures and religions are presented in children's books.

If you find yourself thinking that a critique of one of your favorite (or a popular) children's book is "nit-picky," you will gain important insight by spending time with this book. It costs little ($13) and is available from Oyate.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Joseph Bruchac's HIDDEN ROOTS

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

[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.