Friday, October 13, 2006


Across the country, kids know who Clifford the Big Red Dog is. A long-time favorite in a series of picture books by Norman Bridwell, even more kids are meeting Clifford by way of his television program, broadcast on PBS.

In the book Clifford's Halloween, Emily Elizabeth is trying to figure out what Clifford will be for Halloween. One option is an Indian. That page shows him in a large multi-colored feathered headdress, with what Bridwell must have intended to be a peace pipe in his mouth.

Many books about Halloween have illustrations of kids dressed up as Indians, and due to society's embrace of things-Indian and playing Indian, most people don't give it a second thought. 

Let’s pause for a moment, though, and think about this seemingly innocent act of dressing up as an Indian for Halloween.

What else do kids dress up as at Halloween? I don’t mean animals or superheroes, but people-costumes. They can be policemen, firefighters, cowboys, doctors, nurses, pilots, astronauts, baseball players, cheerleaders... All these are occupations or positions one can, in fact, be at some point, with the proper training.

Now---what about an Indian? You can’t train to be an Indian. You can’t become one. It is something you are born into.

Does that distinction matter? A lot of people would say “No. It’s all in good fun, no harm done.” So you help your child apply his/her “war paint” and put on feathers and other items that complete the costume. Can you imagine yourself painting the child’s face so he/she could be a black person? A minstrel performer, or perhaps a slave, or even Martin Luther King? I’m guessing a parent wouldn’t do that. That parent would know it was wrong. (Doing it in another context----a school play, for example, is a different context.)

Another question to consider: What sort of Indian are we encouraging children to be when we endorse an Indian costume, and what does it teach them? Are they savage Indians, the ones who, according to history books, were murderous, bloodthirsty killers? Or are they the tragic ones, heroic, last-stand, looking into the sunset, riding away despondent over loss?

In either case, the costume they wear is stereotypical. And—savage or heroic—both place Native peoples in the past, not the present, reinforcing the idea that we are an extinct people.

If the book you select for a Halloween read-aloud in storytime has characters that dress up as Indians, turn that illustration into a teachable moment with your students. And, if you’re the parent of a child who wants to dress up as an Indian, talk with your child about that choice and what it means.

In choosing NOT to think about this, are you, unwittingly, fostering the development of stereotypes?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Children's Books about Columbus Day

In comments to the poem about Columbus Day (posted on Oct 9th), anonymous said "There are fewer and fewer students these days who aren't aware of the varied opinions which arise in discussion of Columbus' voyages to the Western Hemisphere."

Do others have similar observations? I think anon's comment may be true with older children, but what about younger ones, in elementary school? Do high school students have to unlearn what they were taught in earlier grades? Or are teachers problematizing the teaching they do with young children?

If you're a teacher of young children, I'd really like to know what you're teaching.

I'm also interested in the children's books you have in your classroom (or library) that are about Columbus. And history texts, too, used in elementary school. Do they glorify Columbus? Is he a heroic figure? Do they say that he "discovered" America?

To get a sense of how to look critically at them, read James Loewen's book THE TRUTH ABOUT COLUMBUS. Published in 1992 by The New Press, it is an analysis of history textbooks used with high school students.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

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

A Review of Joseph Bruchac's Geronimo

[This review posted here with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission from the author.]


Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Geronimo. Scholastic Press, 2006; 360 pages, grades 5-up; Ndee (Apache)

It is 1908, more than twenty years after Geronimo’s final surrender to the White Eyes, and the grouchy, once-fearsome old man is looking for his hat. When his adopted grandson, whom he once called “Little Foot,” flicks his eyes up and then respectfully looks away, the old man discovers his hat—on his head.

As narrated by a younger Little Foot coming of age during the captivity years, the life of the man history has come to call “Geronimo” and the lives of the Ndee people who have come to be called “Apache” are rich with cultural and historical markers and a litany of broken promises. As Little Foot observes, “Lies from the mouths of the White Eyes seemed as certain as the sunrise each morning in the east. Even when they wrote their promises down on paper, they still did not keep them. Paper lies are even easier to burn.”

There is great good humor here too, as when Little Foot attempts to describe the thing called “cement” and as Nana opines in the humid Alabama weather, “Perhaps it would be better of us to sign a treaty with the mosquitoes. If they become our allies, together we can defeat all the White Eyes.”

Chronicling the years from 1886 to 1894, each short chapter begins with a historical third-person record that offers a counterpoint to Little Foot’s narrative and grounds it in the history of the times. Through Little Foot’s interpretation, middle readers will come to know the great spiritual leader as a man who loved his wives and many children, had an infectious sense of humor, and was an astute businessman besides.

Geronimo is a story of resistance and survival, courage and sacrifice, and, above all, the fight to maintain land, culture and community. Told from the perspective of the people themselves—with a refreshing absence of words such as “renegades” and “raiders”—Bruchac’s work is an antidote to the many toxic volumes, fiction and so-called non-fiction, that portray Geronimo and his people as savages.—Beverly Slapin

Monday, October 09, 2006

Jimmy Durham's "Columbus Day" poem

Durham is not Cherokee. I removed his poem.

Details at Indian Country Today

Dear Unsuspecting Public, Jimmie Durham Is a Trickster

Jimmie Durham’s indigenous identity has always been a fabrication and remains one

The The traveling retrospective Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World and its accompanying catalog has launched a new conversation about Durham’s claims of being Cherokee, American Indian, and a person of color. Now art writers, museum staff, and scholars are making these claims on his behalf. These false claims are harmful as they misrepresent Native people, undermine tribal sovereignty, and trivialize the important work by legitimate Native artists and cultural leaders.
Durham is neither enrolled nor eligible for citizenship in any of the three federally-recognized and historical Cherokee Tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation.
Self-determination of citizenship is a basic tenant of any sovereign nation including tribal governments. The three Cherokee tribes, whose history is thoroughly documented and accessible, stem from a history of self-governance that predates the establishment of the United States.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Anskohk Aboriginal Literature Festival

Nicola Campbell’s book, Shi-shi-etko, was awarded Aboriginal Children’s Book of the Year at the Anskohk Aboriginal Literature Festival on September 30th. You can read Beverly Slapin’s review of Shi-shi-etko here. Campbell is currently working on a sequel to Shi-shi-etko.

Also receiving the award is Dale Auger’s Mwakwa-Talks to the Loon: A Cree Story for Children, which I have not read yet.