Thursday, November 02, 2006

American Indian "Pourquoi" tales

A few days ago, the White House proclaimed November to be National American Indian Heritage Month. This happens every year. Across the country, teachers begin their lessons on American Indians, and their professional organizations and associations help them by suggesting activities they can do.

For example, the ReadWriteThink website (maintained by the International Reading Association and the National Council for Teachers of English) has a page (to get to it, go to their calendar and click on November 2nd) .

Here's the activity at the top of the page:

"Engage your students in an exploration of Native American heritage through a study of Native American pourquoi tales. Pourquoi tales explain why something or someone, usually in nature, is the way it is. Have your students read a variety of Native American pourquoi tales and then write original texts."

The activity is very popular, most adults did this activity when they were kids. It seems harmless and fun, but is it?

Is it harmless to take a peoples way of thinking about the world and use it as a playful model for a writing activity?

Would you do this with Genesis?

There is a double standard at work, subtly undermining the integrity of indigenous peoples whose stories are trivialized in this way. Engaging in these seemingly harmless activities has ramifications for the way children learn to think about American Indians and others whose stories are used like this.

Let's stop doing it.

Or, let's do it to Genesis, too. Teach children that all religions deserve the same treatment.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


[Note: This review used by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of the author.]
Tingle, Tim (Choctaw), Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges (Cherokee). Cinco Puntos Press, 2006. Unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 2-5

Crossing Bok Chitto, originally one of the stories in Tingle’s excellent collection, Walking the Choctaw Road, is now a picture book.
In the early 1800s, Mississippi’s Bok Chitto River was a boundary, dividing the home of the sovereign Choctaw Nation from the “Old South” of plantation owners and their human property. Enslaved Black people who were able to get to the Choctaw side of Bok Chitto were free. According to the story, the Choctaws built a stone path just below the muddy surface of Bok Chitto—built it up in times of flooding and built it down in times of drought. It is this unseen stone path, and the generosity of a Choctaw family, that aids an enslaved Black family to cross to freedom. 

When her momma asks Martha Tom to fill her basket with blackberries for an upcoming wedding, the little girl crosses Bok Chitto, loses her way, and encounters the calling together of a Black church secreted in the Mississippi woods. After an enslaved Black father instructs his young son how to move among the white people without being seen—“not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!”—Little Mo escorts Martha Tom past the plantation house and back to the river, where she shows him how to cross. The relationship between the two children and their respective families deepens, and when trouble comes—“it always does, in stories or in life, trouble comes”—magic is made, and the Black family is empowered to cross to freedom. 

There are two concerns with this otherwise extraordinary story. One is that, in moving the text from a short story to a picture book, the description of the Choctaw was changed from “a sovereign nation of people” to “a nation of Indian people.” “Sovereign” may be one of the most important words in Indian Country, and children old enough to read this book—or have it read to them—need to be taught its meaning. 

There is something else that needs to be considered. For people to be defined by their condition of servitude—“slaves”—is a social construct that holds the institution of slavery in place. Rather, the word “enslaved” places the responsibility for servitude on the owners rather than on the owned, and raises a level of consciousness that the word “slave” does not. 

These issues notwithstanding, Crossing Bok Chitto is an awesome story of survival, generosity, courage, kindness and love; enhanced by Jeanne Rorex Bridges’ luminous acrylic on watercolor board paintings on a subdued palette of mostly browns and greens. In an endnote, Tingle describes how this particular story came to be. Today, Choctaw families—as well as Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole—continue to tell the stories of how they aided the “runaway people of bondage. "

—Beverly Slapin

Monday, October 30, 2006

American Psychological Association Resolution on American Indian Imagery

In 2005, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution calling for the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities used by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations.

The APA's Justification Statement for the resolution reads, in part:

“It is especially difficult when American Indian peoples are trying to present their tribal identity as accurately as possible, to have the dominant culture employ symbols, mascots, images and personalities that depict American Indians in an inaccurate and offensive manner (Staurowsky, 1999; Pewewardy, 1991).”

Here’s another excerpt from the APA Justification:

“The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, or religious group by other groups and social institutions—especially public educational institutions and educators—had the potential to teach children and youth that stereotyping of ethnic minority groups is acceptable (US Commission on Civil Rights, 2001).”

A lot of people are inclined to dismiss stereotypical images in a children’s book because “it is just a children’s book.” Others defend dressing up as an Indian, especially if the Indian is/was a real and heroic person (i.e. Pocahontas), arguing that such actions are informative to the person dressing up that way, and potentially to those who the person interacts with while dressed that way. And still others cite freedom of expression, first amendment rights, etc.

Read the APA document and consider what we do, as individuals who create, edit, publish, review, and purchase children’s books with American Indian imagery. You can read the entire statement by clicking below or pasting the URL in your browser window:

Justification Statement

Resolution Recommending the Immediate Retirement of American Indian Mascots, Symbols, Images, and Personalities by Schools, Colleges, Universities, Athletic Teams, and Organizations

Sunday, October 29, 2006

More on Indian Costumes at Halloween

In the comments section for "Cowboys and Indians and Tacos and Tequila," a mother who identified herself as a "Caring and Concerned but Decidely UN-PC-Mom" defended her decision to support her daughter's wish to be an Indian at Halloween.

Jean Mendoza, my friend, colleague, and co-author, submitted a reply to Un-PC-Mom. I think these two comments are important and should be read by all (not all visitors to the blog read the comments), so I'm posting both comments here. Directly below is the comment from Un-PC-Mom (her comments were not broken into paragraphs), and below it is Jean's reply to her.

Comment from "Caring and Concerned by Decidely UN-PC-Mom"

OK, I get that you don't want people to be insensitive to the Native American Culture. However, I do believe that children should be allowed to feel what they feel and want to be what they want to be. My daughter wants to be an "Indian." This is interesting because one of her best friends is actually Indian, from India. Different to that, she is fascinated by the Native American Dress and calls it Indian. We, as a family, are not disparaging of any ethnicity and she is immersed in many cultures, living here in New York City. We are middle class people who work hard for a living, and yet we do go to a private school. That school is not for profit and is of a developmental philosophy. We pay far less than the "privelaged class" of NYC, but we consider ourselves lucky to have found our cool school. One thing I find interesting about your blog is that it does not allow that historically, Native American Indians had a certain dress and look, and why is that not OK to observe as a costume? People dress as Marie Antoinette, don't they? People dress as Vampires. The point is, people dress as things that they find intriguing and actually might want to learn more about. I am very sorry if you find it offensive, but honestly, I find it an opportunity to talk organically with my child about what she finds interesting and then that opens the door to what is there academically. She certainly means no offense, being 6, and I, most certainly do not either. In this day and age, when so little is actually taught correctly about native american indians, I find it a great "in" to talk about everything with my daughter. I am sorry if it offends your sensibilities, but then, that is something for you to deal with. At the end of the day, do you want people to be insinserely NOT talking about Native America Indians, or do you want them to learn, by hook or by crook, what is real?

A caring, concerned, but decidedly UN-PC Mom
And here is Jean's reply:

Response to Un-PC-Mom in New York

I appreciate your participating in a conversation that you probably didn’t expect to encounter when trying to find information about Indian “costumes”. I’ve read your post a couple of times & think you may have misread Debbie’s work. I don’t see Debbie saying that supporting children’s mistaken ideas about Native Americans “offends sensibilities”. Instead, she is inviting you and the rest of the world to consider why you would want to continue to support a child’s mistaken ideas about other people – or about anything, for that matter.

You (un-PC Mom) said: historically, Native people had “a certain dress and look”. In fact, you probably know that there were/are HUNDREDS of ways of “dressing and looking”, historically, depending on one’s culture, gender, age & experience, time period, etc. You probably have yet to see a culturally authentic, historically accurate “Indian costume” for kids sold anywhere. The ones available (even the patterns sold for those who sew) are a hodge-podge of Hollywood Indian stereotyping and foolishness.

I’m wondering what resources you and your daughter would use to find information about “Indian” ways of dressing and looking? Without the most accurate resources and careful choices, the result is likely to be a pseudo-historical mélange of styles and inaccuracies that will add to her misinformation about what it means to be Indian, in either the historical or contemporary sense. Even if the costume is 100% authentic/accurate, you still run into the problem of allowing your child to think that "playing Indian" is somehow on a par with pretending to be a vampire or Marie Antoinette, which it isn't.

If your daughter’s wearing an Indian “costume” is “an opportunity to talk organically” with her, which then “opens the door to what is there academically” – where will you look for materials that won’t add to the misinformation she already has? Debbie has suggested Oyate; so do I. A lot of non-Native people are uncomfortable when they look at Oyate for the first time. The perspective is very different from that of the dominant culture. It can be painful to come face-to-face with the fact that much mainstream “knowledge” about indigenous people is actually false, inaccurate, even stupid. Good books by Native people are an excellent antidote for the misinformation that dominates popular culture.

"Mom", you mention that your child’s school is “developmental”. Many schools with that approach also implement an anti-bias approach to diversity. You might want to ask the principal and the teachers whether they use the anti-bias curriculum, and then check out the materials, yourself. One tenet is that it’s educationally and ethically appropriate to proactively support children’s authentic understandings of cultures, groups, and lives other than their own. That means challenging or doing away with activities that keep the misunderstandings alive. Anti-bias curriculum materials are available from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Maybe a question to ask is, “If there were Native children in my daughter’s school, would I be caringly, proudly ‘un-PC’ and let her dress that way for Hallowe’en? Or would I make a point of being sure that she did nothing that reflects my/her ignorance about someone else’s history and culture?”
If the answer is, “That would be something for THEM to deal with; let her dress as she likes” – then what does that show her about how to get along with other people? “Let them eat cake?” “It doesn’t matter what I don’t know, as long as I don’t MEAN to offend?”

I should probably identify myself: I'm white, married to a kind, intelligent and talented tribally enrolled Muscogee Creek man; we have 4 wonderful children and (yay!!) four amazingly wise and beautiful grandchildren. I've known Debbie for about 12 years and am honored to have worked with her from time to time.