Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Kathy Jo Wargin's THE LEGEND OF THE PETOSKEY STONE

[Note: This review is posted by permission of its author, Lois Beardslee. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]

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Wargin, Kathy Jo, The Legend of the Petoskey Stone, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. Sleeping Bear Press (2004). Unpaginated, color illustrations, preschool-4.

My elders have told me that the very title, the very notion of this book so offends them that they will not open the book or even look at it. The Petoskey stone is so sacred to us that we have no origin story for it, they say. I understand. We are inseparable from our stories and our traditions, and to us, the fabrication of “Native American myths and legends” by white people is a threat to our very survival. When one disregards our culture, one disregards us as human beings.

I sometimes feel the urge to wash my hands after touching this type of book, but the concept of this one was so egregiously offensive to me that the book lay unopened on my office floor for over a year. I simply couldn’t find civilized words to describe such an uncivilized act against our local Indian people.

The Legend of the Petosky Stone purports to be a legend about a Native American chief from a community on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. It also purports to tell the origin of the name of the northwest Michigan town of Petoskey, as well as the transfer of that name to a fossilized coral that was made the official state stone. There is absolutely nothing factual or traditional in this book. The language pronunciation guides, the explanations, the translations, are all false.

On the northern end of Lake Michigan’s eastern shore is a large harbor that has always been populated by Native Americans, most recently, the Odawa and Ojibwe. People who lived in that region often identified themselves by that geographical location and were often referred to by others as being people who came from that place. The harbor and the western- and southerly-hooking peninsula that create it were called bidassigigiishik in Anishinaabemoin, the native language of the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi populations who traversed up and down the coast. The Anishinaabemoin name refers to the fact that one can watch the sun rise over the water from the peninsula—an unusual phenomenon on the side of a lake that faces west. The name is not romantic. There are no direct references or linguistic romantic nuances to magical rays of sun. It is a geographic term that is also somewhat lighthearted and amusing to those who understand that particular verb and how it is used.

When European-American culture came to have an increasing presence in the region, non-Indians transferred their own cultural and linguistic concepts of name identification onto the Indians and “named” some Indian families “Petoskey” in their written records. There are many Odawa families in the region with this surname today. In researching The Legend of the Petosky Stone, Wargin could have sought out any of these families—or any other local Indian families—for their input. She apparently chose not to. Rather, it’s as if she intentionally tried to avoid acknowledgement of historical and cultural facts in the manufacture of this regional “history.”

Wargin’s story-within-a-story is about a French fur trader who was made an “honorary chief” by the local Indians and who had a son by an Indian “Princess” who grew up to be a great chief named “Be do se gay,” allegedly meaning “rays of the rising sun” or “sunbeams of promise.” When my ten-year-old son looked at this poor mutation of a real word, which he knows how to pronounce, followed by its linguistically unjustifiable translation, his response was, “This is gibberish.”

In the backstory, a non-Indian parent recounts the “legend” to his non-Indian son, while they walk along a sandy non-Indian beach. The very first lines of the “legend” state:

Long ago in 1787, an Odawa Princess and her husband were leaving their winter home. He was a French fur trader who had been welcomed into her tribe as an honorary chief, and he had worked through the winter collecting furs in an area we now call Chicago. But when spring arrived, it was time for them to travel back to their summer hunting grounds along the shores of northern Lake Michigan.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stereotypes—in text and pictures—in a single spread of a picture book! A nameless and faceless Indian woman—a “Princess” with a capital “P”—marries a French fur trader living with the local Indians, who have made him an “honorary chief.” They travel to their “hunting grounds” along the shore in a birchbark canoe made with the outside of the bark on the outside, thereby guaranteeing that it will sink.

For those who may not see the problems here, bear with me. First, we don’t have royalty in this area. Never have. We also didn’t and don’t have “honorary chiefs.” The notion of an official “chief”—one person representing and speaking for everyone—is a European-American construct created to obtain signatories to treaties that took away our land and resources. The terms “Indian princess” and “Indian chief”—both deprecating monikers used by whites throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries—are loathed by Native people in this region. The idea of conferring such a title (even if it were an honor) upon someone from an outside culture (one that was in the process of extirpating the Native population for the purposes of taking over their resources) is beyond absurd. Not to mention: Voyageurs were hired for their ability to paddle long distances and portage heavy packages over trails that went around falls and rapids in waterways—not for their intellect or leadership qualities. And by 1787, most voyageurs were laborers who worked for trading companies picking up and transferring goods from one company-owned fort to another, so Wargin’s “honorary chief” would hardly have been an independent trader-businessman who gathered furs from a broad region. Especially in that canoe.

So this Indian “Princess” heads off with her “honorary chief” white guy husband into the “summer hunting grounds” to give birth by herself in a “hut,” while he waits outside, leaning comfortably against a tree, contemplating the night sky. Now, no self-respecting Indian woman would go off and do such a thing, endangering her own life and the life of her child. Had she chosen to travel she would have gone straight to one of many Indian communities along the well-traveled and heavily occupied coast. Wargin’s story makes our ancestors appear to be complete, irresponsible dolts who sacrificed common sense for magically superior white unskilled laborers. And Wargin’s use of the word “hut” belies the architectural competence of the peoples who thrived in the western Great Lakes for countless generations. Our architecture was regionally appropriate, site-specific and well-constructed. My ancestors did not live in huts!

Wargin’s French fur trader “honorary Indian chief” husband of the Indian “Princess” takes his newborn male offspring in his hands, proclaims that he “shall be an important man” (by virtue of what, I might ask…), and names him “Petosegay because the word meant the rays of the rising sun, or sunbeams of promise.” This is nonsense—a syrupy, silly translation of a word whose real translation I won’t mention here, to protect it from turning up in another children’s book.

Petosegay, of course, grows up to be a “headman, which meant he was third in line in his tribe.” This is cultural gibberish, perfectly augmenting Wargin’s linguistic gibberish.

“Over the years,” the story continues, “Petosegay was such a successful trader, hunter, and farmer that he was able to purchase land…” Petosegay would not likely have accumulated wealth and purchased land in early 19th Century Michigan. As an early form of biological warfare in an attempt to eliminate them so that the land would be available for European-American settlers and lumber barons, smallpox-infected blankets would have been intentionally distributed to his family. Other tactics used to accomplish this end would have included direct violence and withholding access to resources such as food. By 1836, the U.S. government had selected individuals among the survivors that it designated “chiefs” and coerced them into signing away title to most of the real estate, so that Michigan could soon obtain statehood.

That some of the remaining Indians in the region had to resort to farming was a result of the Indian Allotment Act, which took away the bulk of the treaty-guaranteed reservation land, making small parcels available to those Indians who found out how to file the appropriate paperwork. In 1855 the Allotment Act was implemented in northwest Lower Michigan, where roughly ninety percent of the land, deemed “surplus,” was given to white homesteaders. And non-Indian entrepreneurs and punitive policies resulted in the theft of more than ninety-nine percent of those lands actually allocated. The first deliveries of land patents to Indians in the region did not occur until the 1880s. Some occurred in the 20th Century, and many not at all. So Wargin’s “Chief Petosegay” would’ve been at least a hundred years old before he could have begun clearing his land for farming.

In Wargin’s “legend,” there is no Indian population, save the unnamed “Indian Princess,” her son, “Chief Petosegay,” and his unnamed wife and child. One is tempted to ask, “Where is everybody?” in a region that happens to constitute one of the largest concentrations of Native Americans east of the Mississippi.

Petosegay’s own home is represented as a small log cabin with a canoe next to it on the shore of Lake Michigan, surrounded by larger, more modern homes. In fact, the remaining Odawa Indians in the area were forced farther and farther away from the white towns that increasingly took over the most suitable locations on the coastline. Most Indians were driven inland or to distant shores without protective bays. Today, there are few, if any, precious feet of waterfront property available to members of the local Odawa tribe on the bay that surrounds the city of Petoskey, Michigan.

Throughout, Wargin and van Frankenhuyzen create images in which Natives in this region coexisted benignly (albeit with few financial resources) with their non-Indian neighbors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The history of Indian/non-Indian relations in the area continues to be wrought with segregation and economic inequalities.

Wargin says of Petosegay, “it wasn’t long before the whole town began to call him Chief as a sign of admiration.” I repeat: “Chief” is a deprecating moniker used by whites throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. My ten-year-old son, incredulous, asked, “Why do they show everybody in the town as being nice to him? They would have killed him or forced him to move because he’s an Indian.” And my son is right. Unless poor Petosegay took on the role of a literal community lawn jockey, he would not have been tolerated in the town of Petoskey or in any of the affluent white exurbs that built up around it. But, according to Wargin’s “legend,” Petosegay “gave” his name to the white community “he loved.” This gift of Petosegay’s is depicted by an illustration of an old Indian guy, surrounded by a group of applauding white people, undraping a sign that says, “Welcome to Petoskey.” As though, throughout the 19th Century, the Indian elders of that section of coastline, now called Little Traverse Bay, welcomed the settlers with smiles and freshly painted signs. Or maybe it was flowers and sweets…

Fast-forward to the scene of two Victorian ladies, in long dresses and holding parasols, one of many people (read white people) who “came to enjoy the beautiful lake and to breathe the fresh air, but they also came to walk along the shore and search for a special stone that appeared to hold the rays of the rising sun inside.” Those, of course, are the “Petoskey Stones,” which—fast-forward again—are now in the hands of that white father and his white son on the sandy white beach. The father tells his son that when he finds a “Petoskey Stone,” “I carry the promise of tomorrow, which means I will have one more day in the place I love best, with the person I love most.” As the little white boy holds the stone, sunlight falls upon the white son and his white father, and “it seemed as if all the nearby lakes, rivers, and forests whispered Petosegay’s name once again.”

In Kathy-jo Wargin’s little world, all is serene. “When [white] people search for Petoskey Stones, they hope to find the rays of the rising sun. And when they do, they carry sunbeams of promise…the promise of a shining new tomorrow…for everyone.” For her, there is no racism here, because there are no Indians here.

In reality, northwest Lower Michigan is a place where whites-only businesses still persist and Native American employment off the reservations is almost nonexistent. It’s a place where violence against Indians is both active and passive. It’s a place where Indians are non-existent for white people. And it’s a place where authors and illustrators such as Kathy-jo Wargin and Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen make money by creating pretty little books that celebrate white supremacy and Manifest Destiny.

This is all very personal for me and my ten-year-old son, who has to deal with this kind of thing every day. He doesn’t like what is said about his family and his cultural traditions in children’s books like this that are heavily marketed for classroom use. He doesn’t understand why adults who work in the local schools, libraries, and bookstores—who smile at him and call him by name—still insist upon confronting him with texts and stories that belie his home and family life and that of his ancestors. It makes him feel lesser.

—Lois Beardslee

[Lois Beardslee is a contributor to A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, published in 2005 by Alta Mira Press. Beardslee (Ojibwe/Lacandon) is the author of Lies to Live By and Rachel's Children and has been a writer and teacher for more than twenty-five years. An artist whose paintings are in public and private collections worldwide, Lois also practices many traditional art forms, including birch bark biting, quillwork, and sweetgrass basketry.]

4 comments:

Rinda M. Byers said...

I am reminded that Sacajawea did not give birth to her first child alone. She had help...

I cannot think of a single culture or ethnic group or tribal group anywhere in the world in which women give birth alone by choice!

It is interesting to note that elephants in the wild do not give birth alone but in the company of an "auntie" another, usually younger female elephant.

Just adding some facts for fuel here.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ms. Beardslee, Ms. Wargin is completely out of place having not discussed this book (and some of her others, for that matter) with NW Michigan Natives. However, I feel Ms. Beardslee's comments went from analysis to personal attack and rage against the author and illustrator, which helps no one. One comment Ms. Beardslee made I take issue with is her assertion that Natives and whites have never co-existed in a benign way, to this day. For the most part, Wargin is portraying one fictional event, not the chronology of all time since whites arrived. Secondly, Ms. Beardslee can only be so aware of how each interaction between white and Native took place. Obviously Wargin has gone way beyond artistic license with this book, but Ms. Beardslee makes this assertion that cannot possibly be proven either way. Finally, Ms. Beardslee's personal situation should not be included in any viable analysis of a book. While I feel for her difficulties, they do not belong in a book review. Her very valid analysis becomes clouded by her personal commentary.

Anonymous said...

I have some similar concerns to anonymous' post above. While Wargin was completely out of line with her book, Beardslee seems to indicate that Natives have a monopoly on the geological anomaly that is the Petoskey Stone. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a Native myself, I would certainly not bar whites or any other ethnic group from enjoying, studying, or observing a so-called "sacred" item such as the Petoskey Stone. As a clumsy analogy, would we feel that a Hindu should be offended when a non-Hindu veternarian observes and studies cattle?

I am very familiar with the Traverse Bay, MI region, having many friends and family residing in that area. They all feel nothing but pride in the Petoskey Stone, and would do nothing to harm them.

Wargin made a terrible error in not consulting with Natives before writing her book, but I feel Beardslee should not condemn all whites as she seems to do in this article. I admit I became more angry at her writing as a reflection of a Native standpoint as I read further and further on.

Anonymous said...

Sorry..you lost me at "Princess". Natives have no nobility in their bloodlines. For some ridiculous reason, every "anglo" seems to think the daughter of a "Chief" was to be addressed as "Princess". Nothing could be further from the truth. To invoke a station of royalty into a Chief's family would have been a grave insult to that Chief. Even the Chief was not of any kind of "royal" blood. A Chief was only Chief by way and making of the people. In most cases, a Chief's "Son" was in line for his father's position only if he were to be chosen by the tribe to take his father's place and oft times, was not. Their is no Blood Lineage within a tribe, no automatic succession. So, the term "Princess" was an anglo term, never a tribal term or position of importance and certainly, not among the Aanishinabe people.