Wednesday, March 07, 2007

VOYA Article "Native American Religious Traditions: A World Religions Resource List for Teens"

The February 2007 isssue of VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates) includes an article titled "Native American Religious Traditions: A World Religions Resource List for Teens" by Jan Chapman.

Chapman lists several books, some of which are excellent. Seale and Slapin's A Broken Flute is on her list. So are two volumes of Vine Deloria, Jr.

But the inclusion of Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree makes me wonder what criteria Chapman used to develop her list. Also questionable are the Will Hobbs book, and Scott O'Dell's, and several others.

And the Gabriel Horn book?! About it, Chapman says "Blending a New Age approach to spirituality with descriptions of Native American rituals, prayers, and stories, this book includes a fascinating look at ceremonies for marriage, birth, dreams, and healing."

I'm a bit cynical and sarcastic in these remarks, but it seems to me that Chapman didn't read the Deloria texts on her list. If she had, she'd know that New Age appropriation of Native spirituality is a primary concern to us (with "us" being Native peoples... I'm tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo).

Chapman's list makes no sense, and I urge librarians NOT to use it to add to their collections.


Update: 8:45 PM, March 7, 2007

Beverly Slapin read the VOYA article and sent me critical reviews of two of the books Chapman recommends. Oyate does NOT recommend them. They are below. First is Where the Great Hawk Flies, and second is Spirit Line. Note! Both reviews are used here with Slapin's permission and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

Ketchum, Liza, Where the Great Hawk Flies. Clarion Books, 2005. 264 pages, grades 4-7 (Pequot) 

It is 1782, two years after British soldiers and their Caughnawaga (Mohawk) allies laid bloody siege to a Vermont settlement. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Tucker and his little sister Rhoda, whose mom is a Pequot doctoress and whose dad is a white farmer, are confronted by the hatred and fear exhibited by their new white neighbors, one of whom is eleven-year-old Hiram Coombs, a survivor of the raid. Hiram’s fears, exacerbated by his flashbacks, are further heightened when the Tucker children’s Pequot grandfather shows up to pass along the “old ways,” that are “sliding away, like currents slipping down the river."

In alternating narratives, Daniel’s struggle to “find his own path” offers a counterpoint to Hiram’s racism and fear of Indians. As the two boys come to know each other and their families are brought together by an entirely predictable occurrence, their seething enmity gives way to a tentative friendship. 

Despite Ketchum’s discovery that her great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Pequot, she (Ketchum) shows an appalling lack of understanding of Indian ways. No Indian cultural markers here, not one. Grandpa scolds and lectures the children, handles other people’s medicine, grunts, stomps, chants, and complains about his losing his power—“I am an old man now. My skill is fading.”
“He shook the rattle, drummed the earth with his feet, and began to sing. His voice was high as the scream of the red-tailed hawk, wild as coyotes calling to one another on the ridge….The fire lit the pendant on Grandfather’s chest. He shook the rattle harder, then beat his chest with his fists. Swish. Swish. Thrum. Thrum. His voice rose higher, the drumming came faster, the rattle shivered until I thought it would explode…Grandfather’s mournful cries rang in our ears.”
Turns out all this dancing and drumming and rattle-shaking was Grampa’s death song. Pretty energetic for a dying old guy whose skill is fading. 

So Grampa dies, and Mom lops off her hair and rubs ashes on her arms and face—and then has to explain to her horrified husband and children why she’s doing this. Then she sets in to weave a basket. Although it would be an odd thing for a grieving Indian woman to do, it gives Ketchum the opportunity to write—this:
“Mother’s hands began to move and I watched her for a moment. Her fingers snaked a pale splint into the half-formed basket, twining the ash in and out through darker splints so the pattern alternated, dark, then light. Dark. Light. Mother. Father. A dark splint, a light one, woven together. My sister and me, formed from the two—each one of us a sturdy basket, held by the tight mesh of our parents’ weaving. Each neither Pequot, nor English, but both.”
Holy Belabored Metaphor, Batman! And ash splints are not twined, they’re plaited.


Daniel admires the quilling that decorates the bottom of his new deerskin pouch, and muses that "Mom must have spent long hours softening the hide, collecting the quills, then weaving them into this beautiful pattern." Let's get real here. Quills are not collected. (Can you imagine someone walking through the woods, looking for quills? Does the term "needle in a haystack" ring a bell?) There are three ways to get quills: (1) Find a dead porcupine, remove the quills, (2) Find a live porcupine, throw a blanket over it, remove the quills from the blanket, or (3) Find a porcupine, shoot it, remove the quills. 

Grampa verbally instructs Daniel on how to make a dugout canoe: “You must find a straight tree with no branches,” he explains. “A chestnut will last forever….First peel off the bark. Then build a fire inside the log and watch it carefully. Burn it, and scoop out the wood. It takes a long time." 

It does take a long time, even if you don’t have to look for a tree with no branches and then wait for the tree to fall. Grampa’s directions are pretty straightforward; he just left out a few steps: You have to chop down the tree, drag it to a clearing (preferably near the water), cut off the bark and shape the outside with an axe, then do slow controlled burning (using wet clay as a barrier) to shape the inside, scrape out the coals, repeat burning and scraping the length of the boat, then scrape the inside and outside smooth. This is not the kind of wisdom an Indian grandfather would pass on to his young grandson—by talking. He would more likely show his grandson how something this complex is done, and he would enlist the aid of other male family or community members. And all the while they were working together, grampa would be telling stories about patience, commitment, and passing down history. 

The red-tailed hawk who flies around, alternately bringing and taking messages and leading people to safety is busier than Rin-Tin-Tin. As the great Cherokee philosopher Tom King said, “the beauty of Native philosophy is that not everything means something.”

Finally, Indians don’t have “gleaming black eyes” or “eyes black as coal.” No one does. Where the Great Hawk Flies is a boring book besides. 

—Beverly Slapin


Thurlo, Aimée and David, The Spirit Line. New York: Viking (2004). 216 pages, grades 6-8; Diné (Navajo) 

Crystal Manyfeathers, a 15-year-old Diné (Navajo), is outspoken in her disdain for all the traditions in which she has been brought up. Yet Crystal, who is “the most talented weaver on the reservation,” must prepare for her kinaaldá, her womanhood ceremony, because that is what her mother, now deceased, would have wanted. Although her best friend, Henry Tallman, is a traditionalist, studying to be a hataalii, a healer, she decides to weave a large rug without the traditional “spirit line.”

When Crystal dreams about Spider Woman and the unfinished rug is stolen just before her kinaaldá, she must figure out what to do. As is typical of this formulaic sub-sub-sub genre one could call “young-person-coming-of-age-with-an-Indian-theme-fiction”: (1) the protagonist exhibits behaviors opposed to those of her own culture, (2) the question of what could cause her to feel so disconnected is not addressed, and (3) the culture itself is depicted in a way that makes no sense:
  • A young Diné woman raised traditionally would not consider her home “the middle of nowhere,” nor would she feel “suffocated by her father’s traditional culture.” This is her world. Even if she were to move to the city, she would be tied to the land that would always be her home. The “culture of her ancestors” would be her culture, and she would not think of it as “dead.”
  • There are many traditional weavers living and working on Dinétah who have been learning from and teaching each other for a long time; a 15-year-old would still be learning from her female elders. “Most talented” is not a Diné concept; it implies that the art of weaving is natural rather than learned, that there is competition to be the “best,” and that the learning is done when a certain level is attained.
  • Traditional Diné weavers incorporate a small opening or break—sometimes a light-colored piece of yarn woven into a border—as an acknowledgment that only Creator makes perfect things. It’s also a personal reminder to keep one’s heart “open” to learning. Crystal decides not to weave in this “spirit line” because she doesn’t believe in traditional ways. But she wouldn’t be weaving if she were not a traditionalist. Weaving is a sacred gift; it’s a way for Diné to embed the culture, it’s a constant reminder of why and how things are done.
  • Crystal’s father and her other relatives wouldn’t openly criticize her. Diné don’t criticize their children’s choices, nor do they impose their beliefs on their children. Rather, they allow them to learn about life in their own way and make decisions about their lives that support their own beliefs.
  • A visit to a traditional healer for assistance is not a casual thing. The whole family would be involved. They would arrange for the visit and pay in cash, food, sheep, goats, blankets, rugs. A person who does not believe in traditional ways does not consult a medicine man. A young woman would not just go for advice and then decide not to follow it. 
  • A person would not express to the healer how she felt as a result of the ceremony. Rather she would take in the experience and think about its significance. More than likely, it would be the medicine man giving follow-up instructions.
  • A kinaaldá is held to welcome a young woman into the circle of women. It is a blessing and an honoring, and physically rigorous, not to mention expensive. A young woman’s female relatives would not go through all the work and expense to arrange a kinaaldá if the ceremony “didn’t mean much to her,” nor would they have one if she weren’t ready or if they couldn’t afford it.
  • It’s stated that people must address each other only by nicknames, because calling people by their first names is culturally forbidden. This is because “Navajo names are supposed to contain power, and using them too much burns up your energy.” Actually, friends or relatives call each other by first names or nicknames or relationship names. Traditional Indian names are generally not used, except in certain circumstances.
  • Despite Crystal’s assertions that “traditionalists believed that even a single mistake by a healer during a Sing could cause the gods to ignore their efforts or, in some cases, make everything worse,” Diné healers take their jobs very seriously, but if someone makes a mistake, there’s something done to redeem it.
  • While many Diné don’t have personal computers, they have computers in school. In Rough Rock and Chinle and other places, every classroom has computers, credentialed teachers, and good bilingual and bicultural programs that teach cultural and academic language, as well as other subjects.

At home, Diné know each other as Diné, the people, not “Navajo,” a word used with outsiders. Diné generally refer to their homeland as Diné Bekayah or Dinétah, not “the rez.” Diné do not call white people “Anglos”; the Diné name for white people is “bilagaana.” “Crystal Manyfeathers” and “Henry Tallman” are not Diné names. It’s inappropriate for a Diné to discuss matters of spiritual significance with an outsider, especially a trader. Not weaving in a “spirit line” would make a rug less, not more, valuable. Schoolteachers do not teach weaving as part of “home economics.” A medicine pouch is not the same thing as a purse. A medicine pouch carries spiritual medicine; a purse holds spare change. And you don’t take a picture of a medicine pouch, even if it’s a device to move the plot. Boyfriends and girlfriends do not sing sacred songs to each other. Nobody, not even a gang member, would steal from a medicine man. Healing a minor itch does not usually call for a prayer. Diné don’t joke about death in any way. The term “walk in beauty” is not used casually; it is part of a prayer. Nobody I know has ever heard of a Diné deity called “Beautiful Flowers, the Chief of all Medicines.” There are all kinds of good songs, some used for protection, some used for specific blessings, but there is no such thing as a “Good Luck Song.” The word “luck” is not part of Diné vocabulary or belief. 

The authors appear to have relied on several Diné sources, particularly Monty Roessel’s excellent photoessays, Kinaaldá: A Navajo Girl Grows Up (Lerner, 1993), and Songs from the Loom: A Navajo Girl Learns to Weave (Lerner, 1995). But a quick comparison between these titles and The Spirit Line shows that the authors don’t know enough about Diné culture to write about it, even with help. In Songs from the Loom, for instance, Spider Woman instructs Changing Woman to leave a small opening in her rugs:
“If you don’t leave an opening,” she said, “you will close in your life and thoughts. You will be unable to learn anymore.”
Here is the Thurlos’ version of Spider Woman’s instructions via Henry (Junior) Tallman: 

I’m sure you were warned about Blanket Sickness and Spider Woman when you first learned to weave. If you omit the tribute due her, Spider Woman will leave cobwebs in your mind and trap your thoughts inside the pattern of your rug. Why would you ignore that—particularly after Spider Woman herself came to warn you?

It’s not the role of Diné men, even medicine-men-in-training, to talk to a young woman about weaving. It’s especially not their role to lecture her. If her mother had passed, her women relatives—grandma, aunties, sisters, female cousins—would make an extra effort to support her. They would teach her what she’d need to know as a woman and what she’d need to pass on to her own children. 

Once again, while young white middle-class readers will readily identify with the young protagonist here, cross-cultural authors have manipulated them into thinking they are getting something real. And the reviewers joined in, writing that The Spirit Line “contains accurate portrayals of Navajo customs” (School Library Journal), is “filled with well-integrated cultural details of Navajo life” (Booklist), and that “Navaho beliefs, traditions, and rituals are woven throughout the story line, and readers…gain an appreciation for the traditional ways of (Crystal’s) people” (Kliatt). With the critical writing that Indian reviewers such as Naomi Caldwell, Lisa Mitten, Debbie Reese, Doris Seale, and Cynthia L. Smith have been doing for years, there is no longer any excuse for ignorance. 

—Beverly Slapin (Thank-you to Linda Baldwin, Gloria Grant, and Linda Lilly.)

1 comment:

Emily said...

I appreciate this review of The Spirit Line. I just read it myself and didn't see any appeal at all from an artistic point of view--and although I'm not knowledgeable enough to pick out the inaccuracies myself, I did find that the book rang inauthentic to me.