Thursday, April 26, 2007

American Girls Collection: Kaya

A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, includes a review of the Kaya books in the American Girls Collection. Far too often, popular books aren't given the critical attention they should receive. And, far too often, the reviews they do get fail to note problems regarding the ways that American Indians are portrayed. Some reviews from A Broken Flute appear on this blog, but, by far, the best option is for teachers, librarians, parents, professors, editors, publishers and students to buy the book itself, and get it directly from Oyate. Doing so allows Oyate, a non-profit organization, to continue to do this work. [Note: the review is used here with permission, and may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin at Oyate.]


Shaw, Janet, “American Girls Collection,” illustrations by Bill Farnsworth and Susan McAliley. Middleton, Wis.: Pleasant Company. Color illustrations; grades 3-6; Nimíipuu (Nez Percé)

Book 1—Meet Kaya: An American Girl. 2002, 70 pages

Book 2—Kaya’s Escape! A Survival Story. 2002, 72 pages

Book 3—Kaya’s Hero: A Story of Giving. 2002, 73 pages

Book 4—Kaya and Lone Dog: A Friendship Story. 2002, 81 pages

Book 5—Kaya Shows the Way: A Sister Story. 2002, 73 pages

Book 6—Changes for Kaya: A Story of Courage. 2002, 70 pages

Kaya and the River Girl. 2003, 48 pages

Little girls have been playing with dolls for as long as we have been human. If you are a Native mother, you would be hard put to find a doll to give to your daughter that would come near to being a representation of herself unless you made it. And that is what makes this Nimíipuu (Nez Percé) doll in the “American Girl” series so enticing. It’s too bad that the Pleasant Company did not produce something that genuinely transmits the Nimíipuu culture.

This series of stories taking place in 1764 could have been worse. The young protagonist has a name, a family, and friends. In the course of the series, she grows and matures. The author does not represent the Nimíipuu people as savages. But whatever information she got from her advisors is filtered through a white consciousness and further adapted to fit the mold of this formula historical fiction series. All life-threatening conflicts are resolved by the end of each story, and all moral and emotional conflicts are resolved by the end of the series. This writing style is an especially bad thing in historical books about Indian people, whose conflicts—over, for instance, water and land rights, the government’s theft of treaty funds, the issue of sports mascots—are ongoing. And books conceptualized as teaching tools—or worse, books enlisted in the cause of selling a product—usually result in writing that is stilted and boring. This series is no different. Some of the problems:

• Indian parents and grandparents lecture so that the author can convey information about the people. Besides being culturally dissonant, this breaks the cardinal rule in literature of “show, don’t tell.”

• Anachronistic wording such as the Lakota word “teepee” and the French words “travois” and “parfleche” are used throughout, even in dialogue. Nimíipuu words during that time period might have been translated as “dwelling,” “pony drag,” and “carrying bag.”

• By having Kaya talk in similes and metaphors, comparing all her thoughts to nature—“her thoughts whirled like smoke in the wind,” “she glides over the ground like the shadow of an eagle,” “her feelings were all tangled up like a nest of snakes”—the author misses the subtleties of Indian language and thought patterns. Throughout, faces are “dark” and “gleaming,” eyes are “dark,” cheekbones are “high,” expressions are “fierce,” and Indian characters “cock their heads” in thought.

• Traditionally, Nimíipuu names given to children had to do with ancestors, place, and responsibility; and names were changed several times during a person’s life. Unless the baby was dying and had to be named very quickly, naming was done after great consideration, often by an elder or holy person. It’s unbelievable that any 18th Century Nimíipuu mother would name her baby for the first thing she saw after giving birth—this is a stereotype that goes back even further than Will Sampson’s joke in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”[1]

• Swan Necklace was the English translation of a Nimíipuu leader’s name, but one wonders why—and in some cases, how—the author came up with names for characters such as “Speaking Rain,” “White Braids,” “To Soar Like An Eagle,” “Light On The Water” and “Bear Blanket.” Did she research traditional Nimíipuu name giving or did she just spin the wheels for authentic Indian names?[2]

• One can understand the author’s quandary in not wanting to use “Tonto-speak,” but sign language, a visual-gestural form of communication, has a different syntax than spoken languages and does not translate into standard grammatical sentences. Here, Kaya signs to Two Hawks: “But there’s hardly any game up this high. We’d still have nothing to eat.”

• A prepubescent Indian girl in 1764 would not have had a relationship with her father that included physical touching. Generally, girls stayed with their mothers or aunties and grandmas; and boys stayed with their fathers or uncles and grandpas. Unless it was an emergency, it is not likely that Kaya would have ridden behind her father on a horse, holding onto him. Nor is it likely that she would have “put her arms around his neck while he held her tightly against his chest for a long time.”

• Horse-stealing raids were not the same as raids to capture women and children, nor were they done at the same time. Nor would raiders feed captive children “only scraps from their meals.” Captive children were taken into adoption, often given to a family to take the place of children who had died, and treated as well as the other children.

• The “enemy tribe” is unnamed; in any event, people from horse cultures did not whip or otherwise abuse their horses. Previously owned horses were accustomed to being ridden and wild horses were gentled—not “tamed”—by their owners.

• Hunters would not have brought back buffalo to camp and given “the meat and hides to the women.” Rather, the camp moved to the hunting grounds so that the women could butcher the meat right there.

• Kaya’s sightless sister, “Speaking Rain,” as all Native children, would have been taught to take care of herself. She would not have to hold hands while walking with someone, nor would she be constrained from picking berries or gathering firewood, nor would she ask questions about things she could figure out for herself.

• The people all look alike, they are all the exact same tone of brown, and their facial and physical features are the same, too. In pictures where the women and girls are sitting, they’re sitting in the wrong position. Indian women in this time period would not have sat with their legs crossed, nor would they have sat with their legs up, hugging their knees.

Kaya and the River Girl, a 2003 tack-on to the series, is the most stupefyingly contrived of all of them. Here, Kaya loses a spontaneous foot race to a girl named Spotted Owl, who is from the “River People.” For 21 pages, Kaya obsesses about losing the race: she’s angry and miserable, her pride is injured, her feelings are bruised, her voice is grim and cold, she struggles with her shame. Finally, when the two girls come together to rescue an elder woman named Elder Woman, they become great friends.

• The non-fiction sections at the end of the books, called “A Peek Into the Past,” are uneven. While some parts convey good information, particularly the boarding school story in Kaya’s Escape! and the story of the Dalles Dam in Kaya Shows the Way, other parts are rife with error. For instance, in Meet Kaya, the author states, “Early white explorers, including French fur trappers, mistakenly believed that all Nez Percé wore shells through their noses and gave them that name.” How could anyone look at someone and “mistakenly believe” him to be wearing a shell through his nose? The Nimíipuu people were called “Nez Percé” by the French because they pierced the septa of their horses’ noses so that the horses could breathe better and run faster.

• By setting these books in 1764—before white encroachment—the author and publisher were able to sidestep the nasty parts of what happened to the Nimíipuu and to relegate some of the history to the “Looking Back” sections. The series oversimplifies and sanitizes Nimíipuu history, and by doing so, makes history more palatable to the contemporary sensibilities of the young non-Native girl readers for whom this series was conceptualized.

The Kaya series exactly illustrates the problem with which we are constantly contending: It’s almost impossible to tell another people’s story in a believable way, no matter how good one’s intentions may be and no matter how many cultural advisors there are. And writing to formula is never a good idea.

—Beverly Slapin

[1] The punch line is too raunchy for this publication. Rent the movie.

[2] Thank-you to Tom King, Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour.


bint alshamsa said...

Yes, it is very disappointing. I once bought my daughter one of the dolls from the American Girls Today line. It was nice to be able to get her a doll that had medium brown skin and slightly textured hair.

I was really excited when I heard that they were making an American Indian doll for their historic series. However, I must admit to being more than a little dismayed to see how little they developed the concept. Even Kit, the doll that depicts the Great Depression period has more accessories than Kaya. It's this inability to see American Indian culture as equally complex and sophisticated as White culture that just burns me up. I mean, because you know we just sat around all day in our "teepees", while "communing with nature", right? Arrgh!!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to believe that if Pleasant Company hadn't been bought by Mattel, this stuff would have been better handled...of course, they had fewer resources then, so they took more years to develop each product. As well as not being, you know, Mattel.

Janna said...

I was a kid who grew up with American Girl before Mattel bought it and I'm sorry to see it seems like the historical aspect of the line isn't as strong anymore (what with all the girls of today, poor research, etc.) I still have my AG Historical Society membership card and writings from back in the day.

Marie Green said...

Kaya is the archetype of the "Strong Female Lead" adventurous, daring, honorable, and brave! I love how exciting the book is! The book felt like a Disney movie, Swan Circling's death had the same punch as Mufasa's in The Lion King and Kaya gets kidnapped like Penny in The Rescuers. There's also a forest fire like in Bambi. I'm used to American Girl pushing the envelope with what is acceptable to talk about in children's media and American Girl didn't do that here! Maybe if American Girl followed Beverly Sllapen's instructions they would have produced a more mature and nuanced book like they normally do.

Anonymous said...

My name is Aimee Massey, I am a writer of two published children's books, and I am also blind. I would just like to comment on the mention here of Speaking Rain; of course I don't know exactly what adaptive methods Speaking Rain would have been taught, but I will say that outdoors, without sight, it is quite difficult to navigate independently without a cane. (Full disclosure: I haven't read the Kaya series; I read only a cople couple of AG books and found them all too "teachy preachy" and I'm definitely not the intended age reader.) Sure, Speaking Rain would know landmarks, but it would take time for her to familiarize herself with them, and she would have needed a "sighted guide" till she had learned the area, and definitely in any unfamiliar setting. She'd need a stick/cane of some sort to avoid obstacles. Again, I can't say what she'd actually have done, but I would hazard the guess that if she didn't hold hands with someone, she might walk slightly behind that person and hold onto a shoulder or clothing. Of course she could have folloed behind or walked alongside and kept in voice contact, in situations where there was no need to be silent. But yes, she would have been expected to do her share of work, though albeit extra effort would need to be made so she could do things without sight. Just wanted to shed a little light on a subject that I have personal experience with. My first book, "Odric the Bold" involves a blind boy who does go on a solo trip through the forest; he lives in a modern yet somewhat whimsical place. He uses a cane and a hand-carved wooden map given to him by an elderly knight who used it in Ye Olden Days for night work hunting dragons in that same forest. Of course Odric also uses his other senses to learn about his surroundings, and I would expect Speaking Rain would also.
All right, I'm done pontificating. Thanks!