Friday, May 25, 2007

Kenneth Thomasma's books

A casting call is making the rounds in Indian Country... Too bad it is for the lead in a feature film based on Naya Nuki, one of the books in Thomasma's "Amazing Indian Children" series, which should more aptly be called "Amazing White Man's Indians." Those familiar with books about images of Indians will know my title for the series borrows from Robert F. Berkhofer's excellent book (published in 1979), The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present.

As you will read in Dovie Thomason's review essay below, Thomasma's books for children are quite a mess. And they're old, too, which should have been a heads-up to the film company. They're not classics or best sellers, but they do get put on lists (such as the Accelerated Reader program) by people who haven't read critically on bias and stereotyping.

Too bad the film makers didn't do more research. Ah, but I err. They're not into it for educational purposes, but for money. Naya Nuki is a Lewis and Clark story. The film makers missed the boat, I think, in the timing for this film, but I suspect they know it will get used again and again in classrooms.

Hmmm.... I wonder. If enough people wrote to the casting company (which is all the info we've got in terms of contacts), might the company drop the book and select another one? I think its worth a try. Write to Rene Haynes at nayanuki@rhcasting.com. Let's see what we can do. Read the review below to prep for your letter to Rene. (Note: The review is used by permission of its author and may not be published elsewhere without written consent. You can quote from it and cite this blog as your source. Even better, though, is to buy a copy of A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, from Oyate. The review and many others are in the book. )
--Debbie
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Dovie Thomason's review:

Thomasma, Kenneth, “Amazing Indian Children Series.” Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. b/w illustrations; grades 3-5 
  • Amee-nah: Zuni Boy Runs the Race of His Life, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1995
  • Doe Sia: Bannock Girl and the Handcart Pioneers, illustrated by Agnes Vincent Talbot, 1999
  • Kunu: Winnebago Boy Escapes, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1989
  • Moho Wat: Sheepeater Boy Attempts a Rescue, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1994
  • Naya Nuki: Shoshoni Girl Who Ran, illustrated by Eunice Hundley, 1983
  • Om-kas-toe: Blackfeet Twin Captures an Elkdog, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1986
  • Pathki Nana: Kootenai Girl Solves a Mystery, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1991
  • Soun Tetoken: Nez Perce Boy Tames a Stallion, illustrated by Eunice Hundley, 1984
  • The Truth about Sacajawea. 1998 (not part of series)

White men who have tried to write stories about the Indian have either foisted on the public some bloodcurdling, impossible “thriller”; or, if they have been in sympathy with the Indian, have written from knowledge that was not accurate and reliable. No one is able to understand the Indian race like an Indian.
—Luther Standing Bear, 1928

Generations later, Kenneth Thomasma’s books embody the very problems Standing Bear wrote about. Using historical events as a background, teacher-turned-author Thomasma has produced a formulaic series called “Amazing Indian Children.” He also conducts writing workshops, storytelling assemblies and school programs, according to his press packet, “dressed in an Indian elk hide suit, complete with obsidian knife.” Choosing to represent Indian children, families, cultures and histories, he says his program “makes those Indian children proud of their heritage and restores self-respect to them that should never have been taken away.”

As a teacher, Thomasma could easily have accessed books by Luther Standing Bear/Ota K’te, Charles Eastman/Ohiyesa, Gertrude Bonnin/Zitkala Sa and others who wrote of their own lives as Indian children in the Nineteenth Century. Instead, he visited historical sites, read accounts by non-Native scholars, spoke with Native elders “to get the details right,” and added his own “speculations and educated guesses.” Does all of this qualify Thomasma to produce a series of children’s books about Indian children? Does it qualify him to interpret another people’s stories? Does it make his books a way of teaching “all kids what it was like to be an Indian child” or make “Indian children proud of their heritage” and restore “self-respect to them”? Can an outsider enter a community, speak with a few people and then understand enough to be the legitimate voice of its children? 

Thomasma may believe so, but it is not the voices of Indian children we hear in these books. Thomasma’s “amazing Indian children” are disadvantaged and struggling and heroic, and generally engage the sympathies of young readers. In Naya Nuki, one of the most popular books in the series, the main character is taken outside of her culture, away from her family, and put in a solitary cross-country trek with the odds of surviving stacked against her. She and her friend Sacajawea are “Shoshoni Indians,” and their lives, even before their capture, are described as hungry and desperate and ever wary of the “fierce…warlike tribes from the prairie.” But would she have thought of herself and her people as “Shoshoni Indians” or “Indians” at all? Wouldn’t she have thought of her people as Aqui Dika, their self-name, usually translated as Salmon Eaters (not Snakes)? Or, simply, wouldn’t she have used the terms “we” or “our people” or “our family”? From the first chapter, she even calls her friend “Sacajawea,” even though this did not become her name until years after their capture, when she was traded to the Arikara! Our young protagonist wanders through the entire story in a disembodied, out-of-culture state, seeing “Indians,” measuring the snowfall in inches and feet, counting the days and knowing “November” was near. She doesn’t think of her family often or comfort herself with a child’s memories that would make the family she longed to return to real to the young, empathetic reader. 

When not fearful of the pursuit by inexplicably “warlike” tribes, she is wary of “wild animals”—wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes and buffalo—and “fierce” weather. While much narrative is spent laboriously explaining (sometimes strangely, as when she makes “beautiful new moccasins” from untanned rawhide) various survival skills and close familiarity with nature, there is a fear of the “wilderness” that is not characteristic of the experience of an Indian child at that time. Her ability to survive, identify food and medicine, and recognize weather changes is described, not as the result of learning from relatives in an unbroken tradition of living with the land, but as instinctive. She “senses” and knows with no logical reasoning or teaching, seeming more like a part of the fauna of the “wilderness” than a child of people who knew the land intimately for millennia. She remains one-dimensional—an “amazing Indian child”—without ever being fully realized as a person and a member of a culture. 

The author’s voice becomes particularly alienating and offensive in his descriptions of ceremonial practices, which he turns into “pleasing the spirits of the hunt” or “angering the evil spirits of the dead.” And, of course, “chanting” for the “Great Spirit.” The rumbling of thunder, for instance, is explained as: “The Great Spirit surely must be angry. The heavens seemed to roar.” Surely these are not the thoughts of an Indian child in 1800. There is no sense of the worldview of her people. Why doesn’t Naya Nuki remember the traditional stories she’d heard that taught her relatedness to the land and all of the creatures of the land? The only stories mentioned are stories of war parties and battles, of heroic “braves” who are never just men or fathers or uncles. 

These problems may seem trivial compared to the hateful images of “sneaky, lurking, blood-thirsty, war-whooping savages” of the sort of literature Standing Bear observed as early as 1928 and which remains a concern today. But they still deny Indian characters in children’s books the full humanity necessary for non-Indian children reading them to view our complex cultures and for our own children to recognize themselves and their communities in what they read. 

Some may still ask, “But are these good books for my child or my classroom?” As literature, they are inconsistent and defy logic. The “heroic” deeds of the young protagonist are “thrilling,” but unbelievable. My daughter—who is both the same age as “Naya Nuki”—and I read some of Thomasma’s books together. Unlike most of her classmates, she has parents with a buffalo robe on their bed, so she was incredulous when she read of a young girl running for five hours with a buffalo robe bundled on her back and then floating across a river with it! An undernourished child running a 10K race with a robe so heavy it’s a struggle for an adult to move it from shelf to bed! Amazing, indeed! 

My daughter found the books “easy” to read, “never once having to look up a word in the dictionary.” Despite being described as “intermediate reading, ages 9-13,” they are written at a third-grade level and the writing is simple and choppy. This from Naya Nuki:
She could travel swiftly alone. She could run fast if she had to. She could hide in time of danger. She could climb trees to escape wild animals. She could find her own food. She could do it alone. She would do it alone.
As is probably true of most young readers, my daughter admired the children in these stories for their bravery and felt concern for their disadvantages, particularly the young Zuni boy born with a clubfoot, who is the main character in Amee-nah: Zuni Boy Runs the Race of His Life. Again, this is a “fictional story based on the life of a boy who actually lived,” although the boy who came to be known as “Nathan” is never fully identified. Permission to tell this story did not come from the person or family whose life Thomasma depicts; rather, it came from the son of missionaries who had told Thomasma the story when he was a young camp counselor in Michigan

Amee-nah, which means “lazy,” is the cruel “nickname” given to him because “he never went to sheep camp. He never ran in the stick races. He never played any games with the other boys.” This is the name that taunting bullies, his mother and only friend—and the narrator—use. It makes no sense except to dramatize their change to calling him Nathan (which, we’re told, means “gift from God”) after his foot is “miraculously” healed thanks to the intervention of the mission school’s coach and his philanthropic doctor friend. Throughout the story, the only ones who pray for the boy are the people of the mission school—Thomasma doesn’t mention the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Zuni people that often co-exist with Christianity. Thomasma’s telling of the traditional story of Dowa Yalanne uses the spelling common in the Catholic schools, rather than the traditional spelling. Despite the often laborious demonstrations of “research” that slow all of Thomasma’s books, he mentions only briefly the need to fast before the traditional stick races and eating only “paper bread,” which he never calls piki. Instead, the young runner
“wondered if paper bread really did any good. It was just a paper-thin bread made from cornmeal. It surely couldn’t satisfy a hungry appetite.”
There is no mention of the significance to Zuni people of corn or this special bread or the stick race. The lightning strike and rain during the stick race are not put in the context of Zuni belief, but serve only as dramatic background for one boy’s “amazing” victory. Here, the rain is just an element that makes the race treacherous, with no link to growth or nourishment or a good life. Amee-nah seems as much a stranger to his own culture as the young non-Indian readers of these books. Nothing of this book gives those readers any understanding of the people Thomasma presumes to represent. 

My daughter said the only thing she learned about the Zuni from this book was that they are good runners, and that she learned “nothing new” about history. She guessed that the children who went to mission schools must have really liked it because the “white teachers were so nice to the Indian kids.” To leave this impression, without ever mentioning the devastating effect on cultures and individuals of the mission or boarding schools, is worse than mere omission. To choose as his hero a boy who is unable to be worthwhile or whole until saved by white agencies is an unacceptable image for the experiences of Indian children. 

With no mention of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Thomasma cites World War II as the singular event that taught a Zuni boy “the high cost of freedom,” and mentions in another book that the Nez Percé “have gone on to defend the United States against enemies of our freedom. They have earned our respect and admiration” (italics mine). 

Despite the good counsel of people from the Shoshone, Zuni, Blackfeet, Nez Percé, Salish-Kootenai, and Winnebago nations, and despite the fact that the heroic children and happy endings carry the young reader along, Thomasma’s books are filled with errors of fact and perspective. His condescension is obvious in his prefaces and epilogues where he depicts Native nations as “a proud tribe” (Zuni), “a very proud people” (Kootenai), “proud of their past” (Nez Percé), and “a very special group” (Shoshoni). It would seem that we hold a monopoly on pride and specialness. 

All of Thomasma’s books are problematic and cannot be recommended on any level. As an Indian, a parent and a teacher, I want better for my daughter and all children.
—Dovie Thomason

3 comments:

OrganicSchooler said...

Hi! This is my first visit to your blog, after it was recommended by my professor (I'm taking a Native American Lit class).

Because my children are Thomasma fans, I looked for your review of his books, first. This posting was SO helpful! Though I'll continue to let my kids read his books (because they first sparked my daughter's love of reading), your detailed analysis has given me some great discussion points and counterpoints to offer my children as they read them. And I plan to seek out the other, more authentic titles you suggested--thanks for sharing those! I'll let you know if the kids find them "curl up w/ a book" worthy! :)

scribbler_kate said...

Here is something I learned about good writing in elementary school: When using quotes, you must attribute them specifically (pg numbers, for example) so that your article or blog post or whatever it may be is taken seriously. Ken Thomasma visited my elementary school in Pinedale, Wyo., when I was in fifth grade. I had read many of his books by then, and I loved them. He gave a talk at our school about how to write well, and I still have his writing tips pasted on my bedroom door. (I am 27now). What I remember about Thomasma and his books: 1) he inspired me to be a writer; and 2) I enjoyed his fictional (yes, fictional) stories. Did I gain a lot of insight about Native Americans or their true lifestyles from reading his work? No. But then again, I wasn't even 9 years old when I read most of them. Most kids that age are simply interested in a fun, adventerous story, whether true or not, whether realistic or not. I didn't even know what the word "Revolt" meant.

Favior Noxon said...

I grew up in Etna, Wyoming, and I remember Thomasma's annual school assembly being a special treat. His books were cherished because he spoke enthusiastically about writing. His talks sparked our creativity and made writing fiction seem fun and approachable. It's been over 20 years since I read any of his books. I guess it's not surprising that they have some questionable cultural content. Thank you for this critical look at these books form my childhood.