Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Pinata for the Pinon Tree

It is generally poor form to comment on a book that you have not seen, so I'm sure to get criticized for doing so today...

A reader wrote to ask me about a book called The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Pinata for the Pinon Tree. It's a new book out this year. She wrote because there is a page with kachinas on it, and she wonders if it is an appropriate use of kachinas.

The review in Publisher's Weekly says the book has "10 kachina leapin'" and the review in School Library Journal says "a wild party ensues with kachina leaping, coyotes yowlin'..."

Based on those reviews and my study of the book cover, this use is way over the line of cultural sensitivity and respect.

Obviously, a lot of people have no idea what kachinas are.

Who messed up in the creation, publication, distribution, and review of the book?

  • Author
  • Illustrator
  • SLJ Reviewer
  • Publisher's Weekly Reviewer
  • Editors at Little, Brown

Kachinas are not playthings. They are sacred. They are deities. In their significance to the Pueblo and Hopi peoples, they are of the highest order. Trying to draw analogies from one culture to the next in order to help someone see the significance in another is difficult, and these analogies break down.

Though you can buy a kachina doll when you're out west (or over the internet), your purpose in having it is different from that which a Pueblo or Hopi person. For you, it is a piece of art. For us, kachinas are central to our spirituality and way of life.

I will not say more, because too many charlatans mimic Native spirituality, selling it to desperate people.

For kachinas to be used in a children's book in this way is, in a word, shameful. Their use in this book is evidence that we have a long way to go in helping mainstream America understand who we are.

Note: Thanks to my friend and colleague, Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert, from the village of Upper Moencopi, Arizona. Matt is Hopi, and a historian here at UIUC.



web said...

I wanted to let you know that I posted an update to my review about this issue, referring people to your post.


Eri said...

That sounds as bad as the Chanukah in Chelm book which ends with directional sign that looks like a cross in the snow!

Betsy McEntarffer said...

Once again you have saved the day for us. I knew when we received 'The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Piñata for the Piñon Tree' from Little, Brown (we are a review center for them and other publishers) that the Kachina depictions were improper. However, before we can recommend that the libarians at any of our 53 K-12 schools not order a book, we need a negative professional review. Booklist gave it a positive review and so did School Library Journal, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly - no mention at all of Kachinas. So once again I turned to your blog and came up with the documentation I needed. By reading articles and reviews from Oyate, Naomi Caldwell, and you we are beginning to think more clearly about Indian images in children's books. We have a ways to go - but we are working on it. Thank you for providing us with this invaluable tool for helping our schools be positive cultural examples.
Gratefully, Betsy McEntarffer, Secretary for the Lincoln Public Schools Staff Media Multicultural Review Committee. 5901 'O' St., Lincoln Public Schools, Lincoln, NE 68510

Anonymous said...

So if you purchase a kachina doll as art from an actual Hopi artist, is this appropriate?

Debbie Reese said...


People do collect them as art, just as some people collect retablos, saints, etc. I'm glad that you got it from a Hopi person. Now, if you let a child play with it like it was a doll, that would be a problem.