Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom"

The January 2007 issue of Language Arts, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, is out. In it is "Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom," an article I wrote. In it, I discuss the ways that American Indian story is appropriated and distorted when authors retell those stories in picture books for children.

Specifically, I discuss McDermott's Arrow to the Sun, Pollock's Turkey Girl: A Zuni Cinderella Story, and Rodanas's Dragonfly's Tale. All three are widely available in bookstores, public and school libraries. But, all three are deeply flawed. Good stories, perhaps, but they provide little value in terms of informing readers about Pueblo Indians. And as many of you know, teachers often use children's books like these to teach their students about, in this case, Pueblo Indians.

Have you used one of these books in your teaching? Do you have it in your library? I hope the article is helpful to you, and that you view these books and others like them in a different way after reading the article.

I'll say again, I do not blame any teacher for embracing these books. We're all products of a society that romanticizes American Indians. That can change, though, and this article is one tool you can use to bring about that change.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Representation, Stereotypes of American Indians, "Chief Illiniwek"

Those of you familiar with UIUC know that its sports team mascot is "Chief Illiniwek" and that its sports teams are "The Fighting Illini." For many years, Native people on the UIUC campus and in the Urbana-Champaign community, and our allies have asked the University to stop using Native imagery for its sports program.

The regalia worn by the student portraying "Chief Illiniwek" was acquired from Frank Fools Crow in the early 1980s. He was Oglala Sioux. Details regarding how the University came to have the regalia are not clear. It may have been a gift, or it may have been purchased.

Pro-Chief groups at UIUC, including the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, maintain that this regalia is an endorsement and support for UIUC's "Chief Illiniwek".

Yesterday, the Executive Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed a resolution asking that the regalia be returned to Fools Crow's family, and that the University cease use of its mascot.

We, at the Native American House on campus are authorized to distribute a press release and distribute the resolution. You can read the press release and resolution here:

Will the University return the regalia? The coming days will be revealing. The University claims it honors and respects Native peoples. That should prompt them to return the regalia immediately.

[Note on Jan 21st, 2007: If you are looking for information regarding the Facebook incident at UIUC, you can read about it at Inside Higher Ed: "Ugly Turn in Mascot Debate."]

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Marlene Carvell's Sweetgrass Basket

[This review is by Beverly Slapin and used with her permission. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Carvell, Marlene, Sweetgrass Basket. Dutton, 2005. 243 pages; grades 5-up (Mohawk)

Sweetgrass Basket is a young adult novel, told in the alternating voices of two young Mohawk sisters attending the now-notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the early 1900s. Unlike most young adult novels by cultural outsiders, Sweetgrass Basket contains no self-conscious “anthropological asides” to explain to readers what the writer assumes to be important details of an “other” culture. Rather, it’s a wrenchingly beautiful story of two sisters trying to keep themselves together in an atmosphere that fosters only hate and shame. But amidst all the abuse, the children resist the value system being foisted on them, sometimes with great good humor. “I must say,” the older sister Mattie says to Sarah about the hated Mrs. Dwyer, “‘that I hope she steps in a hole and is swallowed by the earth.’ Suddenly Sarah’s eyes brighten and a smile spreads across her face. ‘Mattie, how dreadful,’ she says in mock horror. ‘What a terrible thing to do to Mother Earth.’” The ending is a surprise that’s not really a surprise. Children died at Carlisle, in front of cold, hard white people who didn’t give a damn.

Carvell’s husband’s great-aunt Margaret, who attended Carlisle, was the inspiration for Sweetgrass Basket. Ordinarily, information like this would be enough for me to roll my eyes and close the book, at least for a while. But, as in Carvell’s earlier novel, who will tell my brother?, she really did her homework, and she’s a wonderful writer. I imagine Aunt Margaret is pleased as well.

—Beverly Slapin