Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jan Bourdeau Waboose's SKYSISTERS

A few days ago, it was -6 degrees outside, and yesterday, snow fell most of the day. That snow took the edge off the bitter cold and as I brushed snow off my car, I remembered a scene in a favorite picture book in which two sisters are lying in the snow, looking up at the sky.

That book is SkySisters. In it, two Ojibway sisters walk through the winter night to see the SkySpirits (Northern Lights). As you can see on the cover, the illustrations by Brian Deines, are striking. Right away, they signal to the reader that these are kids of the present day. Inside, you learn that the girls are Ojibway. As they walk, they, like any other kids, are delighted when they see a rabbit. There is much young (and old) readers can gain by reading SkySisters.

I hope SkySisters is in your school library, and that teachers and librarians who brushed snow off their cars yesterday will read it aloud today and revel in the beauty of story and snow.

Published in 2000 by Kids Can Press, SkySisters is available from Oyate.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sharon Creech's WALK TWO MOONS

[Note: This review is used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]
Creech, Sharon, Walk Two Moons. New York: HarperCollins (1994). 280 pages; grades 5-up; Seneca

This is a poignant story revolving around two friends—Phoebe Winterbottom and Salamanca Tree Hiddle—whose mothers have disappeared, and the journey Salamanca makes with her grandparents to find her mother. The protagonists, Sal and Phoebe, are well developed as very bright 13-year-olds with overactive imaginations. Sal’s goofy grandparents, too, are well drawn, as are some of the minor characters—such as Mrs. Cadaver, whom Sal and Phoebe suspect is an axe murderer; and Mr. Birkway, the hyperactively joyful English teacher with no sense of privacy.

This beautifully written and compelling story is deeply flawed by the “Indian” material that is thrown together with no cultural or historical context and really has nothing to do with anything actually Native. Neither does Salamanca, although frequently referring to her “Indian blood,” and constantly repeating the overdone maxim about “walking two moons in another man’s moccasins.” (In chapter 44, the phrase is actually used nine times in four pages!) Most of what she says—such as that she was given her name because her parents didn’t realize that the name of the “Indian tribe to which my great-great-grandmother belonged” was actually “Seneca”—is ridiculous.

When Sal and her grandma discuss whether to use the term “Native American” or “Indian,” she recalls her mother saying that “Indian sounds much more brave and elegant” and that the “Indian-ness” in their background made them “appreciate the gifts of nature” and makes them “closer to the earth.” Does the author really think that there is some kind of a genetic Indian-earth-nature connection?

There are episodes involving cross-cultural “legends,” casual smoking and sharing of “peace pipes,” someone referring to himself as an “American Indian person” (as compared to an American Indian chair?), and a dance described this way:
The Indians had formed two circles, one inside the other, and were hopping up and down. The men danced in the outer circle and wore feather headdresses and short leather aprons. On their feet were moccasins, and I thought again about Phoebe’s message: Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins. Inside the circle of men, the women in long dresses and ropes of beads had joined arms and were dancing around one older woman who was wearing a regular cotton dress. On her head was an enormous headdress, which had slipped down over her forehead. I looked closer. The woman in the center was hopping up and down. On her feet were flat, white shoes. In the space between drum beats, I heard her say, “Huzza, huzza.”
One wonders why the author did this; perhaps she wanted an “Indian” title and needed to make some kind of a context for it. Although Creech’s characterizations are excellent, the way she manipulates the characters—and the child reader—is inexcusable. Not recommended.
—Beverly Slapin

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Racism, Power, and Privilege at UIUC

In previous posts to the blog, I've referred to incidents of stereotyping and racist acts that have been occurring at UIUC and elsewhere. Unlike other campuses with situations that have been on national news, UIUC has a racialized symbol/mascot for its athletic teams: "Chief Illiniwek."

In response to these incidences on our campus, a group of students, staff, faculty, and community members formed a coalition whose work led to a forum held here on Thursday, Feb. 1st.

Titled "Racism, Power, and Privilege at UIUC," it included 45 minutes for people to make statements, and 45 minutes for UI's President, and UIUC's Chancellor, Provost, and other top level administrators to respond to questions submitted by the audience. It also included context for the forum, and a list of demands developed to address the problems.

The forum was larger than expected. It was held in the largest auditorium on campus, which seats 1700. Two additional sites on campus were set up for overflow. The event was broadcast at those sites. Both sites were also full to capacity and students were turned away.

If you are interested in watching the webcast, go to the I-Resist website. It has a link to the webcast, but also to the page from which you can download software necessary to view the webcast. Or if you wish, you can go directly to the webcast page:

Central to the forum is the issue of representation, with students (and UIUC's mascot) dressing in ways thought to be the way that African Americans, Latino/a Americans, and American Indians dress and behave. These ways are, of course, stereotypical, whether they are deemed negative or positive.

These representations are familiar to all of us who create, review, teach, and otherwise use children's books. I've written here previously about how much "Chief Illiniwek" is similar to Native imagery found in popular children's books.

Many individuals gave powerful statements. Please view the forum and consider sharing it with your classes and colleagues.

And, if you're interested in following UIUC's mascot issue more closely, I created a blog on that topic. Recent developments? The regalia worn by the student who portrays Chief Illiniwek was bought from an Oglala man in the 1980s. He was destitute at the time. He family wants the regalia back. A few weeks ago, the Executive Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed a resolution calling for the end of Chief Illiniwek, and for the regalia to be returned to them. My blog on this is called A Native Perspective on Chief Illiniwek.