Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reflections on CADDIE WOODLAWN: Teaching about Stereotypes using Literature

One evening in 1999, when my daughter, Liz, (then a third-grader) was doing homework, she said "Mom, I don't get it." She’s exceptionally bright, so when she told me she didn't get it, I knew something was up. I asked her what she was reading. She held up Caddie Woodlawn.

I was well into my research by that time (study of representation of Native Americans in children's books). Given UIUC's “Chief Illiniwek,” Liz learned early on about racism, representation, and stereotyping.

By then, I was already collaborating with Beverly Slapin at Oyate. I told her about Liz’s experience reading Caddie Woodlawn. She invited Liz to dictate her experience for inclusion in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Titled “Liz’s Story” here is a portion of what eight-year-old Liz said:

"And so we were reading it and when we got to the second chapter, it said, I'm not sure exactly what it said, that the Native Americans were sneaking around like dogs, and they picked up Caddie Woodlawn by her hair, and they were acting like dogs sniffing a bone. In another part it said that the Native Americans were massacring, murdering, and scalping the pioneers and made belts out of their hair and skin. They made the pioneers seem like angels and the Native Americans like inhuman monsters. I felt hurt inside, my eyes were watering, and I felt like I wanted to cry. But then I thought, there's something I can do about this."

Liz goes on to talk about how, the next day, she went to her teacher and the group to tell them how she felt about the book, and that she wanted them to stop reading it. Due to the teacher's social justice approach to teaching, Liz's group had great empathy and agreed to choose a different book.

Liz's best friend at the time was also in the group, and she said she didn't want them to pick a book that made white people look bad. In the end, I bought and donated 10 copies of Erdrich's Birchbark House. That is what they read instead. Liz went on to write a short play of one scene in the book, which her group later performed for their classmates.

This episode illustrates some of what good teachers must contend with in America’s under-funded schools.

The teacher chose this book because they were studying historical fiction, and she wanted them to read a story set in or near the midwest. She was using ‘best practice’ in that regard.

She chose that book because there were multiple copies of it available at the school.

She knew it contained derogatory content about American Indians, but, she thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct stereotypical images, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.

As Liz’s experience documents, it didn’t work.

Back then, I called my friends and colleagues in children’s literature, asking them for ideas on what to do. One expressed disgust that an old, outdated book was still being used in the classroom. She suggested the teacher use the book, but NOT as a work of literature. Here’s her rationale:

If a book is well-written, readers will be drawn into it, identifying with characters, setting, story, etc. as they read it, cover to cover. It might be difficult, given that growing attachment to the book, to distance themselves enough to be able to critically discuss the negative representations of American Indians. Analyzing such representations is important, and using children’s books to do it is possible, but not if the book is read, first, as literature. Here’s a rough outline of what a teacher might do:

  1. Assign specific chapters to different groups of children.
  2. Ask each group to focus on passages about American Indians in their specific chapter. What words are used to describe them? What tone is conveyed?
  3. Repeat this exercise for the non-Native characters.
  4. Compare and contrast the two sets of data.
  5. Engage the children in conversations about differences in these representations.
  6. Talk about the period when the book was written.
  7. Talk about the period itself, and how people thought about American Indians at that time.

If any of you (readers of this blog) have done something like this, please write to me. I’d like to hear how it works in practice.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Headed to NYC for NCTE's Conference on College Composition and Communication

Next week I'll be visiting New York City (for the first time), attending NCTE's Conference on College Composition and Communication. I'm speaking at a session titled "Research on Cultures of Writing."

My paper is designed to look at the process of retelling American Indian stories. I will use two children's books in my session, Penny Pollock's Turkey Girl and Kristina Rodanas Dragonfly's Tale. Both are deeply flawed.

My hope is to reach teachers who teach writing, to help them help writers approach this task in a more careful, thoughtful way. My session is on Saturday, 3:30 to 4:45.

NCTE invited Joy Harjo and Lee Marmon to speak on Thursday morning. Previously on this blog, I'm talked about her book, The Good Luck Cat. Her poetry is in a new book by Lee Marmon, called The Pueblo Imagination. You may not recognize his name, but anyone that has followed Native photography knows his signature shot of an elder Pueblo man in sneakers. That photo is featured on the cover of The Pueblo Imagination. (The photo itself is called "White Man's Moccasins.") Marmon's daughter is Leslie Marmon Silko, author of Ceremony, which is often used in high school lit classes. I'm really looking forward to their session.

My family will join me in NYC on Friday, where we'll see Mama Mia. I'm looking forward to being in NYC, and seeing a musical that draws from the songs of my teen years. It should be great fun.

Update 3/18/2007: I've spent much of this afternoon listening to Joy's CD, Native Joy for Real. She's a musician, plays sax. Go here to see her CDs.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Margaret Bruchac's MALIAN'S SONG

Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

Editor's Note: This review used here with permission of Beverly Slapin at Oyate. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.


Bruchac, Margaret (Abenaki), Malian’s Song, illustrated by William Maughan. Vermont Folklife Center, 2005. Unpaginated, color illustrations, grades 4-up; Abenaki.

Malian's Song is neither myth, legend nor folktale, but a true account of the October 4, 1759, attack on the village of Odanack by Major Robert Rogers and his Rangers. Because the people were warned by one of Rogers' Mohican scouts, 32 of the villagers were killed, rather than the 200 later claimed by Rogers, but their homes were burned, and their stores of corn pillaged. This story has existed in the living traditions of Abenaki people for nearly 250 years, and Bruchac sets down this tragic event carefully and with great feeling. Young readers will see the loss and pain and sorrow, and they will also see how the people have continued, and do so still.

The illustrations are lovely. The people are dressed as they would have been in that day, in a combination of Native and English clothing. Maughan has beautifully drawn the close ties between family members and the strengths of each. The names are known: Malian was the young daughter of Simon Obomsawin; her cousin was Maliazonis. Malian's granddaughter was Mali Masadoques. In telling their story, Bruchac does them honor, and with respect for young readers.

This is Malian’s song:
"Nziwaldam, nziwaldam, anakwika ndodana
I am lonesome; I am lonesome; our village grows up to trees
Malian pihta oziwaldam, nda tomo widoba
Malian she is very lonesome; there is no friend anywhere.”
—Doris Seale

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Denise Low

In the last few years, working in American Indian Studies, I've met many Native men and women at tribal colleges, research universities, Ivy League schools... Some work with literature, writing it and/or studying it. I've noted some of that work in previous posts (see, for example, my posts about LeAnne Howe). Robert Warrior (Osage) was visiting here at UIUC this week. Last week I blogged about ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND, a documentary in which he figured prominently. His book,co-edited with Paul Chaat Smith, about American Indian activism is excellent. It is called Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. I highly recommend it as an addition to high school classes studying Civil Rights and Activism.

I have yet to meet Denise Low, but hope to do so soon. She is part Lenape (commonly known as Delaware) and Cherokee, and is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. She's also 2007 Poet Laureate of Kansas. You can read some of her poems on the Kansas Poets website.

On that page, I especially like "Kene: Bald Eagle."

Read her essay "The Cancer of Sprawl" on the Counterpunch website, visit her blog, and use her poems with junior/senior students in high school lit classes. They are beautiful and powerful. An interview with Denise, and list of her work is here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Images of Indians in Children's Books

Starting a new blog, this one of images in picture books....

It is called Images of Indians in Children's Books. I'm just getting started on it, and I won't post to it as frequently as I do American Indians in Children's Books. I'm conceptualizing it as a teaching tool for courses that use, directly or indirectly, children's lit. It will also be useful for teachers, parents, and kids, too!

Here's the URL: