Saturday, March 31, 2007

Encyclopedic Resources for Projects on American Indians

Many librarians and teachers write to me, asking for reliable sources on American Indian culture, history, etc. They seek these resources in order to support student research projects.

As many of you know, there are a LOT of materials available on American Indians, but, many (I'd say most) are outdated and/or biased in ways that continue to present American Indians as victims, savages, or tragic heroes.

I'm really glad people are seeking other materials. I trust they'll use these materials to write materials for teachers to use, and if you're a writer, I hope you use these materials so that you do not replicate errors and stereotypes.

So! Here's my suggestion on how to proceed.

There are two excellent encyclopedias, both published in the 90s, both infused with the work of Native scholars, and more updated viewpoints of Native peoples. Both have entries written by Native scholars, political leaders, tribal leaders. Each entry is supported with "for further reading." Order each one for your library (note on May 22, 2019: a used copy of these books is far superior to most of what you'll find available, new). When a class is doing a particular research project, look it up in both encyclopedias. See what the entry says, who wrote it, and what their sources were. Look for additional items by the author of the entry, and look for their sources, too. The two encyclopedia's are:
  • Davis, Mary B. (1996) Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.
  • Hoxie, Frederick E. (1996) Encyclopedia of North American Indians. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

ALSO, get these three books. They are also excellent and teachers/librarians/students will find them helpful.
  • Francis, Lee. (1996) Native Time: A Historical Time Line of Native America. New York: St. Martin
  • Champagne, Duane. (1994) Chronology of Native North American History. Detroit: Gale Research
  • Champagne, Duane. (1994) Native America: Portrait of the Peoples. Detroit: Visible Ink Press

Using the Internet:

Go to Lisa Mitten's website. Lisa is in the American Indian Library Association, and maintains a webpage with links to homepages of Native Tribes/Nations. Those maintained BY the tribe are marked with a drum icon. Here's her page:

FINALLY, when using the web, make sure students go to Elaine Cubbins website BEFORE they start using the web to find material on American Indians. She, too, is in the American Indian Library Association. Her page is about evaluating webpages with Native content.

All these resources are listed somewhere here on my blog. The encyclopedias and books are at the bottom of my recommended books list, and the websites are listed in the section of my page called "Excellent Websites about American Indians."

Update, May 8, 2008...

An excellent set of books for elementary-middle school use is called "American Indian Contributions to the World," edited by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield. There are five books in the set (the cover of one is shown above):
  • Food, Farming, and Hunting
  • Trade, Transportation, and Warfare
  • Science and Technology
  • Medicine and Health
  • Buildings, Clothing, and Art
Or, you can order it in a single volume, under the title Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the world: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations. The single volume, also by Keoke and Porterfield, was published in 2003.

Update, April 9, 2011

Read the websites, scholarship and research of people in American Indian studies! See "Native Professional Associations and Journals" on the left (scroll down). Today (May 22, 2019) I am listing them here:

Update, November 30, 2014

Do not use the online "Native American Encyclopedia." Wondering why? Here's my review:
Is that Native American Encyclopedia website any good?

Update, July 13, 2017

  • Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An indigenous peoples' history of the United States. Beacon Press, 2014.
  • Mankiller, Wilma, and Rick West. Do All Indians Live In Tipis?: Questions and Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian (2007).
  • Treuer, Anton. Everything you wanted to know about Indians but were afraid to ask. Borealis Books, 2012.

Friday, March 30, 2007

"How!" is not the way American Indians say 'hello'

In old westerns, Indians are shown saying 'hello' to white people by saying "how" and raising the right hand (as if to take an oath). While most kids don't watch those old westerns, they do watch cartoons that represent this. It can be seen in an episode of the Muppet Babies, the Transcontinental Whoo-Whoo.

And, it is also seen in Disney's Peter Pan.

Teachers, parents, librarians, big brothers and sisters... If you buy Peter Pan and watch it with a child, please point out the stereotypes of American Indians shown throughout the film. Better yet, don't buy it.

Note: In an arrangement with a teacher, children wrote to me, posing questions about American Indians. I misunderstood a question that was asked by several kids. They asked what 'ho' means. I thought they were misspelling "how" but I was wrong. The students were, indeed, asking what "ho" means. Apparently, Joseph Bruchac uses that utterance to get student's attention when he does school visits. I don't think there is any Native significance to his utterance. It's just something he does, much like teachers who turn lights on and off to refocus a classroom of children. I asked librarians if they knew of books with "how" in them as a Native word for hello, and heard back from many who said they do not have books like this, but several see kids using the word on the playground. One woman told me she saw a teacher teach this word to children in her class.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

In 1965, the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) was founded by people involved in the Civil Rights Movement who were "appalled by the racist and sexist treatment of African Americans in the children's trade books and textbooks that were available. They were even more concerned about the lack of more suitable materials" (Banfield, 1998). The group published a newsletter to provide critical essays on children's books and textbooks that were widely used at the time. In 1969, CIBC established a writer's contest, designed to encourage unpublished writers of color to write books for children.

Among the writers they promoted was Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Her first book for children was Jimmy Yellow Hawk. She went on to write several works of fiction for children. Three are discussed at length in Jim Charles's article "Interrelated Themes in the Young Adolescent Novels of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve." His article is in Volume 28, Number 2 of THE ALAN REVIEW, and is on-line here.

Sneve was born and raised on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. She is Lakota Sioux. You can go here for biographical information about her.

[Note: For more on CIBC, read Beryl Banfield's article, "Commitment to Change: The Council on Interracial Books for Children and the World of Children's Books," in African American Review,Volume 32, No. 1. ]

Monday, March 26, 2007

Children's Books on Navajo Code Talkers

[This review essay used here with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


The Navajo Code Talkers in Books for Young People
Aaseng, Nathan, Navajo Code Talkers, foreword by Roy O. Hawthorne (Diné). Walker (1992). 116 pages, b/w photos, grades 5-8
Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two. Dial (2005). 231 pages, grades 5-7
Hunter, Sara Hoagland, The Unbreakable Code, illustrated by Julia Miner. Rising Moon/Northland (1996). Unpaginated, color paintings, grades 3-5
Kawano, Kenji, Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, foreword by Carl Gorman (Diné), photographs by the author. Northland (1990). 107 pages, b/w photographs, grades 6-up

Throughout World War II, Diné (Navajo) code talkers were a crucial part of the U.S. effort in the South Pacific, sending and receiving messages in an unbreakable code based on the Diné language. As Marines, they took part in every assault, from Guadalcanal in 1942 to Okinawa in 1945, experiencing some of the bloodiest fighting in the war.
For the Diné code talkers, the military experience of serving in World War II—mythologized as “the good fight”—was a chance for the young men to demonstrate their courage in the most exciting adventure of their lives. For many, it was the first time they had ever left their communities, the first time they had ever seen an ocean, the first time they had ever seen a paycheck. In the aftermath of that war and the post-traumatic shock that came with it, they found they were not allowed to discuss the top-secret nature of their work.
Although the code talkers probably saw themselves as “warriors,” referring to soldiers as “warriors” perpetuates a century-old hoax. There is a great cultural and philosophical distinction between the terms “warrior” and “soldier,” and somehow, for the Indian community, this distinction has been blurred, erased, “forgotten” and, most of all, exploited. Sacrificing their lives for the benefit of the U.S. war machine has become one of the only acceptable ways for young people today to demonstrate their courage. And the image of “warriors” protecting their lands, cultures and communities has young Indian people—in far greater proportion than anyone else—becoming cannon fodder for cynical colonialist ventures.
In the four books reviewed below—two fiction and two non-fiction—the term “Navajo” is used rather than “Diné,” the people’s self-name; this is especially noticeable in the The Unbreakable Code and Code Talker, where a grandfather talking to his grandchild(ren) would be more likely to refer to himself as “Diné” or “our people.” In all four, the extent of Japanese fatalities, including civilians, is soft-pedaled. Two (Navajo Code Talkers and Code Talker) mention the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also discuss the legacy of the Navajo Long Walk and the Indian residential schools.
Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers
Through his long friendship with Diné elder and code talker Carl Gorman and his family, Japanese-born Kenji Kawano became the official photographer to the Navajo Code Talkers Association. Kawano’s beautiful book of historical and contemporary black-and-white photographs, coupled with the words and stories of the code talkers themselves, reflect this gifted photographer’s honoring of the people whose code baffled Japanese communicators and contributed to the World War II defeat of his own people. Here is Wilsie H. Bitsie, now an elder, telling Kenji Kawano, “Why did I kill? This has had great psychological bearing on me, and still does.” Both Gorman’s foreword and Kawano’s preface are personal and heartfelt, and Benis M. Frank’s introduction gives a historical overview from the Marine Corps perspective. Since the term “warriors” appears only in the title, one would suspect that it was a marketing decision. It was interesting to read the first-person accounts in Warriors and see how their various permutations showed up in the later-published books.
Navajo Code Talkers: America’s Secret Weapon in World War II
That Aaseng relied almost entirely on outdated and questionable-at-best sources by cultural outsiders—such as Reader’s Digest’s America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage and Scott O’Dell’s Sing Down the Moon—is reflected in his falsely authoritative and condescending writing. Especially egregious is the chapter describing how the alleged Diné belief system may have impacted the code talkers’ performance in the Pacific:
Navajos were taught not to kill snakes. Was that practical or even possible in some of the snake-infested hellholes the marines found themselves in? How would the Navajos react to a belegaana (sic) slashing a snake out of fear or simply for the fun of it? Navajos were taught never to eat a piece of food with the point of a knife stuck in it. Would this cause problems at mealtime? Navajos took care to avoid having beasts cross their paths and to stay away from any tree damaged by lightning. Would these traditional taboos clash with orders from a superior officer to take up a certain position?
Then there’s this garbled mess:
Not only did the Navajos sound like the Japanese to many marines, they also looked like them. There was no one “type” of Navajo that could be immediately recognized. Navajo men can display great differences in size, build, skin color, and facial appearance. They do, however, tend toward a number of characteristics that are more similar to the Japanese than to the belegaana (sic): dark hair, dark skin, sparse facial hair, high cheekbones, occasionally even Asian-appearing eyes.
What does this mean? I think Aaseng is probably trying to say something, but I get the feeling he’s describing a breed of horse. Actually, there were several cases in which Diné code talkers were almost killed by white Marines who mistook them for enemy infiltrators. These incidents occurred because of cultural blindness, not because Navajos and Japanese people look alike. Navajo Code Talkers is way not recommended.
The Unbreakable Code
Comforting his young grandson, distraught about having to move to Minnesota, a Diné grandfather recounts his own experiences away from home, both at an Indian boarding school and later, as a code talker: “All those years,” he remembers laughing with another young recruit, “they told us to forget Navajo, and now the government needs it to save the country!” When John excitedly asks his grandfather to tell him about the fighting, Grandfather appropriately responds, “What I saw is better left back there. I would not want to touch my home or my family with those pictures.” In this story about a close family relationship and ties to the land that tells you who you are forever, Hunter is to be forgiven for an occasional clunker (“‘You’re going to be all right,’ Grandfather said. ‘You have an unbreakable code.’”) and a somewhat contrived back-story. Miner’s softly textured oil paintings illustrate the warmth of grandfather and grandson together and the beauty of the land; and Hunter’s endnotes give young readers the original code and some code words to look at and pronounce.
Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two
How does one tell a historical story that is true to itself, while at the same time taking responsibility not to dredge up old prejudices for today’s young readers? This dilemma is one that I imagine Bruchac struggled with in researching and writing Code Talker.
Code Talker is essentially The Unbreakable Code expanded to a middle-reader chapter book. Here, Bruchac’s fictionalized narrator, Ned Begay, shares with his grandchildren the experience of the war and what came after. Bruchac deftly sets the story in the context of Diné history, including the forced Navajo Long Walk to Bosque Redondo and the Indian residential schools’ attempts to eradicate Native languages.
Well researched and relying on both published and oral accounts, Code Talker is related in an honest, realistic voice, one that does not hesitate to tell a funny story when the opportunity occurs: “I kept a straight face because it would have been rude to laugh at a grown-up, even a grown-up biligaana who had just said that all sheep above the age of six should be in school.” The irony of having the language beaten out of you as a child and then having that same language considered invaluable in the war effort is the focal point of the story. An overemphasis on cultural details with which Diné grandchildren would already be familiar seems to be for the benefit of the presumed audience of non-Native readers. It’s also problematic that Bruchac uses the term “warrior” interchangeably with “soldier.”
As Bruchac writes in his author’s note, all the events are real and almost all the characters are real. It’s a little unnerving, but not necessarily a bad thing, to see Carl Gorman (whom I’ve met) showing up as a young man in a historical novel. But although Diné elders share war stories with each other, it’s highly unlikely that a Diné grandfather would burden his grandchildren with the fear, pain, death and gory details of the war.
Another problem in Code Talker is Bruchac’s narrator’s demonization of the Japanese people. Although Ned Begay sometimes walks away from the racist remarks uttered by his fellow Marines and calls war “a sickness that must be cured…a time out of balance,” he also likens the Japanese people to “the monster beings in our old stories, (who) preferred to strike in the darkness” and tells his grandchildren that “[w]e must never forget, as the Japanese forgot, that all life is holy.” (Considering that U.S. forces incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, women, and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on the Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, one might do well to ask, who else forgot that all life is holy?) And it is unfortunate that Bruchac chose to put into print the Diné code word for “Japan” as an ethnic slur that calls attention to the presumed shape of a people’s upper-eyelid folds.

For younger readers, The Unbreakable Code presents a part of history that will not be found elsewhere. For older readers, a thoughtful, critical teacher could use Code Talker paired with Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, and lead her students in comparing the experiences of the code talkers with those of Indian young people serving in the military today. Why do Indian young people continue to go to war in far greater proportion than any other ethnic group? What other options do young people of color have to get access to education and jobs? In the context of war, colonialism and racism, what kind of philosophical and ideological mentality did the U.S. government create against the Japanese people? How is this kind of mentality fostered and demonstrated against Arab and Muslim peoples today?
Glorifying war under any circumstances is wrong; and the mutation of “warriors” into “soldiers,” “human beings” into “monsters,” and “friends” into “enemies” is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed.
—Beverly Slapin