Friday, June 29, 2007

Native poets - Earthworks series

Are you looking for new Native-authored material for your senior English classes? You might consider the Earthworks series. There is a terrific article about the books in Indian Country Today. Visit their website and read "Earthworks books series presents poetry and prose" for info.

Personal update: I'm in Flagstaff. Left Santa Fe on Tuesday, after lunching with a friend who will teach at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA). One of the authors in the Earthworks series, Allison Hedge Coke, teaches at IAIA. Another, LeAnne Howe, teaches with us at U of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. On this blog, I've previously posted info about Cheryl Savageau's children's book. She, too, as a book in the series. There's a lot here! Take a look.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lois Beardslee on Mackinac Island Press

Lois Beardless, author of Rachel's Children, offered the essay below for posting on this blog. It is longer than typical posts to this blog, but read it in its entirety. It is worth your time and thought. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission. ---Debbie

Promulgation of Damaging Ethnic Stereotypes as a Cottage Industry in Northern Michigan: Book Reviews
By Lois Beardslee

Lewis, Anne Margaret, Tears of Mother Bear, illustrated by Kathleen Chaney Fritz. Mackinac Island Press (2004). Unpaginated, color illustrations, preschool-grade 3.

Lewis, Anne Margaret, Gitchi Gumee, illustrated by Kathleen Chaney Fritz. Mackinac Island Press (2004). Unpaginated, color illustrations, preschool-grade 3.

Imagine confronting in your public schools, libraries, and community bookstores colorful children’s books full of imitation stories about your culture that utilize characters and words from your language but feature sexual predators, child molesters, murderers, and rapists from your extended family’s personal and oral histories. Imagine complaining to your local schoolteachers, librarians, and booksellers only to be told that this is acceptable, because the author has placed an obscure disclaimer in the front of the book, because the author is a very nice person with children of her own who claims to be honoring you by manufacturing these materials, because people from outside of your culture enjoy this particular form of lampooning you, or simply because the books make money for a lot of people outside of your extended family. Imagine this type of lampooning resulting in your inability to obtain equal employment at equal pay or resulting in deprecating comments directed at your children by their peers. This is what happens every day to the Anishinabeg, the aboriginal people of the western Great Lakes.

In the late 1990’s Chelsea, Michigan, publisher Brian Lewis decided to create a niche for himself by producing children’s books for schools and tourist gift shops based upon the local Native American cultures of northwest Lower Michigan, a region with one of the highest densities of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. The aboriginal populations still living in the area include primarily members of the Odawa (Ottawa) and Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribes. The latter is the second largest Indian tribe in North America.

Lewis’s business, Sleeping Bear Press, produced several books that profoundly offended the local Native American community and received scathing reviews by Native American scholars, including me. Among the offending books are: The Legend of Sleeping Bear (1998), The Legend of Mackinac Island (1999), The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper (2001), The Legend of Leelanau (2003), and The Legend of the Petoskey Stone (2004) all written by Kathy-jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuysen. All of these “Indian legends” were either manufactured by the author and publisher or based upon the historically tainted writings of nineteenth century ethnologist/Indian agent/wannabe-writer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. All are written in the style of Schoolcraft’s nineteenth century syrupy language and all promote nineteenth century stereotypes of Native Americans as simple, docile, primitive people—motifs that were used to justify the usurpation of Native lands and resources through the near extirpation of aboriginal residents.

The notion that a non-Indian can create alternative Native American legends and histories manifests residual racism, and the practice would not be tolerated were any other contemporary culture targeted in such a fashion. The practice has been described as disrespectful and exploitive by every Native American elder with whom I have discussed it. It is considered a threat to the very survival of our culture and is equated with genocide. When one disregards our culture, one disregards us as human beings. We are inseparable from our stories and our traditions. And we are tired of being told that we have no place in contemporary American culture unless we adapt these things to meet the marketing needs of non-Indians who have taken over more than ninety-nine percent of our traditional lands and now see fit to take over our cultural formatting as well.

Publisher Lewis sold Sleeping Bear Press and opened two new presses. One opened under his own name, Petoskey Press, co-publishes books with the University of Michigan Press—which has not published a Native American-authored book in years—and is currently promoting as non-fiction a recent collection of writings by a woman from Michigan who was well recognized within our community as someone who sought to impersonate an Indian and who had a poor understanding of our culture and our circumstances. That tome was edited by a non-Indian who appeared regularly at our religious and cultural ceremonies and expressed an affinity for local Indian culture. U of M acquiring editor for regional titles Mary Erwin informed me that this genre contains the type of material that is needed for white readers to be able to understand Indian culture—as opposed to materials written by actual Native Americans…

Brian Lewis also opened Mackinac Island Press, named after a Michigan fur trade era fort-cum-tourist location, under the name of his wife, Anne Margaret Lewis. This press continues to produce equally horrible children’s books fabricated in a style that Lewis claims to be “inspired” by traditional Native American literature. Her most recent works are Tears of Mother Bear (2004) and Gitchi Gumee (2004), both written by Ann Margaret Lewis and illustrated by Kathleen Cheney Fritz.

While openly exploiting a regional Native American genre, Lewis does not directly claim that her books are Native American stories or that they are Native in origin. She carefully words her disclaimers in the fronts of her books in a manner that is misleading. In Gitchi Gumee she summarizes: “Gitchi Gumee (big water) shares his many moods and faces with a young boy (Oshikinawe), and teaches him how to safely sail his vast waters.” The use of Native names implies that this story is based upon regional Native American traditions centered on Lake Superior. It is not. In Tears of Mother Bear Lewis summarizes: “As Grandpa walks the shores of Lake Michigan with his grandchildren he passes on the age old Ojibwe Sleeping Bear legend, and reveals the untold story of where Petoskey stones come from. They are the tears of mother bear.” Again, this is not a traditional Native American story. It remained “untold” because it was recently fabricated by Lewis. The only part of this story that is traditional is the part about a reclining bear—one of several traditional stories created to identify a large hill visible from out on the lake by the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, and other tribes who lived and traded on the shores of Lake Michigan. In all versions of the story told by my family, the bear is, in fact, dead. The milder version—made famous by a local national park named after a “sleeping bear” and exploited by non-Indian business entrepreneurs— is known by natives in the region as “the local white people’s Indian legend.” This is the version that was borrowed by Lewis as the springboard for her own Indian-style “legend.”

This story line had been exploited previously by the Lewises in Sleeping Bear Press’s The Legend of Sleeping Bear—which Brian Lewis successfully pushed to have made Michigan’s official state children’s book by the state legislature—a designation that was made without consultation or endorsement from Michigan’s aboriginal population. Official endorsement of a non-Indian product alleging to represent regional Native American culture is testimony to the extent to which dismissive notions of Michigan’s aboriginal population as simple, expendable, and without consideration are still ingrained in the state’s institutional psyches. This is institutional racism with roots in extermination policies that preceded statehood.

The content and format of Anne Margaret Lewis’s two new books drew red flags from the American Indian Librarians’ Association, and copies were sent to me for review. I contacted several Native elders here on the shores of northern Lake Michigan, to see if they found Lewis’s allegedly local Tears of Mother Bear as offensive as I did. My worst suspicions were confirmed. Elder after elder indicated that they found it offensive that a non-Indian publisher had fabricated an “Indian” myth about local fossils known as Petoskey stones, something they held sacred and referred to as “crown jewels.” They had already been saying the same thing about The Legend of the Petoskey Stone, a pseudo-Indian legend that had been produced a year earlier by Lewis’s husband Brian under a different press name. Again, elders found it offensive and exploitive that the Lewises had founded an entire cottage industry upon the exploitation of damaging ethnic stereotypes that not only hurt Native American people in real socioeconomic terms, but also steal from our traditions and our place within the culture of the region without giving anything in return. In the Native American community, people who willingly do for profit what the Lewises have done to aboriginal people are referred to as “the new homesteaders.” Such newcomers to northern Michigan’s last remaining outposts of Native culture arrive with an apparent lack of respect for the integrity and survival of the area’s aboriginal people and with a desire to take what they can from our community.

Over and over again, my elders used the word “disrespectful” in reference to Tears of Mother Bear and the Legend of the Petoskey Stone and the work of Sleeping Bear and Mackinac Island Presses in general. Many even refused to touch the books or look at them. Some of us find ourselves so deeply appalled by these books that we actually wash our hands after handling them, trying to perpetually cleanse ourselves, as though we have been victims of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Our objections to this material come not merely as mild distaste; the response is visceral. When we voice our objections, we are accused of being ungrateful and given the excuse that such cultural appropriations are meant only to honor us.
Cashing in by falsely filling a niche for regional Native American materials produced for a primarily non-Indian audience and to be utilized by primarily non-Indian educators is unjustifiable. It disenfranchises contemporary Native people, who continue to preserve more accurate and culturally sensitive versions of our own stories. The practice dismisses with a mere wave of a hand actual tribal stories and traditions that were developed and perpetuated over thousands of years.

I am an Ojibwe author and traditional storyteller whose family roots are in the northern part of the western Great Lakes and have lived most of my life along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior, in the exact locations where the Lewis’s stories are primarily set. My culture is the culture they extrapolate from, write about, and claim to be “inspired by.” I do not merely emulate this culture—I live it, and I work hard to preserve it. That said, let’s review Lewis’s newest books:

Let’s start with the title of Gitchi Gumee. This is derived from the spelling created in the nineteenth century by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his romantic epic poem, The Tales of Hiawatha, which was loosely based upon a character with a different name from the Ojibwe culture. The term supposedly refers to Lake Superior. Longfellow’s lack of understanding of the Ojibwe language resulted in this odd spelling and mispronunciation of the Native term for a large watershed basin. This awkward mispronunciation was subsequently burned into the American psyche by pop musician Gordon Lightfoot in his hit song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” (“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down to the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee...”) The term is popular on billboards for non-Indian-owned and -operated low budget motels and businesses along the shores of the great lake and immediately invokes images of wild and rustic cottage country fun to non-Indian motorists. Lewis’s pronunciation guide would not clarify this to the average classroom teacher or parent who might use this book.

The Ojibwe term that Lewis and Longfellow attempted to approximate actually has been applied to each of the Great Lakes. A similar term, different by a few syllables, is used to refer to Lake Superior in a larger geologic context. Geographic and geologic terms are central to the Ojibwe language and are not altered frivolously. Just as Inuit terminology for snow exceeds that of English usage, the Ojibwe language has a plethora of terms for water and waterways. Not only has Lewis adopted Longfellow’s racist nineteenth century assumption that the Ojibwe language is simpler than English (or that it can be learned and translated on the basis of motel billboards), she has promulgated it and thrust it into the twenty-first century.

Let’s look at Gitchi Gumee’s cover illustration. It is an image of an older white male winking from below the surface of the water to a child in a sailboat next to a historic lighthouse. The lighthouse and the sailboat are icons of contemporary non-Indian “cottage country” culture in the northern Great Lakes and do not reflect either contemporary or traditional realities for most aboriginal residents of the region. Recreational boating and recreational visits to historic lighthouses are rarities for a population that continues to have the highest unemployment in the state and is relegated to the bottom in socioeconomic terms. If anything, they symbolize for local Native populations our ongoing legal disputes over regaining access to waterfronts and harbors that were ours by treaty. In addition, the only—I repeat, the only—times we describe underwater-associated human characters in our traditional stories about the lakes are in very dangerous contexts, in preventive stories we tell to our children. Usually these stories are about characters that have been killed or intentionally kill other human beings.

In the case of an image of a middle-aged male who appears from beneath the water to lure a child, this occurs in only one context that I know of, and that is as a sexual predator, a persuasive character who sometimes disguises himself as a loon. When I first saw illustrator Kathleen Fritz’s image in the guise of an Ojibwe-style children’s story, I gasped in horror. The very notion, the very premise upon which this book is based—that of an older adult male luring and interacting playfully with a child from the surface of a body of water—implies the exact opposite of what our traditional stories actually say about a topic that would be profoundly important in any culture. Imagine how confusing and potentially shameful it would be for a Native American child from this region to be confronted in a classroom situation in which such stories from one’s own tradition about so sensitive a subject were arrogantly violated and contradicted by a book read or provided by an authority figure such as a librarian or a teacher. Imagine how disenfranchising it would be for a Native child to be confronted by materials that are produced and distributed and used in the schools in spite of objections by one’s family and one’s elders. There is nothing in this that would honor such a child or one’s cultural traditions. I cannot think of anything more presumptuous or absurd than telling the second largest Indian tribe in North America that they must completely reverse generations of traditions and stories to suddenly put an image of a sexual predator in a positive light, because an ignorant cultural outsider wants to cash in on an inexcusable error.

Now let’s look at Lewis’s summary, from the copyright page at the beginning of the book: “Gitchee Gumee (big water) shares his many moods and faces with a young boy (Oshikinawe), and teaches him how to safely sail his vast waters.” Both author and illustrator have fallen prey to the age-old stereotype that all things aboriginal and non-Western can be anthropomorphized. We do not anthropomorphize Lake Superior. We acknowledge that it is living, but we mean this in sophisticated, diverse biological, geological, geographical, and cultural terms. To give this immense lake, only part of the chain of basins we call our traditional home, a single, human personality trivializes Ojibwe culture and traditions as well as the contemporary members of our culture who are the keepers of those traditions. Our regional stories are based upon actual accumulated life experiences on these lakes that stretch back for thousands of years. They serve specific cultural purposes, whether as mnemonic devices for dangerous conditions and geographical markers, the prevention of physical and psychological injury, coping with daily household and family events, or simply as entertainment. But they are never taken lightly. They are cultural markers that web intricately with other aspects of our histories and our lives. To substitute “cottage country” non-Indian fantasies for them and to pass them off as the real thing or a sufficient substitute implies that we have no relevant past or future in our traditional homelands.

The text of Gitchi Gumee, is just as full of cultural faux pas as the story concept. The (visibly non-Indian) boy in the story is given the name Oshikinawe, which translates as post-pubescent or adolescent. We do not go around addressing our children like that in Ojibwe any more than someone would do it in English.. It is an absurd, condescending, de-contextualized way of utilizing our language. Most school-aged children would find the use of such a biological term as embarrassing.

Fritz’s illustrations borrow from a Greco-Roman, hence Western European, tradition of an anthropomorphized cloud-figure blowing out gales with puffed cheeks. The underwater images of fish are cartoon-like. All of these things contribute to defamatory stereotyping of Native peoples and traditions by intentional association with Ojibwe traditions, place, and language. Although it is alleged that the book is “inspired by” Ojibwe culture, there are no Indian characters in the book, just Ojibwe “names.” We are as absent and voiceless in this pseudo-Native American children’s literature as we are in the workforce and in contemporary regional decision-making processes. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a link between the two. Contemporary Native people do not need such basic concepts of cultural belittling inculcated into children as young as lower elementary school—or at all.

Giving an Indian name to an obviously white child implies that Native children are irrelevant, replaceable. No one would dream of using an illustration of a white child to depict an African American child or a Chinese American child in a cultural genre type children’s book. The use of this practice with aboriginal Americans is blatantly racist and promulgates notions that we are vulnerable or otherwise acceptable as victims of cultural appropriation to a greater extent than other cultural groups. It can be interpreted as nothing less than lampooning.

The story line of Gitchi Gumee is devoid of content, other than the simple message that the weather gets rough on Lake Superior. A boy, who appears quite young in the illustrations, is somehow brought to manhood by being lured into going out on an extremely rough Lake Superior, even in nighttime conditions, alone on a sailboat. There is nothing in either the text or the illustrations to tell how this comes about, and any serious references to the actual dangers of the lake are quite vague. I live part of the time on my family’s isolated island in Lake Superior, where my mother’s side of the family comes from, and we are very much aware of every geologic feature on the lake, which includes boat-crushing shoals and deadly winds. We have stories that go back for generations about mishaps associated with almost every landmark. I would not want my children to see this book if they were in elementary school—which appears to be its target age—out of fear that they might try something foolish on the water. Many of our friends and relatives still survive as commercial fishermen on these lakes—and fishing remains the single most deadly profession on the North American continent.

Cultural faux pas and inappropriate content aside, without even a basic story line to wrap itself around, the text of this book is syrupy and is set in awkward rhymes. “Dear boy…” an anthropomorphized wave calls out,
big water of many faces
I have been around for many years
and was formed from melted glaciers.”

Bad lyrics are bad lyrics. Period. This is not a book I would have used in my own classroom as a public school teacher of children of any nationality, and it is not a book I would like to see used in any context as a Native American parent.

I am equally disenchanted with Tears of Mother Bear, the alleged “legend” of the origin of the Petoskey stone, the state stone of Michigan—which by the way, it is illegal to remove from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, as is implied in the adjunct teaching materials that are made available to educators. The text begins:
As summer was fast approaching
And school was coming to an end
I’d be dreaming of summer vacation
Of traveling to our cottage once again

This book is an extension of “cottage country” fantasies about the role that Native Americans and Native American culture should play in the lives of modern immigrants to northern Michigan—romantic, but distant and as non-participants in an economy that was originally based upon the usurpation of Native American resources for purposes as trivial as entertainment—and, in the case of Sleeping Bear and Mackinac Island Presses, is apparently still based upon usurpation of cultural traditions and non-tangible resources. This racist approach is so ingrained in contemporary children’s literature and in the culture and educational practices of the region that there is no perceived need for pretense of anything more honorable on the part of the author. It’s right out there in the text: summer vacation equals Indian fantasies.

Tears of Mother Bear is not an Indian story; it is a fake Indian story that very intentionally mimics regional perceptions about aboriginal stories strictly for marketing purposes. It is exploitive. It exists for the sole purpose of generating income by appealing to a non-Indian audience, in spite of the repercussions of this replacement-type genre of pseudo-Indian legends to the Native community and its functioning relationship with everyone else in the region. It is disrespectful. It is disingenuous. It is poorly written. It is offensive to Native American people in the geographical region it professes to represent. And, thanks to the Lewises’ aggressive marketing, it is utilized by local librarians, booksellers, and educators throughout the Midwest as an easy, brainless alternative to more sensitive culturally and regionally appropriate materials written and illustrated by Native Americans—or anyone for that matter.

The Petoskey Stone as the official state stone of Michigan is a concept that generates a lot of interest and some economic exploitation. In Lewis’s addition to a storyline derived from a landmark on the shores of Lake Michigan—that is identified by the Ojibwe as a reclining or crouching bear—she claims that Petoskey stones are the tears of a mother bear who waits on the shore for her cubs. The cubs are one Ojibwe mnemonic device for the local islands that make up the southern end of an archipelago. In fine print somewhere between the title page and the beginning of the text and illustrations, Lewis acknowledges that this is an addition to the original story, but the meaning of her explanation is neither clear nor apparent to the casual reader, and the disclaimer is likely to be overlooked by most parents and classroom teachers. It would be easy for someone unfamiliar with regional Native traditions to assume that this is a story with regional aboriginal ties and to walk out of a bookstore with it or order it from a catalog. One gets the impression that the confusion may have been intentional. Not-quite Indian legends have proven to be a profitable genre for the Lewis family.

Publisher Brian Lewis appears to be aware of critical reviews of his books by Native scholars, as well as a trend away from traditional market acceptance of “Indian” stories by non-Indians. (Even the Michigan State Humanities Council has begun to step away from the practice of intentionally endorsing or hiring performers in this pseudo-ethnic genre.) In the case of his new product Gitchi Gumee, Lewis actually circulated an out-of-context quote by Wisconsin Ojibwe language instructor Jerrold Ojibway in support of the book. I spoke with Mr. Ojibway, and he made it clear that he does not endorse the book and cannot do so on behalf of the entire Ojibwe tribe. In fact, he could not even endorse it on behalf of his own band without approval from a tribal council. Mr. Ojibway indicated that in an e-mail by Brian Lewis he was misled to believe that he was being contacted about a job opportunity to consult on children’s books and to provide services as a language translator. His statement was meant to educate Brian Lewis about the need for legitimate Native American literature, rather than as an endorsement for Lewis’s book.

In this case, it appears that the publisher may be deliberately seeking to bypass regional aboriginal objections to a genre he has exploited extensively. Not only has the publisher been misleading about the level of Native American support for Gitchi Gumee, but he has also sought a source of support far from his home marketing base in Michigan, where many of his stories take place and where a large, culturally-erudite Native population continues to reside.

Is altering or extending a legitimate aboriginal tradition for the purpose of marketing it to non-Indians any different than completely manufacturing a new one? Doesn’t it send the same messages of inconsequential presence about the Native American people of a region? Doesn’t it disregard our historic presence, our collective consciousness, our objections to such appropriation and abuse? And wouldn’t eyebrows be raised if the same practices were applied to Germans, Jews, or African Americans?

The willingness by booksellers (including the private corporations that manage gift shops in our national parks) and educators (including the University of Michigan Press) to participate in the perpetuation of damaging ethnic stereotypes is inexcusable, especially in the face of objections by cultural insiders. Pushing simulations of aboriginal culture in lieu of aboriginal culture promotes notions of dispensability, which manifest themselves in statistical realities—our absence in public and educational employment and in community leadership roles. These socioeconomic realities have lethal effects, including elevated suicide rates, and it is inappropriate to inculcate regional culture with their promotion and tolerance using tools as basic and culturally-shaping as children’s literature.

Reasonable alternatives are available, including a very large selection of books by aboriginal residents of the Great Lakes. Oyate, a non-profit Native organization that reviews children’s literature for stereotypes and makes available children’s books by Native American authors and illustrators, has a website (click here: oyate) or will mail a catalog upon request: Oyate, 272 Mathews St., Berkeley, CA, 94702, (510) 848-6700. For more information on damaging stereotypes in children’s literature, see Seale, Doris and Beverly Slapin, eds. A BROKEN FLUTE, The Native Experience in Books for Children, winner of a 2006 American Book Award, or visit "American Indians in Children's Literature," the web site of Nambe Pueblo author and University of Illinois professor in American Indian Studies, Debbie Reese.