Friday, October 26, 2007

Pueblo Indians and Catholic Missionaries

I got an email from someone who read my post yesterday about kachinas in The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Pinata for a Pinon Tree. He noted simply the err in mixing two religions. His email reminded me of a short story my daughter, Liz Reese, wrote when she was 15. With her permission, I post it today. I think it provides some history and context for, in our case, Pueblo objections to the ways that our spiritual and religious ways are appropriated for the entertainment of others.

Liz's story is untitled. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.



It’s so dark. Sitting in the back of the car, I look out my window and see nothing, just blackness. The moon is dark, and we are miles away from the small town of Espanola, leaving the little light it provides behind. As we get closer to the monument, Donald turns off the headlights. If we are caught now, all our work will be in vain. We pull into the parking lot, only car there, good sign. Donald pops the trunk of his Toyota and Will and I hop out to get what we will need for our task.

Going out late like this is not something I usually do. I don’t go out and party like a lot of teenagers do. But tonight is different. Our reason for being out late is different. Everyone is sober. Our elders tell us that alcohol on your breath is disrespectful in a sacred place. This place is not sacred, but what we are about to do is, in a way, sacred, as we go forth to protect and protest that which oppressed and oppresses our sacred ways of being. Being, that is, Pueblo Indian.

I am from Nambe and Ohkay Owingeh. When we eat, we remember to give food to our ancestors. I can see vividly my grandmother cooking and humming to herself, songs that mean nothing and everything. She stops to pick up a tiny piece of bread or meat and offers it, in our way, to our ancestors. Her brown hands are no longer clad with jewelry like mine are; hers are old and bare, wearing only their wrinkles.

She is old now. She couldn’t carry what I have to carry tonight. I unload the box with the heavy battery inside. In the darkness it takes me a few seconds to find the carrying handle. I am nervous, my heart pounding. The last thing I want is a criminal record. That could destroy everything I have worked for, leaving home to get an education at a school that prepares me to fight for our people.

Will pulls out a chainsaw and shuts the trunk. The sound of it slamming echoes out through the valley. All three of us flinch, the sound was too loud, but the empty darkness kills it slowly. Donald almost scolds him, but he knows better than to make any more noise. I stumble on the curb. It is so dark, I can’t see anything. But Will puts a hand on my shoulder and leads me toward the statue. Standing 12 feet high, Don Juan de Oñate is in full uniform and mounted on his horse. I wonder if that’s what he really looked like, or if they used some random model for the statue. Is this the face of a killer? A man who, because we refused to give him grain, ordered the enslavement of Acoma pueblo’s women and children, and the mutilation of its men? Onate is heralded in history books as an explorer, but few say that he was charged with turning us into Catholics, and fewer still mention the generation of Acoma men who had to make their way on their one remaining foot.

Will feels around for Onate’s foot, finds it, and turns on the saw. Sparks fly as metal meets metal, but we are ready for that. Donald holds up a tarp to block some of the light from the sparks. But we can do nothing about the sound. All we can do is tell Will to go faster. I hear a car off in the distance, and see a light coming up Highway 68. It gets closer and I pull the plug. We are back in the darkness, but we stand like deer in headlights, our hearts beating faster than any drum. Once the car has passed, we finish cutting. The right foot of the “first conquistador of the West” falls onto the base the statue is mounted on, and then bounces off, landing almost silently, masked by the roar of the chainsaw. We grab the foot and head for the car. We don’t run, we are too blind to do that, but we move quickly, together like dancers for feast, liberated by what we have taken.

It is a small victory, but we live for these small victories. Not enough people care about the troubles of Indian country. If our little bit of vandalism makes the papers nationally, maybe a few people will learn who Onate was to us, and why his foot is significant. And pueblo people who pass the statue will feel the same victory we feel, and know why. We did this for the Pueblo people.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Pinata for the Pinon Tree

It is generally poor form to comment on a book that you have not seen, so I'm sure to get criticized for doing so today...

A reader wrote to ask me about a book called The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Pinata for the Pinon Tree. It's a new book out this year. She wrote because there is a page with kachinas on it, and she wonders if it is an appropriate use of kachinas.

The review in Publisher's Weekly says the book has "10 kachina leapin'" and the review in School Library Journal says "a wild party ensues with kachina leaping, coyotes yowlin'..."

Based on those reviews and my study of the book cover, this use is way over the line of cultural sensitivity and respect.

Obviously, a lot of people have no idea what kachinas are.

Who messed up in the creation, publication, distribution, and review of the book?

  • Author
  • Illustrator
  • SLJ Reviewer
  • Publisher's Weekly Reviewer
  • Editors at Little, Brown

Kachinas are not playthings. They are sacred. They are deities. In their significance to the Pueblo and Hopi peoples, they are of the highest order. Trying to draw analogies from one culture to the next in order to help someone see the significance in another is difficult, and these analogies break down.

Though you can buy a kachina doll when you're out west (or over the internet), your purpose in having it is different from that which a Pueblo or Hopi person. For you, it is a piece of art. For us, kachinas are central to our spirituality and way of life.

I will not say more, because too many charlatans mimic Native spirituality, selling it to desperate people.

For kachinas to be used in a children's book in this way is, in a word, shameful. Their use in this book is evidence that we have a long way to go in helping mainstream America understand who we are.

Note: Thanks to my friend and colleague, Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert, from the village of Upper Moencopi, Arizona. Matt is Hopi, and a historian here at UIUC.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Elementary School Lesson Plans on American Indians

Are you looking for lesson plans that incorporate American Indians? With Thanksgiving approaching, teachers across the country are getting ready to teach children about Native Americans. Unfortunately, October (Columbus Day) and November (Thanksgiving) are often the only times of the year that Native peoples make an appearance in the curriculum. That is not educationally sound and its a long way from "best practice!" I urge teachers to teach about American Indians throughout the year.

Here's one book to help you do that: Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms, by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw.

Published in 2002 by Redleaf Press, the book has a lot to offer. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:
Throughout this book, we have often relied on outstanding children's literature, usually by Native authors, to introduce positive, accurate images of Native peoples to children. It is our view that, with the possible exception of classroom visits by American Indian people, excellent children's literature is the most effective way to counter deeply held stereotypes and help children focus on similarities among peoples as well as cultural differences. The literature serves as a catalyst to extend related activities into other areas of the curriculum.

And here's an excerpt from Chapter 1:
Omission of Native peoples from the curriculum, inaccurate curriculum, and stereotyping all amount to cultural insensitivity. This is heightened, however, when well-meaning teachers introduce projects that are culturally inappropriate.
Jones and Moomaw go on to discuss pitfalls in projects teachers design, including:

  • feathers and headdresses 
  • peace pipes 
  • totem poles 
  • dream catchers 
  • sand paintings 
  • pictographs
  • rattles 
  • drums
  • brown paper bag vests

There's great suggestions, throughout. Chapter 2 includes a lesson plan called "Children and Shoes" that uses Bernelda Wheeler's Where Did You Get Your Moccasins? and Esther Sanderson's Two Pairs of Shoes. It includes suggested activities in dramatic play (Shoe Store), math (Shoe Graph) and science (Shoe Prints), all of which convey similarities across cultures. Chapter 6 is about the environment. Featured are two of Jan Bourdeau Waboose's books, SkySisters and Morning on the Lake.

In the "not recommended" section that closes each chapter, the authors of Lessons from Turtle Island tell us it is not recommended to ask children to make up Indian stories, and explains why.

As a former first grade teacher, I highly recommend this book to anyone working with young children.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


A documentary produced by Patty Loew, a colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be broadcast in the coming weeks on PBS. Titled Way of the Warrior, the documentary is about American Indians in the armed services.

The article about the documentary includes an excerpt, and a photograph and image of a diary (shown here) kept by Loew's grandfather, Pvt. Edward DeNomie. He served in the military during a period when American Indians did not have the right to vote.

There is much to learn about American Indians in the US armed forces. I'm looking forward to viewing this film, and it seems an important one for US history teachers.

To read the article and view the excerpt, click here:
Professor's film on Native American soldiers to air on PBS.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The word "squaw" in SIGN OF THE BEAVER

The word "squaw" is commonly used in place of the word "woman" in historical fiction for children. I wonder if its entrance during childhood, during formative years, is what makes adults of today think it is an appropriate or acceptable word to use today?

A recent editorial in Indian Country Today describes the modern day use of the word. A small town in Maine is deeply embroiled in a struggle over the word. Insensitivity abounds. The town is near the Penobscot Nation. Tribal members attend city meetings to discuss the issue. Here's an excerpt from the editorial:

One woman, who is a teacher, asked me, "What do we call you Native American Indian women if we can't call you [squaw]?"

That question is loaded, and it prompts me to ask all of you who work with children's books---writers, teachers, librarians---what role might the use of the word in children's historical fiction play in the way that teacher responded to the Native woman?

Let's look at the award winning Sign of the Beaver. Remember---the author of the book and the perspective in the book are not Native. The main character is a white boy named Matt. He meets a Native boy named Attean. This isn't Attean's story. It is Matt's story. According to Amazon's nifty "search inside this book" option, the word 'squaw' appears on 8 pages.

The characters who use the word 'squaw' are Native.

  • In his spoken words, Attean is scornful of women and their work. That work includes care of the garden (weeding) and preparing a bear Attean has killed.

  • A Native girl also uses the word. She says "Attean think squaw girl not good for much"

I doubt that Attean would have the sentiments he has about women, especially women who are his elders. I don't think he would be scornful of them. Moreover, I don't think he would use the word "squaw" at all. If we are considering accuracy of his speech, he'd probably use the word his people would use for women in their language. If you're interested in the Penobscot language, take a look at their website.

In contrast, Matt uses the word 'woman.' The word "woman" appears on seven pages in the book, in Matt's thoughts as we read what he thinks when he sees Native women. He doesn't think "squaw" when he sees them. He thinks "woman." He does think the word 'squaw' as he does his chores, after hearing Attean use it.

Ironically, Sign of the Beaver is set in Maine.

We obviously can't say that any children's book is responsible for the views espoused by the teacher quoted in the Indian Country Today editorial, but I do think children's books and the work we do with them in the classroom setting makes a difference.

Do we affirm misrepresentation and misinformation by failing to engage students in a critical discussion of words like 'squaw' when we read books like Sign of the Beaver? If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know my answer is YES. You know that I think parents, teachers, and librarians must actively engage our children and students in these discussion.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Halloween Costumes

With Halloween approaching, a lot of people---teachers, parents, students, children---are thinking about what they will "be" this year.

Costume shops down the street and on-line include all manner of apparel for those who want to be an "Indian Brave" or a "Sassy Squaw." It is interesting to study the photographs of the models in these costumes...

Some little boys and little girls smile at the camera, others stand with arms crossed, and still others hold one hand up in that goofy and classic "how" pose.

The women stand seductively.

I saw one that especially troubled me... It is for a little girl, it is the "Indian Princess" costume, and the selling line is "Every chiefs little dream."

The men? They stand tense, ready to spring, with tomahawk raised and a threatening scowl on their faces.

The ways in which these models are posed tell us a lot about what people think about American Indians. We are taught to think these ways from our earliest years. Images on television, and in children's books, and in the market place.... they all play a role in what Americans think they know about American Indians. Below is a post I made to the blog last year about Halloween.

I hope that you will think carefully about choosing a costume this year, and that you will choose not to dress like an "Indian."

Friday, October 13, 2006

"An Indian?" in Clifford's Halloween

Across the country, kids know who Clifford the Big Red Dog is. A long-time favorite in a series of picture books by Norman Bridwell, even more kids are meeting Clifford by way of his television program, broadcast on PBS.

In the book Clifford's Halloween, Emily Elizabeth is trying to figure out what Clifford will be for Halloween. One option is an Indian. That page shows him in a large multi-colored feathered headdress, with what Bridwell must have intended to be a peace pipe in his mouth.

Many books about Halloween have illustrations of kids dressed up as Indians, and due to society's embrace of things-Indian and playing Indian, we don't give it a second thought.

Let’s pause for a moment, though, and think about this seemingly innocent act of dressing up as an Indian for Halloween.

What else do kids dress up as at Halloween? I don’t mean animals or superheroes, but people-costumes. They can be policemen, firefighters, cowboys, doctors, nurses, pilots, astronauts, baseball players, cheerleaders, soldiers, football players, princesses, belly dancers…. All these are occupations or positions one can, in fact, be at some point, with the proper training.

Now---what about an Indian? You can’t train to be an Indian. You can’t become one. It is something you are born into.

Does that distinction matter? A lot of people would say “No. It’s all in good fun, no harm done.” So you help your child apply his/her “war paint” and put on feathers and other items that complete the costume. Can you imagine yourself painting the child’s face so he/she could be a black person? A minstrel performer, or perhaps a slave, or even Martin Luther King? I’m guessing a parent wouldn’t do that. That parent would know it was wrong. (Doing it in another context----a school play, for example, is a different context.)

Another question to consider: What sort of Indian are we encouraging children to be when we endorse an Indian costume, and what does it teach them? Are they savage Indians, the ones who, according to history books, were murderous, bloodthirsty killers? Or are they the tragic ones, heroic, last-stand, looking into the sunset, riding away despondent over loss?

In either case, the costume they wear is stereotypical. And—savage or heroic—both place Native peoples in the past, not the present, reinforcing the idea that we are an extinct people.

If the book you select for a Halloween read-aloud in storytime has characters that dress up as Indians, turn that illustration into a teachable moment with your students. And, if you’re the parent of a child who wants to dress up as an Indian, talk with your child about that choice and what it means.

In choosing NOT to think about this, are you, unwittingly, fostering the development of stereotypes?