Saturday, November 10, 2007

American Indians and Bias in Cataloging (Shelving)

I've had a couple of questions lately, about shelving of books about American Indians. It led me to ask my colleagues in the American Indian Library Association about the sorts of things they learn in library school, about shelving these books.

I was referred to a bibliography about the topic. If you're interested in it, I encourage you to read Holly Tomren's paper, "Classification, Bias and American Indian Materials."

She reviews previous studies of cataloging of American Indian materials, noting that they are generally assigned to the 970 "General History of North America" section, even if they're not necessarily history. In that area, you'll find art and religion. Bias is unavoidable, but, she asks, how might a Native student feel when, in looking for info about his tribe, the librarian sends him to the history shelves? That student obviously knows his people are not extinct, but does his non-Native peer know that? Does finding the material in the history section affirm the idea that we've all vanished?

Tomren also discusses the Library of Congress subject headings and drawbacks in them, too, and she describes alternative systems developed by Native people in the US and Canada.

Her article is definitely worth reading. It's a little technical in parts, but overall, much can be learned about the ways that bias is present in shelving systems.

Friday, November 09, 2007


Below is a review of Eve Bunting's book, Cheyenne Again. The review is written by Beverly Slapin at Oyate, a Native not-for-profit organization. This review of Cheyenne Again originally appeared in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. As you read the review, you will see that it is not a book that could be used to educate children about American Indians and boarding schools they attended. In A Broken Flute, you will find reviews of books that can be used for that purpose. A Broken Flute is available from Oyate for $35. In it, over 700 children's books are discussed and/or reviewed. I highly recommend it. The review below may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin.
Bunting, Eve, Cheyenne Again, illustrated by Irving Toddy (Navajo). New York: Clarion (1995). 32 pages, color illustrations; grades 2-3; Cheyenne

In Cheyenne Again, Bunting tells the story of a 10-year-old Cheyenne boy who, in the late 1880s, is taken far from his family and sent to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, more than 1,000 miles away, to “learn the White Man’s ways.” “The corn is drying out,” his father says. “There will be food in this place they call school. Young Bull must go.” 

Toddy’s acrylic and oil paintings are perfect for a boarding school story, especially when he contrasts the open, light expanse of the Great Plains with the depressingly dark confines of the school. The child’s pain also, as Young Bull’s hair is forcibly cut while others, with short hair, look on. And his running away, with only a thin blanket for cover, into a blizzard. Toddy has been there. As a former student at Intermountain Indian School in Utah, he holds the stories in his heart.

In Bunting’s telling, on the other hand, conditions appear far better than they were. “Kill the Indian, save the man”—Captain Richard Henry Pratt’s harsh motto—was much more indicative of the treatment meted out to the lonely, miserable children than Bunting cares to reveal. Children whose parents voluntarily sent them to Carlisle went there, not to “learn the White Man’s ways,” but to learn English. Bunting does not mention the many deaths—from malnutrition, from diseases, from beatings, from broken hearts. Nor does she mention the jail cells and the arbitrary punishment such as having lye rubbed into young mouths for the sin of not knowing what was expected. She whitewashes the abject wretchedness of the children’s lives.

There would have been no kindly teacher to offer “salve to sooth the place the chain has rubbed,” to console a child by telling him, “Never forget that you are Indian inside. Don’t let us take your memories.” Pratt’s “teaching” methodology was designed to force the children to deny—and later, forget—their Indianness, inside and out. Any teacher encouraging a child to remember who he was would have been fired on the spot.

On the last page, Young Bull, having drawn pictures in a ledger book of warriors riding on painted ponies, breaks through “the lines across the page” and rides once again with his relatives “across the golden plain.” He has again become, as Bunting so facilely makes possible, “Cheyenne again.”

By ending the story here, Bunting is able to sidestep, not only the misery of the boarding schools, but also their legacy. It’s ongoing, and many people still bear the scars.

—Beverly Slapin
Note from Debbie: To learn more about boarding schools, visit these websites:
Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Paula Giese's essay about Cheyenne Again provides in-depth information about Intermountain Indian School.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The word "read" in Native languages

Was reading Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog this morning and saw this graphic. Isn't it nifty? If you click on the graphic, a larger image of it will open in another window.

Cyn's first three books are perfect for November reading.

  • They are works of fiction by a Native author.
  • They are about Native kids and their families.
  • They are set in the present day.

Cyn has extensive info about each one at her web page. Click on the title to get to her page on each one:

I said "perfect for November" because this is designated as "Native American Month" but... Read her books all year long! Don't confine them or any/all of your reading/teaching about American Indians to November... Do your part to bring us out of the past and into the present.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Stereotypes, Children's Books, and the Mental Health and Well Being of ALL Children

Earlier this morning I listened to a speech (on the radio) given by a clinical psychologist to an audience in Indiana. He was there to talk about the mental health and well-being of children.

Right after he was introduced, he said something like "I'm glad to be here... Just for you, I'll put on my Cleveland Indians baseball cap." His remarks were greeted with laughter and applause.

I understand his gesture, an effort to connect with his audience, but that particular gesture indicated that he has not considered the effects of these mascots on American Indian people. It was especially troubling because, as I listened to his speech, he spoke of the need for mental health workers to become culturally competent so they are better prepared to serve diverse populations.

I can be cynical and label him a hypocrite, but I don't think he is a hypocrite. I think that he---like most Americans---has never critically looked at stereotypes of American Indians, nor has he considered the effect of those stereotypes on American Indian children.

The American Psychological Association, and the American Sociological Association, both issued statements calling for an end to the use of American Indian imagery in sports mascots.

The APA's statement reads, in part:

Self-esteem is an important ingredient in resiliency and positive mental health adjustment. It is important that a group does not feel compromised in this important area of psychological functioning, as impairment of self-esteem can contribute to negative behaviors such as substance use and abuse, self-harming, and interpersonal violence (Witko, 2005; Cook-Lynn, 2001; Coombs, 1997).

It also reads:

For American Indian people, whose history is not often portrayed accurately in public education systems, the stereotypes that mascots, symbols, images, and personalities portray become the norm and miseducate American Indians and non-American Indians about American Indian culture, society, and spirituality (Gone, 2002; Connolly, 2000; Moses, 1996; Churchill, 1994, Nuessel, 1994; Banks, 1993).

And here's part of the statement by the American Sociological Association:

WHEREAS the American Sociological Association recognizes that racial prejudice, stereotypes, individual discrimination and institutional discrimination are socially created phenomena that are harmful to Native Americans and other people of color;

WHEREAS the American Sociological Association is resolved to undertake scholarship, education, and action that helps to eradicate racism;

WHEREAS social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport reflect and reinforce misleading stereotypes of Native Americans in both past and contemporary times;

WHEREAS the stereotypes embedded in Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport undermine education about the lives of Native American peoples;

These statements are issued by professional associations, and both address stereotypes in the form of mascots. I think it necessary for we, as educators, to look at stereotypes of American Indians in children's books. They are rampant this month, in the children's books about Thanksgiving, in the lesson plans about "Pilgrims and Native Americans," in the bulletin boards teachers are putting up this month, and in the decorations going up in your local grocery stores.

It is easy to feel defensive if you're using stereotypical materials. It may feel like a personal attack on your decisions. Please know that I view us all as products of a society that "did this" to us all---not in an intentionally harmful way---but in an unthinking way. There is no one place to lay blame for this massive lack-of-knowing, and laying blame is not the purpose of my writing on this blog.

Instead, my purpose is to provide a different perspective on American Indians as taught by books, schools, and society. I ask you to set aside that book, or that lesson plan, or that bulletin board display, and provide your students with solid information about American Indians.