Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Native Astronaut & A Native Writer

I imagine the man who drive my cab in NYC Thursday night would be surprised to know that Commander John Herrington, who flew on the space shuttle in 2002, is, to use the cabby's words "a red Indian." The man is from Bangladesh, and as I got in his cab, he peered at me and asked if I was Indian.

"Yes, American Indian."

"From India?"

"No... Native American."



He then stumbled, with "I thought...." and "But...." We began a long conversation, during which he talked of how he didn't know we are still here and that there is nothing in his daughter's history schoolbooks about us. He was surprised to know that there are hundreds of tribal nations, each with its own language, culture, etc. He asked what work we do, too, and though I told him one of my sister's work in business and science, and my dad is a retired engineer, he seemed to think that wasn't possible.

The conversation pointed out (again) to me, just how powerful American Indian stereotypes are--not just here--but abroad as well.

"Red Indian" is the phrase used for us in other lands. Later that evening, reading email, I learned of a new book, published in England, called Apache Girl Warrior. In her on-line interview, the author didn't use "red Indian" but she does have that tragic-romantic image in her head. And with that, she's written a book in which she makes up a tribe "Black Mountain Apache." She talks about not having learned much about American Indians, and that she wants to change that with this book. Her protagonist witnesses her brother being killed, vows to take vengeance, trains herself to be a warrior, and then...

That synopsis makes me think 'oh dear' --- her book is not going to do much more than affirm stereotypes, but in making up a tribe, but she is also adding misinformation. All with good intent!

Getting back to the subject of this post! John Herrington the astronaut is Chickasaw. And Cynthia Leitich Smith the author is Creek. The two were speaking at the Norman Public Library in Norman Oklahoma for its Native American Festival.

Over on her blog, Cyn has a picture of Herrington, and an image of the cover of her book, Rain is Not My Indian Name. She's got a signed poster of Herrington. It and a copy of her book are in a giveaway Cyn is doing. If you are a teacher, librarian, or university professor, click on over to her site and sign up for the chance to receive the giveaway. She's drawing the winning entry the first week of December.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Where is your copy of THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE?

That isn’t a trick question, but it is an important one. Where does your library shelve its copy of Forrest (Asa) Carter’s The Education of Little Tree?

Published in the 1970s, and passed off as autobiography, it was exposed as a work of fiction in 1991. It’s author, “Forrest” Carter was not Cherokee. He was Asa Carter, member of the KKK, and the person who wrote George Wallace’s “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech.

The Education of Little Tree was in the news last week. Around 6:00 AM on Sunday, November 11th, I did a Google search using [Oprah +”Education of Little Tree”] and got 572,000 hits that include news outlets in Canada, Ireland, the UK, and China. Obviously, Oprah is a person with international fame.

Oprah pulled The Education of Little Tree from her list of recommended books. She was a fan of the book, but decided, given its author, she could no longer keep it on her list. I wish that she knew there are additional problems with the book. It isn't only a hoax, it's deeply flawed in its presentation of Cherokee people and their ways.

As a person who studies children’s and young adult books about American Indians, I’ve known for a long time that the book is a hoax. A best-selling hoax. Curious about its reception, I logged on to Amazon to read some reader reviews there.

When I clicked on the link to customer reviews, the page that came up had a different format than what I’m used to seeing on Amazon. On the left side of the page is “The most helpful favorable review” and on the right side of the page is “The most helpful critical review.” The critical review is titled “Should not be shelved as Non-Fiction.” I like this dual presentation, and hope to see it more often.

I wanted to read more reviews, so clicked on the “Newest First” button. Scrolling down, I saw one titled “The WORST book I’ve ever recorded…” posted on June 6, 2006, by J. Woodman. The person named J. Woodman, apparently, recorded the audio book version: In his review, Woodman says

Reading the book to myself in order to prepare to record it, I found it annoying in the extreme -- the so-called prose is precious and poorly written, and the allegedly authentic colloquialisms are grating. When it came time to say it all aloud, for the first time ever (and I've narrated upwards of 200 audiobooks) I found it impossible to invest this piece of literary flotsam with any emotional content whatsoever. As declining the job was no longer an option, I merely tried to stay out of the way and give it as simple and logical a performance as I could, but I was unable to compensate for the God awful writing, and unable to disguise my contempt for the entire enterprise. It remains the worst recording I have ever done, and I was, for a time, quite ashamed of it. Now that I discover more about its hate mongering author, I'm actually quite pleased that the recording stinks. I now believe I gave this garbage exactly the reading it deserved.

Woodman’s remarks aside, review after review describes the story as “heartwarming” or “well-written, compelling” or “entertaining and thoughtful.” Many say they’ll pass it along to their children and grandchildren.

The thrust of the mainstream criticism of the book is about the author, about the hoax. Many say we should not discard a book because of its author, that it should be considered on its own merits. To many, it is a well-written book, and therefore, much-loved.


There are a lot of well-loved children’s books that miss the mark when viewed for the accuracy of presentation of Native content. These books are, in my view, bogus. A good example of this is Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, illustrated by Susan Jeffers. It is an award-winning, best-selling book that purports to be a speech given by Chief Seattle, who was the leader of a west-coast tribe, but Jeffers illustrations are the usual (stereotypical) Plains Indian-like items (fringed buckskin, tipis). Books like this do nothing to interrupt the cycles of misinformation circulating throughout mainstream America---and indeed---the world, about who American Indians actually are. Instead, they affirm stereotypes, of savage, heroic but always tragic Indians.

While those with little or no factually based knowledge of the Cherokee people think The Education of Little Tree is a wonderful story, those who are Cherokee find it deeply flawed. In his article “A Lingering Miseducation: Confronting the Legacy of Little Tree,” Daniel Heath Justice writes:

…Carter’s Indians live apart from their tribal community as much in spirit and philosophy as in geographic proximity. Grandpa, Granma, Little Tree, and Willow John are the only Indians around; reference to “the Nation” in Oklahoma is always with scorn or sadness. No mention is made of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina. Carter’s Indians claim to carry the memory and “Way” of their people, but only as a vanished or vanishing memory. The tribal community is dead in Little Tree, and none of the so-called Cherokees seem interested in reclaiming it.

On the authenticity in the book, Justice says:

Granpa is the Noble Trickster, Grandma the dignified Indian Princess (and a Cherokee Princess, no less!), and Little Tree is just what so many generations of Boy Scouts have dreamed themselves to be: the Little Brave roaming wild in the forest, with few rules and all sorts of generic “Indian” woodlore to consume and exploit. In most ways they are generic Indians, with few if any attributes that are distinctly Cherokee. None of them have any connection to the Cherokee clan system, which would have been quite unusual for Cherokees like Granma and Granpa during that time period….


This fictionalization of Native lives and histories poses a very real threat to Native America, for it creates powerful stereotypes of Indians (what Anishinaabe writer and critic Gerald Vizenor calls “interimage simulations”) that take on a white cultural reality that is seen as a more “authentic” than the realities of living, sovereign American Indians.

Justice opens his article by speaking of reading it himself, as a young boy, and how it affected him. He is Cherokee, or as he prefers, Tsalagi. He closes his article with this:

Many generations have suffered from the stereotypes that Little Tree draws upon, stereotypes that find their deepest grasp in the minds and spirits of the children. We have spent many years resisting colonialist intrusions into our lives, histories, and identities, to varying degrees of success, sometimes with strategies that would make true understanding more difficult for the children and grandchildren who would follow. Until 1996, my parents and I didn’t know that The Education of Little Tree was a fraud; three generations of removal kept us ignorant of who we are among our people. But we know now. We’ve reclaimed the story from Asa Carter and others like him who would define Indians out of existence and take their places as the indigenes of the Americas. We’re reestablishing connections with our kin in the Nation and beyond, and we’re reading authors like Cook-Lynn, Vizenor, Owens, Wendy Rose, Diane Glancy, Marilou Awiakta, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Sherman Alexie, D’Arcy McNickle, and other Indians hwo tell their own stories. The time of Little Tree is at an end; the voices have escaped. We know the truth: the stories are ours, and we will be the ones to tell them. That’s where the real education begins.

Justice’s article came out in a journal published by the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures. Published since the 1970s, it is among the handful of academic journals created by American Indians for the purpose of publishing research articles that provide American Indian perspectives on, in this case, literature. Older issues of the journal are on line at

Other journals like it include American Indian Quarterly, Wicazo-Sa Review, the Journal of American Indian Education, and American Indian Culture and Research Journal.

The Library of Congress classifies The Education of Little Tree as fiction but at least 20 libraries in Illinois have it shelved as non-fiction. Opening the book and looking at the CIP information, it is clear that---at one time---LOC had it categorized as biography. When did they change its category from biography to fiction? Does LOC have a mechanism for letting libraries know when they make such a change?

The case of The Education of Little Tree illustrates the many problems in children’s books about American Indians. From writers who claim a Native identity, to the differences in reviews by mainstream and Native critics, to the problems involved in shelving books.

Things can be better, but only if teachers and librarians have time to do some professional reading in journals that aren’t necessarily among their regular readings. This blog is an attempt to help you find those articles. When they’re available on-line, I link to them (see column at right called ARTICLES.)

So…. I close this blog post with the question I started with: Where is your copy of The Education of Little Tree shelved?

[Note: Thank you, readers of YALSA and ISLMANET, for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this post.]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thanksgiving in YA National Book Award

Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work. --Debbie


Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award last night, for his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

There's a lot in his book that many readers may not know or understand... What is, for example, "The Indian Health Service." And what is that reference to a "white dentist"?!

Page after page has something I identify with, or laugh aloud with... Below are some excerpts from the book.

On page 35, Mr. P (Junior's teacher) says

"When I first started teaching here, that's what we did to the rowdy ones, you know? We beat them. That's how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child."

Alexie's protagonist asks Mr. P

"You killed Indians?"

And Mr. P replies

"No, no, it's just a saying. I didn't literally kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren't trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture."
Mr. P is referring to boarding schools. Not fancy prep-schools, but schools designed to "Kill the Indian, save the man."

Take a look at the illustration on page 38, and the discussion of romance novels. When I do guest lectures, I bring along one of Cassie Edward's romance novels. They are hilarious to me, but they ARE bestsellers, consumed by... who? Women.... Librarians? Teachers? Parents? I bring one along to make the point that, if you're only reading junk, it is easy to understand why you don't recognize stereotypical content.

On page 61 are "The Unofficial and Unwritten Spokane Indian Rules of Fisticuffs." Lists like that make the rounds often, moving through cyberspace, dropping into my mailbox. Native humor.

Page 101? New chapter, called "Thanksgiving"

I always think its funny when Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, sure, the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during that First Thanksgiving, but a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians.

So I'm never quite sure why we eat turkey like everybody else.

"Hey, Dad," I said. "What do Indians have to be so thankful for?"

"We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us."

We laughed like crazy. It was a good day. Dad was sober. Mom was getting ready to nap. Grandma was already napping.

As you may know, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is very close to his own story. Given that, you may be interested in reading up on Alexie's people. Among the wonders of the Internet is that Native people and tribes can now get info available to the masses. Info about their history, culture, etc. from their perspective rather than something filtered through an outsider's lens. As you read/teach/discuss his novel with students and patrons, it will you and them to know the history and present-day life of his people.

Alexie is Spokane and Coeur d'Alene. Here are the links to their websites:

Spokane Tribe of Indians

Coeur d'Alene

You might also want to order and watch two films based on his writing. The first is SMOKE SIGNALS, and the second is THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING. The latter might be controversial in some circles, because the protagonist is gay. Watch it, and keep an eye out for Alexie. He does appear in it. Then, watch it again, the second time listening to Alexie talk about the film in the directors commentary.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"read" in Native Languages

Tulsa City-County Library has given permission for people to use this graphic for educational, non-commercial purposes. If you have questions please contact Sue Anderson at

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Good Books about Thanksgiving

I've had a lot of email of late... People want me to recommend good books about Thanksgiving.

There's only a handful of ones that I'd recommend. Actually---I concur with those recommended by Oyate, and I'll list them below.

Here's the thing. I want teachers, parents, and librarians to consider that a lot of American Indians don't necessarily "celebrate" Thanksgiving as it is celebrated in the mainstream American holiday scheme.

Many of us get together----it IS a major holiday, with almost all offices shut down and stores closing early, etc.----and many of us eat turkey, but there are no Pilgrim and Indian salt shakers on my table...

Think about it this way. Just for a moment. Europeans invaded the homelands of Native peoples and their nations all over the Americas. There were wars. Death. Incarceration. Brutal programs designed to "kill the Indian and save the man." Native peoples and our cultures were attacked. But we persevered, and many of us we have a different view of this holiday. A lot of people tell us "get over it" and the like.


That's like asking the bully and his/her victim to hug without recognizing the harm and the hurt, without having honest conversations with the bully about his actions. I'm a bit reluctant to put forth these analogies, because I don't view myself or Native peoples as victims.

What I'm getting at, in part, is that I don't want to be a player in your story. I don't want to be on your stage. I want you to see me and Pueblo people (in my case) as a people that existed and exists on its own merits---not as minor characters, or colorful ones, in the story that America tells about America.

You want to know about Native people? Do you really want to know about us? Or do you just need/want us so you can 'do your thing' (celebrate Thanksgiving)? You want me to tell you what I do for Thanksgiving. I understand that, but I think it more important that you ask about (in my case) the Pueblo people. Who are we? Where are we? What are OUR celebrations? When are they? What are they about?

And... instead of asking a Native person what they're doing for Thanksgiving, how about asking yourself about what you are doing, and why.

That said, here's some books Oyate recommends. The list is from their page about Thanksgiving. I highly recommend you read it.

Recommended Books about Thanksgiving

Bruchac, Margaret M. (Abenaki), and Catherine Grace O’Neill, 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2001, grades 4-up Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

Hunter, Sally M. (Ojibwe), Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1997, grades 4-6.

Peters, Russell M. (Wampanoag), Clambake: A Wampanoag Tradition. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992, grades 4-6.

Regguinti, Gordon (Ojibwe), The Sacred Harvest: Ojibway Wild Rice Gathering. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992, grades 4-6.

Seale, Doris (Santee/Cree), Beverly Slapin, and Carolyn Silverman (Cherokee), eds., Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective. Berkeley: Oyate, 1998, teacher resource.

Swamp, Jake (Mohawk), Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message. New York: Lee & Low, 1995, all grades.

Wittstock, Laura Waterman (Seneca), Ininatig’s Gift of Sugar: Traditional Native Sugarmaking. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1993, grades 4-6

Sunday, November 11, 2007


In the 1990s during graduate school, I read a book called Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Prior to grad school, I had been teaching elementary school and was continually disappointed with the ways that American Indians were portrayed in children's books. I was very glad to know about Through Indian Eyes. Edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, the book is packed with critical reviews, essays, and poems. Today, I'm listing the books reviewed in Through Indian Eyes. If you don't have a copy, you should get one. It is available in paperback from Oyate, a Native not-for-profit organization, for $25.

Books reviewed in Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children (Note: this is NOT a list of recommended books! Some are worth having; others are not.)

  • Ashabranner, Brent. Children of the Maya; Morning Star, Black Sun; To Live in Two Worlds
  • Armstrong, Jeanette. Neekna and Chemai
  • Awiakta, Marilous. Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery
  • Baker, Betty. Three Fools and a Horse
  • Baker, Olaf. Where the Buffaloes Begin
  • Banks, Lynne Reid. The Indian in the Cupboard; The Return of the Indian
  • Baylor, Byrd. Before You Came This Way; The Desert is Theirs; A God on Every Mountain Top; Hawk, I'm Your Brother; They Put on Masks
  • Benton-Banai, Edward. The Mishomis Book
  • Bierhorst, John. Doctor Coyote
  • Big Crow, Moses Nelson/Eyo Hiktepi. A Legend from Crazy Horse Clan
  • Blood, Charles, and Martin Link. The Goat in the Rug
  • Brescia, Bill (ed). Our Mother Corn
  • Brewer, Linda Skinner. O Wakaga
  • Broker, Ignatia. Night Flying Woman
  • Brown, Dee. Tepee Tales of the American Indian
  • Bruchac, Joseph. Iroquois Stories; Iroquois Stories: Heroes and Heroines, Monsters and Magic; Songs From This Earth on Turtle's Back; The Wind Eagle and Other Abenaki Stories
  • Charging Eagle, Tom and Ron Zeilinger. Black Hills, Sacred Hills
  • Collura, Mary-Ellen Lang. Winners
  • Cooper, Amy Jo. Dream Quest
  • Kleitsch, Christel and Paul Stephens. Dancing Feathers; A Time to be Brave
  • D'Aulaire, Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire. George Washington; Pocahontas.
  • DePaola, Tomie. The Legend of the Bluebonnet
  • Durham, Jimmie. Columbus Day
  • Fleischer, Jane. Pontiac, Chief of the Ottawas; Sitting Bull, Warrior of the Sioux; Tecumseh, Shawnee War Chief
  • Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union Title IV Indian Education Program. Finding One's Way
  • Friskey, Margaret. Indian Two Feet and His Horse
  • Fritz, Jean. The Double Life of Pocahontas; The Good Giants and the Bad Puckwudgies
  • Goble, Paul. Buffalo Woman; Death of the Iron Horse; Star Boy
  • Green, Richard G. Wundoa: "I'm Number One"
  • Haseley, Dennis. The Scared One
  • Henry, Edna/We-Cha-Pi-Tu-Wen/Blue Star Woman. Native American Cookbook
  • Henry, Jeanette and Rupert Costo. A Thousand Years of American Indian Storytelling
  • Highwater, Jamake. The Ceremony of Innocence
  • Hirschfelder, Arlene. American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children; Happily May I Walk
  • Hudson, Jan. Sweetgrass
  • Hungry Wolf, Beverly. The Ways of My Grandmothers
  • Jassem, Kate. Chief Joseph, Leader of Destiny; Pocahontas, Girl of Jamestown; Sacajawea, Wilderness Guide; Squanto, The Pilgrim Adventure
  • Johnston, Basil. How the Birds got their Colours
  • Katz, Jane. This Song Remembers: Self Portraits of Native American in the Arts
  • LeSueur, Meridel. Sparrow Hawk
  • Lyons, Grant. Pacific Coast Indians of North America
  • Maher, Ramona. Alice Yazzie's Year
  • Martin, Bill and John Archambault. Knots on a Counting Rope
  • Martinson, David. Real Wild Rice; Shemay: The Bird in the Sugarbush
  • Mathers, Sharon, Linda Skinner, and Terry Tafoya. The Mamook Book: Activities for Learning about the Northwest Coast Indians
  • Mayne, William. Drift
  • McGovern, Ann. If You Lived with the Sioux Indians
  • Miles, Miska. Annie and the Old One
  • Munsch, Robert and Michael Kusugak. A Promise is a Promise
  • Nabokov, Peter. Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492-1992
  • New Mexico People and Energy Collective. Red Ribbons for Emma
  • Norman, Howard. Who-Paddled-Backward-With-Trout
  • North American Indian Travelling College. Legends of Our Nations
  • O'Dell, Scott. Black Star, Bright Dawn
  • Okahagan Tribal Council. How Food Was Given; How Names Were Given; How Turtle Set the Animals Free
  • Oppenheim, Joanne. Black Hawk; Oscela; Sequoyah
  • Ortiz, Simon J. The People Shall Continue
  • Paige, Harry W. John Stands
  • Patacsil, Sharon and Colleen Neal. Daybreak Star Preschool Activities Book
  • Poatgieter, Hermina. Indian Legacy: Native American Influences on World Life and Cultures
  • Rock Point Community School. Between Sacred Mountains: Navajo Stories and Lessons from the Land
  • Roth, Susan. Kanahena: A Cherokee Story
  • Siberell, Anne. Whale in the Sky
  • Speare, Elizabeth George. The Sign of the Beaver
  • Steltzer, Ulli. A Haida Potlach
  • St. Paul Community Programs in the Arts and Sciences. Angwamas Minosewag Anishinabeg: Time of the Indian
  • Staheli, Julie West. Kachinas Color and Cut-Out Collection
  • Steptoe, John. The Story of Jumping Mouse
  • Strete, Craig Kee. When Grandfather Journeys into Winter; The Bleeding Man and Other Science Fiction Stories
  • TallMountain, Mary. Green March Moons
  • Tapahonso, Luci. A Breeze Swept Through
  • Tohono O'odham Tribal Council. Tohono O'odham: Lives of the Desert People
  • Trimble, Stephen and Harvey Lloyd. Our Voices Our Land
  • Wallin, Luke. Ceremony of the Panther; In the Shadow of the Wind
  • Weeks, Rupert. Pachee Goyo: History and Legends from the Shoshone
  • Yue, Charlotte and David Yue. The Pueblo; The Tipi: A Center of Native American Life
  • Zitrkala-Sa/Gertrude Bonin. Old Indian Legends