Friday, January 04, 2008

Tribal Protocols Regarding Research

There's been some conversation on YALSA regarding accuracy/authenticity in representation of American Indians.

In a reply to the conversation, I wrote about "freedom of expression" in the context of sovereign nation status and tribal protocols for research.

There was a time when researchers could go to a reservation and conduct research, do interviews, take photographs, etc. Due to appropriation, misrepresentation, and disrespect, tribes have become very careful, very guarded.

Increasingly, tribes are saying 'no' to use of Native culture by outsiders, and, to researchers.

Increasingly, institutions are recognizing and responding to tribes assertion of control over cultural and intellectual property. Museums are returning Native artifacts to tribes from which they were taken by archeologists, anthropologists, and, speaking bluntly, opportunists who dug up Native graves, removed artifacts, and sold them. Use of photographs is under tighter control, too.

In Arizona, one of the state institutions that has photographs of Hopi dances has stopped releasing them to the public. On their internet pages, you can learn that the photos exist, but there is no 'thumbnail' of the image. You can go to the institution and view them, but you cannot reproduce them.

In the past, Native people have been studied and, the study is used for the benefit of the scholar, with no benefit to the tribe itself. In recent years, tribes are writing protocols for researchers who wish to go out there and study this or that aspect of the tribe.

No longer is it acceptable to just go to a reservation and do research. Tribes are controlling access. Researchers know this, but, perhaps, writers do not, and so they do not seek permission to do research and write a children's book.

Click here to go to the Hopi Tribal Council's page on protocol. Do read it, and consider its application for writers of children's books.

UPDATE, 9:38, January 5, 2007:

On their page "Intellectual Property Rights" is this:

In this information age, we are concerned with protecting our own ideas. These ideas may be in speeches, music composition, computer programs, television, and other media. Our nation’s courtrooms are filled with cases in which someone allegedly breached that intellectual property right.
Through the decades the intellectual property rights of Hopi have been violated for the benefit of many other, non-Hopi people that has proven to be detrimental. Expropriation comes in many forms. For example, numerous stories told to strangers have been published in books without the storytellers' permission. After non-Hopis saw ceremonial dances, tape recorded copies of music were sold to outside sources. Clothing items of ceremonial dancers have been photographed without the dancers’ permission and sold. Choreography from ceremonial dances has been copied and performed in non-sacred settings. Even the pictures of the ceremonies have been included in books without written permission. Designs from skilled Hopi potters have been duplicated by non-Hopis. Katsinas dolls have also been duplicated from Hopi dancers seen at Hopi. Although the Hopi believe the ceremonies are intended for the benefit of all people, they also believe benefits only result when ceremonies are properly performed and protected.
All of these actions are breaches of Hopi intellectual property rights, used by non-Hopi for personal and commercial benefit without Hopi permission.
Through these thefts, sacred rituals have been exposed to others out of context and without Hopi permission. Some of this information has reached individuals for whom it was not intended (e.g., Hopi youth, members of other clans, or non-Hopi).
Please be mindful of the personal ethics involved in and laws surrounding this issue.

Update: Feb 3, 2013

I am still trying to retrace my steps to find the state institution with no thumbnails. I do want to add one more resource to the ones I provided above. This, too, is Hopi, and its an agreement between Hopi Nation and the Museum of Northern Arizona. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Video interview: Joseph Bruchac

I no longer recommend work by Joseph Bruchac. For details, see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

Scholastic has a video interview of Joseph Bruchac. He's written some excellent books. Among those I hold in great regard is Hidden Roots.

In the video, he is asked what book he'd like to see made into a movie. His answer? Skeleton Man. I really like that book. When I got it, I read it aloud to my daughter. We were engrossed with it, stayed with it till we finished. It is terrific. It would make a great movie!

Bruchac is very important to the work that I do. Some years back, I wrote a chapter called "Native Americans in Children's Books of the Twentieth Century." It was published in Linda Pavonetti's book, Children's Literature Remembered: Issues, Trends, & Favorite Books. I opened that chapter with this paragraph:

If asked to name a Native American (or American Indian) author of children’s books, Joseph Bruchac, of the Abenaki tribe, is likely to be at the top of the list. Readers should note Bruchac’s tribe (Abenaki); Native Americans prefer to be identified by a specific tribe rather than Native American or American Indian when possible. Bruchac has written numerous children’s books about Native Americans. His work spans several genres: The Story of the Milky Way (Dial, 1995) is traditional literature, The Heart of a Chief (Dial, 1998) is contemporary realistic fiction, Arrow Over the Door (Dial, 1998) is historical fiction, Crazy Horse’s Vision (Lee & Low, 2000) is biography, and Bowman’s Store (Lee & Low, 2000) is his autobiography. What is not well known in the field of children’s literature is Bruchac’s role in mentoring aspiring Native authors. Indeed, he is recognized as the single most important force in the nation in publishing and promoting the work of emerging Native American writers (Lerner, 1996). Bruchac was instrumental in establishing the Returning the Gift festival in 1992. Held in Norman, Oklahoma, it was conceived as a gathering at which Native authors could share their work and talk with and/or mentor aspiring Native American authors. It evolved into an annual Returning the Gift festival and the formation of several organizations whose goals are to publish the work of Native authors and provide beginning authors with mentors. Native American authors who serve as mentors include Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) whose Ceremony is widely used in high school classrooms, and Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene). Also serving as a mentor is Gayle Ross (Cherokee), known for her picture book retellings of traditional literature and oral storytelling, and of course, Bruchac himself. In addition to the festival, Bruchac established the Greenfield Review Press, a small publishing house devoted to publication of Native authors. Without question, Bruchac has been significant, not only for his own writing, but also for his efforts to mentor and promote the work of other Native authors.

His books are in most libraries, and that is a good thing for all readers. There is a book, based on the gathering, called Returning the Gift: Poetry and Prose from the First North American Native Writers' Festival. In March, Michigan State University will host the next Returning the Gift Native Writers Conference. Click here for info.

And, click here to see the video interview of Joseph Bruchac.

Update: Jan 2, 2008, 3:45 PM---Eliza Dresang did an interview with Bruchac, archived on the CCBC site. To read it, click here.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Jan Brett and Sherman Alexie

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

Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?


Today is December 31, 2007. We’re ending one year and starting another. Looking over the NY Times list of best selling children’s books, I note two books that are on the lists. These two books capture all that is good, and all that is not good, about books by and about American Indians.

On the picture book list is Jan Brett’s The Three Snow Bears. It represents all-that-is-not-good. I would not buy it.

On the chapter books list is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It represents all-that-is-good. I recommend it, and I give it as gifts. It is astounding on so many levels.

Before I start this discussion, I want to state clearly that I do not believe Jan Brett (or anyone who likes her new book) is racist or misguided. Mis-informed, or maybe, mis-socialized, mis-educated…. That is the root of the problem.

Both books have been on the best selling list for 14 weeks. As of today The Three Snow Bears is ranked at #4; Absolutely True Diary is ranked at #5.

The accompanying NYT blurb for The Three Snow Bears:
"Aloo-ki and the Three Bears: the Goldilocks tale goes to the Arctic Circle."

The blurb for Absolutely True Diary:
"A boy leaves his reservation for an all-white school."

Jan Brett is not an indigenous person. But like many writers, she has written (and illustrated) a book in which Native imagery figures prominently. A lot of writers retell Native stories, changing values and characters in such a way that the story can no longer be called Native. Pollock disneyfied The Turkey Girl, a story told among the Zuni people. Brett didn’t try to retell a Native story. She told an old favorite classic, and set her story in the Arctic. Her Goldilocks is an Inuit girl she named Aloo-ki.
The book flap for the hardcover copy says that Brett went to the Nunavut Territory in northern Canada, I gather, to climb to the Arctic Circle marker. While there she visited a school and according to the flap (note: authors don’t generally write the material on book flaps), “Jan saw the many intelligent, proud faces that became her inspiration for Aloo-ki.”

Why is “faces” modified with “intelligent” and “proud”? Is it Inuit faces that need these modifiers? Do you see such modifiers about the faces of any-kids in any-school? (I also want to say at this point that Brett's inspiration reminded me of Rinaldi's inspiration when she saw the names of Native kids on gravestones at Carlisle Indian School. Rinaldi was so moved by their names that she used the names, creating characters to go with them.)

The flap also says that she visited a museum where she “marveled at images of Arctic animals in Inuit clothes and felt a door had opened.”

My colleague, Theresa Seidel, addresses problems with the story (and the flaps) in her open letter to Jan Brett. She points out that in The Three Snow Bears, we have another book in which an author/illustrator puts Native clothing on animals, effectively de-humanizing American Indians.
Yes---Beatrix Potter did that in her Peter Rabbit stories, and nobody is making a fuss over that, but there is a difference

The humanity of the people Potter’s bunnies represent is not questioned. Those people are recognized as people. Regular people. Not people (like indigenous peoples of the US and Canada) who are adored and romanticized. And, they're not a people who most others think vanished. Some people might put Princess Di on a pedestal and swoon over who she was, and they might swoon over some part of English culture, but they don’t do that to all of the English people. 

In contrast, far too many people think we (American Indians, Inuits, First Nations) no longer exist. We (or rather, some semblance of who we were/are) do, however, make frequent appearances in fiction, as mascots on sports fields, as inspiration for troops whose helicopters and battleships and missile’s named after Native tribes, and on products from tobacco to automobiles to foodstuffs. For too many, we are an idea, not a living, breathing people whose kids go to the same schools as yours do.

Brett had good intentions. She was inspired by the people, their art, their world. And she she wrote and illustrated this book that subtly and directly affirms problematic notions of who we are. It is a beautifully illustrated book. (As a work of low fantasy, we must suspend our disbelief so we buy into the polar bears living as humans do. Look closely, though... The polar bears wear their parkas when they go out, but leave their boots behind.)

Aloo-ki is surprised to come upon “the biggest igloo she had ever seen.” That’s worth a challenge, because it suggests that Aloo-ki is accustomed to seeing smaller igloos. Problem is, most people think that igloos are cute dwellings, about the size of dog houses. They’re actually quite large. If you saw the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), you saw just how big igloos are. (Go to the movie’s website and view the galleries

In sum, Brett’s book is pretty to look at, a trinket, a decoration, but Native peoples are not trinkets or decorations. 

Turning now, to Alexie’s book…

Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on his reservation. His book is largely autobiographical. It is HIS story, his LIVED story, that he gives us in Absolutely True Diary. He doesn’t retell a traditional story. He gives us a story of a modern day Native boy, living life in these times, not some far-off, exotic place, distant in time and location. His story is note cute or charming. It is gritty.

We can agree that children who read picture books have different needs than those who read chapter books. But it IS possible to write picture books about present day Native kids. Native authors who’ve written precisely this kind of book are Joseph Bruchac, Joy Harjo, and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Today, Diane Chen (a blogger at School Libray Journal) wrote about the need for discussion and growth, so that the children’s book world (and American society) can move beyond the place we are STILL at, where problematic books about American Indians are written, published, favorably reviewed, bought, and read by kids across the country.

We can do better, but the Jan Brett’s and their editors, their publishers, and reviewers, teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers, all have to listen to our concerns. This is not, from my point of view, an issue of racism. It is an issue of not-knowing, and being unwilling to admit errors.
With a new year upon us, can we give it a try?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

"Retired bishop apologizes for mistreating the Miwoks"

On December 26, 2007, the Marin Independent Journal ran a story about what I view as an important moment in the history of relationships between the United States and American Indians. Missionaries and their missions figure prominently in our histories. Religious denominations set up schools and sought to Christianize us. Today, there are many children's books about the missions, especially those in California.

Some years back, I was asked to review a children's book (non-fiction) about the California missions. It was a biased book, devoid of the harsh conditions and brutal treatment of American Indians. In preparing my review, I drew upon Native scholarship on the missions. The review was rejected.

I'm hopeful, therefore, that the event described in the Marin article will be repeated in other churches across the country, and that more people will learn an unbiased history of the missions, and that books about the missions will become more accurate.

You can read the entire story in the Marin paper by clicking here. I am pasting the opening paragraphs below:

You could have heard a pin drop when Bishop Francis A. Quinn, during a Mass at the Church of St. Raphael in San Rafael, apologized to the Miwok Indians for cruelties the church committed against them two centuries ago.

Indians who were present seemed stunned.

The retired bishop, in green brocade robes, lofty miter and carrying a shepherd's crook, lent heart and historical gravitas to the Mass, part of the 190th birthday celebration of Mission San Rafael Arcangel the other day.

Coast Miwok Indians once occupied the lands from the Golden Gate to north of Bodega Bay. When Spanish padres launched the San Rafael mission in 1817, the Indians built it, maintained it and helped it survive, according to anthropologist Betty Goerke, who has studied the Indians for 30 years.

But they paid dearly for their participation. Bishop Quinn conceded that the church authorities "took the Indian out of the Indian," destroying traditional spiritual practices and "imposing a European Catholicism upon the natives."

He conceded that mission soldiers and priests had sexual relations with Indian women and inflicted cruel punishments - caning, whipping, imprisonment - on those who disobeyed mission laws. He acknowledged that the Indians had a "civilization" of their own - one that valued all of nature - long before the Spanish imposed an alien, European-type life upon them.
The article goes on to quote the tribal chair of the Miwoks, Greg Sarris. Sarris is the author of some terrific books (not written for youth), but depending on one's view on what is appropriate, they'd be fine in a high school English class. One is Grand Avenue, and another is Watermelon Nights. I'll leave further discussion of Sarris for another day.

The point of today's post is to ask you to look over books on your shelves---books about the missions, specifically those in California, and consider the content of those books. Does the book gloss over the treatment of Indians? Does it make the mission look like a wonderful thing for the Indians?

Bishop Quinn's apology stands out because the United States government has not yet acknowledged what the Canadian government has acknowledged and apologized for. That is, the history of the boarding and mission schools that were designed to "kill the Indian, save the man."

We are all aware of the sexual abuse experienced by non-Native youth. Nightly news has covered it quite a lot in recent years. In addition to sexual abuse, however, Native people were on the receiving end of a concerted effort, a government-funded effort, a Christian effort to erase Native identity, culture, values, language.

I don't expect that any work of juvenile nonfiction about the mission schools will include description or even mention of sexual abuse. But what do we do with the books full of half-truths (speaking generously)?

And, what will be the impact of Bishop Quinn's apology?