Monday, December 22, 2008


Today, Nadine (a librarian-in-training) wrote to me after she found my blog. We exchanged a few emails, during which I learned she's from Manitoba, Canada. She had some very cool news about In Search of April Raintree...

Written by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, In Search of April Raintree is the book chosen for "On The Same Page: Manitoba Reads" --- a literacy project whose goal is to have 12,000 people (1% of the population of Manitoba) read the selected book between October 2008 through April 2009.

According to a review in CM: Canadian Review of Materials, it is widely used in junior and senior high schools, and university courses, too. The On The Same Page site includes a bio and among other things, an interview with her. One of the questions is

"Do you wish you could have read a book like In Search of April Raintree when you were young?"

Her reply:

"I have Metis people come up and tell me that In Search of April Raintree changed their lives. They grew up hiding their Aboriginal roots and with this book, they felt proud of April and proud of their roots. A lot of people, especially Aboriginal people, have told me that this story is their story because it's exactly what they went through: growing up in foster homes; alcoholism in the family, forced assimilation and racism is something that they can identify with."
I read the novel years ago. It should be more widely read in the United States. Thanks, Nadine, for the info!

(Note: The cover image and photo of Mosionier are from the On The Same Page website.)

Update, Dec 23rd, 2008---Oyate carries April Raintree. I asked Beverly Slapin if it is the same book as In Search of April Raintree. She said:

IN SEARCH OF APRIL RAINTREE and APRIL RAINTREE were published together as separate titles. APRIL RAINTREE was the one more accessible for high school students, so that is the one we chose. The only difference, really, seems to be the rape scene, which is a little less graphic in the high school edition.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Many people want to know what I think of Beth Kanell's book, now that I've read it. I am working on an essay, but for now, I can say that I do not recommend Beth Kanell's young adult novel, Darkness Under the Water.

My essay will center on the way the novel is described by its author, publisher, and reviewers. The novel is presented as "exploring a dark episode in New England history." That episode is the Vermont Eugenics Survey, but the novel doesn't actually do that.

Update: Dec 23rd, 2008---As I work on my review essay, I'm studying the Vermont Eugenics Movement. I came across a lecture that Nancy Gallagher and Judy Dow gave in March of 2007. The lecture is housed at the Center for Research on Vermont. Click here to view it.

Early on in the video, Gallagher says that she, as an academic, had done research on this eugenics movement, but feels that the stories need to be told strictly from the perspective of the families themselves, in their voices. I listened to her words and thought about how her words foreshadowed what has happened with Kanell's book.

Here's the description of the lecture:

The French-Indian people in Chittenden County lived in small neighborhood communities identified by names known only to them, and Moccasin Village in Burlington's Old North End was one of these. Despite repeated attempts at forced assimilation such as eminent domain, increased taxes, institutionalization, and eugenics, the Abenaki oral tradition of storytelling has allowed these communities and their ancestral traditions to endure beneath and within an external French-Canadian identity. Judy Dow, who has deep ancestral roots to Moccasin Village, and Nancy Gallagher, author of Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, began collaborating in 2004 in an effort to document and restore to public memory the history of Abenaki culture in Winooski Intervale communities and in Vermont at large. In this program they present their findings on the various means of adaptation to social, political, environmental, and economic changes that enabled the Abenaki culture to survive.

Jan 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kanell response to Slapin's Open Letter

In response to Slapin's Open Letter (click here to read it), Kanell wrote to her webmaster (Alexie) saying:

Hi Alexis,

Beverly Slapin, copied above, has provided strong reasons for removing the original questions 10 and 11 from the discussion questions for The Darkness Under the Water, immediately. I suspect it works better for you to have the entire list at once, to replace the page -- yes? So I'm pasting a revised list onto here. Beverly, if you have time and energy to add to these, or adjust them, I'd value your experience in making the list both wiser and stronger. Thank you.

Appended to her note was a list of questions. The two that Slapin discussed in her Open Letter are gone from the new list.

Alexis posted the new list right away, and Kanell wrote to Slapin by email to let her know of those changes. She copied me on that email and followed it with another email, asking me to post her questions to my blog as a stand-alone post, giving them the same exposure that I gave to Slapin's.

I've given her request a lot of thought because one of the new questions is no better than the ones she took off. The new question reveals, to me, a lack of insight to the reasons Native people object to the ways that we and our histories are presented in children's books. She wanted to do good with her book, but she missed the mark. She's stated that her own Jewish history makes it possible for her to present a Native story. But, over and over, there are examples that her Jewish identity did not translate to insight to Native story.

Do I post her questions, as she requested, and address the new problem she created? If I do, am I being mean to her?

On the one hand, it feels mean and aggressive to keep pointing out that lack of insight. On the other hand, each new instance provides an opportunity for me to point out how lack of insight results in a problematic passage.

By 'each new instance' I mean each time she posts to the child_lit listserv. On that listserv, a contentious dialogue has been taking place for almost two weeks. Each time she posts to child_lit, her response contains errors.

For example, she has argued there that the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki. In fact, the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki as a minority. That's very different from being recognized as a tribal nation. I don't think Kanell understands the distinction. Native peoples across the country know the difference, and, I wish more citizens of the U.S. did, too.

This blog exists to provide my perspective on the words others write. My responsibility, as I see it, is not to any author, but to what he or she writes, and, to the readers of that author's words. My goal is not to beat up on an author, though it will feel that way to the author. My goal is to educate the author, the publisher, the reviewer, the teacher, parent, and librarian so that the entire field of children's books that have images of American Indians moves from one that is fraught with error to one that is does an accurate job of presenting who we are.

With that as my framework, here is question #11.

11. If you have studied World War II or the history of the Jews in the world, you know about an even more frightening and terrible project that began in the 1930s to eliminate one group of people and to make another group of people more powerful. Where did this happen? Do you think there is a connection to Molly's story? How could you find out more about this?

" know about an even more frightening and terrible project..." she wrote.

Hitler was defeated. As a result of that defeat, we know the horrors of the Holocaust. A lot of allies stepped in to stop what he was doing.

Nobody stepped in to stop what was happening to American Indians in what became the United States. There are no museums that document what happened to us in the way that Holocaust museums do.

I read question 11 and think back to my own history as a Pueblo Indian. Slaughter, persecution, efforts to "kill the Indian and save the man."

Though I'm sure it is not her intention, Kanell writes as though there are none of us left that would object to question 11. Surely she doesn't mean to do a hierarchical presentation of genocide. But just as surely, she doesn't understand how a Native person would read that question.

I object. And, we object. Thanks to electronic listservs and blogs--we can reach people we couldn't reach before.

January 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Slapin: Open Letter to Beth Kanell

Beverly Slapin (she includes bio info in her essay below) submitted this Open Letter as a comment to Seale and Dow's review essay of Beth Kanell's young adult book, Darkness Under the Water. Because her letter is about Ms. Kanell's companion website for the book, I'm also placing it here, with its own post.


Ms. Kanell—
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Beverly Slapin. I am Jewish. Many of my maternal relatives, along with millions of others, were murdered by the eugenicists who called themselves National Socialists, in the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. My paternal grandfather fought against the Czar in Russia and, for this reason, was one of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of revolutionaries who were murdered. My ancestors fought and died so that I could be here. And because I’m here, it is my obligation to speak for them. And because they were who they were, it is my obligation to combat racism wherever it exists.
I am co-founder and executive director of Oyate and I’ve taught in the area of critical multiculturalism, especially since it relates to Native peoples, since 1990. I am co-editor of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, which won an American Book Award. I am a children’s content editor for and frequent contributor to Multicultural Review. I have read thousands of young adult books, including historical fiction, and have written more reviews than I can count or remember. I have read The Darkness Under the Water four times. Last, but certainly not least, having worked with them for many years, I consider Doris Seale, Judy Dow, and Debbie Reese, dear friends and colleagues. They stand by their words and I stand with them; not because they’re my friends but because they’re speaking truths.
At this point, I’m going address the discussion questions on your website. While discussion questions for young adult fiction, and especially young adult historical fiction, generally aim to encourage young readers to empathize with the protagonist or other characters, your questions serve only to distance young readers from the Abenaki characters in the story, and from the Abenaki peoples in Vermont. I will focus on questions 10 and 11, which I consider the worst discussion questions I have ever read anywhere.
Question 10: Many times in nature, animals seem to realize when another animal is “different.” Sometimes the animals try to make the different animal leave or they attack it for being different. Do people act the same way? How do the people in Molly’s story show this? Have you seen people do this? Have you also seen people who choose not to act this way? Describe them and give your opinion on why they react differently.
Question 11: The decision in Vermont to sort people out by whether they seemed like "good citizens" for the state was happening in many other places. More than half the states in America passed laws that allowed doctors to "sterilize" people who were "unfit" in some way. Do you know anyone who has sterilized a pet so it would not have puppies or kittens? Was there a good reason? Talk about the ways people are different from pets and whether there can ever be good reasons for choices like this for people. Is it different if the choices are forced on someone?
In comparing the criminal behavior of the eugenicists to a natural fear that “animals in nature” may have, you are excusing what they did and, by your analogy, blaming the Abenaki for being “different.” By comparing the Abenaki to pet dogs and cats—which is what you do—you are dehumanizing the Abenaki peoples. You are heaping shame on Abenaki people in general, and, in particular, you are shaming Abenaki youngsters who may read your book. And you are encouraging non-Indian young people to feel superior. This is racism, pure and simple. This may or may not be your intention; I have no way of knowing.
Now, Ms. Kanell, imagine you are, say, Jewish. And you are living in, say, Eastern Europe in the 1930s. And, in school, you are forced to answer “discussion questions” that compare you and your family to dogs and cats that need to be sterilized. Well, this really happened. I know this history. And now you, wittingly or unwittingly, are making it happen again. For Doris and Judy and all the other Abenaki people in Vermont and elsewhere who are now being forced to relive the pain, I’m asking you to remove your discussion guide from your website. If you have a shred of decency, you will.

Obama, Native American Rights Fund, and Ryan Red Corn

In the last few days, Native presses have published several stories of relevance to the focus of this blog.

John Echohawk is one of the authors of an excellent non-fiction book called Battlefields and Burial Grounds: the Indian Struggle to Protect Ancestral Graves in the United States. It was published in 1994 by Lerner. I wrote about the book in 2007. Echohawk is the Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF). And, he's been appointed to President-Elect Obama's Transition Team. Read details about the appointment here.

A few days ago, I was chatting on Facebook with a friend, Ryan Red Corn. Ryan is Osage, and, a graphic artist. He's done a lot of work with NARF.

One of Ryan's designs will be used for the upcoming Inaugural festivities. His art has been used for the covers of Red Ink, a Native literary magazine I wrote about here (I suggested high school English teachers consider it for their lit courses).

Click here to read a REZNET article about Ryan and see a slideshow of his work, and here to go right to his website, redhandmedia. There you can see some of the videos he's worked on, like the 20-minute piece on identity of Native American youth.

Congratulations, Ryan, on your accomplishments, and thank you for the work that you're doing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Looking for books as gifts this holiday season?

With the holiday season approaching (or, if you're already observing it) and are looking for a book for a child or teen, take a look at this list. Developed in conjunction with PBS for its upcoming series "We Shall Remain," each of the books is terrific. Each one has been discussed on this blog, too.

They've also compiled a list of books for adult reading circles. Click here to see that list.

Every writer on both lists is Native. Selecting only books by Native writers is a great decision. It thematically supports the title of the PBS series (We Shall Remain). In effect, it says, We Write, We are Still Here, and We Shall Remain. (Note: The only exception are two of the editors on the collections of stories and poems.)

This blog is on their short list of recommended resources, along with Oyate.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Reader responds to Seale/Dow review of DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER

The review I posted yesterday prompted a comment that I've decided to place here rather than as a comment. The person (writing as "Durable Goods") said:

While it is troubling that this author had resources available to get things right, most Americans and Canadians outside of northern New England and Quebec have never heard of this happening. What I would appreciate from these essays is at least some sort of nod to the fact that this book will at least inform readers, educators and librarians of the eugenics travesty! Instead, it simply reads as a nitpicking polemic against Beth Kanell.

Once again, what could be a very useful blog presents itself as an angry, spite-filled harangue of anything "outsider".

What this blog offers, in items written by myself (Debbie) or guest writers/reviewers, is a perspective not readily available in mainstream publications. I gather Durable Goods reads this blog, at least on occasion, because he wants to see what I (or a guest writer/reviewer) has to say about a certain book he is interested in.

I'm also guessing that he comes back because sometimes he finds the material here useful. Sometimes, though, he does not like what he reads. Hence, he says what could be a very useful blog presents itself as an angry, spite-filled harangue of anything "outsider."

He is feeling.... assaulted, perhaps? by the words Seale and Dow wrote? I invite him to imagine what it is like to be a Native child who too-often reads words in children's books that assault his or her self esteem and identity. And, imagine, too, the non-Native child whose misperceptions of American Indians are affirmed by those same words.

I am not sorry or sympathetic, Durable Goods, that you're upset by the review. I hope that, when you are less emotionally reactive, that you will revisit the review and consider what Seale and Dow offer.

I know some review journals rate books on the basis of the topic, and no doubt, this book will get a higher rating than it deserves because there are few books for children on this topic, but I suggest librarians pass on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER and get multiple copies of Joseph Bruchac's HIDDEN ROOTS instead.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER, by Beth Kanell

Note: This review is presented here with the permission of its authors and may not be published elsewhere without the written permission of Oyate.

**Please see Joseph Bruchac's note at the very bottom of this review, beneath the information about the reviewers. His remarks were posted on Sunday morn, Dec 7 as a comment, and for convenience of readers, I've copied it here as well. Update, 7:30 PM, Sunday, Dec 7: Bruchac's remarks were posted by Beverly Slapin.

[Update: January 18, 9:45 AM, CST---A special welcome to readers from other nations, coming here from the livejournal community, where critical discussion of Kanell and her book is taking off.]

Darkness Under the Water and the Vermont Eugenics Survey

Kanell, Beth, Darkness Under the Water. Candlewick, 2008, grades 7-up (Abenaki)

In the late 19th Century, there began to be an interest among scientists and sociologists in the possibility of improving the human race by controlled breeding programs. From 1925-1936, in an effort to “breed better Vermonters,” the Vermont Eugenics Survey campaigned to shape public opinion and social policy. The Survey targeted people it referred to as “degenerates” or “the three D’s: defectives, dependents, delinquents.” The Survey’s definitions were purely subjective and included poor people with large families, poor people who were dependent on public charity, poor people who were living off the land, poor people who may or may not have had certain physical or cognitive disabilities, poor people whose family relationships did not fit the social “norm” of the time, and poor people whose children were frequently absent from school. The Vermont Eugenics Survey played the race card and the policies that resulted from it—including institutionalization, sterilization, and removing children from their families—devastated the Abenaki communities. To this day, the wounds remain deep, cultural continuity has been disrupted, and there are now many Abenaki families who continue to “hide in plain sight.”

In Darkness Under the Water, Beth Kanell cites Nancy Gallagher’s landmark study, Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (University Press of New England, 1999) as the inspiration for her young adult novel of one tragic year in the life of a family who falls victim to a fictitious state-sponsored sterilization program. Promoted by its publishers as a work of “historical fiction” for young readers, Darkness Under the Water is neither historically accurate nor culturally authentic. As such, it will confuse rather than enlighten young readers about the eugenics movement in Vermont. More important, the novel obscures the real tragedy and enduring legacies of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state social policies that it inspired.

As the story begins, it is 1930, and almost-16-year-old Molly Ballou and her French-Canadian Abenaki family are living on their traditional land in Vermont, in the town of Waterford, near the Connecticut River. They’re a hard-working hardscrabble family—Grandma and Mama take in washing and mending, Dad is an itinerant laborer, working on the river; and Molly helps when she’s not in school. There was another child, Gratia, who drowned at the age of five, just before Molly was born.

Every society has its mores and web of relationship and obligation. Every society has its cultural markers. Grandma is an elder who has not given up the Abenaki way of being in the world and tries to protect her family from the hazards of being Indian. Mama is pregnant and exhausted from the hard work she does together with Grandma. Yet, they and Molly show a culturally inappropriate lack of respect for each other. Grandma constantly harps at Mama or Molly and Mama or Molly snaps back.

Worst was the moment Me-Mere said to Mama, “You’re not a true Daughter of the People, or you would respect me!” And Mama replied, “If you want respect, you have to be respectable!”

Molly, for her part, is self-absorbed and immature in a way far more typical of modern American young adults than of a young woman of that time, place, and family. She would have had responsibilities to the family unit from childhood; that would be expected, without question. But, given her mother’s late pregnancy and the hard labor she must do to support the family while her husband is away on the river, Molly’s constant whining and resentment, and the idea that she would be glad to see her father because she was tired of being in “a house of women,” are just not believable.

And it is beyond possibility that an Abenaki girl—even one not being “raised “ to it—would grow up in a small town in the Vermont woodlands so totally ignorant of the connection to the land, the forest, and the animals. And a good French-Canadian Catholic Indian family such as this one would have had many more children, and aunties, uncles and cousins being near and helping out.

Then there’s the ghost of Molly’s sister, who drowned at age five, yet continues to haunt 16-year-old Molly (“What dark river shadow did her spirit cling to?....Something of Gratia moved as easily as water through me”) as a 21-year-old, advising her about, among other things, the application of makeup and how to deal with a boyfriend. How is it that the ghost of Molly’s sister is 16 years older than the five-year-old child who died 16 years ago? How is it that Molly doesn’t know that ghosts are unable to travel through water? Why is it that Molly doesn’t tell her parents, or any other relative, that she’s being haunted? In any event, it can well be assumed that Kanell uses this ghost as a literary device to highlight Molly’s dysfunctional interactions with her family, and/or to provide further scenarios for her teenage angst, and/or to provide a lot of water-ghost metaphors, and/or to move the plot, which it doesn’t.

In Henry Laporte, the young Abenaki basket seller whom Molly meets in the woods, Kanell has created the perfect white women’s fantasy Indian. He is a “real” Indian. He is mysterious. He moves soundlessly through the woods, and appears out of silence. He knows everything about the forest that Molly does not. He is gentle, intelligent, and respectful. He has a “cool and quiet outside.” And, oh, those dark eyes and high cheekbones. In reality, if anyone were to be a target of the eugenicists in the ‘20’s and 30’s Henry would have been—the way he lives, his deep understanding of the land and what it offers—these are the people whom the eugenicists targeted. Not those who were assimilating, going to school, and holding down “full time jobs” as Molly and her family were.

A brief digression about the relationship between Henry and Molly: Henry Laporte is more the product of Kanell’s heavy-handed attempt to portray the differences between “traditional” and “assimilated” Indians than it is of Indian realities in this time and place. In a long conversation between Henry and Molly, Henry asks probing questions about Molly’s family and explains to her that she’s not “really” Abenaki because, although she’s “born to be Abenaki,” she has not been “raised in it.” When Molly forces him to apologize, he asks her—to teach him about friendship (!).

And for a traditional Abenaki who gathers basketry materials for his female relatives, Henry (through the author), doesn’t know a whole lot about basketry materials. “Would you show me where you go to get the willow branches?” asks Molly, and Henry replies, “No, not the willow. I could show you the black ash on the mountain, some day.” There are over 100 varieties of willow in Vermont; every little kid around here picks pussy willows and knows that willows grow in the wetlands and on the sides of rivers. Molly, who lives on the side of the river, even if she were not “raised” Abenaki, would know where to find willows. Black ash grows all over the state; the best ash for pounding into baskets grows in the wetlands. Because the closer the trees are to sea level, the wetter the land is, the more water there is between the annual rings, the easier it is to pound and separate the annual rings for basketry material. Why would Henry go to the mountains to get ash, when that would be the most difficult ash to pound? Answer: So they could “cross a stretch of willows on the way” up the ridge.

A brief digression about the Comerford Dam: For millennia, our Abenaki family bands lived alongside the Long River, fishing in its waters, farming the fertile fields nourished by the river, and hunting in the woodlands nearby. And where our family bands lived, we buried our dead. In 1928-1930, a massive hydroelectric dam was built across what became known as the Connecticut River. The creation of the dam flooded our lands, submerging and destroying much of our woodlands, burial grounds, homes, farms and traditional gardens in the town of Waterford.

Although there was no resistance to this great upheaval in their lives, we can assume that our Abenaki families living in Waterford at the time saw the dam as a great tragedy, a great trauma to the land, the river and their lives. Yet, in Kanell’s book, there is little questioning, sorrow or regret and no action. Rather, there is only matter-of-fact comparison. Henry muses, “it was a lighter place when it was still an open river…. Deep waters are darker.” And, from Grandma: “Maybe the Long River will rest a bit longer in this place when there’s a lake. Without the falls, it will be quiet,” she says. “Still, a free river has the best voice.” All of which conveniently leaves opportunity for Molly to wax philosophical with yet another dreary water-ghost metaphor: “What good is a wild, free river’s voice if the voices of the dead braided themselves into the song?”

And speaking of braids: Throughout, there are numerous references to the unbraiding and brushing of hair to “make it look pretty.” Grandma tells Molly to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells Grandma to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells herself to “make it look pretty,” Molly tells her little girl-cousins, through their dolls, to “make it look pretty.” Even the cover illustration has ghost-sister Gratia unbraiding her hair—underwater. In truth, our Abenaki mothers and grandmothers would cut our hair short, or put our hair up in pigtails, or brush our hair out. They might tell us this was necessary to keep us safe, or they might tell us a story, or they might not say anything. We understood this because we know our parents did it to protect us. But who would belittle a child, wound a child’s spirit on purpose, by telling her that her braided hair is not pretty? Someone may have shared a story with the author about how painful it was to have had her hair—this important part of her being—cut or unbraided in order to avoid suspicion; but Kanell, once again, wittingly or unwittingly distorts the historical and cultural significance to the point that it was painful for us to read and it’s painful for us to relive.

Kanell, not one to let a sleeping metaphor lie, ratchets up the “hair-pretty” metaphor by having Molly ask her grandmother why they’re removing the bundles of dried sage hanging from the rafters in the hallway: “‘Brushing out the braids to make it look pretty.’ She echoed my words to the little cousins, with a half smile, a half wince.” Then, to make sure that not one reader misses that this whole thing is an allusion to assimilation, there’s this from Molly: “Brushing out the braids? She meant our home and its Indian-ness under the surface.”

There is little possibility of dealing adequately with the ramifications of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the state sterilization law passed in 1931 in a work of historical fiction for young readers, and that, apparently, was never Kanell’s intent. Instead, she uses the Vermont Eugenics Survey’s 1920s investigations of some of Vermont’s “French-Indian” kinship networks as the centerpiece of her story of teenage angst. She introduces it early on through a brief adult discussion of a fictional 1930 newspaper article: “[T]his Perkins fellow, he’s already saying all our people are Gypsies, and at the statehouse, I read there’s a bill being considered to sterilize anyone with Indian blood.” In fact, such a newspaper article never appeared in 1930, nor did the biennial state legislature even convene in 1930. The Eugenics Survey’s family studies never referred to Native family bands as “Indians,” nor did the newspapers. Rather, we were referred to as “Gypsies,” French-Canadians, “pirates,” “feeble-minded,” “degenerates,” or “unfit parents.” While Kanell mentions Henry F. Perkins (the founder and director of the Eugenics Survey at the University of Vermont) only once as “this Perkins Fellow,” she fails to explain the relationship between the Survey and the complex network of social workers, town overseers of the poor, medical personnel, teachers, police and truant officers, courts, and state institutions, who assisted the Survey’s field investigations and promoted their legislative agenda, including the eugenical sterilization law passed in 1931.

Instead, Kanell creates a pair of nurses in white uniforms, cruising the countryside in search of—although this is never specifically stated—targets for the Eugenics Survey. The tension heightens; there is a sense of impending danger as these nurses, “required by the [governor and] legislature,” interrogate the teacher and take the children’s measurements. But it takes Kanell 209 pages to arrive at what she apparently considers the heart of her novel. Here, in a scene so brutal, so graphically described as to make the book unsuitable for the intended audience, Mama goes into early labor. The two nurses, who just happen to be stopping by for a “visit,” suddenly appear. They hoist Mama onto the kitchen table and, in the process of delivering the baby, smother him; then tell the family that he was born “too soon.” Then they cut out Mama’s womb:

A cry of pain from my mother made me run. My grandmother, still holding the wrapped dead baby, called out, “What are you doing to her?”…. “Cleaning,” said Nurse Williams quickly. “Cleaning out the afterbirth. So there won’t be an infection.”…. I stepped closer to my mother...and saw a sharp flash of a blade in Nurse Carpenter’s hand. “Stop it!” I called out. “You’re hurting her!” She turned her face toward me, eyes blazing. “It has to be done” was all she said, as she tugged a handful of bleeding flesh out of my mother’s most private place, and blood, too much blood, flew forth in a dark red wave onto the sheet-covered table. Swiftly wrapping the handful of bloody something into a towel, along with the blade, the nurse snapped to me, “Another towel, if you want to help her.”

In the obligatory scenes of grief and loss, Molly’s main concern remains for herself. Two days after the baby’s burial, she goes off to a dance with friends. She is distressed to learn that her parents could have wanted a son, and, now that she must take some real responsibility in the family, whines about the loss of her “freedom.” No surprise; Mama is terribly ill, and will never fully recover.

Time goes by, with a degree of healing for Mama, and some accommodation to her new circumstances for Molly. Although she’s “so tired…tired of bad things happening,” she thinks about going back to school because she has “little choice: gain a teaching credential or wash other people’s clothes for the rest of my life.” Her mother has been cruelly mutilated, her baby brother has been killed, her family is in constant danger, but again, still, yet, this is all about Molly.

The dénouement comes when the nurse who “had pushed a blade between [Mama’s] legs,” having suddenly reappeared out of nowhere while Molly is at the store, sneaks past the dozing grandmother and up to Mama’s room, and in a confrontation, is flung down the stairs. Her neck is broken. Molly’s father and Henry—who just happens to be around—take the body to the place on the river where the dam is being built, “the one place, where, if she fell, she’d be sure to break her neck.” Of course, there are no questions from the authorities.

Mama, having disposed of her enemy, quietly declines and peacefully dies. Molly will, in time, walk off into the sunset with her Indian “brave.” And no action is taken on the governor’s “demand for the sterilization of the strangers among us, the different, the weak, the ‘unfit’ among the plain New England family trees.” It’s all very neat and tidy.

In an author’s note, Kanell says that recently, “Vermont gave state recognition to the Abenaki people,” but that “their ‘disappearance’ for so many years has prevented the federal government from recognizing the tribe.” None of this is true. The Abenaki acknowledge and recognize many family bands (“tribes”) throughout Vermont, but the state government only recognizes us as a “minority group,” with none of the rights of a tribal entity. With the exception of one of our family bands that attempted and failed at federal recognition, we have not felt safe enough to come out in an organized way in order to prove the continuity of our cohesive family bands to the federal government’s satisfaction.

Kanell also writes that the Abenaki “now feel safe as they share stories of those days and people.” Not likely. In many ways, we are as much at risk as we have ever been; the threat is just different. It is, for the most part, more sophisticated and still difficult to counteract.

If indeed Kanell had read Nancy Gallagher’s book, one would not know it. Although the state of Vermont passed a sterilization law in 1931, the targets for sterilization were individuals who were deemed “feebleminded or insane” by physicians and psychologists, according to their subsequently discredited “science.” If there were any state senators or representatives who “found their own cousins in the scientific studies,” none of these people were ever under threat. Two-parent families who were employed full-time and whose children regularly attended school were not targeted. There were never any attack nurses roaming Vermont for the Eugenics Survey. What we had was bad enough.

And that’s the heart of the problem: What we had was bad enough. Our people were picked up as “feeble-minded” and institutionalized, sometimes for life. Our children were taken away from our families, and our families had absolutely no recourse. In these institutions both men and women were sterilized, because someone had decided that to let them reproduce would contaminate Vermont’s breeding stock. Whole families scattered across New England and never saw each other again. Some were captured in other states and then institutionalized. An old, old grief: broken families, lost futures, people growing up not knowing who they are because their parents will not tell them they are Indians—for their own protection. Not over. Not done. Now. Still. If you are Indian, there is no guarantee that you are safe.

This is the history, the legacy that Kanell has appropriated for her venture into young adult historical fiction. Such a sensational story obscures, ignores, and even functions to belittle the deep and enduring wounds that continue to poison our families and communities today. If Kanell had created characters who were authentic for the time and place and subject matter; if she had left out the graphic and gratuitous brutality; if she had chosen to make appropriate use of Nancy Gallagher’s material, whose work she cites; if she had understood—or cared—how tragic the Eugenics Survey has been for an entire nation of people; if she had shown any comprehension of what it has meant to be Abenaki in Vermont; even with her stilted, cliché-ridden writing, had she even chosen just to tell truths, she could have been forgiven.

As it stands, Darkness Under the Water is a travesty, a melodrama marketed specifically to young people in Vermont—including Abenaki young people—who will probably be told this is how it was. Since young adult historical fiction is often used to supplement textbook versions of history, Darkness Under the Water will probably turn up on Vermont reading lists, and will probably win awards. And our Abenaki mothers will probably continue to cut their daughters’ hair so they will be safe. And our Abenaki people will probably continue to “hide in plain sight.” And the cycle of hatred and denial will continue.

—Doris Seale and Judy Dow

Doris Seale (Dakota/Cree/Abenaki) is an activist, poet, writer and co-founder and former board president of Oyate. Before retiring to her ancestral family land in Vermont, she was a children’s librarian in Brookline, Massachusetts, for 45 years. Doris was honored for her life’s work with the American Library Association’s Equality Award in 2001, and in 2006, she received the American Book Award for co-editing A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children.

Judy Dow (Abenaki) is an activist, master basketmaker and educator who teaches ethnobotany at the kindergarten through college levels. A member of the board of directors of Oyate, Judy is the recipient of the 2004 Governor’s Award for Outstanding Vermont Educator. She has lived all her life on Abenaki land in Vermont.

In collaboration with Nancy Gallagher, Doris and Judy have conducted extensive research into the eugenics movement in Vermont, including the Vermont Eugenics Survey. Over several generations, Judy’s was the largest family specifically targeted by the Eugenics Survey, and Doris’s was caught in the aftermath a generation later.

For more information on the Eugenics Survey of Vermont’s studies and the state laws and policies they inspired, see “Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History”.

We wish to express our gratitude to Nancy Gallagher for her time and persistence in her past and present search for the truths of our story—D.S. and J.D.


Update: Sunday, Dec 7, 2008

I understand that the book jacket carries a blurb from Joseph Bruchac. A response to that blurb was posted earlier today, in a comment. The response is from Joseph Bruchac, and I'm moving it here. [Note: His remarks were submitted by Beverly Slapin.]

Joseph Bruchac said...

When I read the manuscript of THE DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER well over a year and a half ago, I made a number of critical suggestions, such as making certain that the material regarding Abenaki tradition, including basketmaking, spiritual practices and family relationships, were more accurately represented. When I wrote the blurb for the book I assumed those corrections had been made. Apparently my assumptions were incorrect.

January 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Results of JINGLE DANCER Giveaway

The winner of the giveaway--a copy of Cynthia Leitich Smith's picture book--Jingle Dancer, is the children at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Library! Thank you all for entering.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Poetry by Native Teens featured on PBS NewsHour

On November 19th, the PBS program "NewsHour" featured Native teens reading their poetry. The students attend school at Santa Fe Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. SFIS is a boarding school run by the All Indian Pueblo Council. A beautiful place, my parents met there in the 50s. My sister works there now, and, in the late 80s, I taught there and met my husband. Fondly, I remember our students walking our daughter, Liz, down the halls in 1992 when she learned to walk. One of my nephews is a student there now.

The students are in the Spoken Word Club. You can listen to the segment here. It is an audio file, that includes clips of the students reading their poems and interviews with the students.

You can watch the students reading their poems here. The students are preparing for the 2009 Brave New Voices Poetry Slam. You can listen to the news segment here. It is an audio file that includes clips of the students reading their poems and interviews with the students.

(Reminder: If you wish to enter a giveaway to receive a copy of Cynthia Leitich Smith's picture book, Jingle Dancer, send me an email with your mailing address. The drawing will be held on Nov 30th, 2008. Click here for details.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A giveaway!

I am giving away a copy of one of my favorite children's books.... Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. It is a picture book about a little girl getting ready to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow. Jenna (the little girl) is Creek. The story is set in a suburb (if I recall correctly, about half of Native people live in places other than reservations). With help of her family and Native community, the story culminates with Jenna doing the dance at the powwow.

I haven't done an on-line giveaway before (I do them in person at workshops), so will likely learn a lot this first time! Please send me an email with your name, mailing address, and email address. On November 30th, I'll put all the emails in a box and draw the winner from the box. And then, of course, I'll send the book to you. Send this info along to fellow parents, teachers, librarians, or students!

My email is debreese at

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Slapin's review of Berk and Dunn's COYOTE SPEAKS

[Note: This review may not be used elsewhere without written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Note from Debbie: I haven't read this book yet. In her review, Beverly references Berk and Dunn's source notes. It sounds like they used the same archived collections that Pollock used for her (deeply flawed) story about Turkey Girl. I wrote about that book in the January 2007 issue of Language Arts. When my copy of Coyote Speaks arrives, I'll post my thoughts.


Berk, Ari, and Carolyn Dunn (Cherokee/Muskogee/Seminole), Coyote Speaks: Wonders of the Native American World. Abrams, 2008, grades 5-up

An Ojibwe friend and colleague who is a storyteller and linguist has said that it takes a roomful of people several generations to know a story. By this, she means that to know a story, you have to know the language and lifeways and history and cosmology from which it originates, you have to know its purpose, you have to know when, where, why and how to tell it, you have to know that it’s alive and may contain spiritual power that has to be respected. And you have to know that, if someone tells you a story or you see a printed version of it, that doesn’t mean it’s yours to retell. As Cree-Métis elder and storyteller Maria Campbell has said (and I paraphrase here), just because we offer you a cup of tea doesn’t mean we’re giving you the teapot.

Traditional stories and spiritual power are not something to play around with. I cannot say this strongly enough: Many aspects of the world of the spirits are frightening and dangerous; those who work with spiritual power don’t talk about it in public. Moreover, there are powerful stories—including some now in print—that were never meant to be shared with the public. They’re dangerous. Because they’ve been previously published doesn’t make them safe to “retell” publicly. If you misuse this power, if you tell certain stories at the wrong time or in the wrong context, you’re inviting illness or imbalance in yourself and/or the world.

According to Berk and Dunn’s source notes, they gathered and rewrote stories, mostly from material published in the early 1900s, that would “greatly benefit from sensitive retellings.” In doing so, their stated goal was to “return some sense of poetry and orality to these stories.” This is an oxymoron: you can’t restore orality to something that’s in print by publishing a more “sensitive” version.

Beyond this, Coyote Speaks is an odd mixture of travelogue (“imagine…ancient objects, amazing journeys, mysterious symbols, and magical stories”), sweeping generalizations (“[M]any Native American tribes note the passing of years not numerically, but by recording and remembering important events and ideas symbolically.”), trivialization (“Crows and ravens frequently appear in many Native stories as tricksters and shapeshifters.”), speculation (“Representations of birds take many forms in art and artifacts and can sometimes hold similar meanings in tribes of the various regions.”), conjecture (“The soul catcher was the most important item used by shamans during curing ceremonies.”), illogical comparisons (“Hunger and power were the same.”), and weak analogies (“Unlike grocery shopping, hunting was a dangerous business!”).

Accompanying Berk’s and Dunn’s retellings and other textual matter are reproductions of centuries-old objects, mostly from the Werner Forman photographic archives. Many of these objects are sacred and need to be returned to their rightful owners. One of them, in full color, is a medicine mask, accompanied by a full-page description and interpretation of its use, all in the past tense. In 1995, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy publicly issued a policy on False Face medicine masks. It states in part, that “there is no proper way to explain, interpret, or present the significance of the medicine mask,” and that to reproduce, photograph or illustrate a medicine mask contributes to the desecration of its sacred image and violates its sacred function. To see the medicine mask and the other sacred objects represented here gives me the creeps.

Carolyn Dunn is an accomplished poet and writer, and her poems in this book are beautiful. And there is luminous art in a variety of media by contemporary Native artists: L. Frank (Tongva/Ajachmem), Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara), Tom Dorsey (Onondaga), S.D. Nelson (Lakota), Tony Abeyta (Diné), W. Richard West, Sr. (Cheyenne), Fred Kabotie (Hopi), Linda Lomahaftewa (Hopi/Choctaw), and Hazel Merritt (Diné). But the good material is not enough to save this poorly conceptualized, poorly implemented, and fatally flawed book. Coyote Speaks exploits the peoples on whose lands and in whose cultures and communities the stories reside, and exploits the children—including Indian children—who will read it and think they’re learning about Indians.

—Beverly Slapin

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Thanksgiving Greeting Cards and Amelia Bedelia

While out shopping at Target for a birthday gift this morning for my little buddy Santi, I paused at the greeting card section to see what the Thanksgiving cards look like this year.

Only one of the 200+ cards had the Pilgrim/Indian theme.

I can't say the same for new Thanksgiving books. At the university bookstore, children's section, about half the books were the Pilgrim/Indian story, including a 2008 Amelia Bedelia called Amelia Bedelia Talks Turkey. In it is that feel-good Pilgrim/Indian meal that student unlearn as they get older. Sad, sad, sad.

Event: American Identity in Children's Literature

On Saturday, December 13, 9:30 am - 2:30 pm, I will be in Chicago at the Newberry Library, participating in a symposium called American Identity in Children's Literature. Here's the blurb from the Newberry website:

Four scholars will discuss the development of ethnic or multicultural children’s literature, which seeks to diversify the all-white world of children’s literature. Following thirty-minute presentations drawn from their respective specialties of Jewish, Latino, American Indian, and African American children’s books, they will form a panel to discuss with each other and with audience members such issues as authenticity, audience, self-esteem, and presentations of social conflict and cultural differences that make this field so important and so contested.

The program is as follows:

9:30 am Welcome

9:40 am June Cummins-Lewis, San Diego State University, "All-of-A-Kind Americans? Becoming a Jew in Sydney Taylor's America"

10:10 am Debbie Reese, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "Indians as Artifacts: How Images of Indians Are Used to Nationalize America's Youth"

10:40 - 11:00 am Break

11:00 - 11:30 am Michelle Martin, Clemson University, "Little Black Sambo and the Complicated History of African American Children's Books"

11:30 - 12:00 pm Phillip Serrato, San Diego State University, "Trying to Forget Pedro and Juanita: The Emergence of Chicano/a Children's Literature"

12:00 - 1:30 pm Lunch break

1:30 - 2:30 pm Panel discussion with the speakers and the audience

The Newberry is located at 60 West Walton Street in Chicago. Click here to get directions. There is no admission charge, and no reservations are necessary to attend the symposium.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cynthia Leitich Smith interviews Drew Hayden Taylor

Click on over to Cynsations to read Cynthia's interview of Drew Hayden Taylor. He wrote a young adult novel that I came across last March. I've yet to blog it, but do recommend it, especially for fans of vampire stories. His novel is called The Night Wanderer.

In the interview, he says:
"...I took a European legend and indigenized it.

Simply put, its the story about an Ojibway man who, 350 years ago, made his way to Europe and was bitten by a vampire. He spent all those years wandering Europe, feeling homesick but unwilling to return as the monster he'd become. But finally, unable to stop himself, he makes his way back to where his village once was in Canada, and it's now a First Nations community. He takes up residency at a bed-and-breakfast, in the basement apartment. In that same house is a sixteen-year-old girl, Tiffany, who is having problems with her white boyfriend, father, and herself. Eventually, both their lives intertwine, and things happen!"
He indigenized a European legend. That word, indigenize, has been coming into greater use in recent years. I've written an article called "Indigenizing Children's Literature." Published this month in the electronic journal called Journal of Language and Literacy, the abstract reads:

In this article the author situates the analysis of two popular children’s books in theoretical frameworks emerging from American Indian Studies. Using a new historicist lens, she discusses Anne Rockwell’s (1999) Thanksgiving Day and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s (1935/1971) Little House on the Prairie and suggests that these books function as obstacles for the understanding of the Other in American and global society.
I welcome your critique of the article, and suggest you read Drew's novel. If you want to learn more about him, visit his website.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Focus On" column at School Library Journal (Nov 2008)

Two years ago, the University of Illinois's Board of Trustees voted to rid UIUC of its mascot, "Chief Illiniwek." Students and alums who embrace the mascot are hosting a rally this weekend. Their rally made an already full month (November is Native American month) even more taxing. So much that I didn't post something earlier that I'd meant to.

It is the "Focus On" column that I wrote for School Library Journal. It was a pleasure working with them. I threw a hard ball in my opening paragraphs, and thought they would object, but they didn't. Click here to go to the column and see the list of books I recommended. Below is one paragraph from the column. Click on APA and ASA to read their statements.

America’s collective refusal to let go of stereotypical images of Indians is costing all of us. In 2006 and 2007, respectively, the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Sociological Association (ASA) passed resolutions centered on images of Indians used as mascots for athletic teams (see p. 56 for URLs). Both associations called for an end to the use of this imagery, citing research studies that show that the mascots are harmful to the self-esteem of Native children, and, conversely, create a sense of superiority in non-Native children. I invite you to look at those mascots and compare them to images of Indians in classics like Little House on the Prairie. Indian mascots on a playing field and Indians in classic and popular children’s books are similar. If we take the APA and ASA resolutions seriously, we must take action. That means teaching children to recognize and critique stereotypes, and it means providing them with literature that offers realistic Indian characters.
(Note: at the bottom of the column is a piece called "Media Picks" by Phyllis Levy Mandell. I do not know the items she included there, so please don't think I agree with Mandell. I may, but I may not, once I see the items she recommends. A safer bet for acquiring media is to get those available at Oyate. I know the work Oyate does, and trust their recommendations. Click here to see their VHS and DVD collection.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Reflections from students

In my course at UIUC, students are reading children’s books about American Indians. They’re also reading reviews in mainstream journals, customer reviews at Amazon, and, reviews in A Broken Flute. Below is a response to the assignment, written by Rachel Moyer, posted to our class blog (it is private, not public). I post this today with permission of both women.

This frazzled post was inspired by a discussion I had with Rachel Storm after class this afternoon. She's always provocative so I want to give her her propers.

I think what a lot of people in class today acknowledged about the children's books they assessed is that the sacred stories depicted in them are wildly inaccurate. Some of them are blatantly incorrect while others subtly, subversively present misinformation. I've noticed that some people have wondered what the "real" or "authentic" sacred stories actually are, as opposed to the inaccurate ones we read about in books categorized by dominant culture as Indian folklore.

While I think other cultures and religions are fascinating, sometimes even intriguing, I don't understand why we (and here I use we meaning non-Native people) expect to have access to, let alone expect to understand other peoples' sacred creation stories. These are complicated, profoundly meaningful original stories (not myths or superstitions or fables, etc.) that we (as non-natives or as persons removed from that particular First Nation) would not be able to grasp unless they were simplified or translated or condensed - which are the very criticisms of why sacred stories as children's books do not usually work in an unproblematic way.

While I think it's understandable, even wonderful that many of us are curious about Native cultures and religions (plural!) - I certainly am - I think we also need to be respectful enough, humble enough to acknowledge that these sacred stories create and are emergent from languages and places and peoples that we do not necessarily know, meaning that we should not feel entitled to all of the complexities of the "real" story even when we've identified a mainstream book is problematic or inaccurate. We shouldn't need even more proof to demonstrate that these books are offensive or unfair.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Living Stories" at Oyate

New at the Oyate website is a page full of stories written by Native people. Stories worth reading--especially this month--because they speak to the need to teach children that we're very much part of today's society. Books often taught in schools are hurtful. In these stories, for example...

One parent writes about The Courage of Sarah Noble, and my daughter writes about reading Caddie Woodlawn.

It's not just books, though...

A child writes about a school reenactment of the Gold Rush, and another writes of feeling invisible in class.

Teachers, librarians, parents! Please read these stories, and think of them when you develop lesson plans and order books. Consider removing older books from your shelves. It is important to study attitudes towards others, but students need accurate information first. Let's provide children with books that accurately portray American Indians, and let's use those outdated and biased books in social studies or history lessons specifically designed to look at bias.

Oyate is a good source for books and other materials you can use as you set aside books like The Courage of Sarah Noble, or Caddie Woodlawn, or Little House on the Prairie, or Sign of the Beaver...

Critical reviews of those books, plus reviews of outstanding books, are in two excellent volumes, both available at Oyate. A Broken Flute, The Native Experience in Books for Children, and, Through Indian Eyes, The Native Experience in Books for Children.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Rigoberta Menchu's three books

[Note: This review may not be used elsewhere without written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Menchú Tum, Rigoberta (Maya), and Dante Liano, translated from the Spanish by David Unger, color illustrations by Domi (Mazateca). Groundwood, grades 4-up:

The Girl from Chimel. 2003

The Honey Jar. 2006

The Secret Legacy. 2008

In 1992, Indigenous and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s Nobel Peace Prize brought to a world audience the truths of the U.S.-orchestrated and –supported Guatemalan government’s 36-year campaign of genocide against the Maya peoples there—and of one of the longest guerrilla resistance movements in Latin America. After her brother and mother were “disappeared” and her activist father was tortured and burned alive in the assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1980, Menchú went into exile and took up residence in Mexico, where she taught herself Spanish in order to denounce to the world the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army.

Despite the hardships and poverty her people have endured—and rebelled against—ever since the Spanish conquest, Menchú’s wonderful recounting of her childhood stories in these titles, in close collaboration with Guatemalan author Liano, shows what it is to live with beauty and integrity, with land, culture and community. Domi’s oil paintings, on a jeweled palette of all the colors of the Maya forests, jungles and mountains, are a luminous symphony of colors and images.

As The Girl from Chimel begins, Rigoberta introduces herself and her village:

I am Rigoberta. Chimel is the name of my village when it’s large, and Laj Chimel when it’s small, because sometimes the village is large and sometimes it’s small. During good times, when there’s honey and the corn is so heavy it bends its green stalks, when the yellow, green, purple, white and multicolored orchids bloom, displaying their beauty, then my village is big and it’s called Chimel. During bad times, when the river dries up and ponds can fit into the hollow of my hand, when evil men walk the earth and sadness can hardly be endured, the village becomes small and is called Laj Chimel. Right now, I’m remembering Chimel…

It is in the hearts of the people of Chimel, then and now, that the old stories reside. Traditionally, told stories such as the ones in Menchú’s trilogy teach children how the world works. For young Rigoberta and other Maya children, this is how they are taught about the history of the land and right behavior; about compassion, courage, and generosity; about asking permission from the nahuales, the spirits who reside in everything; about planting seeds and harvesting fruits; and ultimately, about fighting injustice and struggling for a better world.

In The Honey Jar, Menchú imparts some of the cultural knowledge she learned as a child: How Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon created the stars, and Mother Earth and Father Sky, whom they carefully instructed in the creation of sea, land, plants, and animals. How each creature was assigned to be a nahual, a keeper of something. How the elders were given power and wisdom and why they deserve respect. What happens when people violate nature’s laws and don’t apologize and what happens when they do. How monkeys are descended from humans (not the other way around). How the weasel taught people to be grateful for what they are given. How a man and a buzzard exchanged bodies and what they learned from their horrible experience. How the hormigo tree, suffering from nostalgia—the illness borne of longing “to sing and release from its heart all the trills the birds had sung throughout its life”—is given the gift of music.

In The Secret Legacy, Seven-year-old Ixkem’s grandfather is 100 years old, and he is ready to pass on his legacy and knowledge. Of all the people in the village, Grandfather chooses his youngest granddaughter to be the new caretaker of the cornfields. “But I’m too little,” Ixkem protests. “Neither age nor size has anything to do with it,” her grandfather assures her.

Off they go together, the old man and the little girl, through the forest, to the cornfield, the “best place to scare off parakeets, blackbirds, wild boar, squirrels, turtle doves, the smallest of worms and moths and even a few invisible insects who wanted to eat the corn. Now it would be Ixkem’s job.” Her yelling and thumping reach the nahuales who live at the center of the earth. A committee of b’e’n (as the nahuales are called in K’iche’ language) brings Ixkem down to their underground turf, where she tells them about life on the surface and the amazing stories her grandfather told her.

Among them: How an arrogant, boastful lion learns a lesson in humility. How the futures of young children can be shaped by what is done to their umbilical cords. What makes good people good and bad people bad. How a hummingbird brings happiness into the world. About the miracle of falling in love and the requirement of a lengthy courtship. How happiness comes from a peaceful heart and the love that others know how to give. Why the light in our eyes is a reflection of those who love us.

In exchange for these stories, the b’e’n whisper a secret in Ixkem’s ear for her to take back to her grandfather. Now that he knows that Ixken will hold this secret legacy for the next hundred years and that the Maya lineage will “live forever in the forests, in the jungles, in the mountains and on the coasts of Guatemala,” the grandfather happily closes his eyes.

When one considers the past and recent history of the Maya peoples, Menchú’s children’s stories become even more poignant, and each story in each book has a significant message for children today. As Ixkem explains to the tiny b’e’n,

There are some bad people with lots of power….They declare war on others, they enslave their fellow man, and they don’t know how to share their wealth. Of course there are good people who fight for peace, set slaves free and give to others. The future of the world depends on these good people.

In The Girl from Chimel, there is a story of Rigoberta’s mother, who as a child fought off a pack of coyotes to rescue her pet pig. It was said that the whole village was awed by her courage.

Our elders said, ‘This is a good sign. She’ll grow up to be a brave woman who will survive many challenges. She should thank her nahuales and they in turn will give her strength and wisdom and will protect her memory forever. Her sons and daughters and grandchildren will all be courageous.”

If there’s a word to describe Rigoberta Menchú and her mother and all the Maya people who continue to struggle to maintain land, culture and community, that word would be “courageous.”

These three beautiful storybooks are about a happy little girl, secure in her world, with a “heart full of sunlight,” who, as an adult, wants for the world all that she had: “a mountain to protect me, a river to refresh me, birds to sing to me.” Both Rigoberta Menchú and her stories are an international treasure.

—Beverly Slapin


These books, and others reviewed on this site are available from Oyate.