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


Tricia said...

Thanks so much for posting this review. I received a copy to review myself, but I just don't know enough to evaluate books like this.

Nina said...

Thank you Beverly. I was unnerved by this book and didn't know quite what to make of it...I noted the original material by Native authors, but also the "museum-like" quality of the presentation. The tone almost felt like a ride at Disney. If you look at Ari Berk's other work (Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Letters; Goblins!; The Runes of Elfland...) this makes a little more sense.

Carolyn Dunn said...

Debbie- thank you for reposting my response to Beverly Slapin's review of the book I co-authored with Ari Berk, Coyote Speaks. Here is another review of Coyote Speaks from Children's Literature Magazine that your readers may or may not find helpful:

"This generously sized and exquisitely presented mix of original poetry, retold traditional stories and linking commentary is an answer from within Native America to two centuries of decontextualized appropriation of story. Of the more than 500 tribes of North America, nearly 50 find expression in this meticulously crafted collection that opens windows onto indigenous traditions while avoiding the pitfalls of essentialism. The stories are contained within chapters focused on medicine people, word magic, creation, the magic of art and artifacts, hero figures, guardians of wild places, trickster and related animal characters, and stories from tribal memories. A final chapter looks forward, addressing mythmaking in the 21st century. Within each content area, however, the lines between story and commentary are gently blurred, so that form and content both reflect societies with story at their heart. Even the introduction begins with brief text that erases distinctions between what we=2 0think of as real and imaginary, then moves through a Cherokee ballgame story and concludes with this reminder: "When we walk the lands of these stories in our imaginations, it is vital to understand that we are guests and need to tread softly." The retellings are simple, vital, fluid and direct, each in a style fitting to the story. Some like the transformation tales are short and pointed. Others like "The Daughter of Sun" span vast periods of mythic time, so we can feel the sweep of the storyteller's prose. Still others such as "Song of the World" (Pima) employ both prose and song. Here the tale moves from its launching in primordial time, through the journey of the first man, and then in a swift one-two conclusion, arrives right into the reader's here and now: "He picked up the sun and placed it in the sky, and it is still there, just as he made it." Parchment-effect pages showcase the rendering by Berk of selected petroglyphs. The book is additionally enriched by the incorporation of a range of artwork from photographs of southwestern kachinas and bone artifacts from the Arctic, to stunning contemporary art such as Hazel Merritt's iconic painting of a satellite dish with a Navajo wedding basket design on it. As an example of how text and form are perfectly married, the facing page carries a poem titled "Beautyway" that evokes both the Dine ceremony and the troubled ecology and history of the Four Corners region. Back matter contains a list of tribes and nations mentioned in the book, a select bibliography, a note on sources, extensive illustration credits and an index. In all, Coyote Speaks is a gift offered up with a delicate and caring touch, inviting both young readers and adults to explore its pages again and again." Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami