Saturday, January 12, 2008

Romantic Fiction, Historical Fiction, and American Indians

This may seem a bit off-topic because it isn't ABOUT children's or young adult books/media...

I'm speaking about authors who use Native imagery in their writing. Specifically, I'm talking about Cassie Edwards, who writes romance fiction, purchased---presumably---by librarians, teachers, and moms across the country. She is, in fact, regarded as one of the top ten best-selling writers of this genre. She's written two series in which the hunk is a savage Indian. Literally, one of her Indian-themed series is called "The Savage Indian" series.

She's been in the news this past week. Media scrutiny began with a blog that listed, side by side, excerpts from one of her books, with excerpts from other books. In comparing the two sets of excerpts, the blogger calls them "Startling and Eerie Similarities." The AP picked up the story, and today's NY Times has it, too.

Here's an excerpt from the NY Times article:

In the novel “Shadow Bear,” published by Signet in 2007, the bloggers said a reader was able to find lines that appear to have come, with little or no modification, from a few sources, though mostly from a novel, “Land of the Spotted Eagle” by Luther Standing Bear, and an article about black-footed ferrets from Defenders of Wildlife magazine.
It is outrageous, of course, and plenty of folks are pretty steamed about it. She is far from the first to do this, however, to books written by Native people.

Children's book author Ann Rinaldi did something akin to this in her book My Heart is on the Ground. Myself and several of my colleagues wrote an extended essay about that book. The first essay appeared in Rethinking Schools. and later on in Multicultural Review, and Multicultural Education. A longer critique is at the Oyate site, and if you wish to compare passages Rinaldi used with the writings of others, read '"Literary License" or "Muted Plagiarism?"' She, too, used Luther Standing Bear's writing.

Questionable use of sources aside, Edwards' books are best sellers, but they're dangerous in this way. She does some research, enough to be able to introduce plots that hook the reader with a semblance of authenticity.

For example, the heroine in one of her books is the daughter of an anthropologist who works for the Smithsonian. He's out west to gather information about Indians before they vanish. That activity did, in fact, take place. The Smithsonian sent people out west to collect information, under the notion that Indians were about to vanish. So, Edwards has a hook.

Now we're learning, according to the news reports, she's using material from Native and non-Native sources to flesh out her stories. If she acknowledged her sources, that could be seen as a good strategy.

However! The stories themselves are so deeply enmeshed and woven with romantic, tragic, stereotypical characters, that the novels work towards strengthening and affirming the readers mistaken ideas about who American Indians were and are.

What is troubling is that some (most?) of Edwards' fans buy books for children. And, they likely draw on their "knowledge" about Indians to make their choices. Hence, it is hard to interrupt the sales of children's books filled with stereotypical imagery. In short, Edwards success feeds the on-going creation and consumption of stereotypical children's books about American Indians.

With Edwards writing for the adult market and Rinaldi writing for the children's market, all of us are caught in a destructive cycle that must be stopped. Every reader, Native and non-Native, from babies to elders, should learn that American Indians are not mere figments of the past, but people of today who live lives much like any-American.

It is likely that many who read this will object to my criticism of Ann Rinaldi, a favorite in the children's writing community. Some will be moved to defend her. Poor Ann Rinaldi.

To which I reply "Really? How about all those kids who read her book and think they've learned something or gained insight to American Indians? How about feeling some outrage on their behalf?"

If you've got Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground in your library, pull it. Throw it away, or, use it in a critical media lesson.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


News to me, but very cool news!

Alexie's 2nd YA Novel: Radioactive Love Song"

So far it is only listed with Amazon Canada, with a pub date of Sep 09...

Publisher is Little Brown...

Interview with him at Pop Candy says:

Well, after the success of this book, do you plan to work on more young-adult fiction?

I will be delivering another one soon. I can tell you the title of it: Radioactive Love Song. It's about an urban Indian kid's epic odyssey in a car with an iPod stuffed with his mother's favorite love songs.

Note: Over on the right side of this page, down at the bottom, I've added a new section called "Reese's Get---Reject List" in response to lot of questions I get along the line of "what shall I get instead of..."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

First Nations writers Larry Loyie and Nicola Campbell

Pointing you, today, to an interview at In the interview (conducted by Aline Pereira) Cree writer Larry Loyie talks about his life, his books, and his views on books about First Nations people. Back in July of 2006, I included his As Long as the Rivers Flow in a short list of books about boarding schools that I recommend.

Since then, I've read Nicola Campbell's Shi-Shi-Etko and also highly recommend it. Read a review of her book here.

If you've got Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is On the Ground, replace it with As Long as the Rivers Flow. And if you've got Eve Bunting's Cheyenne Again, replace it with Nicola Campbell's Shi-shi-etko. Rinaldi and Bunting are well-established writers, but both missed the mark in their books about boarding schools. Keeping their books means, in effect, continuing a long history of mis-educating readers about American Indian and First Nations history, culture, and life. You have the option of providing your students with better books. It sounds corny, but I'll say it anyway: Seize that opportunity!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Observations: Natives in the News and the Role of Children's Books

Each morning I get a "google alert" email comprised of links to news stories published in the preceding 24 hours on the phrase "Native Americans" or "American Indians."

This morning, there was a link to an article in the Telegraph, whose tag is "Britain's No. 1 quality newspaper website." The article is called "And the protester is..." It is about moments of protest at the Oscars. The part of the article that google snagged for me is this:


When presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann declared Marlon Brando best actor for The Godfather, a young woman dressed as a native American squaw appeared on the podium.

I am appalled that whomever wrote the article used the word "squaw." Its use in the article demonstrates the strength by which Brits are gripped by outdated and biased imagery of American Indians. It was used in a matter-of-fact way, just as it was used in a lot of older classic works of children's historical fiction published here in the United States.

In the present day, I think that more and more Americans know it is a derogatory term and choose to use it only when seeking to provoke. I hasten to add that there are still people who think it an appropriate word. See, for example, my post here in which a non-Native woman asked a Native woman what they should call Native women if not squaws. In that post, I made the argument that seeing the word "squaw" in children's books may give it credibility it doesn't deserve.

I read the Telegraph piece with another news story in my mind. In the past few days, the Washington Post has run a couple of articles that seek to paint Rick West, former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, in dark tones. The paper claims that his travel to places like Europe and New Zealand was uncalled for. It suggested he was not tending to business here, but living it up in expensive hotels.

I view the Post's critique as ridiculous. One of our major problems is that people here and around the world think we no longer exist. And what they think they know about us is pretty awful. I was in Greece two years ago, went into a shop and saw stereotypical ceramic Indians-in-headdresses adorning the walls. In France, I was stunned when a Columbian performance troupe set up outside the train station in Venice, and proceeded to entertain the crowd with stereotypical American Indian dance and music. I watched them put on face paint, fringed and beaded buckskin, and large feathered headdresses, and I watched the crowd snap pictures and applaud enthusiastically.

Those observations from my trip, the Telegraph story, the "Chief Hawah" book Marion Boyars published recently, and my experience with the cab driver in NYC in November 07 are evidence that Rick West's lectures and meetings abroad are vitally important.

People around the world are mis-educated about American Indians. The work of those who seek to change that is two-fold and must take place in many venues. One, we must point out the stereotypical and biased representations when we see them. Two, we must point TO books and resources that provide accurate information about American Indians.

Children's books play a role in that mis-education. Instead of using those classic, award-winning books of historical fiction as literature, would we do a better job of educating American children if we'd use those books to talk about writing and perspective instead? (I'm speaking here, to international audiences as well... Books published here and read abroad, too.)