Friday, March 28, 2008

Eric Gansworth's poem, "Loving That Land O'Lakes Girl"

I met Eric Gansworth earlier this month at the Returning the Gift meeting at Michigan State University. He is an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation. While at MSU, I bought two of his books. One is about Big Foot. Titled Breathing the Monster Alive, the art throughout the book is Gansworth's. If you work with teens who are into graphic novels, you should take a look at Breathing the Monster Alive. I've only begun reading it, and I remember--as does Eric--watching "The Legend of Boggy Creek" when I was a kid, and being... afraid.

As I write this post, I'm at the Native American Literature Symposium, being held this year at the Mystic Lake Casino in Minneapolis. Eric is tonight's keynote speaker. At Michigan State, he read the poem I share with you today (below). It is from his book A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function.

Some of you will love this poem; others will not. Some of you will think it does not belong in the arena we call children's literature, and for little ones, it certainly does not. Critically-thinking high school students, however, will love it--assuming they've developed a critical eye with regard to representation of American Indians.

Loving That Land O'Lakes Maiden

She is the first lesson
in love for many Indian
boys, all tanned hide
and feathers, features straight
out of Hollywood, but she lights
the spark for those red boys
and probably for some
black and white and brown
ones as well, for anyone
who learns her
tricks, really, and they're
not that hard
to master.

She stares out at all from a burst
of sunrise and lush flora kneeling,
hands suspended before her,
framing her bossom with infinitely
smaller versions of herself.

First release her from the cardboard
landscape she inhabits, then
carefully remove the product
placement in front of her,
and just below, fold her spine
back, and back again without
regard to the vertebrae
you snap along the way.

Carefully position her
and her magical side emerges
transforming those round knees
into ample breasts, ditching her
old franchise for Hooters, as she
flashes you with a smile and so much more.

She is by all accounts
"like buddah," all slick
skinned, sweet and soft,
lightly salted,
and when you touch her
you leave an impression
that stays until the next
hot thing comes along.

Is it any wonder Indian women
have grown tough and strong
with competition like that?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Anne Rockwell and Marc Aronson

Anne Rockwell and Marc Aronson? You may wonder why the names of these two individuals are the title for today's post...

Yesterday, Anne Rockwell submitted a comment to "Lois Lenski Lecture." Rockwell is the author of a picture book called Thanksgiving Day. As her comment indicates, she doesn't like my critique of her book.

Earlier this morning, I read Marc Aronson's column (dated March 1, 2008) in School Library Journal. It's called "Consider the Source: Selective Memory" and its subtitle is "Biographies for young readers aren't telling the whole story."

In November of 2007, I critiqued Rockwell's feel-good story about Thanksgiving. Her story is a lot like a Hallmark Greeting Card. I know---that sounds harsh---but I think it is a fair characterization. If you want to read my critique, click here.

You can read her entire comment by visiting this post. She said, in part:

"I've never had my(printed and published) words twisted to the degree you did in your blog about my book THANKSGIVING DAY. How you construed a fictional kindergarten child's words "..thankful that the beautiful land of Massachusetts had enough for everyone..." to mean that she was saying this justified white people's taking the land away from American Indians since they didn't know how to manage it. To quote you..."Wow!"

I have never said such a thing in print or out, have never thought such a thing, and can only hope there are readers who will go to the book and read it for what it says, not what you twist it to say."
In my critique, I didn't say that the child that said those words.

That idea is one that Americans--Rockwell included--are socialized to think. Like she says, she never said it, and she never thought it either. That "it" is part of a thing later called Manifest Destiny that justified removal of Native peoples from their homelands. Rockwell's story is romantic. It is uncritical. It is a problem.

Marc Aronson says it well in his column. Here's his last paragraph:

"Rather than examine famous peoples’ lives or historical movements critically, today’s children’s books often leave kids with little more than legends—George Washington and the cherry tree; Thomas Jefferson, the sage of Monticello, minus any mention of Sally Hemings, the young slave with whom current DNA evidence shows he fathered six children; our nation’s “glorious” Westward expansion, told exclusively through images of heroic whites and savage Indians. The point of overturning these and other myths isn’t simply to set the record straight; it’s to point out that our interpretation of history is constantly being challenged, debated, and revised. The only way we can bring that crucial message to young people is if we risk sharing our doubts about the very accounts they were taught in elementary school. If we do that, students may at first feel like they’ve been fooled. But just as in middle-grade and YA novels that turn fairy tales upside down and inside out, young people will have an opportunity to use what they’ve learned as a baseline to develop new, more accurate understandings—which is precisely what we want."

Part of the work this blog is doing is turning fairy tales upside down and inside out. My critique of Rockwell is upsetting to her and others who are not looking critically at the way history is presented to children. I'm glad Rockwell visited the site, and while this sounds uncaring, I'm glad that she's upset. Perhaps her next book will be different.
UPDATE, MARCH 6, 2010.
I am copying comments to the post (above) directly into the bottom half of the post. Anne Rockwell is amongst the people who submitted comments to the post.

First comment, submitted on March 26, 2008 at 11:09 PM CDT:

How can I not weigh in on this! Balance I think is what the old people talk about. Balancing the bad with the good so that there ia a picture of reality that we can live with, that minorities can live in, that is real. The fairy tales of North America based in mainstream ideology and pragmatism have no room for the children of Indigenous Americans/Canadians. I was considering today that there is little room for survival in such stories for the self esteem of Indigenous Cannadian/American children. And as long as these types of stories are the "bildungs roman" of North American society racism continues to infiltrate the youngest minds with literacy. Anti racism writing and education requires that we speak the unspoken that keeps us bound in the cruel dance of oppression/repression. Its true that developing our critical reasoning is painful. I walk that road everyday with my students. But the insights they achieve in the process are priceless, life-giving and I know that as they go out to teach in the school system and in the institutions of learning and their own lives they will be mindful and deliberate to create spaces for all children to live and thrive. Thank you Marc for your insight and reason-able-ness. Thank you Anne for your honest reaction. Thank you Debbie, for allowing space for mindfulness to thrive for the sake of children, our precious future unto 7 generations

?eh ?eh naa tuu kwiss, Ahousaht First Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth
Marlene Atleo, Education, U of M, Ahousaht

Second comment, submitted on March 27, 2008 at 11:54 AM, CDT

Marlene, thank you for your comment.

Since my original comment on Debbie's blog (which has brought up so much name-calling, thrown gauntlets commanding "DO NO HARM", snide and Irrelevant words, such as "Hallmark, feel-good, etc.) dealt NOT with a reviewer's right to dislike or like a work.

I'll say again that is NOT the issue. I'd like to walk away from the fray, but as long as you've made the first comment that is thouht-provokig or intelligent, I'd like to point out yet again what my comment WAS about, because it brings up the whole question of ethical reviewing of books for children.

My sole objection was to Professor Reese saying my words meant something quite different from what I wrote, different from what was printed on the page--a lie that she uses to bear out her own political agenda.

I write for very young children. They come from all over American, from varying cultural backgrounds, from families of highly variable skill in the English language. So I choose my words carefully. I AM NOT WRITING IN CODE, sending secret messages about "Manifest Destiny" to little children.

To turn my written words into llies on a blog, is wrong, unethical, and completely outside guidelines for reviewers. It even brings up the "fair use" doctrine of the U.S. Copyright Law, to quote and/or misquote so extensively from a published text, and then "translate" that text into Herspeak, or whatever.

I'm depressed to find that this is hard for commentors on her blog, many of whom I assume are teaching students, to understand.

Anne Rockwell

Third comment, submitted on March 27, 2008 at 11:39 PM

I can empathize with you Anne. Its seems easier to write stories for children but its really more difficult. For my teacher education course in Aboriginal education at a major Canadian university in a province with about a 25% of Aboriginal people in the public schools. I use resources that include the Oyate/Amira publication: The Broken Flute which reviews books and provides rationale for the perspectives that are taken in the critique. We can't afford to be naive about children's literature. Children are stolen in a variety of ways and literacy is one of them. We need to develop good critiques that permit us to see through discourses that are not healthful. Normative discourses that seem to reveal actually hide more than they reveal. Pretty scary stuff in my opinion. Today on my classroom wall one of my student's committee members commented on the picture of the residential school girls in their dorm beds and wondered out loud if that wasn't just another form of exploitation. Debbie's claims in the big picture have validity.

Its a validity that is hidden in the normatie mystification of the double speak of Americanese which obscures and erases differences and in its place creates homogeneity that is not life affirming. What is the myth of Thanksgiving really about? Have you researched the sad stories of the settlers? Have you asked yourself why you would want to write a book about it for little children? Depression is probably a first stage. Critical consciousness evolves in a similar form to grief. First there is denial, then anger, then bargaining and etc. but there is no turning back from critical turning back

marlene atleo

Fourth comment, submitted on March 28, 2008, 11:38 PM CDT

I also appreciate Anne's willingness to stay in the conversation. And Marlene, it's so good to have you "weighing in"!

I wonder, Anne, what WOULD you have someone do -- for example, those of us who are parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents of Indigenous North American children? What might an author regard as the optimal way for us to say, "Ouch, wait, there's a problem with your book?" Most authors, having writ, are inaccessible to anyone who might want to have a critical conversation about the book.

For some of us, labeling our "agenda" as purely political just doesn't quite tell the whole story. When it comes to misrepresentations of Indigenous experience, my agenda (for example) actually lives where politics and family coincide. When I think of Native children reading books that elide the experiences of their ancestors, experiences that are directly connected to the current state of things -- I have specific children in mind: their smiles, their vulnerabilities and strengths, their spirited sense of themselves, their presence on my lap when I read aloud.

Melissa Thompson had a very thoughtful and well-researched article in The Lion and the Unicorn in 2001, titled, "A Sea of Good Intentions: Native Americans in Books for Children". In it she does several things, including taking a look at the language of some US Supreme Court decisions and how the images of Native people created and/or expressed by chief justice (o irony!)John Marshall back in the early 1800's STILL LIVE in people's minds today, and are passed along via contemporary books for young people. John Marshall knew his own writing was political.

To write about historical moments is to make political statements, whether or not we do so consciously. Whom does one consult? Whom does one quote? Speak for? Acknowledge? Leave out? I would hope that authors would choose their words with care - but the words we choose can't help but be influenced by the political discourse that has been part of the fabric of our lives from the beginning: Who is present and who is absent? Who has autonomy and who doesn't? Who "deserves" autonomy and who shouldn't have it? (for a strange reading experience, see what Marshall says about that! He was essentially writing legal fiction, that became law.) Who has power over others and who doesn't? Which behaviors are valorized, and which ones are reviled or ignored?

Anne, you are asserting you didn't intentionally say anything in your book about Manifest Destiny etc. -- and that's believable. I used to believe the whole, old Thanksgiving mythology myself: middle class white girl in a whitebread world. But so much of the real story was left out of what i "knew" that I see in retrospect that the stories misinformed me and left me less capable (for a long time) of fully understanding what the roots of the US are really like. I wonder how we're supposed to steer this boat if we don't know everything about it....

Jean Mendoza

Fifth comment, submitted on March 30, 2008, 8:40 PM CDT

Let's go to the original review again. Debbie wrote: "Through Michiko and Kate, we get outrageously simplistic descriptions. Greeted kindly? Shared the land? And not mean people looking for someone to fight with?! Only Jessica's words have some semblance of truth, but they, too, are problematic. Her words carry the weight of the idea that there was plenty of land, and that the Indians weren't using it properly, so it was only fitting that the more industrious Europeans should take and own it..." Rockwell's focus on what the Jessica character said is misleading. Debbie criticized Jessica's words only in part, saying they had "some semblance of truth." She also criticized several other things in the book, some of them relatively minor. Debbie even praised a few things. All in all, I'd say it was a typical review. No way did it violate the copyright laws by quoting from the book. In fact, this is exactly what the fair-use provision is for. Rockwell is wasting her time making veiled threats. Now that Rockwell has responded to Debbie's one-sentence comment on Jessica, it would be interesting to hear her response to the overall point of the critique. Namely: "This seemingly sweet book is really quite loaded. Loaded in its false message of comradery [sic] between the colonists and the Wampanoags. Loaded in its efforts to hide the conflict from the child reader..." As for Jessica's words, they do convey the idea that Massachusetts was unoccupied and that Indians didn't have a claim to the region. What would the girl have thought about Massachusetts 55 years later, after King Philip's War exterminated most of the remaining Indians? "Oops," said a sadder but wiser Jessica, "I guess the beautiful land of Massachusetts didn't have enough good things for everyone after all." You see the point, Ms. Rockwell? History proves that America didn't have enough "good things" for the Indians and the Europeans. At least not in the Europeans' minds. Hence the genocidal policies that led to the destruction of the Indian way of life. So Jessica's claim was false or misleading, and Debbie noted it as such. What would you expect an educator like her to say: that the Pilgrims didn't wipe out the Indians eventually? Why should she, since they did? P.S. For more on our Thanksgiving myths, see Ten Little Pilgrims and Indians. Rob Schmidt

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wordcraft Circle Awards

Today, I point you to the awards given by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Native Wiki describes the organization and its history here. It was established in 1992 at the first Returning the Gift gathering of Native writers, held in Norman, Oklahoma. When I started this blog, Wordcraft was off-line. It's back, now. In 1997, Wordcraft began giving awards. Among their categories is an award for children's books. (Note: Some years they specify a title; other years they do not.)

Cheryl Savageau (Abenaki)

Richard Van Camp (Dogrib)

Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe)

Joy Harjo (Muscogee) for The Good Luck Cat
Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) for Rain is Not My Indian Name

Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)

Linda Boyden (Cherokee)

Deborah Duvall, (Cherokee) Rabbit and the Bears

Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) for The Good Rainbow Road
Marge Bruchac (Abenaki) for Malian's Song

James Blue Wolf (Cherokee) for Speaking for Fire
Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Two weeks ago, I was at the Returning the Gift meeting held at Michigan State University. I was invited to talk about children's books.

Prior to heading up there, I received a wonderful surprise from Kimberly Roppolo, Director of Wordcraft. The work I do on this blog was recognized with a "Writer of the Year Award." Thank you, Wordcraft, for this honor.

Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) - Writer of the Year, Blog

Monday, March 24, 2008


So many books and stories about American Indian and First Nations peoples confine us to the past. Verbs are in past tense. Stories are set "long ago." Historical fiction abounds. Native characters are flat, stock, stereotypical savages or heroes of days long past.

Given that state of affairs, is is not surprising that children (and adults) don't know that Native people are very much part of the present day, and that we live our lives with many of the same conveniences everyone else has. Computers. Cars. Jeans.

When I work with teachers, I suggest they develop lessons with visuals that show their (non-Native) families and ancestors, coupled with images of Native children and their ancestors. I suggest they talk about "special clothes" that are only used at certain times for specific purposes.

Now, there's a terrific--absolutely terrific--children's book that does precisely that. It is When the Shadbush Blooms. The book is written by Carla Messinger (Turtle Clan Lenape), with Susan Katz, and illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden (Wolf Clan Mohawk). Published by Tricycle Press in 2007, the book is about the Lenni Lenape people, past and present.

Turning to the first double-page spread in the book, the text reads:

"My grandparents' grandparents walked beside the same stream where I walk with my brother, and we can see what they saw. Deer leap in the woods. Hawks fly in circles overhead. Frogs splash, and turtles sun themselves."
The stream runs down the center of the two-pages. On its left bank (left side of the page) are the grandparents' grandparents, in clothing they would have worn in their time. On the right bank (right side of the page) are two children, shown wearing clothes kids wear today. T-shirts, cut-offs, and sneakers. One points to the frog. In the sky is a hawk, and behind the grandparents, just at the edge of the trees, is a deer. Encircling them all are shadbush in bloom. On that first double-page spread, the words are "Mechoammowi Gischuch" and "When the Shadfish Return Moon."

That pattern of telling continues throughout the book as one cycle, or moon, and its work and play follows another. These cycles are noted at the top outside edge of each page, in the languages spoken by the narrators, Traditional Sister on the left, and Contemporary Sister on the right.  Here's a page about winter activity (click on the image and a larger image will open):

Beyond the story itself, the book includes information about the Lenni Lenape culture and language. This book is a many-layered treasure.

Such a treasure, in fact, that it is a nominee for the Children's Book Council's "Children's Choice" awards. If you are a teacher or librarian working with kids, go here to vote for it! And, buy it from Oyate.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tribal Press: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma publishes books about the Choctaw people. Among them are several children's books. If you've read any of them, let me know!

Click here to get to the page of their children's books.