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.