Friday, January 02, 2009

Jean Mendoza essay: Paul Chaat Smith and children's books about American Indians

Earlier this week, my dear friend and colleague, Jean Mendoza and I were talking by phone about children's books about American Indians, particularly historical fiction. Jean recalled an essay by Paul Chaat Smith. I invited her to put her thoughts into a piece for this site. Paul Chaat Smith is an enrolled member of the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma, and co-wrote Like a Hurricane: the Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, a book I recommended on Feb. 3rd, 2008.

Here's Jean's essay.

Hi, Deb,

On your blog and on the children’s literature list serv, the past few weeks have seen much conversation (and in some cases, apparent avoidance of conversation) about representation and misrepresentation of Native people and history. All of it has reminded me of Paul Chaat Smith’s essay, “Ghost in the Machine” in Strong Hearts: Native American Visions and Voices. It’s powerful – funny but moving in a way that kind of sneaks up and grabs you (me, anyway). He starts out talking about his great uncle Cavayo who in his time had the task of giving names to “the marvelous toys and dazzling inventions modern times brought to the Comanche in the latter half of the 19th century.” Among those inventions: the “Walker Colt” .44 caliber revolver – the first repeating pistol in the world -- which Chaat Smith notes (persuasively) was apparently invented to help Texas Rangers kill Comanches more efficiently than was possible with other guns.


But Chaat Smith manages (like many other Native writers) to connect an image from the American genocide to a more contemporary situation using irony and humor. He says the Comanches “frantically tried to acquire the new guns but had limited success – imagine a member of the Crips trying to buy a dozen Stinger rocket-launchers in the midst of the 1992 riots in LA: not impossible but really, really difficult.”

I wish there were some way for Ghost in the Machine to be required reading for every editor, writer, book reviewer, teacher or librarian whose work in any way touches on children’s books. And if there’s one section of the essay that I wish they would memorize, it’s this:

Paul Chaat Smith says,

“Heck, we're just plain folks, but no one wants to hear that. But how could it be any different? The confusion and ambivalence, the amnesia and wistful romanticism make perfect sense. We are shape-shifters in the national consciousness. We are accidental survivors, unwanted reminders of disagreeable events. Indians have to be explained and accounted for, and to fit somehow into the creation myth of the most powerful, benevolent nation ever, the last, best hope of man on earth.”

When otherwise intelligent and capable people scramble in defense of mis/representations of indigenous people in books by non-Native writers, it’s that quote that comes to mind for me. Few things can be more disagreeable to a person of conscience than the idea that one lives well on stolen resources (including land), enabled by a history of government-supported genocidal laws & policies and behaviors, and by the willingness of one’s cultural (if not familial) forebears to kill many times over in order to get the resources from the folks who were here first. The myth is essential; otherwise the non-indigenous person of conscience finds himself/herself in a psychologically untenable position.

At the end of “Ghost in the Machine”, Paul Chaat Smith comments, “We're trapped in history. No escape. Great-uncle Cavayo must have faced many situations this desperate, probably in god-forsaken desert canyons against murderous Apaches and Texans. Somehow, I know what he would say: Get the best piece you can find and shoot your way out.”

Smith is punning on “piece”, having talked about both guns and cameras throughout “Ghost”. When I think about what he has written in Ghost, a third meaning comes to mind: a “piece” of writing, a piece of art. His own essay, for example. Other essays and novels and poems and paintings and sculptures and so on that can set readers/viewers straight on how things have been, how they really are. Yes, and critiques of books that misrepresent Native lives.

I had a mental image of contemporary Native scholars and critics and authors hunkered down in that “god-forsaken canyon”, writing their way out (“power of the pen”); using contemporary technology (e.g., Internet) that allows them to “shoot from the hip” (or sometimes, “from the lip”). (The image doesn’t work all that well, really, though in my mind it is imbued with courage and tenacity and determination and resourcefulness….)

From what I can tell, very few, if any, fiction books by non-Native writers are real allies in Native people’s efforts to shoot/write their way out of the chronic misrepresentation.

I keep wondering: if non-Native authors who want to write Native-themed books (and their publishers) were to read this essay and the others in Strong Hearts BEFORE beginning those book projects—would they continue to look at their efforts to tell or make up Native stories with the sense that what they’re doing is necessary, honorable, or even okay?

If producers of children’s books read and understood Chaat Smith’s message, would we continue to see what the Cooperative Center for Books for Children consistently finds: that (for example) of approximately 3,000 children’s books published in 2007 that their staff examined, only 6 were created by American Indian writers or illustrators though 44 contained American Indian themes, topics, or characters?

The 1995 publication date of Strong Hearts (by Aperture) shocks me now; we’ve had the book since it was new. But the essays do not seem dated, and certainly the photography by indigenous photographers feels contemporary. The book is worth looking for. A version of “Ghost in the Machine” is on Paul Chaat Smith’s Web site, Fear of a Red Planet.


Anonymous said...

I found this article surprising. I work for the Association on American Indian Affairs Native Language Proram. Although we are little known, during 2007, we wrote and had illustrated dozens of books in the Dakotah (Sioux) language.

Today, we have over 60 children's books all but one was written by Native Americans.

We are proud of the fact that many of these books are in the process of being translated into the Ojibwe language.

Debbie Reese said...

What about the article was surprising to you, Tammy?

And, do you have a website so we can find the books you publish? I'd love to find and recommend them.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised at the number of children's books written by Native Americans was listed as only 6.

We're a project of a small non-profit so much of the language learning materials we have created (cds, game boards, dvds as well as the childrens books) aren't listed on our website. We don't have the financial ability to pay for constant updating our website. But it is

I appreciate your asking.

Anonymous said...

Tammy, my understanding is that the figure of 6 was part of statistics compiled by the Cooperative Center for Books for Children, based on books that they receive for review (Deb, is that right?). If no one has sent them copies of the books you are producing, they probably don't know about them. I'd love to know more about your project!

Anonymous said...

It started when we were attempting to have a language nest in the daycare at the local tribal college. The problem: everything was English. So we started by writing the Dakotah over or under the English. The Treasured Elders (the job title of our elder employees) felt that this made the Dakotah look second class. So we tried typing it and putting it on stickers. That too didn't look nice.

The other problem was that there were no native people in any of the books (unless they were wearing beads and buckskins.)

At that point we decided to start making our own books for the children. When we program moved on from that project, we eventually started a curriculum project and did a K - 2 Dakotah language curriculum which includes all the materials ... books (of course!), puzzles, games, worksheets, simple computer application ...

We got a small grant for the production part of this curriculum and made an entire copy (which is huge) for every Dakotah community in the United States and Canada.

I'm always happy to talk about our program, sorry about being so lenghty.

Anonymous said...

Tammy, never apologize for talking at length about something you love! Is your program connected in any way with a presentation I saw in November at a conference in Dallas -- Professor Andy Stremmel and Renetta Goeson were talking about using the Reggio Emilia approach in the Lake Traverse Head Start?

Anonymous said...

That Head Start program is actually the focus of a proposal we have out right now to create an all day immersion curriculum. Because our program is actually national in scope, we would make it available to all. We actually have in the proposal to put the entire curriculum online so that not only the head start parents can learn along with their children, but Dakotah people who live all over from the relocation era can use it. Hopefully we get funded, our organization is a charitable one and everyone knows what's happening to charities right now. We are in danger of, at a minimum, severe cutbacks and the possibility of complete closure is not out of the question.

Renetta is a native language advocate and we in the language community are happy that she is.