Monday, March 16, 2009


Verla Kay's Broken Feather (published in 2002 by Putnam), got mixed reviews. The review by School Library Journal's, S. K. Joiner is the most helpful to librarians, parents and teachers who wish to avoid stereotypical, romanticized, and inaccurate depictions of Native people.

Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus goofed. Both gave it a starred review, saying things like "will hook readers" and every one of Kay's words "sparkle."

It's a picture book. Here's the words on the first page:

Broken Feather,
Native boy,
Filled with spirit,
Strength and joy.

Bows and arrows,
Corn-husk pouch,
Bushes rustle,
Natives crouch.

Natives crouch? They always do that! Book after book shows Indian men that way for one reason or another, usually to attack the settlers. Why are these Nez Perce men doing it? The second page tells us why...

Small voice, whisper,
"Father, who?"
"White men hunting,
Passing through."

Kay is giving us the classic "plight of the Indians" narrative. Vanishing Indians, that is. She attempts to give readers a look at conflict between the Nez Perce people and Europeans.

Along the way, she and Stephen Alcorn (the illustrator) feed the stereotype monster. A man plays a drum with his hands while other men dance in a circle in the stereotypical ways... Every single dancer has one foot off the ground, arms thrown out or skyward. That scene is repeated on a second page later in the book:

Warriors chanting,
Big drums, beat.
Angry faces,
Stomping feet

It's followed by a page about defeat and then "Forced to tramp, Natives marching..." to a reservation where Broken Feather asks his father why this happened. His father's answer? That there were many of them, and few Nez Perce, and now, he says to his son "it's up to you." Up to him to do what? We aren't told.

The last page shows Broken Feather as an adult looking out over a river and mountains. In his hand is a single feather. I guess its the feather he wore as a child. Now he's in a full headdress. That's the end of the book. It is followed by two notes. One from the author and one from the illustrator.

Meant for young children, this book fails to give them the 'here and now' information young children need. Kay's note suggests she was at a museum where she saw Nez Perce culture, and that she talked with a Nez Perce tribal member. Her book would have been so much better if she'd taken the reader into the present day, with a few pages about contemporary Nez Perce children.

Then again, she'd still has that title "Broken Feather." It seems to me she's steeped in the plight narrative and would have to do a lot of work to break out of it. Alcorn, too.

Problems with this illustration: Man is shown playing drum with his hands instead of drumstick; dancers are frenetic.


Anonymous said...

The illustration you showed of the dancers is reminiscent of a painting I saw in some collection in Oklahoma -- maybe at Woolaroc? The colors were all wrong, nightmarish, and the "dance' depicted was distorted and ghastly. The same collection featured larger-than-life sculptures (bronze, I think) of heroic pioneer women, all with bodices nearly undone. Anyway; wonder if this illustrator saw that painting (though there may be many with that look to them). Of course, the one in this book is friendlier, but no more accurate.

And goodness, if the author had been writing a poem about the lives of cavalrymen or white settlers, supposedly from a white viewpoint, would the text have read, "White men crouch" or "white men marching"? It's hard to imagine that a Nez Perce family reading this book would feel that "Yes, our story is told here."

Anonymous said...

This ties into what the above commenter said...what's up with the "natives" thing? As I understand it, referring to people as "natives" is offensive - paternalistic - it seems to indicate the voice of a colonizer, not something you'd call yourself. I'm not sure from your post - is it less offensive when it's understood as an abbreviation for "Native American"?

Along those lines - do most Nez Perce people nowadays refer to themselves as such? Given that it's a name applied by outsiders, and something of a misnomer too (since as I remember - from my vast reserves of grade-school research project knowledge - "pierced noses" were actually more common in a different nearby Native American group), that just seems odd. Or is it so widespread by now that it'd be hard to change?