Thursday, April 02, 2009

Dear Penny....

Dear Penny Pollock,

I have some questions about your book, When the Moon is Full: A Lunar Year.

On the page for January, you say it is "The Wolf Moon." Beneath the poem on that page, you say "Native Americans believed that wolves became restless in January."

I see at least two problems with that statement.

Do you mean to tell us that all Native Americans call January "The Wolf Moon?"

You use a past tense verb. Do Native Americans (whichever ones you're talking about) no longer believe that wolves become restless in January?

I see on the book flap that you are "a descendant of Wyandotte Indians." Why did you not write a book about the Wyandotte people?

I'd like to know more about your life as a Wyandotte woman...


My letter to Penny sounds mean, doesn't it? I ask Penny some pointed questions, and, I question her claim to Wyandotte ancestry. Penny may, in fact, have Wyandotte ancestry, but it seems to me that her identity as a Wyandotte is not a lived one. It's an imagined one, informed by romantic notions of who American Indians were. Contrast who she is with the people in this video clip, posted by my colleague, Tracy Peterson, on his Facebook page. It is an exerpt from the upcoming PBS series "We Shall Remain." The series promises to be outstanding. It's consultants are the most esteemed scholars in American Indian Studies.

UPDATE, APRIL 5th, 2009

Beverly Slapin sent me her review of Pollock's book. I'm pasting it below. Her review may not be published elsewhere without her written consent.

Pollack, Penny, When the Moon Is Full: A Lunar Year, illustrated by Mary Azarian. New York: Little, Brown (2001). Unpaginated, color illustrations; kindergarten-grade 3

A lunar year has 13 full moons, but Pollack’s “lunar year” has only 12 full moons, to correspond with the months of the Roman calendar. If this isn’t confusing enough, she bestows so-called “traditional Native American names” on each of the 12 full moons, to five of which she adds sometimes bizarre, always sweeping, generalizations about Native peoples. For instance, January is allegedly called “the Wolf Moon,” which Pollack explains by saying, “Native Americans believed that wolves became restless in January.” Where did she get this?

Tying this all together is an assortment of stupefyingly amateurish short poems. For example,

Full moons come,

full moons go,

softening nights

with their silver glow.

They pass in silence,

all untamed,

but as they travel,

they are named.

Now, the idea of wild untamed moon(s) seems a little incongruous, since our moon is a large hunk of rock, so it has to be assumed that Pollack just needed something to rhyme with “named.” Also, we only have one moon, so this “full moons come, full moons go” just adds to the confusion.

Azarian’s hand-colored woodcut illustrations feature big-eyed animals with human expressions in contemporary scenes. Only one shows humans—two generic figures, facing away from the reader, holding hands and looking at the moon.

Bringing up the rear is a question-and-answer section, framed by a generic “Indian” design. One wonders, for instance, where Pollack got this one:

Why do full moons have names? The Native Americans kept time by the Moon. They knew that every month had a full moon, so “many moons” meant many months. They chose names that reflected something special about each of these time periods. The elders passed along the names, mainly through storytelling.

The question-and-answer format here is especially misleading because it carries a false sense of authenticity. So young readers, rather than being motivated to think critically, are simply handed questions and—wrong answers. They are being told what to think, rather than being taught how to think.

—Beverly Slapin


jpm said...

Hmm. I've been looking high & low for a copy of my husband's Muscogee (Creek) language calendar, which gives the English name of the month, the Muscogee name, and the Muscogee-to-English translation. A fruitless search. Even so -- I don't recall any of the month names having anything to do with wolves.
So Muscogee Native Americans must not have been the source of the information about names of months used by the author of When the Moon Is Full. How frustrating that a book with a relatively recent publication date seems to be perpetuate the notion that "Native Americans" and their languages are (or "were") somehow interchangeable.

Mantelli said...

Very nicely put. I've just remembered where I first saw January called the "Wolf Moon". It was in the Old Farmer's Almanac, which makes the same claim that the name comes from unspecified Native American folklore. I suspect that's where an awful lot of writers have picked up the name and the notion. I wonder where the idea originated?