Monday, April 06, 2009

Discussion Guide to ARROW TO THE SUN

Scholastic has written and consolidated a great deal of resource material for teachers. Today I present a critique of the "Arrow to the Sun Discussion Guide" created by Weston Woods, a company that turned McDermott's book into a video. The guide is on the Scholastic website. I hasten to say that McDermott's award-winning Arrow to the Sun is deeply flawed and should not be subtitled "A Pueblo Indian Tale." It is so deeply flawed, in fact, that the word "Pueblo" should be replaced. It's new title, I think, should be: Arrow to the Sun: Gerald McDermotts misleading-erroneous-inaccurate "Pueblo Tale" that cannot in fact be called a Pueblo Indian tale Harsh, I know. Lest you feel sympathy for McDermott, think about all the Pueblo Indian children who are reading his book, know that it is wrong, but have to regurgitate his words for their teachers when they discuss the book in the classroom. And think about all the non-Pueblo children who are being mis-educated through this book. If you are a teacher using the book and feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by this harsh essay on his book, I hope that you read the entire essay, spend time on this site, and then walk away from your computer thinking carefully about what you read here. You are not a bad person for having used McDermott's book with students in your classroom. You didn't know it was a bad book. It carries a sticker on it that tells you it is an award winning book. You were misinformed. Not intentionally (the Caldecott committee didn't recognize it as problematic either), but nonetheless, you were misinformed. I hope that makes you mad, not at me, but at the industry and institutions that continue to promote his book. I have harsh words for McDermott. That dance that happens at the end of the story? The "Dance of Life" --- he made that up. No pueblo does that. He made up that dance. For Pueblo Indians, dance is prayer. The not-Pueblo-Indian Gerald McDermott made up a prayer, and is passing it off as a Pueblo prayer. I think that's pretty messed up. So. On to the Weston Wood's guide on the Scholastic website... Here's the opening paragraph, which is a synopsis of the book, followed by objectives:
In Arrow to the Sun, a boy, born from the sun, begins a quest to find his father. He travels through the world of men, finally finding his way back to the sun. Once there, he must prove himself through a series of tests. Only then can he return to the earth and the world of men again. In this Pueblo tale, students will be visually transported into the world of folklore and oral history that were and are cornerstones of Native American culture and tradition. The bold, imagistic art will captivate children as it lends to the magical quality of the story. This program provides an excellent starting point for Native American studies as well as a rich journey through the art and culture of Pueblo life.


  • Students will identify some of the aspects of Pueblo Indian life.
  • Students will compare and contrast this tale with the tales of other Native American groups.
No. No. And no, again. Here's my rewrite. I'll put my revisions in red.
In Gerald McDermott's fantasy Arrow to the Sun, a boy, born from the sun, begins a quest to find his father. He travels through the world of men, finally finding his way back to the sun. Once there, he must prove himself through a series of tests. Only then can he return to the earth and the world of men again. In this tale, students will be visually transported into McDermott's imagined world of folklore and oral history. Though his book may feel like it is a presentation of Native American culture and tradition, it is only his imagined presentation. The bold, imagistic art will captivate children as it lends to the magical quality of the story. His book and this guide provide an excellent starting point for teaching children that information in books can be wrong. His book is used in courses in Native American studies to demonstrate how American Indian cultures are misrepresented in award-winning books.


  • Students will identify McDermott's errors in presentation of Pueblo Indian life.
  • Students will learn about two other writers who also misrepresent Pueblo Indian people.
Following standard practice, the guide follows the Objectives with "before" and "after" reading activities:

Before Reading Activities

Preview the vocabulary words from the book: pueblo and kiva. Show students photos or illustrations of pueblo houses and the kivas in them. Discuss the southwest area of the U.S. where Pueblo people are from, focusing on the environment and climate. Explain to students that pueblo houses are made from adobe, a clay-like material that kept the temperature inside the house cool. Use visuals to show how pueblos are constructed somewhat like apartments, with ladders between the different levels. Typically, all of the members of an extended family would occupy one pueblo, dispersing themselves among the different levels. Explain that the kiva is like the basement of a pueblo. The kiva was used for important ceremonies and is considered a sacred space. Encourage the students to look for pueblos and kivas in the story.

Teach students about some of the basic adaptations that Pueblo peoples used to survive in their environment. Due to the dry climate in the southwest, Pueblo people used pottery to collect rainwater and store surplus food during times of drought. Corn was the staple crop, as it is a hearty plant that can be cultivated in harsher, drier conditions. Finally, review the ways that pueblo houses helped to shelter people from the heat through the use of adobe and building the pueblos into the sides of hills to provide greater shade. Tell the students that some of the characters in the book will reflect these important parts of Pueblo life.

Here's my rewrite of the "Before Reading" activities.

Before Reading Activities

Introduce the word "sacrilege." Tell students that Pueblo Indian dance is "prayer in motion" and that Pueblo Indian people dance, not for entertainment or performance, but as a way of praying. Tell them they will read about a "Dance of Life" that McDermott made up.

Preview the vocabulary words from the book: pueblo and kiva. Tell the students there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, each with its own ways of doing things, from cooking to praying to stories they tell, and that prior to the arrival of Europeans, there were a lot more Pueblos, but that due to warfare and disease, the number of Pueblos decreased. Tell students that the Pueblo Indians were prosperous traders with their own forms of governments and that today, they continue to govern their people and maintain their status as sovereign nations.

Tell students that a kiva is a place of worship and teaching. Tell them that Christian missionaries thought the Pueblo Indians were pagans and persecuted them for praying, that they filled kivas with sand and built Christian churches on top of the kivas to prevent the Pueblo people from going to their kivas. Tell them that the US government had policies that prevented them from doing their dances.

Tell them the Pueblo peoples led the first successful overthrow of an oppressive invading regime in what came to be called the United States of America (Thanks, JM, for asking for clarification). To learn more about it, they can do research on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Tell them that, today, the Pueblo peoples continue their dances, and they protect and maintain their kivas much like any religious order does with their sacred spaces. (Note: kivas are not like a basement, located underneath a pueblo. Some extend below ground level; some do not. Some are circular in shape; others are rectangular. The person who wrote the 'before reading' activity suggests that a pueblo is a building. That is incorrect. The word pueblo is Spanish in origin, and it means village. Each Pueblo had/has many buildings.)

Here's the "After Reading Activities"

After Reading Activities

Students can work in groups of 2-3 to use modeling clay to construct model pueblos. They can label the main parts of the pueblo: kiva, ladders, sleeping space, outdoor cooking area. As a shared writing activity, students can write a paragraph about the adaptations that Pueblo people used to adapt to their environment. This should be a whole group exercise with the teacher transcribing student ideas into complete sentences and correct paragraph structure. Finally, students can paint or draw a mural on butcher paper that shows the southwest environment as a backdrop for the clay pueblos. Display the artwork in the classroom. As different Native American groups are studied, students can construct similar scenes to display as comparison.

Read other Native American folktales to the students, notably those by Paul Goble, such as Buffalo Woman. (Goble has written an extensive collection of Native American stories from many different tribes). Using a Venn Diagram, compare and contrast the similarities and differences between Arrow to the Sun and these other stories. Alternatively, or in addition, compare and contrast Arrow to the Sun with other Pueblo stories. Guiding questions:

  • How are the characters different and how are they similar?
  • What challenge(s) does the main character face?
  • How does the character solve his/her problem?
  • How does the story teach you about this group's way of life?

Stage a dramatic presentation of Arrow to the Sun. Choose two to three students to be narrators. Rewrite the text for beginner readers or help them memorize their parts of the text. Some students can be actors and the rest can play instruments and provide other sound effects and music. Rehearse the production and present it to other classes and parents.

And here's my rewrite. It's all in red text...

After Reading Activities

Students can work in groups of 2-3 to compose a letter to McDermott, asking him about his book and if he has rethought the way he wrote that book. Has he, for example, changed his approach to the ways that he tells the stories of other people? If he could rewrite Arrow, what changes would he make? They can write to Weston Woods, asking them to rewrite their Discussion Guide, and they can write to Scholastic, asking them to take the Weston Woods guide off their website.

Students can share what they learned about the Pueblo Revolt.

Students can read essays on this site about Turkey Girl: A Zuni Cinderella Story, written by Penny Pollock, and Dragonfly's Tale, written by Kristina Rodanas, and write to Pollock and Rodanas, asking them if there are any changes they would make to the stories they wrote.

Read other Native American folktales to the students, notably those by Paul Goble, such as Buffalo Woman. (Goble has written an extensive collection of Native American stories from many different tribes). His stories have been criticized by the tribes whose stories he retells (Note: consider teaching children the word 'appropriation' and what it means.) Give students a copy of Doris Seale's essay about Goble and discuss it with them. The essay is on page 158 of A Broken Flute, available from Oyate for $37 in paperback.

Do not stage a dramatic presentation of Arrow to the Sun.

I think that's it... There's a lot more that can and should be done, but that's what I've got for today. I INVITE YOUR FEEDBACK! Use the comments option, or write to me at debreese at illinois dot edu. Previous posts about McDermott's book are: McDermott made up the "Dance of Life" in ARROW TO THE SUN Gerald McDermott's ARROW TO THE SUN


Tina Dawley said...

Wow...I remember you going over this book...we skipped my children's book fair this year (too busy), but I bet the book was there...

Debbie Reese said...

Martina and others,

Do you think people realize the irony in McDermott making up a dance, given the historical context that we were persecuted and prohibited from doing our dances?

Delux said...

I was just talking to an elder a couple of weeks ago who told me how he and his folks had to go hide in the woods to do their traditional dances when he was a child, after they had been banned. The irony is deep.

Excellent post.

ccomfort said...

Thank you, Debbie, for keeping us all informed as to the continued, grossly negligent, (mis)representation of so many aspects of native life. It is tragic that McDermott is an "award winner" author who will make money off of this travesty. I teach Children's Lit and make sure all of my students know about your site and Oyate.

Suzi Steffen said...

Debbie, super post! Hope you don't mind if I link it on FB (or Twitter? Or both? So many options.). I especially think the rewrites are useful, as is the description of it as a fantasy. I wonder if there might be something in "Students will learn about two other writers who also misrepresent Pueblo Indian people" that could be turned around too, to "students will learn about two other writers who also misrepresent Pueblo Indian people and two writers from the culture who represent their people with accuracy" or something similar? Yes, here are the failures, but here are some things you can learn that are accurate and good (also adding income to those writers' pockets and encouraging publishers to keep on going). What do you think?

Debbie Reese said...


Thanks, Suzi! Definitely link it on FB and Twitter.

Books for this age group that present Pueblo people accurately?

Good question. In fact, I know of only one collection of Pueblo stories that I think is good: Pablita Velarde's OLD FATHER STORYTELLER. Outside of a Native writer, I can't think of a non-Native writer that has put out a Pueblo story that I'd recommend. Joe Hayes the storyteller has made a big mess of things, too. It seems to me he's left Native story behind, though, and is now telling Latino/a stories.

For the most part, Native writers are writing stories set in the present. They don't flock to traditional stories. There are exceptions, but that's what they are: exceptions.

It seems that Native writers are writing realistic fiction, and some historical fiction.

So... I'd recommend, instead of ARROW or TURKEY GIRL or DRAGONFLY, some of my favorites:

Leitich Smith's JINGLE DANCER




Cheryl Savageau's MUSKRAT WILL BE SWIMMING is terrific... It includes a traditional story, told within the story.

Doctor Science said...

Very thought-provoking! As the parent of a middle-schooler in an *extremely* religious-diverse community, though, I have no idea how a teacher could define "sacrilege" that does not privilege the feelings of the religious over those of the atheists (of which my community also includes many).

Neither of my children (the current 7th grader nor the one in college) ever encountered "Arrow to the Sun", as it happens. I don't know if this is because of problems such as the ones you discuss, or mere coincidence.

Beverly Slapin said...

Awesome post, Debbie! (I could expect no less from you.)

A few years ago, Barbara Wall and I challenged McDermott at a breakout session of a large "multicultural" conference, where he had been a keynote speaker and was being all self-congratulatory about how sensitive he was and how grateful the Pueblo people were to him for writing and illustrating this "traditional" story. He told the audience that it was being used in reading programs for Pueblo children "all over the Pueblos," and that the elders were so grateful to him for "bringing back this story." Yes, he really said all that.

Barbara stood up and roundly chastised him for appropriating traditional stories, and asked him if he had ever considered making books of traditional Irish stories. He responded by telling her that, since she's an Indian, she's free to make her own books of traditional Indian stories. And Barbara responded that she tells only the stories she's gotten permission to tell from her own (Potawatomi) people.

He responded by snickering at "cultural copyright," and that's when I jumped in.

It wasn't enough. The audience booed us and told us to shut up and sit down. These were all teachers and librarians who wanted to hear McDermott's suggestions for teaching ARROW TO THE SUN. They wanted to hear him talk about his "inspirations," and that's what they got from him.

After we challenged him, for the rest of the conference, not one person came to the Oyate book table. Not only did we sell no books for the rest of the conference, but no one even wanted to talk with us.

This was a pretty humiliating and humbling experience, but it strengthened our resolve.

Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain said...

Thank you! Yours is a model student assignment all right - mind if I quote it for Maine teachers still using Sign of the the Beaver?? That showed up in our Scholastic Book Fair this year again. I believe I have the Teacher's Guide somewhere - will take the time to go through it with red ink.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, Debbie and everyone—

In my previous writing, I misremembered and therefore misstated a piece of the story about Barbara Wall's and my encounter with McDermott at the "multicultural" conference. What really happened was this:

After Barbara began to discuss McDermott's appropriation of Indian stories, he made a snide remark about "cultural copyright," and then said this:

"Since I'm Irish American, I own the cultural copyright to all Irish stories (pause for chuckles from the audience), and I hereby give YOU permission (pause for more chuckles from the audience) to retell and publish any Irish stories that strike your fancy (pause, self-satisfied smile, at which point entire audience turns to face Barbara.)"

It was at this point that Barbara responded that she tells only the stories from her own people, with permission from her elders. When she started to talk about her grandfather's being incarcerated at Carlisle, where his language and stories were taken away from him, the audience told her to shut up.

Barbara was so furious, she was visibly shaking. When I stood up and attempted to continue what Barbara was trying to say, the audience started booing and told us both to shut up.

We could see a smile—actually a leer—spread across McDermott's face as he stood at the podium, self-satisfied, knowing that, one more audience of teachers and librarians would believe that, through his beneficence, Pueblo children would learn their own traditional stories.


Saints and Spinners said...

Beverly, I feel terrible for what you and Barbara had to deal with at the McDermott conference.

There is a prevailing idea that what applies to one cultural group applies across the board to all cultural groups. As a storyteller, I know to be respectful of all traditions, but I also know specifically that the stories of different Native American nations and of Aboriginal Australians belong to specific communities and should not be retold without permission. Other stories from other traditions may be different, but there is no "one size fits all" rule, as any armchair anthropologist knows.

Thank you for the good work that you do.

Unknown said...

OK. I understand misrepresenting the customs of the Pueblo culture. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to do a compare/contrast with my 8th grade Language Arts students. Could you recommend a similar book with accurate information on the Pueblo culture that I could use for a compare/contrast? This would be a great skill building activity for my kids while at the same time, educating them to the anomalies present in children's literature.

Debbie Reese said...


I suggest you see what Pueblo writers write about. It would be interesting to discuss ARROW, using the discussion I provided here, and then read Simon Ortiz's THE PEOPLE SHALL CONTINUE. He's a Pueblo man, from Acoma Pueblo. He's a poet, has read at the White House. Most of his work is for adult readers, not children. THE PEOPLE SHALL CONTINUE is a picture book.

Unknown said...

Debbie Reese,

Thank you for your critique of the Arrow to the Sun. I would appreciate if you suggested some tales or stories that might be appropriate for children. I've read the blog and respect your position. But it could have been of more assistance if your critiuqe suggested proper reading materials, or acutal ways in which I could teach a 1st or 2nd grader about "Pueblo" people.

mariflies said...

I thought this critique was thought provoking. I have issue with the anger, only in that anger breeds anger and we're not going to get anywhere putting people on the defensive rather than instructing. There is also a misrepresentation in your critique. The Pueblo Revolt was against the Spanish. The 'oppressive invading regime' was Spain. The US didn't enter the picture for another 50 years or so. And at the beginning of the US arrival they brought a lot of needed trade, opening the Santa Fe trail, and bringing more wealth into New Mexico. This also helped NM to get more representation in Mexico City and Spain- where the oppressive Spanish regime was headquartered. I also live in New Mexico and understand that Arrow to the Sun is not a traditional Pueblo tale - and completely agree that it should not be touted as such. But we can't right a wrong with wrong information and anger.

Debbie Reese said...


I see why you thought I made an error...

I've got a paragraph about what kivas are, and in that paragraph, I talk about what the Christian missionaries did (that'd be the Catholic friars from Spain, specifically) and what the U.S. did later (prevent us from dancing).

My next paragraph says the Pueblo peoples overthrew an oppressive invading regime. Because the previous paragraph ends with U.S. policies, you interpreted the oppressive regime to be the U.S. But it was, in fact, Spain.

The US was, in fact, an oppressive regime, too. You say they brought wealth into New Mexico? Perhaps, but isn't that a bit of a gloss? It seems you may be trying to frame U.S. policy and activity in a positive way, when at root, it was a land grab.

Unknown said...

This was a very insightful essay and valid in its assessment of the book. As a kid it was one of my favorite books to look at. The illustrations are breathtaking to me still to this day. The message and text was all but secondary to me as a child because I was more interested in the visual beauty. Even as a child I never assumed it to be a history lesson in actual native life. Yes it is sad that it is full of errors and ideally it would be an accurate story but in my opinion it should and will remain in the class room to inspire kids like myself to grow up and be artists.

Sam Jonson said...

May I suggest something for that rewrite? It's something that someone else suggested that people do with Tikki Tikki Tembo, that bootleg Asian folktale (or should I say, a shanzhai folktale?). Change all of the nationalities and loanwords (Pueblo, kiva, etc.) in the book to completely made-up ones like "In the faraway land of Alayayx" and "the sacred morgon". That will make it into the fairy tale that the author should have made it.

TheYogiYouthLibrarian said...

First, thank you for all of the wonderful work you do in guiding, informing and teaching. As a school librarian who is not part of the many diverse cultures that are represented in my collection, it is critical that I find reliable guidance from authentic sources.

I had a question, I wondered if you sent these revisions to the readers guide directly to Scholastic, and if so, how was it received? This post was made close to 10 years ago, and I still located the exact same reader's guide on the Scholastic website.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. Im from Canada and I've started an online children's bookstore. I want it to be multicultural and inclusive. I remembered this book growing up so I ordered it for my inventory. Now I will add a note before people purchase this book.

I'm black and I know of many instances when my peoples history was written inaccurately. I will be more aware and cautious from now on.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this essay. A decade later and it is still being used in classrooms, confronting Pueblo children in districts in New Mexico that you'd think might know better by now.