Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book trailer: ENCOUNTER by Jane Yolen

In recent years, book trailers are taking off. They are like book talks teachers and librarians do when they're pitching a book to readers, but because book trailers are videos, they can incorporate music and imagery.

But just like book talks, if the person giving the talk does not have a critical eye with respect to the way that American Indians are portrayed, the product (book talk or book trailer) will be flawed and will contribute to the misinformation and misperceptions children--and adults--have about American Indians.

Case in point is the book trailer for Jane Yolen's book, Encounter. The on-screen text that is superimposed on the book pages says "Today the Tainos are all gone." As an American Indian mother, I wonder how Taino parents would react to that line? As a professor in American Indian Studies, and a former schoolteacher with a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, I do not recommend Yolen's book.

Jean Mendoza wrote an excellent essay about Encounter. Her essay is in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. If you don't have it, order A Broken Flute from Oyate.

Are you, perhaps, surprised that I object to that line ("Today the Tainos are all gone")? History and American society have told you that Native people are all gone. So, don't feel bad that you don't know that the Tainos are still here. The widespread idea that the Tainos were wiped out can change, if you take some time to learn a little bit about them.

Among the Taino people whose work I read and follow is Jose Barreiro. He is Assistant Director for Research at the National Museum of the American Indian. He helped get the American Indian Program launched at Cornell University and has written several books.

He recently gave a lecture titled "A Call to Consciousness on Climate Change." Watch his lecture (below), and then give some thought to whether or not---or how---you will use Yolen's book.


jpm said...

Dr. Barreiras has published an article that persuasively discusses the actual survival of the Taino into contemporary times -- see

This article also sheds light on something that was previously puzzling to me. Dr. Barreiros explains 20th century "scholarly"/political roots of ideas that seem to me to be reflected in the basic premise of Encounter -- that the Taino disappeared for reasons that were mainly their own fault. According to one perspective in anthropology they were maltreated, sure, but mostly they assimilated! For a non-anthro like me, this is a real find. And I quote (from Jose Barreiros):
"The existence of an Indian population and identity in Cuba was vehemently denied for most of the twentieth century, primarily by the Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz. A liberal professor of Hispanic ancestry, Ortiz saw the question of Indian identity as a ploy by the right wing to obfuscate black issues. Deeply conversant in all the social sciences, Ortiz was limited by a Havana base and by a purist, "bell jar" anthropological perspective of Indian-ness. This perspective maintains that American Indians cease to be "real" Indians as they adapt Western tools and methods. Indian "cultures" are assumed frozen at the moment of contact with "the West." Although he framed the theme of "transculturation" in Cuban letters, Ortiz provided the tree of Cuban multiethnicity with a strictly Ibero-African trunk. The assertion became that all Cuban Indians, purportedly a weak and timid people, were exterminated by 1550. " Those Cuban "Indians" were (and are) Taino, says Barreiros, who clearly contests the Oriz perspective.

A critical reading of "Encounter" uncovers some of Ortiz' identity politics, put by the author into the mouth of a supposedly "Taino" narrator.

A different (1990) article by Dr. Barreiros provides a huge amount of information about the earliest years of Spanish/indigenous interactions on the various Caribbean islands.

If the young trailer-maker had read Barreiros' article prior to creating that Encounter trailer, the video might have looked very different. If s/he made the video in the context of a course, it's too bad the instructor was not knowledgeable enough to question the view of indigenous people presented in Encounter. That article can be found at
Recommended reading!

wordharbor said...

Thank you for sharing Dr. Barreiras's article. I am planning to use Yolen's ENCOUNTER with my sixth grade students as they study figurative language in connection to their social studies unit on explorers; however, now that I've read Barreiras's article, I will be sure to share with my students what I've learned. This is a perfect example for teaching critical reading and thinking skills. And that not everything written in print and published by an author they are familiar with and like, is necessarily 100% accurate. Thanks!