Friday, June 12, 2009

"Native Literary Nationalism and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Simon Ortiz's Books for Youth"

Eds. Note: Today, friend and colleague Tom Crisp, assistant professor at the University of South Florida, will read a paper I wrote for the 36th Annual Children's Literature Association Conference. I opted to stay on-task with my book manuscript rather than attend the conference. I miss it, though, as I imagine the goings-on there yesterday, today, and tomorrow. My paper is one of four papers in the panel on Linguistic Diversity in Children's and Young Adult Literature. Last year was the first time I attended the conference. It was terrific to meet so many people with whom I've corresponded over the last ten years. My paper title is "Native Literary Nationalism and Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Simon Ortiz's Books for Youth." I'm sharing the paper here, today, on AICL. If you're at ChLA and want to respond to it, I hope you do so there, in the room where the panel is speaking, but I hope you'll also comment here, or, write to me directly.


I am sorry not to be with you today, to deliver this paper myself. I thank Dr. Tom Crisp for agreeing to read it for me. The paper is in first person, so remember that these are my words, not Tom’s. I preface my paper with some reflection and observation. The goal of this paper is to bring a Native perspective to ChLA. I will do that in two ways. First, I will briefly turn my lens on the association itself, and then, I will introduce you to an Acoma writer and poet named Simon Ortiz. First, my perspective on ChLA.

The theme of this year’s conference is “The Best of Three.” The program reads:
In the world of children's literature, the number three has special connotations. The third pig has the best house, the third wish is the best wish, and the third bear always has the best stuff. Thus, the theme for the 2009 conference is "The Best of Three."
Those words prompted some questions for me. In what world of children’s literature is three an important number? Is it an important number in what Nancy Larrick called the “all white world of children’s literature”? Three is not the number with special connotations in Native Nations. Our special number is four. Note, too, “best house” and “best wish” and “best stuff” in the program. Best for... whom? Why does best matter? It sounds like the American Dream. It makes me think of Perry Nodelman’s writings about assumptions. What assumptions does the theme reflect?

Native people are not new to ChLA. A Narragansett woman was at the very first conference in 1974, but she wasn’t there to give a paper. She was the entertainment at the banquet. That is, she was a storyteller. Her name was Princess Redwing. Given that notions of royalty were placed onto Native societies by Europeans, the word “princess” always gives me pause. From a 1997 article in the Providence Journal, I learned that Princess Red Wing was named Mary Congdon. She died in 1987 at the age of 92. The newspaper article says, “she was taught that her family descended from the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes” (see notes 1 and 2, below). I am troubled by phrases she used and stories she told. From my perspective, they play to an audience that reveres the image of the romantic Indian. As a Native woman and scholar studying literatures and representation at this moment in time, I am, perhaps too often, critical of activities by Native peoples whose work affirmed—and affirms—negative or positive stereotypes that I view as harmful to our well-being as Native peoples in the present day. I want different stories, ones that make the reader uncomfortable, ones that replace the savage or romantic Indian with Native peoples of the past and present who were and are intellectuals and diplomats. Instead, it seems to me that a lot of people choose to tell what the field of children’s literature calls myths and folktales. Some turn to archived stories as their sources. There is a wealth of material for them to look into, but a lot of it was gathered in the 1800s and early 1900s by individuals who interpreted the material from an outsider’s perspective. In some instances, I think it is fair to say that their informants were tricksters. Case in point: Elsie Clews Parsons was a Smithsonian anthropologist working amongst the Pueblo Indians in the 1920s. In the preface to her monograph, she wrote:

Information from San Ildefonso was least satisfactory. The women were particularly timid and not well informed; the man was a threefold liar, lying from secretiveness, from his sense of burlesque, and from sheer laziness. (p. 7)

Though she does not say, I assume Parsons did not use information provided by the man from San Ildefonso, but I wonder how she knows that the information from her other informants was ok? My point is that these archived stories may not be a reliable resource. Anyone that wants to use these archives must do so with a critical lens, developed by reading journals used in American Indian studies and books published by presses specializing in Native Studies.

But, back to Princess Red Wing. I purposefully said that she was the entertainment at the banquet. I have been asked many times to come tell stories at this or that gathering. I reply that I am not a storyteller who tells Native stories, but I would be happy to give a talk about Pueblo Indians and our history. At that point, the invitation is withdrawn. Americans want performing Indians who can entertain them with myths and legends. Stories are one way, in fact, that people educate others. A lot of what is marketed as American Indian stories may be well written from an aesthetic viewpoint, but all my selves—the mother, the schoolteacher, the professor—want more than well-written stories. I want stories that accurately convey who American Indians were, and are—emphasis on the word are—in all our humanity.

As a society, America knows very little about American Indians and the things that we care about. So, you might wonder, what do I think is the most important thing about American Indians that children should learn? That we are sovereign nations; that we are political entities, not ethnic or racial ones. With the rise of multicultural education and the call for multicultural literature, American Indians were categorized as one of America’s ‘underrepresented minorities.’ And in fact, as a group, we are underrepresented, and due to our small population, we are a minority. As such, that categorization is accurate, but it obscures a great deal.

What it obscures is what I want Americans to learn. We have our own governments, constitutions, justice systems, police, and lands over which we have jurisdiction. Our tribal leaders enter into state-to-state agreements with other nations around the world. Our leaders do that today, just like they did in the 1600s and 1700s and 1800s and 1900s. Our status as nations brings me to Simon Ortiz.

In 1981, Simon Ortiz wrote an essay that Native scholars mark as a foundational text. Published in MELUS, it is called “Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism.” Ortiz is from Acoma, one of the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico. By 1981, he had written several acclaimed stories, books, and poems. The year prior to the publication of his MELUS essay, he had read at the “White House Salute to Poetry and American Poets.” He begins the MELUS essay by talking about celebrations and names at Acoma: Fiesta. Juana. Pedro. Anticipating his reader’s questions as to why Acoma Indians have a fiesta and why they use Spanish words and names, he offers this explanation:
[T]his celebration speaks of the creative ability of Indian people to gather in many forms of the socio-political colonizing force which beset them and to make these forms meaningful in their own terms. In fact, it is a celebration of the human spirit and the Indian struggle for liberation.
The socio-political colonizing force he is talking about is the arrival of the Europeans, and the celebration is a creative response to colonization that took place across the US and Canada:
[I]n every case where European culture was cast upon Indian people of this nation there was similar creative response and development… [T]his [creative ability] was the primary element of a nationalistic impulse to make use of foreign ritual, ideas, and material in their own—Indian—terms. Today’s writing by Indian authors is a continuation of that elemental impulse.
Without these creative responses, Ortiz writes, those hard experiences “would be driven into the dark recesses of the indigenous mind and psyche.” This, he says, is poison, and a detriment to growth. Through prayer, song, and story, Native peoples make meaning and meaningfulness, as we work towards maintaining our Nationhood and identity as sovereign Native Nations. And that, he says, is what literature is about. In Reinventing the Enemy’s Language (1997), acclaimed Mvskoke Creek author, poet, and musician Joy Harjo (author of The Good Luck Cat) says:
When our lands were colonized the language of the colonizer was forced on us. It was when we began to create with this new language that we named it ours, made it usefully tough and beautiful. (p. 23-24)
Native writers, Ortiz says, acknowledge:
…a responsibility to advocate for their people’s self-government, sovereignty, and control of land and resources; and to look also at racism, political and economic oppression, sexism, supremacism, and the needless and wasteful exploitation of land and people, especially in the U.S.
In his picture books for children, Ortiz takes that new language and uses it and his own Native tongue to advocate for community, and, to look at racism and oppression. Throughout, he emphasizes the well-being of community, and the connection to land and culture.

His first book, The People Shall Continue was published in 1977 by Children’s Book Press. As you know, the sixties and seventies were marked by social unrest. While everyone knows about the work of African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, few know that Native peoples were very active, too. They occupied Alcatraz Island, Wounded Knee, and, federal buildings in Washington DC. This activism was designed to draw attention to treaty violations and treatment of American Indians. At that time, Simon Ortiz was living in the Bay Area. Harriet Rohmer, founding publisher of Children’s Book Press was there, too, helping out at the Native American Survival School. She wanted to do a book of interviews of Native teens talking about their lives and their thoughts about the future. This, she thought, would go a long way to countering the perception that Indians had vanished. She talked with school leaders about her book idea, but they expressed concern for the students, saying the raw qualities of their stories, in print form, might hurt them. Bill Wahpepah suggested she get a “university Indian” [3] to do the book, and to that end, he helped her get in touch with Simon Ortiz.

When Rohmer met with Ortiz, he talked at length about survival, and then he began work on the manuscript that would become The People Shall Continue. Given its content, the book was and is hailed as an honest history of colonization in North America. Doris Seale, an Abenaki/Santee Dakota-Cree librarian said “If you give only one book about Native peoples to your young children, let this be the one.”[4] Ortiz begins the first page in this way:
Many, many years ago, all things came to be.
The stars, rocks, plants, rivers, animals.
Mountains, sun, moon, birds, all things.
And the People were born.
Some say, “From the ocean.”
Some say, “From a hollow log.”
Some say, “From an opening in the ground.”
Some say, “From the mountains.”
And the People came to live
in the Northern Mountains and on the Plains,
in the Western Hills and on the Seacoasts,
in the Southern Deserts and in the Canyons,
in the Eastern Woodlands and on the Piedmonts. (2)

Eloquently, Ortiz tells us that there is more than one creation story. He acknowledges the presence of indigenous Peoples throughout the hemisphere, in all directions, each with their respective origins, histories, and beliefs. He privileges no one and no place. He goes on to tell us that the Peoples knew each other and had much to learn and share with each other. Without romanticizing Native peoples and our history, he continues, quietly and gently, preparing the reader for the changes to come. He writes:
[O]ne day, something unusual began to happen.
Maybe there was a small change in the wind.
Maybe there was a shift in the stars.
Maybe it was a dream that someone dreamed.
Maybe it was the strange behavior of an animal. (7)

He continues, telling us about strange men who arrived, seeking treasures and slaves and land, men causing destruction. Ortiz tells us the People fought back:
In the West, Popé called warriors from the Pueblo and Apache Nations.
In the East, Tecumseh gathered the Shawnee and the Nations of the Great Lakes,
the Appalachians, and the Ohio Valley to fight for their People.
In the Midwest, Black Hawk fought to save the Sauk (sock) and Fox Nation.
In the Great Plains, Crazy Horse led the Sioux in the struggle to keep their land.
Osceola in the Southeast, Geronimo in the Southwest, Chief Joseph in the Northwest, Sitting Bull, Captain Jack, all were warriors. (12)

How does anyone, at this point, tell children what happened next? Instead of a feel-good narrative of people living in harmony, Ortiz tells his readers the truth. Many adults feel such truths are beyond the understanding of a young child, but in Native communities, our children know these histories. Ortiz knows this, and he does not pull back from the hardships of those years as the People sought to protect their sovereignty. Ortiz writes:
From the 1500s to the late years of the 1800s,
The People fought for their lives and lands.
In battle after battle, they fought until they grew weak.
Their food supplies were gone, and their warriors were killed or imprisoned.(13)

From there, Ortiz goes on to talk of treaties. Reservations. Promises broken. Government agents. Boarding schools. Relocation. Poverty. But, he does not use the word “plight” nor does he draw on “tragic Indian” tropes. Instead, he tells his readers that parents told their children:
“You are Shawnee. You are Lakota.
You are Pima. You are Acoma.
You are Tlingit. You are Mohawk.
You are all these Nations of the People.”
And, he says, the People told each other stories:,
These are the stories and these are the songs.
This is our heritage.
And the children listened. (18)

Note the last line: “And the children listened.” A simple, yet powerful statement that conveys his confidence in children and the purpose that storytelling serves in a Native community.

Survival and well being depend on caring for each other. That caring ethic is seen in Ortiz’s second children’s book Blue and Red, published in 1981 by the Pueblo of Acoma Press. The title of the book refers to two horses who are brothers. In the story, Red challenges his older brother, Blue, to a race. With longer legs, Blue could easily get to the top of the mesa before Red, but, instead, he makes decisions that allow them to safely reach the top of the mesa together. Blue is living what he has been taught, which is responsibility to others and by extension, to the well-being of the community. It is that responsibility to community that is at the heart of our survival.

Ortiz had one other book published by the Pueblo of Acoma Press: The Importance of Childhood, published in 1982. The book is about games Ortiz played as a child. In it, he talks about a game most of you recall playing. “Red Rover.” But it isn’t just “Red Rover Red Rover, let Evelina come over” that is in the book. That “Red Rover” phrase is followed by “Ne baitsashru!” which in the Acoma language means “Run!” In Ortiz’s account of playing this and other childhood games, the children at AcomaPueblo people remade something from the outside into something of our own, something that reflects who we are as Pueblo people. use English and Keres. It illustrates how

His fourth book is The Good Rainbow Road, published by the University of Arizona Press in 2004. It is a trilingual book, published in English, Spanish, and Keres. The Spanish translation was done by Mayan writer, poet, and anthropologist Victor Montejo. In the Author’s Note, Ortiz says: “I was happy Professor Montejo could do it because I wanted a translation into Spanish by a Native-language speaker who knew at first-hand pertinent matters that have bearing on Spanish language use by Native people in the Americas” (n.p.). Though he does not elaborate on those first-hand matters, it is likely that Ortiz is referring to the complex history and relationships between the Pueblo peoples of the southwest and the Spanish who were the first Europeans to come into our midst. Brutal treatment by the Spanish led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 by which the Pueblo people successfully drove the Spanish out of Pueblo homelands. Upon their return, delicate negotiations took place as, over the ensuing centuries, Pueblo people adapted, rejected, and reworked Spanish influences on PuebloThe Good Rainbow Road is the story of two boys, “First One” and “Next One” whose people have forgotten about the spirits of rain and snow, the Shiwana, and hence, they are in a drought. The boys are charged with going to the Shiwana for help. Their journey is long and difficult. At one point, Next One is unable to leap over a canyon of hot lava. He sits down, crying. An old blind woman comes down the path. Forgetting his fear, he leaps up to prevent her from falling into the canyon. She thanks him and gives him a stone that, when tied to his arrow and then shot from his bow, creates a rainbow across the canyon. She tells him to climb it and continue his journey. Next One looks back, remembering from where they came and thinks of their people, and he looks to the east where the Shiwana live. Then he continues the journey on the rainbow road across the canyon. society, thereby making external forces meaningful to us on our own terms.

Though The Good Rainbow Road is not a traditional story, it has elements of traditional Native stories. These elements include beliefs in the power of language and of memory. Both are central to the existence of the human race, and both are at the core of stories all peoples tell. It is memory of what once was (a time of plenty), and what has been forgotten (to ask the Shiwana for help) that serves as the impetus for the journey of First One and Next One. It is memory of their people that helps Next One climb onto the rainbow road. It is the power of language (a belief in the words the old woman says) that creates the road that will lead to the survival of the people.

Reflecting on his body of work, Ortiz says he has a mantra: land, culture, community. As Pueblo people, we are blessed in that our traditional ways are still strong and intact. Is it because we are so rooted in land, culture, and community? While his poetry, short stories and essays are important in their own right, his writing for children demonstrates the reason we continue. It is the importance of children. Whether it is his poems about his own children, or, his stories about his own childhood, he writes about the importance of childhood.

In The People Shall Continue, the children listen. In Blue and Red, children learn to help other children, and in The Importance of Childhood, children’s play incorporates the colonizer’s language. In The Good Rainbow Road, the survival of our communities is in the hands of children. Because of story, and because of children, the People Shall Continue.


Harjo, Joy. Reinventing the Enemies Language. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Larrick, Nancy. “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Saturday Review September 1965: 63-85.

Ortiz, Simon. Blue and Red. Acoma: Pueblo of Acoma Press, 1981.

---. The Good Rainbow Road: Rawa ‘Kashtyaa’tsi Hiyaani. Tucson: University of Arizona Press,

---. The Importance of Childhood. Acoma: Pueblo of Acoma Press, 1982.

---. The People Shall Continue. Emeryville: Children’s Book Press, 1977.

---. Personal Interview. May. 2008.

---. “Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism,” in American Indian Literary Nationalism, edited by J. Weaver, C. S. Womack, and R. Warrior. Albuquerque: UNM Press. 2006.

Parsons, Elsie Clews. The Social Organization of the Tewa of New Mexico. The American Anthropological Association, 1929.

[1] See the website for more information:

[2] John Cech, Princess Red Wing: Keeper of the Past, Children's Literature - Volume 10, 1982, pp. 83-101

[3] By this time, Ortiz had been a student at the University of New Mexico and the University of Iowa. With several successful publications, he was adept at using the printed word to share Native experiences and perspectives. As such, he was well-positioned to take on the project.

[4] Her review of the book is in Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, first published in 1987. Through Indian Eyes is widely regarded as a touchstone volume in the field of children’s literature. Slapin would later be involved in the development of Ortiz’s The Good Rainbow Road.


Jill said...

Just found your blog and put The People Shall Continue on my Amazon wishlist. I would like to review it on my blog: I'll be back to visit. You've got lot's of interesting stuff. I think I could spend a week just looking around!

jpm said...

Powerful words, Deb! Wish I had been there to hear Tom read them aloud.

Children's Book Press said...

Hi there,

Thank you so much for highlighting Simon Ortiz groundbreaking book, and Children's Book Press. We've linked to this article on our blog (found on our website:

Would you mind linking back to us as well? Thank you so much!