Wednesday, July 22, 2009

About Paul Goble and his books...

I get a lot of questions about Paul Goble. Are his books accurate? Reliable? I have not studied them myself, but can refer you to the works of two Native women: Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Doris Seale.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a Crow Creek Sioux poet, novelist, and scholar and she is one of the founding editors of Wicazo Sa, one of the leading journals in American Indian Studies. In her essay "American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story" Cook-Lynn writes (p. 117-118):

A transplanted Englishman, Paul Goble, who lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a time and married a woman from Sturgis, South Dakota, with whom he has a child, has been the most intrepid explorer of this genre [children's stories about Indians] in recent times. He has taken Iktomi (or Unktomi) stories, the star stories, and the creation myths of the Sioux, a vast body of philosophical and spiritual knowledge about the universe, to fashion twenty or more storybooks for children ages 3 to 14 which he, himself, has illustrated in a European aesthetic and style. Now living in Minnesota, he has successfully used several people as "informants," including a popular hoop dancer, Kevin Locke, who lives on one of the South Dakota Indian reservations. It is no wonder, when Native cultural philosophy and religion are used to entertain and inform white American children, that the idea of "Indian Intellectualism" in America is dismissed.
Goble takes his place not alongside, but a step ahead of those other white writers of children's stories who, knowingly or not, have long trivialized the rather sophisticated notions the Lakotas have held about the universe for thousands of years.
[C]onsidering the vast ignorance the average person has concerning native intellectualism, the non-Lakota speaking Englishman's interpretation of the native Lakota/Dakota world-view and spirituality through the lens of his own language and art is, at the very least, arrogant.

It has not occurred to anyone, least of all Goble himself, to ask why it is that tribal writers, except in carefully managed instances, have chosen not to use these stories commercially. If one were to inquire about that, one would have to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of who owns bodies of knowledge and literature. That is a difficult exploration in a capitalistic democracy that suggests anything can be bought and sold. Many white American critics refuse to enter into this debate, believe Native American literature and knowledge cannot "belong" to any single group. A discussion of who "transmits" and who "produces" usually follows.

Cook-Lynn's essay is in Devon Mihesuah's Natives and Academics, published in 1998 by the University of Nebraska Press. She's written several books and essays, including a recent article in Indian Country Today about Ward Churchill, who, by the way, is not Native: Lessons of Churchill fiasco: Indian studies needs clear standards.

Doris Seale is Santee/Cree/Abenaki and a co-founder of Oyate. In 2001, she received the American Library Association's Equality Award for her life's work. The essay I'm excerpting from below appears in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Seale and Slapin. In the essay, Seale writes (p. 158-160):

In the beginning at least, there seemed to be some understanding, and some humility about the fact that he was venturing into a world that he could never more than partially comprehend.
Whether Goble has reacted to an increasing insistence in the Native community that it is time for us to tell our own stories, or at the very least that they should be told accurately, or to criticism of himself specifically is unclear, but as a young friend put it, "Man, something happened to him!" His work has come with increasingly longer lists of references, mostly to ethnographic texts from the late 19th- and early 20th Centuries, as a sort of justification. Lately, Goble has been specializing in Iktomi stories--Iktomi, for those who may not know, being the Lakota "trickster" figure. The introductory material in these books, "About Iktomi," gives the impression that Goble has come to believe in his entitlement to do pretty much what he wants to with any of our stories, and that the result should be beyond criticism. In Iktomi Loses His Eyes, a "Note to the Reader" tells us that "there is no 'authentic' version of these stories. The only rule in telling them is to include certain basic themes."
In the author's note to the Bison edition of Brave Eagle's Account of the Fetterman Fight (1992) Goble said this:

"I wrote the book for Indian children because I wanted them to know about and to feel proud of the courage of their ancestors. I have written all my books primarily with Indian children in mind..."

Assuming, apparently, along with many anthropologists, that we have so lost our traditions, cultures and histories that we must be taught them by a white person.

There is no reconciliation for us to the things that have been done to us, to the things that are believed about us, to the fact that, even now, there is nothing of ours that is not fair game. If some white person wants it, there is nothing precious or sacred enough not to be touched.

Is it necessary to say, in the 21st Century, that this is not right?

I am fairly certain that every elementary school and public library has at least one of Goble's books on the shelf, and I'm sure that they circulate pretty well.

I suggest to librarians, when one of them is torn or dirty, that you remove the book and NOT replace it. There are better choices, and readers in your libraries should have those books instead.

I know, I know.... As your eyes read over my words, you are thinking about the Library Bill of Rights, and free speech, and all of those things that America privileges.

Nonetheless, I encourage you to think about what Cook-Lynn and Seale wrote, and give this some thought.


Betsy McEntarffer said...

Once again you have answered our prayers - as our 60 Media Specialists weed their collections, they ask what to do about Goble's books (mostly because I've spoken about Doris Seale's comments on Goble so often.) If it is appropriate use of your site, I'd like to print both Elizabeth Cook-Lynn's and Doris Seale's comments so that when they ask I can just hand them the printout. I always refer them to your site (and print this source on the article) and Oyate's site but I know some of them will not find the time to do that and I want them to read it from the source.
We would not be publishing, changing or otherwise using the article in any way but as educational information. If this is not what you'd like me to do, please advise.
Again, thanks for always tackling the tough questions with grace and thoroughness.
Betsy McEntarffer

Debbie Reese said...


Yes, please go ahead and print my post about Goble and share it with others.


Anonymous said...

There is something deeply unsettling about the criticism of Goble's books to me. I don't know the man, myself, and I cannot say what his intentions were, but what I do know is that his books have been a great source of interest for my son who is fascinated by Native American culture and the inherent wisdom in its teachings.

At his age (gradeschool), he immediately saw the paradox of a government based on freedom and equality (supposedly) that fought a war costing half a million lives (the Civil War) essentially free slaves, and then to have the commanding general (Grant) act as president during the attempts at completely annihilating the plains nations. It was through Gobles books that he learned of this outrage.

I don't wish to accuse anyone of reverse bias against Goble because he is English and not a Native American, or to say I have any sort of vantage point to say whether he has stolen or taken liberties with Lakota or Cheyenne stories. Still, it is a fact that oral traditions, as most Native American stories are, can be subject to variations inherent in their being passed on from one generation to the next without the definitive texts being written down. The underlying theme of Goble's works, as I see them is to express the dignity of the plains nations and in some of his works, the way in which they were wronged.

The telling of stories as though they are being told by Native Americans is a writing vehicle that brings the reader closer to the story. I don't see the arrogance in his writing style that some critics have mentioned, either. He appears to me to have done a decent job of presenting basic aspects of the culture of the plains nations in a very positive light - and his nationality ought not be a mark against him.

As to his art, I think it is simplistic, but to my son it appears to express the stories in ways that the words cannot - as he is dyslexic, and has difficulty reading. In this way, he is somewhat like a child of one of the nations that was without a written language - his learning is more effective if it is visual, not necessarily written.

The 21st Century offers us all the opportunity to start off with different attitudes about Native Americans. We cannot undue the injustice of the past - far past, or recent past. We cannot bring back the dead or the buffalo herds.

To speak to the nationality issue, there are very few of us who have been here more than a generation or two who can claim to be entirely one nationality or another. Personally, I have ancestors from at least 5 Eurpoean countries that I know of in the past 200-years. Likewise, many Native American authorities are not entirely of native blood.

We can try to bring justice to Leonard Pelitier and others who have suffered from the prejudice of the American government, but we cannot undue the injustice of 400-years. Ultimately we have to look forward. We can do this best if we stop looking for reasons to be negative and point out the obvious imperfections of those whose best intentions are good.

I am delighted when I see Native Americans furthering their pride in their heritage, and I applaud the successes. I try to purchase directly from Native Americans when I buy art or craft pieces, so I am compensating the people whose heritige it represents, and not those who exploit them. I have contributed to Native American causes, and while it is certainly no compensation, I am ashamed of the abuses the government has brought down upon the Native American people.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! I've been trying to find a review of Goble/his books for some time (can't afford A Broken Flute yet, or I'd have found it sooner).
I plan to homeschool my kids and finding appropriate, readable books about American Indians written or approved by the different respective American Indian people they're written about is a goal of mine.
I noticed Goble's books a long time ago, (as they're popular, usually a bad sign), but was unable to find any definitive info about him and the only thing I really accepted as truth from Wikipedia was that he was born in England, another negative. However, Joseph Bruchac also writes about nations/peoples he's not part of and his books are generally accepted. I know this is a different situation, as Mr. Bruchac is Abenaki, but I've tried to absorb the admonition that one can't lump different Native peoples into one "American Indian" identity, so being Abenaki doesn't mean he's an expert about all other peoples he writes about.

On another note, I understand the want for privacy and not wanting to provide more cultural details that will then be abused, but it is helpful when you suggest alternatives so people can at least try to properly educate themselves about other peoples. It's not always possible to look up every single other group of people and find the right info amidst the abundant trash, especially without any first-person connection.

Again, I really appreciate all the reviews: positive, negative and ambiguous.

John R. Sweet said...

I'm saddened by this discussion, and by the journal articles that prompted it. As a educator and historian of over 25 years of eerie cd, I see no correlation between race and the quality of art or historical or cultural literature. Goble has done a great job of using the 19th c. "Ledger book" style of drawing to portray a variety of Lakota historical and mythical stories, brilliantly, faithfully and respectfully. The disapproval expressed in the journal articles is, I assert, born more of professional jealousy than any genuine fear of cultural appropriation. What a grim world this would be if we held that only white historians could write about the Constitutional Convention, only African American writers could cover slavery and only Jewish writers could discuss the Holocaust. Gobble writes and illustrates stories that are part of a shared global heritage and he has been fascinating me since I was in kindergarten. To drop his marvelous work down an Orwellian memory hole because he has chosen to tell stories from outside of his personal ethnic heritage is, well, frightening. I hope that librarians and educators that are that earnestly committed to censorship for dubious culturally correctives reasons are a rarity. I fear that they are not. I celebrate the fine work of Paul Goble despite his wasichu pedigree and seek only to tell him personally how influential he has been upon my own scholarship.

Laura W. said...

Thank you so much for these references - I just took a new position as a library director and we are doing quite a bit of weeding - Goble's books were sitting on our shelves, so I went on the hunt for more info on him and was so grateful to find this post. It was very helpful to hear the well-researched and considered perspectives from indigenous scholars. Goble's gone! We're replacing with items from this fabulous list: (I'm in Canada).

Debbie Reese said...


That IBBY publication is excellent. I was delighted to learn about it a few years ago and to finally meet (in person) the people who worked on it. A library with those books is one I'd want Native families to go to! They'd find books that accurately reflect Native people.