Saturday, September 12, 2009

Who is "Mary Whitebird"

Who is Mary Whitebird?

A post to LM_NET prompted my search to see what I could find out about Mary Whitebird and a story called "Ta-Na-E-Ka." The person using that name (Mary Whitebird) wrote the story. From what I am able to determine, the story was first published in 1972 in Scholastic Voices. Since then, the short story has been published in reading textbooks for use in schools. I've found many references to the story.

For example, Carl A. Grant and Christine E. Sleeter reference it in their Turning on Learning: Five Approaches for Multicultural Teaching Plans for Race, Class, Gender and Disability, published in 2006. At the end of chapter six, "Multicultural and Social Justice Education" is a list of suggested procedures. The first item reads "Choose multicultural selections from the literature text Elements of Literature (Anderson, 2005) that highlight issues of social class and power in the United States--for example, Ta-Na-E-Ka, by Mary Whitebird" (p. 280). Later in the paragraph, they write "Each week throughout the quarter, the students will read, discuss, and explore these stories using the textbook's critical reading questions and exercises that highlight marginalized peoples' experiences with injustice. For possible extension, students could research a marginalized culture's history such as the Kaw Indians, introduced in the story Ta-Na-E-Ka, by Mary Whitebird." (p. 280).

I found the story itself on a worksheet published (and copyrighted) by the International Baccalaureate Organization in 2006.

Set in the present day, the story is about a soon-to-be eleven year old Kaw girl named Mary and her eleven year old cousin, Roger. Eleven is "a magic word" among the Kaws, because that is the year when children go through a test of endurance and survival called Ta-Na-E-Ka by which they become adults. Mary does not want to go through this ritual. She complains to her mom and her schoolteacher. Her mother tells her she'll be proud she did it, and her teacher tells her not to look down on her heritage.

According to Mary's grandfather, they should spend five days in the wilderness, naked and barefoot, living off the land. Mary's grandfather puts them through one month of training that includes how to eat grasshoppers.  Mary and Roger's parents object to the naked part, so, the children get to wear bathing suits. This all takes place somewhere along the Missouri River, in the springtime.

As I read the story, I had a lot of questions, and, like the post on LM_NET, I wondered about the author. One individual emailed me, saying that there is no biographical information in the textbook for this author. That sort of information is provided for all the other authors in the textbook. I'm hoping to get a copy of the textbook so I can see how the story is presented.

So far, all roads-of-research on 'who is Mary Whitebird' lead to the Wikipedia site that says Mary Whitebird is a pseudonym for "a writer who has long had an interest in the life of the American Indian in the late 20th century." This writer is "In reality, [...] a very private writer and film-maker who was born in Arizona." That information is followed by an explanation on why someone might assume a pen name and write Indian stories. In reply is a quote attributed to the person who writes as "Mary Whitebird."

Ever since I could remember, I've been interested in the American Indian. I went to high school with a number of Seneca and Onondaga Indians, who lived in Rochester, New York. While I was in the army, I was stationed in west Texas. I was the editor of the post newspaper, and had more free time than most soldiers and more access on and off the military base. One of my friends was a Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma. With him, we drove to all the neighboring reservations (mostly Apache) and I saw firsthand some of the injustices (this was in the early 50s) accorded he Indians. I wrote some letters about it to the local newspaper. Since the army did not look kindly toward soldiers getting involved in controversial public issues, I signed my letters M. Whitebird. It was just a name that sounded generally Indian to me.

I met a teenage Navajo girl who was having a hard time balancing her desire to explore the greater world and her allegiance to Navajo customs. From Jenny (whose Navajo name was Granddaughter-of-he-who-Sings) I got the character of Mary Whitebird. 

Of the story, he says:

Ta-Na-E-Ka is based on a ceremony of the Kaw Indians. My wife comes from Nebraska. My father-in-law visits the Omaha and Winnebago reservations in Nebraska regularly, and there are few Indians there of Kaw ancestry. Almost no full-blooded Kaw exist; they were a subtribe of the Kansas. Tuburculosis and cholera wiped them out about 70 years ago. But I learned of the ceremony from my father-in-law. And, I wrote the story.

The Wikipedia page on "Mary Whitebird" ends with two quotes from letters the author of Ta-Na-E-Ka has received. The first is from a Cherokee girl in Oklahoma (no name is provided) who writes "Only an Indian could have written this." The last line is "Of course, the author was pleased" with the letter because he is not Indian.

Though this is not a folktale, we can pose Betsy Hearne's source note questions to "Mary Whitebird's" notes about this story.

  • He went to high school with Seneca and Onondaga students.
  • One of his friends (while in the army) was Sac and Fox.
  • He and his Sac and Fox friend visited Apache reservations.
  • He met a Navajo girl.
  • His wife is from Nebraska.
  • His father-in-law visits Omaha and Winnebago reservations, where there are a few Kaw Indians.
  • His father in law told him about the Ta-Na-E-Ka ceremony.

Apparently, that set of facts are meant to tell his readers that he knows what he is talking about. But does he? 

When he does talk about the Kaw people, he speaks of them in the past tense because, he says, they were wiped out 70 years ago.  But...

When did he say all that? In 1972? Is it with the story, somewhere, maybe in Scholastic Voice?

You can go to the Kaw Nation's website. Their site says they have 3,039 tribal members "scattered across the United States." It is possible, then, that "Mary Whitebird's" father-in-law came across some in Nebraska...   The website also includes a lot of Kaw language materials. I can't find any of the words "Mary Whitebird" uses on their site.

All in all, "Mary Whitebird's" background info (source note) sounds odd. Unreliable. Stereotypical. Exotic.

And, WHY, is that story STILL being printed in the textbook? WHY has the publisher not looked for a story by a KNOWN NATIVE AUTHOR? And WHY are Grant and Sleeter referencing it so uncritically?

It is disheartening, how much we (Americans, generally speaking) STILL DO NOT KNOW about American Indians.

I'm still thinking about this story, and will continue to research it and its author...


CiCi said...

I hope you are able to find out more about the true identity of Mary Whitebird. Wouldn't it be a help to people reading a text to be reading something closer to fact and non fiction? Good for you.

Beverly Slapin said...

Years ago, someone sent me "Ta-Na-E-Ka" by "Mary Whitebird." I saw it as a story clearly written from outside the culture, that privileged the values of white people over those of Native families and communities. I also tried to find the original source of the story and biographical information about the author, and came up empty. The citation for the story, if there is one, goes back to a previously published iteration that has no citation. All we know is that "Mary Whitebird" is not an Indian and that he has no ties to any Native nation or community.

I find this kind of stuff pretty typical. Many textbook publishers and curriculum writers often find non-Native writers, such as Paul Goble, "Jamake Highwater," Beth Kanell, "Mary Whitebird," and many more, more appealing (read "marketable") than talented Indian writers who wrote/write from inside their own communities. And many educators rarely question the sources of these materials.

Good for you, Debbie, for keeping the educational community focused on this long and frustrating issue.

Neesha Meminger said...

Thank you for this post. I recently heard from a Latina author who said that she was meeting more and more White authors who've been "encouraged" to change their names and to write as Latino authors by their editors/publishers, and to change their characters' names to Latino names to fill a niche in the publishing industry. So, rather than actually getting Latino/a authors writing authentic stories about the Latino/a experience, they just changed names.

Good luck on your re/search into Mary Whitebird's true identity. I'm afraid this kind of thing happens far more than we realize.

JCD said...

McGraw Hill uses this story in their textbooks. I don't have a copy of the actual textbook handy, but I'm working on getting a copy to see how the story is presented..

According to the McGraw Hill web page, Mary Whitebird is: "Mary is a member of the Kaw Native American tribe. She hopes to share her pride in her Native American heritage through her writing." (

Here's their page about the story:

They equate this tale with a fable which adds yet another dimension...


Anonymous said...

I'm going to teach the story this week to a group of 6th graders on Maui. I don't even know how many of my students are Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino, Micronesian, Japanese, Chinese, "mixed-plate kine", Native American, or "haole". Most of my students enjoy multiple heritages in any case.

Not long ago, I had them fill in the nouns in a country song, "Tumbleweed". As students were busy with that task, I said, "This is the singer," and turned my computer monitor around and showed them a photo of Bill Miller in tribal regalia. Some of them literally jumped when they saw the photo.

Teaching this story should be fun in a similar way. My ulterior motive is to get students to understand that they need to learn to write, so that other people aren't telling their story and getting it wrong.

Debbie Reese said...


I hope you also showed your students photographs of Bill Miller in his everyday clothes. I hope they don't think he wears his traditional regalia all the time. I don't know the song you used (Tumbleweed). It may work beautifully with the photo of him in his regalia. I'll have to check it out.

Sixth graders... I understand your ulterior motive. I'm guessing you've done a lot of work with them already, so that they recognize the goofy aspects of the Mary Whitebird story. Please come back after (or during) the lesson and let us know how it goes.