Saturday, March 21, 2009


In Sherman Alexie's novel, Indian Killer, Marie is a college student enrolled in a Native lit course taught by Dr. Mather. She is Native. He is not. Because it's a Native lit course, she hopes there will be other Native students in the class. That was not the case. Here's an excerpt from page 58:

While Marie was surprised by the demographics of the class, she was completely shocked by the course reading list. One of the books, The Education of Little Tree, was supposedly written by a Cherokee Indian named Forrest Carter. But Forrest Carter was actually the pseudonym for a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Three of the other books, Black Elk Speaks, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, and Lakota Woman, were taught in almost every other Native American Literature class in the country and purported to be autobiographical, though all three were co-written by white men. Black Elk himself had disavowed his autobiography, a fact that was conveniently omitted in any discussion of the book. The other seven books included three anthologies of traditional Indian stories edited by white men, two nonfiction studies of Indian spirituality written by white women, a book of traditional Indian poetry translations edited by a Polish-American Jewish man, and an Indian murder mystery written by some local white writer named Jack Wilson, who claimed he was a Shishomish Indian.

Marie approached the professor:

"Excuse me, Dr. Mather," Marie said. "You've got this Little Tree book on your list. Don't you know its a total fraud?"

"I'm aware that the origins of the book have been called into question," said Mather. "But I hardly believe that matters. The Education of Little Tree is a beautiful and touching book. If those rumors about Forrest Carter are true, perhaps we can learn there are beautiful things inside of everyone."

Those "beautiful things" are stereotypical ideas... If you are interested, I wrote an essay about it in 2006: Forrest Carter's EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE.

Oliver La Farge's LAUGHING BOY

People write to me, asking about La Farge's portrayal of American Indians---in this case, Navajos in his Laughing Boy. Published in 1929 by Houghton Mifflin, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930. It is a Signet Classic and is included in books created to help teachers select literature for use in high school and college classrooms.

If you're interested in a critical essay about Laughing Boy, I suggest you read Leslie Marmon Silko's "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts." It is on page 211 of Geary Hobson's The Remembered Earth.

Silko writes:

Since white ethnologists like Boas and Swanton first intruded into Native American communities to "collect" prayers, songs and stories, a number of implicit racist assumptions about Native American culture and literature have flourished. The first is the assumption that the white man, through some innate cultural or racial superiority, has the ability to perceive and master the essential beliefs, values and emotions of persons from Native American communities.

Silko notes that La Farge was educated at Harvard and spent several summer vacations doing ethnographic work on the Navajo Reservation. She writes that he cared deeply for the Navajo people. That time, though, and his care, did not make it possible for him to write a novel that accurately portrays the Navajo people. With respect to accuracy, Silko offers the response of her students:

In the summer of 1971, the Navajo students in a Southwestern Literature class at Navajo Community College concluded that Laughing Boy was entertaining; but as an expression of anything Navajo, especially with relation to Navajo emotions and behavior, the novel was a failure. And for the non-Navajo or non-Indian, it is worse than a failure: it is a lie because La Farge passes off the consciousness and feelings of Laughing Boy as those of Navajo sensibility.

As noted, the novel has a lot of accolades. Maybe that's why romance novelist Cassie Edwards used it to write Savage Dream, one of the titles in her "Savage" series. Some of my students start to laugh aloud as I read the titles in the series: Savage Love, Savage Intrigue, Savage Hope, Savage Destiny... There's over 20 books in the series. Edwards was in the news in January of 08 for plagiarism. If you want to see a point-by-point analysis of her use of Laughing Boy, see what Smart Bitches put together.

I'm sure high school teachers don't use books like those by Cassie Edwards in their classrooms. They are, after all, soft-porn romance novels. Lest you think, however, that she captures Native culture in a good way, discard that thought. And while you're at it, discard Laughing Boy if you're using it in your classroom. Choose a Native author instead. Silko, perhaps, or Simon Ortiz. Or James Welch. Or Louise Erdrich. Or Sherman Alexie. Or Thomas King. You do have choices.

And if you feel compelled to respond to this post, asking me if I think non-Native people have no business writing books about Native people, rest easy. I don't think that only Native people should write Native novels.

But... What is the motivation for the question in the first place? Concern for freedom of speech? Ok, I defend that, too, but if you're looking for good books about American Indians, don't you think it makes sense to look for Native writers? Choosing their books does not mean you defy anyone's freedom of speech.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Verla Kay's Broken Feather (published in 2002 by Putnam), got mixed reviews. The review by School Library Journal's, S. K. Joiner is the most helpful to librarians, parents and teachers who wish to avoid stereotypical, romanticized, and inaccurate depictions of Native people.

Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus goofed. Both gave it a starred review, saying things like "will hook readers" and every one of Kay's words "sparkle."

It's a picture book. Here's the words on the first page:

Broken Feather,
Native boy,
Filled with spirit,
Strength and joy.

Bows and arrows,
Corn-husk pouch,
Bushes rustle,
Natives crouch.

Natives crouch? They always do that! Book after book shows Indian men that way for one reason or another, usually to attack the settlers. Why are these Nez Perce men doing it? The second page tells us why...

Small voice, whisper,
"Father, who?"
"White men hunting,
Passing through."

Kay is giving us the classic "plight of the Indians" narrative. Vanishing Indians, that is. She attempts to give readers a look at conflict between the Nez Perce people and Europeans.

Along the way, she and Stephen Alcorn (the illustrator) feed the stereotype monster. A man plays a drum with his hands while other men dance in a circle in the stereotypical ways... Every single dancer has one foot off the ground, arms thrown out or skyward. That scene is repeated on a second page later in the book:

Warriors chanting,
Big drums, beat.
Angry faces,
Stomping feet

It's followed by a page about defeat and then "Forced to tramp, Natives marching..." to a reservation where Broken Feather asks his father why this happened. His father's answer? That there were many of them, and few Nez Perce, and now, he says to his son "it's up to you." Up to him to do what? We aren't told.

The last page shows Broken Feather as an adult looking out over a river and mountains. In his hand is a single feather. I guess its the feather he wore as a child. Now he's in a full headdress. That's the end of the book. It is followed by two notes. One from the author and one from the illustrator.

Meant for young children, this book fails to give them the 'here and now' information young children need. Kay's note suggests she was at a museum where she saw Nez Perce culture, and that she talked with a Nez Perce tribal member. Her book would have been so much better if she'd taken the reader into the present day, with a few pages about contemporary Nez Perce children.

Then again, she'd still has that title "Broken Feather." It seems to me she's steeped in the plight narrative and would have to do a lot of work to break out of it. Alcorn, too.

Problems with this illustration: Man is shown playing drum with his hands instead of drumstick; dancers are frenetic.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cultural Knowledge

The New York Times is running a series called "Where Education and Assimilation Collide." It caught my eye because, to many American Indians, education and assimilation carry a lot of freight. Called heathen, pagan, and savage by Europeans who first came to what became America, missionaries tried to Christianize us in mission schools, and, early U.S. government boarding schools were designed to assimilate us with the motto "Kill the Indian, save the man."

The Times article is not about American Indians, it is about immigrants of today. Reading the article, this stood out:

Few of these students had heard of the Pilgrims, much less the history of Thanksgiving. Idioms like “easy as pie” and “melting pot” were lost on them. They knew little of the American Revolution, much less the Bolshevik.

“American students come to school with a lot of cultural knowledge that other teachers assume they don’t have to explain because their kids get it from growing up in this country, watching television or surfing the Internet,” Ms. Cain said. “I can’t assume any of that.”

Cultural knowledge. Ms. Cain is right on. Kids do gain a lot of "cultural knowledge" about the United States just by growing up here, watching TV and surfing the net. But is it really "knowledge" or is it something else? What counts as "knowledge" and just what would the NY Times reporter say about "the history of Thanksgiving?"

Societies tell stories about their origins. Americans fix the American origin story back there in time with the Pilgrims and the Indians and the "First Thanksgiving." But the story that is told is a romantic one that is incomplete. A more complete history, a more accurate "cultural knowledge" would serve us all well.