Saturday, April 11, 2009

BIRCHBARK HOUSE is on "We the People" Bookshelf, 2009

Through January 30, 2009, librarians were invited to submit a proposal to win a set of books on the 2009 "We the People" bookshelf. Schools winning a set are being announced this month.

The big news, for me and readers of American Indians in Children's Literature is that Louise Erdrich's book, Birchbark House, is among the books this year. The theme is "Picturing America."

I've been disappointed (furious, actually) with some of the selections in years past. I'm delighted, though, that over 4000 schools in the country will be receiving a copy of Birchbark House book from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Congratulations to Erdrich, and to all students who will have this book in their library.


While I was at Westfield, MA earlier this year, I was interviewed by Evan Dobelle, President of Westfield State College for One on One with Evan Dobelle. It was the longest interview I've given (30 minutes), and it was tough. The interview is online if you want to see it. Dobelle's questions were far-ranging, some of them in areas of study that are not my focus, hence its tough nature. I don't think I made huge gaffes, but, when I've got more time, I'll study the interview. I've gone one-on-one with university presidents and chancellors before (here at UIUC), but being taped is a different experience.


Writers, reviewers, editors, teachers... anyone whose work in some way touches American Indian cultures/histories... Please watch the upcoming PBS series WE SHALL REMAIN. It starts on Monday night. Native scholars and leaders were deeply involved in the series. At the website there are guides for teachers to use with students and an abundance of additional materials.

A colleague has a clip from the episode that covers boarding schools. The clip is on Facebook. Cut and paste this link in your browser to view it.

It starts with children singing "Ten Little Indians." The visuals start with animated ledger art of a school bus, with Native children boarding that bus. The animated ledger-art is interspersed with black and white photos, and interviews with Native people who were in the schools. The clip is from one of the episodes that will air later.

It is a powerful clip. In spite of the boarding schools, we are still here, and as is made clear by the series itself and the interviews and activities of Native people today, it is clear why the series is called "We Shall Remain." I don't mean that to sound melodramatic. I do mean to say that Native people are pushing back in greater numbers and in greater ways to the ways that we our cultures and histories are taught and presented in the media, in school, in books, etc.

Here's a preview:

In that preview you see tanks. That's from the Wounded Knee episode (#5 scheduled for May 11th). Previously on this site I've written about the takeover of Alcatraz Island and the activism of Native people during the 60s and 70s. Wounded Knee is part of that. The Wounded Knee episode of WE SHALL REMAIN was an Official Selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. One of the advisors for that segment is Robert Warrior, Osage, currently working here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as Director of our American Indian Studies. If you wish to read (in advance) of that episode, get a copy of a book he wrote along with Paul Chaat Smith, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. Oyate also has some excellent books filled with photographs of the takeover.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

"But that's what they thought back then"

When reading popular and award winning books historical fiction for children (such as Little House on the Prairie or Matchlock Gun), people defend those books by saying "but that's the way they thought back then."

It's a typical defense of said books and their ilk, but I want to push us all to think carefully about that statement. There's a range of possibilities. Here's three:

Some people said that Indians were savages, blood-thirsty murderers, etc, but did they believe it?

Some people believe it.

Some people did not believe it.

Let's fast forward to today and think about the war in Iraq. Certain segments of the media, and certain political leaders give us overly broad statements about Iraqi's. They collapse a lot of people into a single frame. Or they use fear in an attempt to convince us of the need for a certain action. They repeat these things again and again, enough so that polls tell us that, for example, most Americans believe things about the Iraq war that are not true.

Now let's skip ahead 50 years. What will 'historical fiction' of the present time look like in 50 years? How are writers going to tell children about the war with Iraq? Are they going to create American characters who say that all Iraqi's were brutal killers?

Maybe the placement of these two moments side-by-side doesn't work. I invite your comments.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Rethinking Schools article on AMERICAN GIRLS

Elizabeth Marshall, a former elementary schoolteacher, has a terrific article on the Rethinking Schools site. Titled "Marketing American Girlhood" she makes excellent points again and again about what this well-marketed series hides or glosses over. Here's a paragraph about Josefina:

Josefina's story takes place on a rancho near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1824 before the Mexican-American War. The nonfictional "Looking Back: America in 1824" at the end of Meet Josefina dilutes this colonial history by limiting discussion to two sentences about the Mexican-American War and pointing out that when it ended in 1848, America "claimed most of the land that is now the southwestern United States" (Tripp, 1997, p. 83). The author of this history then moves on to describe the benefits of this war. "Although Josefina would never have imagined it when she was 9 years old, she would one day be an American — and the cultures and traditions of the New Mexican settlers and their Pueblo neighbors would become part of America, too" (p. 83). It is important to note that this loss of sovereignty was especially significant for New Mexican women, who had many more rights as Mexicans than they had as Americans — like the right to own their own property. The creators at American Girl favor a whitewashed version of this history, and Josefina's narrative reads as a melting pot story in which difference is assimilated into a larger American girlhood identity. Like Meet Josefina, each of the historical fictions takes place in the past and in this way allows issues such as racism, colonization, and war to be presented as things that America has overcome.

In 2006, one of my students brought Josefina's World, 1824: Growing up on America's Southwest Frontier to class. Marshall quotes from Beverly Slapin's review of Kaya. A couple of years ago, Jean Mendoza and I visited the AG store in Chicago. I wrote about that visit, and Roger Sutton, editor at Horn Book, blogged about the series, too.

During our visit, Jean and I wondered about the stage performance they do there but didn't want to rearrange our visit to see it. There is, however, a review in Theatre Journal [to read the entire review, see Theatre Journal 60.2 (2008): 303-306]. The author of the review is Matt Omasta from Arizona State University. Do click on his name to read about him. He's doing some fascinating work, including a stage adaptation of Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue. Here's some excerpts from his review of the American Girls production. He begins with:

I believe that Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) is a cultural pedagogue. As corporations further their reach into today's world, I am interested in interrogating what these companies "teach" young people vis-a-vis their popular performances like The American Girls Revue. Viewing the production confirmed my suspicion that children would be indoctrinated into consumer identities and encouraged to avail themselves of the plethora of American Girl products available in the adjoining shop. More surprising and perhaps more troubling for me was the Revue's implicit yet deeply embedded hegemonic discourse that prescribed social roles based on children's race, class, and gender.

In the Revue, a group of girls show another how to play American Girl. Each one picks her favorite girl and acts out a scene. Omasta described three of them-- Felicity, Josefina, and Addy--and the scenes they act out. Then, he writes:

I see a troubling dichotomy when I consider these stories: affluent white people are encouraged to break free from their hegemonic roles, while impoverished minorities should rely instead on inner peace, since attempts at material social change will prove futile.

Of the males in the production, he writes:

With the exception of one kindly avuncular figure, males appeared only in apathetic or aggressive/hostile roles: a confederate soldier, a cruel animal-abuser, a drum-beating Native American who paid no heed to the troubles of his tribe.

Thank goodness, the shows are shutting down. The economy is probably the reason. Wouldn't it be great if they were going dark due to objections from the public? From teachers?

Omasta concludes his review saying that the Revue is the rule, not the exception, in theater for young audiences. Sounds a lot like children's and young adult literature. While some say American Girl is invested in diversity, we have to pay attention to what that diversity is. If it is just decoration, it's not real. It just lets people feel like they're living a liberal or progressive politic.

In short, in "American Girls" there's a lot to think about.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Earlier today, just after I hit the upload button on my post about "The Big Indian," a colleague here noticed that the Edgar Heap of Birds signs outside our buildings were damaged. The sign shown here is from the opening of the exhibit. Here's the press release.

URBANA, IL -- April 7, 2009
Three signs that are part of the "Beyond the Chief" exhibit outside Native American House and American Indian Studies buildings were vandalized between Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon.

The damaged signs include the ones naming Meskwaki, Sac, and Potawatomi. The signs, located on the 1200 block of West Nevada Street on campus, are bent and permanently damaged.

"I find it distressing that this art exhibit which is meant to educate everyone on campus about the indigenous history of Illinois has been repeatedly targeted in this destructive way," said Robert Warrior, director of Native American House and American Indian Studies.

These signs are just the latest to be vandalized. On or about March 15, the sign featuring the Peoria tribe was similarly damaged.

The signs are valued at $10,000 each. To date, no arrests or citations have been issued in connection with the damage.

The signs are part of an exhibit by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds and was designed to "remind the campus community whose land they occupy," according to the Native American House Web site. The signs represent 12 different indigenous peoples with homelands in Illinois.

"The Big Indian" in La Crosse, Wisconsin

As you may know, I was in La Crosse last week. I did a presentation on American Indians and children's literature in Murphy Library at U Wisconsin La Crosse. It was a terrific gathering and I met a lot of wonderful people.

A reporter from the local paper was there to do an interview. Her article ran on Saturday in the Tribune. It is titled "Activist eyes cultural accuracy in kid's books." Here's the first two paragraphs:

The classic children’s book “Little House on the Prairie” portrays American Indians as primitive and less than human, said an expert in American Indian studies.

Yet the book is set in a time when the U.S. government had about 800 treaties with American Indian tribes, said Debbie Reese, assistant professor of American Indian studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These were men protecting their families, not bloodthirsty Indians,” she said.

Trib readers offered comments to the article. "Sad Sally" said:


And "wiseup" said:

Too many times 'activist' means complainer. Native's routinely killed other tribes and forced them off their own lands before the white man came here. Few were taught this tragic history. If you go back far enough, EVERY race has committed genocide, mass murder, etc against their fellow man! No one with a brain sees any side as ALL GOOD or ALL BAD. You can't change what happened in the past! Get over it and look to future!

I doubt that either Sad Sally or wiseup were at the talk I gave. Perhaps "activist" cued them to respond as they did. I do, in fact, consider myself an activist scholar, which is a way of saying that I use the knowledge I gain during my research by sharing it with others, and I encourage them to share it with others, too. I suggest they be active with that knowledge by asking bookstores to order copies of books that do not stereotype American Indians.

Most of the comments to the article are like Sad Sally's remarks. Comments by Jaxx are different:

I am currently reading "Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James W. Loewen, which I highly recommend for people. Not only do public schools not teach about the genocide that Native Americans have experienced, but they also make Christopher Columbus into a hero!

Negative comments are the norm, but worth noting because they tell us what think. They tell us what the teachers who attended my talk are up against...

I read those negative comments and think about "The Big Indian" statue in La Crosse at Riverside Park. Formally known as "Hiawatha," the statue is controversial. Minnesota Public Radio did a piece on it in 2000. Called "A Dilemma in La Crosse" it includes voices of those who want to keep it, and voices of those who want it removed. The photograph above is "The Big Indian." It's a tourist draw for the city. The Marriott, for example, lists it under "Recreation Information" on their webpage. They list it as "The Big Indian."

In the article, an art history professor who studies roadside statues says that it should stay in place because statues like it serve as reminders of how far the country has come. She can view it that way, but reading the article, it is clear that the public does not see it as she does. By them, it is revered and they see nothing offensive about it. The art history professor also says that it is an important marker for American history. I think it is evidence of America's arrogance, power, and ignorance. It makes it possible for people to comment, as they did, to the article about my talk.

Who, in fact, was Hiawatha? Is, for example, Hiawatha by Susan Jeffers an accurate portrayal of the person who was Hiawatha? Or are they about Longfellow's fictive Hiawatha?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Discussion Guide to ARROW TO THE SUN

Scholastic has written and consolidated a great deal of resource material for teachers. Today I present a critique of the "Arrow to the Sun Discussion Guide" created by Weston Woods, a company that turned McDermott's book into a video. The guide is on the Scholastic website. I hasten to say that McDermott's award-winning Arrow to the Sun is deeply flawed and should not be subtitled "A Pueblo Indian Tale." It is so deeply flawed, in fact, that the word "Pueblo" should be replaced. It's new title, I think, should be: Arrow to the Sun: Gerald McDermotts misleading-erroneous-inaccurate "Pueblo Tale" that cannot in fact be called a Pueblo Indian tale Harsh, I know. Lest you feel sympathy for McDermott, think about all the Pueblo Indian children who are reading his book, know that it is wrong, but have to regurgitate his words for their teachers when they discuss the book in the classroom. And think about all the non-Pueblo children who are being mis-educated through this book. If you are a teacher using the book and feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by this harsh essay on his book, I hope that you read the entire essay, spend time on this site, and then walk away from your computer thinking carefully about what you read here. You are not a bad person for having used McDermott's book with students in your classroom. You didn't know it was a bad book. It carries a sticker on it that tells you it is an award winning book. You were misinformed. Not intentionally (the Caldecott committee didn't recognize it as problematic either), but nonetheless, you were misinformed. I hope that makes you mad, not at me, but at the industry and institutions that continue to promote his book. I have harsh words for McDermott. That dance that happens at the end of the story? The "Dance of Life" --- he made that up. No pueblo does that. He made up that dance. For Pueblo Indians, dance is prayer. The not-Pueblo-Indian Gerald McDermott made up a prayer, and is passing it off as a Pueblo prayer. I think that's pretty messed up. So. On to the Weston Wood's guide on the Scholastic website... Here's the opening paragraph, which is a synopsis of the book, followed by objectives:
In Arrow to the Sun, a boy, born from the sun, begins a quest to find his father. He travels through the world of men, finally finding his way back to the sun. Once there, he must prove himself through a series of tests. Only then can he return to the earth and the world of men again. In this Pueblo tale, students will be visually transported into the world of folklore and oral history that were and are cornerstones of Native American culture and tradition. The bold, imagistic art will captivate children as it lends to the magical quality of the story. This program provides an excellent starting point for Native American studies as well as a rich journey through the art and culture of Pueblo life.


  • Students will identify some of the aspects of Pueblo Indian life.
  • Students will compare and contrast this tale with the tales of other Native American groups.
No. No. And no, again. Here's my rewrite. I'll put my revisions in red.
In Gerald McDermott's fantasy Arrow to the Sun, a boy, born from the sun, begins a quest to find his father. He travels through the world of men, finally finding his way back to the sun. Once there, he must prove himself through a series of tests. Only then can he return to the earth and the world of men again. In this tale, students will be visually transported into McDermott's imagined world of folklore and oral history. Though his book may feel like it is a presentation of Native American culture and tradition, it is only his imagined presentation. The bold, imagistic art will captivate children as it lends to the magical quality of the story. His book and this guide provide an excellent starting point for teaching children that information in books can be wrong. His book is used in courses in Native American studies to demonstrate how American Indian cultures are misrepresented in award-winning books.


  • Students will identify McDermott's errors in presentation of Pueblo Indian life.
  • Students will learn about two other writers who also misrepresent Pueblo Indian people.
Following standard practice, the guide follows the Objectives with "before" and "after" reading activities:

Before Reading Activities

Preview the vocabulary words from the book: pueblo and kiva. Show students photos or illustrations of pueblo houses and the kivas in them. Discuss the southwest area of the U.S. where Pueblo people are from, focusing on the environment and climate. Explain to students that pueblo houses are made from adobe, a clay-like material that kept the temperature inside the house cool. Use visuals to show how pueblos are constructed somewhat like apartments, with ladders between the different levels. Typically, all of the members of an extended family would occupy one pueblo, dispersing themselves among the different levels. Explain that the kiva is like the basement of a pueblo. The kiva was used for important ceremonies and is considered a sacred space. Encourage the students to look for pueblos and kivas in the story.

Teach students about some of the basic adaptations that Pueblo peoples used to survive in their environment. Due to the dry climate in the southwest, Pueblo people used pottery to collect rainwater and store surplus food during times of drought. Corn was the staple crop, as it is a hearty plant that can be cultivated in harsher, drier conditions. Finally, review the ways that pueblo houses helped to shelter people from the heat through the use of adobe and building the pueblos into the sides of hills to provide greater shade. Tell the students that some of the characters in the book will reflect these important parts of Pueblo life.

Here's my rewrite of the "Before Reading" activities.

Before Reading Activities

Introduce the word "sacrilege." Tell students that Pueblo Indian dance is "prayer in motion" and that Pueblo Indian people dance, not for entertainment or performance, but as a way of praying. Tell them they will read about a "Dance of Life" that McDermott made up.

Preview the vocabulary words from the book: pueblo and kiva. Tell the students there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, each with its own ways of doing things, from cooking to praying to stories they tell, and that prior to the arrival of Europeans, there were a lot more Pueblos, but that due to warfare and disease, the number of Pueblos decreased. Tell students that the Pueblo Indians were prosperous traders with their own forms of governments and that today, they continue to govern their people and maintain their status as sovereign nations.

Tell students that a kiva is a place of worship and teaching. Tell them that Christian missionaries thought the Pueblo Indians were pagans and persecuted them for praying, that they filled kivas with sand and built Christian churches on top of the kivas to prevent the Pueblo people from going to their kivas. Tell them that the US government had policies that prevented them from doing their dances.

Tell them the Pueblo peoples led the first successful overthrow of an oppressive invading regime in what came to be called the United States of America (Thanks, JM, for asking for clarification). To learn more about it, they can do research on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

Tell them that, today, the Pueblo peoples continue their dances, and they protect and maintain their kivas much like any religious order does with their sacred spaces. (Note: kivas are not like a basement, located underneath a pueblo. Some extend below ground level; some do not. Some are circular in shape; others are rectangular. The person who wrote the 'before reading' activity suggests that a pueblo is a building. That is incorrect. The word pueblo is Spanish in origin, and it means village. Each Pueblo had/has many buildings.)

Here's the "After Reading Activities"

After Reading Activities

Students can work in groups of 2-3 to use modeling clay to construct model pueblos. They can label the main parts of the pueblo: kiva, ladders, sleeping space, outdoor cooking area. As a shared writing activity, students can write a paragraph about the adaptations that Pueblo people used to adapt to their environment. This should be a whole group exercise with the teacher transcribing student ideas into complete sentences and correct paragraph structure. Finally, students can paint or draw a mural on butcher paper that shows the southwest environment as a backdrop for the clay pueblos. Display the artwork in the classroom. As different Native American groups are studied, students can construct similar scenes to display as comparison.

Read other Native American folktales to the students, notably those by Paul Goble, such as Buffalo Woman. (Goble has written an extensive collection of Native American stories from many different tribes). Using a Venn Diagram, compare and contrast the similarities and differences between Arrow to the Sun and these other stories. Alternatively, or in addition, compare and contrast Arrow to the Sun with other Pueblo stories. Guiding questions:

  • How are the characters different and how are they similar?
  • What challenge(s) does the main character face?
  • How does the character solve his/her problem?
  • How does the story teach you about this group's way of life?

Stage a dramatic presentation of Arrow to the Sun. Choose two to three students to be narrators. Rewrite the text for beginner readers or help them memorize their parts of the text. Some students can be actors and the rest can play instruments and provide other sound effects and music. Rehearse the production and present it to other classes and parents.

And here's my rewrite. It's all in red text...

After Reading Activities

Students can work in groups of 2-3 to compose a letter to McDermott, asking him about his book and if he has rethought the way he wrote that book. Has he, for example, changed his approach to the ways that he tells the stories of other people? If he could rewrite Arrow, what changes would he make? They can write to Weston Woods, asking them to rewrite their Discussion Guide, and they can write to Scholastic, asking them to take the Weston Woods guide off their website.

Students can share what they learned about the Pueblo Revolt.

Students can read essays on this site about Turkey Girl: A Zuni Cinderella Story, written by Penny Pollock, and Dragonfly's Tale, written by Kristina Rodanas, and write to Pollock and Rodanas, asking them if there are any changes they would make to the stories they wrote.

Read other Native American folktales to the students, notably those by Paul Goble, such as Buffalo Woman. (Goble has written an extensive collection of Native American stories from many different tribes). His stories have been criticized by the tribes whose stories he retells (Note: consider teaching children the word 'appropriation' and what it means.) Give students a copy of Doris Seale's essay about Goble and discuss it with them. The essay is on page 158 of A Broken Flute, available from Oyate for $37 in paperback.

Do not stage a dramatic presentation of Arrow to the Sun.

I think that's it... There's a lot more that can and should be done, but that's what I've got for today. I INVITE YOUR FEEDBACK! Use the comments option, or write to me at debreese at illinois dot edu. Previous posts about McDermott's book are: McDermott made up the "Dance of Life" in ARROW TO THE SUN Gerald McDermott's ARROW TO THE SUN

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Recent reader comments...

If you're interested in reader comments to older posts, here's a list of recent ones:

Robin on More on 'I am part Native American'

Mantelli on Dear Penny

Anonymous on Slapin: Open Letter to Beth Kanell

Anonymous on Verla Kay's BROKEN FEATHER

JPM on Dear Penny

Anonymous on Meyer's Twilight: Second Post

Anonymous on Research Study on Subtle Discrimination

Jennifer on Where is your copy of THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE

Basal readers

Earlier today I read an article about a research study of basal readers (textbooks used to teach children how to read).

The researchers wanted to see how families are presented in the readers. Here's the citation. Click on the title to go right to the complete article.

Examining Images of Family in Commercial Reading Programs
Judith Dunkerly, M.Ed., Doctoral Student, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Dr. Frank Serafini, Ph.D., Arizona State University
Journal of Education Controversy, Volume 4, Number 1, Winter 2009

The study is definitely worth reading. Texts they studied are:

  • Harcourt Trophies
  • MacMillan-MacGraw Hill Readers
  • Scott Foresman Reading

What stands out for me is the content related to American Indians. In the Findings section of the article, this is under "Ethnicity."

Ethnic diversity within the basal anthologies more closely mirrored the face of American society statistically. Nineteen (40 percent) of the basal anthology selections depicted Caucasians. Characters of Hispanic and African American descent were portrayed in eleven selections (24 percent) and nine selections (20 percent), respectively. There were seven stories featuring Asian or Pacific Islanders, which made up the other 16 percent. Comparatively, the student population of the school district under study is 9 percent American Indian, 6.6 percent Asian, 28.8 percent Hispanic, 13.8 percent African American, and 49.9 percent Caucasian, figures that are closely aligned with state and national statistics (Population Reference Bureau, 2000).

While the percentages of race representations in the basal anthologies do favor Caucasians, they are at least comparable to the statistical composition of both national and local populations. However, it is worth noting that while overall portrayals of different ethnicities are fairly representative, 45 percent of children under the age of five are minorities. Coupled with data showing that Hispanics continue to be the largest and fastest growing minority group at 42.7 million people followed closely by African Americans at 39.7 million (U.S. Population, 2006), the comparatively representative portrayal of minorities in basal anthologies will not be so in the near future, if both publishing and population trends continue along the current pattern.

I read that first paragraph several times. None of the stories portray American Indians.

The researchers say the diversity in the readers "more closely mirrored" national statistics. And, they say, the local school district (unnamed) is "9 percent American Indian."

Again, none of the selections in the readers reflect American Indian families.

American Indians are absent from the readers, but, American Indians are absent, too, from the researcher's discussion. They give us that statistic (9 percent) but don't comment on it. To be fair, Dunkerly and Serafini were not looking at Native representation. Perhaps they've written about that elsewhere, and for the purpose of this particular article, it seemed to them unnecessary to note the lack of Native people. I hope, in fact, that they've written about it somewhere, because Serafini teaches in Arizona.

Many stories in readers like the ones Dunkerly and Serafini used for their study are drawn from children's literature. In their discussion of socio-economic status, for example, the researchers refer to Cynthia Rylant's story, The Relatives Came. There's a lot of books like The Relatives Came that publishers can use to portray Native families. One terrific example is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer.

I should head over to UIUC's school collection to see what the basal readers we've got available look like.