Sunday, December 26, 2010

Elizabeth Burns review of EVERY BONE TELLS A STORY

How much do you know about the remains of American Indians, and, laws to protect those remains? Did you even know there are special laws in place to protect Native remains?

Elizabeth Burns knows about the law, and she refers to it in her review of Every Bone Tells a Story by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw. I've ordered a copy of the book. Subtitled Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates, the publisher's website says it is about "the unearthing of four hominins--Turkana Boy, Lapedo Child, Kennewick Man, and Iceman."

If you want some background about the topic of Native remains, here's an excellent video:


There's also an excellent children's book about it by Robert C. Echo-Hawk and Walter R. Echo-Hawk called Battlefields and Burial Grounds. Published by Lerner in 1994, it is out of print but definitely worth ordering from a used bookstore. I wonder who Rubalcaba and Robertshaw cite in their book? Do they mention the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit law firm whose work is at the heart of NAGPRA and other Native issues? If you've got some time, you might want to visit the NARF website. There's lot to learn there...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Beverly Blacksheep's Board Books

I'm currently doing some research on board books by Native authors...  Ones that feature Native children, or stories, or concept books (books that teach something like numbers, colors, etc.).  Previously, I've written about board books such as Boozhoo, Come Play With Us, and today I'm pointing to the series of board books written and illustrated by Beverly Blacksheep. 

What are board books? 

In The Essential Guide to Children's Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey tells us that Rosemary Wells's board books featuring a rabbit named Max sparked the publication of what we call board books. The Max books came out in 1979. Remember them?  Max's Breakfast was a favorite in our house.

Rather than pages made of paper, the pages in a board book are thick cardboard pages. The thickness makes them relatively indestructible (they don't tear or rip or bend like paper does) and because the pages are stiff, a toddler is able to more easily turn from one page to the next. 

We had many board books in our home, but there weren't any that I knew of that featured Native children or stories. So, I made a lot of books for my daughter. I glued photographs of her family and cousins onto cardboard, covered the cardboard with clear vinyl shelfpaper, and then bound several of those pages together with tape or string. They are treasures and played a role in my daughter's love of books. I wish I had a photograph of us with one of our homemade books, but I don't. Here, though, are three photos of our reading life. Top right is me reading to Liz. I think its Blueberries for Sal. Bottom right is Brooke, Liz's cousin, reading Dear Zoo to Liz. And on the left is a photo of Liz in the "chair and a half" that belonged to her grandmother, Betty (my husband's mother). It is the right size for a parent and child to sit, side-by-side, as they read.

As far as I know, there aren't any board books that reflect Pueblo life. I'll turn now, to the subject of this essay, the board books by Beverly Blacksheep. Here's the cover of Baby Learns about Colors:

I find Blacksheep's books absolutely gorgeous, from the colors she uses to the design of the books, they are wonderful. The colors range from soft pastels to brilliant purples that leap out from the crisp white background used throughout the books.

With the exception of the covers, each page has two languages: Navajo and English as seen in this page from Baby's First Laugh:

The people in the books are all shown wearing traditional clothing that is also worn today by some people as everyday attire.

In all there are eight books, published in 2003 and 2005 as follows:

Baby's First Laugh
Baby Learns about Colors
Baby Learns to Count
Baby Learns about Animals

Baby Learns about Seasons
Baby Learns about Senses
Baby Learns about Time
Baby Learns about Weather

To write my review, I've ordered the books---not by year of publication---but by a chronological ordering of the age of the Navajo baby featured in the series. (FYI: The Navajo Nation spans Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. They maintain an extensive website where you can learn about tribal government and history.)

Blacksheep has a website where you can see some of her art. The books, however, are available from Salina Bookshelf. Let's begin!

A new baby presents many moments for its family to look forward to...  That first laugh is a big one. We wait and wait and do all manner of things to make a baby smile and laugh. And we delight! We delight in that first laugh. That's what Baby's First Laugh is about.

The book opens with baby, sleeping in her cradleboard. (If you want to learn a bit about a Navajo cradleboard, go here and view a slide show.) Her parents are nearby, wondering "Who will make baby laugh?" It won't be her dad or her mom or her sister or her brother or her grandfather, either. All of them make her cry while trying to elicit that laugh. Then we get to grandma, who, of course, makes baby laugh.

Native families, particularly those on reservations, live near each other, with grandparents figuring prominently in a child's life and are there for many of the "firsts" that a child experiences. My mom, for example, was with me when my daughter, Liz, took her first steps. She spent many hours playing with Liz and singing to her. Here's a photo that captures both, play and singing:

In Baby Learns About Seasons, the baby's mom takes her out of the cradleboard. She's old enough to sit by herself.

In the spring she laughs as she watches her sister give a bottle to newborn lambs. She watches her dad prepare the fields and in the summer she sees the plants growing. She goes with her grandmother to gather corn pollen and is with her mom when she is picking peaches. In the fall she sits amongst pumpkins and leaves and she gathers pinon nuts. And in the winter, she is with her family as they gather and tell winter stories:

In Baby Learns to Count, Baby counts the familiar things in her life: her kitten, shoes, birds, rabbits, fingers, toys, butterflies, letters, marbles, and buttons.

Here's the page about her shoes, or, to use a common word, "moccasins." You don't see "moccasins" in the Navajo text because moccasins is not a Navajo word. It's not a Tewa (at Nambe our language is Tewa) word, either. There is no glossary that tells us which of the words in the Navajo text is their word for shoes. Navajo speakers will know which one it is, though, which points to an interesting aspect of the series. Readers who know and speak and read Navajo can read the Navajo text. The book isn't meant to teach the Navajo language. Instead, it works beautifully for readers for whom Navajo is their first language. Blacksheep's book, then, is unique because of what it does for Navajo families who use their language as their first language. (For a reader-friendly research article on bilingual books, see Bilingual Books: Promoting Literacy and Biliteracy in the Second-Language and Mainstream Classroom, by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Margaret Mulhern, published in 2003 by the International Reading Association.)

Baby turns two years old in Baby Learns About Time.

The book opens with Baby in her bed on the morning of her birthday. She watches the sun rise and at noon, she helps her sister make lunch and serves everyone the mutton stew they made. In the afternoon her older brother plays with her outside. At sunset she's back inside, blowing out the candles on her birthday cake and in the evening she opens her present and gets a new pony (rocking horse) that she wanted.

Then its bedtime, and her mom sings her to sleep. In Baby Learns About Time, we see elements of mainstream American culture (big bows on wrapped gifts), and, elements of Navajo ways of being (learning to prepare traditional foods) as Baby goes through a day marked, not by the clock, but, by the natural progression of any given day.

A lot of people think that New Mexico and Arizona are deserts with intense heat, but there are four seasons in the northern parts of each state, as shown in Baby Learns About Weather.

Baby is shown on sunny days, but also on rainy days (where she sees a rainbow) and on snowy days where she tries to catch snowflakes. In this and the last three books, you can see that Baby is older.

In Baby Learns About Colors, she plays catch with a red ball and builds a tiny hogan with brown twigs. To do that she needs the dexterity of a slightly older child, and to feed green grass to rabbits and give bread crumbs to blue birds, she needs to know how to be still and quiet.

In Baby Learns About Senses, she helps her grandmother prepare a meal.

To do that, all her senses come into play. She tastes the goats milk they will use, she smells the mutton cooking over the fire, and she listens for the bubbling of the stew. And, she uses her sense of touch when she helps make the frybread:

The last book in my presentation of the series is Baby Learns About Animals.

Thus far, Baby has learned to help her family, and she's learned how to be around wild animals. In Baby Learns About Animals, she learns to take care of the domestic animals that are significant to her and to the Navajo people. She feeds oats to the horse, gives grain to the sheep, and teaches the sheepdog how to sit. She gives water to the colt:

and after all her work is done, she goes to sleep. In this series, readers can learn a lot about a Navajo family, and readers who are Navajo have a terrific set of books that reflect their lives, or, the lives of a Navajo family living a life infused with Navajo ways of being. I love the books and recommend them to everyone. They have something to offer all of us.  They're available from booksellers like Amazon, but if you can, order them from Salina Bookshelf. Its a small press, and I much prefer to send my dollars to a small press. Or, order them from Oyate and support the work that Oyate does.

And if you know of other board books by Native writers, let me know! Here's some that I've written about already:

Boozhoo: Come Play With Us, by Deanna Himanga
I See Me, by Margaret Manuel
Welcome Song for Baby, by Richard Van Camp

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Niimiwin - Everyone Dance

A few years ago the Fond du Lac Head Start program published a terrific board book called Boozhoo: Come Play With Us. Set at the headstart, the book consists of photographs of Native children at play. Text on each page is in Ojibwe and English.

This year they published another board book. This one is Niimiwin - Everyone Dance. I've ordered it. What I've read about it so far is that it is about pow wows. I look forward to getting it! If its anything like Boozhoo, it'll be on my list of Top Ten Books for Preschool-Aged Children.  You can order a copy from the Fond du Lac Head Start for $5.95. Here's the cover:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Brenda Stanley's I AM NUCHU

Several weeks ago a reader wrote to ask if I'd seen Brenda Stanley's I Am Nuchu. I hadn't, and that reader sent me a copy. I've read it and am sharing thoughts today. I apologize up-front for the disjointed qualities of this review. I had a hard time reading the book, following threads, making notes...  That difficulty is evident in my review. The book itself feels very superficial. And it feels like I'm reading a movie script (kind of like when I read Crowley's Starfish) or when I read a student paper... the ones that feel like a rush-job... Leaps, gaps, mistakes.  Anyway... here goes. I've tried to put description in regular type and my own thoughts/comments in italics.

The cover and design

On the front cover is a photograph of a young man who, I presume, is meant to be Cal, the protagonist. He's got long brown hair and is wearing a white t-shirt. He appears to be leaning on something that is chest-high because his arms are crossed in front of him, up high. On his wrists are several beaded bracelets. Behind him is a beautiful, sweeping vista. Overlaid on that vista is what I think are two layers of an artists rendering of petroglyphs. One is in brown, the other is in blue-gray. Layered on that in large white letters outlined in black is the title of the book I AM NUCHU.

There are 21 chapters in the book. The text for each one begins partway down the page. The upper portion of the page has the chapter number (in the same font as the title) and six petroglyphs.

My thoughts: There's too much on the cover. The petroglyphs only clutter the scene. I think they're meant to signal that this is a story about American Indians. I guess the publisher/designer decided the photograph of the guy wasn't enough of a signal. "Nuchu" is the spelling Stanley used in her book. The book doesn't list sources, but I found that spelling in the 1907 Handbook of American Indians, published by the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. Tribal members use "Noochew". Both would likely be pronounced the same and some might say its a small detail. I think it does matter and would have liked to see Noochew. 

The characters
The protagonist is a 17 year old boy named Cal Burton. He's got two younger teen sibs: Doran and Rachel. Their mother is Mona. She's Ute, born and raised on the "Fort Duchesne reservation."  She's married to David. He's white and lived in Roosevelt, a town near "the Fort." Mona's father, Raymond, is an elder.  His wife, Dorothy, is long-dead and so is Raymond's other daughter, Jackie.  The non-Native characters include teenager Mitch, who Cal gets into a couple of fights with, and Mitch's dad, the sheriff. Cal calls him "Silver Hair" because of the way he wears his hair (slicked back, shiny gray). His actual name is Franklin Grayson.

The Native characters are teen boys: Fly, Johnny, Puck, and Jackie's older son who has fetal alcohol syndrome.

My thoughts: Stanley's character's say "on the Fort" a lot. I don't know if people who live there say "on the Fort" or "on the reservation" or something else entirely. I called out to the library there to ask about it and librarians I spoke with couldn't recall anyone saying "on the Fort." My conclusion: It is possible, but not probable. 

In chapter one, we read "It was the fall of 2009, and the war in Iraq was entering its seventh year" (p. 7). In terms of place, the family in the story has moved from "the crystal clean, lush foothills of the Spokane Valley" to "barren, insipid" (p. 7) Eastern Utah, specifically, the "Fort Duchesne Indian Reservation." To get to their grandfather's house (where they're going to live), they turn at a large cluster of triangular shaped adobe buildings" that "bore an obvious semblance to a gathering of teepees."

My thoughts: Based on photos I've seen, I don't think its barren or insipid, but, those sorts of judgments are relative. Stanley is trying to make a stark contrast in Cal's life before this move, and she is using geography to help with that contrast. 

I don't think the Utes call it the "Fort Duchesne Indian Reservation." From all that I've seen, it is the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Fort Duchesne, an old army fort, is on the reservation, and its the location of the tribal offices.

I was surprised to see "adobe" in Stanley's description of the buildings. I think she was referring to the Bottle Hollow Resort, which was torn down in 2009. Some of the buildings looked like teepees, but I don't think they were made of adobe. They were wooden structures, built in the 1970s. The photo at left is from a March, 2009 news story about the demolition.

There is an interview of Stanley on Bethany Hegedus's LiveJournal. There, Stanley says that she wrote the book nearly thirty years ago when she was 17 and living near the Fort Duchesne reservation. Reading that helped me understand why Cal and his friends would be listening to "More than a Feeling" by the rock group Boston---- a song I recall from my teen years. It seemed a little odd that Cal and his friends would be listening to it.  Reading about the demolition of the resort's history in the 70s and 80s makes me think that when Stanley revised the manuscript for publication, she added the Iraq war and year in her opening pages but didn't go through the rest of the manuscript to update things like music and place.

They drive into "town" where the street is lined with "paltry little homes." In the yards, "Indian men and women sat on mismatched patio furniture, each of them with a tall bottle of beer resting somewhere close by" (p. 16).  The next morning, Cal and Doran head into Roosevelt (that's where they meet "Silver Hair") and when they return at 10:00 in the morning, there are three "shiny new pick-ups" in the driveway. Inside are an Indian man and two Indian women in the kitchen with Mona. When Cal walked in, Mona turned toward the sink, trying to hide a beer from him.  Cal yells at her for drinking in the morning. On page 48, Cal and Doran are talking about their mother and Cal says that she's different and that she "never drank back home" (p. 48).  His first morning at his new high school, his first-hour teacher (subject is not specified) assumes that because he's Indian, he's behind academically. The students giggle and whisper about him because he's Indian. We read:
It embarrassed him to think about the pride he used to feel in his dark skin and black hair, his Indian blood, how the girls had loved it. The images of fierce warriors, their bodies sculpted and strong, were what he'd always pictured his ancestors to be. Not the unemployed alcoholics he saw around his kitchen table every night.

My thoughts: Alcohol is referenced many times in the book. Beer cans are everywhere, the Indian teens drink, the adults drink, and eventually, Cal drinks, too. There is a lot of alcohol in Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, too, but not as much as Stanley works into her book. To me, Alexie's references are more contextualized and sad, while Stanley's are superficial and judgmental. 

I think that observation applies to the way poverty is presented, too. 

I'm also not sure that the people who actually live in those houses would call it a "town." It sounds to me like a subdivision much like the one at Nambe---or on many reservations. The houses are, in some cases, run-down. Though Stanley tries to blame the Indians for the condition of the houses, the fact is that too many of them are poorly constructed HUD houses that are hard to maintain no matter who you are. This housing is part of treaty obligations that the U.S. government fails to adequately fulfill.

When they first drove into "town," Cal and Doran saw brand new cars and trucks and wonder why, if the Indians can afford those cars, they stay in their "diseased looking houses" (p. 48).  Later, Cal tells Doran that Mona told him they "get money from the oil that comes off the reservation. So they buy all these killer cars and let their houses turn into slums."

My thoughts: I did a bit of research and found that there's a lot of oil and gas on the Ute's land and in the Uintah Basin and that there was a boom period in the 70s and 80s.     

I Am Nuchu is being characterized as a mystery because everyone seems to be keeping something from Cal. If you pay attention, you'll know part of the "mystery" pretty early via some not-so-subtle foreshadowing. Cal's father is not actually David, the man Mona (his mother) married when she left the reservation. Instead, Cal's father is the sleazy, racist sheriff who, as a young man, had sex with lot of Native girls and got three different ones pregnant. That bit of info is revealed near the end of the book. Throughout the book he utters ugly racist statements about the Utes.

Because of those statements, Cal is convinced that Silver Hair killed Mona and her near-term baby. An investigation at the time of her death came up empty, which Cal attributes to a corrupt sheriff's department.

We eventually learn that Mona killed Jackie because Mona wanted the sheriff to marry her, not Jackie.

In the final chapters, Mona, having confessed to Cal that she killed her sister, manages to run off to the lake where she killed her. Cal finds her there with a gun and persuades her not to commit suicide.  Later she runs away from the courthouse where she's gone to give a statement. They find her again at the lake, but this time, she's dead, having driven her car into the lake.

My thoughts: All the high drama throughout the story reminds me of some of the celebrity TV programs people watch today. Like Keeping up with the Kardashian's! The Wikipedia entry for that show reads 
Tabloid protagonist Kim Kardashian and her colorfully blended family, which includes step-dad Bruce Jenner, are the subjects of this reality series that chronicles their often chaotic domestic life together. Although the family members frequently are at odds, especially Kim and sisters Kourtney and Khloé, they always support one another in the end.
That paragraph could be about the Burtons! Cal storms about, declaring loudly what younger sister Rachel can and cannot do, making judgments on her makeup and clothes. Mona is always yelling or shouting. And she must be drunk most of the time because at one point Cal notes that at least she is sober. All the sexual activity that sets the plot in motion... All the beer.... Flashy cars...   

It was quite a surprise to see this word appear on page 144. Cal is worried that the sheriff will come after him on "the Fort" but Fly, one of the Ute teens, tells him that the sheriff has no power on the reservation because "We're a sovereign nation." Fly goes on to tell Cal that the sheriff has no jurisdiction on the reservation, and that the B.I.A. (Bureau of Indian Affairs) enforces laws on the reservation.

My thoughts: That's accurate but I imagine readers might wonder why the Utes (or any tribe, for that matter) is sovereign. Sovereignty is at the heart of our standing as Native Nations. It is very important. The BIA website has an accessible definition explanation:
The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities as provided by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, court decisions and Federal statutes. Within the government-to-government relationship, Indian Affairs provides services directly or through contracts, grants, or compacts to 565 Federally recognized tribes with a service population of about 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives. While the role of Indian Affairs has changed significantly in the last three decades in response to a greater emphasis on Indian self-governance and self-determination, Tribes still look to Indian Affairs for a broad spectrum of services.
Later on Cal, Doran, Fly, Johnny, and Puck drive out to Bitter Creek to hunt "Deer, elk, whatever" (p. 146) they want to, Puck says, because Bitter Creek is part of the reservation and because they're a sovereign nation. Johnny says "On the reservation, we have the right to hunt whenever we need the food" (p. 147). Johnny tells him a Ute creation story, and where he learns that they prefer to be called "Nuchu." On their next hunting trip out there a few days later, they see Mitch and his friends down in the valley painting the petroglyphs there. Cal shoots to get their attention and make them stop, which makes Mitch climb up to the ridge, where he shoots and kills Doran.

My thoughts: Again, Stanley is correct. Native people do have hunting and fishing rights on our lands, but it isn't quite the "whenever" she suggests. We do have hunting seasons, too, that we observe. Mitch and his friends have guns, too, though Stanley doesn't say they're there to hunt.

In the first chapter, Doran asks Cal why he isn't curious about "the Indians" especially since, growing up in Spokane where they stand out as not-white, the boys have been asked about their identity all their lives.  As the book progresses, however, we learn that Mona told them a lot about their Ute heritage.  For example, on page 21, there's this:
"When Cal was a child, his mother sat in his room at night and told him stories about the tribe and the teachings of the Creator. [...] And while his interest in the Utes teachings faded, the appeal of being Ute was exciting. Cal's distinctive dark skin and hair made him different and he liked it. He often talked about his Ute blood as a way to draw even more attention to his unique characteristics."
And this is on page 23:
"He'd heard Mona talk many times about the ceremonies and beliefs of the Ute people. Her dark eyes sparkled as she told about the Bear Dance and the summer night rituals."
The family moves to Utah during the fall. On page 23, Mona tells Cal that Raymond is an "Elder of the tribe" and that he is goes to meetings "to make decisions about the reservation and stuff." That evening he's going to be at a meeting "to prepare for" the Bear Dance which they will do the next day.  I think that is an error.  Information provided by the tribe says that they do the Bear Dance in the spring, as shown on this 2009 poster. In one of the last chapters, several months have passed. It is winter again, and Cal is back from college. He told the school he needed to be back on the reservation for the Bear Dance. (Again, wrong season!)

Some closing thoughts
I could keep going...  But I think I'll stop. As I said to a colleague on Facebook, I wish with all my heart that this was a book I could recommend, but I can't. I said to another colleague that it screams outsider perspective. Stanley tried hard, and having spent her teen years there, she could have given us something really well-informed, but she doesn't.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

What does Sitting Bull's great grandson think about Obama's OF THEE I SING?

Yesterday I bought a copy of Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, written by Barack Obama, illustrated by Loren Long. The day before that, I listened to Eric LaPointe, the great grandson of Sitting Bull, talk about Obama's inclusion of Sitting Bull in Of Thee I Sing...

Here's a nice image of the lower half of the book, overlaid with a photograph of President Obama. We (my husband and myself) campaigned for him in Indiana, driving there to do some get-out-the-vote knocking on doors. Like many, we were inspired by the promise of his energy and vision. (I understand, appreciate, and admire what he is trying to do as President and wish that he was having more success with bipartisan efforts.)

The book flap on the inside-front cover says the book is a "tender, beautiful letter to his daughters" consisting of "a moving tribute to thirteen groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation."  Of the illustrations, the book flap says that Loren Long has captured "the personalities and achievements of these great Americans and the innocence and promise of childhood."

Among those thirteen individuals in the book is Sitting Bull.  Including Sitting Bull caused a stir that generated commentary from many quarters. Here's what ran in The New Yorker on November 18th:

In one corner is Fox Nation, a news and opinion Web site run by Fox News, which on Monday ran this headline about Obama’s new book: “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.” (The site has since defanged the headline, “for historical accuracy” as an editor’s note puts it, to “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General,” but the hyperlink remains: “”)

Prompted by Roger Sutton at Horn Book, I poked around and found the image of Sitting Bull that Roger asked me about. 

I wrote about the illustration and included a video Long made about his work on the book. A few days later, Scott Andrews, a colleague in American Indian Studies wrote about it, too. I especially like his line "Seeing the image of Sitting Bull as Real Estate..."
Roger, myself, and Scott noted that of the thirteen people in the book, Sitting Bull is the only person who isn't a person---as far as the illustrations go...  Everyone else is rendered as human beings. Instead of being shown as a human being, Sitting Bull is landscape, or as Scott said, "Real Estate."  Enough has been said about that illustration...

As I open the book and gaze for a while at the title page, I can see why so many people love the book, how and why it is being embraced by so many people. On the title page, we see over Obama's right shoulder.  He's watching his daughters stride off on a sidewalk. He's got one arm raised toward his chest, a gesture many parents recognize. As we watch our young ones walk away from us, we bring that arm up to our chest...  We want our children to have positive and happy experiences. Perhaps we are reaching for our heart, or maybe we're, in our unconscious imagination, holding our children close to us.

Anyway, the first page of the book pulls on our emotions. Obama writes:
Have I told you lately how wonderful you are? How the sound of your running from afar brings dancing rhythms to my day? How you laugh and sunshine spills into the room? 
Powerful words, at least for me! My daughter is now in college. Obama's words bring back lots of memories for me...  Of her first day in kindergarten, and how she ran down the sidewalk towards me at the end of the day, her face bright with excitement...  Or of her toddler years when she'd erupt into giggles each time she watched Pooh and Piglet slide from one side of Owl's house to another as the wind blew the tree from side to side...

Turning the page, Obama starts talking about the thirteen Americans.
He begins with Georgia O'Keeffe.  She lived many years in New Mexico (that's where I'm from; specifically, Nambe Pueblo, north of Santa Fe). Long's illustration of O'Keeffe painting a white rose is presumably set in her studio at Abiquiu.  On the right side of the illustration is a window. Outside that window, Long included a saguaro cactus. That's an error. Abiquiu is in northern New Mexico, just like Nambe, and there aren't saguaro's there. You'll find them in Arizona. Maybe she also worked in Arizona? Course, Long took his cue from Obama's text, which said that O'Keeffe "moved to the desert." If he'd have written high desert, then perhaps Long's illustration would not have included that saguaro. Northern New Mexico is much more like Colorado than the dry, barren deserts of Arizona. Some might say I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but, I love Nambe and northern New Mexico, and I want people to know what its like there. It is NOT a desert! (I hasten to add that I don't dislike deserts; they've got a beauty all their own, but what I'm striving for is accuracy in what we know, what we teach, what we impart to children via the text and illustration in children's books...)

I should, at this moment, point out that Long's illustration is on the right side of the page. On the left-hand side is a question Obama poses ("Have I told you that you are creative?") that corresponds to the figure he's writing about. Beneath the questions stand Obama's daughters. In front of them is a single child who I think is meant to be that figure (e.g. O'Keefe) as a child. All the children gaze up at the illustration on the right side of the page. This pattern continues through the entire book.

On the next page is Einstein, followed by Jackie Robinson, and then, Sitting Bull. On the left Obama writes "Have I told you that you are a healer?" Beneath the question is Sitting Bull as a little boy. He's got a single eagle feather in his hair, sticking straight up. He's wearing moccasins, trousers with medallions down the side, and a vest. He's looking up at the illustration (shown above). Beneath that illustration, the text reads:
Sitting Bull was a Sioux medicine man who healed broken hearts and broken promises. It is fine that we are different, he said. "For peace, it is not necessary for eagles to be crows." Though he was put in prison, his spirit soared free on the plains, and his wisdom touched the generations." 
That's a bit of a misquote I think. Sitting Bull is quoted as saying "it is not necessary for eagles to be crows" but that line did not start with "For peace." Here's the full quote from Vine Deloria Jr.'s God Is Red (p. 198). Deloria writes that this was Sitting Bull's reply to a question about why he did not surrender and return to the U.S. to live on a reservation:
Because I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is god in his sight. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.
What do you make of Obama's change to Sitting Bull's words?

On December 2nd, Native America Calling (a radio talk show) featured Sitting Bull's great grandson, Eric LaPointe, and Rhonda Le Valdo (she's president of the Native American Journalists Association.) She spoke about Fox, while LaPointe (shown below) talked about Sitting Bull. 

Some of the things LaPointe said in the interview are:
"I told her [a reporter] my great grandfather was never American. He was Lakota."
and he said he did not like his great grandfather in a book that also had Washington and Lincoln, because of what they did to Native peoples. Specifically, LaPointe spoke about Lincoln being the president who authorized the largest mass execution that ever took place in the United States. You'd be hard pressed to find it in a children's biography of Lincoln, but it did happen. In December of 1862, he ordered the execution of 38 Native men. Here's an excerpt from "A Half-Forgotten Lincoln," by Charles A. Eastman:
A strange scene was enacted at the then raw, frontier village of Mankato, Minnesota, the day after Christmas, 1862. Both white and red men, woman, and children--some yelling in triumph, others weeping in despair--were in the public scquare to witness the mass execution of 38 "blanket Sioux."

Behind the incident is a story of the sad transitional period of the once proud, generous, and hospitable Eastern Sioux. By the treaty of 1851 at Traverse de Sioux they were confined to a small tract of land and cut off from game on which they had subsisted. In return they were to be fed for a period and to receive interest from a 1 1/2 million-dollar trust fund.

But in 1862 Congress was busily occupied by the War between the States and for almost two years no annuities had been paid. Such cash as came was retained by traders in settlement of alleged debts. The Indians were destitute.
Eastman's article says that four "reckless young braves" attacked and killed two settlers families. Reading Eastman's article, you'll see his own position... He says his father counseled against warfare but that he was outvoted. Too many were starving and angry at the trader who, rather than provide the Indians with the annuities (food), said "If they're hungry, let them eat grass." Warfare ensued, the Dakota lost, and, 303 Dakota men were tried in military court and found guilty of murder. They were sentenced to hang. It was up to Lincoln to authorize the hanging, but instead, he asked for all the files. After reviewing them, he issued a warrant that led to the execution of 38 of the men. The others were sentenced to life in prison. Here's a popular engraving of it. Three thousand people watched:

There's a lot more to learn about what happened. You can read more at the Minnesota State History Museum website, and you may understand what LaPointe says when he said Lincoln was responsible for one of the worst atrocities in Native history.

At the start of his remarks, LaPointe said that Sitting Bull was not American. It wasn't until 1924 that American Indians became citizens of the United States via the Indian Citizenship Act. LaPointe also said that Sitting Bull was not Sioux. That, he said is a generalized word, and such generalizations are not helpful. Sitting Bull was Lakota, LaPointe tells us.  Those of you who've read things I've written, or heard me speak, know that specificity matters. I encourage people to be tribally specific when they're talking about me, for example. Instead of saying "Debbie Reese, a Native American (or American Indian)" or "Debbie Reese, a Pueblo Indian," I much prefer people say "Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian from the Upper Village." With that specificity, we can start breaking down that stereotypical, monolithic image of "Indian" that most people hold in their mind. "Sioux" and "Pueblo" are categories but they obscure a lot of diversity! There are, for example, 19 different pueblos in New Mexico, and within those 19, there are several different villages. There are differences across all of them, from language to dance!

LaPointe said he's proud that Obama looked at Sitting Bull admiringly, but not alongside Washington and Lincoln. His viewpoint is radically different from readers who like what Obama did. The thirteen people Obama chose to recognize in some way represent what we call America, and hence, Americans. After Sitting Bull are Billy Holiday, Helen Keller, Maya Lin, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong, Cesar Chavez, Abraham Lincoln, and last, George Washington. I've seen some critiques about Obama's choices, what they signify, etc. so I know there's other ways of analyzing the book. Given my area of work, I'm focusing on Sitting Bull.

On the final page of the book is a double-page spread of over 50 children, all gazing at the reader. The front line is the child-selves of the thirteen individuals, plus Obama's two daughter's, and at either end of the line, a child who could be any-child. In studying their clothing, it seems to me Long tries to show us children from different time periods. From historic (Washington in his knickers and red bow tie, holding an axe [to chop down that cherry tree???]) to the present day.

I can, for example, imagine that the girl in the top row with the green t-shirt and braids is meant to be a Native girl of the present day, or that the boy who looks African American (also in the back row) could be a Black Indian child...  But I gotta say that Long's illustration of Sitting Bull as a child who wears that eagle feather all the time... well, I have my doubts about that. It looks to me like Long's inspiration for that illustration is the famous photograph of Sitting Bull shown above in the photograph of La Pointe.

What I'm saying is that I think many children could study that final page and find someone on it that could be them. As such, I can almost say that Obama's book works for Native children, but... then... I come back to the Sitting-Bull-as-Landscape illustration, and, I wish that Long had given us Sitting Bull as a person instead.

I wonder how--and if--parents and teachers will explain that page? Will it jump out at them the way it did to me, or to Scott, or to Eric LaPointe? I hope so! I hope you share the link to this page with your friends and colleagues. This book---as widely as it will be bought and read---provides all of us with an opportunity to teach children and each other, too, about the ways that American Indians are portrayed and how those portrayals could be so much better...

Saturday, December 04, 2010

What is the title of the last book about American Indians that you bought?

Just curious... 

What is the title of the last book about "Indians of North America" that you bought? My use of quotes is not a trick... that's a Library of Congress category. And if you can remember when and why you bought it, include that info, too.

Send me the title in a comment (below), or, in an email to

Friday, December 03, 2010

fatty legs, by Christy Fenton-Jordan and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

I've got fatty legs: A True Story, by Christy Fenton-Jordan and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton on order.  Earlier today I listened to a podcast with the authors.

You can view a trailer at the Annick site. It is getting favorable reviews, even a star from Kirkus!

I look forward to it, because it is Margaret's story. She went to a boarding school as a child...

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Teaching young children about Pueblo Indians....

Doing research at Yale, my daughter came across a 1938 publication that she showed to me, knowing I'd be interested in it...

Titled A Study of the Pueblo Indians, it was published by the State of California Department of Education in a series of curriculum units for elementary schools. This one is Bulletin No. 10, August 15, 1938 by Gertrude Maloney. Beneath her name is "Training Teacher, University Elementary School, University of California at Los Angeles." A Study of the Pueblo Indians is about a class of third graders, studying Pueblo Indians.

In Part I, Maloney listed books used to create a stimulating environment: Hopi, the Cliff Dweller (1909) by Martha Jewett, Children of the Cliff (1910) by Belle Wiley and G. Edick, Lolami of the Tusayan (1903) by Clara Kern Bayliss, Swift Eagle of the Rio Grande (1928) by Elizabeth W. De Huff,  and Kwahu, the Hopi Indian Boy (1913) by George Newell Moran. On the blackboard, she printed an excerpt from Chi-Wee by Grace P. Moon, published in 1930. I've got some of those books in my to-study research collection.

Here's why I even began this particular post...  In Part I when the teacher is introducing the topic, she learns that some children
...thought that all Indians lived in tepees or wigwams, that they went about with bows and arrows and tomahawks, decked in paint and feathers and bent on mischief--a conception of Indian life much like that of many adults. (p. 2)
The publication is over 70 years old. However... The sad truth is that kids and adults today still think the same things that kids and adults thought in 1938. See Brophy's Elementary Students Learn about Native Americans.

What did YOU do TODAY that would challenge and counter those mistaken ideas?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Scott Andrews (Cherokee) on OF THEE I SING

Scott Andrews is a professor at Cal State University, Northridge, where he teaches in English and in the American Indian Studies program. Dean Radar is also an English professor, teaching at the University of San Francisco. Dean publishes a blog called The Weekly Rader where he looks at the intersection of media, art, politics, and culture. On Tuesday, Dean published Scott's Of Thee I Sing: A Semiotic Review.  Here's one excerpt:  
Seeing the image of Sitting Bull as Real Estate is surprising in this context.  A book like Of Thee I Sing is intended to remind us of famous, admirable people from American history – to make them visible to us again.  It is odd, then, that in this act of remembrance, Sitting Bull is not present. 
 Scott analyzes the illustrations and ends with this:
Of course, it is better to have an Indian in the book than not.  But it would be nice to have an Indian who lives on the ground like a human rather than in the ground like a specter or ghost.
Click over to read his entire essay. You can read my first post about it here. I have yet to get a copy of the book to see what the text itself says. 

Scott writes that it is better to have an Indian in the book than not. I'm not sure I agree. We (American Indians) are overrepresented in children's and young adult literature.  You can see some of what I mean by "overrepresented" in my notes on SLJ's Top 100 Children's Novels, a list compiled by Elizabeth Bird. 

And you can also tune in (online) to Native America Calling on Dec 2nd when they discuss Of Thee I Sing. Guests that day include Ernie LaPointe (one of Sitting Bull's descendants) and Rhonda LeValdo, a Native journalist.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Loren Long's illustration of Sitting Bull in Barack Obama's OF THEE I SING

I've been on the road the last few days, unable (till now) to write about, or join the conversations about, Barack Obama's book for children, Of Thee I Sing.

Early on the morning of the day I hit the road (we left early afternoon), news stories in London focused on his inclusion of Sitting Bull. Some people there speculated that certain segments of American politics would object to Sitting Bull being someone who Obama would praise. I mentioned it in my Intro to American Indian Studies course, Brianna (a student) said that Fox News had already brought it up. 

Last night I was finally online, catching up on the Obama/Sitting Bull discussion, reading email, etc. In my mail was one from Roger Sutton at Horn Book, noting that he wonders what I think of the book.  Conservative political groups don't like it, and he wonders if Obama's book will draw the ire of progressives (me) as well.  Roger wrote that:
Loren Long chose to depict Sitting Bull as a sort of landscape, with buffalo for eyes, hills and cracked earth for nose and mouth, and some pine trees placed so they form eyebrows (and, dare I say, boogers). It's the old one-with-nature stereotype, which wouldn't be so bad had all of the other subjects of the book not been depicted realistically.

I went online and found this image:

Roger said the other illustrations of people are realistic. I can't get to a bookstore to get a copy of the book, but I did find this video:

And, as I watched it, I see what Roger means. All the other people in the book are portrayed in a realistic fashion. They look great! In contrast, "Sitting Bull" is kind of scary looking. I can imagine a kid reading (or being read) the book. Turning the pages, seeing the realistic art, and then coming upon this one?! I imagine kids leaning in closer to the page in confusion...  Long definitely bought into the one-with-nature stereotype...   Visit Long's website and roll your cursor over the sketches. They'll change to the colorized pages in the book. I wish he'd done Sitting Bull in a realistic fashion. Looking at his site, I see the new edition of The Little Engine that Could---wherein there is an Indian doll... I wrote about it in July of 2008.

Once I get a copy of Of Thee I Sing, I'll be able to say something about the text for the Sitting Bull page. 

For now, see the Native commentary at Indian Country Today in Rob Capriccioso's article,  Fox News gets Sitting Bull history wrong.