The author is Angela Shelf Medearis. In a note in the back of the book she writes that her great-grandfather escaped from slavery in 1862 and ended up in "Okehema, Oklahoma" where she says he was accepted as a member of the Seminole tribe. He married a Seminole woman and they had a son. Their marriage did not last, and he moved near Oklahoma City and married an African American woman in 1909 or thereabouts. Twice a year, he would take his family of nine children to Okehema for a week-long powwow.
I taught at Riverside Indian School in Oklahoma, and, my colleagues there (I'm thinking of the Native teachers) spoke of going to Okemah. According to the Okemah website, the town was established in 1902 and named after a Kickapoo chief. Given the date (1902) it likely is not the town that Medearis great grandfather went to.
I can't find any place named Okehema, but in a certain sense, that doesn't mean anything. Not all small towns, much less small Native towns and communities, are on maps, or in books, histories, etc.
There are, as Medearis says in her note, Seminole's in Oklahoma. Through Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, they were removed there from Florida between 1838 and 1842 where they set up several towns and schools for their children. They are now known as the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Some Seminoles remained in Florida, and are known as the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Do visit the Florida website and read its history pages.
The story of Medearis's great-grandfather and his life with the Seminoles is an important one. There is much to be studied and learned about the lives of African Americans and American Indians. From adoption stories like the one Medearis tells, to the American Indian tribes who owned slaves, we have a lot to learn.
It is because we know so little that I am so disappointed in Dancing with the Indians. The last line in her note says "The text for Dancing with the Indians was inspired by my ancestor's experience." I think, then, the book offers us an important story, but that story is ruined by the stereotypical imagery and factual errors in Medearis's writing and Byrd's illustrations. It is a bit complicated... perhaps by Medearis's knowledge of her own African American cultural traditions.
Take, for example, the page where Medearis writes:
Our wagon nears the camp.Tom-tom is a drum, but it is not a phrase used by American Indians. It is, however, used to describe East Indian, Asian, and African drums. Of course, it is a common phrase, and East Indians, Asians, and African and African Americans all probably have their own words for it, in their own languages. Just as we, American Indians, use the English word "drum" but have our own tribally-specific words for drum. Nonetheless, if you go onto the Internet, you'll see a lot of sites that say that a tom-tom is an American Indian drum. There are lot of sites with instructions for making a tom-tom, and from what I've seen, they are tied to American Indians, not any of the other groups that actually make and use tom-toms. Those sites are incorrect. American Indians do not use the word "tom-tom".
Drums pound and move our feet.
Soon everyone is swaying
to the tom-tom beat.
A significant difference in a tom-tom and an American Indian drum is how it is played. In the illustrations of Dancing with the Indians, the men are shown playing the drum with their hands. That is correct, IF they are playing tom-toms, but, in fact, these Seminole's would be playing drums, and using a drumstick, not their hands as shown here:
On the next page, "the rattlesnake dancing starts." The first illustration for it is the one I've shown above, where the men are playing the drum with their hands.
Medearis describes the rattlesnake dance, saying the dancers join hands, and then "twist and writhe and curl, the coils of a giant snake. The slithery animal glides into the smoky night." I have to do more research on the Seminoles Ribbon, Rainbow, and Rattlesnake dances. On the dedication page, Medearis says that her great-uncle and aunt had to search through "sixty years of memories" to answer her questions and provide her with information for the book. That's a lot of years to sift through. Perhaps the names and descriptions of the actual dances they saw are lost in those sixty years. Then again, maybe the Seminole's do those dances, just as she describes them! If you're a Seminole, or, if you're seen these dances, please do submit a comment.
Turning, now to some of the text and illustration that is stereotypical. Medearis describes the dancers as "fiercely painted" and "reckless" and "fearless and untamed." She says they "stamp and holler." All of those words capture the stereotypical savage Indian that in that stereotypical framework, roamed the land, terrifying the brave pioneers. The accompanying illustrations show a frightened child, drawing back from that "angry cavalcade" as shown:
This gathering Medearis writes about takes place at night. As dawn approaches, the Indians invite the visitors to "Dance the Indian Stomp Dance, join us one and all." They "dip and stomp and sway" and the illustrations show them in very active poses, with legs kicking and arms thrown this way or that, hair caught in the intensity of their motions, bent way forward at the waist. But, none of that looks at all like the Stomp Dance I've seen.
In summary, it is a vitally important story, and we need that story, but not quite the way it is told or shown in this book, and that's too bad. Instead of this book, I suggest you take a look at Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto.
To cite this page using MLA style:
Reese, Debbie. "Angela Shelf Medearis's Dancing with the Indians." American Indians in Children's Literature. Web. 14, Apr. 2010.
Please share the link to this page with your colleagues and others who work with children and books:
(Thanks, Kristen C., for writing to ask me about this book. I've had notes on it for a long time, and your question prompted me to write up those notes and post this review essay.)