Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Angela Shelf Medearis's DANCING WITH THE INDIANS

Angela Shelf Medearis's Dancing with the Indians was picked up by Reading Rainbow and turned into a video. The story has so much potential to enrich our understandings of American Indian and African American relationships in the 1800s and early 1900s.

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.
Drums pound and move our feet.
Soon everyone is swaying
to the tom-tom beat.
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".

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:


Prior to that page, Medearis tells us that the first dance they do at the camp is a Ribbon Dance. The text reads: "The women gather around. Shells on wrists and ankles make a tinkling sound." She doesn't say anything about the ribbons the women wear in their hair. It is the ribbons, however, that the illustrator chose to focus on. His illustration, however, is incorrect. He shows the women putting ribbons on their ankles, and holding them in their hands. That is not a correct portrayal of that dance:

I also doubt that the women dance in quite the way Byrd shows on the next page. Two of the women have lifted a foot nearly waist high, kicking it out to the left. I'm a bit confused, however, if the women are doing the Ribbon Dance, or if they've started doing the Rainbow Dance. There is no text that says they're doing a Rainbow Dance other than a "Soon the Rainbow Dance comes to a colorful end." That information is on a page that, interestingly, shows what looks like a Pueblo Indian drum, and, a drumstick. Neither of the two men by that drum are actually playing it. They are looking off into the distance at, I gather, the women doing the Rainbow Dance.

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:

On the next page, she says, they "sing of ancient battles gloriously fought and won, of shaggy buffalo, and brave deeds they have done."  Battles, definitely, but buffalo? Not likely. That illustration shows a man in Plains Indian style clothing, riding a horse, hunting buffalo with a bow and arrow.

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.)


Kristen said...

Thank you! I was confused about this book because, like you said, it seems like an important story, and yet it is told with stereotypical images. This review was very helpful!

Debbie Reese said...


I think that you knew the images were stereotypical but were looking for support of your assessment. So.... I am really glad that you recognized them and that the review was able to confirm your thoughts. I'm confident you'll be able to recognize stereotypes when you come across them in other books, too.

Melissa said...

Interesting critique, as always.

"Tom-tom" is really only appropriate for East Indian drums, and perhaps only a specific type:

It's not appropriate for Asian or African drums, either--there are plenty of more accurate words for those. And given how poorly the term has been used for so long, it might be better not to use it at all.

Emmalia said...

I'm a Seminole, and I've certainly never heard of the Ribbon or Rattlesnake dances. However, I affiliate myself with the Florida Seminoles and grew up in New York City, so they may be something I simply wasn't acquainted with.

Jean Mendoza said...

The ribbon dance is definitely associated with the Muskogee (Creeks), and the Seminole are affiliated historically and linguistically with the Creeks. But the ribbon dances (including the placement of the ribbons) our family is familiar with look different from what is portrayed in the book. Drums were not used at all; rhythm was provided by shell shakers.

Debbie Reese said...

I just got an email from Beverly Slapin, pointing me to a review of DANCING WITH THE INDIANS. The review is in A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin.

Written by Adrianne Micco, who is Seminole. Here's an excerpt from that review (see p. 345):

"The leaping, kicking, twisting figures make a mocery of any real Native dancing (and it's certainly not Seminole dancing!)."

She also notes that the clothing is "a weird combination of different eras of Seminole and Creek dress, and stereotypical "Indian" dress."

Delux said...

Ive passed this review along to a Seminole friend for comment. If I can I will take a look at the book myself.

I also want to cosign the earlier commentor re: terms for drums. I dont think I've ever heard "tom tom" used as a generic term for drums, and I grew up in an area very very heavy on african and afro caribbean percussion.

Spinning said...

Hi there,

Just wanted to say thank you for the blog... and also to mention that as far as I am aware, "tom-tom" is a kind of generic (and pretty inaccurate) word to use re. African, Afro-Caribbean and East Indian drums. (Also Middle Eastern and South Asian...)

I am a percussionist and people tend to compliment me on my "bongo playing." The thing is, I don't play bongos. ;-) I do play a number of West African, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Arabic instruments that all have specific names in the cultures they come from - sometimes the instruments have more than one name, but that's more of a regional thing (especially in the Middle East and North Africa).

Hope this is helpful!

all the best,

Spinning said...

One other thought:

My guess (haven't yet found sources to back this up, though), is that "tom-tom" might be an Anglicized version of the French tam tam, which does refer to drums in general.

I think the folks at the Tam Tam Mandingue USA website (W. African percussion school founded by Guinean drummer Mamady Keita) might be able to clarify. (site is in English; they have teachers and an HQ in the US.)