Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jean Craighead George's THE BUFFALO ARE BACK

I received an inquiry about Jean Craighead George's The Buffalo Are Back (Dutton, 2010) and will share my observations and analysis as I turn each page of the not-paginated picture book. The paintings are by Wendell Minor. I've included some of the illustrations.

Based on my analysis, I do not recommend The Buffalo Are Back.

In this analysis, I am focusing primarily on the Native imagery/representations in the book. My descriptions and summary text are in regular font; my comments are in italics. Note: In the analysis I use the word "gutter," which is the term used to describe the space where the pages are bound together. Pages to the left and to the right meet together, in the gutter.

I hope this analysis helps parents, teachers, librarians, book reviewers, writers, illustrators, and editors see books from the vantage point of a Native educator who is interested in books that accurately portray American Indians and Indigenous Nations and peoples around the globe.

Among the criteria I have in mind when analyzing a book are the following:
  1. Does the author/illustrator specify a tribal nation?
  2. What is the time period?
  3. Is the history accurate?
  4. How does the author/illustrator present gender?
  5. Does the author's word choice indicate bias against Native peoples?

Let's begin!

The front cover (shown above)
On the left side of the cover is a buffalo head in profile. To its right is a buffalo calf. They're in some tall grass. Perched atop one of the tall blades of grass is a lark. All are looking to the right. This orientation invites us to open the book.

Title page
The calf is standing, alone, in the center of the page. Beneath it are two prairie dogs standing upright as prairie dogs often do.

First double-paged spread

Left of gutter: Acknowledgement from Wendell Minor, the illustrator.

Right of gutter: Jean Craighead George dedicates the book "To Cyd and Carol Ann, who praise the diversity of the earth and the return of the buffalo. Minor dedicates it "To Jean, in celebration of her fifty years of writing wonderful books that teach children the wonders of nature." The page includes a profile of the calf's head.

Second double-page spread
Left of gutter: same illustration as shown on the cover

Right of gutter: Three prairie dogs face left, looking toward the calf. The text reads:
In a time long ago, an orange buffalo calf was born. [...] On that day in the mid-1800s seventy-five million buffalo roamed in North America. In little more than fifty years, there would be almost none.

What happened? The answer is a story of the American Indians, the buffalo, and the grass.
Craighead George tells us that the book is set in 1850 or thereabouts. She tells us there were millions of buffalo, but that there would soon be almost none. She poses a 'what happened' question and answers her question with "...a story of the American Indians, the buffalo, and the grass." As I read her answer to that question, I think to myself "What? No mention of Americans or the U.S. government who were largely responsible for that dramatic change?"

Third double-page spread
Left of gutter: The page is titled "The American Indians." In the first paragraph, Craighead George says that on the day the calf was born, the air was smoky because "The Indians who lived on the plains were setting the grasses ablaze, as they had for thousands of years." I like that she said they had been there for thousands of years. I would have liked her to specify a tribal nation instead of saying "Indians." For example, she could have said "The Plains Indians were setting the grasses ablaze..." and that would have been ok, but, it would have been better if she had said "Northern Plains" or "Southern Plains" or even better if she'd specified a tribe. 

Right of gutter: Minor depicts the prairie on fire. The Indians Craighead George refers to are shown in the distance, some with a hand raised. In that hand is a flame. One Indian is on horseback. In the background is a structure that I take to be a grass lodge like those used by the Wichitas (Southern Plains tribe). Minor's illustration of the grass lodge tells me that he's depicting the southern plains. The illustration, in this case, is tribally specific, but not the accompanying text.

Fourth double-page spread
Left of gutter (see illustration to the right): A hunter, who I learn from the facing page, is a "white fur hunter." He is looking out over a herd of buffalo (the illustration spills over to the right side of the gutter).

Right of gutter: The page is titled "The Buffalo." The first paragraph reads:
In the mid 1800s, change came to the plains. First it was white fur hunters. They stacked the beautiful buffalo hides in pointed canoes and sold them east for profit. Then the American explorers came, who shot many animals for fun. Buffalo made good targets for the hunters because they are big and often stand still.
In fact, change came to the plains much earlier than the mid 1800s. Anthony Hendry of the Hudson's Bay Company, for example, was there in the 1750s. 

I wonder why Craighead George uses "white" to describe fur traders and "American" to describe explorers? 

Lewis and Clark--explorers--set out on their expedition in 1804, which is before the period Craighead George is referring to (mid 1800s). Her timeline is wrong. Change came long before the mid 1800s. 
  • In The People: A History of Native America by Edmunds, Hoxie, and Salisbury (published in 2007 by Houghton Mifflin, p. 198), the authors state that during the 1780s, the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikara's)--they're Plains tribes--were devastated by smallpox. Their population went from 16,000 to 6,100. And in 1837, a steamboat of the American Fur Company that had several passengers aboard who had smallpox landed at a Mandan village. Another epidemic ensued, and the Three Affiliated Tribes population declined again, to 2,300. 
  • According to information on the website of the Three Affiliated Tribes, in 1825, the U.S. government negotiated treaties with the Teton, Yankton, and Yanktonai Dakota as well as the Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, treaties through which the tribes agreed not to trade with anyone but American citizens.
In short, the history is far more complicated than Craighead George suggests with her "In the mid-1800s, change came to the plains."

The second paragraph (still on the fourth double-page spread) of "The Buffalo" reads:
But it was settlers from the East and the American government that killed almost all of the buffalo herds. After the Civil War, the government bought huge tracts of land from the Indians. They forced many Indians to go to reservations and sold the land to settlers. Families from Europe and the East Coast rushed west to settle the rich black prairie land.
Yes, it was settlers and the U.S. government that killed most of the herds. 

In her second sentence, Craighead George says the government bought huge tracts of land from the Indians after the Civil War. The Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865. I wonder if she's talking about the Dawes Act of 1887? Through that act, Native Nations lost land, but not due to the government buying the land from them. Rather, it was a legal move by the U.S. government to break up the integrity and community values/orientation of the tribes as Nations by allotting individuals plots of land that they would own. Such ownership, the hope was, would assimilate them into becoming white American citizens. The "surplus" land would be sold to settlers.

And "forced to go to reservations" is not quite right either---at least not at that time period. Native Nations were forcibly moved from their homelands in the East and South to what was then-called Indian Territory, but that happened in the early 1800s, not after the Civil War. Returning again to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation website, there is information about the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which says that through the treaty, several tribes established boundaries for what became their reservations. That was in 1851, before the Civil War. Maybe that's what Craighead George is thinking about. 

This all might seem a bit picky to, perhaps, a mainstream reader, but it definitely matters to, say, someone in a tribal nation whose history includes close relationships with buffaloes. 

Craighead George's repeated use of "Indians" is confusing to me, a Pueblo Indian woman, trying to understand what she's talking about. When she uses the word "Indians," is she talking about specific individuals or does her "Indians" refer to Native Nations? And, her last sentence in the paragraph says "Families from Europe and the East Coast...." ---- She doesn't use "families" to talk about Indian people in her book. As such, she unintentionally affirms a pervasive representation of "Indian" meaning Indian men who are too-often shown without wives, children, mothers, fathers, families, etc. 
Fifth double-page spread:
Left of gutter: The illustration is an Indian man in profile (shown here on right). He's facing towards the facing page, on which are shown tipis and a staff on which there is a buffalo skull. One half of the skull has red dots; the other half has blue dots. There are two feathers affixed to the pole, above the skull.

Here's the kicker:  Unlike the white fur hunter on the previous page, this Indian man is see-through. You can see through his torso to the prairie grasses behind him. Why did Minor do that? 

Because his name is included in the text on the facing page, I think this illustration is supposed to be Sitting Bull.

Right of gutter: Remember, the words on the previous page said that families from the East Coast were rushing in to settle on the prairie. The text on this page reads:
But there was trouble on the plains. The government broke its treaties with the Indians. So the Indians fought back and won several battles against the United States Army. Then the government saw another way to defeat the Indians. Soldiers and settlers were encouraged to shoot every buffalo they saw, or drive whole herds over cliffs. Without the buffalo for food, shelter, and clothing, the Indians could not survive on the plains. 
Yes, there was trouble. I like that she uses "battles" and that she doesn't use "massacre" or "uprising." It was, in fact, war. But I wish she had said "The United States government broke its treaties with the Native Nations (or Native governments)." That small change would be far more accurate. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn has an insightful article in which she talks about words and what they mean, with respect to the wars between Native Nations and the the United States. It is called "The Lewis and Clark Story, the Captive Narrative, and the Pitfalls of Indian History." It is in Wicazo Sa Review, Volume 19.1. If you'd like a copy send me an email and I'll send it to you.

In Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of how the West was Lost, Colin G. Calloway writes that the U.S. Army and professional hide hunters (sportsmen) worked together to kill buffalo. At this point, I'm not sure where Craighead George will go with her "Indians could not survive" sentence.

Her next paragraph reads:
Said the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, who defeated General George A. Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn: "A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell--a death-wind for my people."

And, the settlers soon discovered, a death-wind for the prairie.
Finally! Craighead George names a specific tribal nation but I wish she had been even more specific, using "Hunkpapa Lakota" instead of "Sioux".... Seeing Sioux, though, makes me wonder if all along, the tribal nation she's thinking of when she says "Indians" is the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota (Sioux).  If so, then I think I am right in guessing that it is Sitting Bull that Minor portrayed earlier in the book, but again, why did he present him as a see-through image? It reminds me of the illustrations in Susan Jeffers' Brother Eagle Sister Sky (see discussion of that book in "Pitfalls and Possibilities," an article Jean Mendoza and I did a few years ago).

Sixth Double-page Spread
Left of the gutter: The page is titled "The Grass." The first paragraph reads:
With the death of the buffalo, the Indian Wars were over. The settlers faced a new fight--the battle of the grasses. Over the eons the prairie grasses had adapted to the Great Plains' frequent droughts by growing tough roots to hold in moisture. These roots were wide and deep and held the rich soil in place. The buffalo's sharp hooves, and the Indians' prairie firs, had helped keep the grasses healthy. But the new settlers did not understand the importance of the grass.
From there Craighead George moves on to talk about ranchers, cowboys, settlers, farmers, steel plows, steam tractors, wheat, corn, soybeans... 

Seventh Double-page Spread
Left of the gutter: Craighead George begins by talking about crops that flourish and railroads that take the harvest to market. She says "Now not one orange buffalo wobbled to its feet." She says the larks are gone, prairie dogs are silent, and that "Without the buffalo, without the grasses, and without the Indians to care for them, the prairie was in danger." She goes on to talk about drought and grasshoppers. On the right is a very cool painting of farmers using switches to beat the grasshoppers. Her phrase, "without the Indians" gives me pause. What happened to them? Her last mention of them is that without the buffalo, the Indians "could not survive." On this page she says "without the Indians" --- Does she mean to tell us that they did not survive?

Eighth Double-page Spread
A terrific Minor illustration spans the two pages, showing dust clouds billowing and a barren land, made that way by farmers. The text explains that buffalo hooves played a role in the health of the land.

Ninth Double-page Spread
Here, Minor shows farmers and townspeople leaving the barren land.  One line reads:
In just over fifty years, it [the "great plow up"] had destroyed the buffalo, the protective prairie grasses, and the Indians who had cared for both." 
Does she really meant to say that the "great plow up" destroyed the Indians? And what does "destroyed" Indians mean? What does a child (the audience for her book) understand by what she says? 

Tenth Double-page Spread
Left of the gutter: The page is titled "The Prairie Comeback." The page is about President Roosevelt and that he wanted to save the buffalo. He sent scouts out to look for them. The scouts found nothing. Then, a naturalist named W. T. Hornaday, "looked and looked and would not give up." Following a tip from "a Crow Indian" Hornaday found three hundred buffalo in a meadow in Montana. A small illustration inset on the page shows a man on a horse looking down a hill at a herd of buffalo.

With her reference to "a Crow Indian" Craighead George tells us that she knows that not all the Indians were destroyed. As a writer, I think she could have been more clear in earlier pages. I think the man on the horse is Hornaday.   

Right of gutter: Minor's illustration is of Roosevelt standing in front of a buffalo herd.

Eleventh Double-page Spread
Left of gutter: A buffalo calf fills the page. Below and spilling across the gutter is a herd.

Right of gutter: The text is:
There had been seventy-five million buffalo on the plains. Now there were three hundred left in the wild. People who understood the land, led by Hornaday, knew the buffalo had to be saved. The president helped.

Roosevelt established the National Bison Range in Montana and made it illegal to shoot buffalo. Over the years, more land was set aside in western states for the great grazing herds, which were beginning to grow.
Curious to know more about the Hornaday and comeback of the buffalo, I checked out a couple of books. None of the ones I got are on the list of sources on the last page of the The Buffalo Are Back. The note above the three books listed says they are among the sources used by the artist. I wonder if Craighead George used them, too? If not, what did she use?

One of the books I got is The Extermination of the Buffalo, by William T. Hornaday. It is a fascinating book. Reading it, I see that there is a lot more to Hornaday than Craighead George included on the ninth and tenth double-page spreads. In her text, he sounds like a heroic figure. Reading his own words, though, I see that he, himself, actively hunted buffalo. I didn't find, in his own book, anything that says he found "three hundred buffalo in a meadow in Montana" as Craighead George says on the previous page of her book.

In 1886, Hornaday was the "chief taxidermist of the National Museum." He determined that the museum did not have an acceptable buffalo "specimen" in its holdings, and he was afraid that the remaining buffaloes would be killed before the museum was able to get one. So, an expedition was put together, and on May 6th, off they went to the northwest, looking for buffaloes. Sometime after May 20 they found a calf. Ten days after finding the calf, they found two bulls. They killed one and the other got away. The one they killed was in "unkept and 'seedy' appearance. They decided that the "skin was not in condition to mount" so took "only the skeleton, entire, and the skin of the head and neck." They decided to stop looking until August when the buffaloes would be finished with the shedding of their hair. They returned to Washington with several hides and skulls, and--the baby calf they found (more about that later). 

They returned to the "hunt" in the northwest in September. He does say "hunt" again and again, and they do, in fact, kill many buffaloes to serve as specimens. He includes a map with dots to mark locations where they killed buffalo. Here's one of his accounts (p. 537):
McNaney killed a fine old bull and a beautiful two year old, or "spike" bull, out of this herd, while I managed to kill a cow and another large old bull, making four for that day, all told. This herd of fourteen head was the largest that we saw during the entire hunt.
At one point he writes (p. 540):
About 4 miles from our late camp we came suddenly upon a fine old solitary bull, feeding in a hollow between two high and precipitous ridges. After a short but sharp chase I succeeded in getting a fair shot at him, and killed him with a ball which broke his left humerus and passed into his lungs. He was the only large bull killed on the entire trip with a single shot. He proved to be a very fine specimen, measuring 5 feet 6 inches in height at the shoulders.
Language he uses to describe their hunting indicates he loved the hunting. When he kills another "truly magnificent specimen," he says (p. 542):
I was delighted with our remarkably good fortune in securing such a prize, for, owing to the rapidity with which we the large buffaloes are being found and killed off these days, I had not hoped to capture a really old individual.
The live calf the expedition took to Washington was kept in a pen. It became quite popular, and in 1887, Hornaday proposed a "Department of Living Animals" at the Smithsonian. As director of the department, he proceeded to develop a captive herd.  

Craighead George, correctly, gives credit to both, Roosevelt and Hornaday, for actions they took but she completely omits all the work that Native people were also doing in that same time period, and she doesn't give us a complete picture of Hornaday's activity as a buffalo hunter. 

Ken Zontek's Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison (2007, University of Nebraska Press) provides a great deal of information about the work of Native people who sought to restore the bison. For example, Zontek writes of a herd of 300 developed and cared for in the 1890s by Michael Pablo whose mother was Blackfeet.

Twelfth Double-page Spread
Left side of gutter: Craighead George describes government efforts to save the prairie by planting crops in curves instead of straight lines, planting trees with deep roots to break the wind, and, planting grass between corn to hold the soil in place.

Right side of gutter: Minor's illustration of a farmer on his tractor spreads across the double-page spread.

Thirteenth Double-page Spread
Left of gutter: Craighead George writes that one day, a young girl walked into her Kansas house carrying a six-foot blade of grass. Her dad asks her where she got it, and that it is buffalo grass that he thought was extinct. She tells him she got it in the schoolyard.

Right of gutter: Minor's illustration is of a school house on the prairie. The clothing on the children in the yard suggests a more recent time period.

Fourteenth Double-page Spread
Left of gutter: Craighead George describes the search for native grasses (bluestem, gamma, bunch, and buffalo grass). She says people raised the grasses and sowed the seeds on abandoned farms and grasslands. She says the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve was established in Kansas, and that 300 buffalo were released into that preserve.

Right of gutter: Minor's illustration is of a prairie and in the distance, a buffalo herd.

I think Craighead George made a mistake about the preserve. The one in Kansas does not have buffalo. There is one in Oklahoma with buffalo. On the Nature Conservancy website and on the Oklahoma Prairie Country website is information about the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Both sites say that in 1993, the Nature Conservancy donated 300 bison for the preserve and that the herd is at its target herd of approximately 2500. 

Fifteenth Double-page Spread
Left of gutter: The text reads:
One morning not too long ago, a young man just out of graduate school galloped his horse across the Prairie Preserve, counting buffalo for the buffalo census. Suddenly he reined in his horse. An orange calf wobbled to his feet and blinked.

Welcome, little calf," the Wichita Indian youth called. "You are America's two hundred thousand and eighty-first buffalo."

A lark flew to the top of a six-foot blade of grass and sang as sweetly as a panpipe. The buffalo are back.
Craighead George tells us the man is Wichita. (Note: I searched on "Wichita Nation" to see if they have a herd, and the first hits the search returned are to Indian Guides programs. The Indian Guides program, while admirable for its goal of having families do activities together, makes a mess of things as they choose an Indian tribal name and engage in stereotypical activities.) I tried again, searching on "Wichita Tribe" and the first hit was, in fact, a link to the website of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, whose offices are in Anadarko, Oklahoma. They do not have a buffalo herd, but the Wichita guy may work for one of the tribes that does, or, he may work at the preserve.

I am glad Craighead George ended her book with the Wichita man, but I wish she had done more with the work Native Nations are doing today.  The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, established in 1990, includes over 50 different tribes who now maintain herds on their lands. Their website refers to Roosevelt and conservationists (they don't mention Hornaday) but like Craighead George, they don't refer to Native efforts in the 1890s. I will send them a quick note recommending they add that info. 

Minor's website includes reviews of the book. School Library Journal says it is "a must have for most libraries" and Horn Book calls it compelling. 

I understand why it got positive reviews, but, it is one of the many books that---when the lens is focused on the way the book represents American Indians---it falls far short of being a book that I can recommend. I think Craighead George tried hard to approach the book with an interest in being unbiased. I say that because of some of her word choices (battle instead of massacre) and I think it is terrific to see that awareness in an author's work--but bias is there nonetheless in the heroic way Hornaday is portrayed, in the ghost-like portrayal of Sitting Bull, and in the "no Indians" portrayals of people who obviously weren't dead and gone. 

In the end, authors have to do both: be fair, and, be accurate. I think her research---or the researcher who helped her---failed because the dates are off, which makes the related information problematic. I think Craighead George's editor failed her, too. He/she could have caught the problems with time periods.

I'll be thinking about the book for a while. I invite your thoughts, too, on what I've said here, and the book itself if you've got a copy.


Debbie Reese said...

I had a lot of webpages open as I worked on my analysis of the book. Last night I started clicking around more, curious to know more and more about current status of buffalo herds.

I really wanted to find the buffalo census Craighead George talked about, but never did find it. If anyone knows where it is, please let me know.

Among the interesting things I learned as I followed this and that link is the tension that exists today between cattle ranchers and people who maintain or otherwise advocate for buffalo and buffalo herds.

I learned about something called "hazing" which, I gather, is a practice of chasing and killing buffalo to prevent them from moving onto lands held by ranchers (but the ranchers also don't want buffalo on public lands). I gather that this is all about economics. Who gets what, where, when, and why....

In a way it is somewhat ironic because that is what happened in the first place. Who got what, where, when, and why...

Anonymous said...

this is an amazing analysis, Debbie and gives me insight into the depths of your knowledge base and the importance of details frequently inapparent to most of us. bron

Phil K said...

This is an interesting discussion and classroom teachers can learn from it. Perhaps one of the most key ideas seems to be a need for the preciseness of language. Also found the discussion of images that were not presented firmly, almost transparent, in "The Buffalo Are Back" itself suggests that indigenous cultures are a whisper of the past which is not true as your critical discussion attests too.

RoseA said...

Debbie, this was an excellent and thought provoking review of "The buffalo are back". I can't even imagine how much work it took to prepare but I am very appreciative of it and that you make this available to us. As a librarian I rely on professionals as yourself to give me the best there is out there with regard to native material. Thanks!

dbuck said...

Thank you for the wonderful analysis. I am so happy this was shared with me. We have been working in our district to ask teachers to think more critically about what they are sharing in their clssrooms. I am going to share this with them as an example of how to do it well.

Anonymous said...

I am taking a class in Native American Children's Literature at UNC Charlotte. We are currently reading Luther Standing Bear's "My People the Sioux". In this book, Luther Standing Bear, a resident of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879 until 1884, recounts his early childhood experience before Carlisle, of hunting buffalo with his father and grandfather. Clearly, the role of kinship and the bond of love and respect for his Oglala Lakota Sioux way of life were illustrated vividly in the chapters about the tribal tradition of buffalo hunting. I was also struck by the spirituality and reverence in the Lakotas’ regard of the buffalo as a gift from the Creator. Luther spoke of how the buffalo meat was leaner than the “spotted buffalo” (cow) meat that the government issued to his tribe. He also describes how all of the buffalo, such as the skin and the tripe, were utilized for survival. From the point of view of modern day sensibilities in regard to conservation and recycling, the Sioux as well as other Native American tribes had the wisdom to practice good ecology. I also thought of the dust bowl in the 1930’s when I read the part of Debbie’s “The Buffalo are Back” blog regarding the effect of the buffalo’s hoofs acting as an “aerator” to the soil and the preservation of the plains grasses by Plains Indian tribes. I did a quick research and found that during the time of the dust bowl, ranchers were warned by farmers and Native American Indians not to tear up the native grasses. I never realized the profound and long reaching effects of the federal government policies regarding the removal of the First Peoples from their land they loved and cared for. I am deeply appreciative of this new perspective in my studies of Native American culture and children’s literature.
Joye Palmer

Genny said...

In response to Joyce Palmer's lovely comment, I wanted to pass on something that Sherman Alexie mentioned in an interview. He was commenting on the popular image of American Indians as environmentalists. He said that environmentalism was a luxury that only the rich could afford, and that those who ate and used up every part of the buffalo weren't wasteful because they were poor and valued every resource they could get.

Wendell said...

As a picture book writer who has recently been working on a nonfiction book that involves another culture, this article was very interesting to read.

Mark Harper said...

The return of the buffalo is one of the most positive things that has happened in my lifetime.