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...


Scott said...

Excellent post. Thank you for sharing the great grandson's viewpoint. He brought up several points I had failed to consider. Great stuff to think about!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I'm just curious.
If you could take a look at the copyright and acknowledgment page, is there any indication that the book is ghost written? Many/most books by celebrities, political and otherwise, are.

Debbie Reese said...


"Text copyright 2010 by Barack Obama"

It is dedicated:

"To Michelle--whose fierce love and daily good sense have nourished such wonderful daughters. --B.P."

Phil K said...

Excellent discussion of the need for specificity in thinking and discussion.

Somehow there is something in this discussion which touches on the illustration of Sitting Bull as landscape in Obama's book that reminds me of Robert Frost's poem, The Gift Outright:

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials...

There is a whisper of an important idea here, though I am not sure what it is. Thinking.

Beverly Slapin said...

Wow! Excellent discussion (as usual), Deb.

I'm curious too, Cyn. Years ago, Doris Seale and I contributed a large number of Indian children's poems to a "multicultural" poetry anthology and literacy guide for teachers. Three well-known names were listed as authors, but the reality was that the whole thing was written and put together in-house. I believe that one of these "authors" even received some kind of award for this volume.

I'm especially curious about the words, "for peace," that was inserted into Sitting Bull's "eagles and crows" response. A colleague of mine who is a librarian opined that OF THEE I SING might have been put together in-house and then given to President Obama for approval. I'm of that mind, too.

P.S. OF THEE I SING sold 50,000 in the first five days after it was released.

Anonymous said...

All of history is recreated, and the original reports of events are often not exactly accurate--in fact, few are. And none capture the entirety of the event.
I think Obama's book captures the spirit of the man, and attempts to represent him positively and well. To knit pick on debatable points (a cactus in the window of a recreated scene) trivializes the subject with which the author is dealing. To paraphrase another saying, those who can't write, criticize.

Elsa Louise said...

This illustration calls to mind the T.V. spot from long ago that featured the actor known as Iron Eyes Cody (who was indeed of Italian heritage rather than being a member of any tribe of Native American/Indian folk). The America the Beautiful campaign’s PSA in the 1970s featured him as a Native American, and at the end of the ad, he stood silent, a tear running down his cheek, with the dominant theme including the idea of Indians as helpless caretakers/observers of a debauched, garbage-strewn U.S. landscape. Do you remember it?

I wonder about the age of the illustrator and whether such an image was caught in the artistic unconscious, floating in the background but nevertheless informing this illustration. We are very much products of the images and words we see and read, particularly those we see and read in childhood. Whether or not we realize it.

As always, Debbie, you’re writing thought-provoking posts on this topic.

Deborah Menkart said...

Thank you for your detailed critique. Another person featured in the book is Helen Keller, with the simplistic narrative found in most children's books - Helen Keller as a brilliant deaf and blind woman who surmounted incredible obstacles – but did nothing more with her life other than learn to ride a bike. Left out is the fact that she became a champion of workers' rights and world peace, as described in this article on the Zinn Education Project website, In many ways this book presents the same narrow history and stereotypes present in most children's books.

Debbie Reese said...


I've yet to study the notes in the back for each individual. Looking now at the Helen Keller entry, there's a bit of what you mention:

HELEN KELLER (1880-1968) became deaf and blind as a toddler and later achieved world renown as an author and activist. She received a bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College and remained an unrelenting voice for the disabled and for many other causes throughout her life. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

For those of you who do not have the book in front of you, the text for the Helen Keller page reads:

"Have I told you that you are strong? A woman named Helen Keller fought her way through long, silent darkness. Though she could not see or hear, she taught us to look and listen to each other. Never waiting for life to get easier, she gave others courage to face their challenges."

I'll look at your link. I wonder... What did Helen Keller see as an important accomplishment in her own life? Would/did she emphasize her disability? Or her "other accomplishments"--- perhaps the ones about workers rights?

In some ways it is similar to portrayals of Rosa Parks---trying to make her a tired heroic seamstress rather than Rosa Parks as an activist involved in the Civil Rights Movement...

America and Americans love the underdog, the hero, the person who overcomes odds, goes after "the American Dream" and met success...

Anonymous said...

I think this reflection raises some excellent points and makes me want to go look at the illustrations used alongside the other characters portrayed in the book. I find the image of Sitting Bull as "Real Estate" profoundly disturbing as well and would like to see how it exists in the world of the text.

Thanks your for the food for thought.

PS My apologies for what might appear to be nitpicking: in declaring the error of misplaced Saguaro cactus in the illustration the apostrophe s possessive form was used where it should have been plural.

Misrule said...

Hello Debbie, A little late to commenting on this issue, but I'm just catching up with child_lit emails and have finally had the chance to read this post. I entirely take your point about Sitting Bull being the only figure in this book not represented as a person, and I do think that's problematic. Taken as an individual image, though, I read it as an acknowledgment of the Indigenous person's connection to the land. Aboriginal Australians view the land as their mother, and as a living entity closely tied up with their law and identity (as I am sure you know). It's in this light that I read the image of Sitting Bull. However, it's a shame that if the artist was intending to take a figurative approach to one of the historical figures, he didn't do so for more (or all) of them. As it stands from your descriptions, it certainly comes across as suggesting that Sitting Bull is not quite a person in the same way as the other historical figures included in the book.

Anonymous said...

Geronimo code name for killing BIN LADEN? WTF?