Friday, February 26, 2010

Something Will Rogers said...

A friend asked me what I know about Will Rogers, famous TV and radio personality, part Cherokee...

He asked, in particular, about this:

"My ancestors may not have come over on the 'Mayflower' but they met 'em at the boat!"

Those seventeen words are all over the Internet, from one quotations page to the next. But!!! That is not all Rogers said...

Take a look at The Papers of Will Rogers: The Early Years, by Will Rogers, Arthur Frank Wertheim, and Barbara Bair. See, specifically, page 31. I'm using bold to mark the part that is left off in all those quotation sites:

"When questioned about his heritage in a scene in one of his films, he informed a passport officer, who had inquired whether he was an American citizen, that his mother and father were both part Cherokee and he "was born and raised in Indian Territory. Course I'm not one of these Americans whose ancestors come over on the Mayflower, but we met 'em at the boat when they landed. And its always been to the everlasting discredit of the Indian race that we ever let 'em land."

That passage is footnoted, and the corresponding note reads (p. 39):

"This passport office scene is from the 1930 Fox film, So This Is London. Rogers continued his soliloquy by reaffirming his statement in the face of scandalized expressions from a pair of onlookers: "It was," he said, referring to the discredit due the Indians for letting the Pilgrims land. "That's the only thing that I'd ever blame the Indians for."

Interesting, isn't it? What gets left off?  I wonder about biographies of him, written for children and young adults. Is the full quote in them?

As a society, America reveres Will Rogers, 
but I wonder if they know he said that Indians 
never should have let the Pilgrims land?

(Thanks, Brian, for asking me about him...  Given the embrace of Will Rogers, it is worth looking into what children and young adults are told about Rogers!)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thoughts on Sharon Creech's WALK TWO MOONS

Have you ever used Google Earth? It's a fascinating tool that lets you look at a place (like your hometown) via satellite photographs.

A few years ago, I started seeing "lit trips" online.  Using Google Earth, people put together a webpage that shows places named in any given book. A few days ago while reading Open Culture, I came across a site called Google Lit Trips, where "lit trips" for books are categorized by grade level. There, teachers have uploaded the lit trips they created.

Google Lit Trips is a great project. As a person who loves technology, travel, and children's literature, I find great value in the project itself.  I wondered what books teachers have created lit trips for...

In the K-5 category is Holling Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea. It's an old book, published in 1941. It won a Caldecott Honor Medal, which attributes to its staying power. In it, an Indian boy (his tribal nation is not named and he does not have a name) carves an Indian in a canoe (from the illustration, the canoe is about ten inches long) and puts it into the water in Canada.  The Indian--called "Injun" by some characters--travels to the Great Lakes, the ocean...   I can see the allure of doing a Lit Trip for this book, but I wonder what the teacher does with the word Injun?

In the 6-8 grade category is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. Her book is the focus of today's post.

Walk Two Moons won the top prize in children's literature--the Newbery Medal--in 1995. Obviously, the committee believed the book is extraordinary. As I noted on Feb 17, 2010, the book is on the Top 100 list of novels on Elizabeth Bird's blog, A Fuse#8 Production. There, Elizabeth writes:
The plot as described by School Library Journal reads, "13-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels west with her Grams and Gramps to Lewiston, Idaho, the destination from which her mother did not return. As Sal entertains her grandparents with stories of her friend, Phoebe, who sees "lunatics" around every corner, threads from many life stories are seamlessly entwined. This pilgrimage wonderfully mirrors the journey of discovery that is adolescence, as Sal's search for the truth about her mother becomes a journey of discovery about much more."

Most of what I've read about the book focuses on the themes of loss, grieving, acceptance. Here, I provide a close reading of the Native content in the book.

In an interview, Creech says that the idea for the story came from the fortune in a fortune cookie. This is from the Scholastic interview:
How did you come up with the title Walk Two Moons?
I had discovered a fortune cookie message in the bottom of my purse and the message was: “Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.” I realized that everything that I was trying to say in this book had to do with that message; that you need to get to know someone well before you form an opinion about them, and in a way, that's what we writers are doing every day with our characters. So I liked the parallel there.
The words on that fortune sound familiar, right? Perhaps you know the phrase as "never judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes." The Yale Book of Quotations has the "walk a mile in his moccasins" phrase listed in its "Modern Proverbs" section as follows:
Never criticize anybody until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
Lincoln (Neb.) Star, 10 Oct. 1930. This 1930 usage is actually worded "never criticize the other boy or girl unless," etc., described as an "Indian maxim." Later versions sometimes refer to "shoes" rather than "moccasins."
I've never seen the "two moons" variation, but, I'm not doubting that Creech found it in a fortune cookie. Above it is called a maxim. Other places, I've seen it called "An American Indian proverb." It, like so many other Indian "sayings" is poetic, sounds cool, just like an Indian might say, etc. Kind of like "happy hunting grounds" but did it, in fact, originate with an American Indian?! Research to do on that... 

In the interview, she said that the saying itself captured what she was doing with the story, so, she used it for the title. In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, she said:
My cousins maintain that one of our ancestors was an American Indian. As a child, I loved that notion, and often exaggerated it by telling people that I was a full-blooded Indian. I inhaled Indian myths...  I crept through the woods near our house, reenacting these myths, and wishing, wishing, for a pair of soft leather moccasins. (I admit --but without apology--that my view of American Indians was a romantic one.)
"without apology" --- I find that remark unsettling. Substitute "American Indians" with, say, "African Americans." One romantic view of African Americans is the one of happy slaves. Might Creech be unapologetic for holding a romantic view of African Americans as happy slaves? I'm thinking about "without apology" and what it means. 

Going back to the saying (walk two moons), and Creech's notion (her word) that she is part American Indian...  Both are significant to the story that is Walk Two Moons

The name of the main character is Salamanca (or Sal, which is short for Salamanca). She is thirteen years old and has long black hair---so long, in fact, that classmates ask her if she can sit on it. The book is realistic fiction, meant for ages 10 to 14 or thereabouts.

Sal lives in Euclid, Ohio with her dad. Creech herself grew up in South Euclid, Ohio. In 1957, Creech was 12. Her family took a trip from Ohio to Idaho. In Walk Two Moons, Creech recreates that trip. Hence, what she includes in the book are childhood memories.

I'll assume then, that the setting for Walk Two Moons is also 1957. But when I do that, some aspects of the story don't make sense.

On page 7, we learn that Sal's parents thought her great grandmother's tribe was called Salamanca. So, they named their daughter Salamanca. Later, they found out the name of the tribe was actually Seneca. (Note: There is no tribe named Salamanca.) We aren't told how old Sal was when her parents figured out what the correct tribal name is.

This Seneca heritage is from Sal's mother, who is called Sugar. Her family name is Pickford. Sal says that these grandparents "stand straight up, as if sturdy, steel poles ran down their backs. They wear starched, ironed clothing," they never laugh, and they work very hard at being respectable.  Grandmother Pickford's name is Gayfeather. Her single act of defiance is to name her daughter Chanhassen (p. 16)
It's an Indian name, meaning "tree sweet juice," or--in other words--maple sugar. Only Grandmother Pickford ever called my mother by her Indian name, though. Everyone else called my mother Sugar.
What, I wonder, was Gayfeather acting in defiance of? Being respectable? Or, was she defying her husband? Was her husband white? Did he not like that his wife was Indian? It seems that Gayfeather wants to pass an Indian identity down to her daughter, but why doesn't she tell her daughter what tribe they are? Was Gayfeather trying to live like a "civilized" Indian? An assimilated one who'd been through government boarding school?  And the name, Gayfeather...  It is the name of a plant, and it sounds plausible as an Indian name, but it also sounds-like-an-Indian-name that someone (in this case Creech) made up.

I looked up the word chanhassen, and found a town in Minnesota called Chanhassen. According to the town's website, Chanhassen is a Dakota word that means tree with sweet sap, or sugar maple tree. I also found it in American Place-Names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary, published in 1970. The entry there reads (p. 86)
Chanhassen MN  From two Siouan words, coined by R. M. Nichols, 'tree sweet juice,' to mean maple sugar.
Clearly, Creech used the latter in naming Sal's mother Chanhassen. Note that the Place-Names dictionary says it is from two Siouan (Sioux) words. The info on the Chanhassen town website says it is a Dakota word. Dakota's are Sioux.

Nobody, however, calls Sugar by her Indian name, Chanhassen, except her own mother who gave her that name.

Let's imagine Creech imagining Salamanca's parents as they try to think of a name for their child. Sal's mother says "Let's name her after my great great grandmother's tribe. I'm not sure what it was...  It started with an S. Maybe it was Salamanca." Her father says "Ok, we'll name her Salamenca."

Creech could have said Sioux, because that is the source of the word Chanhassen, but instead, she chose  Seneca as her character's tribal heritage. So, Gayfeather, a Seneca woman, gave her daughter a name based on Sioux words. Ok, that's plausible.

For whatever reason, Gayfeather does not tell Chanhassen/Sugar their tribe, or, if she does, Chanhassen/Sugar doesn't remember it. That may be the case because they aren't living amongst that tribe, nor do they have any contact with them.

Sugar grows up, gets married, and has a child. She wants to give her daughter the name of her tribe as her daughter's personal name. Except, she can't remember "Seneca" and names her "Salamanca" instead.  

Later, Sal's parents find out the actual name was Seneca, not Salamanca. As the story unfolds, we learn that Sal's mom was proud of her Seneca heritage. We don't know how old Sal was when this remembered conversation took place: (p. 57): 
My mother had not liked the term Native Americans. She thought it sounded primitive and stiff. She said "My great-grandmother was a Seneca Indian, and I'm proud of it. She wasn't a Seneca Native American. Indian sounds much more brave and elegant." 

Recall that Sharon Creech has a cousin that said they are part American Indian, and that Creech herself likes that idea...   This "part American Indian" family story is familiar. There are a lot of people who, through a family story, believe that they have American Indian heritage. They don't know the name of the tribe, but, they have a certain love of romantic, noble, heroic Indian imagery. They know very little about who American Indian people were, or are....  Hence, Sal's mother (and maybe Creech, too) likes "Indian" because it sounds "more brave and elegant."Brave and elegant fit in the romantic image.

Earlier in this post I said that some aspects of the story Creech tells don't make sense. The discussion of Native American is one example. That phrase, Native American, was not in use in 1957. It is unlikely that Creech, in school in the 50s, had a teacher who taught her students to say Native American instead of Indian. That teaching came later, possibly in the 70s in a handful of places, and more with the passing of time. This is an instance of "presentism" --- a word in literary analysis that means an author has put today's ideas into someone of the past. The hotel name is another example (p. 74-75):
     That night we stayed in Injun Joe's Peace Palace Motel. On a sign in the lobby, someone had crossed out "Injun" and written "Native American" so the whole sign read "Native American Joe's Peace Palace Motel." In our room, the "Injun Joe's" embroidered on the towels had been changed with black marker to "Indian Joe's." I wished everybody would just make up their minds.
That last line, "I wished everybody would just make up their minds" gives me pause. Who, or what perspective, does that reflect? It sounds to me a lot an emotion that emanates from someone who derisively says "PC run amok." But again---the time period doesn't make sense, IF we say the book is set in 1957.

If, however, we say the book is set in, say, the 1990s when it came out, Creech's references to Native American, and Injun make sense.

But! When Sal and her grandparents stop at Wisconsin Dells, they see Indian dances. In talking with Native colleagues and friends in that area today, they said there used to be dances done there at a place called Stand Rock, or Standing Rock. Here's what Creech writes (p. 56)
     Gram and I poked our noses into an old fort, and then sat on the grass watching a group of Native Americans dance and beat drums.

There's more on p. 57:
     The crowd was clapping, the drums were beating. I was all turned around and could not remember which way we had come. There were three signs indicating different parking areas. The drums thundered. I pushed further into the crowd of people, who were now clapping louder, in time with the drums.
And more on page 58: 

     The Indians had formed two circles, one inside the other, and were hopping up and down. The men danced in the outer circle and wore feather headdresses and short leather aprons. On their feet were moccasins, and I thought again about Phoebe's message: Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.
     Inside the circle of men, the women in long dresses and ropes of beads had joined arms and were dancing around one older woman who was wearing a regular cotton dress. On her head was an enormous headdress, which had slipped down over her forehead.
     I leaned closer. The woman in the center was hopping up and down. On her feet were flat, white shoes. In the space between drum beats, I heard her say, "Huzza, huzza."
Apparently, what 12-year-old Creech saw in 1957 was a dance program put on for tourists. The dancers were, in fact, Native dancers. The crowd of tourists would (not knowing any better) clap along with the drums.

Sal's/Creech's description of dancers "hopping up and down" bothers me.

The dance itself sounds like a Round Dance, which is a social dance. Click on this youtube video to see one being done. (Note: the people in the video are not wearing traditional clothes. But see? They're not hopping.)  I'm not sure how Sal's grandma ended up in the middle, with the Indians dancing around her. That doesn't make sense either. And that headdress she's wearing? Where did she get that? There's no mention of it at all anywhere in the story.

After Wisconsin Dells, they stop at Pipestone National Monument. Sal watches Indians working in the quarry. She asks one if he is a Native American. He says he is "a person" (p. 73), and Sal asks if he is a "Native American person" (p. 73). He replies, "No, I'm an American Indian person." and Sal says that she is, too, "in my blood."

Again (as in the hotel name), Creech, through Sal, shares a view of these different phrases. In this case, she creates a Native character who, presumably, grew up with his Native community (unlike Sal or her mother), and he, like Sal's mother, prefers 'American Indian' to 'Native American.' He validates Sal's mom, and Creech, too.

Sal and her grandparents then smoke a peace pipe with "an American Indian person" and then decide to buy two pipes to take with them.

You can, in fact, buy pipes there that are made by Native people.  I suppose it is possible that a visitor to the monument might find "an American Indian person" sitting outside under a tree smoking a pipe much like someone would smoke a pipe they buy at a cigar shop, but it doesn't quite fit with  how those pipes are typically used by the various tribal nations who use them.

In several places, Sal talks about her mother's love of Indian stories. Here's an excerpt from page 150-151:
   My mother once told me the Blackfoot story of Napi, the Old Man who created men and women. To decide if these new people should live forever or die, Napi selected a stone. "If the stone floats," he said, "you will live forever. If it sinks, you will die." Napi dropped the stone into the water. It sank. People die. 
     "Why did Napi use a stone?" I asked. "Why not a leaf?"
     My mother shrugged. "If you had been there, you could have made the rock float," she said. She was referring to my habit of skipping stones across the water.
That story is similar to a much longer story called "The Blackfeet Creation" that appears on page 145 of George Bird Grinnell's Blackfeet Indian Stories, published in 1913. Grinnell was not Blackfeet. He was an outsider to the Blackfeet, studying them (and others, too, like the Pawnee), and publishing books about them in the early 1900s. I haven't studied his work, so I don't know if it is reliable as a source of stories about the Blackfeet.  In Grinnell's book, Napi created a woman and child out of clay and then made them human. They walked to a river together (p. 148-149):
     As they were standing there looking at the water as it flowed by, the woman asked Old Man, saying, "How is it; shall we live always? Will there be no end to us?"
     Old Man said, "I have not thought of that. We must decide it. I will take this buffalo chip and throw it in the river. If it floats, people will become alive again four days after they have died; they will die for four days only. But if it sinks, there will be an end to them." He threw the chip into the river, and it floated.
     The woman turned and picked up a stone and said, "No, I will throw this stone in the river. If it floats, we shall live always; if it sinks, people must die, so that their friends who are left alive may always remember them." The woman threw the stone in the water, and it sank.
     "Well," said Old Man, "you have chosen; there will be an end to them."
     "Not many nights after that the woman's child died, and she cried a great deal for it. She said to Old Man, "Let us change this. The law that you first made, let that be the law."
     He said, "Not so; what is made law must be law. We will undo nothing that we have done. The child is dead, but it cannot be changed. People will have to die."
I don't (yet) know if Grinnell's account is, in fact, a story that the Blackfeet people tell. It sounds a lot like the Christian story of Creation, so it is possible that the story emerged as a result of missionaries and their influence on the Blackfeet. It is also possible that Grinnell changed the Blackfeet story as he listened and then recorded it according to his perspective.

And, it is possible that Creech found a different version of the story. Hers differs from Grinnell's with regard to who threw the stone. Creech specifically selected a story about life and death, because Sal is struggling to make sense of life and death. At some point, I may return to this particular portion of Walk Two Moons and study Grinnell's work.

Same goes for the story she uses near the end of the book (p. 278):
When I drive Gramps around in his truck, I also tell him all the stories my mother told me. His favorite is a Navajo one about Estsanatlehi. She's a woman who never dies. She grows from baby to mother to old woman and then turns into a baby again, and on and on she goes, living a thousand, thousand lives.
Where, I wonder, did Creech find that story? I found some information about Estsanatlehi in the American Folklore Society's journal (see Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society, Volume 5, 1897) that says the English translation for Estsanatlehi is Woman Who Changes (p. 34):
The name Estsanatlehi is derived by syncopation from estan, woman, and natlehi, to change or transform. She is so called because, it is supposed, she never remains in one condition, but that she grows to be an old woman, and in the course of time because a young girl again, and so passes through an endless course of lives, changing but never dying.
Note the publication year of 1897. Again, we have an account by an outsider. In this case, it was Washington Matthews, a major in the U.S. Army who later lived amongst the Navajo people, reportedly making friends with them and gaining admittance to ceremonies to which they did not generally admit white people. And again, I may at some point study Navajo texts about Estsanatlehi and compare them to what Matthews recorded.

Like the Napi story that Creech excerpted above, I expect there's a lot more to this Navajo story than is related by Creech. Like the Napi one, it is about life and death. Hence, Creech chose to use it in telling Sal's story.

There's more...  Sal and her grandparents visit the Black Hills in South Dakota, and Sal wonders if her mother hated having white President's faces carved in Sioux Holy Land. She says (p. 179):
    It was fine seeing the presidents [on Mt. Rushmore], but you'd think the Sioux would be mighty sad to have those white faces carved into their sacred hill. I bet my mother was upset. I wondered why whoever carved them couldn't put a couple Indians up there too.
Her choice of the word 'sad' points to the tragic Indian "plight" - the romantic image that Creech is unapologetic for in her speech. That unapologetic stance resulted in a book with a lot of romantic and stereotypical imagery. Creech incorporated a lot of information about identity, too, but it doesn't work--at least for me.

She's an outsider to Native culture, trying to write a story as if she's an insider. But her story is based on outsider's writings, and outsider's understandings, and it doesn't work. Yes, the book won a Newbery Medal, but if the committee had analyzed the Native content, I'm not sure they would have made the same decision. For the committee and all the people who love the book, it seems to me that the Indian content doesn't really matter. It is simply a device, or, a decoration on a story about a young girl coming to terms with life and death. All of this Indian decoration is embraced by readers because readers, too, know little about the life and death of Native people.

In the end, Creech's story unapologietically adds to the already too large body of stereotypical "knowledge" people carry around with them.