Thursday, April 15, 2010


Over the last few days, I've seen a few references to a new series of graphic novels by a Swampy Cree (First Nations, Manitoba) writer, David Robertson.  I read an article about him in the Winnipeg Free Press (posted April 8, 2010, by Trevor Suffield, titled "Graphic novelist feels power of responsibility in latest offering"). In it, Robertson talks about his first graphic novel, titled The Life of Helen Betty Osborne, and that it is being used in some schools in Winnipeg. Below is a book trailer for the novel (link to youtube, if you can't see the video below:

Here's another video about the novel (link from youtube:

I've ordered The Life of Helen Betty Osborne and look forward to reading it. I'll also get a copy of Stone, the first book in the "7 Generations" series Robertson is working on. Here's the book trailer for Stone (here's the link if the video won't play:

Robertson's books are published by Portage & Main Press, who also published In Search of April Raintree.

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.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

In the early 1950s, Ann Nolan Clark said...

This morning, Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal posted the book that is at the top spot in her series of Top 100 Children's Novels. To prepare the series, she asked her readers to submit a list of their favorite novels. Up top is Charlotte's Web. In her discussion of the novel, she notes that it did not win the Newbery Medal. The following paragraph prompted the title for my own blog post today ("In the early 1950s Ann Nolan Clark said...):

The book won a Newbery Honor in 1952, losing out the gold to The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. To determine why this might be, the blog Heavy Medal decided to conduct a formal reading of Clark's book. In Part One they simply discuss the decision to read it. In Part Two and Part Three they really pick it apart and thoroughly consider it. From my own point of view, and as I understand it, the simplified reason for why Clark beat White may have something to do with the fact that the librarians on the Newbery committee were tired of handing out medals to books about middle American white kids. The Secret of the Andes took place in Peru! It was new and exciting. And to steal from Nina Lindsay, this is what Clark said in her Newbery acceptance speech, "I have worked with Spanish children from New Mexico to Central and South America, with Indian children from Canada to Peru. I have worked with them because I like them. I write about them because their stories need to be told. All children need understanding, but children of segregated racial groups need even more. All children need someone to make a bridge from their world to the world of the adults who surround them."

Notice that? Ann Nolan Clark, speaking in the early 1950s, said "I write about them [Spanish and Indian children] because their stories need to be told." Clark was not Spanish or American Indian. She was an outsider to the people she wrote about. Like many, she meant well. Today's writers mean well too, just as Clark did, over 50 years ago. But why aren't today's non-Native writers helping Native people get published?

I am one amongst many that ask that question. Connie A. Jacobs asks that question in her review of Native American Picture Books of Change. Here's an excerpt of her review, published in Studies in American Indian Literature, (Volume 17.3, 2005, 123-126):

Central to Benes's study is the work of Clark who taught for the Indian Service and worked at Zuni and Tesuque Pueblos and who retold oral tales and wrote stories about life on the Navajo, Lakota, Taos, Picuris, and Blackfeet reservations. Benes claims Clark's authority to tell these stories as she quotes from the dustcover of Clark's award-winning book In My Mother's House, 1941: "'Clark found there was a need in Indian schools for books written from the Indian point of view.' It explains that the stories she tells took form in children's notebooks, capturing the original rhythm and pattern of their thinking" (43). It is statements like this that call into question how much Benes really understands about the validity of non-Native writers telling and retelling tribal stories and legends. How could Clark, who is not Native, claim the need for books written from a Native point of view and then tell the stories herself?

Non-Native people who, for what ever reason, find themselves working with Native people today could do more than "tell their stories" the way that Clark did. I wish they would.