Monday, April 26, 2010

Why This Blog Matters, and, My Visit to Penn State...

I left State College on Saturday afternoon with a warm glow. Sounds cheesy, I know, but that's the right way to characterize it...

I was there to give a talk in a lecture series to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the American Indian Leadership Program in Penn State's College of Education. I spent most of my time with students and faculty in the program, and thank them here (publicly) for that warm glow: Heather, Peter, Connie, Arlene, Rose Mary, Kari, and Jane; and, professors John Tippeconnic and Susan Faircloth.

I also spent some time with a handful of professors in the College of Education: Gail Boldt, Dan Hade, Lisa Hopkins and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. Dan's work on the commodification of children's literature is excellent, and I encourage people to look for it. You can listen to him via a podcast here. The podcast link is on the left side of the page under MULTIMEDIA.

Tippeconnic and Faircloth recently released findings from their study of graduation rates of American Indians. Titled The Dropout/Graduation Rate Crisis Among American Indian and Alaska Native Students: Failure to Respond Places the Future of Native Peoples at Risk, their findings are grim. Quite often, statistics about American Indians are not part of large studies of drop out rates. The reason for that is, we are deemed "statistically insignificant" and therefore, ignored. 

That "statistically insignificant" attribute is ironic, given that images of American Indians are everywhere. Because they are, we don't actually see them until someone points them out. They may be innocuous, or, they may be highly derogatory. The findings of my content analysis of SLJ's Top 100 Novels is a good example of how unexpectedly pervasive this imagery is. Another example is the reviews of Peter Pan in Scarlet (the sequel to Peter Pan), only one of which noted the negative stereotyping I found in it.

On page 7 of the report, Tippeconnic and Faircloth note that being left out because we're statistically insignificant is an example of:
"...structural and institutional racism, placing [Native] students... at a further disadvantage in opportunities and outcomes" (Toney, 2007, p.8).
And, they point to studies (see p. 27) that dropping out is the result of a cumulative process of academic and personal difficulties by which students detach from school. They go on to note that "school-level factors associated with dropping out include "a perceived lack of empathy among teachers" and "irrelevant curriculum." 

"A perceived lack of empathy among teachers" reminds me of the hundreds of times someone has written to me, dismissing my critiques because the book I'm critiquing is "FICTION" (they often use caps or boldface to emphasize the word 'fiction') and therefore, everyone should know that the author is making things up (and as such we shouldn't believe what we read as truth, and, I am stupid for asking fiction to accurately depict American Indians). It also reminds me of the time that my daughter tried to tell a teacher that Brother Eagle Sister Sky is stereotypical, and the teacher told her "but its not about your [Pueblo] people." Lack of empathy. Definitely a problem. 

That teacher was right about only one thing. Brother Eagle Sister Sky is not about Pueblo Indians. In fact, it isn't about any Indian people at all! There was good intent on the part of Susan Jeffers, but she only created a mass of stereotyped and extinct Indians. As such, it doesn't do anyone any good. As a book used in the curriculum of many schools, it is irrelevant to everyone! But, its defenders say, its got a good message about taking care of the earth, and that message outweighs the problems with its depiction of American Indians. With that rationale, aren't we telling Native kids that they're just not that important? If so, then, it is no wonder they detach from school.

Drawing from other research studies, Tippeconnic and Faircloth include twelve strategies to decrease dropout rates. Among them are:
  • Review and revise school policies and avoid implementation of policies that exclude, repress, demean, embarrass, harass or alienate Native students.
  • Make schools physically, mentally and emotionally safe by working to end racism, sexual harassment and other forms of physical and emotional assault.
  • Avoid use of negative stereotypes.
Reading Tippeconnic and Faircloth's report reminds me of the findings from Stephanie Fryberg's research on the effects of stereotypical images on the self-esteem and self-efficacy of Native youth. As was the case when I first read and wrote about her study, I'm glad to send it to you. Just send me an email to debreese at illinois dot edu.

I want you to read Fryberg's article, and, Tippeconnic and Faircloth's report. And then I want you to consider what you have in your library or on your classroom shelves. I know you can't take things off the shelves lest you be labeled a censor, but, you can definitely ADD things to your shelves that are, in fact, relevant. Add, for example, fiction that is relevant! Fiction that accurately reflects the lives of Native people in the present and past. 

Imagine what effect that would have on Native students in your schools. Might they become more engaged?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Marcie Rendon's SongCatcher

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A few weeks ago, I met a woman whose work inspires me on many levels. That woman is Marcie R. Rendon, an enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation. That's her in the image to the left, and isn't that an awesome poem overlaid on the pic?

As regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know, I am highly critical of the uncritical use of stories collected in the late 1800s and early 1900s by people who thought we (American Indians) were about to go the way of the dinosaurs. By that I mean vanish from the face of the earth. Go extinct. Cease to exist.

The people doing the collecting were not Native. The collectors worked for the Smithsonian. Some (most?) of them didn't know much about what they were looking at when they turned their non-Native eyes on Native people going about our lives. The result of that was a whole lot of misinterpretation.

And, in the name of research and science, those collectors would try to gain access to things the tribes didn't want them to see. Frank Hamilton Cushing was notorious about that. He was out at Zuni. Elsie Clews Parson was at Nambe and amongst the Pueblos, and she did some pretty outrageous things, too. Going where she wasn't wanted, recruiting informants, and then, calling one of them a liar in one of her reports. To Parson, I'd say "how do you know it was just one person who lied to you?!"

And that is why I'm so excited by Marcie Rendon's "SongCatcher: A Native Interpretation of the Story of Frances Densmore." It is a play, published in Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women's Theater. Edited by Jaye T. Darby and Stephanie Fitzgerald, the anthology was published by the UCLA American Indian Studies Center. Available in paperback, the cost is $25.

Marcie's play is about a collector named Frances Densmore. I'd love to see it on stage!

The setting is present day. A young Native man named Jack and his Native girlfriend Chris are the main characters. Chris was raised with her Native community. Jack was not. He knows he's Native, and he goes to powwows and hangs out with Native people. He wants to know more, though, about his own tribe, and he especially wants a song of his own. Bill is an older Native man who visits with Jack and Chris in their apartment. Like Chris, Bill was raised knowing his community. Both Chris and Bill tell Jack that the song will come to him, that he has to listen for it.

Jack is impatient and rather than listen patiently, he decides to find a song. To find it, he turns to Frances Densmore's books and recordings.

Jack's activity (learning his heritage from a book) is not ok! All through his research process, Spirit Woman is near him, trying to give him a song. She's on stage, but he can't see her. He (and Chris and Bill) also can't see Frances Densmore when she is on stage. She's there a lot. Anytime Chris or Bill are talking, she goes right beside them, notebook in hand, and writes down what she hears them saying.

I'll stop, there, and let you get the play and read it yourself. As the play progresses, fascinating things are revealed. Marcie's play is a page-turner! If you are a writer that uses the Smithsonian archives (the Bureau of American Ethnography), don't do it! Or, at the very least, read Marcie's play before you do...

SongCatcher can be used in high school and college classes in English, Theater, Creative Writing, History, and of course, Anthropology. If your school has classes in Social Justice, use it there!

Later this week, I hope to find time to write about Marcie's play, The Rough Face Girl, comparing it to Rafe Martin and David Shannon's retelling of that story. I'll say this much. He got it wrong.

"As I Am" - Poem by Mohawk poet, Janet Marie Rogers

Via Twitter, I found this terrific film. As you'll see, it is a series of portraits, and, a poem called "As I Am" by Janet Marie Rogers, a Mohawk poet.

PETER PAN in Canada: Two steps forward, and then two steps back again

Friday, April 23rd, The Globe and Mail published an article in the Arts section. Written by J. Kelly Nestruck, the article is titled "Sensitivity Training in Neverland.

It opens with Nestruck posing this question: "Are the Neverland Indians of Peter Pan going the way of the Beothuk in Canada?"

Given that the article is about getting rid of stereotypical images of Indians in Peter Pan, I imagine that Nestruck thought he was being clever by comparing the fictional Indians in Peter Pan with the Beothuk. The Beothuk, according to a quick look-see of research, are a tribe that no longer exists. However! I'm not inclined to believe that they vanished. I've heard that "vanished" story before. I'll check into it, by talking to First Nations people. (If you're First Nations and have info that can help me with this research, let me know.)  Some may think Nestruck's playful opening is clever. I don't think it is clever at all. Regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know that I think it is important to examine where people situate American Indians. We're often in the same sentence as wild animals, and in the case of "Sensitivity Training in Neverland" fictional stereotypical Indians.

The first full paragraph says that the Peter Pan that will be on stage next week in Halifax and Stratford, will not have any references to "Indians" or "redskins" in the script. Next, Nestruck tells us, that Tiger Lily's tribe is in both productions, but, that "its members no longer bear any resemblance to North America's aboriginal peoples."

Obviously, someone (Nestruck? Producers? Playwrights?) think the Indians in J. M. Barrie's play did, in fact, bear resemblance to North America's aboriginal peoples. Which ones?! We do not (and did not) all look alike....

Fourth paragraph, Nestruck says the "beloved" story has been "causing controversy of late." Of late? Maybe it is news to Nestruck that we (indigenous people) don't like the way we've been portrayed for a long time. Take, as one example, what William Apes, a Pequot man, said in 1829 in A Son of the Forest:
[T]he great fear I entertained of my brethren was occasioned by the many stories I had heard of their cruelty toward the whites—how they were in the habit of killing and scalping men, women, and children. But the whites did not tell me that they were in a great majority of instances the aggressors—that they had imbrued their hands in the lifeblood of my brethren, driven them from their once peaceful and happy homes—that they introduced among them the fatal and exterminating diseases of civilized life. 
Fifth paragraph, Nestruck reports that George Pothitos and the theatre in Halifax "found itself in hot water" when it sent out a casting call for "Pirates/Indians." The artistic director was contacted by "angry artists" and apologized for the oversight, "not realizing how offensive that might be to some first-nations people."  So then Nestruck goes into the Land of Offense. (My term, not his.)

He says that "if" Indian is now considered derogatory "in some circles" now, the word "piccaninnies" is "much more problematic." Here's paragraph eight:
In Peter and Wendy, Barrie's 1911 novelization of his earlier play, the Scottish author describes these “redskins” on the warpath with their tomahawks not as an imaginary people, but as just another group of North American Indians. “Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as of pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons,” he wrote.
There's a lot wrong---and confusing---in that paragraph. Where is my copy of Peter and Wendy...

Moving on to the tenth and eleventh paragraphs, wherein Tim Carroll, the British director for the production being staged in Stratford, says:
“Coming here, it was obvious to me that we had to be more sensitive to the feelings of people who would be watching a debased version of their forefathers put onstage,” he says.
So, I guess, it is ok to be racist if there's nobody looking? Carroll decided to recast Tiger Lily's tribe as Amazons, thereby paying off thematically because now, he is "adding a mysterious female hinterland to the very male world of Neverland's Lost Boys and pirates." He doesn't mean the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He means "the women warriors of Greek mythology."

Meanwhile, back in Halifax, Pothitos said "I decided we'd produce our own Neverland, with a tribe not based on any one ethnicity." In his production, Tiger Lily's tribe is inspired by "primitivist Henri Rousseau as well as bits and pieces of Mayan, Egyptian, and East Indian culture." Rather than just mess with North American Indian stereotypical imagery, they've decided to add in a few other cultures...  That's no better than the mish-mash we already have to deal with....   Indians in headdresses, standing beside totem poles outside tipis...

Finally, in the last four paragraphs, Nestruck turns to the words of Tara Beagan, a playwright who is Ntlakapamux and Irish-Canadian. She is among those "angry artists" who contacted the Neptune about the casting notice. Nestruck wrote:
To Beagan, Peter Pan's casual equation of “Indians” with imaginary Neverland creatures such as mermaids was part of a larger racist British mindset that didn't see native North Americans as a real people who existed in the present.
I'm not sure where he got "racist British mindset" from. She didn't say that. He followed that with a quote from Beagan:
“The early 20th-century English theatre-going public literally thought of native North Americans as a vanishing race: This is what their rulers intended,” she writes. “England has made several very creative attempts at eradicating Canada’s first peoples – the mythologization of first-nations peoples was a false ‘swan song’ type of trend that has, sadly, lasted until 2010.”
And he ends the article with this paragraph:
In a recent article she penned for the Praxis Theatre blog, Beagan imagined her mother on a field trip from the Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1953 watching Disney's cartoon version of Peter Pan with its stereotypical Indians saying “Ugh” at a local theatre that only allowed native people to sit in the balcony. (Beagan's mother doesn't remember the specific films she saw on these trips, but the timing fits.) “My mom’s grandchildren – my niece and nephew – sit in any section they want, in any theatre they want,” Beagan wrote. “If things continue to look up the way they have been, they won’t ever sit through a production of something that will teach them that their people say 'ugh.’” In productions of Peter Pan at Stratford and Neptune, at least, that will be the case.
I searched the Praxis Theatre pages and found the blog post Nestruck quoted from. He left out her final sentence, which is:
Hell, it might be to watch something that one of them has written.
The article itself and the casting, revisions, and Barrie's story itself are all worth studying. I'm glad the article is available. It tells us there's some awareness (two steps forward), but, not understanding, or if there IS understanding, an inability to apply that understanding (two steps backward).

I think the theater people are trying, but, they're not slowing down enough to really think this stuff through. From Nova Scotia news is a favorable review that includes this:
Choreographer Jim White, who cooks up a lot of variety, has created an Indonesian-style dance for Tiger Lily and the tribesmen, in their grass skirts and bright blue and orange head dresses. Heidi Ford is a wonderfully lithe and expressive Tiger Lily.
There's a promo for the Neptune Theatre presentation at youtube. Tiger Lilly and her tribemen come onstage at 0:44 for a few seconds.  I'm not sure this is an improvement over the sequel to Peter Pan, titled Peter Pan in Scarlet...