Saturday, December 11, 2010

Brenda Stanley's I AM NUCHU

Several weeks ago a reader wrote to ask if I'd seen Brenda Stanley's I Am Nuchu. I hadn't, and that reader sent me a copy. I've read it and am sharing thoughts today. I apologize up-front for the disjointed qualities of this review. I had a hard time reading the book, following threads, making notes...  That difficulty is evident in my review. The book itself feels very superficial. And it feels like I'm reading a movie script (kind of like when I read Crowley's Starfish) or when I read a student paper... the ones that feel like a rush-job... Leaps, gaps, mistakes.  Anyway... here goes. I've tried to put description in regular type and my own thoughts/comments in italics.

The cover and design

On the front cover is a photograph of a young man who, I presume, is meant to be Cal, the protagonist. He's got long brown hair and is wearing a white t-shirt. He appears to be leaning on something that is chest-high because his arms are crossed in front of him, up high. On his wrists are several beaded bracelets. Behind him is a beautiful, sweeping vista. Overlaid on that vista is what I think are two layers of an artists rendering of petroglyphs. One is in brown, the other is in blue-gray. Layered on that in large white letters outlined in black is the title of the book I AM NUCHU.

There are 21 chapters in the book. The text for each one begins partway down the page. The upper portion of the page has the chapter number (in the same font as the title) and six petroglyphs.

My thoughts: There's too much on the cover. The petroglyphs only clutter the scene. I think they're meant to signal that this is a story about American Indians. I guess the publisher/designer decided the photograph of the guy wasn't enough of a signal. "Nuchu" is the spelling Stanley used in her book. The book doesn't list sources, but I found that spelling in the 1907 Handbook of American Indians, published by the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology. Tribal members use "Noochew". Both would likely be pronounced the same and some might say its a small detail. I think it does matter and would have liked to see Noochew. 

The characters
The protagonist is a 17 year old boy named Cal Burton. He's got two younger teen sibs: Doran and Rachel. Their mother is Mona. She's Ute, born and raised on the "Fort Duchesne reservation."  She's married to David. He's white and lived in Roosevelt, a town near "the Fort." Mona's father, Raymond, is an elder.  His wife, Dorothy, is long-dead and so is Raymond's other daughter, Jackie.  The non-Native characters include teenager Mitch, who Cal gets into a couple of fights with, and Mitch's dad, the sheriff. Cal calls him "Silver Hair" because of the way he wears his hair (slicked back, shiny gray). His actual name is Franklin Grayson.

The Native characters are teen boys: Fly, Johnny, Puck, and Jackie's older son who has fetal alcohol syndrome.

My thoughts: Stanley's character's say "on the Fort" a lot. I don't know if people who live there say "on the Fort" or "on the reservation" or something else entirely. I called out to the library there to ask about it and librarians I spoke with couldn't recall anyone saying "on the Fort." My conclusion: It is possible, but not probable. 

In chapter one, we read "It was the fall of 2009, and the war in Iraq was entering its seventh year" (p. 7). In terms of place, the family in the story has moved from "the crystal clean, lush foothills of the Spokane Valley" to "barren, insipid" (p. 7) Eastern Utah, specifically, the "Fort Duchesne Indian Reservation." To get to their grandfather's house (where they're going to live), they turn at a large cluster of triangular shaped adobe buildings" that "bore an obvious semblance to a gathering of teepees."

My thoughts: Based on photos I've seen, I don't think its barren or insipid, but, those sorts of judgments are relative. Stanley is trying to make a stark contrast in Cal's life before this move, and she is using geography to help with that contrast. 

I don't think the Utes call it the "Fort Duchesne Indian Reservation." From all that I've seen, it is the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Fort Duchesne, an old army fort, is on the reservation, and its the location of the tribal offices.

I was surprised to see "adobe" in Stanley's description of the buildings. I think she was referring to the Bottle Hollow Resort, which was torn down in 2009. Some of the buildings looked like teepees, but I don't think they were made of adobe. They were wooden structures, built in the 1970s. The photo at left is from a March, 2009 news story about the demolition.

There is an interview of Stanley on Bethany Hegedus's LiveJournal. There, Stanley says that she wrote the book nearly thirty years ago when she was 17 and living near the Fort Duchesne reservation. Reading that helped me understand why Cal and his friends would be listening to "More than a Feeling" by the rock group Boston---- a song I recall from my teen years. It seemed a little odd that Cal and his friends would be listening to it.  Reading about the demolition of the resort's history in the 70s and 80s makes me think that when Stanley revised the manuscript for publication, she added the Iraq war and year in her opening pages but didn't go through the rest of the manuscript to update things like music and place.

They drive into "town" where the street is lined with "paltry little homes." In the yards, "Indian men and women sat on mismatched patio furniture, each of them with a tall bottle of beer resting somewhere close by" (p. 16).  The next morning, Cal and Doran head into Roosevelt (that's where they meet "Silver Hair") and when they return at 10:00 in the morning, there are three "shiny new pick-ups" in the driveway. Inside are an Indian man and two Indian women in the kitchen with Mona. When Cal walked in, Mona turned toward the sink, trying to hide a beer from him.  Cal yells at her for drinking in the morning. On page 48, Cal and Doran are talking about their mother and Cal says that she's different and that she "never drank back home" (p. 48).  His first morning at his new high school, his first-hour teacher (subject is not specified) assumes that because he's Indian, he's behind academically. The students giggle and whisper about him because he's Indian. We read:
It embarrassed him to think about the pride he used to feel in his dark skin and black hair, his Indian blood, how the girls had loved it. The images of fierce warriors, their bodies sculpted and strong, were what he'd always pictured his ancestors to be. Not the unemployed alcoholics he saw around his kitchen table every night.

My thoughts: Alcohol is referenced many times in the book. Beer cans are everywhere, the Indian teens drink, the adults drink, and eventually, Cal drinks, too. There is a lot of alcohol in Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, too, but not as much as Stanley works into her book. To me, Alexie's references are more contextualized and sad, while Stanley's are superficial and judgmental. 

I think that observation applies to the way poverty is presented, too. 

I'm also not sure that the people who actually live in those houses would call it a "town." It sounds to me like a subdivision much like the one at Nambe---or on many reservations. The houses are, in some cases, run-down. Though Stanley tries to blame the Indians for the condition of the houses, the fact is that too many of them are poorly constructed HUD houses that are hard to maintain no matter who you are. This housing is part of treaty obligations that the U.S. government fails to adequately fulfill.

When they first drove into "town," Cal and Doran saw brand new cars and trucks and wonder why, if the Indians can afford those cars, they stay in their "diseased looking houses" (p. 48).  Later, Cal tells Doran that Mona told him they "get money from the oil that comes off the reservation. So they buy all these killer cars and let their houses turn into slums."

My thoughts: I did a bit of research and found that there's a lot of oil and gas on the Ute's land and in the Uintah Basin and that there was a boom period in the 70s and 80s.     

I Am Nuchu is being characterized as a mystery because everyone seems to be keeping something from Cal. If you pay attention, you'll know part of the "mystery" pretty early via some not-so-subtle foreshadowing. Cal's father is not actually David, the man Mona (his mother) married when she left the reservation. Instead, Cal's father is the sleazy, racist sheriff who, as a young man, had sex with lot of Native girls and got three different ones pregnant. That bit of info is revealed near the end of the book. Throughout the book he utters ugly racist statements about the Utes.

Because of those statements, Cal is convinced that Silver Hair killed Mona and her near-term baby. An investigation at the time of her death came up empty, which Cal attributes to a corrupt sheriff's department.

We eventually learn that Mona killed Jackie because Mona wanted the sheriff to marry her, not Jackie.

In the final chapters, Mona, having confessed to Cal that she killed her sister, manages to run off to the lake where she killed her. Cal finds her there with a gun and persuades her not to commit suicide.  Later she runs away from the courthouse where she's gone to give a statement. They find her again at the lake, but this time, she's dead, having driven her car into the lake.

My thoughts: All the high drama throughout the story reminds me of some of the celebrity TV programs people watch today. Like Keeping up with the Kardashian's! The Wikipedia entry for that show reads 
Tabloid protagonist Kim Kardashian and her colorfully blended family, which includes step-dad Bruce Jenner, are the subjects of this reality series that chronicles their often chaotic domestic life together. Although the family members frequently are at odds, especially Kim and sisters Kourtney and Khloé, they always support one another in the end.
That paragraph could be about the Burtons! Cal storms about, declaring loudly what younger sister Rachel can and cannot do, making judgments on her makeup and clothes. Mona is always yelling or shouting. And she must be drunk most of the time because at one point Cal notes that at least she is sober. All the sexual activity that sets the plot in motion... All the beer.... Flashy cars...   

It was quite a surprise to see this word appear on page 144. Cal is worried that the sheriff will come after him on "the Fort" but Fly, one of the Ute teens, tells him that the sheriff has no power on the reservation because "We're a sovereign nation." Fly goes on to tell Cal that the sheriff has no jurisdiction on the reservation, and that the B.I.A. (Bureau of Indian Affairs) enforces laws on the reservation.

My thoughts: That's accurate but I imagine readers might wonder why the Utes (or any tribe, for that matter) is sovereign. Sovereignty is at the heart of our standing as Native Nations. It is very important. The BIA website has an accessible definition explanation:
The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities as provided by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, court decisions and Federal statutes. Within the government-to-government relationship, Indian Affairs provides services directly or through contracts, grants, or compacts to 565 Federally recognized tribes with a service population of about 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives. While the role of Indian Affairs has changed significantly in the last three decades in response to a greater emphasis on Indian self-governance and self-determination, Tribes still look to Indian Affairs for a broad spectrum of services.
Later on Cal, Doran, Fly, Johnny, and Puck drive out to Bitter Creek to hunt "Deer, elk, whatever" (p. 146) they want to, Puck says, because Bitter Creek is part of the reservation and because they're a sovereign nation. Johnny says "On the reservation, we have the right to hunt whenever we need the food" (p. 147). Johnny tells him a Ute creation story, and where he learns that they prefer to be called "Nuchu." On their next hunting trip out there a few days later, they see Mitch and his friends down in the valley painting the petroglyphs there. Cal shoots to get their attention and make them stop, which makes Mitch climb up to the ridge, where he shoots and kills Doran.

My thoughts: Again, Stanley is correct. Native people do have hunting and fishing rights on our lands, but it isn't quite the "whenever" she suggests. We do have hunting seasons, too, that we observe. Mitch and his friends have guns, too, though Stanley doesn't say they're there to hunt.

In the first chapter, Doran asks Cal why he isn't curious about "the Indians" especially since, growing up in Spokane where they stand out as not-white, the boys have been asked about their identity all their lives.  As the book progresses, however, we learn that Mona told them a lot about their Ute heritage.  For example, on page 21, there's this:
"When Cal was a child, his mother sat in his room at night and told him stories about the tribe and the teachings of the Creator. [...] And while his interest in the Utes teachings faded, the appeal of being Ute was exciting. Cal's distinctive dark skin and hair made him different and he liked it. He often talked about his Ute blood as a way to draw even more attention to his unique characteristics."
And this is on page 23:
"He'd heard Mona talk many times about the ceremonies and beliefs of the Ute people. Her dark eyes sparkled as she told about the Bear Dance and the summer night rituals."
The family moves to Utah during the fall. On page 23, Mona tells Cal that Raymond is an "Elder of the tribe" and that he is goes to meetings "to make decisions about the reservation and stuff." That evening he's going to be at a meeting "to prepare for" the Bear Dance which they will do the next day.  I think that is an error.  Information provided by the tribe says that they do the Bear Dance in the spring, as shown on this 2009 poster. In one of the last chapters, several months have passed. It is winter again, and Cal is back from college. He told the school he needed to be back on the reservation for the Bear Dance. (Again, wrong season!)

Some closing thoughts
I could keep going...  But I think I'll stop. As I said to a colleague on Facebook, I wish with all my heart that this was a book I could recommend, but I can't. I said to another colleague that it screams outsider perspective. Stanley tried hard, and having spent her teen years there, she could have given us something really well-informed, but she doesn't.

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...