Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Unexpected intersections: Thanksgiving and Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!

Earlier this week a reader wrote to ask me about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! Not familiar with it, I read reviews and learned that it is the story of a not-Native family who uses Native names to pass as Native people who run an alligator-wrestling theme park. I've got a copy on order so I can read it.

Here's what I know so far (reading from the "look inside" option at Amazon):

Swamplandia! is the name of the theme park. It is run by the "Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers." The star of their show is Hilola Bigtree. She is described as being "brown-skinned" and muscular. She's married to "Chief Bigtree" and their children are Kiwi (a boy), Osceola (a girl) and the protagonist, Ava. In the billboard promoting the theme park, the family is shown gathered round an alligator. On page five, Ava tells us that they:
"are wearing Indian costumes on loan from our Bigtree Gift Shop: buckskin vests, cloth headbands, great blue heron feathers, great white heron feathers, chubby beads hanging off our foreheads and our hair in braids, gator "fang" necklaces.
The text continues:
Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were "our own Indians." Our mother had a toast-brown complexion that a tourist could maybe squint and ball Indian--and Kiwi, Grandpa Sawtooth, and I could hold our sun.
Osceola, we learn, is "snowy white" and that getting her ready for the photos required that she be "colored in with drugstore blusher." Later we learn of Ossie's boyfriend (Ossie is short for Osceola), Louis Thanksgiving.

I'm guessing you can see why I ordered the book. The family, calling itself Bigtree, is posing as Indians. They're playing Indian. Ava tells us so. It isn't something that is hidden from readers, but I'm guessing the visitors at the theme park have no idea the Bigtree family is not Native.

Identity and race seem to figure prominently in the book. On page 166, we learn that when he was 14, Kiwi (Ava's older brother) declared:
"I'm a Not-Bigtree. A Not-Indian. A Not Seminole. A Not Miccosukee."
We're given that information because in that part of the story, Kiwi is keenly aware that he is white and in the minority of his mostly not-white class of students in a GED class. On page 191, we learn about Seminoles ghosts who "haunt" the swamps, and, that Ava's father (Chief Bigtree) envied
...the "real" Indians... in a filial and loving way...
I wonder if there are any Seminole characters in the book? I'll let you know when I get the book. It got rave reviews. RAVE reviews. At the Amazon page, there are blurbs from everyone from Stephen King to the reviewer for Oprah's magazine. I don't see any comments at all about the fact that the family is playing Indian. If they were playing Black, would that be noted?

Two of my recent reviews are about Thanksgiving picture books: The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks, and, Jon Scieszka's Trucksgiving. (Note: A reader wrote to chastise me for having a myopic viewpoint, saying there are more important things to worry about. In a response to that sort of criticism, I've written 'why it matters' as part of the "ABOUT AICL" page.)

Given those two reviews, I've been doing a bit of reading about Thanksgiving and how it is taught. I came across "On Education: Pilgrims, No Thanks in Mohawk County," a terrific article published in the New York Times on November 26, 2003.  (If the link doesn't work, send me an email and I'll send it to you directly.)

In the article, a 6th grade boy says that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday. That boys name leaped out at me because I've been reading and thinking about Swamplandia! The child's name? Gage Bigtree. He goes to school at St. Regis Mohawk Elementary, a public school near the Canadian border where all 450 students in the school are Mohawk. Here's an excerpt from the article:
It is a fine balance, teaching American history at a public school so different from the mainstream, a place where so much American history is taken personally and negatively. These are young children, and while their teachers -- many themselves Mohawk -- do not want them to be naïve about history, they do not want them embittered, either.

And so a fair amount of time is spent focusing, not on what the Pilgrims did, but on the richness of the Indians' own culture and history. When Mrs. King and Carole Ross attended this school as children in the 1950's and 1960's, students were barred from speaking Mohawk; today, the two women work full time teaching the Mohawk language to every child.

Students learn that centuries before the Europeans arrived and held the ''first Thanksgiving,'' the Mohawks were celebrating nine Thanksgivings a year, commemorating the first running of the sugar maple sap; the first thunder (and warming) of spring; the first strawberries; and the great harvest -- the ninth Thanksgiving and the one that coincided with the Europeans' Plymouth celebration.

This week, each class, from kindergarten to sixth grade, went over the Thanksgiving Address, recited at the start of all ceremonies and played each morning at dawn on the Mohawk Reserve radio station, CKON. They give thanks for the earth, the plants, the fish, the waters, the birds, the nighttime and daytime suns. In first grade, Mrs. King had them name all the types of water they could give thanks for, from bottled water to the St. Lawrence. At Gage's Thanksgiving celebration, his family will recite the address together. ''If we make one mistake -- like my sister messing up, we have to start all over,'' he said.
So. Lots of interesting intersections this week... Thanksgiving, names, playing Indian, real Indians. All of it in the world of children, young adults, their books, and their education. 

1 comment:

Shahana said...

Are they playing Indian? Or don't want to forget that they were Red Indian.