Thursday, February 03, 2011

Robert Lawson's "Indians--tame ones" and slaves in Minnesota

This weekend at the Children's Literature Symposium at Florida State University-Sarasota, I'll be giving a talk about the illustrations of Indians in books that won the Caldecott Medal. I've been doing research on the books, reading some of them for the first time, and re-reading others.

One that I am re-reading is Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good. Published in 1940, it won the Caldecott that year. The book opens with a Foreword that reads:
This is the story of my mother and my father and of their fathers and mothers.

Most of it I heard as a little boy, so there may be many mistakes; perhaps I have forgotten or mixed up some of the events and people. But that does not really matter, for this is not alone the story of my parents and grandparents, it is the story of the parents and grandparents of most of us who call ourselves Americans. 
So, Lawson tells us, They Were Strong and Good is a family history of sorts. His disclaimer is interesting---it leaves me with many questions. The cover of the book shows us his parents and grandparents:

and the end pages (pages just inside the front and back cover) show us the same people. This image is from Peter D. Sieruta's blog, Collecting Children's Books, where he's got an essay on They Were Strong and Good. His essay title is "They Were Strong and Good Enough for 1940."

In 1994 a revised edition was published. In the revised one, the phrase "Indians--tame ones" was changed. The phrase "tame ones" was omitted. That wasn't the only part of the book that was changed. Its language with respect to African Americans was also changed. Beverly Slapin wrote about the changes a few years ago, and Jean Mendoza shared some pointed questions about the original text.  Please take time to read what they said.

As I studied They Were Strong and Good yesterday, I honed in on this page:

The text that goes with the page places that image in Minnesota. In the foreground are an Indian man and woman who have been given a pie and are being chased away. But who is chasing them? The young girl behind the African American woman is Lawson's mother. Lawson was born in 1892, so I'm guessing the year for that story is roughly 1872, assuming his mother gave birth to him when she was 20 years old. So...  Minnesota in 1870s. Slaves? That gave me pause, so I started digging in to Minnesota history and slavery.  Right away I found a Minnesota Public Radio story about the research and upcoming book by Professor Christopher Lehman at St. Cloud University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Here's the first few paragraphs from the MPR site:
St. Paul, Minn. — A St. Cloud State University professor has found evidence of slavery in several Minnesota counties before the Civil War, a groundbreaking discovery that sheds light on the Midwest's pre-Civil War history.

Christopher Lehman, an ethnic studies professor who is researching slavery in states along the upper Mississippi River, has documented slavery in Stearns, Benton, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington counties.

His research, to be published in a book in 2012, also found that prominent St. Cloud families of the mid-19th Century were slave owners.

I wrote to Professor Lehman to let him know about They Were Strong and Good and he's written back asking for more information. Hence, today's blog post. I don't know if it will, in the end, be useful to Lehman. What I find deeply satisfying about studying children's books is the information they hold. Some, like They Were Strong and Good tell us a lot about history and race. They should not be dismissed as "less than" because they're written for children.

There is value in having children study They Were Strong and Good. I don't recommend it be used with young children "as-is"---it should be studied by students in high school, perhaps in critical media literacy or social justice or civics courses.  

I'm looking forward to the Symposium, listening to learning from others who also work with and study children's books. One keynote speaker is Mary GrandPre. She did the illustrations for the Harry Potter books. The other keynote will be given by Kenneth Kidd, author of Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. An excerpt from his book is available at the publisher's website. If you're near Sarasota on Saturday, consider attending the symposium. Registration for the general public is $85.00 and includes lunch and snacks.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

"Kossa Indian Dancers"

Would you go to a service in a synagogue, mosque, church, or temple, study the attire, movements, music, and words of the people there, and then perform what you saw, charging people to see your performance?

I think your answer is a firm "no." You would recognize the sacred nature of what takes place there, and, you'd recognize it as inappropriate to copy and perform it.

The "Kossa Indian Dancers" either don't know that Pueblo dances are religious, or if they do know, they don't care.  According to the Suphur Daily News in Louisiana, the "Kossa Indian Dancers" were at Nambe Pueblo (I'm from Nambe) over the recent winter break.
After traveling among the Pueblo people recently, the Kossa Indian boys are now “richer” than they were before they left. From December 23 to December 31, the boys traveled to different Pueblo villages, learning new dances and immersing themselves into culture unlike their own.

“The Pueblo have been able to maintain over 96 percent of their culture over the years. They’re the most friendly, gracious, warm people you’ll ever meet in your life,” said David Kandik, Program Director for the Kossa Indian Dancers.
People who know me would probably say I am friendly, gracious and warm, but that doesn't mean that I think its ok for anyone to watch me when I'm praying, carefully noting the way I hold my hands and the clothes I wear, and then go off somewhere to practice those hand movements, sew those clothes, and then do my prayer as a performance!

Many visitors to New Mexico want to see Pueblo Indian dances. Pueblo, and New Mexico travel and tourist sites, books, and brochures generally include information about our dances. For example, the All Indian Pueblo Cultural Center has this information on its site:
  • Tribes value traditions, customs and religion. Some actions and/or questions could be offensive, so refrain from pressing for answers. Tribal dances are religious ceremonies, not public performances. It is a privilege to witness a ceremony.
  • Silence is mandatory during all dances and Pueblo ceremonies. This means no questions about the ceremonies or dances while they are underway; no interviews with the participants; no walking across the dance plaza; and, no applause during / after the dance or ceremony.
 The "Santa Fe, NM info" page has this in red letters near the top of their page on the Pueblos:
Visiting a Pueblo is a special experience. People go about their daily work in the modern world, but tradition is woven deeply through every aspect of life. It is important to go with respect for customs and regulations that are very different from you own. Each Pueblo has a sovereign government, ask at the main office for rules. Pueblos sometimes close for private ceremonies.

New Mexico Magazine has a section on Pueblo Etiquette:
Tribes value traditions, customs and religion. Some actions and/or questions may be offensive. Tribal dances are religious ceremonies, not performances put on for tourists. It is a privilege to be part of a ceremony. Keep quiet and don't applaud or touch the dancers.
I guess the leaders of the "Kossa Indian Dancers" aren't aware of any of this. Do you know anyone involved with the "Kossa Indian Dancers" in Louisiana? What about the "Koshares" in Colorado? They do the same sort of thing. If so, you could let them know that they're in violation of the wishes of the Pueblo people. If you're a teacher or parent in Louisiana, don't take your children to see the "Kossa Indian Dancers." If you're a teacher or school administrator who schedules assemblies for your school, do not invite the Koshares to perform.