Saturday, January 07, 2012

Teaching for Change's Busboys and Poets Bookstore

Earlier this week, Don Allen at Teaching for Change asked if I'd be interested in having my recommended book lists on their bookstore website. Of course, I'm interested in calling as much attention as possible to excellent books by Native authors, so I said yes. The bookstore link on their site goes to the awesome Busboys and Poets bookstore... Correction (Jan 7, 2011, 12:20 PM): Teaching for Change's bookstore is inside the Busboys and Poets restaurant.

A couple of years ago, I was in Washington DC for meetings of the Reading is Fundamental Multicultural Advisory board. While there, I went to Busboys and Poets. If you're ever nearby, stop in. Here's their mission statement:
Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted... a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul... a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide... We believe that by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.
In addition to terrific food (restaurant and coffee shop) they have a bookstore and a full calendar of events that includes lectures by authors. Given the mission statement, it is not surprising that Teaching for Change has a professional relationship with Busboys and Poets, and I'm glad to be part of that progressive network. If you can, attend one of the many events Teaching for Change schedules. 

Update, Jan 7, 2011, 12:20 PM: For details on that relationship, read the About Us page.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Day three with Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!

Editor's note: I finished reading Russell's book. I do not recommend it. I do not recommend playing Indian, in fact or fiction. 

Two days ago I started reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia, writing up summaries and my comments for each chapter as I read. Yesterday, I read a few more chapters, summarizing and commenting as I read. Today, I finished the book.

Note 1: My comments on each chapter are indented and in bold text. Plain font is for summary.
Note 2: Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens in the book. In other words, Note 2 is a spoiler alert.
Note 3: I'm reading the book in ebook format. I don't have reliable page numbers for excerpts I use below. At some point I'll get a hard copy and add page numbers.


Chapter Fifteen: Help Arrives, Then Departs
Ava and the Bird Man are out on the water and swamp areas, headed to the Eye of the Needle. Ava tells the Bird Man that there are a lot of Seminole ghosts out there and that her sister is "...named for a Seminole chieftain. The whites killed him with malaria. He died in Fort Moultrie, South Carolina."

Debbie's comments:
Ava calls him a chieftain and I do see that term in some sources but the ones by Native scholars like Theda Purdue use "war chief" instead. He did die of malaria at Fort Moultrie, but before he was there, he, his wives, and his children were held at a prison in Saint Augustine. Another awful detail: Purdue writes that he was buried headless because an Army doctor "made off with his head as a trophy" (page 190, The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast by Theda Purdue and Michael D. Green). In The Native Peoples of North America: A History, Volume 1, Bruce E. Johansen writes that the doctor was a surgeon named Frederick Weedon, and that he kept Osceola's head in a medical museum until it was destroyed in a fire in 1866.  If interested, you can read testimony of three military officers who verified that Weedon had the head. Will we find out WHY "the Chief" and his wife chose that name for their daughter?! 

Ava continues:

After the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, the Seminole people were hunted like animals. They built the palm-thatched chickees for use as temporary shelters, hiding places. President Jackson sent a letter to the Seminoles that we reproduced in our museum, the last line of which reads:
"But should you listen to the bad birds that are always flying about you, and refuse to remove, I have directed the commanding officer to remove you by force."

She provides more history, and then says:

My sister was named for the Seminoles' famous warrior and freedom fighter, War Chief Osceola, who, legend has it, said, at a time when General Jessup was upon them, and all seemed lost:
"If the Great Spirit will show me how, I will make the white man red with blood; and then blacken him in the sun and rain... and the buzzard live upon his flesh."
Debbie's comments:

Jackson's statement is in a letter. You can read it here in the Library of Congress publication. Scroll down and read details about how the removal was to be carried out. The only place I'm able to locate the second excerpt (Osceola's words) is in "Outing Magazine" which was a sports magazine published in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Russell precedes that excerpt with "legend has it" which gives her the space to attribute those words to him. This reminds me of Gina Capaldi's picture book biography of Carlos Montezuma. She went overboard, putting words into his mouth. Her disclaimer is less visible than a passage preceded with "legend has it."

Ava goes on:

These Seminoles, the "real" Indians that the chief envied in a filial and loving way, were in fact the descendants of many displaced tribes from the Creek Confederacy. This swamp was not their ancestral home either, not by any stretch--they had been pushed further and further into the swamp by President Jackson's Tennessee boys and a company of scarecrows from Atlanta, a militia that was starved and half-crazed. We Bigtrees were an "indigenous species" of swamp dweller, according to the Chief and our catalogs, but it turned out that every human in the Ten Thousand Islands was a recent arrival. 

Debbie's comments:

Why does Russell have "real" in quotation marks, followed by information that says the Seminoles are descendants of displaced tribes? She is also collapsing a lot of history into a too-small period, and then she says her family and the Indians of the area are all the same. That's unsettling! It is a bold attack on the sovereignty of the tribes who were there!

Ava talks a bit about the Calusa's and then says: was not until the late 1800s that our swamp was recolonized by freed slaves and by fugitive Indians and, decades later, by the shocked, drenched white pioneers shaking out wet deeds, true sitting ducks, the patsies of the land barons who had sold these gullible snowbirds farms that were six feet underwater. And then by "eccentrics" like the Bird Man and my parents. 

Debbie's comments:

That suggests that there was nobody there at all between 1830 when the Removal Act was passed and the late 1800s. I suppose it depends on what "recolonized" means.  The Seminole tribe says they never left:
Historians estimate there may have been only a few hundred unconquered Seminole men, women and children left - all hiding in the swamps and Everglades of South Florida. No chicanery, no offer of cattle, land, liquor or God, nothing could lure the last few from their perches of ambush deep in the wilderness. The U.S. declared the war ended - though no peace treaty was ever signed - and gave up.

The Florida survivors comprised at least two main factions: Maskoki speakers who lived near Lake Okeechobee and those who spoke the linguistically-related Hitchiti tongue (also called Miccosukee or Seminole) and lived to the south. In the remote environs of such uncharted Florida wilderness, the Seminoles remained, living in small traditional camps of cypress frame/palmetto-thatch chickees, isolated from Florida society and the rest of the world until well into the 20th century . . . long after most tribes had experienced assimilation, religious conversion and cultural annihilation.

The descendants of these last few Indian resistors are the members of today's Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and the unaffiliated Independent or Traditional Seminoles.

Among the "white pioneers" Ava references decades later is her grandfather (remember, he purchased that land in 1930). 

The Bird Man asks Ava if her sister is like "the war chief Osceola" to which Ava says "Oh, no! She wears barrettes and stuff. She's a real girl-girl. She's not like us."

Debbie's comments:

Not like us... which means... What? What does it mean?

As they continue towards the Eye of the Needle, Ava wonders if Ossie has already made it home and found her note:

I pictured Ossie sitting Indian style on the burgundy sofa in her polka-dotted pajamas.

Debbie's comments:

Sitting "Indian style"?! We know what that means---with legs crossed. If this time period is 1980, then, Ava thinking "Indian style" makes sense. In recent years, use of that term has diminished as teachers become more aware of stereotyping. But, did it need to be in here at all? What if the sentence was "I pictured Ossie sitting on the burgundy soft in her polka-dotted pajamas." Does that take away from anything? Maybe Russell is trying to get us to see Ava as a product of her time. There are definitely plenty of people who understand the mistreatment of American Indians in historical contexts and still play Indian at Halloween or birthday parties, or, at sports events where a mascot is a stereotyped Indian.

Ava and the Bird Man talk a lot as they row/walk to the Eye of the Needle. He asks her if she knows about a bridge built in the 1920s. Ava nodded, told him about her grandfathers photos of African American bodies after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. He took these photos to document something that official records did not. She goes on:
Most mainlanders hear "homeschooled" and they get the wrong impression. There were many deficits in our swamp education, but Grandpa Sawtooth, to his credit, taught us the names of whole townships that had been forgotten underwater. Black pioneers, Creek Indians, moonshiners, women, "disappeared" boy soldiers who deserted their army camps. From Grandpa we learned how to peer beneath the sea-glare of the "official, historical" Florida records we found in books. "Prejudice," as defined by Sawtooth Bigtree, was a kind of prehistoric arithmetic--a "damn fool math"--in which some people counted and others did not. It means white names on white headstones in the big cemetery on Cypress Point, and black and brown bodies buried in swamp water.
She calls her grandpa a true historian who is a true egalitarian:
Tragedies, too, struck blindly and you had to count everyone. Grandpa taught us more than any LCPS Teach Your Child ...! book about Florida hurricanes, Florida wars. From his stories we learned as children how to fire our astonishment at death into a bright outrage.
Debbie's comments:

Maybe it is grandpa's teaching that is at the root of Kiwi and Ava's frustration with their father for his persistence in playing Indian. 

Towards the end of the chapter, they run into Whip Jeters, a park ranger who has known Ava and her family for a long time. He's surprised to find her with the Bird Man, but Ava and the Bird Man convince Whip that they're cousins.

Chapter Sixteen: Kiwi Bigtree, World Hero

Recall that in chapter fourteen, Kiwi rescued (I should note that the girl he rescued wasn't really drowning; she was fooling around) a girl at the World of Darkness pool where he is working as a lifeguard.  In this chapter, the media swarms on the story, portraying him as a hero. He is interviewed and photographed or the newspaper:
He hadn't allowed himself to be photographed for the Swamplandia! brochures for years; in the most recent one he was fourteen, wearing his sister Osceola's red ribbon around his forehead and furious about it, a feather sticking up behind his head like a middle finger.
Debbie's comment:

This is some of the frustration that I mentioned earlier.

Kiwi realizes that this rescue story could help Swamplandia! and starts talking about it to the reporter, telling her that he belongs to the "Bigtree tribe of Swamplandia" and referring to the billboard of his father wearing a headdress. The reporter doesn't know what he's talking about but he goes on talking about Swamplandia hoping some of the information will make it into the newspaper. When he sees the paper the next day, he is disappointed that most of the article is about the girl, and that it says nothing about Swamplandia.

Chapter Seventeen: Ava's Eclipse
The niggling doubts Ava has been feeling are full blown by the end of this chapter. She and the Bird Man have found and passed the Eye of the Needle and pass by islands with people on them. Ava calls out, thinking Ossie is there, and the Bird Man slaps her.  She realizes she doesn't know who he is and that she was wrong to trust him. At one point she thinks of her dad, drunk on the couch, wearing his feathered headdress.

Debbie's comment:

I don't remember prior references to her father being drunk. I'm not making an association between the drunken Indian stereotype here, and I don't think Russell is either. Ava's thought makes me feel sad for her.

Chapter Eighteen: Kiwi Rolls the Dice
Kiwi goes to a Seminole-owned casino with two friend/co-workers. There is a beauty pageant taking place. Kiwi realizes that the pageant MC is his dad. He puts the money he has with him in an envelope and hands it to a dealer, asking her to give it to his dad. She tells Kiwi to take the money himself, that the man, Sammie, is a nice guy who they all love. Kiwi takes off, conflicted over what he's realizing. All these years, he believed his dad went on periodic month long trips to the mainland to meet with investors, but, it looks like those business trips were just periods when he works at jobs like this one.

Chapter Nineteen: The Silently Screaming World
The chapter opens with Ava realizing that the Bird Man is having sex with her. She doesn't struggle but shortly after that, she runs away. They've been gone from Swamplandia! two days. She spends a night alone huddled in the dark and the next morning gathers her thoughts and gets her bearings. She starts out for higher land.

Chapter Twenty: Out to Sea
Kiwi goes to visit his grandfather at the retirement home, hoping his grandfather can fill him in and affirm his suspicions about his dad.  But, his grandfather's mind is gone and they end up fighting. Kiwi goes back to his room at the World of Darkness and finds that his friend/co-workers have a new poster for him. They thought the poster Kiwi has of his mother is there for Kiwi to use when masturbating. In replacing it, they've torn it in half. They don't know that is his mother.

Chapter Twenty-One: Mama Weeds
Ava continues her journey through the swamps. She comes to a cabin with a clothesline on which are hung items she recognizes as Ossie's favorite shirt and Louis's jacket...  She thinks the woman who appears is a ghost named Mama Weeds. The woman is wearing a dress that Ava thinks once belonged to her mother. She tries to tear it off the woman, and then, she takes off again. She's got a piece of the dress in her hand and is wearing the jacket.

Debbie's comment:

The last chapters of this story are just as heavy and dark as they can be. I'm not at all sure that Ava is alive anymore... 

Chapter Twenty-Two: Kiwi Takes to the Skies
After rescuing the girl, Kiwi was promoted again, to pilot of an in-the-works World of Darkness airplane ride. In this chapter, he is able to fly a plane. While up, he sees a woman waving frantically at the plane. He decides to land (his instructor lets him try it), which he does successfully. He finds the barge and Ossie. She tells him that Louis Thanksgiving left her at the alter. The chapter closes with her asking about Ava.

Chapter Twenty-Three: The End Begins
The Bird Man finds Ava. She dives into an alligator pond, is bit on the leg, wrestles the alligator, and gets away from it. She swims through a tunnel and the Bird Man doesn't find her again. She hears the crackle of a park ranger's radio and is rescued. The ranger asks if she's related to Osceola Bigtree, who has also just been rescued. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are reunited and go to "the Chief's" hotel room. The family is reunited. They stay on the mainland. Ossie is on medication. Ava doesn't tell anyone about the Bird Man or what happened to her. The last paragraph ends with:
I think the Chief was right about one thing: the show really must go on. Our Seths are still thrashing inside us in an endless loop. I like to think our family is winning. But my brother and my sister and I rarely talk about it anymore--that would be as pointless as making a telephone call to say, "Kiwi, are you there? Listen: my blood is circulating" or, "Howdy, Ossie, it's today, are you breathing?" We used to have this cardboard clock on Swamplandia! and you could move the tiny red hands to whatever time you wanted, NEXT SHOW AT __:__ O'CLOCK.

Debbie's comments:

That's it. End of the story.  After I've had some time to think about the story, I'll write up those thoughts. In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and comments, either through the comments option below, or through the "Contact AICL" button in the bar at the top of the page. You can also write to me directly at

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Day Two with Russell's SWAMPLANDIA

Editor's note: I finished reading Russell's book. I do not recommend it. I do not recommend playing Indian, in fact or fiction. 

Yesterday I started reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia, writing up summaries and my comments for each chapter as I read. I'm picking it up again today. Before reading below, go read Day One with Russell's Swamplandia where I wrote about chapters one thru five.

Note 1: My comments on each chapter are indented and in bold text. Plain font is for summary.
Note 2: Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens in the book. In other words, Note 2 is a spoiler alert.
Note 3: I'm reading the book in ebook format. I don't have reliable page numbers for excerpts I use below. At some point I'll get a hard copy and add page numbers.


Chapter Six: Kiwi's Exile in the World of Darkness

Kiwi takes a job at the World of Darkness, which is the reason tourists have stopped going to Swamplandia. There, he meets some unusual people like the oblivious character, Leonard Harlblower. Kiwi thinks:
Even Chief Bigtree--an "indigenous swamp dweller" who was actually a white guy descended from a coal miner in small-town Ohio, a man who sat on lizards in a fathered headdress--even the Chief seemed like a genius of self-awareness next to this kid Leonard.
Debbie's comments:

In chapter six, Russell used "indigenous" but without quotation marks. Here, she uses them. Is this inconsistency in her writing, or is it a way for the different characters to show that self-awareness?

Chapter Seven: The Dredge Appears
With "the Chief" gone, Ava and Ossie take care of Swamplandia and their property. This includes cutting down melaleuca, an invasive tree:
Ossie was cutting the saplings down, and I was painting herbicide onto the stumps. We were tree warriors, I told Ossie. We had come to the Last Ditch for a massacre.

"This is a pretty boring massacre," said my sister. "When is lunch?"

Debbie's comments:

Playing savage Indians now?! Russell's writing has a good bit of humor in it, but this particular stereotype (bloodthirsty savage massacring Indian) is not in the least bit amusing. 

It is while they are out cutting down the saplings that Ava and Ossie find an old dredge. Ossie starts trying to communicate with its ghosts. She takes up with one in particular, named Louis Thanksgiving.

Chapter Eight: Kiwi's Debt Increases
Payday finally arrives and Kiwi finds out that things he thought were free (his uniform, food he eats while at work, and a room he stays in at the theme park) are not free. Instead of a check, he is given a bill.

Chapter Nine: The Dredgeman's Revelation
Ossie is in love with Louis, calling him her boyfriend. Ossie tells Ava his life story, from birth to death. He had friends in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): "calm men, family men, bachelors, ex-preachers, hellions, white men, black men, the children of Indians and freed slaves"

Debbie's comments:

The CCC was a government work relief program that ran from 1933 to 1942.  Grandpa Sawtooth bought the island that would eventually have Swamplandia on it in 1932. That means the barge and work being done by its crew was done while he was there. I don't know if that matters later on in the story or not. 

I'm not sure that the CCC was integrated in a way that would have made it possible for Louis to work with black men, or with "children of Indians and freed slaves." I'm wondering why Russell used "children of Indians and freed slaves" instead of whatever word they were called in the 1930s.  I'm not sure that Louis would have worked alongside anyone who wasn't white. For the most part, the CCC wasn't integrated.

From his work on the CCC, Louis went to work on the dredge, but his friends chose not to go:
...the lone Indian on the crew, Euphon Tigertail, who had survived subhuman conditions while working on the Panama Canal, decided that he couldn't work in the swamp any longer. He'd been undone by miniscule foes, the chizzywinks, and the deer flies. "You sure you want to be a dredgeman for this outfit, Lou?" Euphon had whispered, both of them staring at the hulk of the dredge. 
Debbie's comments:
Hmmm...  I think this is the first time in the book that Russell provides us with words spoken by a Native character. Cool that it isn't stilted Indian-speak ("Um, that right, Kemosabe")!

Studying maps they found on the dredge, Ossie tells Ava that Louis has told her about a door to the underworld. Ava recognizes it as an Indian landmark called Eye of the Needle that is a day's hourney by airboat from their island. They had not been there, but their grandfather had:
Grandpa Sawtooth took a photograph of the Eye of the Needle passageway during his rambles in the forties: a gray channel cut between two twenty-acre islands made entirely of shells. These islands looked like twin boulders to me, or like one island that lived net to its echo. Two intricate skulls rising out of the river. They are hundreds or maybe even thousands of years old--the Calusa Indians constructed the mounds out of clay and every kind of local shell: oysters and conchs and whelks. The Calusa Indians were well established in our swamp when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513, and they probably hugged the shoreline of Florida for hundreds of years before the European contact; by the late 1700s their tribe had disappeared, undone by Spanish warfare and enslavement, and by microbes: smallpox and measles. The Calusa shell mounds, these seashell archipelagos, had outlasted their architects by at least five hundred years. You can find them scattered throughout the Ten Thousand Islands; visitors will drag their kayaks up a shell mound's glittery shoes and picnic there. On the Gulf side a 150-acre shell mound supports a modern township. But the Eye of the Needle was a special landmark, known only to locals, and very remote.

Debbie's comments:

This is a history lesson! In a Google Everything search, the first hit was a social studies page that has much of the information Russell shares. Thankfully, Russell does not replicate the bias on that page (it presents the Calusa's as the aggressors in conflicts with the Spanish). A Google Videos search turned up an interesting documentary that dates one of the layers in a particular dig at 2000 years old. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are homeschooled but don't really study. In one place in the book, they worry at what grade level they'd be placed if they went to public school. That worry suggests the kids are not very well educated, so, the idea that Ava would know all this about the Calusa Indians kind of doesn't work.

On the third weekend without their father, Gus (he runs the ferry) comes to check on them. He finds Ava coloring, using "our Bigtree tribal colors: Indian red and heron blue."

Debbie's comments:
I'm curious about the time period for this story. Due to a way-cool effort by teachers, that "Indian red" crayon was retired in 1999 in response to teachers who felt that children wrongly perceived that color was intended to represent the skin color of American Indians. because children were using it on coloring sheets when they were coloring Indians. Crayola responded and changed the name to Chestnut. Below is a screenshot of the relevant part of their webpage. If the time setting for Swamplandia! is pre-1999, then it makes sense that the crayon is in the box that Ava is using. If it is post-1999, she could be using an old box. So--it is plausible and not necessarily a critique. More than anything, I suppose, I'm seizing Russell's use of "Indian red" as a teachable moment.  (In chapter nine, Ava watches the news and learns of the famine in Uganda. That was 1980, and again, in 2011.)

A few days later, Gus arrives with a letter for Ava. This one is from the Secretary to the President at the University of Loomis. It reads:
Thank you for your inquiry. I have done some research on your behalf; unfortunately no such Commission or Committee or alligator-wrestling competition has ever existed. You might visit the Miccosukee Indian Reservation to watch a live alligator show.
Ava tears the letter into bits.
Debbie's comment:
Hmm... Are we going to find out that the trophy is a fake? Part of the hype for the park?

The chapter ends with Ossie going into the dredge again to see Louis. Ava meets and befriends the Bird Man (he's a guy who travels around driving birds away from places they aren't wanted). When Ava returns there the next morning, the dredge is gone.

Chapter Ten: Kiwi Climbs the Ladder
Back at the World of Darkness theme park, Kiwi gets a new job as a life guard.

Chapter Eleven: Ava Goes to the Underworld
In a panic, Ava tells the Bird Man about Ossie and the missing dredge. Reluctantly, she also tells him about Louis, the ghost boyfriend. To her surprise, he believes in ghosts and knows where the Eye of the Needle is. He agrees to help Ava find Ossie.

Chapter Twelve: Kiwi Goes to Night School
Kiwi goes to the local community college to begin a GED class. When it is his turn, he introduces himself and tells his classmates he needs to help his dad get out of debt and wants to go to college. Students immediately start ridiculing him, calling him "white boy." He wishes he could tell them about the island:
...about Chief Bigtree's "Indian" lineage; how as a kid they'd put makeup and beads on him, festooned him with spoonbill feathers and reptilian claws; how at fourteen he'd declared: "I'm a Not-Bigtree. A Not-Indian. A Not-Seminole. A Not-Miccosukee." This category "white" gave him a whistling fear, a feeling not unlike agoraphobia.
Debbie's comments:

Recall in chapter two, Kiwi is frustrated when his dad tries to talk to them in a booming "chieftain" voice? Here, we learn that Kiwi didn't like playing Indian. Seems like he thought he had no culture, and being called white, or realizing that his identity is being ridiculed, scares him. 

Chapter Thirteen: Welcome to Stiltsville
Ava and the Bird Man stop at an abandoned village on stilts (Stiltsville) for the night.

Chapter Fourteen: The Drowning Chain
The drowning chain is a net used to rescue swimmers. At the end of the chapter, Kiwi (not using the drowning chain) rescues and revives a girl. Crowds gather round and take photos of him.

That's it for Day 2 of Swamplandia!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Day One with Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!

Editor's note: I finished Russel's book, and do not recommend it. It is redface. It is playing Indian. At the end of this post you'll find links to Day Two and Day Three of my chapter-by-chapter summaries. 

7:30 AM, January 2, 2012
Back in April, a reader wrote to me about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! I got an ebook of it today and will start working through it, posting notes here as I go. Based on what I read in April, I am not looking forward to this book in which a family plays Indian. I doubt it deserves the praises it got from NPR and the New York Times.  

My comments on each chapter are indented and in bold text. Plain font is for summary. I'm reading the book in ebook format. I don't have reliable page numbers for excerpts I use below. At some point I'll get a hard copy and add page numbers.

Chapter One: The Beginning of the End
We meet the family:
the dad: "Chief Bigtree"
the mom: "Hilola Bigtree"
the older sister: "Osceola"
the older brother: "Kiwi"
the grandfather: "Sawtooth"
the protagonist: Ava

Debbie's comments:

That is quite a set of names! Will we find out that Ava also has a nickname? And how did Russell (the author) settle on Osceola as the name for Ava's sister? Osceola was a Seminole leader. On the Seminole Nation's website, he is described as follows: "Elegant in dress, handsome of face, passionate in nature and giant of ego, Osceola masterminded successful battles against five baffled U.S. generals, murdered the United State's Indian agent, took punitive action against any who cooperated with the white man and stood as a national manifestation of the Seminoles' strong reputation for non-surrender."

Ava tells us that her family, "the Bigtree tribe of the Ten Thousand Islands" runs an alligator theme park in Florida called Swamplandia! On promotional billboards, they wear
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.

Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccousukee 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 at and call Indian--and Kiwi, Grandpa Sawtooth, and I could hold our sun. But my sister, Osceola, was born snowy--not a weak chamomile blond but pure frost, with eyes that vibrated somewhere between maroon and violet. Her face was like our mother's face cast forward onto cloudy water. Before we posed for the picture on that billboard, our mother colored her in with drugstore blusher. the Chief made sure she was covered by the shadow of a tree. Kiwi liked to joke that she looked like the doomed sibling you see in those Wild West daguerreotypes, the one who makes you think, Oh God, take the picture quick; that kid is not long for this world. 
Debbie's comments:

We know right away that this is not a Native family. They play Indian for their theme park. It makes them money. They benefit by playing Indian. Will we, as I continue to read, find out that Ava is uncomfortable with playing Indian? Is someone going to challenge their playing Indian? I wish Russell had also said that the "tribal apparel" is also fake.

I don't like Kiwi's joke. Would he make a similar joke about other oppressed children in daguerreotypes? 

Ava's mother gets ovarian cancer and dies. Grandpa Sawtooth is placed in a home a month before her death. Ava starts doing her mother's act. A new theme park called The World of Darkness opens on the mainland and Swamplandia's visitors drop off dramatically. It is easier to get to (tourists have to take a 40 minute ferry to get to Swamplandia). Ava rarely thinks "dad" --- she usually thinks "the Chief" instead.

Chapter Two: The Advent of the World of Darkness
Without tourists to occupy their time, Ava and her sibs start reading more. Ossie (Ava calls Osceola "Ossie") takes interest in one called The Spiritist's Telegraph about an underworld. Kiwi spends more time studying for the SAT.

We learn that Grandpa's real name is Ernest Schedrach and that he is "the white son of a white coal miner in Ohio" who bought the land Swamplandia is on in 1932. Hilola Bigtree's maiden name was Owens and she, too, was born on the mainland. In one of the Swamplandia buildings is a display area that has family artifacts, including Schedrach's army medallions. "The Chief" works hard to make sure that nothing in the case sullies the manufactured Indian identity of the Bigtree family. He takes the medallions out, and makes sure there is no mention of the family's white roots.

Debbie's comment:

No mention, yet, of when Swamplandia was founded, or, when the family started playing Indian. 

The night Osceola turns 16, they have a birthday party for her. Partway through, she announces she's going on a walk but "the Chief" asks her to stay so they can "have a tribal meeting." Osceola leaves anyway and "the Chief" says:
"As you may have noticed," he said in his booming chieftain's voice, "we Bigtrees have a serious enemy. We have a new battle to win."

"Oh my God," said Kiwi. "Dad. This isn't a show. We are all sitting in the same room." 

Debbie's comments:

Go, Kiwi! And he called him "Dad" instead of "the chief." 

The family discuss the future of Swamplandia, with "the Chief" wanting to make improvements, and, Kiwi wanting to sell it and move to the mainland.

Chapter Three: Osceola K. Bigtree in Love 
Osceola starts leaving her bedroom at night. Ava is worried about her and her dates with ghosts. Ava tells Kiwi about it. They tell "the Chief" but he waves it off as a lovesick phase she's going through. Though they still have few if any tourists, "the Chief" continues to wear his costume. 

Debbie's comment:

Kind of pathetic, "the Chief" in his costume....

Chapter Four: Ava the Champion
Ava decides she wants to enter the same alligator wrestling competitions her mother entered. Her mother won a national championship in 1971. Ava starts sending inquiries by mail. Her dad continues to wear the headdress all the time:
The fan was blowing at the Chief's headdress, flattening every feather so that they waved in place, like a school of fishes needling into a strong current. Something lunged in me then, receded. A giggle or a sob. A noise. I thought: You look very stupid, Dad.

Debbie's comment:

In chapter 2, Kiwi pushed back on the play Indian activity of "the Chief" and now, Ava does, too. And they're both thinking "dad" when they do it. 

Ava remembers asking her mom why she didn't enter more contests, ones where she could "beat the Seminole wrestlers, to show the Miccosukee alligator handlers what we Bigtrees were made of" but her mother avoids answering the question, saying that her job is to be a mother to her children.

Debbie's comment:

According to the Timeline on their website, the Seminole's have been doing alligator wrestling for tourists since the 1920s.

Ava wonders if her mother is happy. She married "the Chief" when she was nineteen and "started her career as an alligator wrestler that same year." She also gave birth that year to Kiwi.  Ava remembers Kiwi telling her that their mother had married too young. When Ava repeated that to her mother, she says "Your father and I were sweethearts, you tell me what's too 'too' about that! Without Sam I'd still be on the mainland."

Debbie's comment:

Sam! "The Chief's" name is Sam. 

Ava watches a batch of alligators hatch. One is red in color and she starts caring for it secretly, hoping it will save Swamplandia. Towards the end of the chapter, the family goes to visit Grandpa Sawtooth who is rapidly losing his memory.  He no longer remembers, for example, "Seth of Seth", which is the alligator he first wrestled. As the family rides the ferry back home, two other passengers stare at "the Chief" with "Seth of Seth" in his lap:
These Loomis men were wealthy, or wealthy to me: they wore belts with shiny buckles, and their khakied laps held fancy red double-decker tackle boxes. They were most likely on their way to play Injun for a weekend at the Red Eagle Key Fishing Camp; they didn't know my father was a Bigtree, and you could see the sneer in their eyes.

Debbie's comments:

On their way to play "Injun"?! Geez...

Chapter Five: Prodigal Kiwi
When they get back to their island, Ava shows Kiwi what she discovered earlier in the day: their mother's wedding dress is missing. They conclude that Ossie has taken it. Ava tells Kiwi about Ossie's nighttime dreams in which Ossie seems possessed. Frustrated with their father, Kiwi takes off. A few days later, "the Chief" tells Ava he is going on one of his extended trips to the mainland. He used to do these month-long business trips while her mother was alive. This is the first one since her death. Ava imagines that he'll raise money to carry out some of his development plans--plans that will make them competitive again. Ava imagines that:
Soon the indigenous Bigtrees would be able to compete with our niche competitor, that exotic invasive species of business, the World of Darkness.

Debbie's comments:

I don't know what to say... What is Russell doing calling the playing-Indian family "indigenous"? From the perspective of those who say they are "Native American" because they were born in America, but that is a snarky thing to do. It is an attempt to discredit American Indians. Same thing here, I think. Russell is intentionally (or not) being dismissive of American Indians. Then, Russell tells us that this family is being invaded by the World of Darkness. These are interesting parallels... Where is she going with this?

See also:
Day two with SWAMPLANDIA
Day three with SWAMPLANDIA