Saturday, June 02, 2012

Not Recommended: Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose by Tina Nichols Coury

A reader wrote to ask me about Tina Nichols Coury's Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose: Growing Up On Mount Rushmore, a new picture book about the father and son who carved Mount Rushmore.

Gutzon Borglum started carving faces into what most people know today as Mount Rushmore. When he died, Lincoln (his son) finished the project.

I gather the book is an interesting story of the work involved, but that it is also a 'hurray' for America that doesn't provide a thoughtful look at the complete story of the place or people.

Gutzon Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and worked on the "Confederate Memorial Carving" -- a monument to the Confederacy. (Update, 10:20 AM, June 12, 2012: Elizabeth Burns at School Library Journal asked for a link about Borglum and the Klan. It is mentioned in several books, and at the PBS American Experience webpage about him.)

Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose is a picture book by Tina Nichols Coury. Here's an excerpt from her website:
In character as “The Rushmore Kid” she [Coury] visits schools across the United States to present her popular "Why I Love America” program, which promotes an understanding and appreciation of the essential qualities that make America great.
I understand and appreciate love of ones nation, but we ought to be critical of the things about America that are not great. Mistakes made by America's leaders, for example, must be something that children are taught, and there are plenty of mistakes made with regard to the ownership of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.

That land was taken without the consent of the Lakota people. The U.S. government has tried to settle with them by offering them money, but, that land is sacred to the Lakota people. They were not, and are not interested in the money. They want the land.

Lakota people do appear in Coury's book, but not in the way I just described. Here's the page they're on:

I'll start by noting problems with Sally Wern Comport's illustrations. She shows several men dancing around a fire in a stereotypical way. The man in the foreground on the left is playing a drum with his open palm. That is an error. Native peoples across the United States use a drumstick to play the drum.

I'd like to know about Comport's sources. Old black/white silent-film footage of the time shows some Native dancers at an event at Mount Rushmore. It was during the day, not at night, and the dancers weren't dancing around a fire.

The text on that page offers a clue about that event:
Winters were harsh in the Black Hills. For the Lakota Indians who lived there, food was scarce. The Borglum family helped out often and went so far as to arrange for a buffalo herd to be donated to the tribe. At the powwow to celebrate, the grateful Indians made Lincoln and his dad blood brothers of the Oglala Lakota Tribe at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Lincoln was happy to lend a hand but dog-tired after dancing all night.
They had a powwow to celebrate? Again, I'd like to know the source of that information.

In The Great White Fathers: The Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore, John Taliaferro writes that the Borglum's provided a herd of cattle (not buffalo) and blankets and that the Oglala's were grateful to him and held a ceremony at Pine Ridge during which they made him an honorary member. Taliaferro also writes that Borglum wanted buffalo meat served at the dinner, but his efforts to hunt and kill one didn't work out. Was the ceremony a powwow, as Coury describes? Did they dance all night? Was there a fire that they danced around?

The text prompts other questions... Why was food scarce? Was it scarce for everyone, or, did this scarcity have something to do with policies of the federal government? Without sufficient context, the Oglala's are portrayed as pitiful and in need of rescue by kind hearted whites.

I'll keep looking for other accounts. Presumably, Coury has one that says it was a powwow and that they Oglala's made the Borglum's "blood brothers". Is it a Native source, I wonder?

About "blood brothers"...

"Blood brothers" is one of those cliche's associated with American Indians. It is supposed to mean a deep friendship between a white guy and an Indian guy. It figures in a lot of old westerns and, interestingly, it is also in Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, on page 167, where Omri tells Little Bear that he'll make Boone his blood brother. Little Bear doesn't know what Omri is talking about:
"When Boone is better, do you know what you're going to do? You're going to make him your blood brother!"

Little Bear shot him a quick, startled look. "Blood brother?"

"You both make cuts on your wrists and tie them together so the blood mingles, and after that you can't be enemies ever again. It's an old Indian custom."

Little Bear looked baffled. "Not Indian custom."

"I'm sure it is! It was in a film I saw."

"White man idea. Not Indian."

"Well, couldn't you do it, just this once?"
Banks apparently knew it was not legit. Too bad she didn't get the larger problems in making a Native man under complete control of a white boy.

Anyway! I recommend libraries not order Hanging Off Jefferson's Nose. Some people argue that you can't reject a book for what it leaves out (in this case, the context by which the Black Hills were taken from the Lakota people), but you can reject it for stereotyping.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"E99.P85, Or: The Case of Pocahontas in the Library"

Thaddeus Andracki is one of the most outstanding people I came to know at the University of Illinois when I taught there. As an undergrad, he took my Politics of Children's Literature course and is now in Library School there.

Thaddeus publishes a blog called I'll get there. It'll be worth the trip. I like looking at the bookshelf that is the background for his blog. I especially like seeing Joseph Bruchac's Hidden Roots there. I think it is one of the most important books around.

Yesterday, Thaddeus posted "E99.P85, Or: The Case of Pocahontas in the Library." Read this excerpt, and then go read his entire post. And, then, bookmark or follow his blog. He is a librarian-in-training, but he's already someone we can all learn from.
Disney’s Pocahontas was assigned a main entry of E99.P85. For those who don’t have LoC call numbers memorized (which I’m assuming is most people), E is the broad heading for American History. Numbers in the range around E90 are specifically American Indian History, and E99 is for Biography of American Indians. The P85 specifies further the person the biography is about.

Pocahontas was being classified as a historically accurate documentary.

I’d like to think this was some sort of mistake. But according to OCLC Classify, there are 1242 holdings of this film classified under this call number in libraries that submit data to OCLC. Pocahontas was deliberately assigned a call number such that it could pose as Native history.

I doubt I need to convince you that this film does not accurately represent the history of the woman who was Matoaka, but just in case, here’s a statement from the Powhatan Renape Nation, as well as information from multiple other sources. What I’m concerned about is the carelessness that librarians have taken in curating information about people.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

About Elizabeth Warren's Family Story about being Cherokee

Several weeks ago, the news media began to cover a story about Elizabeth Warren's claim of being Cherokee. I've followed developments in that story, and wish that Warren had chosen a different strategy in response to challenges to her claim.

I'm writing about this because Warren is not alone in that claim.

I think it is accurate to say that thousands of U.S. citizens believe they are part Native American. According to the polls of voters, the majority of voters in Massachusetts say that the controversy over her claim is a non-issue for them. I have some thoughts on that, but lets start with the beginning.


For those who don't follow national politics, Elizabeth Warren is running against Scott Brown for a seat in the United States Senate. Brown found out she claimed to be Cherokee and didn't believe her. He challenged her claim and since then, there have been lots of media stories on her claim.

Last night (May 30, 2011), she issued this statement:
Growing up, my mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles often talked about our family’s Native American heritage. As a kid, I never thought to ask them for documentation - what kid would? - but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a part of who I am and part of my family heritage.

The people involved in recruiting and hiring me for my teaching jobs, including Charles Fried - solicitor-general under Ronald Reagan who has publicly said he voted for Scott Brown in 2010 - have said unequivocally they were not aware of my heritage and that it played no role in my hiring. Public documents that reporters have examined also show I did not benefit from my heritage when applying to college or law school. As I have confirmed before, I let people know about my Native American heritage in a national directory of law school personnel. At some point after I was hired by them, I also provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. My Native American heritage is part of who I am, I’m proud of it and I have been open about it.

The people of Massachusetts are concerned about their jobs, the future for their kids, and the security of retirement. It’s past time we moved on to the important issues facing middle class families in Massachusetts.
Obviously, she is not backing away from her claim to Native identity, but she is changing it a bit... She is not saying Cherokee anymore. That may be because Twila Barnes, a Cherokee genealogist, has been doing an extensive study and finding nothing that could support Warren's claim to Cherokee status. And, the group "Cherokees Demand Truth from Elizabeth Warren" was launched yesterday.

Why this matters to me

I am not one of the people of Massachusetts, but I am a citizen of the United States, and, I'm enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, a federally recognized sovereign nation. If elected, Warren will vote on legislation that will have bearing on me and Nambe Pueblo. To do that and do it well (from an informed position), she's got to let go of this story!

Instead of asking voters to move on, she could say that:
  1. She was raised to believe that that she is part Native American, and based on that belief, she claimed Cherokee identity at various times in order to meet people like her. She knows, now, that...
  2. There is a Cherokee Nation that has policies in place that determine who its citizens are, and, she is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
  3. There are a lot of people like her who believe they have Cherokee ancestors and they, like her, proudly assert that ancestry. 
  4. The hard reality is that she doesn't know what it means to be a Cherokee, and that her heartfelt pride is based on romantic ideas and stereotypes. That she embraced that identity uncritically because schools in the U.S. don't teach children that, in addition to the federal and state government, there are tribal governments with inherent powers to determine who its citizens are. She could point out that, instead of an education about tribal governments, students learn about Indians at the First Thanksgiving, and how they did cool things like using every part of the buffalo, and that it is sad that Indians are all gone, now.
  5. In other words, she'd be saying she is ignorant, and that America's collective ignorance can't go on unchecked because it gets in the way of being able to see American Indians in today's society for who we are. Instead of knowing American Indians as we should, Americans choose to know and love them in an abstract stereotypical way that does more harm than good.

Why this should matter to you

I think Warren ought to use her status as a candidate for a national office to educate the public. Her claim is especially problematic because of her prior work on protecting the consumer. Does she know, for example, that there is a federal law that was written to protect the consumer interested in buying American Indian art? Here's some info about that law:
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.

Under the Act, an Indian is defined as a member of any federally or State recognized Indian Tribe, or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian Tribe.

The law covers all Indian and Indian-style traditional and contemporary arts and crafts produced after 1935. The Act broadly applies to the marketing of arts and crafts by any person in the United States. Some traditional items frequently copied by non-Indians include Indian-style jewelry, pottery, baskets, carved stone fetishes, woven rugs, kachina dolls, and clothing.

All products must be marketed truthfully regarding the Indian heritage and tribal affiliation of the producers, so as not to mislead the consumer. It is illegal to market an art or craft item using the name of a tribe if a member, or certified Indian artisan, of that tribe did not actually create the art or craft item.
Of course, she is not a product, but I hope you see why this claim by her is especially egregious. I hasten to add that the law excludes Native artists who cannot be enrolled with a tribe because they don't meet the tribe's criteria for enrollment. For example, someone could have four full blood grandparents from four different tribes, making them 1/4 of each one, but if each one requires more than 1/4 blood quantum to be enrolled, that person could not be enrolled in any of them. There's a lot more to say about enrollment and blood quantum, but lets stick with the current discussion of Elizabeth Warren.

A more informed public

America could emerge from this moment as more-educated about American Indians. And, maybe we'd even have the courage to reject all those disgusting headlines wherein people skewer Warren by playing with racist language and ideas like the Fox News personality who said the first thing she'd say to Warren (if she agreed to an interview) would be "How!"

Warren could do a lot of educating if she had the courage to do so. It would help us (teachers and librarians) do a better job of selecting literature, and it would give us the information we need when a person or group is being brought in to our schools to do Native American workshops or performances.

But, I doubt Warren will ever step away from her family story, because she's running for a political office. In campaigns, people don't generally say "I was wrong" because those admissions will be called "flip flops" and work against the candidate. She won't do it, and, in the end, we all lose an opportunity. That's too bad.


See also Dear Elizabeth Warren: I know kids who would ask their parents for proof of identity

Finding, Assessing, and Celebrating Authentic Indigenous Literature

Are you going to the 2012 conference of the Pacific Northwest Library Association? If so, head over a day early for a free workshop (costs will be covered by the Alaska State Library)!

Debby Dahl Edwardson, author of the outstanding My Name Is Not Easy, and I will do a four hour pre-conference session on "Finding, Assessing, and Celebrating Authentic Indigenous Literature."

See the sticker on the cover of Debby's book? "National Book Award Finalist." Saying it again, Debby's book is outstanding.

Each time I look at that cover, I think of all my uncles. When I look through the yearbooks from Santa Fe Indian School (the ones my parents saved), I see my uncles with that haircut... I suppose it was "the thing" back then (the 1950s), but nonetheless, that cover gives me pause every time I look at it. I'm excited to work with Debby on this session.

Date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Place: Sheraton Anchorage Hotel and Spa

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Peter D. Sieruta

On March 25, 2011 on his "Collecting Children's Books" blog, Peter D. Sieruta wrote about Laura Adams Armer's Waterless Mountain, a story about a Navajo boy. He shared his thoughts about the book (it won the Newbery Medal in 1932) and then said:
I'd be curious to know what Dr. Debbie Reese, who writes the American Indians in Children's Literature blog thinks of the book.
I submitted a comment to Peter (you can see it and our conversation below), and we began talking on our blogs, on Facebook, and most recently, by email. We never met in person, but the few exchanges we had meant a lot to me. On Facebook, we went beyond the professional and scholarly conversations about books.

I felt bad when I read his Facebook post on May 21 (a Monday). He fell down the stairs on the 18th and broke his ankle. I posted on his wall about some research I've done on Scott O'Dell, hoping it might distract him from the dismal recovery he was having. In the weeks prior to that, Peter sent me a few articles about O'Dell. I was looking forward to conversations with him.

But on Saturday morning (May 26th) when I opened Facebook, I read that Peter had died.

I was stunned, and my thoughts have turned to him a lot since then. I've read several tributes to him and his work and I visit his Facebook page, where his brother is sharing memories of Peter. My tribute is this post, wherein I've gathered the exchanges I had with Peter. They are arranged chronologically.

March 25, 2011: Sunday Brunch with Fire and Water

Here's screenshots of our comments to each other (sorry they don't align properly):

April 1, 2012: Facebook
I loaded a photo of my husband's freshly-baked bread onto Facebook:

May 8th, 2012: Facebook
I couldn't access an article about Scott O'Dell and posted a 'help' to child_lit. A few minutes later, I was on Facebook and saw Peter's post to my wall:


May 13th, 2011: Sunday Brunch for Mothers and Maurice
In his last blog post on May 13th, Peter pointed his readers to my site, saying:
Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature is an important blog that "provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society." Do I always agree with Debbie? No, but I definitely respect her thought-provoking opinions. I've learned a lot from her blog and am pleased we are friends on Facebook. (And if anyone reading this wants to keep in touch with me on Facebook, feel free to "friend" me.)

This week Debbie posted the following paper doll figures on Facebook, with the message: "These two paper dolls are excellent! Please SHARE with students in Education or Library School."

I love them too and want to share them here:

These are the paper dolls he posted:

In his post, he quoted Steven Paul Judd, the Native artist who made the paper dolls. From there, he went on to talk about paper dolls based on characters in children's literature.

May 16th, 2012: Facebook

I posted a link to a Prezi I did about Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. Peter viewed the Prezi and asked me a question:

Two days later, Peter fell. As many others have written, his death is a tragic loss to children's literature. Though we never met in person, I feel that I've lost a friend with whom I would have had lots of interesting conversations with about books like Island of the Blue Dolphins. 

I'm glad to have known Peter and like Elizabeth Bird so many others, I will miss him.