Friday, August 24, 2012

Indians in Booklist's 2012 "Top 10 Westerns for Youth" - THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS

Earlier today, Erin wrote to me to ask if I'd seen the list of books in the "Top 10 Westerns for Youth" in the August 2012 issue of Booklist.  She had purchased one of the books on the list and is concerned with the depictions of American Indians in it.

Here's my thoughts on Caroline Lawrence's The Case of the Deadly Desperados: Western Mysteries, Book One

The cover has a blurb from the Times that says it is "rip roaring." In other words, hilariously funny. However, what is funny to one may be something else to another...

The protagonist is known as "Pinky" (short for Pinkerton, the surname of his "original pa"). At the time of the story, Pinky is living with his "Christian ma" and pa in a small town in Nevada in 1862. He is twelve years old.

When Pinky was two, his "original pa" left Pinky and his mother to be a railroad detective. Pinky never saw him again. Later, his "Indian ma" (she was "Lakota, which some people call Sioux") took up with another white guy. 

When Pinky was seven, his "Indian ma," the other guy, and Pinky headed west to find Pinky's dad. On the way, their wagon train was attacked by Indians. There was a massacre and Pinky ended up an orphan. Pinky has a medicine bag, given to him by his "Indian ma." It is:
made of buffalo hide & decorated with red & blue beads in a little arrow shape. It was as big as my right hand with the fingers spread out. My Indian ma had given it to me before we set out on the wagon train west.  

I had been wearing it around my neck during the massacre but I had not seen it since my foster parents put it in the hiding place under the floorboard.
That was in 1857. 

When the novel opens, it is 1862. Pinky comes home from school on September 26, and finds his "foster parents lying on the floor in a pool of blood." They'd been scalped and there's a tomahawk in his pa's chest. 

He runs to his mother, who is still alive. She tells him that white men dressed like Indians had attacked them, and that those men were looking for Pinky's medicine bag. Before she dies, she tells Pinky that the bag holds his destiny. He is to get it and leave before the men come back. 

Pinky gets the bag, but before he can leave, Pinky hears the killers returning and climbs into the rafters to hide. He uses a "Bush Trick" his "Indian ma" told him about. "If you hide behind a small bush and imagine that you are that bush, they say you become invisible."  

The men leave. Pinky, wearing a buckskin outfit that his Ma made for his birthday, crawls through the dirt to wait for the stage coach. As he lies in the dirt, he opens the medicine bag. Inside is his "Indian ma's" flint knife, a folded up piece of paper, and a brass button "that belonged to my original pa." That paper will turn out to be a letter from his "original pa," and its contents are the reason he is being chased.
That "original pa" was named Robert Pinkerton. When Pinky's "Christian ma" learned that Pinky's father was a Pinkerton, she wrote to Allan Pinkerton in Chicago to "ask him if his dead brother had ever fathered a child by a Lakota squaw around the year 1850."  

Shall I stop?

Or do you want to know about the part where some schoolyard bullies stop punching Pinky when they see "[t]he rest of his filthy tribe" coming to save him. Or, maybe you want to know about Pinky staring in a mirror and seeing "a grubby Blanket Indian with an expressionless face staring back at me."

This humor doesn't work for me. 

Kirkus gave it a starred review for its pacing, deadpan humor and appealing protagonist. The reviewer for The New York Times Book Review thinks that Pinky has Asperger's syndrome, or, high functioning autism and that "Any child who's felt like a 'Misfit' or 'Freak of Nature' as P.K. does will identify with his despair and cheer him" (review posted at Amazon in Editorial Reviews). Maybe so, but what will Native children make of Native identity as the vehicle that carries the humor?

Did you note the subtitle says "Book One"? With those starred reviews, there will likely be additional books about Pinky (who is, by the way, is a girl, not a boy). 

And the contents of that letter? It is a deed to land with silver mines in the mountains of Nevada. 

The idea of a half-Lakota Pinky encroaching on lands belong to other Indians doesn't work for me. The Case of the Deadly Desperados? Not recommended. 

Update: Saturday, August 25

Last night I went over to Goodreads to post my review and see what reviews there were like. I found that Erin had posted her review there. Do read what she said

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


In an effort to draw on the expertise of librarians who work at tribal libraries, I put out a call for nonfiction recommendations.

Miriam Bobkoff, librarian at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Library in Port Angeles, Washington, wrote to me to recommend a book about the tribes on the Olympic Peninsula. Here's what she said:

Luckily there is a book I can recommend which the tribes on the Olympic Peninsula worked together to produce in 2002, Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula: Who We Are by the Olympic Peninsula Intertribal Cultural Advisory Committee, edited by Jacilee Wray (historian for Olympic National Park). Each of 9 tribes contributed a chapter written by their culture teachers. The Elwha Klallam chapter was written by Elwha’s  Jamie Valadez. It begins with a description of the creation site taken from the work of ethnologist T. T. Waterman. The citation is to still unpublished 1920 handwritten notes of Waterman’s at the Smithsonian.

I used Google Books to get a sense of the reading level. It is definitely accessible to middle and high school students, and teachers in elementary grades will find it useful as they develop instructional materials for their students. The book has maps and photographs, a chronology, and a pronunciation guide. Here's the chapters and authors:
  • The S'Klallam: Elwha, Jamestown and Port Gamble
  • Elwha Klallam, by Jamie Valadez
  • Jamestown S'Klallam, by Trina Bridges & Kathy Duncan
  • Port Gamble S'Klallam, by Gina Beckwith, Marie Hebert, and Tallis Woodward
  • Skokomish: Twana Descendants, by the Skokomish Culture and Art Committee
  • Squaxin Island, by Theresa Henderson, Andi VanderWal, and the Squaxin Island Heritage and Culture Committee
  • Quinault, by Justine E. James, Jr., with Leilani A. Chubby
  • Hoh, by Viola Riebe and Helen Lee
  • Quileute, by Chris Morganroth III
  • Makah, by Melissa Peterson and the Makah Cultural and Research Center
I recognize Morganroth's name (he's the author of the chapter on the Quileute's); I wrote about Morganroth's Quileute storytelling in 2009.

Thanks, Miriam, for the recommendation! 

Monday, August 20, 2012


Bruce Grant's Concise Encyclopedia of the American Indian was first published in 1958 as American Indians, Yesterday and Today. 

I'm reading a 2000 edition, "published by Wing Books, an imprint of Random House Value Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, by arrangement with E. P. Dutton, an imprint of Viking Penguin USA." The copy I have is from the juvenile nonfiction section of the local public library.

If you've got Concise Encyclopedia of the American Indian in your library, it can be deselected on the basis of outdated content.

Believe it or not, the appendix "Indian Population on Reservation in the United States" includes a "Distribution of Indian Tribes by States" that is based on the census of 1950. Some of the figures are from "the World Almanac and Book of Facts for 1959" (bold mine).

In the "Books to read if you want to know more" section, there are over 30 fiction and nonfiction books, ranging in publication year from 1928 to 1957.

I'm actually shocked that it has been published so many times without an update to the appendices! 

Bias and misinformation characterize the entries. Here's some examples:

  • "BIG HEART," Grant tells us, is "Indian term for 'brave. Indians spoke of 'keeping their hearts big' and having no fear" (p. 43). 
  • The entry for "COUNTING" reads: "The system of tens generally was used by Indians in counting. The white man calls this the decimal system. The Indians called it the finger and hand count."
  • Christopher Columbus has an entry, wherein Grant tells us that Columbus discovered America.
  • There is a "DIGGERS" entry, in which Grant writes "These Indians were reported to be very dirty and ill clothed and were considered the lowest form of Indian life" (p. 110). 
  • "FIRE WATER" is the "Indian name for distilled spirits" (p. 128). 
  • "HOW" is "Word of greeting used by Indians, who had no expressions for 'good morning,' 'good day,' or 'good evening.' (p. 154)
  • Of the Pueblo Indians, Grant writes that "they have become famous because of their peculiar customs and ceremonies, for instance, such a custom of men instead of women working in the fields" (p. 257).

A far better choice is the five-volume American Indian Contributions to the World by Keoke and Porterfield. As of today (August 20, 2012), it is available from Oyate for $175. 

Update: Aug 20, 2012, 3:15 PM Central Time

Several librarians wrote to ask me for citations to deselection criteria. Here is some:

Evans and Saponaro (2005) write that the top five reasons for weeding are: 1) accuracy and currency of the information, 2) physical condition of the book, 3) space needs, 4) usage history, and 5) duplicate copy. Disher (2007) lists the following criteria: condition, use, misleading or inaccurate, superceded, duplication, trivial and irrelevant, space, and, balance. The CREW manual advises that “for all items” (p. 16) problem categories are poor content, poor appearance, and unused materials. Similar guidelines are contained in the MUSTIE mnemonic, wherein the M stands for “Misleading information,” and the S stands for “Superceded by better works” (Dickinson, 2005).  

Criteria that applies to the encyclopedia are:
  • Evans & Saponaro's #1 (accuracy and currency of the information)
  • Disher's "misleading or inaccurate,"
  • CREW's "poor content"
  • MUSTIE's "misleading information." 
Disher and MUSTIE also note "superceded." The encyclopedia is easily superceded by the Keoke and Porterfield set.

Dickinson, G. (2005). Crying over spilled milk. Library Media Connection 23(7), 24-26.

Disher, W. (2007). Crash Course in Collection Development. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Evans, G. E. & Saponaro, M. Z. (2005). Developing Library and Information Center Collections. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Larson, J. (2008). Crew: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries. Austin, TX: Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

PBS documentary on "Forrest Carter" and THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE

On August 26th, a handful of PBS stations will air The Reconstruction of Asa Carter.  He wrote The Education of Little Tree, passing it off as an autobiography by a Cherokee man named "Forrest Carter." It was accepted as an autobiography upon publication, as evidenced by the abstract in WorldCat: "The autobiographical remembrances of the author's Indian boyhood with his eastern Cherokee hill country grandparents during the Great Depression." Some library systems still have old information in them:
Forrest Carter is best known for his autobiographical work, The Education of Little Tree (1976). Carter was orphaned at the age of ten and raised by his grandfather. In the Education of Little Tree, he wrote of his happy childhood in the isolated woods of the Tennesee Hill Country and lovingly recalls his grandfather who gave him a unique education based heavily on his Cherokee heritage. Carter once estimated that he never spent more than six months in a formal educational setting.

The Education of Little Tree is not the autobiography of a Cherokee man.

In fact, Asa Carter was in the KKK and a speechwriter for George Wallace, and the book itself is a hoax.

A couple of years ago, I asked librarians "Where is your copy of The Education of Little Tree? Though Carter's book was exposed as a fake in the New York Times in the 1990s, there are still a lot of people who don't know it is a fake. About one-third of the libraries in the Illinois Heartland Library System, for example, still have it cataloged as biography or autobiography, and I imagine that is the case across the country. Perhaps the PBS film will get a conversation started again and it will get reshelved or deselected completely.

Here's the trailer: