Saturday, February 23, 2013


The subject of most biographies of Native women are Pocahontas and Sacajawea. I did a search of the Comprehensive Children's Literature Database to get a rough sense of how many books there are about each one. I limited the search to those published between 2000 and now. I got 188 on Pocahontas, and 192 on Sacagawea. Quite a lot, don't you think? Some critics say those two women are heralded by those who seek to celebrate figures in U.S. history because they helped Europeans. Some say they were diplomats; others say they were traitors.

My point in sharing those publication numbers is to say that I think publishers would do well to publish biographies of other Native women!

With S. D. Nelson's Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story, Abrams has scored a big win. It is racking up starred reviews by the mainstream review journals and by those who look more critically at the portrayals of American Indians. It is, for example, on the Cooperative Center for Children's Books CHOICES 2013 list.

Nelson's art invites the reader to pick up the book. Once inside, there's a mix of his art and photographs of Hidatsa people. The back matter provides a timeline that teachers will find helpful when using the book in the classroom. With the Common Core thrust upon them, this biography will surely get lot of use in classrooms.

I agree with the praise the book is receiving, but have one quibble. I wish that the book cover and text featured her Hidatsa name, Waheenee, which means Buffalo Bird Woman, instead of "Buffalo Bird Girl." I'm guessing the change from woman to girl was a strategy to help young readers identify with Waheenee as a girl, but I think Nelson's illustrations make that point quite well.

Some background

Nelson tells us that his source for this biography is Waheenee: An Indian Girl's Story; Told by Herself to Gilbert L. Wilson.  Wilson's book was published in 1921.

Scholars in American Indian Studies and American Indian Literatures point out that the audience for these early books was not a Native one. As evidence, we point to text in the books, where the author is speaking directly to the reader. Consider, for example, Wilson's Myths of the Red Children published in 1907. In the Foreword, Wilson wrote that fairy tales from Europe were delightful, but that with Myths of the Red Children, America's "little reading folk" could develop "a kindly feeling for a noble but vanishing race" (p. vi). I think it is fair to say he was not thinking of Native children as readers of Myths of the Red Children. 

Take note, too, of Wilson's use of "vanishing race." Wilson was part of the research efforts of the late 1800s and early 1900s that sought to document Native cultures before we died out. A major problem with that research effort is that many of the researchers did their work largely unaware of their own perspective, which is an outsiders perspective. Many did not understanding much of what they observed. A year after Myths of the Red Children was published, Wilson began his work with the Hidatsa people.

One outcome of that work was Waheenee. Like Myths of the Red Children, it was written for a child audience. Its final pages (beginning on page 183), speak directly to that young reader:
Young Americans who wish to grow up strong and healthy should live much out of doors; and there is no pleasanter way to do this than in an Indian camp. Such a camp you can make yourself, in your back yard or an empty lot or in a neighboring wood.
Following that passage are instructions for making a pole hunting lodge and several pages of recipes. I think it fair to say that Wilson was keen on playing Indian.

Nelson is wise not to echo Wilson on that point. His careful use of Wilson's material is important in other ways, too.

Buffalo Bird Woman was born in 1839 and died in 1932. She lived through a lot of changes. The Hidatsa were part of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Subsequent violations of the treaty resulted in a huge loss of their land. During her lifetime, they were moved to a reservation. There were several devastating smallpox epidemics.

Of those significant events, only smallpox is included in Wilson's book. On page 9 of his book, Wilson says: "Then smallpox came." We all know that smallpox came from Europeans, but that information isn't provided anywhere in Wilson's book. In his picture book, Nelson does indicate the source for smallpox (p. 3):
It arrived with the coming of the white men. They did not bring the sickness on purpose, but Indians could not fight off this disease--they had no immunity to the dreaded evil spirit.

During Waheenee's lifetime, her people experienced tremendous loss of land and were moved onto a reservation, but these things aren't included in Wilson's book. When the word 'enemy' appears in the book, it is used only to describe other tribes. Doesn't that strike you as curious? Biased, perhaps? It seems to me that Wilson wanted his readers (remember, this book was written for white children) to develop a viewpoint of Indians as aggressors.

Nelson talks about enemy tribes, too, but doesn't leave out reservations. On page 39 of his Buffalo Bird Girl, Nelson (in Buffalo Woman's voice) writes:
Like-a-Fishhook is gone now. There are no buffalo left to hunt, and the fur trade ended long ago. The government of the United States said my people had to move from our village. They promised to provide rations of food and clothing if we lived on a reservation. The government built roads, schools, and churches. They told us that our children had to learn to live the white man's way. So we Hidatsa, as well as the Mandan and Arikara people, gave up our round earth lodges and began living in square cabins on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

I would have loved to see one more page about the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara people... In the "Today and the Future" section of the Author's Note, Wilson writes this:

The Hidatsa people are still here, as are the Mandan and the Arikara. They remain one sovereign nation. Each member of the nation has the same freedoms as every citizen of the United States. Like all other human beings, they face the many challenges of a rapidly changing world. Today they govern themselves with self-determination. Their words and actions give shape to their lives and hope for their children. 

I want teachers who use the book to put that information front and center of their use of Buffalo Bird Girl. Introduce students to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation website. Teach the book by teaching children about Waheenee's people---as they are today. Teach them what sovereign nation means! Show them the pictures on the site! And while you're at it, teach them about Nelson's tribe, too. Visit the website of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation!

We need more books like this one, by authors like S.D. Nelson. Thanks, Mr. Nelson, and you, too, Abrams, for Buffalo Bird Girl. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Dear John Segal, author of PIRATES DON'T TAKE BATHS

On AICL, there's a page of "the foul among the good" that catalogs books in which Native people are stereotyped, objectified, and mocked in celebrated or popular children's books. Some of the images there are in old books that are still being published, and some are from newly published books. I've got another new one to add...

John Segal's Pirates Don't Take Baths is about a pig (kid) who does not want to take a bath. The pig proclaims "No! No! No! I'm not taking a bath. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Never." The pig parent says "Never?" 

From there, kid-pig imagines him/herself (gender not specified) as "someone else." Here's the summary from the publisher's page:

For any young child (or pig), there are few things more excruciating, more traumatic, more torturous than bathtime. And this little pig is putting his hoof down. No. More. BATHS. But how can he possibly accomplish this? Well, by being someone else, of course. After all, everyone knows that pirates, astronauts, and knights in shining armor - just to name a few - never, EVER take baths. Now if only he can convince his mother . . .

In his hilarious new picture book that is sure to become an integral part of bathtime routines, John Segal documents one particular skirmish in this never-ending battle of wills.

With each "someone else" pig-kid comes up with, pig-parent counters with a reason why the "someone" won't work. For example, pig-parent tells pig-kid that pig-kid can't be a pirate, because pig-kid gets seasick. So, pig-kid moves on to another "someone."

Most of the suggestions pig-kid comes up with are things someone can choose to be.

Astronaut? A job one might choose... Knight in shining armor? Ditto. Cowboy? Again, a choice. Same thing for treasure hunter.

In the midst of all this someone-elsing is Eskimo.

Pig-kid says "I'm an Eskimo. They can't bathe. Its TOO COLD."

Pig-parent says "Yes, but do you know what Eskimos eat? Whale blubber and walrus liver." To which pig-kid says "Blubber and liver? That's gross."

Come on, John Segal! Eskimos--who prefer Inuit, Inupiaq and their own names for who they are--take baths. You're having fun at their expense, and you're contributing to misinformation about people who Americans know so little about!

I'm curious, Mr. Segal...

You've got kid-pig playing Cowboy on one page, but you don't have the usual playing Indian alongside it. I wonder why you didn't do that? I'd like to think you knew better, but the Eskimo page tells me otherwise. Playing Eskimo is just as bad as playing Indian.

And---what's up with making fun of food Alaska Natives eat?! As Erin (a librarian who works with Inupiaq children) writes in her review at Goodreads,

The Iñupiaq people practice a subsistence lifestyle that many people may regard as “gross” because it is unfamiliar. Bowhead whales are harvested and used to feed the entire community. 

Erin writes that she's sending the book back to the publisher. I wonder if she included a letter stating why. I hope so! And, I wonder what would happen if ten people did that?

Segal's choice to make light of Alaska Natives backfires. For a thoughtful essay on humor, take a few minutes to read Uma Krishnaswami's article at Horn Book: "No Joke! Humor and Culture in Middle-Grade Books." Though her essay focuses on middle-grade books, her words apply to picture books, too.


Last night (Feb 21, 2013), I joined a Readers Advisory chat on Twitter. Held every first and third Thursday evening at 8:00 PM Eastern Time, #readadv is hosted by Liz Burns @LizBurns, Kelly Jensen @catagator, and Sophie Brookover @sophiebiblio.

Last night's topic was weeding. It was a fascinating discussion, with participants being asked to respond (if they wanted to) to a series of questions. I learned that the process of weeding ranges from an individual doing it with no guidelines at all to individuals who are responsible for developing lists that are then used at libraries in a particular system. It was enlightening and lighthearted, too.

At one point in the discussion, participants were asked to name a book they'd recently removed from the collection. Among those named was Dances With Wolves: A Story for Children. I gotta say, I was glad to know it was weeded! I also gotta say that I'm not surprised the movie prompted a book for children. Money, you know. MONEY.

I know a lot of people love that movie, but.... Though you see Native people in it all over the place, who is the story about? Its really a love story about a white guy (Costner) and a white woman who lived with the Indians since childhood. Native people are just the backdrop for that romance.

Costner's film is derided enough within Native circles that its part of a joke we tell about the "B.C.'s" Native people have had more than just that one "B.C." We've had three. "Before Christ, Before Columbus, and, Before Costner." When Avatar was released, people added "Before Cameron" to the joke.

When I got up this morning, I saw that my daughter (she's working on a Master's degree at the University of Cambridge in the UK) had posted David Sirota's approropriately titled, Oscar loves a white savior article on my Facebook wall. Sirota's article is terrific. Among the films he critiques are Dances With Wolves and Avatar.  

So! Dances With Wolves: A Story for Children. Amazon tells me that James Howe adapted it for Scholastic in 1991. I can get a used copy for a penny... Shall I?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

LITTLE YOU, written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Julie Flett

Richard Van Camp has another terrific book out... I've written before about his board books, his picture books, and his young adult novel, The Lesser Blessed. That guy has a gift with words. He does not disappoint. Richard, by the way, is Dogrib (Tlicho) Dene from Fort Smith, Northwest Territory, Canada. Check out his page at Goodreads.

Little You is his third board book. This one is illustrated by Metis artist, Julie Flett. I wrote about her alphabet book, Owls See Clearly at Night. Her work is gorgeous.

His words and her art. Stunning. Here's the cover:

And here's just one page from inside:

Each page of text has a few words on a crisp white background. I imagine myself reading that page to my little Liz, hugging her tight as I do, as we gaze at the family that Flett depicts so lovingly on that page and throughout the book. Sometimes we see just the babe, or the babe and mom, or the babe and dad... This book is sweet as can be. 

Little You is published by Orca Books. It'll be released April 1, 2013.

Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's WHEN I WAS EIGHT

The most powerful stories are those that pull you in such that you feel the emotions of the character(s) in the story and when you come to the end, you let loose a big sigh. When I Was Eight did that to me when I read it a few days ago.

Published in 2013 by Annick Press, the authors of When I Was Eight are Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. The story told in When I Was Eight is one from Margaret's childhood. Margaret is Inuit. Christy is her daughter-in-law.

Here's the first line from the book:
I knew many things when I was eight. I knew how to keep the sled dogs quiet while Father snuck up on caribous, and to bring the team to him after a kill. I knew the sun slept in the winter and woke in the summer. And I knew that when the sun-warmed Arctic Ocean shrugged off its slumbering ice, we would cross it to trade furs with the outsiders.
Those words are quite evocative. Ocean shrugging of ice! Wow! I like thinking about that image.

And, did you notice the word "outsiders" in the last sentence? Margaret's family traded with the outsiders, and as we turn the page, we learn more about the outsiders. We see two Inuit girls. One is reading to the other. The older one is Rosie, and the younger one is Olemaun (Margaret's Inuit name). Olemaun wants to read, too, like her sister does. But, that means going to the outsiders' school...

Olemaun's dad finally agrees to let her go. Once she gets there, though, we see and read about what happens to her.

Cutting their hair and taking their traditional clothing from them was the first step in stripping Native children of their identity once they got to boarding schools. Some schools, like the one in When I Was Eight, were mission schools.

The words and the art in When I Was Eight convey a frightful but honest story about perseverance.  Olemaun learned to read, in spite of the obstacles she encountered at school.

Some of us might like children's books to be light and pretty, but for many of us, life isn't always that way. Denying that reality and that history is a disservice to everyone. According to Amazon, it'll be available on February 26th. Look for it. Order it. Share it.

Why You Can't Teach U.S. History without American Indians

On May 3rd and 4th, 2013, the Newberry Library in Chicago will host a seminar titled "Why You Can't Teach U.S. History without American Indians." Here's the illustration they're using on the promotional materials:

Benjamin West. "William Penn's Treaty with the Indians when he founded
the Province of Pennsylvania in North American," 1771. Photo edited
by Catherine Gass, Newberry Library. 

Pretty eye-catching, isn't it?  Here's the accompanying description of the symposium:

For generations U.S. historians wrote the nation’s story as if Indians did not exist, or at best, they marginalized Indian peoples as unimportant actors in the national drama of revolution and democratic state formation. Despite the large number of faculty trained in American Indian history very little has changed and most college level students who enroll in large survey courses in U.S. history learn about Indians during the initial stages of encounter and then, Indians are often depicted as succumbing to epidemic diseases or being pushed of their lands by westward expansion.

Th e mission of this symposium is to change how historians teach U.S. history. Today, we are fortunate to have a large number of faculty who teach American Indian Studies and the knowledge base that these scholars possess is profound, thoroughgoing, and expansive. These new perspectives need to be better incorporated into the interpretation and writing of history. Repeatedly, we hear faculty proclaim that they would include Indians if they were more central to mainstream history. Th is symposium intends to challenge that perspective and to provide a new expanded resource for college level faculty.

Here's the line-up of panelists for the two-day session:

Friday, May 3, 2013, 9 AM - 3 PM
Session One: Land, Borders, and Sacred Spaces
  • Mikal Brotnov, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Margaret Jacobs, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Teaching American History as Squatter Imperialism”
  • Juliana Barr, University of Florida. “Borderlands”
  • Kiara M. Vigil, Amherst College. “Sacred Spaces: American Indians and National Parks in U. S. Cultural History, 1877 to Today”
  • COMMENTATOR: Scott Lyons, University of Michigan

Session Two: Religious Freedom, Citizenship, and Education
  • Jacob Betz, University of Chicago. “In the Eye of the Storm: American Indians and Religious Freedom in U.S. History”
  • Jeffrey D. Means, University of Wyoming. “Native Americans and Concepts of American Citizenship: American and Oglala Lakota Identity and Citizenship, 1848-1934”
  • Phillip H. Round, University of Iowa. “America’s Indigenous Reading Revolution”
  • COMMENTATOR: Ray Fogelson, Emeritus, University of Chicago

Session Three: Colonial to Early Republic
  • James D. Rice, SUNY Plattsburgh. “Rethinking ‘The American Paradox’: Bacon’s Rebellion, Indians, and the U.S. History Survey”
  • Sarah Pearsall, Cambridge University. “Re-Centering Indian Women in the American Revolution”
  • Margaret Newell, Ohio State University. “American Indians and Economic History”
  • Susan Sleeper-Smith, Michigan State University. “Rethinking the Fur Trade As a Culture of Exchange”
  • COMMENTATOR: Daniel Usner, Vanderbilt University

Session Four: The Opening of the West
  • Robert Miller, Lewis & Clark Law School, Oregon. “Lewis and Clark and the Doctrine of Discovery” 
  • Adam Jortner, Auburn University. “Cartography, Pedagogy, and the Indian Nations of the Early Republic: Remapping Diplomacy and Power on the Antebellum Frontier”
  • Jeani O’Brien, University of Minnesota. “The California Gold Rush: Mineral Strikes in Indian History”
  • COMMENTATOR: John Hall, University of Wisconsin

Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9 am – 3 pm

Session Five: The Civil War Era
  • Paul T. Conrad, Colorado State University-Pueblo. “Why You Can’t Teach the History of U.S. Slavery without Indians”
  • Luke C. Ryan, Georgia Gwinnett College. “Indians in Bleeding Kansas: Tribal Survival and the Coming of the Civil War”
  • Scott Manning Stevens, The Newberry Library. “American Indians and the Civil War”
  • COMMENTATOR: Dave Edmunds, University of Texas at Dallas

Session Six: Reconstruction and the Progressive Era
  • Jeffrey Ostler, University of Oregon. “Indian Warfare in the West” 
  • Malinda Maynor Lowery, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Race between Reconstruction and Civil Rights” 
  • Brenda Child, University of Minnesota and John Troutman, University of Louisiana – Lafayette. “American Indian Education from Reconstruction to the New Deal”
  • COMMENTATOR: Fred Hoxie, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Session Seven: From the Indian New Deal to the Postwar Era
  • Mindy J. Morgan, Michigan State University. “’Working’ from the Margins: Documenting American Indian Participation in the New Deal Era”
  • Sierra Adare-Tasiwoopa ápi, SUNY Buffalo. “Overcoming Barriers, Battles, and the Home Front: American Indians Helping to Win the War”
  • Andrew Needham, New York University. “Powering American Indian Energy and Postwar Consumption”
  • COMMENTATOR: Cathleen Cahill, University of New Mexico

Session Eight: Civil Rights, Indigenous Rights
  • David Beck, University of Montana. “The Civil Rights Movement and Indians” 
  • John J. Laukaitis, North Park University. “Positioning American Indian Self-Determination Movement in the Era of Civil Rights”
  • K. Tsianina Lomawaima, University of Arizona. “Exploding Federalism: Native Nations as Sovereign Partners”
  • Chris Andersen, University of Alberta. “Global Indigeneity”
  • COMMENTATOR: Robert Warrior, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Nancy Shoemaker of the University of Connecticut will deliver the symposium's concluding remarks. 
Librarians and teachers will gain a great deal by attending. Information provided will help librarians select and deselect materials, and it'll help teachers develop lesson plans. 
The seminar is free and open to the public. RSVP by April 26 to

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Naomi Bishop: Publishing and Diversity

Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by Naomi Bishop. She received her MLIS from the University of Washington iSchool in 2010. She is an American Indian Youth Literature Awards committee member, the American Indian Library Association secretary, and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community (Akimel-O’odham/Pima). She lives in Tucson, Arizona. 


Publishing and Diversity
by Naomi Bishop

The face of American children has changed.

In 2012, the Children’s Book Council (CBC) established a committee to push “diversity” in children’s literature. They presented a panel on their diversity initiative at ALA Midwinter Conference in Seattle in January of 2013. I attended it, after having read Debbie Reese’s blog post that says several books on their Good Reads shelf for Native Americans are stereotypical.

According to the CBC “Diversity” website,

CBC Diversity is dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children's and young adult literature -- encouraging diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit.

While this is a noble initiative, there are flaws in its implementation. First, the initiative is only pushing books by members of the association and not supporting great books of non-member publishers. Second, considering the presence of stereotypes in some of their books about American Indians, the association has a non-critical viewpoint and method for evaluating the content of the children’s literature it promotes. Third, the CBC does not consult with ALA ethnic caucuses on the books selected. 

After attending the panel session presented at ALA Midwinter, I did more investigation into CBC. Here are more statements from the CBC webpage:

The Children’s Book Council is a national nonprofit trade association of children’s book publishers. The CBC offers children’s publishers the opportunity to work together on issues of importance to the industry at large, including educational programming, literacy advocacy, and collaborations with other national organizations.


Membership in the CBC is open to all children's book publishers, packagers, and related companies in the United States. Personal memberships are not available.

At the presentation I listened attentively and actively participated in the discussion. I asked the panelist three questions about the “diversity” initiatives.
  1. What does the CBC diversity group have as qualifications to recommend books and what is the personal background on each member?
  2. What process does CBC use to vet the books on the Good Reads shelf?
  3. If books on the Good Reads shelf are not representative of a particular group will the CBC take them off the list?

My questions were answered with mixed responses, but the overall message was that the CBC only promotes books by its members.

My overall reaction is that CBC is an economic publishing organization that does not care about the quality of the books published. This was particularly evident in their response to my third question. The CBC, I was told, does not say that the books are good or bad, they are just “diverse.”

As a Native American (Pima) librarian getting started in my career, I am upset with the CBC initiative, and disappointed that the American Library Association would allow such an economically driven “diversity” panel. The session would have been far better if other ALA affiliate groups and children’s awards committees were on the panel, too.

Within ALA and nationwide, conversations about multicultural youth literature are happening, but I think CBC Diversity is taking advantage of libraries and librarians. If libraries want to embrace diversity, they need to know about all the people writing and illustrating books about people of color. Librarians, me included, need to understand the economics of publishing and get to know editors, publishers, and authors. Small independent publishers like Cinco Puntos Press are a great example to the publishing world. They publish excellent, well-written stories for children by authors and illustrators of diverse backgrounds. We need to know about their books.

While at ALA we celebrated the Newberry, Caldecott, and other awards for outstanding youth literature, and we may have thought that the CBC was another means for us to celebrate diversity in children’s books. In reality, I think the CBC’s exclusivity is a disruption to inclusivity in children’s and youth librarianship, and I question ALA’s sponsorship of the panel. The American Indian Youth Literature Awards are recognizing the value and quality of books about American Indians, yet they are not a part of the ALA Youth Media Awards. I would like to see the American Indian Youth Literature Awards become a part of the big announcements in Children’s Literature alongside other awards committee.

If libraries want to high quality children’s literature about people of color on their shelves, librarians must take a look at what is being selected by APALA, AILA, REFORMA and other affiliates. It is not ok for stereotypical books to be part of a “diversity” Good Reads virtual bookshelf, or on any public library bookshelf or lists of books about diversity.

It is 2013! In order for our libraries to be truly inclusive, we need to start thinking critically. We need to think about information literacy! We need to think critically about accuracy, currency, definitions, and how we evaluate of characters, place, and time. We need to think about the people writing our stories! Are groups being represented as they wish to be represented? Are we promoting literature for the new faces of America? Are we selecting high quality books and supporting small independent publishers?
The children and librarians of the future deserve the best and it is our responsibility to educate, speak up, and participate in the discussions that are happening.

Naomi Bishop 


You may be interested in these publications by the American Indian Library Association:

Here's the American Indian Library Association's page about its literature awards:
American Indian Youth Literature Award

And here's two previous posts to AICL about the CBC Diversity Committee: