Friday, April 12, 2013

Dear Teachers: Native masks are not art

Dear Teachers and Homeschooling Parents,

Many art project books for use in classrooms include a section on making Native masks. One example is Laurie Carlson's More Than Moccasins: A Kid's Activity Guide to Traditional North American Indian Life. It has instructions for making "Hopi masks." A search of the Internet will show you a great many kid art projects in which they make what they call Native masks.

However well-intentioned mask making activities may be, we all need to understand that it is inappropriate to make them.

Masks made by Native peoples are not art. They have a purpose within a religious context. They are used in religious contexts. Creating them and viewing them as art miseducates everyone and leads to cases like the following.

As I write (April 12, 2013), masks "katsina friends" (see note at end) originating with the Hopi Tribe are being auctioned in Paris as works of art. The tribe asked that the auction be delayed or stopped completely but the request was denied by a judge there.

The person who "owns" the masks katsina friends collected them here, in the United States. Who he acquired them from is unknown, but we--teachers and librarians--can provide students with information that can interrupt the cycle of misinformation that frames sacred Native artifacts as art rather than the religious items that they are. Native peoples, our religions, our artifacts and our traditional stories should receive the same respect that Christianity or other world religions do.

Instead of making "Hopi masks," educate students about them and their significance within Native cultures. And, encourage students to put their knowledge to use. They could, for example, write to Ms. Carlson or her publisher!

If you're wondering about art projects you can do, take a look at Arlene Hirschfelder and Yvonne Wakim Dennis's A Kid's Guide to Native American History: More than 50 Activities. The activities in it are ones that aren't religious or spiritual in nature.

Please share this letter with fellow teachers and parents, and let me know if you have any questions.


Note (added at 2:21 PM on April 12, 2013): My use of the word "masks" to describe what is being auctioned in France is incorrect. "Masks" is the default word for them, but as described here, the correct English phrase for them is katsina friends. It means they are not items, but beings. Remarks by the auctioneer and New York collector during the auction are infuriating. See the news report: As protestors jeer, Hopi masks sell in Paris.

Update, Friday, April 12, 3:30 PM
Statement from Chairman Shingoitewa of the Hopi Tribe:
“We are deeply saddened and disheartened by this ruling in the French courts that allowed the auction to be held on Friday. It is sad to think that the French will allow the Hopi Tribe to suffer through the same cultural and religious thefts, denigrations and exploitations they experienced in the 1940s. Would there be outrage if Holocaust artifacts, Papal heirlooms or Quranic manuscripts were going up for sale on Friday to the highest bidder? I think so. Given the importance of these ceremonial objects to Hopi religion, you can understand why Hopis regard this – or any sale -- as sacrilege, and why we regard an auction not as homage but as a desecration to our religion. Our Tribal Council will now convene to determine the Hopi Tribe’s next steps in this shameful saga." 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

NATIVE WRITERS: VOICES OF POWER, by Kim Sigafus and Lyle Ernst

Editors note on Oct 2, 2018: This volume includes Joseph Boyden, a writer whose claim to Native identity has been challenged. When that news broke, I wrote about it at Dear Teachers: Do you teach Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD?  It also includes Sherman Alexie, who has been accused of inappropriate behaviors that led the American Indian Library Association to withdraw its award to him for his ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN. For information, see An Open Letter about Sherman Alexie


Native Writers: Voices of Power by Kim Sagafus and Lyle Ernest is part of the Native Trailblazers Series published by 7th Generation Native Voices. Here's the cover:

And here's an excerpt from the Introduction that I do not remember seeing before in a book meant for young readers:

There have been entirely too many falsehoods and myths written about the Native people of the United States and Canada. The depiction of Native people depends entirely on the writer's perspective. For example, a 1704 French and Indian raid on colonial settlers in the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, was described as a massacre, whereas the annihilation of a village of sleeping Cheyenne Indians in 1864 was celebrated as a victory over "hostiles." Both are examples of the European American historical perspective, which has also been prevalent in movies, making Hollywood one of the biggest sources of distorted facts and stereotypes about Indians.

Teachers and librarians who use this book to do author studies... make sure you spend time with that intro! If you're into contests, challenges, or research investigations, you might ask students to look for examples of biased language.

Those of you familiar with Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie will recognize their photos on the cover. There is a chapter for both of them. I'm sure you've got their books, but you ought to have books by the other others, too. They are:

Joseph Boyden, Ojibwe (see editors note at the top of this page)

N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa and Cherokee

Marilyn Dumont, Cree and Metis

Tomson Highway, Cree

Joseph Bruchac, Abenaki

Maria Campbell, Metis

Nicola Campbell, Interior Salish of Nle7Kepmx and Msilx/Metis

Tim Tingle, Choctaw

For each author, there's several pages of biographical information, followed by a list of "Selected Works" and Awards. The works range from children's books to those for adult readers, but the audience isn't included, so you'll want to make sure you do a bit of research before ordering to make sure the book will work for your classroom or library. Though Native Writers is what is called "a slim volume" (just over 90 pages), it is packed with info. I highly recommend it, but don't assume it is complete...  To the authors it includes, I'd add Cynthia Leitich Smith and Richard Van Camp. Both are at the very top of my lists.

Order it directly from 7th Generation.

Dorothy Kunhardt and Garth Williams' ROGER MOUSE'S WISH

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Editor's Update, 6:30 PM on April 10, 2013: Mary sent me text and scans of three pages of Roger Mouse's Wish. I've inserted that material. Thanks, Mary!


Earlier today (April 10, 2013), reader Mary C. wrote to tell me about Roger Mouse's Wish. It is a Tiny Golden Book. I'm going to add these tiny books to my "find out more..." list! I'm pretty sure that I've seen them. Tiny is right... they measure 3 inches by 2 inches.

According to James Fox at the Simmons blog, all the books were written by Dorothy Kunhardt and illustrated by Garth Williams, and published around 1948. Here's the back and front cover for Roger Mouse's Wish:

Due to limits on how much of a text someone can use without getting permission of the publisher, I'm telling you what the book is about (based on what Mary sent me) and including a few excerpts. There are three characters: Roger Mouse, Mr. Mouse (his father) and Mrs. Mouse (his mother).

One day, Roger Mouse asks his mother for a blanket. He spreads it on a card table in their living room. He crawls under the card table and then hears his mother tell his father that she remembers how much fun she had playing house. Roger replies:

I'm not playing house," said Roger's voice. "I'm an Indian. This is my tepee."

The next day is Roger's birthday. There's a birthday cake for him. Mr. Mouse tells him to make a wish, and Mrs. Mouse tells him not to tell anyone what he wished for because it might not come true. Roger makes his wish and blows out the candles, and Mr. Mouse tells him there's a present for him "in front of his tepee." Here's that page:

The present, he exclaims is an "Indian suit!" He's quite happy and tries it on:

Wearing his Indian suit, he asks his father if he can tell his wish. His dad thinks it won't hurt, so he does:

As you can see, his wish was for an Indian suit.

That was a popular wish around that time...

Leo Politi, author of the flawed, award winning Song of the Swallows also wanted an Indian suit. He got one, too, as described in his 1951 book, Little Leo: 

Lot of playing Indian going around then... and years before then... and sadly, in the years since then, too!

Kunhardt is the author of Pat the Bunny and a gross book called Brave Mr. Buckingham, in which a guy dresses up like an Indian, and page by page, loses body parts until all that's left is his head. In a headdress. Williams did the illustrations for a whole slew of books including the Indians in Little House on the Prairie. 

I've looked and looked but can't find any illustrations of the inside of Roger Mouse's Wish. If you have a copy, please let me know! I'd like to know more about the story and see more of the illustrations. Thanks!

A great big thanks, Mary, for letting me know about the book, and then for taking time to type out the text and scan those pages! By the way, Mary wrote to me in response to an update to my post about the stereotypes in Little Golden Books. If you want to see them, here's the link: Stereotypes in Little Golden Books.

Joan Walsh Anglund's THE BRAVE COWBOY

Several weeks ago, Jo, (she's married to my cousin, Steve) wrote on my Facebook wall (in a comment to my post there about Peggy Parrish's Let's Be Indians) to tell me about Joan Walsh Anglund's The Brave Cowboy.

Jo wrote:
I found a few of these older books at the thrift store one day; they were about a little boy who likes to dress up like a cowboy. I thumbed through Cowboy and his Friend, all about the little boy and his friend Bear and the adventures they have together. Very cute and harmless so I thought what the heck and got them. I read it to the boys and it was great so we started to read the next one, The Brave Cowboy. I don't know why I didn't flip through it first. The second page of the book shows him ready to shoot the scary half naked Indian. I quickly closed it and told the boys we couldn't read it and put it away. A little further in the book it shows him ready to shoot a large number "wild Indians in his territory." We still have it. Steve said we should keep it and send it to you.
A few days later, Jo wrote again to tell me:

My six year old picked up the book the other day and read it. When she was finished she was shaking her head and I asked her what she thought about it. She told me she didn't really like it. I asked her why and she said she was confused about the little cowboy shooting the Indians. It was an interesting moment for me to try to find the right words to talk to her about the pictures in the book. 

Reading what Jo said, I got a copy of the book from the University of Illinois library, but it didn't have the pages Jo described. The copy I got has a publication year of 2000. The one she had, which she sent to me, is 1959. The publisher is Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Here's the first page with Indians:


In the 2000 copy I had, the third line of text is different. Instead of "not afraid of Indians," the boy is "not afraid of mountain lions." The Indian is gone from the illustration (replaced by another ornery rustler) and a mountain lion has been added:

And here's the next page on which Indians appear. The text is "Or, maybe he would hunt wild Indians that might be in the territory...":

In the 2000 version, the brave cowboy hunts bank robbers instead of "wild Indians." 

The day draws to a close and the brave cowboy "settled down to dream the dreams of all good cowboys" which includes dreaming about Indians:

As I wrote this post, my thoughts turned again and again to the current national discussion on gun control. I doubt that The Brave Cowboy would get republished again, and in my opinion, I think that's a good thing. Kids playing with guns? Even in a story, it's frightening.

The Brave Cowboy is far from the first or only book to undergo revisions like these ones. Two that have been updated (or bowdlerized) are Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. At his site, Philip Nel took a look at several others

Returning to the stereotyping in the 1959 copy of The Brave Cowboy, Jo, Steve, and their kids. First, the children in their home are lucky to have Jo and Steve. They're readers who read critically. They're teaching their children to do that, too. Second, Anglund's book is clearly one that has been updated to remove stereotyping. Third, I wish a note about that sort of updating was noted somewhere in the book. Fourth, I hope the book goes out of print and stays out of print. 

Thanks, Jo, for letting me know about this book.