Saturday, October 19, 2013

President Obama, Mascots, Children's Literature, and American Indians

Listen to President Obama's remarks regarding the Washington Redskins:

At the :43 mark, President Obama says "I think all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans... Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it, and I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things."

Let's think about attachment. How do we become attached to something? How do we become attached, specifically, to a stereotyped mascot that is meant to represent Native people? Here's a photograph of Zema Williams. He's been dressing up to personify the Redskin's mascot for many years.

Photo credit: Jonathan Newton, Washington Post

The photo is from a Washington Post article Mike Wise wrote about Williams. In the article, he says that his job is to entertain people. This started back in 1978 when he went to a costume shop and bought feathers and a spear. His costume is more elaborate now. If you do an image search on "Chief Zee" you'll find plenty of photos of him. He wears a feathered headdress.

Let's turn, now, to children's books. They tell us that kids have been playing Indian for a long time.

We'll start with Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages. Set in Canada, it was published in 1903. It is about how a boy named Yan who loved Indians and animals. By the end of the story, he is living like an Indian. Here he is in the final pages:

Seton established the scouting tradition.  Playing Indian was--and is--a big part of scouting, but scouts don't call it playing Indian. How do they, I wonder, speak of what they do? They associate it with positive feelings. They are emotionally attached to what they do.

Dressing up like an Indian/playing Indian takes place a lot in life. It is captured in children's picture books. They embody that attachment to playing Indian, and playing Indian as a form of entertainment, too.

Do you recognize these characters? Do you know the book in which they appeared? Do you know the author/illustrator that created them?








No guessing on this one! This is Leo Politi's autobiography.

The characters above are from older books, but characters dress like Indians in newer ones, too. Take a look at these ones, in books from the 90s to the present:





That's a lot of playing Indian, isn't it? Let's turn, now, to American Indians.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) put together a report titled Ending the Legacy of Racism. It includes a timeline on page 18. Here's some things to note:

In 1919, American Indians on reservations were not allowed to leave those reservations without written permission. Did you know that?

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was signed into law. It allowed American Indian citizens the right to vote, but, most were still confined to reservations. Moreover, "Civilization Regulations" criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native. I'm going to repeat and emphasize what the Civilization Requirements did: criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native.

In 1926, "Chief Illiniwek" started dancing at the University of Illinois. In case you don't know what that mascot looked like, here's a photo of a recent portrayer:

The mascot "Chief Illiniwek" began doing its half-time routine during a period when it was illegal for actual American Indians to carry on with our traditional dances.

I'm glad there's a lot of pressure on Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, but I'd like all of us to think about the role that children's books play. In past writing at AICL, I've referenced research studies that document the harm that stereotypes do to Native and non-Native children. The NCAI report references Stephanie Fryberg's study, in which she and her colleagues found that the self-efficacy of Native youth was depressed by these images, while the self-efficacy of non-Native youth was enhanced. The impact on non-Natives can be seen as proof that such mascots --- meant to inspire --- are doing what they're supposed to do, and they help us understand why Snyder and fans rise to defend the mascots, too.

Would Snyder and fans hold to that attachment if they knew what Fryberg found? Would you?

Regular readers of AICL would say no, and a good many of those readers are attentive to the kinds of books they buy, too. Children's books and children's play have a role in the attachment President Obama referenced. The problem, quite simply, is larger than just mascots.

We have a lot of work to do.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where would we be without whites who like Indians? Or, a critical look at Susan Cooper's GHOST HAWK

As expected, Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk is a contender for the Newbery Medal (2:26 PM Note: I do not have inside knowledge of the Newbery Committee's deliberations. My post is about Ghost Hawk being discussed as a contender in the mock Newbery discussion at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog).  Ghost Hawk is the topic today (October 15, 2013) at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog. The author of the post, Jonathan Hunt, thinks that the plot twist at the end of part one is "the best of the year."

The plot twist he refers to? The character, Little Hawk, is killed by a Pilgrim, but that's not the end of him. He goes from being a living person to a ghost that narrates the rest of the story, which focuses on John Wakely, a colonist who grows up and saves the life of a Native boy named Trouble. That Native boy grows up to be Metacom/King Philip. Yep--a leader of the Wampanoag, according to Cooper's story, only gets to be that leader because a white person saves him when he was a child.

Throughout part two and three, Little Hawk can reveal himself to John at a certain time and place on an island. He does so several times during the story. That's because, when Little Hawk was killed, he was unable to rest or go home because John has a stone blade that belonged to Little Hawk's ancestors.  

By the end of the story (part four in the book), we're in the present day. A woman lives on the island. With a helper, she works the land. That helper finds Little Hawk's tomahawk and gives it to the woman. The next day, she's holding the tomahawk in her hand and Little Hawk reveals himself to her (page 316):
"She sees a bare-chested American Indian, in deerskin pants and moccasins, his hair greased up into a scalp lock--but the body has no substance, and through it the trees are still faintly visible."
She is startled but they begin to talk with each other. They have what I find to be a troubling conversation about the land itself and land ownership, and she learns that he is kept from resting because of the tomahawk blade she now has in her hands. She realizes that she can free him by burying it. The tomahawk, he tells her, has been buried a long time. Strains of "bury the hatchet"--don't you think?! So, she plants a hickory tree and buries the blade with it. Then, we read (p. 320):
Time breaks open around me, and all at once there is more light than a hundred suns, more light than I have ever seen.
I am gone to my long home at last, set free, flying high, high beyond the world. High, high, into mystery.
With those passages, Cooper is imagining what a Wampanoag person experiences when they die. It is a bit ironic, I think, that it is a person named Cooper doing that imagining, because another person named Cooper did a whole lot of imagining when he wrote his stories about Indians... Course, I'm thinking of James Fenimore Cooper. Remember that guy? He wrote Last of the Mohicans. 

Key points in Susan Cooper's story? White person saves Metacom. White person frees Little Hawk. In his discussion of the book, Jonathan says that Cooper's story, written from Little Hawk's perspective,
"engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture."
Perhaps it does, but how what does that empathy mean? What does IT engender? Below is the comment I submitted to Jonathan's post. As of this moment (9:26 AM, Central Time), it is in 'moderation mode' but I expect it to appear shortly. I encourage you to follow and participate in the discussion that will take place. Here's a link to the page:

Jonathan Hunt's post about Ghost Hawk

And, my comment to Jonathan's post (awaiting approval from Jonathan or whomever moderates comments for him):

Hi Jonathan,
As some people know, I blogged Part One of Cooper’s ( story in early June. The technique I used in that post is one that is very popular with my readers. They want to know about the process I go through as I read and analyze a book about American Indians. Some people feel strongly that doing that is unfair, particularly because I haven’t yet provided answers to concerns and questions I raised in that post. I have similar notes for posts about Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four and intended to write them up and post them, too, inserting answers to my questions/concerns as I conducted research necessary to answer my questions.
When I read the Author’s Note, however, I decided to write and post my overall thoughts on the book ( because I don’t think the answers to my questions/concerns will change my primary concerns with the book. In a nutshell: we have an author using seventeenth century sources to imagine the life of a Native character, and then (presumably) using those same sources to imagine the after-life of that Native character. I see no evidence that she consulted any sources that counter the bias and misinformation in the ways that American Indians are portrayed in those seventeenth century sources. In the Author’s Note, she sends us to two websites, but the first one is sketchy and further adds to my concerns that she did not read any of the critical writing by scholars who counter bias and misinformation in materials about American Indians. As such, she’s doing a whole lot of imagining. She imagines the life of living/breathing Native people, and then she takes a huge leap and imagines how that tribe has laid out its spirituality. Given its glowing reviews, what she does works for most people, and that’s troubling. Shouldn’t we be past that kind of imagining that romanticizes American Indians?
A second concern is that in her story, her fictional main character, John Wakely, saves the life of Metacom/King Philip. According to the entry in Hoxie’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, he “personified native resistance to colonial power in southern New England in the seventeenth century” (p. 373). John is so adored by the Indians, that they hold their children up high so they can get a glimpse of him. In a way, this is the John Smith/Pocahontas story all over again. But again–shouldn’t we be past themes in which whites save the day?
Obviously, I disagree that the writing is skillful and the themes distinguished. Cooper’s story, as Jonathan says, “engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture.” His use of “disappearing indigenous people” is telling, I think, because that is exactly what I’m talking about. As a society, most Americans want to love a certain kind of indigenous person and story about indigenous people. It is a superficial love for something imagined. Unfortunately, the kind they love is the kind that was mistreated but then disappeared.
Where’s the love of modern day American Indians critical of that superficial love?
It was/is a bit unnerving to read the comments to Jonathan’s earlier post (“October Nominations”), in which commenters discourage others from reading what I said in my post about Ghost Hawk.
I’m not hoping for people to love what I or any Indigenous people say. What we all need is a different perspective of Native/White relationships, past and present. What we need is a citizenry that can see and reject stereotypes of who American Indians are, and a citizenry that wants accurate, not romantic, stories about who we are. Heralding books like GHOST HAWK or SALT will keep us stuck in that same old place of honoring Indians, and that kind of honoring is superficial and not helpful to anyone.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Initial Thoughts about Helen Frost's SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR

Helen Frost's newest book, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War is getting a lot of good press, but I'm having trouble articulating what it is that doesn't work for me as a reader.

The novel is set in 1812.

In the introductory pages, Frost tells us that there is "sometimes distrust and fighting between the two communities" but that friendships and intermarriage are common (p. xiii).

The two communities live in two places. One is in Kekionga, a village that Frost tells us is part of the Miami nation. The other community is Fort Wayne, where 80 soldiers, their wives, and children live. The fort is inside of a stockade. Outside of the fort (but inside the stockade), are a few more families, some fields, and a trading post where a trader and his family live.

Kekionga was actually more than that. It was the seat of a confederacy of Indian tribes. Frost's characterization of it as a village seems a small point, but I think my problem with her novel is that there's lot of small points like that. In isolation, they seem inconsequential. In total, they are what is--for me--the novel's undoing.

The story focuses on two twelve year old boys. It is presented in two voices, each alternating with the other (by chapter) as they view the same events from their distinct vantage points. One of the boys is Miami. His name is Anikwa. On the pages where he is speaking, Frost arranges the text in geometric patterns that were inspired by Miami ribbon work. The other boy is James. He's the trader's son. The text on the pages where he is speaking is arranged in lines that Frost says are like the lines of the American flag. If we step away from that presentation, we have Native people represented as art, and, American people represented as nation. (Sentence in italics added on March 3, 2014.)

The text is sparse, and that, I think is another reason the novel doesn't work. We don't know enough about that period of history, or about the Miami Nation and its resistance to encroachment, to be able to read the sparse text within a context that this story needs.

Anikwa lives with his extended family. His mother died of smallpox when he was two, and his father was killed a year later in "a skirmish" (p. 7).  Given that the novel is set in 1812, we can do some math and see that his father died in 1803. What skirmish, I wondered, would that have been? I wondered, too, about Frost's introductory note about how there was (emphasis mine) "sometimes distrust and fighting."

I started digging and came across a treaty in 1803. It was a treaty between the United States and Delawares, Shawanoes, Putawatimies, Miamies, Eel River, Weeas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias nations of Indians. The treaty was made at Fort Wayne. It is fairly short. You can read it in its entirety at the Digital Library at Oklahoma State. Of particular interest--given the title of Frost's book--is Article 3. It is all about salt! Here's what it says:
As a mark of their regard and attachment to the United States, whom they acknowledge for their only friends and protectors, and for the consideration herein after mentioned, the said tribes do hereby relinquish and cede to the United States the great salt spring upon the Saline creek which falls into the Ohio below the mouth of the Wabash, with a quantity of land surrounding it, not exceeding four miles square, and which may be laid off in a square or oblong as the one or the other may be found most convenient to the United States: And the said United States being desirous that the Indian tribes should participate in the benefits to be derived from the said spring, hereby engage to deliver yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine.

The treaty says that the U.S. will "delivery yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine."

We have a treaty in 1803 that says salt will be delivered. I assume that means Indians won't have to buy salt. But in Frost's novel, Anikwa's family has to buy salt from James's family. How do we go from a treaty that says the government will deliver salt to the Miami Indians, to the Miami Indians having to buy salt? See? That's one of the gaps that I struggle with in terms of the text being sparse. On page 51, Anikwa's family is planning a trip to the trading post. Mink (Anikwa's aunt, who is raising him because, remember, his mother died when he was two and his father was killed when he was three) says they need salt. Old Raccoon (he's Anikwa's uncle/Mink's husband) scowls and says:
"They take it (salt) from our land, then sell it back to us."
When they get to the trading post, Old Raccoon says "We need salt" but James's father says "No more salt" even though the salt barrel, which is visible to all, is half-full.

More digging got at my unease with Frost's characterization of relationships between the Indians and Americans. Remember, she said "sometimes" there was "distrust and fighting" between them. Throughout the first part of the book, there are discussions of an impending siege in which the Americans are afraid that British soldiers and Indians will lay siege on the fort before the American soldiers can arrive. On page 59, James's parents are talking about the siege. James tells his Pa that he thought the Indians are on the side of the Americans. Pa says that there are Indians from all over are coming and its hard to say who among them are friends of the Americans. Ma says "we'll continue to treat the Miami as the friends they've always been."

Does Ma mean that Anikwa's family has always been a friend to her own family? Or does she mean that the Miami have always been friends to the Americans? If it is the latter, she's wrong.

In the 1780s and 1790s, there was a great deal of killing going on. Americans were killing Indians and Indians were killing Americans. This was over the land and who it belonged to. It was over who had the right to enter into a treaty, and with what other nation. The Indians had formed a confederacy and were aligned with the British.

In April of 1790, Miami's attacked a flotilla of military supply boats, killing five soldiers and taking eight prisoners. In 1794, General Anthony Wayne and his troops defeated the Indian confederacy, and in 1795 the Treaty of Greenville was signed. There's more--a lot more--about the fighting that took place in those years that, I think, casts "sometimes" into question.

But let's get back to the story itself for a moment.

There's some inconsistencies, I think, in how the characters act.

One moment, Old Raccoon is talking about needing to save his bullets for something bigger than a duck. He laments treaty violations. A few days later, he's volunteering to guide American women and children in the fort to safety.

James seems to think well of Anikwa and he also seems to disapprove of his father's actions. But on page 70, he sees Anikwa carrying a rabbit from one of his snares, and he thinks that Anikwa isn't his friend after all. That seems abrupt. They struggle and James runs home with the rabbit. Anikwa thinks that "we don't need any of them" (p. 73). That seems a bit abrupt, too.

A few pages later, the trading post is burned and the soldiers and James's family have no meat. Anikwa takes some to them, hiding it in a tree. James retrieves it, and later, James and his dad put some salt into that same tree for Anikwa.

Those friendships shift from friendly to not-friendly and back again a bit too fast. Maybe, in a time of war, that sort of thing happened, but I go back to the overall history and context. The distrust and fighting that had been going on for a long long time was over the land. American settlers kept coming into land that belonged to the Indians. On page 121, James's mother is writing to her sister in Philadelphia, telling her there is good land to be had. Rupert (a person in the fort) tells her "this part of the territory isn't open for settlement yet" and that treaty details still need to be worked out. The way his remarks are presented suggests that the Americans are law-abiding people who wouldn't be squatters. But--that doesn't jibe with the history!

By the end of the story, the homes of both boys have been burned. Soldiers burn Kekionga, its cornfields, and the surrounding forest, too. Anikwa and his family are safe, having steadily moved on until the burning stopped but they decide to return to Kekionga and rebuild. Once there, James and his family bring them items that James's father took from Anikwa's home before it was burned. Anikwa and his family offer food to James and his family. They eat together and then play music together. The story ends.

What do we, the reader, come away with?

Friendships that persevere, no matter what?

Frost's book reminds me of the much-loved Thanksgiving story. Sitting together for meals in the midst of turmoil and war is possible, but I'm not sure how plausible it is. As Frost tells us, there are friendships between the Indians and the Americans. But overwhelmingly, the history is one of loss of Indian life and land. Overwhelmingly. That is the history.

Nonetheless, these two families eat together. In light of what preceded that moment, and what happened after it, the story doesn't work for me. It ends up being somewhat of a feel-good story that suggests optimism and hope for relationships between peoples in conflict, but for me, it masks the truth.

And so, I can't recommend Frost's Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. 

On the back of the book, Daryl Baldwin, Director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, says that Frost "dives below the simple narrative of natives versus settlers to give us a refreshing look at the human side of events in the War of 1812." I'd like Daryl to read it more carefully. I met him some years ago and will send my review to him. I'll share whatever I get back from him, and I'll keep thinking about Salt. 


Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War 
Author: Helen Frost
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published in July 2013