Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Due out this year (2015) is a new edition of Dorling Kindersley's Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary. I reviewed a copy, available via Edelweiss, focusing on its Native content. Here's some of my notes/thoughts.

It includes (if I counted right) 27 specific "group[s] of American Indian people" --- but nowhere did the editors use the word 'nation' or 'sovereign' or 'government' to describe these "group[s} of American Indian people."

Let's look at the entry for Apache:
1 a member of an American Indian people of the southwestern United States
2 any of the languages of the Apache people
The editors are focusing on individuals and languages, both of which are important, but, our status as self-governing sovereign nations is the single most important fact about who we are.

As some of you know, there are several Apache nations. If you go to the National Congress of American Indians directory, you can enter Apache into the "Search by Keyword" box and you'll get nine different ones. If I was writing the entry for Apache, I'd do this:
1 a citizen or member of a sovereign Native nation currently located in the southwestern United States
2 any of the languages of the people of the Apache nations

See my use of 'sovereign' and 'nation'? Those words matter! For your reference, here are the entries:

  • Apache
  • Arapahoe
  • Cherokee 
  • Cheyenne
  • Choctaw
  • Comanche
  • Creek
  • Crow
  • Dakota
  • Delaware
  • Fox
  • Hopi
  • Mahigan or Mohican
  • Mohawk
  • Mohegan 
  • Navajo
  • Nez Perce
  • Ojibwa or Ojibway or Ojibwe
  • Oneida
  • Osage
  • Paiute
  • Pueblo
  • Seminole
  • Seneca
  • Shoshone
  • Tlingit
  • Wampanaog

Like some of you, I'm wondering how, out of the hundreds of options, they chose those particular nations.

I wondered if the dictionary has an entry for Eskimo, so did a search and found the word in a photo inset for the word costume, where a child is shown with this caption "Eskimo costume worn in Canada" (there are six children shown; more about that later). The "costume" includes a parka. A parka isn't a costume. It is an article of clothing. The definition of costume is (p. 201):
1 special or fancy dress (as for wear on the stage or at a masquerade) 2 a style of clothing, ornaments, and hair used during a certain period, in a certain region, or by a certain class or group <ancient Roman costume> <peasant costume>.  
Information provided in that photo inset is this:
Many countries and regions have one or more traditional national costumes. These often reflect the lifestyles that people led in the past, both in terms of climate and in the type of work undertaken by many inhabitants of the country.
The six "costumes" shown are described as follows (bullets are mine):

  • "the sari is worn in India" - lines point to "short top" and "sari" 
  • "a costume worn in Finland" - line point to "boots made from reindeer fur"
  • "a costume worn in Vietnam" - lines point to "scarf" and "piece of cloth wound around the legs"
  • "a costume worn in Korea" - lines point to "silk jacket" and "sports shoes are not traditional"
  • "a costume worn in Tanzania" - lines point to "bead necklace" and "bead belt" and "colorful cloth tied around the body"
  • "Eskimo costume worn in Canada" - lines point to "modern parka" and "insulated boots"

I don't think someone in India would call a sari a costume. Do you? Same with the boots worn in Finland, the items worn in Vietnam, etc. If, however, a kid who isn't of those places or people wears one of those items, then I think it would be accurate to say it is a costume.

The other place the dictionary has the word Eskimo is in its front matter, where you learn how to use the dictionary itself. Here's a screen capture (see update at the bottom of this page regarding Eskimo/Inuit):

Thinking about that usage label, I wondered if the word "squaw" is included. It isn't (it isn't in the 2000 version either; see update at end of review). I looked at other words commonly used for Native people. Of course, each nation has its own language and its own word for man, woman, child, baby, etc.

The third entry for brave is "an American Indian warrior" (p. 121). Though I've seen "brave" used as a standard word for man (or braves for men), I think they're trying to say that it is a person who fights. Like a soldier. I wonder who first used brave to describe Native fighters? Cooper?!

The entry for medicine man is "a person especially among American Indian groups believed to have magic powers to cure illnesses and keep away evil spirits." Contrast that to the definition of priest and you see some bias: "a person who has the authority to perform religious ceremonies."

Sachem is "a North American chief" (p. 700) but it is like the word papoose--it has become the default word for chief. In fact, the word is Narragansett and the Narragansett's use it today. I don't know anyone from another tribe who calls their leader a sachem.

Interestingly, the entries for chief don't include reference to Native leaders.

Entries for hogan, tepee (better spelling is tipi), powwow,  and totem pole, are ok.

The entry for tom-tom is "a drum (as a traditional Asian, African, or American Indian drum) that is beaten with the hands" (p. 834). It should not include American Indian because we use drumsticks, not hands, to beat our drums, and we do not call them tom-toms.

The entry for reservation could be better. It is not wrong to say it is "land set aside for American Indians to live" but it raises questions like, who set it aside, why, and when.

The entry for wampum as "beads made of shells and once used for money or ornament by North American Indians" (p. 891) is mostly incorrect and imprecise. Beside it is a photograph of a wampum belt. It is intended to be evidence of wampum as an ornament to be worn. Wampum is made of shell. That is the part of the definition that is correct, but wampum is far more than decoration, and it belongs to specific nations. Here's the first paragraph about wampum, from the Onondaga Nation's website:
Wampum is created from the shell of a clam. The bead is cut from the white and purple parts of the shell. The shell is thought of as a living record. The speaker puts the words of the agreement into the wampum. Each speaker thereafter uses the wampum to remember the initial agreement and the history that has happened to date.
Go read the rest of the page and you'll understand why the definition is wrong.

The definition for wigwam suggests that they are no longer in use, which is inaccurate and it doesn't specify what nations use them.

In conclusion, this was an interesting exercise (and tiring), going through this dictionary. I hope the editors make changes next time around to make it more accurate and less biased.


Update: Thank you, Sarah, for noting that the definition for Eskimo in the screen capture is incorrect. There is no entry for Eskimo in the dictionary. (Note: there is an entry for Eskimo that I missed in my searching. If you use the search option in your e-copy, note that it is inconsistent. The entry for Eskimo does not show up when you search using the word itself. It will come up when you search using Inuit.)

Sarah also provided me with a useful page: Inuit or Eskimo: Which Name to Use? The entry for Inuit is:
1 a member of the Eskimo people of the arctic regions of North America
2 any of the languages of the Inuit people.


Update (first update above was within minutes of the review being uploaded. Here's another update, within an hour of the review being uploaded): Thank you, Michelle, for looking at the 2000 edition of this dictionary. It does not have the word squaw in it. Does someone have an older version?


Anonymous said...

You seem to prefer Native over American Indian. That's your choice. Others feel differently.

2 a style of clothing, ornaments, and hair used during a certain period, in a certain region, or by a certain class or group (emphasis mine)

Why did you ignore that part of the definition?

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous--the site is called American Indians in Children's Literature. I use American Indian, too. And I have a bit of about terms that you may be interested in, over in the left hand column. It says:

American Indian? Or, Native American? There is no agreement among Native peoples. Both are used. It is best to be specific. Example: Instead of "Debbie Reese, a Native American," say "Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman.

As for "certain region" -- can you say more about why you highlight that?

Literary Cowgirl said...

Is it OK to use the word "Eskimo"? I'm going with no. Never. It is not the name the northern indigenous peoples gave themselves and does not have origins in Inuktitut. "Inuit" (plural) or "Inuk" (singular) are the correct terms. But ideally you should speak specifically about which exact northern indigenous people you are referring to, such as "Inuvialuit" or "Yupik", for example.