In The Lost Tribes, five friends could never imagine their ordinary parents are scientists on a secret mission. When their parents go missing, they are forced into unfathomable circumstances and learn of a history that's best left unknown. Now they must race against time in the search for tribal artifacts that are thousands of years old. Artifacts that hold the fate of the universe in the balance. But unbeknownst to them, they are catalysts in an ancient score that must be settled. The Lost Tribes is a challenge from beginning to end. As the chaos unfolds so do opportunities to solve codes and figure out where the characters will end up next (and the illustration and design give the reader a visual unfolding as well). Written by a former engineer, this book provides a sturdy and accurate science and history foundation, where readers will surely become participants in the facts, fun, and adventure.
Among those five friends and their parents is Serise Hightower and her parents, Dr. David Hightower and Dr. Cheryl Hightower. The kids (Serise, Carlos, Grace, and Ben and his little sister, April) all live in the same cul-de-sac in California. Until later in the book when we learn that all these characters are "scientific observers from another galaxy" we think of Serise as being Navajo. We first learn about her on page 52 (reading the ARC, so page numbers may differ in final copy) when two characters, Ben and Grace, are trying to break a coded message in a game that Ben's uncle has given to him. Serise, Grace tells Ben, is good at breaking codes.
More obnoxious to Ben, however, are the "maroon and purple highlights and feathers in her jet black hair" (p. 60). Another character, Carlos, doesn't like Serise either. He praises the watch but smirks at Ben as he does it. Serise's mom is the Curator of the Sunnyslope Museum of Natural History. She travels a lot. The expensive gifts she brings back to Serise mean that she is spoiled.
Ben doesn't think much of the watch. Serise asks if he wants to see "something cool" (p. 61). Ben, Grace, and Carlos follow her to her backyard (p. 61):
A domed structure sat in the corner. Covered with blankets, canvas tarps and leather, it looked like a cross between a hut and a tent. A single opening was visible on the west side.It, she tells them, is a "new sweat lodge" built by her dad. He is "getting ready for a vision quest." His hobby is mystic religions and he's "always trying to conjure up the spirit of an ancient ancestor." In this vision quest, he'll "cleanse himself of toxic impurities and restore his soul" (p. 61). He's been meditating and fasting and wants to do a ceremony on Sunday to get guidance for a journey he's going to go on.
Ben asks if he always does these ceremonies before a trip, and Serise tells him this one is different. After "the big storm" that happened when the book begins, her dad is going to "ask the Tribal Council for permission to conduct an Enemyway ceremony" (p. 61). From inside, the kids can hear her dad chanting. Grace thinks the whole thing sounds cool till Serise tells her "You have to be naked."
Serise goes to the sweat lodge and shows them a walkie talkie she has put there with the intent of playing a joke on her dad while he does the ceremony. While she's doing that, Grace, Ben, and Carlos whisper to each other about how awful it is to be around her.
That evening, Ben's dad tells him that they're invited to the sweat lodge on Sunday. Of course, Ben is unhappy about it. When he gets there, he sees Dr. Hightower and Grace's dad, Dr. Choedon, standing by "an intricate painting at the entrance to the lodge." Dr. Choedon calls it a mandala that is part of the ritual. Inside, Dr. Hightower tells them that if they're sick, they shouldn't participate, because being in a sweat lodge "is a grueling test of endurance." He starts to chant and pour water over huge "red-hot boulders" that Dr. Hightower tells them were heated outside the lodge and brought inside with "a little ingenuity" that he doesn't describe.
Thus far, Taylor-Butler (the author) has not named a specific tribal nation.
The "Enemyway ceremony" and the language that Serise's dad uses, however, indicate that we are meant to think they are Navajo. But because they aren't really Navajo (remember, they're not of Earth at all), I'm not sure what to do with this.
Where did these observers from another galaxy get the information they needed to behave in what they think of as Navajo?
What they do is troubling and misrepresentative. Generally speaking, Navajo ceremonies take place in hogans, not sweat lodges, and sandpaintings are done inside of hogans. Healers don't need to seek permission from a tribal council to do ceremonies. Fasting isn't part of the preparation. Though the ceremony in The Lost Tribes is called an "Enemyway" ceremony (usually written as Enemy Way), the language that Hightower uses is that of the Beauty Way ceremony.
The description of the sweat lodge in The Lost Tribes is more like the sweats done by other Native nations. With this vision quest/sweat lodge/Enemyway ceremony, the author has collapsed the ways of several distinct Native Nations and Tibetan Monks into... the ways of who?!
On page 286, we get an explanation. The kids learn their parents are not from Earth. They were sent to Earth from their homes in the Sonecian galaxy to find out what happened to a previous group. Henry (Ben's uncle), explains (p. 289):
"We call this place Safe Harbor because that is what it represented to our ancestors--a sanctuary from the impending collapse of a star near our galaxy.
"Our ancestors wanted to preserve something of their cultures. Earth was the nearest planet capable of sustaining the many species found in our solar system, making it perfect for colonization. They placed eight tribes on a land mass similar to the environment on their home planet. In time, the tribes blended with the indigenous populations and became part of their genetic pool."
For some unknown reason, they didn't survive and there's no records as to what happened. The kids parents are supposed to investigate what went wrong, but they've done other things, too--like having children. Medie (Ben's mom, who is a chemist) created a way for the kids to behave like human children. For Ben, it was a drink. Parents of the other kids gave it to them, too, in other forms. For Carlos, it was a green tamale. For Grace, it was sushi rolls. For Serise, it was smoothies and mud masks she used at night.
Because Earth's core is unstable, a decision is made to evacuate. Plans are being made to leave, but those plans are interrupted by the arrival of a transport ship, accompanied by military escorts.
"Fierce-looking warriors" in heavy body armor arrive. They are the Royal Guard of Casmir, which is Carlos's tribe. They carry spears, and show no mercy when provoked. Their leader has a "macho swagger" (p. 307-308).
Another group of warriors materializes. These wear no armor and carry no weapons. They are Serise's tribe, the "Hayookaal." Their long black hair "blew in an invisible breeze" -- which signals their ability to control weather and climate on Earth (p. 308). They are very muscular.
Hmmm... the Latino and Native characters are from tribes known as exceptional warriors, even in another galaxy.
Grace's tribe arrives next. They look a lot like Serise's. They're "one of the oldest tribes in the known universe" and are the best linguists in this alliance. They've got a power, too, but do not speak of it publicly. Three other tribes materialize. As Ben wonders when his tribe will materialize, an explosion takes place, but it is the means by which his tribe arrives. They're the Xenobian Warrior caste, an "elite squad" who are "brilliant strategists."
As is clear, the kids in The Lost Tribes are from various tribes, which means the book qualifies as a "diverse" one. For me, however, the diversity must ring true.
The Native characters and their attributes are a mish-mash of several nations, and they're stereotypical, too. The use and misrepresentation of ceremonies that are sacred to the Navajo Nation is especially troubling. Also troubling is that the Kirkus review says there is a "lack of stereotyping" in the book.
These problems could be attributed to stereotypical material that the inhabitants from the other planets read---we all know there's plenty of that right now---but elsewhere in the story, they talk of how superior they are to humans. They've been watching and living amongst humans on earth for thousands of years, so it seems to me they'd know a lot about all the humans on earth and how they were treated by each other. That would include misrepresentations.
The problems in The Lost Tribes are such that I cannot recommend it.