Tuesday, April 21, 2015

THANKSGIVING THIEF (Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew #16)

There are many ways I could critique Thanksgiving Thief. We could start with the cover:

Nothing wrong, we might say, but chapter one is called "Cool Costumes" and introduces the three kids on the cover to a "Native American girl" named Mary who is new to the school and providing them headbands (the "cool costumes") they'll wear in the school pageant. Mary's not on the cover. Maybe she shouldn't be, though, because she's not part of the series.

Here's how Mary is introduced to readers (p. 2):
Bess twirled around in front of Nancy's mirror and looked at the beaded leather dress she was wearing. "I love being a Native American princess," she said. "This is so cool."
Mary White Cloud looked at Bess. "You look great!" she said.
Mary was a new girl in their class at school. She was Native American. The girls' teacher, Mrs. Ramirez, had asked Mary to cast three more girls in the class to play Native American princesses in the pageant part of the River Heights Thanksgiving Celebration.
So far, we don't know what tribal nation Mary is from. I'm curious about that "beaded leather dress." Such items are not playthings to the Native families who have them. They hold great significance. A lot goes into the making of them. A lot of people are involved.

And this princess theme... not good!

Nancy, Bess, and George--the girls on the cover--and Mary, are all at Nancy's house (p. 3-4):
"Now for the headbands," said Mary. She opened a box on Nancy's bed and took out four beaded strips of leather. "These were worn by real Native American princesses in a tribal ceremony in Oklahoma last year," she told the other girls. "My uncle in Lawton sent them to me."
Aha! Some geographical information! Lawton, Oklahoma. There's a lot of Native nations in Oklahoma. Lawton is the location of the Comanche Nation's tribal offices. That doesn't mean the uncle in Lawton is Comanche, though. That he'd send these beaded strips of leather--used in a ceremony--to Mary? Not likely. Especially if they're to be used for "costumes" at a Thanksgiving pageant.

Nancy, Bess, and George put the headbands on, but Nancy asks (p. 5):
"Where are the feathers? Don't we have to have feathers?"
Mary nodded. "That's the most important part, but it's also the most difficult."
"What's so hard about finding feathers?" said George. "My pillow is full of them."
"It can't be that kind of feather," Mary said. "It has to be a special feather."
"What makes a feather special?" asked Nancy.
"It has to come from a living bird," Mary explained.
"You mean we're going to have to pull a feather from a real, live bird?" Bess exclaimed? How are we going to do that? I don't think we should go around chasing birds, trying to steal their feathers."
"That wouldn't work, either," said Mary, "even if you could catch one. No, it has to be one that the bird left behind, just so it can be used in a ceremony."

Oh-oh. I'm not liking this at all!

"Birds do that?" Nancy said.
"That's what one of our legends says," Mary told them. "A bird will drop a feather somewhere, making a connection with the earth and then we'll pick it up and put it in our headbands and use it when we're celebrating something important."
Ummmm, I don't think so. Sounds "Indian" though, doesn't it? It isn't.

While they're talking, a mystery develops. The girls take off their "costumes" and leave to investigate. The next day, they all meet up again at the gymnasium. Mary's mom is making fry bread, and when she's finished, she's going to help them with their parts in the pageant. While they're waiting, Bess shows Mary a feather she found (p. 23):
"That's wonderful! You're the first person to pick up a feather, Bess," Mary said. That's special in our culture."
Again... sounds like an "Indian" bit of lore, right?!

Things are going wrong--things that threaten the pageant and celebration. There's talk of it being cancelled. Meanwhile, more feathers are turning up at sites where food for the celebration is being stored or prepared. The crew thinks there's a thief at work who is leaving these feathers as his calling card. If that's the case, Mary tells them (p. 48):
"...that means they're negative, not positive, and you always need to use positive feathers in a pageant when you're dealing with Native American culture."
Again... sounds like "Indian" lore, right?! Nancy asks Mary if she knows the specific kind of feathers they are finding.
Mary shook her head. "No, I don't. We don't always know what kind of a bird drops its feathers, but in our culture, it doesn't really matter, as long as the bird does it willingly."
Goodness! That bogus legend gets even weirder! This suggests that any feather will do, but that is not the case. For many tribal nations, eagle feathers are the ones we use, and the acquisition of them is carefully regulated. The author of this Nancy Drew story obviously doesn't know about any of this. If you're interested, spend some time on the Eagle Repository website.

By the end of the story, we learn that those feathers the crew has been finding are turkey feathers, and that it is hungry turkeys that have been stealing food. Mystery resolved and an action plan in place to take care of the turkeys, the crew and Mary get ready for the pageant.
"Let me look at you," said Mary. She adjusted their headbands. "Perfect. You really do look like Native American princesses."
"Do you have our turkey feathers?" Bess asked.
Mary nodded. "Your three and one Mr. Fulton gave me!" she said.
"Super!" Nancy said.
"I am not going to perform the feather ritual," Mary said. "I will put one feather at the back of each headband." 
Thankfully, there is no description of this ritual. Here they are, on stage (p. 80).

They were welcomed by the Pilgrims? Hmmm... And see the two girls with hands raised as if saying "how" to those Pilgrims?

Published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster, and again in 2012 as an e-book, Thanksgiving Thief is not recommended. It is just another troubling Thanksgiving story, but in some ways, worse than the standard fare because of that legend Mary tells. There's already so much misinformation out there about who Native people are... why add to it?

Before ending this review, I want to say a few things about the Indian Princess. When non-Native girls think of being an Indian Princess, they are engaging in play. It may be rooted in the Y-Indian Princess program, or it may be connected to the erroneous idea that Pocahontas was a princess. The part of Thanksgiving Thief in which Mary's uncle sends headdresses worn by Indian princesses? A lot of pow wows in Oklahoma include a competition in which Native women seek to be named as their tribal princess, or, princess of the pow wow itself.  In Tribal Fantasies: Native Americans in the European Imaginary, 1900-2010, Renae Watchman writes:
Native people have refashioned the "Indian Princess," which has evolved into a powerful title for some Indigenous communities. Young women are obligated by their titles to act as ambassadors, gaining entry into the political realm of tribal sovereignty. Native Royalty are empowered as public speakers, representing their communities, their organizations, and their Nations. Pageants have erupted in the twenty-first century, as ambassadors are sought to represent a plethora of organizations such as college and university Princesses (for instance, Miss Native American University of Arizona and Miss Indian Nations from United Tribes Technical College), national, regional, state, and provincial royalty (Miss Indian Alabama, Miss Indian Canada, Miss Indian USA, Miss Indian World, to name only a handful of titles), countless Nation-Specific Rodeo Queens, as well as an infinite number of Princesses elected to represent their distinct Native Nations. 
Watchman has a lot more information about it than I've quoted above. Do read it. She quotes Jennifer Denetdale about the competition for Miss Navajo Nation. It isn't about Western notions of beauty. It is about culture. What you see in Thanksgiving Thief is stereotypical, detribalized playing Indian, and that is not ok.


Wendy said...

Debbie, my first thought when I saw the post title was, "Why is she bothering with this small-time stuff?" My apologies. Reading your post, I thought, all of us know that a book with this title is unlikely to be inoffensive, but the average kid, parent, teacher, librarian is only going to find justification. I always wonder "Where is the editor?". I hope more and more editors read posts like this and get a clue of their own. Publishing houses should be ashamed to be associated with stuff like this.

It's no wonder that some of the more nuanced, but still flawed, books with American Indian themes are making it through the editing process, if this kind of thing gets through.

Truth Unleashed said...

The author of this book doesn't actually seem to know what a legend is. A legend is narrative, a story. What Mary describes, if it were true, would be called a folk belief or tradition or custom. Then again, Mary doesn't really seem to take her own culture very seriously - and who can blame her, since her culture seems to be a combination of stuff the author made up and actual Native beliefs removed from any context and simplified to the point of ridiculousness. Also, how old is she, nine or ten? And she's giving these elegant lectures full of relativistic qualifiers and phrases like 'dealing with Native American culture'? What kind of kid talks like that? (Well, actually, I talked like that when I was a kid, but that's probably why I had no friends. And I never would have described my Scots-Irish-German-Jewish heritage as 'European culture.')

So ... Mary's culture ... whatever that may be. They have a general reverence for feathers, no matter what bird they come from, and in fact they don't even pay enough attention to the birds around them to know which feathers belong to which species, although they have enough respect for the birds to believe feathers should be given willingly. Also, it's common enough for someone to leave feathers (naturally fallen, not plucked) at a crime scene that they've had to place restrictions on how such feathers can be used. Yup, makes sense to me.

Also, I love how much work Nancy and her friends put into their costumes for a local children's holiday pageant, obviously wanting everything to be authentic, borrowing obviously valuable headdresses, even making sure their feathers were of ceremony-worthy provenance, and yet ... even if the fact that there might be a difference or two between 17th-century Wampanoag clothing and 21st-century Comanche/Plains ceremonial regalia eluded them entirely, was there no one to point out that in winter (when Pilgrims began to have dealings with their Native neighbors) and late autumn (when most people believe, incorrectly, the 'first Thanksgiving' meal was held), NO ONE in Massachusetts, Native or otherwise, goes around with bare arms and legs?