Saturday, May 02, 2015

HUNTERS OF CHAOS by Crystal Velasquez

Anytime someone writes a book--yes, even a work of fiction--that gets basic facts about Native people wrong, it is going to get a 'not recommended' from me.

It doesn't matter, to me, how well-written the story might be and it doesn't matter if the book itself has a protagonist or a cast of characters that are from a marginalized group or groups. Nobody in a marginalized group should be expected to endure the misrepresentation of their own people for the sake of another group. And, all readers who walk away with this misrepresentation as "knowledge" are not well served, either.

So, let's take a look at Hunters of Chaos. The synopsis, from Simon and Schuster:

Four girls at a southwestern boarding school discover they have amazing feline powers and must unite to stop an ancient evil in this riveting adventure.
Ana’s average, suburban life is turned upside down when she’s offered a place at the exclusive boarding school in New Mexico that both of her late parents attended. As she struggles to navigate the wealthy cliques of her new school, mysterious things begin to occur: sudden power failures, terrible storms, and even an earthquake!
Ana soon learns that she and three other girls—with Chinese, Navajo, and Egyptian heritages—harbor connections to priceless objects in the school’s museum, and the museum’s curator, Ms.Benitez, is adamant that the girls understand their ancestry. 
It turns out that the school sits on top of a mysterious temple, the ancient meeting place of the dangerous Brotherhood of Chaos. And when one of the priceless museum objects is shattered, the girls find out exactly why their heritage is so important: they have the power to turn into wild cats! Now in their powerful forms of jaguar, tiger, puma, and lion they must work together to fight the chaos spirits unleashed in the ensuing battle…and uncover the terrifying plans of those who would reconvene the Brotherhood of Chaos.

Intriguing? Yes. But... Soon after Ana arrives at the school, there's an earthquake that exposes the mysterious temple. Skipping ahead (for the moment), we learn that the school is (p. 110):
"...yards away from a thriving Native American community, descendants of the Anasazi people..."
For now, I am focusing on the word "Anasazi." For a very long time, that Navajo word was used to describe the people who lived in the cliff houses in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. The word is no longer in use. Today, "Ancestral Pueblo People" is the phrase people use, because it is the right one to use.

Mesa Verde, Bandelier, Chaco Canyon and others are part of the National Park Service. If you click on those links, you'll see they use "ancestral Pueblo/Pueblo People" rather than "Anasazi."

For a long time, literature associated with those sites said that the "Anasazi" people who lived there had vanished. They didn't. Like any people, anywhere in the world, they moved to other locations when conditions changed. In recognition of that fact, the National Park Service and other government sites stopped using Anasazi and started using Ancestral Pueblo People instead. Another good example is the Bureau of Land Management's page, Who were the Ancestral Pueblo People (Anasazi?).

The massive amounts of literature that used "Anasazi" is probably why Velasquez used it in her book. I wish she had actually looked up the sites I linked to... she'd have avoided the problems in Hunters of Chaos. 

In Hunters of Chaos, Doli is Navajo. Back on page 53 (after they've learned about the temple), Lin (she's the Chinese character) and Doli have an argument. Lin has an expensive purse. Doli makes a sarcastic remark about it, and Lin tells her she's just jealous because she's poor and therefore doesn't belong at the school. Doli says (p. 53):
"I don't belong here?" [...] "You must have been asleep during assembly today. That temple back there means I'm the only one who belongs here."
"Oh, give me a break," Lin said, then sucked her teeth and flicked her hand dismissively. "I was wide awake during Dr. Hottie's speech, and he said the temple was Anasazi, not Navajo." 
Doli, completely unfazed, sighed as if she were tired of explaining the obvious. "The Anasazi were an ancient people who lived on this land. In other words, they were my ancestors. Anasazi literally means 'ancient ones' in Navajo."
So. Doli is Navajo. Some people say Anasazi means "ancient ones" and some say it means "enemy people." Whether it meant ancient ones or enemy people, the key thing is that it definitely did not refer to Navajo people. Interestingly, there is a place in the book where we read that Anasazi means ancient pueblo peoples. At that point in the book, the kids have organized an exhibit to show people what the school's museum has--including artifacts from that temple.

Among the people who come to the exhibit is a family from Doli's reservation (the community that thrives a few yards away from the school). A woman speaks to Doli in Navajo. Ana asks her what the woman said. Here's from page 129:
"She said she was glad she could come. They heard about the temple and are excited about it. She didn't think that the ancient Pueblo peoples were active here, so they are very interested in seeing what was found."
See that "ancient Pueblo peoples"? Does the woman think it is her Navajo ancestors?

The confusion between Navajo and Pueblo is a big deal. We're talking about two distinct nations of people.

There are other problems. On page 64, the anthropologist (Dr. Logan) says that Ancient Egyptians, the Ashanti people of West Africa, and the Anasazi worshipped cats. That's the first I ever heard of that said about Pueblo people!

And when Doli starts talking about shape shifting, she doesn't sound like she really grew up there (p. 158):
"Navajo folklore is full of stories about shape-shifters, but I'm not even sure the people on the reservation would believe me."
When the girls first shape shift, Doli says (p. 169):
"I'm glad it happened that way, and not how the Navajo legends say people usually become shape-shifters." [...] "They perform all kinds of evil rites to get the power. I'm talking witchcraft and murder."
When they try to shift later on purpose, they chant Navajo words that Doli taught them. And on page 240, Doli says a few words in Navajo that, she tells us, is a saying amongst her people that means "When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, strike first." Is that a Navajo saying? I see it attributed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but I also find it on a bunch of "Indian proverbs" page, with it being attributed to Navajos. I'll keep digging on that saying. Maybe it IS a Navajo one.

Velasquez is working on a sequel to this book. I hope this confusion between two nations does not continue. Published in 2015 by Simon and Schuster, I cannot recommend Hunters of Chaos. 

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