Wednesday, December 02, 2015


My grandfather, Rex Sotero Calvert, was Hopi. We never called him grandpa or grandfather. We called him Thehtay, which is the Tewa word for grandfather (Tewa is our language at Nambe Pueblo). Calvert is the name he was given when he went to boarding school, at Santa Fe Indian School. Before that, he was Rex Sotero Sakiestewa. He was born in 1895 at Mishongnovi Village.

At SFIS, he met my grandmother, Emilia Martinez. She was from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo). They lived at Ohkay Owingeh and had six children: Delfino, Felix, Marcelino, Edward, Andrea, and Cecilia. To me, they were Uncle Del, Uncle Felix, Uncle Mars, and Aunt Cecilia. Edward--we call him Uncle John. He still lives there, at Ohkay Owingeh. Andrea--we call her mom.

When I talk with my mom, we sometimes talk about Thehtay. He lived with us at Nambe Pueblo when I was growing up. I remember him being out back, working the garden with a hoe... Suddenly he'd yell "The beans!" We'd have been playing in the garden as he worked, no doubt un-doing the work he'd been doing to irrigate that garden as we made little dams to divert the irrigation water! Remembering the beans, he'd throw down the hoe and run inside the house to add water to the pot of beans on the stove. When he was older, he'd sit in his wheelchair, softly singing Hopi songs to himself. I wish I'd listened to them, and that I'd learned some of them. What I do have are warm memories of him, of being with him, of his humor.

This morning as I read My Hopi Corn and My Hopi Toys, my thoughts, understandably, turned to Thehtay. Written by Anita Poleahla and illustrated by Emmett Navakuku, the two are board books from Salina Press.

Celebrate My Hopi Corn begins with a single corn kernel telling the reader that she has many sister kernels on an ear of corn, that they grow under a warm sun, and that as the days begin to shorten, the kernels take on different colors. Some are yellow, while others are blue or red or white. After they're harvested, the kernels are shelled off the cobs. For that, we're shown a Hopi girl in traditional clothes shelling the kernels off the cobs. Some kernels are ground into flour to make piki (a traditional food that is exquisite in form and flavor. In form it looks like a rolled up newspaper, with the paper itself being the piki, which is kind of like filo dough in its flakey texture). Some corn is used for dances, and, some is kept inside for the next planting season, when a Hopi man plants corn. That page, especially, made me think of Thehtay:

I don't have a memory of Thehtay planting seeds. My memory is of him in a button down shirt and jeans (nothing on his head; not wearing a belt or mocs as shown in the illustration) using a hoe to rid the garden of weeds.

As you see by the illustration, the text in Celebrate My Hopi Corn is in two languages: Hopi, and English. The illustrations are a blend of realistic depictions of people, and, Hopi images like the one of the sun, and later, one of rain clouds. The book ends with a double paged spread of corn maidens:

Corn. Community. Ceremony. Planting. All are important to who the Hopi people are. I really like this little book and wish I could share it with Thehtay. Poleahla and Navakuku's second book, Celebrate My Hopi Toys is a counting book of items used for play, but also for dance. I like it very much, too. Like Celebrate My Hopi Corn, it is bilingual and shows items specific to Hopi people. Poleahla has been working on language instruction for many years. These little books will, no doubt, be much loved by Hopi children, but they're terrific for any child. For children who aren't Hopi, they provide a window to Hopi culture. A window--I will also note--that is provided by insiders who know just what can be shared with everyone.

They are available from Salina Press.


Beverly Slapin said...

Hi, Debbie. Thank you for your family story and for calling attention to this excellent pair of children’s books. I’m wondering whether it was an editorial decision for the man to wear the bandanna, belt and mocs while planting corn.

Sam Miller said...

It seems that children's books which respectfully incorporate Native languages are more rare than they should be and am sure that, as in the case of your discussion of "squaw" in Sign of the Beaver, much can go wrong when inauthentic texts attempt to appropriate Native languages. I'm wondering if there has been a discussion about the incorporation of Native languages and where books that do so often succeed or fail in their authenticity. What should be looked for when Native languages are found in children's books?

Debbie Reese said...


There are interesting discussions about language. One is the use of italics. In most children's/YA books, you're likely to see italics used to distinguish words in another language. That practice marks the words as other, and marks words in English as the norm. Daniel Jose Older's video on the use of italics makes a very good case on what that feels like:

I agree with him and am advocating for the end of italics used in that way. It is an interesting and unevenly applied practice. There are a lot of Native words and place names that are used all the time, and they don't get marked with italics.

You end with a 'what to look for' question. I look for knowledge of the writer. With the Hopi books, the author and illustrator are Hopi and there are videos of the writer using Hopi. She's fluent in it and has a long-term project by which she teaches it. Beyond that, the language/words used ought to match the tribe the story is about unless there's contextualized reason for using a different one. If, for example, I wrote a story about going to Minnesota to visit Ojibwe friends there and used "boozhoo" to greet them, I'd make sure that readers knew that my character (who would be from Nambe Pueblo where we speak Tewa) was using an Ojibwe word to greet my Ojibwe friends.

Sam Jonson said...

"Unevenly applied"...Yeah. As opposed to Japanese katakana, which are used for EVERY word that isn't from Chinese or Old Japanese, such as アーク (āku), from English "arc". That particular word is a word used fairly often in Japanese, much more often than Spanish "burrito" is even italicized(!) in English texts, even though Americans eat them a lot.