Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Debbie--have you seen... Carol Trembath's WATER WALKERS

A couple of weeks ago, a reader wrote to ask me about Carol Trembath's Water Walkers. Published in 2015 by Lakeside Publishing (I can't find any information on that publisher), the book makes me uneasy. I haven't read it and don't know if I will get it, but here's my thoughts based on what I have seen online.

The synopsis (from Amazon):
Water Walkers is the story of a Native American girl named Mai.  Her family members are walking around Lake Superior to raise awareness about the damage being done to the Great Lakes.  At first, Mai is told she is too little to go, but grandmother says, “Even little people can do big things.”  As Mai walks along the lakeside, she tries to find ways she can help.  Will the secret messages from the animals of the Peace Shield help her learn more about how to help Mother Earth?  How can Mai prove that she can become a good water walker?
Water Walkers is a tribute to the many Native American women and men who have dedicated themselves to walking miles around each of the Great Lakes to draw attention to the condition of our water and responsible usage.

My hunch? Trembath means well. The synopsis indicates the book is a tribute to Native people, but so many of these kinds of projects are shaped by an author's romantic embrace of Native people that shape the content of the project in ways that actually work against children gaining accurate information about Native people.

On her Facebook page, Trembath shares these words, which she says were written to her by Josephine Mandamin, a member and founder of Mother Earth Water Walkers:

“I have had misgivings about what you are doing. Many offerings have been made for an answer to my misgivings. In our culture we tell oral teachings or draw. In your culture, it is different. To that I give my respect. I have pondered on the reason why you are doing this. I pondered about ego, money, fame. What is it she wants, I asked? Finally, the response came:
‘It is for the Water. Simple—for the water.’
“I give my blessings for the water. Now I can rest easy.”

Clearly, Trembath sees that as an endorsement for her book, but Mandamin did not say "I give my blessing to your book." I interpret her blessing as one that she hopes will inspire people who read the book to think about the water and what water means to all of us. I urge writers to listen carefully to what Native people say to them.

Trembath's book is not listed anywhere on the Mother Earth Water Walkers pages as a resource, and I can't find anything at all like a "Peace Shield" there either.  On her website, Trembath says a bit more about the shield:
On the journey, she [Mai] meets the four animals of the Native American Peace Shield and finds ways to help the water.
She uses the generic "Native American" to describe an item that is significant to her story, but, my hunch is that the shield itself is something she made up. I wonder if the book specifies a tribal nation for Mai? If it does, then perhaps I can find a peace shield from that nation's pages.

At the end of the book, there's a couple of pages of activities. One of them is called "Literary Connections." It asks readers to read Brother Eagle Sister Sky and compare it with Trembath's book. To me, that is another indicator that Trembath has very little understanding of how to approach this project. Brother Eagle Sister Sky has been soundly criticized many times.

If I get a copy of the book, I'll be back with a review.

Update: January 14, 2016

A colleague sent me some information from her copy of the book:

The "Native American Peace Shield" is mentioned in author pages that precede the story. As I suspected, the "Native American Peace Shield" is not specific to a tribal nation. I'm finding it online, connected to a person who goes by the name of "Rainbow Eagle" who says he is "Okla-Choctaw" (which is an odd way to identify, if you are Choctaw) and a "Wisdom Keeper." Looking over his site, I think he (like Trembath) means well but what he does is best characterized as New Age, which I view as appropriation and misleading with respect to what people can learn about Native people.

In her note, the author says that the animals of the story "represent the four directions of the Native American Peace Shield: eagle, deer, bear and hare." These are the four animals on "Rainbow Eagle's" shield. He--and I assume Trembath (informed by him or his writings)--suggest that these animals mean the same thing to all the Native nations. That's not the case. It is similar to someone using papoose as the word for baby. We have hundreds of languages, which means there are hundreds of words for baby!

As noted above, the main character's name is Mai. The author says that her name means coyote. I assume she means it is a specific word from a specific Native language, but which one? She doesn't say. Being from the southwest and familiar with Native peoples of the southwest, that bit of information suggests it may be Navajo. The Navajo word for coyote is Ma'ii. Trembath says that coyote is a teacher. Most often he is called a trickster, and is male, not female.

Though I haven't read the book yet, the information I have is sufficient for me to say that I do not recommend Carol Trembath's book, and, I'm wary of what she'll do in her next book. She is working on another one about Mai.

No comments: