See the word "legend" in the title? The word "legend" is often used to describe Native stories. It is one of those catch-all words that should be used in a universal way (applied to all peoples stories) but isn't.
Let's pause here. I'd like you to think about all the Bible legends you've read in the children's picture book format. Can't think of one? You're not alone. Most of the stories from the bible are not treated as "legends."
If you look up the definition of legend, you'll find the word is used to describe an old story. You're not likely to find "sacred" as part of that definition. Bible stories are old, but they don't get categorized as legends because they're sacred to the people who tell them.
Native stories are as sacred to Native people as Christian stories are to Christians. I view the selective use of "legend" as the outcome of a long history of Christians putting Native people forward as "other" to Christianity, with Christianity as THE religion that matters. Those "other" religions aren't religions at all in that Christian point of view. Instead, they're less-than, primitive, superstitious, quaint... You get the point.
So--when I see "legend" used to describe a Native story, I wonder if the person telling that story (or retelling it) is aware of the bias that drives that person to use the word "legend."
Who is this "legend" supposed to be about? Who tells it? The front cover doesn't tell us. Neither does the back cover. On the copyright page, we read this summary:
"Vain Beaver is inordinately proud of his silky tail, to the point where he alienates his fellow woodland creatures with his boasting. When it is flattened in an accident (of his own making), he learns to value its new shape and seeks to make amends with his friends. Based on an Ojibwe legend." --Provided by publisher.Let's consider that last line: "Based on an Ojibwe legend." A lot of those "based on" books for children--the ones about Native people--draw from more than one Native nation's stories. A good example are the ones by Paul Owen Lewis. He used stories from more than one nation to come up with Frog Girl and Storm Boy. On his website, you can read that
"Storm Boy follows the rich mythic traditions of the Haida, Tlingit, and other Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast..."Those are distinct nations with their own stories. If you look at his books, they look like they are Native stories, but are they? If they combine aspects of more than one tribal nation? My answer: No. Let's look just at two that Lewis listed: the Haida and the Tlingit. In the US (in Alaska) there is the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes. At their website, you read that they're "two separate and distinct people" and there's also the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe (their direct website is down), also in Alaska. And in Canada, there's the Haida Nation.
The difference in the books Lewis does and Shaw's story is that he names several nations and she names one (Ojibwe). Does that make a difference? Maybe... let's keep on with this evaluation process.
Who is Stephanie Shaw? Is she Native? With the "as told by" on the cover, do we have a story being told by a tribal member? At her website, I see that she lives in Oregon, but there is no mention of any Native heritage or working with Native populations or attending Native events... Nothing. None of her other books are about Native people. I assume then, that she is not Native. I wonder what prompted her to do this book?
As some of you know, I do not insist that a writer be Native in order to write Native stories. As I discussed elsewhere, I prefer Native writers, but I also think that a person who is not Native can write a Native story, and do it well--if they are careful with their research. Wondering about Shaw's research leads to my fourth comment.
What does Shaw say about her sources? Have you read Betsy Hearne's article, Cite the Source, Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, published in School Library Journal in 1993? An excellent article, it was a call for better source notes. It includes a "source note countdown" that can help reviewers evaluate a source note. The worst kind of note is nonexistent. It is #5 in Hearne's countdown. The best kind is #1, "the model source note."
So... let's look at the notes in Shaw's book.
There is a page in the back of the book titled "The Ojibwe People and Legends." Beneath it is a bibliography. Let's start with the note about Ojibwe people. The first paragraph tells us about various spellings of Ojibwe. The second paragraph is this:
Legends are an important part of Ojibwe culture. They are stories passed from one generation to the next, usually through oral storytelling. They are sometimes meant just for fun and entertainment. Other times they are used to teach a lesson about behavior. In a legend such as The Legend of the Beaver's Tail, we learn about how pride and boastful behavior can drive friends away. We also learn how sharing among friends can build a community.It starts with that word (legend). I've already said a lot about it, but I invite you to read that paragraph, with Christianity in mind. Some of what we read in the Bible are stories about behavior. Can you think of a picture book that presents one of those stories as a legend?
Now let's look at the bibliography.
It consists of eleven items. Seven of them are about beavers. I assume Shaw and perhaps her illustrator, Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, used those items for information about beavers. The other four (two books and two websites), I assume, are sources for what she provides about Ojibwe people. Let's take a look.
She lists Joseph Bruchac and Michael J. Caduto's Native American Stories published in 1991 by Fulcrum. It doesn't have an Ojibwe story about beaver. Shaw also lists Michael G. Johnson and Richard Hook's Encyclopedia of Native Tribes of North America published in 2007 by Firefly Books. I don't know that book, but from what I can see, it doesn't have a story about beaver in it.
Maybe the bibliography isn't one that Shaw developed. Maybe that page was put together by someone at the publishing house. Either way, it is troubling to see what gets listed in a book, as information to pass along to children.
Applying Hearne's countdown, I think Shaw's notes are at the not-good end of the scale:
4. The background-as-source-note. Better than nothing but still close to useless, this note gives some general information on the culture from which a picture-book folktale is drawn. It's important to know about traditions, but that's a background note, not a source note. In some ways, it's worse than no note at all because it's deceptive. It looks like a source note, so we let it slide by. Some notes (variation 4A) even manage to tell the history of a tale but avoid citing the book or books from which the tale was adapted. Others (variation 4B) declare that the picture-book author heard many stories from his/her grandmother/grandfather, but beg the question of where he/she heard/read this particular story. Implication is a sneaky and highly suspicious maneuver. Source notes, once and for all, tell sources. How can we know what's been adapted without being able to track down the author/artist's source?
I imagine you're wondering, "well, what about the story itself?" The answer? It doesn't matter. Shaw may have told what some think is a terrific story, but without the information to support that story, it doesn't matter. It is introducing or affirming the chaos Hearne wrote about in her article.
Conclusion: Not recommended
If you care about providing young people with authentic or accurate stories about Native people, this one won't work. We're told it is an Ojibwe story but have nothing to support that claim and what we are given instead of a good source, is some highly questionable websites. In conclusion: Stephanie Shaw's The Legend of the Beaver's Tail is not recommended.