Tuesday, June 28, 2016

First thoughts on a picture book about boarding schools

Hi! This is my first blog post as an editor of AICL. I'm happy to be here. -- Jean

Debbie and I are working on a book chapter, and my focus has been picture books on the Indian boarding schools. That’s taken me back to the first such book I encountered – Homer Little Bird’s Rabbit by Limana Kachel. I came across it in the Native American Educational Services (NAES) College bookstore in Chicago in the late 1980s, and was immediately charmed.

The production values were not high, which was part of its appeal, for me. It was published by the Montana Council for Indian Education in 1983 (according to WorldCat; there is apparently no date on the book itself). It may not have been meant for distribution beyond the Montana state border. Its highly “individual” black line illustrations are by Northern Cheyenne children from the Lame Deer School and Labre Indian School! The writing is straightforward and engaging – comfortable to read aloud, and with an occasional dash of humor. And it shows a lot of insight into the minds of young children. It felt genuine. It still does.

The book tells the story of 6-year-old Homer, a Cheyenne boy who must leave his beloved grandfather and, for reasons he doesn’t understand, go live at a school far away. On his first night there he cries inconsolably and a kind teacher named Miss Ring allows him to choose a stuffed animal as a comfort object. He picks a large pink rabbit, which he calls Rabbit. Soon Homer learns to use the playground slide and makes friends with Joe, another Cheyenne-speaking boy. When Homer takes Rabbit home for the summer, he is soon immersed in the things he loves to do there and forgets to keep track of his “friend,” who ends up in pieces under the porch. Homer feels terrible, but Grandfather saves the day. He uses the remnants of Rabbit as a pattern, cuts and stitches pieces of buckskin together, and adds a face.  Rabbit is ready in time to go back to school with Homer, better than ever. At school he becomes famous and is known as The Cheyenne Rabbit.

If other picture books about the boarding schools existed when my children were young (1970’s-1980s), we weren’t aware of them. My husband’s mother had been sent to a boarding school in Oklahoma at age 7. The experience was not positive. It was important to our family to find a book that could reflect at least part of that family story.

Homer Little Bird’s Rabbit contains none of the harsh punishment, abuse, food deprivation, and other horrors that so many boarding school survivors have recounted. In fact, Homer has an adult ally (Miss Ring) and is permitted to have a stuffed animal. He also has time to play, and enjoys friendships with other Cheyenne children. When he and Joe speak Cheyenne, they are not punished.

Even so, the story has the capacity to shock young listeners –at least, the ones I knew back then. When I read it aloud with my preschool-age sons and with a class of 5-year-olds, the children were aghast that a child could be forced to leave home and actually live at a school far away where he knew no one. These were white and interracial children with some degree of class privilege, who were already having anxiety about starting kindergarten and could not imagine having to go to school “away.” They understood Homer’s sorrow and fear, his glee when going down the slide, his joy when he reunited with his grandfather for the summer. They laughed when Rabbit got flatter and flatter each time he was laundered. They marveled at how Grandfather created a new and improved Rabbit. But it was hard for them to get their heads around the idea of being forced to go live at school.

My sons understood it a little, partly because boarding school experience was part of their family story. They were also somewhat prepared for the next step in understanding, which was that often those schools were not good places for little kids.

I like getting reacquainted with Homer. The book is psychologically on target with regard to childhood resilience. What helps Homer to ultimately thrive at school, while continuing to love and respect his grandfather and enjoy his home? Miss Ring, who understands the power of a transitional object (Rabbit); his Grandfather, who loves him unconditionally and who functions as touchstone; a friend (Joe) who literally speaks his language and shows him some of “the ropes”. Being able to maintain his Cheyenne identity at school without having to fight for it or go underground is also an important factor.

I’m also looking at 3 other books, two of which are by Native writers. And I’ve thought a lot about what a boarding school picture book “should be”. How much should it tell/show young children? What will be believable to your young audience (and who is in that audience?), and what will be overwhelming or over their heads? Homer Little Bird’s Rabbit is a story of childhood resilience, but not resistance. Homer’s school is a relatively benign place. He is overwhelmed at first, but not humiliated, starved, abused, or exploited while there. Resilience is important. Essential. But for many boarding school residents, so was resistance. Those 3 other books I mentioned are "about" resistance as a factor in resilience that subverts oppression.

Do you, AICL readers, have some knowledge of Homer Little Bird’s Rabbit, or of its author Limana Kachel, or of the Council on Indian Education? Do you have a copy of the book? Mine has vanished – let’s hope it turns up now that I’m retired and can devote time to cleaning out my home office. Fortunately, Debbie was able to locate a colleague who scanned the book for us! Thanks!! If you’ve shared the book with kids, what was the response? What are your thoughts about it?


Kate B. said...

By sheer coincidence, I happened to be looking at CHARLIE YOUNG BEAR today, which is a book from a Council for Indian Education series from the early '90s, published by Roberts Rinehart. I'm not sure whether it's the same Council as Homer's story, but I'll share the information I have just in case it's helpful:

I don't see Charlie online, but similar information about the Council for Indian Education and the book series appears on page 9 of REMEMBER MY NAME, which is in the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/ERIC_ED377993 . There are four additional Council members listed in CHARLIE YOUNG BEAR: Jerry Cox, Crow; Sharon ManyBeads Bowers, Assiniboine-Haida; Julia Minoz Bradford, Hispanic-Lakota; and Willis Buznitz, White River Cheyenne Church. (My book also lists "Juanita Sloss, Blackfeet" in place of Juanita Jackson--not sure if these are the same person.)

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post. I worry about when to tell my son, now 12 months old, about the horrors of this country as well as about the Holocaust. I know I knew by 3rd grade, but I don't remember when I learned. I was wondering if you or Debbie have any advice. I don't want to terrorize my son, but neither do I want him to grow up ignorant (I realize it's a privilege that I can insulate him for a given period of time).


Jean Mendoza said...

Kate B., Thanks for this response. I have seen a couple of the books in the series you're talking about, but don't know right now if the "Council for Indian Education" is the same for both Homer Little Bird's Rabbit and the books you mention.

One other book that my sons seemed to like a lot was NORTHERN CHEYENNE FIREFIGHTERS by Henry Tall Bull and Tom Weist, which was in the same set of books as Homer Little Bird's Rabbit. WorldCat lists it as being in 6 libraries, but none in Illinois where I live. I think that's a shame -- that was a good adventure book, especially for kids who are interested in firefighters.

Jean Mendoza said...

That is a really important question: when to tell your kids, or any kids, about significant matters of history that are complex and terribly painful, such as genocide. Would it be all right if Debbie and I take a while to get back to you on it? We may never have a definitive answer but it deserves more attention than we have for it this week!

Unknown said...

Of course it would be all right! I am grateful to you and Debbie for considering answering at all--I know it's not your job to sort this out for me. Thank you so much. I definitely appreciate your expertise and thoughtfulness.


Unknown said...

In case it is of interest to anyone, I asked my mom what she did with me. She said she started by getting me picture books about people like Harriet Tubman and Osceola, so that I began by being aware of brave people who fought against injustice and genocide. I will remember that as my son gets older.