Friday, December 21, 2018

William Flood and Nancy Bo Flood: A History

On Dec 19th, I recommended the wonderful illustrations that Jonathan Nelson did for First Laugh: Welcome, Baby! and briefly noted my concerns with Nancy Bo Flood (she is listed as the second author of that book). This post is a follow up to that review.

At this point (2018) I have a ten-year history with Nancy Bo Flood and her husband, Dr. William Flood. Some people are aware of this history. Some will be upset that I've written it up here because to them it will feel mean-spirited and unkind. I hope that you can set aside your emotional attachments to Flood and other White writers and see my history with them from an Indigenous point of view that is embedded within a much longer history of interactions between White and Indigenous people.

The history of White people taking from Native people is hundreds of years long. Most of you know about that, and some of you think it is horrible. Some of you go down that "to the victor go the spoils" way of thinking. Those "spoils" include Native stories. There are a great many non-Native people who made and make careers by using something that belongs to Native people.

The history of White people taking from Native people is also filled with White people befriending Native people out of a genuine sense of caring--about our souls. I'm talking here about missionaries who go (yes, it still happens) onto reservations and into Native communities with the goal of converting us to their particular religion.

And, the history of White people taking from Native people is also filled with White people who befriend us because they have found themselves living in or near our communities.

Of that latter group, I wish they could form those friendships without saying "look at me and my Native friend." Or, "look at the good I do for my Native friends!" Or, "I worked with them and they asked me to write this story about them." Or, "I taught their kids and I learned from them and so, I am able to write books about them that you should buy because I know what I'm talking about." Or, "Look! My book has a note inside from my Native friend or colleague. You can trust what you read in my book."

They mean well. But, I wish they could see past their good intentions. What they're doing is exploitation. Ultimately what they are doing is the same as those who take without care. And all those who help get their books published, you are complicit in the taking and exploitation. You can rationalize it any way you want to, but ultimately, you're complicit.

I know--that sounds harsh. I know plenty of people will read this and think I should just be quiet or that I am wrong. You'll find examples to counter what I'm saying here. There are always exceptions but my larger concern is that we should all ask why someone feels the need to justify their tellings of Native story by pointing to their work with Native peoples. Anybody can do good work without using our faces and our names to justify your work. Can't you just do good without holding us up as evidence of your good work?


In 2007 or 2008 I received an email asking if I was interested in serving on the Advisory Board for a new initiative within Reach Out and Read. It was to be the American Indian/Alaska Native Reach Out and Read project (ROR AI/AN). I don't have that email or ones through 2009 because I changed computers and email providers and am not able to retrieve them. I do have ones from 2010 through 2014.

The two doctors who were starting the American Indian/Alaska Native initiative of Reach Out and Read were Dr. William Flood and Dr. Steve Holve. By the time they had written to me, I had already had a lot of experience with well-intentioned people who did not see the problems in children's books that I was seeing.

I had a long phone conversation with Dr. Flood or Dr. Holve. I remember it clearly. I remember where I was standing (just outside my mom and dad's home at Nambé; I was visiting them when the call came through) as we talked. I remember telling them that I had strong points of view on the ways that Native people were depicted in children's books, who wrote them, etc.

Whichever doctor it was, they assured me that the sort of expertise I'd bring to that project was precisely why they had contacted me. With that assurance, I said yes, enthusiastically. I was excited, thinking about how we would get books by Native writers into the Indian Health Service clinics.

The doctors had invited another individual with history and expertise in Native writing/books to serve on the board. Things looked good!

But then...

We learned that the doctors had done some work on a video they wanted to play on the televisions in the waiting rooms. We were asked to provide input on the video.

In it, a Native woman was shown reading and recommending a book written and illustrated by a non-Native writer. Though I don't have an email that confirms my memory, I think the book was one of those written and illustrated by Paul Owen Lewis. It could have been Frog Girl or Storm Boy. Lewis says similar things about each one. Looking at the covers, you'd likely conclude that these are Native American stories.

They aren't.

Paul Owen Lewis is not Native. In the author's note, he tells us that Frog Girl is "an original creation" that is "carefully composed entirely of Native story elements in both its narrative and its art." He also says it is an adventure story that reflects Joseph Campbell's "three rites of passage" in which
"... a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. In no place is this universal theme more powerfully represented than in the rich oral traditions and bold graphic art of the Haida, Tlingit, and other Native peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America."
The other individual and I expressed our concerns with it and books like it. Our concerns were met with resistance. Anybody could write what they wanted to, we were told. That's true, of course, but that wasn't the point. Instead of problematic books like Frog Girl, we argued, why couldn't the project select and promote books by Native writers? We were getting nowhere. That second person resigned from the board. I don't recall what happened after that and don't have emails to help me reconstruct what happened.

Then, on July 16, 2010, I received an email with the subject line "Welcome to Reach Out and Read for AI/AN sites." It gave us several updates, including one that indicated the video project was still being worked on. I asked for an update about the concerns that we'd discussed previously.

Dr. Flood replied that ROR AI/AN had discussed them at a meeting and that those present had determined that the project goal was to encourage parents to read to their children, and that it "is not our goal to tell parents what to read, or what not to read. That would be a form of censorship and that is not our role."

As you might imagine, I was frustrated.

The entire reason I and the other individual were asked to be on the board was to bring our expertise on selecting books to the project so it could provide children with books that were accurate, respectful, and ideally, written by Native writers. Our objection to Lewis was being characterized as censorship.

I'd had similar conversations elsewhere, on listservs of writers, editors, librarians, professors, and reviewers who work specifically in children's literature. Whenever I or anyone talks about the importance of insider perspective (what is referred to, today, as #OwnVoices), someone invariably raises the accusation of censorship.

Somewhere in all those listserv conversations, I had become familiar with a person named Nancy Bo Flood. I had been to her website, which has photographs of her on it. In those children's literature conversations, she had been saying things that were similar to what Dr. Flood had said.

Then one day I realized that the emails I was getting from Dr. Flood and the ones I was getting from Nancy Bo Flood were from the same account! Below is a screen cap of the top of an email I got from Dr. Flood. The photo is of Nancy but the name on the email is her husband (I blocked out part of his email address):

In my mind, several threads started to come together. I remembered that she said somewhere that she was teaching Native students in Flagstaff. She had also said that her husband was a doctor in that area.

I wondered what all (children's books) she had written.

I did a search at Amazon and saw that, together, Nancy and William had published Pacific Island Legends: Tales from Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Australia in 1991 from Bess Press which is "retellings of their [people of the Pacific] traditional legends" (p. xiii). Without a doubt, the Floods and the third author, Beret E. Strong, felt they were doing a good thing with this book. In the preface, they wrote (page vii):
"Legends that were once part of an oral tradition become available to readers throughout the world. They cross oceans, continents, even generations. These legends speak a universal language. People everywhere and throughout history wonder about the questions found in these stories: How was the world created? Why do we have both good and evil? Why do families fight? What is the meaning of life and death?"
Clearly they understand the significance of the stories to the people the stories belong to, but their appraisal--that the stories speak a universal language--erases the distinct aspects of those people. Finding that book, I understood why Dr. Flood was so resistant to our concerns about Frog Girl. He had, in short, a conflict of interest.

The Flood's aren't alone in appropriation of Indigenous stories, and they certainly are not the first White people to do it and to think well of themselves for doing it. The historical record is full of White people doing that sort of thing and people are doing it today. Take a look, for example, at For Your Consideration: Part 2 at Indigo's Bookshelf: Voices of Native Youth and their critique of Rosanne Parry.

Today many people are growing in their understandings of appropriation. Today, items taken from tribal nations are being returned.

Stories don't have the legal protections that artifacts do but increasingly, tribal nations are writing protocols and policies that ask outsiders not to use their stories. Those documents don't have a section that says "if you have a good friend who is of our nation (or if you taught our kids, or lived near or in our community), go ahead with what you want to do." Those documents are being written because appropriation keeps on going. It started hundreds of years ago and continues, today. And--it is harmful to the well-being of tribal nations.

In 2017, the USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People) selected Nancy Bo Flood to sit on a panel titled "Indigenous Experience in Children's Literature." I objected. So did Naomi Bishop. And Naomi Caldwell. And Christy Jordan-Fenton. Our objections are available on a round up post I did about them. Eventually, USBBY announced she would not be on that panel.

From what I read, she had been asked to be on it because people (like me) had objected to her appropriations and USBBY felt that she could speak to concerns of outsiders writing Native stories. My guess is she would cite Native friends who she's asked for help with her books. In other words, she'd use those friendships to justify her appropriations.

-----Editing on Saturday, Dec 22, 2018, in response to Therese Bigelow's comment on Facebook, suggesting that I use Ed Sullivan's response to my query regarding how Flood came to be on the Indigenous Experience panel. He said:

I invited Nancy Bo Flood long after the other panelists were invited. She was already registered for the conference and presenting a breakout session on another topic, so I asked her if she would be willing to participate. Since cultural appropriation will be a topic of discussion for the panel, having someone who has been criticized for that can offer an interesting perspective to the conversation. When I invited Nancy, she stressed she was not Native American, and I am sure she will be quite clear about that on the panel when she speaks, too. I hope that answers your questions.

-----End of addition on Dec 22, 2018-----

Her writings and the objections are what got her onto that USBBY panel. In essence, she was going to gain even more visibility from an international organization. That's great for her career as a writer. What was she going to say? Was she going to use her friendships to assure people that it was ok to do what she did? If yes, she would be giving other White writers a how-to guide for appropriating Native stories.

But--does that sound like genuine care for us?

To me, obviously, it does not. Ultimately, what she's doing is no different from that group that claims "to the victors go the spoils." It might feel different, but it really isn't.

First Laugh did not need Nancy's name on it, did it?  That her name is on the cover is troubling. It doesn't have to be there. The only person who is served by it being there is Nancy. Ultimately, she's gaining from her name being there, from her work with Rose Ann Tahe.

I've got more to say but am hitting the 'publish' button this blog post because I promised someone I'd do it as soon as possible. I may be back to say more, later. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts. If there are things I've said that are unclear, let me know. This has been a very hard post to write. It also occurred to me that, perhaps, Nancy Bo Flood was going to use her time on the USBBY panel to say she wasn't going to keep on, as she had been, but First Laugh tells us otherwise. Again, I welcome your thoughts.

Previous posts about Flood:


Ava Jarvis said...

One of the amazing things about Whiteness is how white people can be completely convinced, against the face of large amounts of evidence, that they are ultimately the best suited to talk about things they don't know about. Especially if those things include non-white experiences. The world has reinforced for white people, from birth, that the only experts on matters worth listening to are white, because that's who they see speaking nearly all of the time.

White people who use their relationships with Native folks to bolster their own work, rather than raising the work of their Native friends/colleagues/peers, do it because it can be seen as a sure-fire way to gain capital---not just money and influence, but also social capital. They can, and do, doctor those desires in multiple ways to claim it's just generosity on their part rather than self-interest, especially to themselves.

What's ironically damning about the publishing industry is how often white author stories with heavy stereotyping or just wrong/bigoted notions are published, while most #ownvoices stories are rejected, heavily edited, or not promoted because they don't fulfill what white editors envision our lives to be. "Your characters aren't Native enough, I watched Dances with Wolves and I know how Native people act." Which is, of course, another aspect of Only White People Can Tell All The Stories.

Thank you, Debbie, for sharing this information with us.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Debbie, thank you for this.

What strikes me most is the disparity between words and deeds on the part of the Floods. Asking you to be part of the project, telling you that your opinions were precisely the reason they wanted you--so ingenuous. They didn't want your scholarship, the expertise you've gained from lived experiences, or your informed opinions. What they wanted was for you (and the other individual) to function as a stamp of approval for them. The root of everything was and is self-serving.

White people, I'm talking to us now: Our ability to orchestrate and arrange the situation so that it's in fact self-serving but allows us to TELL ourselves it's good, unselfish, work for others, is truly astounding. I am as guilty here as anyone. We have to work on this.

Anonymous said...

Can you clarify the difference between appropriation and historical accuracy? Is it appropriation if a writer writes a historical fiction and includes a native nation because the setting and characters would have been in or near a native nation?

Unknown said...

Thanks for this essay laying out the history, Debbie. It can't have been easy to go back and remind yourself of all this disrespect.


Sam Jonson said...

"The history of White people taking from Native people is hundreds of years long. Most of you know about that, and some of you think it is horrible. Some of you go down that 'to the victor go the spoils' way of thinking. Those 'spoils' include Native stories. There are a great many non-Native people who made and make careers by using something that belongs to Native people."

Yes, indeed. Spoils of war.
To anyone who might be ignorant about these "spoils":
Other kinds of "spoils" taken from Amerindians include: identity and culture (Playing Indian, anyone?), real estate, virgins (yes, you read that right--virgins, as in "Indian maidens" and "virgin lands"; furthermore, it was begun in the Bible--I found that out from Valerie Tarico), and, of course, futures.
In fact, I think the White Man's idea of Reciprocity can be summed up as "THEY assimilate<-->WE appropriate!" How terrible.

Anonymous said...

Native nations, as you often say, Debbie, are sovereign. They may make their own laws, and are not always subject to American law. This is why the Navajo and Seminole nations, may legally choose not to perform and recognize same-sex marriage despite the United States Supreme Court ruling mandating its adoption in all 50 states. The answer for cases like that of the Floods is not "protocols and policies" to protect stories, but actual each Native nation enacting criminal or civil laws that subject writers to lawsuits in tribal court, indictment, extradition, and prosecution if these use those stories (or depiction of a Native nation's artifacts). Few writers are ready to turn themselves into a American federal case by running afoul of e.g. a Nambé law or laws on appropriation. It would be an effective deterrent.

Sam Jonson said...

Speaking of know what would make a GREAT antagonist in a book (children's or otherwise)? Some über-racist white Christian writer who sincerely believes that letting enough Amerindian authors tell their own stories is a Satanic Thing, like "enabling the homosexual agenda", that will bring about Jehovah's (or Satan's) wrath, and that only White people should ever write books about Amerindians, lest Amerindians "revert to their traditional ways" of scalping and human sacrifice. That would make the white savior mentality out to be transparently racist. Of course, such a paranoid racist should probably also (wrongly) believe that "appropriation" means "the act of making something appropriate for kids", like bleeping out profanity on TV.

Emily Bond said...

Hi there,
I am deeply grateful and humbled by your blog. I am ashamed to say, as a white woman, that I did not realize the full breadth of the white people’s disrespect. I stumbled on your site in search of children’s books for my daughter. I am trying to fill our shelves with books on all cultures and peoples, because that’s how it should be.
Anyways, I am so glad I read this post. It’s truly opened my eyes and I am grateful. So thank you and please keep educating! I will also!
Emily Bond

Elizabeth Herr said...

Thanks for this post. I found it when I was trying to figure out why Nancy Bo Flood's name was on First Laugh: Welcome Baby. Now I know. The book is beautiful. I will stop reading her name when I read the book aloud, but obviously that's pretty meaningless. And I can't say I wish I hadn't bought it, since I am pleased to support Tahe (well, her memory and her family) and Nelson.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how helpful these smart and wise stories of contemporary indigenous life are for my kids and for me as we attempt to resist the dominant culture of accumulation and exploitation and distraction that reigns over North America (and which is also constantly exported all over the globe.) And I wonder if - and I guess hope that - these stories are some powerful assistance for indigenous kids and their parents and grandparents, who have been bombarded with imported stories and their (sorry) crappy, colonizing, values. And I have been thinking about how pathetic it is when "helper" whites seek to REASSURE native people that what they are doing is fine. I just wish white "helpers" could get the habit of saying "oh! how should it be done? We're here to assist, not to direct, lead, or drive. Here's our influence and our money. Tell us how to use it."

To that end, I have more enthusiasm than power or money, but I thank you for the recommendations on this blog - I will shop from your recommendations. I had somehow missed the Sherman Alexie news, and of course I am crushed without being the least bit surprised. Thanks for doing this work. I will continue to read and learn here.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Emily and Elizabeth. I (Debbie) appreciate your comments very much.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you very much for this post. I am Pacific Islander and stumbled across your website (and your other posts about Bo Flood's work) after my purchase request to my local library was denied. I requested that my local library purchase a book of my culture's traditional stories that was recently written by an author from our culture. The library told me that they would not purchase the book, but I saw that they have Bo Flood's book of "Pacific Island Legends" in the collection. I wanted to know if anyone else found her appropriation of other cultures' stories problematic, which is how I came here. Thank-you for your words and I'm so glad I found your website.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this.... I have found your reviews very helpful as a white mom who is trying not to add to the problem of taking away people's own voices. Maybe I'm reading this too late at night and not completely processing, but can you help me understand why her name is even on the book? Why is she a "co-author" at all/why is there a need for her to be listed at all? I don't understand, either, in general, why her voice would be needed for this story, or if indeed she was somehow asked to be a part of it, why she wouldn't see her role more as an encourager or editor or something rather than a co-author. Like I said, probably shouldn't post this at 2 am while on my way to bed and thus probably sounding ignorant....

But in any case, I appreciate your words. There have been several books I've passed on bc of your reviews. Thanks!