Saturday, March 03, 2018

Some thoughts on a big word: MYTH

This post is one that is in-process. A colleague asked me for some resources on the word myth. She's going to be doing a workshop with teachers. At the 4th grade level, teachers are required to do a unit on "Native American Myths." These are some of my initial thoughts on that word and how I approach thinking about it. You're on this exploration, with me, as I do the work. Come back for more. There will be more!


What does it mean? What does it mean to you? What does it mean in literature? What stories do we call myth? Is the word used to describe similar stories of all peoples? How do we start to answer these stories?

To start thinking about these questions, some people will go right to a dictionary. Let's do that now.

According to the English Oxford Living Dictionary, the origin of the word myth is "Mid 19th century: from modern Latin mythus, via late Latin and Greek muthos.

1. A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events, like "ancient Celtic myths" or "the heroes of Greek myth".

Synonyms are "folk tale, story, folk story, legend, tale, fable, saga, allegory, parable, tradition, lore, folklore".

2. A widely held but false belief or idea, like "the belief that evening primrose oil helps to cure eczema is a myth, according to dermatologists".
2.1. A misrepresentation of the truth, like "attacking the party's irresponsible myths about privatization"
2.2. A fictitious or imagery person or thing. like "nobody has ever heard of Simon's mysterious friend--Anna said he was a myth".
2.3. An exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing, like "the book is a scholarly study of the Churchill myth". 
Looking over that information, we see "Celtic myths" and "Greek myth" and a set of synonyms. The Celts, according to the Oxford dictionary, were
... a member of a group of peoples inhabiting much of Europe and Asia Minor in pre-Roman times. Their culture developed in the late Bronze Age around the upper Danube, and reached its height in the La Tene culture (5th to 1st centuries BC) before being overrun by the Romans and various Germanic peoples.
A native of any of the modern nations or regions in which Celtic languages are (or were until recently) spoken; a person of Irish, Highland Scottish, Manx, Welsh, or Cornish descent. 
Greek, according to the Oxford dictionary, is:
A native or inhabitant of modern Greece, or a person of Greek descent. 
A Greek-speaking person in the ancient world, especially a native of one of the city states of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. 
Thinking critically about who is named in these pages of the Oxford dictionary, and who is not, is important. We learn that the Celts had myths, and so do the Greeks. Of course, the dictionary can't be comprehensive. It can't name all the peoples who had or have myths.

Let's dive into cataloging and see how stories are categorized at WorldCat (which is "the world's largest network of library content and services).

In the Advanced Search option, I entered myth in the Keyword box, and limited the search to 2010-2018, Juvenile, Any Content (includes fiction, nonfiction, etc), Books (excludes videos, etc), and English. My search resulted in 3,191 books. The first page (shown in sets of ten) include the following titles:

  • Thea Stilton and the Missing Myth
  • Monsters: Myth or Fact
  • Dragons: Magic, Myth, and Mystery
  • How to Tell A Myth
  • Vampires: Magic, Myth, and Mystery
  • The Story of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor: A Roman Constellation Myth
  • Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of Native Americans
  • Bigfoot: Magic, Myth, and Mystery
  • The Warrior Twins: A Navajo Hero Myth
  • Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of Ancient Egypt
What did you notice as you read through the titles? Monsters, dragons, vampires... And, obviously, I noticed the two books about Indigenous peoples.

Here's the Big Question for all of us. The question has to do with who defines what counts as a myth, and what doesn't. What, in other words, is held sacred or considered to be a religious story, shelved and cataloged as such?

What is missing from those first ten titles is any books about Christianity.

If I take a look at the second ten books, will I find books from the bible, there, in that set? Take a look in your catalog. Repeat the search I did, in whatever database you use. What do you find? I'm happy to read your comments, if you want to share them.

Like I said, this is a post-in-progress. I'm hitting the pause button (I have other work to do) and uploading this post. I hope it doesn't have typos (but it probably will) or structural problems (but it will have them, too!). It is a draft. I'll be adding material from children's literature textbooks, and, material from Native scholars, too. A work in progress, that is paused at 8:45 AM Central Time on March 3, 2018.

Back, on Sunday March 4, 2018 at 10:15 AM or thereabouts...

I've got a copy of the 7th edition of Children's Literature in the Elementary School, published by McGraw Hill. It was revised by Barbara Z. Kiefer. The authors are Charlotte S. Huck, Susan Helpler, Janet Hickman, and Kiefer. Chapter six is about Traditional Literature. Here's the table of contents for that chapter:

  • A Perspective on Traditional Literature
  • Folktales
  • Fables
  • Myths
  • Epic & Legendary Heroes
  • The Bible as Literature

The Folktales section has "Native American Folktales." I assume you noticed that the Bible got its own section? It could have been put over in the Myths section, specifically in the subjection called "Creation Myths." But--it isn't. In the "Bible as Literature" section, the authors of the textbook write that:
We must clarify the difference between the practice of religious customs and indoctrination in one viewpoint and the study of the Bible as a great work of literature.
See the word "great" there, to characterize it? Do you think their use of "great" reflects bias? Re-read the sentence again, leaving out the word great. How does it feel to do that?

Now--let's look at some of the books (single stories, not collections) discussed in that section. Using WorldCat again, I looked up the first one discussed, Light, by Sarah Waldman. Its subject headings are:

  • Creation -- Biblical teaching -- Juvenile literature
  • Children's stories, American
  • Creation
  • Bible stories -- Testament
  • Children's writings
  • Creation -- Biblical teaching

The second one is Genesis by Ed Young. Its subject headings are:

  • Bible -- Genesis
  • Creation

The third one is The Seven Days of Creation by Leonard Everett Fisher. The subject headings are:

  • Creation -- Juvenile literature
  • Creation
  • Bible stories -- O.T.

None of the subject headings for those three books are folklore.

Now--let's flip back to the Folktales section of this textbook and look up the books listed there, in the Native American section. The first one is Paul Goble's The Gift of the Sacred Dog. It is imperative that I say right away that I (and others, too) have concerns with outsiders like Goble, telling/retelling/appropriating Native stories. They get a lot of things wrong. But let's look at the subject headings:
  • Indians of North America -- Great Plains -- Folklore
  • Children's literature
  • Horses -- Folklore
  • Indians of North America
  • Great Plains
See? Folklore. (I haven't analyzed Goble's book yet. I might very well find out that it is so inaccurate that--if anything--it ought to be categorized as White Man's Indian, or, fiction, or, fantasy... )

Well---I'm hitting the pause button for now (at 2:05 Central Time on March 4th, 2018). Gonna go outside and do some yard work. I'll be back!

And I'm back, at 3:12. I did enough yard work for the day... this project called me back inside! 

I've talked about this difference in cataloging in talks I've given in person and online, too. Because there's a cloud on Goble's work, I thought it'd be good to give you an example of a book written by Native people. The one I use to illustrate this bias against Native stories is Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story. Written by the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana, and illustrated by Sam Sandoval, it includes a note on one of the first pages, that says "In Beaver Steals Fire, fire is a gift from the Creator brought by the animal beings for human beings who are yet to come. Fire remains an important gift in our traditional ways of knowing and understanding." Lot of words there, all of which tell us that this is a sacred creation story. But, here are its subject headings in WorldCat:

  • Coyote (Legendary character) -- Legends
  • Kootenai Indians -- Folklore
  • Salish Indians -- Folklore
  • Coyote (Legendary character)
  • Kootenai Indians
  • Salish Indians 

See? Folklore again! (Insert angry emoticon face, and, hitting the pause button at 3:28.)


Notes from items written by Indigenous writers/scholars:

Younging, Gregory. (2018) Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples. Brush Education (in Canada). Take a look at this entry in chapter 6, which is about terminology:
These terms are often applied to Oral Traditions. This is offensive to Indigenous Peoples because the terms imply that Oral Traditions are insignificant, not based in reality, or not relevant. The term legends can also be constructed this way, although legends acceptable to Indigenous Peoples in the sense that Oral Traditions describe past events that are legendary. To avoid misunderstanding, it's best to use terms such as Oral Traditions or Traditional Stories. 

Silva, Noenoe K. (year) "Hawaiian Literature in Hawaiian" in The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, Oxford University Press, page 115:
Loss of our mother tongue accompanied the loss of nationhood. From 1896 on, all schooling in Hawaiʻi was conducted in English. All the generations that followed were much more knowledgeable about English language and literature than Hawaiian. Only those privileged enough to be educated in the language and literature, either at home with a elder or at the university, were familiar with our stories and poetry. Anthropologists, folklorists, and children’s book authors recast this literature as myth, legend, folklore, and children’s stories.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

An Open Letter About Sherman Alexie

Eds. Note: Beneath the letter are links with more info and quotes I am adding, with permission, from Joy Harjo, Janet McAdams, and Susan Power. I will add additional ones as they become public. If you are looking for other Native writers, see the Best Books link.  

February 25, 2018

Dear Readers of American Indians in Children's Literature,

Yesterday, I removed Sherman Alexie's photograph from AICL's gallery of Native writers and illustrators. Since then, I have begun going through the eleven years of AICL posts, making edits to any page that has referenced Alexie or his work.

Based on private conversations I have had, I can no longer let his work sit on AICL without noting that he has hurt other Native writers in overt and subtle ways, including abuse, threats, and humiliation.

I've been studying and writing about children's and young adult books about Native people since the 1990s. There's been so little growth in all those years. Learning of his actions tells me that rather than helping grow the numbers of Native writers who get published, he's undermined that growth.

He's also undermined Native writers and writing in this way: his books feed mainstream expectations.

Alexie's books don't give readers the depth of understanding that they need to know who we are, what our histories have been, what we face on a daily basis, and what gives us the strength to carry on. Far too many people adore him and think that they're hip to Native life because they read his books. If you're one of those people, please set his books aside. Read other Native writers. Don't inadvertently join him in hurting other Native writers.

I understand that several news outlets, including NPR and the New York Times, are working on news articles about him, but that the people who are speaking to the reporters are afraid. I don't know what these news articles will say, when they get published. When I see them, I will link to them, below this letter.

In the first few years of AICL, I promoted Alexie's work, but that tapered off as I saw how little he did to help other Native writers.

To all of you who he has hurt, I apologize. I have no doubt that every time you saw his name mentioned here, it added to the weight you already carry. I'm sorry.

Debbie Reese
Editor, American Indians in Children's Literature

Update at 4:36 on 2/25/18: I will not publish comments that defend Alexie or that attempt to cast doubt on those he has hurt.



In this timeline, articles specific to, or that reference, Alexie are in bold font. Others are provided for context in children's literature, and in Indigenous networks. If you see additional items I can add, please let me know in a comment (comments are open to those suggestions). This is a selectively curated list. The items listed are here because they each have something new or unique to offer.

October 10, 2017--Adrienne Keene published The Native Harvey Weinsteins at her blog, Native Appropriations. 

January 3, 2018--Drew Himmelstein at School Library Journal published Children's Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks. Several people submitted comments about Alexie.

February 7, 2018--Anne Ursu published the outcome of her survey: Sexual Harassment in the Children's Book Industry at Medium.

February 12, 2018--Karen Jensen published Sexual harassment in Kidlit at her blog, "Teen Librarian Toolbox" at School Library Journal. See, especially, point #5, "Survivors don't owe you their stories."

February 13, 2018--John Maher published Sexual Harassment In Children's Publishing Reaches a Crisis Point at Publisher's Weekly. 

February 19, 2018--Drew Himmelstein published Unpacking Anne Ursu's Survey and the Fallout, with Changes Coming to Events, at School Library Journal. Comments refer to Alexie. 

February 21, 2018--David M. Perry at Pacific Standard published How Will Publishing Deal with Lemony Snicket Amid #MeToo? It is the first (to my knowledge) news outlet to name Alexie within the body of the article (he cited the comments at SLJ). 

February 21, 2018--I started a Twitter thread linking to both articles, and soon after that, added links to twitter threads from others who were writing about Alexie. It links to a writer and reporter named Litsa Dremousis, who was Alexie's friend for years before finding out he had sexually harassed women. See this thread for a recap she did Sunday morning, Feb 25th, where she says that eleven different news outlets are reaching out to her. She's helping people get in touch with the media. I will continue to add to my thread (which includes her earlier threads on Alexie). 
[Update on March 3, 2018: On Feb 28, Alexie issued a statement that disclosed a consensual sexual relationship between Alexie and Dremousis. She confirmed what he said and stated that her public tweeting about him is not retaliation over the affair. Reactions to that news range, widely.]

February 26, 2018--With her permission, I am sharing a Facebook comment (posted on Feb 25) from author and poet, Janet McAdams, that speaks to the mainstream's embrace of Alexie:
A number of years ago I submitted an article on the very fine, complex, and --to my mind--important writing of a Native poet to PMLA. One reviewer, in rejecting it, wanted to know why I was writing on this poet, whom he'd never heard of. Why not James Welsh (his spelling) or Sherman Alexie?  
No writing community should ever be / have been reduced to or defined by any one author. As a scholar and editor of Native writing, I've often felt frustrated by the ways Alexie's (very uneven) writing eclipsed other writing. Horrifying to find out that all that power, his anointment as The Native American Writer, also made way for other, much more material kinds of violence.
February 26, 2018--With her permission, I am sharing a Facebook comment (posted on Feb 25) from author, poet, and musician, Joy Harjo:
This has been going on for years. And have had women calling or writing me about abuse of different kinds for years.
February 26, 2018--With her permission, I am sharing a Facebook comment (posted on Feb 25) from author, Susan Power
This isn't a surprise since I've heard stories from friends who experienced abusive treatment firsthand, friends I trust without question.
February 26, 2018--The Institute of American Indian Arts issued a statement on their Facebook page (posted on Feb 26 at 4:06 PM). This is a change from their press release on January 20:
We have received several recent inquiries about Sherman Alexie’s relationship with the IAIA MFA program. For the record, Mr. Alexie served IAIA as an independent contractor intermittently between July 2013 and July 2017. His association with IAIA officially ended on October 27, 2017. 
Given he is no longer involved with IAIA, the Sherman Alexie Scholarship, funded by a third-party foundation, has been renamed the MFA Alumni Scholarship. The award and the terms of that award remain the same.

February 27, 2018--Sarah Graham published Revered Writer Sherman Alexie faces misconduct accusations at the Santa Fe New Mexican (posted on Feb 26). Here's an excerpt:
Jon Davis, director of IAIA’s Master of Fine Arts program, said officials “expedited” a name change to a scholarship that was in Alexie’s name as allegations against him mounted on social media sites and public forums.

February 28, 2018--Author and scholar, Deborah Miranda, published Inmate #A-93223: In the San Quentin of my Mind (posted on Feb 27). The first half of her post is about her own father; the second half is an account of her interactions with Alexie and her support of women who are speaking about being bullied, threatened, and sexually harassed.  

February 28, 2018--Kevin Abourezk published Sherman Alexie stays silent after being accused of sexual harassment (published on Feb 28) at Indianz

February 28, 2018--Claire Kirch published Indie Booksellers Grapple with Sherman Alexie Sexual Harassment Charges at Publishers Weekly. 

February 28, 2018--John Maher published Sherman Alexie Latest in Slate of Literary Harassment Allegations at Publishers Weekly. 

February 28, 2018--Kevin Abourezk published Sherman Alexie breaks silence on allegations of sexual harassment at Indianz. 

February 28, 2018--Claire Kirch published Indie Booksellers Grapple with Sherman Alexie Sexual Harassment Charges at Publishers Weekly

March 1, 2018--Vincent Schilling published Sherman Alexie Called Out for Sexual Misconduct for over a Twenty-Year Period at Indian Country Today.

March 1, 2018--John Maher published Alexie Addresses Charges in Statement at Publishers Weekly

March 2, 2018--Mary Annette Pember published Sherman Alexie and the Longest Running #MeToo Movement in History at Rewire. 

March 2, 2018--Felicia Fonseca of the Associated Press published Readers reevaluate Sherman Alexie amid sex misconduct allegations at KOMO News.

March 2, 2018--Liz Jones, Ann Dornfeld, and Gil Aegerter published Sherman Alexie on harassment allegations: I have 'harmed other people' at KUOW. 

March 2, 2018--Lauren Porosoff published Why I'll Never Teach This Powerful Book Again at Teaching Tolerance

March 4, 2018--Colleagues are sharing articles that say--better than I did, in my Open Letter--problems with Alexie's writings. I'll be adding them as I see them. See The Laughing Indian by Lou Cornum, published in The New Inquiry on November 12, 2012. 

March 5, 2018--Lynn Neary published 'It Just Felt Very Wrong:' Sherman Alexie's Accusers Go On the Record at NPR. 

March 6, 2018--Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr. published What do the Allegations Against Sherman Alexie Mean for Native Literature? at Electric Lit

March 6, 2018--Paul Constant published Finding My Way Through the Troubling Sherman Alexie Stories at The Seattle Review of Books. 

March 6, 2018--Liz Jones published What These Women Couldn't Say Publicly about Sherman Alexie Until Now at KUOW. 

March 6, 2018--Kevin Abourezk published Sherman Alexie Caused Hurt Even Before Sexual Harassment Scandal at Indianz. 

March 9, 2018--Hillel Italie of Associated Press published Sherman Alexie declines literary award at Washington Post. 

March 11, 2018--Lynn Neary published Sherman Alexie Postpones Memoir's Paperback Release Amid Sexual Harassment Claims at NPR.

March 12, 2018--Jacqueline Keeler published Why Reading Sherman Alexie Was Never Enough at Yes Magazine. 

March 21, 2018--The American Indian Library Association Rescinds its 2008 Youth Literature Award to Sherman Alexie