Saturday, October 27, 2018

Not recommended: Scott Kelley's I AM BIRCH

A colleague wrote to ask me about Scott Kelley's I Am Birch. Published in 2018 by Islandport Press, it is getting a 'not recommended' from me.

In the back of I Am Birch is an "About the Book" page that tells readers that:
The legends of Gluskap were part of artist Scott Kelley's childhood. One in particular, "How Rabbit Got Long Ears," was a favorite. In it, Rabbit tells the other animals that the sun is not going to rise again, and Gluskap must set the record straight.
Kelley had been working on a series of paintings of Wabanaki tribal elders, and another series of animals from the Maine woods. The story of Rabbit had been playing in his head for months, until he remembered a little drawing of a birch tree he had made, and at last, I Am Birch came to life: chaos and fear as seen by a birch stump, who, against all expectations, manages to put those fears to rest.

I am a former schoolteacher. Some people think books are just meant to entertain--but they definitely educate, too. What do students learn by reading I Am Birch?

Given the illustrations (I've included several, below) and the information in the "About the Book" page, I Am Birch looks like it is a Native story. So, I would try to figure out a few things.

First: Is the author Native? 

The answer? No. Kelley isn't Native. Course, that doesn't mean he can't tell create words or illustrations that look like they're meant to be be Native, but when someone chooses to create content that they're putting forth as Native, they must do a lot of research, first.

So, that's the second question. Does the author provide us with information about his research? Or, his resources? One of the touchstone articles about sources for  is Betsy Hearne's Cite the Source.

The answer? No. Nothing of that sort is listed in the book. I have no doubt that Scott Kelley meant well. But the images of Indigenous people that most Americans carry around are deeply flawed. Knowing they're flawed is the first step. Becoming aware of the big and small ways they're flawed starts by doing research--not of standard sources--but of books written by the people they are writing about. Because Kelley's book is about the Wabanaki peoples, he could start by reading nonfiction by Lisa Brooks. She is Abenaki. Zooming out a bit, he could also read a book by an Indigenous scholar like Daniel Heath Justice. His Why Indigenous Literatures Matter is new and an outstanding resource about our literatures.

Third: does the author give us anything at all to work with, in order for us to do a critical analysis of the content of their book?

In the back of I Am Birch, there is an "About the Book" page. It has some words to guide our analysis, but it is pretty thin. First is "Gluskap." Someone, we're told on that page, who can "set the record straight." Ok--Gluskap is someone with power or influence.

In that second paragraph of the "About" page, we see "Wabanaki tribal elders." I think we're to assume that the Gluskap of Kelley's childhood is associated with the Wabanaki -- but "Wabanaki" refers to several different tribal nations. Today, in Maine, there are four sovereign tribal nations:

  • Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, 
  • Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, 
  • Passamaquoddy Tribe, and the 
  • Penobscot Nation. 

All four have websites that include links to pages about their histories, cultures, and their respective languages. As far as I've been able to see, none of them call their language Wabanaki and none of them refer to their tribal members as Wabanaki. And, these are distinct nations.

In short, the "About" page gave bits of information that I used, below, when I started looking at the content of the book.

Fourth: Does the author have a website that can help understand what they're doing with their book?

Kelley does, in fact, have a website and there are several news articles about his book.

In the "About" page, I read that Kelley was working on a series of paintings of Wabanaki tribal elders, I thought he meant that elders were sitting for portraits, but that's not the case. Turns out, Kelley is using old photographs to do his series.

You can see his method in a video, Scott Kelley Studio Timelapse, where he's shown doing an eagle (the eagle in the video is not in his book). Figure 1 (below) is a screen cap from the video. In the center is his canvas. On the left are what he's calling "Wabanaki elders." On the right are photographs of eagles.

Figure 1

If we zoom in, we can see that the hat he has put on that eagle is in the photo on the bottom left:

Figure 2

Those photographs Kelley used are what helped me learn that he's not correct in saying "Wabanaki elders." At least one of the people in the photographs he used to create the illustrations in I Am Birch are not Wabanaki. In Figure 3 (below) I put a screen cap of his bear next to a screen cap of the Native man he used for the headdress he put on his bear.

Figure 3

The photograph on the right is in the Massachusetts Historical Society's archive. It is titled "An Ojibwe man in DC." 

Next, look at the photos below (Figure 4) of a Penobscot man and two different Penobscot women. The man is wearing a large collar draped around his shoulders. In the center photograph, a woman is wearing it. In The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine," (published in 1932), Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (she isn't Native) wrote that women "have no right to wear it [that collar]." Is she right? I don't know, but one thing is known: in some of these old photographs, the photographers would ask people to put on items of clothing that didn't belong to them to make the photograph seem more authentic. The first two photographs were taken by A. F. Orr. I don't know if he was among the photographers who asked people to wear this or that, even if it wasn't theirs. Is Kelley aware that he should be careful in using these old photographs?

I haven't found who took the third photograph, of Molly Molasses.

Figure 4
As I compare what I see on his website with what he put into his book, I see that Kelley combined aspects of those photographs to create his Badger. In his Badger (Figure 5), you see the collar, and the cap shown on Molly Molasses. The photo of Molasses doesn't show much detail on the cap, but online you can find detailed photographs of the caps. They were often made of red trading cloth. In his book, Kelley refers to his Badger as a female. If Eckstrom is correct about who can and cannot wear the collar, then it is incorrect for Kelley to put it on Badger. 

Figure 5

On another page, Kelley has Deer (Figure 6):

Figure 6

I think Kelley used a photograph of Molly Muise (Figure 7), who was Mi'kmaq, to make Deer's cap.

Figure 7


Setting aside Kelley's art to look at the story in I Am Birch, the "About" page says that his story is inspired by "How Rabbit Got Long Ears." So far I have been unable to find any versions of that story. Searches of that story name take me to the "Native Languages" site--but those stories aren't sourced and some go to hokey sites. If you know where I can find it, please let me know.

Kelley's story opens with "Everyone calls me BIRCH, for I am a birch tree, much like any other." Turning the page, however, we read that Birch is not a tree anymore because Beaver came along and turned Birch into a stump. Beaver was mumbling "COLD AND DARKNESS." After a while, Porcupine comes along and tells Birch that COLD AND DARKNESS are coming and that everyone is terrified. Birch asks Porcupine who told him about this COLD AND DARKNESS. Porcupine thinks it was Deer. When Deer comes by, Birch asks her if she was the one who started it, and she says she heard it from Badger. This goes on for several pages, with Kelley using photographs of animals in Kelley's versions of Native articles of clothing. Because Birch is the one who finally figures out there is no COLD AND DARKNESS coming that everyone should be afraid of, I think Birch is meant to be Gluskap. Kelley's Birch sets things right.


In I Am Birch, some might find the art and the story compelling, and they might see it as a tribute to Indigenous people. But is it? I don't think so.

Kelley uses what he calls photographs of "Wabanaki elders" to create his characters, but those photographs are from distinct tribal nations--some of which aren't even Wabanaki. To some, his animals are pretty to look at, but this mish-mash treatment of different nations renders his art inaccurate. In creating this art, as he did, Kelley seems unaware of the need to be accurate and to do research to ensure accuracy.

Generally speaking, people don't make up stories like the ones they read in the Bible and put them forth as Bible stories. They understand that is doing that is disrespectful and sacrilegious to Christians who deem those stories sacred. That fundamental respect must be accorded to the stories of Indigenous peoples, too. The Gluskap stories are not folktales. To the people who tell them, they are sacred, creation stories. In creating the story he tells in I Am Birch, I think Kelley is stepping over lines of respect.

In short: I do not recommend Scott Kelley's I Am Birch, published in 2018 by IslandPort Press.

Note: I found the references to Eckstorm's book here:

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Classic, Award-Winning, Popular Books with Racist, Biased Depictions of Indigenous People

In my experience, a lot of people don't remember or realize that classic, award-winning, or popular books have Native content in them that is biased, stereotypical, or just flat out incorrect. I and others have written about several of those books. That writing is here on AICL but in research and professional articles and book chapters, too.

This post is a list of links to some of that writing. If you're a teacher or professor interested in using a children's or young adult book to teach critical literacy, these will work well for that sort of analysis.

Arrow to the Sun

Caddie Woodlawn 

The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Little House on the Prairie

Sign of the Beaver

Touching Spirit Bear

What we need are books by Native writers! Check out AICL's Best Books lists.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Some thoughts on Native identity, in response to #ElizabethWarren (again)

Eds note: Below is a compilation of a tweet thread I did from Oct 20-21. (If you do tweet threads and want to compile them, try Spooler. That's what I used for this post.)

Thinking, today, about Native identity, and how we speak of it. 

I used to say "tribe" but realized that just "tribe" wasn't sufficient. For those who did not (and do not) know that we are sovereignty nations, "tribe" alone let them place us as a race or a cultural group. 

I can talk all day long about growing up on our reservation, doing the things we do as Native people there, and say things like "moccasins" and most people in the US would nod because it would fit with what they know of us as peoples with distinct cultures. 

But doing that is not enough. So--I use "nation." When I'm giving a lecture, I give an example of what it means to be a sovereign nation. A simple one: we decide how fast you drive on our reservation. If you go too fast and get a ticket, it is paid to our tribal gov offices. 

The US has many racial groups and many cultural groups but they don't have a land base over which they have jurisdiction such that they can set speed limits. 

If you're following the #ElizabethWarren news, you may have seen the word "citizen" or "citizenship" or "tribal member" or "enrolled." You may have been surprised to hear those words and/or to learn that tribal nations determine who their citizens or tribal members are...

But, that is how it works. Each tribal nation has ways it decides who its members are... and you can look that up if you know the name of the nation you're interested in. 

As I'm laying it out, it might seem pretty simple but... this is all political! Our tribal leaders and councils and the requirements are imperfect because, we're human beings. 

One of my top concerns is fraud. There's so many people that outright lie about a Native identity. It gets them jobs, or cred in some places, that they ought not have. 

Some people get jobs and cred by claiming it, but they're not outright lying. They really believe a family story. When someone asks for specifics, it can get uncomfortable for everyone. 

Someone who can't get enrolled, but who is definitely Native--that's an entirely different story. 

But those folks can generally point to cousins who are enrolled, who are kin. Those folks are usually known in the nations who they name as theirs. People in the nation will speak for them. 

I've been fooled by someone's claim to Native identity--more than once. When you find out that people tried to tell that person to stop identifying that way and they did it anyway... And they still do it... it is hard! 

There's resources out there. Books that can help you learn some of the nuances of all this. Eva Garroutte's REAL INDIANS is one.

Because of Warren, DNA [testing] is the big topic of the moment. It won't help you [get enrolled with a nation]. Read Kim Tallbear's book: NATIVE AMERICAN DNA: TRIBAL BELONGING AND THE FALSE PROMISE OF GENETIC SCIENCE

Speaking of myself, I am tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo, a sovereign nation that Spain, Mexico, and then the US regarded as a nation. We were a nation before the United States was a nation. 

Some universities, in an effort to stop fraudulent hirings (and there are MANY) are trying to figure out how to stop that kind of fraud. 

There's so many ways I could go with this thread. Things in my head. Like--years ago, Scott Lyons wrote an article in a newspaper, about tribal nations that were disenrolling Black people. That whole convo is very complicated, but, one

... one thing that Scott said was that tribal nations have to exist as nations, and that if we disenroll Black people, we were engaging in a form of ethnic cleansing. 

Some articles, books, etc. have helped me understand many dimensions of the politics of Native identity. Scott's is one of those. Wish I could find it. He's right. Those disenrollments were wrong. 

Native America Calling has had some very good segments on disenrollment. Here's one: Wednesday, April 6, 2016. Disenrollment. 

A lot of people think that it is racist to ask a Native person for "proof" of the identity. They're using a racial framework, and if this was a racial issue, it would be racist to ask -- but Native citizenship isn't about race. It is about nationhood. 

It is more like asking someone for proof that they're a US citizen. That's fraught, too, esp right now with this racist administration in DC, but that's [nationhoood] the framework where the question belongs. 

And--friends/colleagues who are Indigenous--if you see a tweet in this thread that needs clarification, please let me know. 

Another Native scholar who helped me clarify how I speak about Indigenous identity is Elizabeth Cook Lynn. I used her work to write a post for my site, titled Are We People of Color? 

I try to listen, weekly, to @mediaINDIGENA's podcast. I learn a lot from the guests there. Go here, and scroll down to episode 119. It was about DNA testing. 

People who follow me know that most of my work is in children's and young adult literature. My blog, American Indians in Children's Literature, has 11 years of posts on it. ELEVEN YEARS. That's a lot of content, available to you, at no charge. 

I said "at no charge" because most of the writing that we do is in journal articles, magazines, books... that cost money to get to. So--as a former schoolteacher, I do what I can to provide resources to people who want/need them. 

Most children's/YA books out there that teachers assign are deeply flawed. Like, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. Ugh. Don't assign that, please. Here's my critique of that book.  

Books like that one are huge obstacles to progress in terms of getting Native writers published, and getting their books read or assigned in schools. Seems ppl prefer long-ago-far-away "Indians" over stories that are real! That show our lives as we live them. 

Coming up soon, I'll be on the #NIEABookClub to talk about two excellent books by Native writers. 

One is @DanielVandever's picture book, FALL IN LINE, HOLDEN, which is about a kid in boarding school, where the goal was to stop Indigenous kids from being Indigenous. So--about identity. And asserting identity. 

The second one is @CynLeitichSmith's HEARTS UNBROKEN, where a teen girl in a suburb is navigating challenges to her identity. There's an important thread in Smith's book--about L. Frank Baum. Native ppl know why that's in there. 

Most non-Native people see "L. Frank Baum" and think 'yay' but they don't know that Baum wanted to exterminate Indigenous people. 

Europeans wanted us out of the way. But our ancestors fought back. That's why we're here, today, saying 'nope' to those who misrepresent us in children's books or in national politics. 

Vine Deloria Jr -- in volume 1 of DOCUMENTS OF INDIAN DIPLOMACY -- wrote something abt treaties that sticks with me. To Indigenous leaders/ppl, they were about relationships. To Europeans/Americans, they were about resources. Interesting, eh? 

Circling back to the Elizabeth Warren situation. So many Indigenous people are getting trolled by people who seem to think that, in speaking up abt what Warren did, we are choosing trump or GOP, as if our existence is one or the other. 

That kind of trolling demonstrates a lack of understanding, or, a lack of care if there is some understanding. That kind of response isn't helpful to anyone. 

The response that is needed, is one that is issued after you've read Native writing(s) about identity--specifically right now--about Warren. To help with that, I'm creating a list: A Curated List of Native Responses to Elizabeth Warren 

When I was at U Illinois, we had a couple of instances of ppl making claims... and so we drafted a statement: Identity and Academic Integrity 

I'll be adding to this thread as I see other items that are of relevance. See Dr. Arica Coleman's article in Time magazine: and get her book, THAT THE BLOOD STAY PURE. (…)

See Kim TallBear's threaded response to Zerlina Maxwell's remarks on MSNBC a few days ago:

See Ebony Elizabeth Thomas's thread, with its link to an article by Henry Louis Gates:

As noted in tweets 8, 11, and 12, being a citizen or enrolled in a tribal nation is messy. I'm glad to see threads from friends/colleagues who can add to my/our/your understandings. See Elissa Washuta's thread:
Being an enrolled citizen in a federally-recognized nation is not the only way to be Native. I do not think DNA is valid in determining Indigeneity, but I'm concerned about the reductive takes I'm seeing that equate Indigeneity to citizenship.

See Daniel Heath Justice's thread, too:
In the wake of the Elizabeth Warren debacle, let’s not forget another way in which racial logics have displaced kinship in our own politics and relations: the continuing struggle for Freedmen descendants to be recognized as enfranchised citizens and relatives in the Five Tribes.

And, see Rebecca Nagel's Facebook post about ongoing conversations about Cherokee Freedmen: Here's a screen cap of the first two para's of her post.