Friday, March 06, 2020

Keeping an Eye Out: Thoughts on The Dactyl Hill Squad

A draft version of a post on the Dactyl Hill Squad series was published here by accident the morning of 3/6/20. I apologize for any inconvenience. -- Jean Mendoza

Spoilers ahead! This isn't a review; it's more of an essay about looking at Native content in a book series, as it unfolds.

The Dactyl Hill Squad is a middle-grade series by Daniel Jose Older. It's fun to read. The plot moves lightning fast. The characters are interesting, there's real pathos as well as humor, and the fantasy elements (ride-able dinosaurs) combine surprisingly well with realistic Civil War Era settings and characters.

The "Squad" of the title is group of courageous kids from the Colored Orphans Asylum in New York City. In the Dactyl Hill Squad: Book One, they band together after the asylum burns down in a riot, leaving them homeless and targeted by a band of racist kidnappers. The kids (and their enemies) ride dinosaurs.

I started the series aware that one character, Amaya, is Native, and have kept an eye on how the author represents her among the other orphanage children, who are Black. She is described as having dark skin, and the black-and-white illustrations show her with very long, straight-ish hair and skin about the same tone as that of Magdalys Roca, the series protagonist. Amaya's father is still living and still in touch with her and the orphanage staff. Amaya doesn't seem to like or trust him. Near the end of the first book, she reveals to Magadalys that he's a general, a war hero who secretly trained her for combat ("tactics and strategies, weapons ... everything"). In the same conversation, Amaya tells Magdalys that she's "half Apache" and that her father's students at the Citadel thought of her as savage.

I'm not finding stereotypes or tired tropes about Native people in Older's depiction of Amaya. She's not "magical," exceptionally "spiritual," or stoic. She guards her feelings and personal history, psychologically consistent with her life experience. She gives special care to one of the younger orphans, and shows warmth toward fellow Squad members. She prefers machines to riding on dinos. (In the illustration shown on the right, Amaya is in the dark dress.)

Amaya's character continues to develop in the second Dactyl Hill book, Freedom Fire. Other than "long strands of jet-black hair," the author again leaves her physical appearance to the reader's -- and the illustrator's -- imagination. (I'm not treating that as stereotypical, though some might disagree. Plenty of kids with one Native parent and one White have the very dark hair, though not all do.)  Amaya continues to put her military training to good use, and she's still courageous, but no more so than her fellow Squad members.  By the end of the book, she has left the Squad behind to find and help her family, guided by a mysterious note.

We can consider Amaya in the context of something Cynthia Leitich Smith has said about the secondary characters she created for her novel Hearts Unbroken. Does Amaya have her own narrative "hinted at through beats and brush-strokes"? Or is she a "standard bearer," a "moral compass" or a symbol of a larger cause? Seems to me Older gives this Native character those beats and brush-strokes. So far, so good!

Freedom Fire features a second Native character. Colonel Ely S. Parker, who in real life was an aide to General Ulysses Grant, tries to find information about Magdalys' missing brother. Older includes a biographical sketch of Parker in the Notes. If Grant makes an appearance in the next Dactyl Hill book, perhaps Parker will, too.

I'm also keeping an eye on what the author does with Major General Philip Sheridan, an actual 19th Century US military figure. The Dactyl Hill kids end up in a camp where Sheridan commands the troops. In real life, Sheridan was an advocate and practitioner of scorched-earth tactics that targeted non-combatants, both during the Civil War and in his campaigns against Indigenous nations.  He advocated exterminating the buffalo herds to starve Indigenous people into submission. A number of people, myself included, consider him a war criminal.  He's also infamously supposed to have said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." He claimed he didn't say those words, but that's irrelevant, as his desire to get rid of Native people was evident.

In Freedom Fire, Sheridan is ambitious, strategy-oriented, kind of humorously pompous, smart, and on the right side of the war. He covets Magdalys' ability to communicate with and control the dinosaurs, and she resents his purely strategic interest. Amaya is blunt: she doesn't trust Sheridan because she "grew up around those types" and knows that to them, everything but winning is "expendable." She and Magdalys and another key character have the following conversation:
"You guys are black and I'm Apache," Amaya said. "I don't think they know how to see us as anything but expendable." ....
"Whether there's a war going on or not," Cymbeline agreed. 
"Exactly, and anyway, there's a whole other war going on that nobody wants to talk about it. A perpetual one. The beloved savior Lincoln hanged thirty-eight Dakotas in a single day at the end of last year, and that's not even to mention the ones who were massacred in the run-up to that."
Cymbeline nodded sadly.
You won't see truths like those in many middle grade fantasy adventures, or even realistic historical fiction! Not only does Daniel Jose Older show young people talking about how racism affects them -- he also brings in the Dakota 38. This passage makes me think that he won't ultimately give Philip Sheridan the hero treatment in the next Dactyl Hill Squad book.

My antennae went up, however, when Mardi Gras Indians appear in Freedom Fire. The Mardi Gras Indians are secret societies of African-American New Orleans residents who create remarkable, elaborate, colorful regalia for celebrations that include Mardi Gras. In the Note at the back of the book, Older explains that this dates back to the 1800s, "when black Americans wanted to honor the Native Americans who had helped them out during slavery."

Most explanations I found online are not specific about the actual origins. Unfortunately, even if the goal is to honor, the tradition draws heavily on stereotypes & tropes. There's a Big Chief. Names of the groups include "Yellow Pocahontas."  Adrienne Keene (Native Appropriations) expressed her ambivalence about it back in 2010. Some other Native people are not ambivalent -- they don't like it. And a 2016 NPR segment on a somewhat-related topic indicates that one leader, knowing Native people's objections, decided to rename their group to reflect African-American heritage.

For Older's Dactyl Hill Squad, the Mardi Gras Indians are a positive presence. Amaya is curious and excited at the first mention of them, and mildly disappointed to find they aren't part of a real tribe, but still finds them "beautiful." An illustration shows a few of them in a parade setting, with abundant long plumes that don't really resemble traditional regalia of Indigenous groups of what is currently called North America. And they heroically save Magdalys from certain death. So I'm watching what else happens with the Mardi Gras Indians in Book 3. I'll have more to say after June 2, 2020, when it's available.

No comments: