Thursday, February 13, 2020

Debbie--have you seen BUFFALO DANCE: A BLACKFOOT LEGEND by Nancy Van Laan?

In today's mail is a question from a librarian. She's got a copy of Nancy Van Laan's Buffalo Dance: A Blackfoot Legend in her library and wonders if she should weed it.

I'm sharing how I go about evaluating a book.

First: is the author Native? In this case, no. Nancy Van Laan is not Native. When the book is one that looks like it might be a creation story, my impulse is to say that the book probably should be removed from the shelves, especially if it has "legend" in the title and if it is categorized as "folklore." Here's a screen cap of the entry in WorldCat (red circles are mine):

For decades, non-Native people have "retold" Native stories and called them myths, or legends, or folktales. Those books are usually shelved or categorized as "folklore" alongside Little Red Riding Hood. That's an example of institutional racism. Bible stories from the Christian bible aren't called folklore, right? So--that's one problem. Another is the integrity of the story itself. When an actual creation story is told by an outsider, chances are pretty high that there are errors in the telling, especially if their sources are outsiders, too. That likelihood means I wouldn't want Van Laan's book to be categorized as if its contents had the same integrity as this story, told by a Blackfoot writer.

Second: what is the publication year? In this case, 1993. That's old, especially when you think about how much the field has changed. In 2015, Corinne Duyvis's hashtag, #OwnVoices, took off. With respect to books by and about Native people, we've seen an increase over time, in books by Native writers. That's significant! There are many reasons #OwnVoices are important. With traditional stories that are creation stories, an insider knows the nuances of the story and how or when it can be told. If this book was by someone who is Blackfoot, I would call it #BlackfootVoice. But it isn't. It is by a white woman.

Third: what are the sources for the retelling? When I open the Amazon page I can see Van Laan names four sources. One is Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God. That book came out in 1959. I know Campbell has quite a lot of fans but I'm not among them. In his Hero with a Thousand Faces, chapter 1, he starts with "Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, [...] or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale..." Those clearly judgmental words didn't stop Campbell's book from being published in 1959, but it should stop you from thinking he's the bees knees, today. Van Laan's second source is The Blackfeet by John Ewers, published in 1958; and her third one is Blackfoot Lodge Tales by George Bird Grinnell published in 1962. I would look up those two sources to see how they are evaluated, today, by Native scholars. I wouldn't take them at face value because of the long history of outsiders going into Native spaces, and writing what they saw--from a white perspective that was supposedly objective. Her fourth source is The Buffalo by Francis Haines, published in 1970. A quick look at reviews of that book indicates it is the "tragic Indian" account that is captured by those dreadful "end of the trail" images.

Fourth: what does the book say? I don't have a copy of it at hand. I could go to the library and see one there. What I do see, online, is the introduction. It starts with "Long ago, when the Blackfoot Indians roamed the hills of the Great Plains of Montana, they depended on the meat and fur of the buffalo to survive." Speaking quite frankly, I find past tense wording like that highly problematic because it dovetails with the idea that Native peoples no longer exist. It confines our existence to the past, when we are very much part of the present day. The first and second paragraphs of the intro continue with past tense verbs. The third paragraph does have "is" but I don't think that one use of "is" is enough to displace the existing knowledge children have about Native peoples, or the extensive use of past tense in the first two paragraphs. I also object to the use of the word "roamed." I see that a lot in books about Native peoples. I view it as a biased word. It suggests they didn't have a homeland--that they just went here and there. It isn't a small problem. It contributes to the idea that Native peoples were primitive and uncivilized.

If I got a copy of the book, I would probably end up giving it a not-recommended label. If I do pick up a copy, I'll be back with more to say but based on what I see right now, I doubt that I would hand it to any child and if I was working in a library, I'd probably weed it.

Recommended: MARY AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS by Andrea L. Rogers

Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story
Written by Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee); illustrated by Matt Forsyth
Published in 2020
Publisher: Stone Arch Books (Capstone)
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended

Andrea L. Rogers is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her book, Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story came out on February 1, 2020. I've read it and I've followed conversations about it amongst citizens of the Cherokee Nation and am hoping for a review from a professor, soon. In the meantime, I want to make sure people order it for their children, or their classroom, or their library.