Sunday, February 14, 2021

An Ojibwe Educator's Review of THE BRAVE by James Bird

Editors Note: With permission, AICL is pleased to publish this review. Written by Dr. Janis A. Fairbanks, an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, it provides an Ojibwe educator's analysis of the Ojibwe content in The Brave, by James Bird. 


The Title Could Have Been a Statement from the Book: 
"I Don't Know Anything about Native Americans: Only 
What I've Seen in Movies and Read in School"
Review by Janis A. Fairbanks

Two friends asked me if I had read James Bird’s The Brave (Feiwel and Friends, 320 pp., $16.99; ages 9 to 12), a fantasy/fiction work. I had not but decided to put it on my reading list because my community is the Fond du Lac Reservation in Northern Minnesota, the setting of the book. I thought it would be fun to read about events taking place at home. Unfortunately, now that I have read it, I found several references to Fond du Lac Reservation are inaccurate. 

The publisher, McMillan Books publicizes the book’s content as follows: 

Perfect for fans of Rain Reign, this middle-grade novel The Brave is about a boy with an OCD issue and his move to a reservation to live with his biological mother. 

Collin can't help himself—he has a unique condition that finds him counting every letter spoken to him. It's a quirk that makes him a prime target for bullies, and a continual frustration to the adults around him, including his father. 

When Collin asked to leave yet another school, his dad decides to send him to live in Minnesota with the mother he's never met. She is Ojibwe, and lives on a reservation. Collin arrives in Duluth with his loyal dog, Seven, and quickly finds his mom and his new home to be warm, welcoming, and accepting of his condition. 

Collin’s quirk is matched by that of his neighbor, Orenda, a girl who lives mostly in her treehouse and believes she is turning into a butterfly. With Orenda’s help, Collin works hard to overcome his challenges. His real test comes when he must step up for his new friend and trust his new family. 

NYPL Best Books of the Year, School Library Best Books of the Year 
Date accessed: 2/12/2021 

My question to the publisher and NYPL Best Books of the Year, School Library Best Books of the Year selection committees is this: who from the Fond du Lac Reservation, a real existing community in Northern Minnesota, verified that any of the statements made regarding the environment of the reservation are true? Even though the book is fiction, the place is not. Community members are capable of commenting on aspects of reservation life and whether the book is suitable for school use. As a scholar and active participant of Ojibwe culture, history, language and literature of the Great Lakes Ojibwe who also holds a Doctor of Philosophy in American Studies and a Master of Education degree, is tribally enrolled and lives on the Fond du Lac Reservation, I do not agree that this book is suitable for use in schools with middle school age students. Fantasy and fiction should not be allowed to abuse the reality of the setting of the story. This could have been avoided by consulting with the FDL reservation community. 

Taken in June of 2019 at the Kiwenz Language Camp,
this photo reflects the protocol of consulting with elders
about Ojibwe language, culture, and history that will be
provided to students, artists, writers, and visitors at the camp.
(Source: Dr. Fairbanks, seated at end of table.)  

While it may be expected that a certain amount of leeway could be granted for the events that take place, letting fantasy overtake the truth of the basic setting of the story is not acceptable in terms of paying proper respect to the inhabitants of the host territory. 

In this case the host community is the Fond du Lac Reservation. We are a relatively small physical area, about 100,000 square miles divided into three districts but small enough that the annual powwows attract participants from all three districts. Visiting each of the three community centers can be accomplished in about an hour driving from place to place. We are not as far off the beaten track as the book implies. The one factual point that is correct in the book is that I-35 is the freeway next to the reservation. 

Driving on that freeway, I’ve never seen any graffiti on the overpasses relevant to our Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe. Collin, the main character in the book, is thinking, “As the sun slowly dips into the earth, it lights up the tribal designs painted onto the bridges and overpasses as we drive beneath them. They resemble the logos that superheroes plaster on their costumes across their chests. They look like birds with jagged edges instead of feathers, kind of similar to those drawings we read about while studying Egypt and the pyramids.” Huh? Even if our artists painted on the overpasses, the result would more likely be woodland florals or scenes of the seasonal rounds, not logos that look like the costumes of superheroes. 

Continuing this highway ride, Collin states: “On the side of the highway, I see a small makeshift pop-up shop with a sign that reads AUTHENTIC NATIVE AMERICAN JEWELRY.” I’ve not seen a pop-up shop of Authentic Native American Jewelry near Fond du Lac, although we have several home-based jewelry makers and other artists who sell high quality goods to their customers. There is a gift shop in the local casino, but that hardly qualifies as a “makeshift pop-up shop.” 

There is also a repeated reference to no radio reception on the reservation. Three examples: 1) “Wow. I live somewhere where there is no radio reception.” 2) “The radio kicks on as soon as we leave the reservation” and 3) “there’s no radio reception this deep on the reservation.” Not only do we get radio reception everywhere on Fond du Lac, but the band also owns and operates its own radio station WGZS 89.1 FM which is located within the reservation boundaries. The reservation is adjacent to Cloquet and only 15 miles from Duluth, two urban areas with radio broadcasting that is heard anywhere on the reservation. 

The book is fiction, and the author states that he is an enrolled member of Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, although he grew up away from the reservation in Southern California. One of his stated goals is to write about Minnesota, with Grand Portage being next on his list. This plan should be revisited, at least until the author has had an opportunity to visit the reservation for a longer time, talk to more of his community members and learn more about the demographics of his community. My reaction to “The Brave” is that the title could have been a statement from the book: “I Don’t Know Anything About Native Americans: Only What I’ve Seen in Movies and Read in School.” That may prepare the reader for the dismally inaccurate portrayal of life on the Fond du Lac Reservation. 

Being “half-Indian” as the author refers to himself but being raised by his Ojibwe mother away from the reservation provided the author with an opportunity to grow up in California, where peach orchards are present and pungent when peaches ripen. But it denied him the opportunity to experience what his “half-people” (sic) on the reservation experienced. His mother told him stories, but his main experience was that of an urban Indian. If anything, he could have based his book in California among the urban Indian population of whom he was one, rather than attempting to base his story among an existing reservation with which he had no actual experience. (Disclaimer: I use the term “urban Indian” as one of the many labels that have been attached to indigenous peoples who live in urban areas.) 

There is reference to a magical valley that includes throngs of butterflies in October. There is constant reference to an abundance of peaches that his character Orenda feeds to the butterflies in her yard, giving a peach to the main character Collin. “I plucked them from the tree myself,” she tells Collin. The problem with that is peaches don’t grow anywhere on Fond du Lac Reservation. And to have a large supply of peaches in October would present a financial challenge to someone who throws them out by the bagsful to feed butterflies. Orenda lives on the reservation, next door to Collin’s mother who came from “the wrong side of the tracks.” Given that description, we can assume Orenda is also from the wrong side of the tracks and would hardly be able to afford to buy sacks of peaches to feed her butterflies. 

Likewise, the ceremonies mentioned remind me of New Age attempts at depicting what someone thinks goes on in actual ceremonies. To present these “ceremonies” to a group of middle school age students is problematic. An old Native American man sitting in a teepee is such a stereotypical scene. Teepees are a plains structure and not common on an Ojibwe reservation, although they have been built or encouraged by our Dakota neighbors. In Minnesota among the Ojibwe, the traditional structure is not a teepee but a wiigiwaam or waaginogaan, both dome shaped housing structures. The use of four spirit helpers using different color tongs and wearing matching robes is comic book fare. It is better to omit this type of scene when one is writing for middle school students. It will merely perpetuate already stereotypical images of who Native Americans are and what they do. There is also mention of a “Wolf Test” as a ceremony the Ojibwe do. Although I have attended and conducted ceremonies for more than fifty years, this ceremony or any version of it is one I have never encountered. 

The term “Brave” is not used when we refer to our boys and men except when it is given as a title to boys at powwows equivalent to the title “Princess” for girls. Both designations to me are colonial constructs. “Brave” is an English word with sometimes stereotypical images and associations. Think mascots. Our Fond du Lac Ojibwe School has a boys’ basketball team with the team name “Ogichidaa.” We generally use the term “Ogichidaa” when referring to a warrior and the language encompasses all the meanings of the word. Our Fond du Lac Ojibwe School uses “Ogichida” (phonetic spelling) for their team name. 

Conversely, the use of Ojibwe language as used in the book may create misinformation and is best avoided. One of the characters is named Ajidimoo which in Ojibwe does mean squirrel. The name is shortened to Aji which in Ojibwe means nothing. Ojibwe does not function like English. Since Ojibwe is the official language of the reservation, many Fond du Lac readers are likely aware of this corruption. Likewise, Collin listens to a recorded story that says, “The wolves were so thankful that they called the boy Ma’iingan which means our brother wolf in wolf tongue” (p. 201) However, Ma’iingan means wolf in the Ojibwe language. There is a concept of “Brother Wolf” but Ma’iingan simply means wolf (in Ojibwe.) It is easy to find word translations in various Ojibwe dictionaries, notably The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, but the correct conjugation and application of words requires much more than the short dictionary definitions. Since Ojibwe is the official language of the Fond du Lac Reservation, to find mistakes in the application of the language in this book based on this reservation and meant for middle school age children is disturbing. Fond du Lac Ojibwe students or other students who are studying the Ojibwe language may read the book and wonder about the alterations in meaning as I did. 

Overall, I would not recommend this book for young impressionable readers or for use in middle school classrooms. It may be useful in a college level creative fiction writing class as a case study in what can go wrong when you attempt to place a work of fiction in an actual landscape without consulting the community on basic issues of the environment the author wishes to portray. These issues center around culture and accountability to that community. The use of imagination can account for only a bit of leeway before it bubbles over as cultural appropriation and disrespect to the community portrayed without consultation or basis in fact. 

I encourage stories from Native American writers, as we strive to tell our own stories. However, there is help available to our writers to help ensure that their voices are heard in a way that does not alienate or disrespect the culture. Reviews by non-indigenous readers miss the subtle cultural and historical affronts simply because they have no experience recognizing them. It is best to involve the target Native American community in the consultative phase before the story is finalized

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