Sunday, May 30, 2021

An Open Letter to Anyone Writing or Editing or Reviewing or Using a Children's Book about Crazy Horse

May 30, 2021

Dear Anyone Writing or Editing or Reviewing or Using a Children's Book about Crazy Horse:

This morning I read an email from a teacher who is asking me about Crazy Horse. She is considering a particular book and wondered if it has merit. My library does not have a copy but I can see the first few pages online. The author of the Crazy Horse biography is Anne M. Todd. She is not Native. Chapter one opens with a quote that she attributes to Crazy Horse: 
"It is a good day to fight! A good day to die! Strong hearts, brave hearts, to the front! Weak hearts and cowards to the rear!"
That quote is what prompted this open letter. When I see something like that, I wonder if that person (in this case, Crazy Horse) said those words? And, I wonder about the source for the quote. 

Because I can't see the whole book, I don't know if the quote is sourced in a bibliography or back matter for the book. I find that quote in Stephen Ambrose's book, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, but he doesn't have a source for it either. So... where did it come from? 

I'm asking that people be mindful of quotes attributed to Native people. Quotes can take on a life of their own. When they're not the words the person actually spoke, that's a problem. 

Let's look at a recent example.

When Eric Carle died last week, a photo of a page that people took for an interview with him began circulating--but the "interview" was a joke in an April Fools 2015 issue of The Paris Review. That interview was cited as if it was something Carle wrote. It was cited on social media, and a passage from the joke also appears in Clare Pollard's book, Fierce Bad Rabbits. Avi Naftali pointed out the mistake and The Paris Review subsequently added a note to the top of the original joke. It says:
This piece was published as part of an April Fool's post in 2015, entitled "Introducing The Paris Review for Young Readers." It is a fictional interview, and intended purely as a parody. It is not intended to communicate any true or factual information, and is for entertainment purposes only.
The difference in the Crazy Horse quote and the Carle/not Carle joke is that we don't know the source of the Crazy Horse quote. Or rather--I don't know the source. I'll keep looking. My point, however, is that when something is repeated enough, it becomes taken as fact. To some people, the Carle/not Carle joke felt similar enough to things Carle said that people took the joke as fact. In the Carle/not Carle case, I think that all the players (so to speak) are white. 

With the Crazy Horse case, we supposedly have the words of a Native man but we don't know who recorded them. If it was a Lakota person who heard his words (presumably spoken in Lakota) who recounted them to someone else, that would feel like an authentic presentation of Crazy Horse. 

I've got doubts, though! That famous speech supposedly given by Chief Seattle is one example of what I'm getting at. He spoke some words but they aren't the ones attributed to him in books like Brother Eagle Sister Sky, by Susan Jeffers.

My doubts are affirmed as I read The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History by Joseph M. Marshall III. He's Lakota. I strongly recommend you get a copy of his book. Read the Introduction and the Reflections. He rejects Ambrose's characterization of Crazy Horse as an "American warrior" in the subtitle of his book and he does not include the quote in his book. Marshall's middle grade book, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, is outstanding. Get a copy of it for your classrooms and set aside all the biographies that might be in your classroom or library. It won the American Indian Library Association's Youth Literature Award in 2016

I'll keep looking for the source of the quote. I'm guessing that Anne Todd got it from Ambrose's book. If you find or know the source, let me know! In the meantime, hit your pause buttons when you come across quotes attributed to Native people. Don't be complicit in misattributions. 


1 comment:

Sam Jonson said...

By the way, that "good day to fight" quote appears as early as 1929 (although it could've been written earlier), and it's commonly attributed as something Crazy Horse said at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Wonder who first wrote it? And did it go through any tweaks, like the "Two Wolves" tale commonly misattributed to the Cherokee?