Thursday, March 24, 2022

Carter Meland's Call to Read Ojibwe Writers

Today, I am sharing a Facebook post written by by Carter Meland. He's a professor in American Indian Literature at the University of Minnesota, and a White Earth Anishinaabe descendent. With his permission, I'm sharing what he had to say about the non-Native writer, William Kent Krueger, who writes books you'll find over in the adult section of your library. [Update: See Tiffany Midge's essay, American(Indian) Dirt for another Native writer's criticisms of non-Native authors.]

Carter wants people to read Ojibwe writers instead of Krueger. So do I. He showed us a photo of four books. It includes books I also highly recommend: Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon, and Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley.  

Why am I sharing Carter's post? Because people who read Krueger are often the same people who acquire and edit books at publishing houses, and people who review them for review journals, and people who buy them for libraries. 

If you are one of those people, your head is filled with problematic content about Native peoples that gets in the way of providing readers with accurate stories about Native people!

You know--and I know--that the field of children's literature is changing. That change includes letting go of the Tony Hillerman's and the William Kent Kruegers and so many other white writers who misrepresent Native peoples. Their appropriations and misrepresentations contribute to a cycle of harm. Let's disrupt that cycle. Read Native Writers. 

Here's Carter's post: 


From the American Indian Studies prof diaries, episode 271 (it's a long one in social media terms):

A relative posted about a book they really liked by a non-Native novelist who has made his career (and mucho zhooniya [$$$]) by writing about Anishinaabe people. A fellow by the name of Krueger. I have no argument over whether or not he is a good writer, but I think we need to have a discussion about cultural appropriation (I promised I wouldn't open the appropriation can of worms on my relative's timeline).

I read a couple of this novelist's early books and found them decent enough mysteries, but I could see absolutely no reason why the central character was Anishinaabe. His perspective (and the writer's perspective) are not rooted in Anishinaabe experience or teachings beyond factual research. I know in this genre of mystery that there needs to be educational material woven into the plot, but that just has the effect of making a life (even an imagined one) a museum placard. In reading a 2021 interview with the novelist, he mentions his protagonist is 3/4 Irish and 1/4 Ojibwe and the moment I see parsing blood quantum I see investment in settler colonialist systems of thought. We're not trying to replicate these ideas in front of a broad audience, we're trying to transform them, to let Anishinaabe values (as opposed to settler colonial ones) set the terms of conversation about identity and selfhood, not ideas that are designed to erase Native people from the landscape. Appropriation and the investment in settler colonial policy are two sides of the erasure coin.

This is a long setup to what I wanted to share, which is what you can do to push Native writers forward even if you feel the need to read works that may traffic in the sort of appropriation that Native communities too often experience. I think Sun Yung Shin and Tiffany Midge inspired this idea with ideas they've shared on fb over the years (miigwech!). This is what I wrote in response to my relative's post about the book for her and her friends to consider (slightly edited from the original):

As a specialist in American Indian Literature (and a White Earth Anishinaabe descendant) and knowing that many of you are liberal, good-hearted social justice people, I think we should at least think about issues of cultural appropriation in Krueger's books—he’s making bank on Anishinaabe experience. So what can you do to spread the wealth? I want to challenge all Krueger fans to also support Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) writers with their book purchases.

For those of you who want to read fiction that engages with the terror of boarding schools and the powerful healing potential in Anishinaabe worldviews, I suggest Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful books I've ever read (I'm a lit prof and I read a lot!). For those of you who like more family drama-oriented work, read Linda LeGarde Grover's In the Night of Memory--the ending will leave you simultaneously smiling and weeping. For those of you who like Krueger's mysteries, go buy either of Marcie Rendon's Cash Blackbear mysteries (and a third is coming out soon) or Angeline Boulley's Firekeeper's Daughter--both these novelists write page-a-minute thrillers. All of these works are by Anishinaabe writers that center Anishinaabe characters in stories that center Anishinaabe cultural, social, and/or spiritual values not to translate them in some quasi-anthropological/educational way to non-Native audiences, but to share the power of Anishinaabe story and storytelling with those who want to hear more. The challenge I pose is that every time you buy or checkout a Krueger book, you also buy or checkout a book by one of the authors I've mentioned (or others you track down). This is a good way to increase the representation of Native writers and discover some great new books. It's a good way to change the world that you experience and to support (not appropriate) the work of Native storiers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Not Recommended: THE SKYDIVING BEAVERS by Susan Wood, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen

The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale 
Written by Susan Wood
Illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen
Published by Sleeping Bear Press
Published in 2017
Reviewed by Debbie Reese

A couple of readers have written to ask me about The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale. Written by Susan Wood and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, it--and reviews of it--are disappointing. 

Here's the description: 
Just after World War II, the people of McCall, Idaho, found themselves with a problem on their hands. McCall was a lovely resort community in Idaho's backcountry with mountain views, a sparkling lake, and plenty of forests. People rushed to build roads and homes there to enjoy the year-round outdoor activities. It was a beautiful place to live. And not just for humans. For centuries, beavers had made the region their home. But what's good for beavers is not necessarily good for humans, and vice versa. So in a unique conservation effort, in 1948 a team from the Idaho Fish and Game Department decided to relocate the McCall beaver colony. In a daring experiment, the team airdropped seventy-six live beavers to a new location. One beaver, playfully named Geronimo, endured countless practice drops, seeming to enjoy the skydives, and led the way as all the beavers parachuted into their new home. Readers and nature enthusiasts of all ages will enjoy this true story of ingenuity and determination.

AICL readers and those who are learning to read critically will spot the problems in the description right away. It can be difficult to see what is not there on the page, but it is important to ask--right away--what people is the author talking about? She says "the people of McCall, Idaho" who are trying to build homes on a lake. The author doesn't say white people but that's who they're talking about. These white people have a problem with beavers that had "for centuries" been making that area their home. True enough, beavers had been there for centuries, but who else was there, before? The author has erased Nez Perce peoples from what was their homeland.

You may have noted that the subtitle to the book is "A True Tale." Wood is, in short, telling you some facts about something that actually happened. She leaves out Nez Perce people, and in her telling of this story, she talks about the beavers in ways that I find deeply troubling. They had built their homes there, first, but then the white people "muscle in" to the area. The beavers didn't like that, and so, they gnaw on trees and "trash" the peoples views of the forest. Wood writes that it was "A real turf war. It seemed McCall just wasn't big enough for everybody." 

The beaver are in the way. 

They have to be removed. 

The Idaho Fish and Game department considers ways to do that: round them up, put them in cages. The ways they consider are precisely the ones used to remove Indigenous peoples from their homelands when white people wanted those lands. In the end they decide to move them by way of airdrop. That stopped me cold. I don't think it is clever, at all.

The person who came up with that plan is a man named Elmo Heter. He came up with a design and to make sure it would work, he tested it several times using a beaver they named Geronimo. Why that name?! Heter doesn't tell us why, in his article about the project. 

In the fourth paragraph of her author's note, Wood tells us that "Elmo's beaver relocation by parachute was an inventive idea in 1948, it likely wouldn't happen today" because now, scientists know that beavers are good for the environment. Programs to move beavers don't take place anymore, but, Wood says "it's still fun to think that the descendents of daredevil Geronimo and his fellow skydiving rodents are likely alive, well, and happily gnawing deep in the wilds of Idaho." 

Why, I wonder did this book get published? Because it is a "fun" story about something that happened to beavers? I think it was cruel. Heter, in the 1940s and now, Wood in the 2010s seem not to care about that. And in reading this story aloud to children, are people affirming that cruelty without realizing it? I think so. 

I do not recommend The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale. Some true stories ought not be provided to children as entertainment.