Showing posts sorted by relevance for query thunder boy jr. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query thunder boy jr. Sort by date Show all posts

Thursday, May 12, 2016

How to Read Sherman Alexie's THUNDER BOY JR.?

Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work and the articles in the Timeline about Alexie's sexual harassment.--Debbie


Back in February, I pre-ordered a copy of Sherman Alexie's picture book, Thunder Boy Jr. It arrived on Tuesday (May 10, 2016). The illustrations are by Yuyi Morales.

Alexie is doing a significant promotional campaign for the book. He was on The Daily Show two nights ago. Forbes had a story about the book. So did Bustle, Entertainment Weekly... you can do a search and find many others.

That's cool. I am happy that a Native writer is getting that level of exposure. In some of these stories, Alexie speaks about invisibility, representation, and similar issues of concern to Native people. Bringing these topics to a broader audience is very important. Because he is much loved by the American public, Alexie is a person who can influence how someone thinks about an issue.

In a nutshell, Thunder Boy Jr. is about a little boy whose father, Thunder Boy, named him Thunder Boy Jr. at birth.  But, Thunder Boy Jr. wants his own name and identity. This is definitely a universal theme. Lot of kids and adults wish they had a different name.

Alexie's much-loved humor is front and center of this story. Because Thunder Boy's dad is a big man, his nickname is Big Thunder. The words "Big Thunder" are extra large and bold on the page, inviting readers to boom it out as they read it. That makes it all the more inviting as a read aloud. If his dad is Big Thunder, that means Thunder Boy's nickname is Little Thunder, and that is not ok with Little Thunder:
That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart.
Some will love seeing the word fart; others will not. Here's that page. See Thunder Boy's little sister? I look at the illustration of the two kids and my heart goes right to my sister's grandchildren and memories of them playing and dancing together at my niece's wedding last week. I think they'll like this book very much.

Here's Jayden and Ellie on the dance floor. When her sandal slipped off, she sat down right there on the floor. He kneeled beside her and tried to get it back on, but those straps slide all over and he couldn't figure it out. It was endearing to see them together trying to puzzle through it. He'd look at her other shoe to see if he could see how to make it all right again. I stopped filming when he started looking around for help, and of course, I helped her so they could pick up where they'd left off.

Jayden and Ellie

In Thunder Boy Jr. we see a warm and loving Native family. I like that, a lot. I see that warmth in Jayden and Ellie's relationship with each other and their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.


Moving back to Alexie's book: Thunder Boy Jr. tells us that his name is not a normal name. His mother, whose name is Agnes, and his sister, whose name is Lilian, have normal names. He hates his name. He wants a name that sounds like him, that celebrates something cool that he has done. He climbed a tall mountain, so maybe his name could be Touch the Clouds. He loves playing in the dirt, so maybe his name could be Mud In His Ears, and so on.

That's where the story, for me, goes into a place that makes me wonder how to read it. Let me explain.

If I read it as a Native kid whose community, friends, and family engage in banter about naming and give each other nicknames, cool. It is delightful.

And if I imagine it being read by a reader who likes and respects Native peoples, I can see why they would like it, too. For that reader, though... 

What Alexie has given us is a pan Indian story.

By not being tribally specific, his story obscures the diversity that Native writers, scholars, activists, parents, teachers, librarians, lawyers... have been bringing forth forever. We aren't monolithic. We're very different in our histories, religions, material cultures, and yes, the ways that we give names. Moving into that name play collapses significant distinctions across our nations.

I noted above that I got the book on May 10th. Do you know what was going on then?

We were in the midst of a horrible "TrumpIndianNames" hashtag. Last week, Donald Trump took a swipe at Elizabeth Warren's claims to Native identity (her claim is a problem, too, that I've written about elsewhere). The response to him was the TrumpIndianNames hashtag where Democrats, progressives, independents--a wide swath of people, in other words--had a grand time coming up with "Indian names" for Trump. All of that, however, was at our expense. People thought they were very clever. Native people, on the other hand, were quick to object to Native ways of naming being used in this way.

So, that is the context from which I read Thunder Boy Jr. If I stand within a Native community, the book is delightful. If I stand outside of it, in a well-meaning but ignorant mainstream US society, the book takes on a different cast.

Is that fair to Alexie or to his book? I'm thinking about that question and don't have an answer. I know for sure that if a white writer had done a book that played with Native names, I'd be very critical. Indeed, I was very critical when Jon Scieszka did it in Me Oh Maya and I was very critical when Russell Hoban did it in Soonchild.

Is it ok for Alexie to do it because he is Native? Does the book represent inside-humor that marks it as ok? I don't know.

In an interview with Brian Lehrer, Alexie said that Thunder Boy doesn't like the name because it was assigned to him, and wasn't a name he had given himself. He wants a name that measures something he has done. Alexie said:
This calls back to ancient tribal traditions of many peoples, Native Americans included, where the transition to adulthood involves getting a new name that measures something that you've done, or is predictive, something that your elders hope you become.
None of that information is inside the book. What he said on Lehrer's show is lacking in specificity, too. In the interview he said "many peoples, Native Americans included" but given the existing ignorance about Native peoples, I think that his interviews and the book would be much improved by an author's note that provides parents, teachers, and librarians with information about naming.

Last thing I want to note is the page where Thunder Boy says that he loves powwow dancing and that he is a grass dancer. I love the illustration, from above, of him dancing.

But the drums in the top right? From what I know about powwow drums, that's not quite accurate. Usually, there's a single drum with several drummers, and the drum is on a stand. It doesn't sit on the ground or floor.

In sum? A mixed review. That's where I am right now. I really do think that my concerns with the pan Indian character of Thunder Boy Jr. could be addressed with an author's note. Perhaps there will be one in the next printing.

Note (May 12, 12:30 PM): Please see the comments below for further discussion of the book, naming, and audience, and the comments on the Facebook post, too.

Note (May 13, 2016): See my second post, More Questions about Sherman Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr. 

Note (May 15, 2016): See my third post, Toward a Common Understanding of Native Peoples in the U.S. (or, Why Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr. Needs a Note to Readers)

Friday, May 13, 2016

More questions about Sherman Alexie's THUNDER BOY JR.

Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work. --Debbie


As I continue thinking about Sherman Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr., I wonder about the responsibility of the editorial team. Back when A Fine Dessert was published, some people pointed out that the editorial team has responsibilities, too, for the book. Some argued that, in the end, the author and illustrator have final responsibility because their names are on the book. Others countered that they don't have as much authority as one might think. 

This post is some of my thoughts on the role of the editor.

Alexie writes primarily for adults. His name, books, and then his films (Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing) were well known in Native circles. When he wrote The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian he became widely known in children's and young adult literature. In one interview, he said that Diary sold over a million copies. He heard from a lot of readers about how much that book mattered to them, and so, he wanted to do something similar for younger readers. Hence: Thunder Boy Jr.

The first print run for Thunder Boy Jr. is 100,000 copies, which is rare for a picture book. The publisher is Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (they also published Diary). Their decision to print 100,000 copies tells us they expect the book to do well. Its status this morning as "#1 Best Seller" in the Children's Native American Books category at Amazon tells us they were right. 

As I noted yesterday, Alexie is making a lot of appearances. I assume the publisher is paying for all of that. 

Alexie's editor, Alvina Ling, is fully aware of the intense discussions in children's literature regarding the topic of diversity, racism, stereotyping, bias... all of that. She's steeped in the world of children's literature. I think--and I could be wrong--but I think Alvina knows that we're pushing very hard against monolithic images of Native peoples. 

Alexie may not know. When he talks about children's books, his go-to title is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. That's a really old book. I've never seen Alexie speak or write about a children or young adult book about Native peoples written by a Native writer, so I wonder if he's aware of that particular body of literature? 

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, we know which tribal nation his characters are from. Why is that information missing from Thunder Boy Jr.

Did he think it was too much information to include Thunder Boy's tribal affiliation in the story, somehow? 

Was he unable to figure out a way to do it without yanking readers out of the story? 

If he was writing with a Native reader in mind, did he think that specificity was unimportant?

If Alexie and his editor talked through all of that, I again end up at the place I was yesterday: an author's note would have been the place to address all of this.

It is possible that Alexie didn't know about author's notes in children's literature, but his author knows all about them and why they're important. Is the lack of one ultimately her error?


There is another framework to situate Alexie's book and choices within... There's a contentious conversation taking place amongst Native people, regarding enrollment or citizenship within a federally recognized tribe. Or--rather--the disenrollment of people who were formerly enrolled in those nations. Some weeks ago there was a hashtag campaign objecting to the disenrollments. You can read about it at Indian Country Today's article, 'Stop Disenrollment' Posts Get More than 100K Views.

Read, too, their story on Alexie's views on disenrollment: Sherman Alexie Gives Disenrollment the Bird. Is the lack of specificity his way of embracing kids whose families are being disenrolled?

No doubt, I'll be back with additional posts on Alexie's book. No book exists in a vacuum. It is in the world, being read by people who are also in the world.


See my first post on his book How to Read Sherman Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr.? uploaded on May 12, 2016. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Towards a Common Understanding of Native Peoples in the U.S. (or, Why Alexie's THUNDER BOY JR. Needs a Note to Readers)

Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work. --Debbie


Last evening (May 14th, 2016), I did a search on Twitter to see what people were saying about Sherman Alexie's appearances at Book Expo and BookCon. He had some terrific things to say, like this (quoting a tweet from the Publishers Weekly account):
Sherman Alexie won't sell movie rights to his books b/c he doesn't want his books whitewashed and non-Native actors #thebookcon.
In scrolling through the tweets, I also saw one from a person who read Thunder Boy Jr. to kids in storytime, and then had the kids pick new names. That was--and is--a primary concern for me. Last year, a cousin's little boy brought home a worksheet where he had to pick a Native American name. Here's a photo of the worksheet:

It is hard to read. Here's what it says:
What name would you choose if you were a Native American? Although Native Americans gave their children names just as your parents did for you, they were very different. They also may have many names throughout their life. The elders named the children and adults within the tribe. Some came as dreams or visions from the elder which was a sign for naming the person. Others go along with the personality or characteristic of that person. A Native American name may tell about what the person does well or wants to do, something that may have happened on the day of that person's birth, or something else that has specific meaning relating to that person. Sometimes Native Americans didn't like their names because they may have been degrading. For example: Would you like to be called Talks Too Much, Buffalo Woman, Lonely One, Lazy Elk, or No Particular Tribe? Since animals were a large part of their religious world, they were often used when naming a person. For example: Running Deer, Brave Hawk, Thunder Bird, Quiet caterpillar, Wild Cat, Sly Fox or Swimming Dolphin. Part of the nature were common too since Native Americans worshipped their land. For example: Strong Wind, Running Thunder, Lightning Bolt, Shining Sun or Happy Weather. Once the elder named the child or adult, they have a ceremonial feast and that elder and newly named person formed a bond. Now it is your turn! A Native name can say quite a lot about you! Give it a try!
Think of an animal or part of nature
Think of a characteristic about yourself
Put them together!
Write your name and a description of why you chose your name on the template. In the box, draw a picture of yourself as a Native American. Below there is a circle. Here you will create a symbol for your name. Since they didn't have an alphabet or written language they often used symbols to write their names. Make it simple! Too much detail would take too much time to write your name over and over again!
I uttered one "oh my gosh" after another as I read that worksheet (where did the author find those names, and why is "Buffalo Woman" seen as degrading?!), but let's stick with my concern: the monolithic or pan-Indian character of that worksheet. There are over 500 federally recognized nations in the United States. Amongst them is tremendous diversity of language, ceremony, and yes, naming.

None of the major review journals noted problems with the pan-Indian character of Alexie's picture book. Did others, I wondered? I went over to Goodreads to see. On April 14th, 2016, Jillian Heise, who (at the time) was teaching Native children, wrote:
I see my students on these pages, most especially my favorite, with the male grass dancer regalia, and wish there were more chances for them to see themselves, and others to see them, in the pages of picture books.
I appreciate the book, and feel it is important, but wonder if it may somewhat confuse those who haven't been taught about cultural naming traditions. Might they read this and see it as a silly thing instead of the deeper meaning usually given to it? Because of that, I wish there had been an end note to add some more perspective within the larger conversation.
Kudos to Jillian! She's got the context to understand why the lack of specificity in the book is a concern.

In emails with Roger Sutton a couple of days ago, we briefly touched on my review of Alexie's book. He said "how we respect insiders and outsiders at the same time" is "a big question." I think we all want to get to a place in children's literature, textbooks, movies, etc. where we're all represented, accurately, and where students and consumers don't need help understanding the cultural, religious, history, etc. of the story or information being conveyed. In many places, for example, I've applauded Daniel Jose Older's video asking writers not to use italics for non-English words. He's pushing the status quo in terrific ways. Given the shifting demographics in the United States, that place (where things aren't so darn white) is going to come, eventually. We're getting there.

In the meantime, for some peoples and some topics, readers are going to need some help, within the pages of the book. Thunder Boy Jr. is a perfect example of the need for that help. I bought three copies of the 100,000 that were printed. One of them is mine, one is for Jayden (my sister's grandson), and the third copy is for his class. It is a class of Pueblo Indian children who probably have gone through their naming ceremony. We (I'm Pueblo, too) have specific ways in which we receive our names. My parents named me Debbie when I was born. A few weeks later, I received a Pueblo name. I'm not going to provide details about that because ceremonies are not something we disclose. There are reasons for that, including the fact that our religious ceremonies (naming is part of that) were outlawed by the US government. Another is that people who are searching for identity and meaning in their lives gravitate to Native peoples and "go Native" in superficial ways that are harmful to Native peoples. The children in that classroom, secure in who they are (like Jillian's students), will likely enjoy the story.

As I've noted, 100,000 copies of the book were published. I'm hoping that Little, Brown (the publisher) will include a Note in the next batch, providing a "do not use this book as an activity for which kids pick a Native American name," an explanation for why that is not a respectful activity, and a bit of information about Native naming. If you've got a copy, or if you get one of the 100,000 copies, I hope the information I share here is helpful.

I'll start with some tweets I sent out this morning:
Inevitable: Tweet from someone who read Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr. to kids and then did activity where kids picked their Indian names.
Fact: Imagine being a Native kid in that class, who already has a name, given to them in ceremony, being asked to make up a new one.
Question: Would it help adult readers NOT do that activity if there was a note inside the book about Native peoples and naming?
A truth: A white teacher asking a Native kid to choose a new name harkens back to boarding schools where teachers asked Native kids to point to a blackboard to choose a new name. 
That last tweet is a reference to Luther Standing Bear and what he wrote in his My Indian Boyhood. He was Lakota. In the foreward to the 2006 edition of My Indian Boyhood (first published in 1931), Delphine Red Shirt (she's Oglala Sioux) wrote that:
Lakota children are named at birth by their parents or by close relatives. Standing Bear's brothers' names, Sorrel Horse and Never Defeated, signified brave deeds that their father had been known for: he once had a sorrel horse shot out from under him, and he displayed heroic characteristics in battle, causing the people to remember him as never having been defeated. As Standing Bear later recalled, "In the names of his sons, the history of [my father] is kept fresh." Standing Bear's father was a leader who killed many to protect his people. Thus, like his brothers, Ota K'te (Plenty Kill) was also given a name that held significance.
Ota K'te kept his boyhood name until it changed to Mato Najin, or "Standing Bear," later in his life, according to Lakota custom. In the old tradition, he would have earned a new name through a heroic or brave deed, but by the time he reached an age when he could prove himself worthy, the Lakota people had been confined to the Pine Ridge Reservation. He took his father's name, Standing Bear, and at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he took the name Luther.
In his My People the Sioux (first published in 1928), Standing Bear writes that when he got to Carlisle, an interpreter came to the room where they were and said to them (p. 138):
'Do you see all these marks on the blackboard? Well, each word is a white man's name. They are going to give each of you one of these names by which you will hereafter be known.' None of the names were read or explained to us, so of course we did not know the sound or meaning of any of them.
The teacher had a long pointed stick in her hand, and the interpreter told the boy in the front seat to come up. The teacher handed the stick to him, and the interpreter then told him to pick out any name he wanted. The boy had gone up with his blanket on. When the long stick was handed to him, he turned to us as much as to say, 'Shall I--or will you help me--to take one of these names? Is it right for me to take a white man's name?' He did not know what to do for a time, not uttering a single word--but he acted a lot and was doing a lot of thinking.
Finally he pointed out one of the names written on the blackboard. Then the teacher took a piece of white tape and wrote the name on it. Then she cut off a length of the tape and sewed it on the back of the boy's shirt. Then that name was erased from the board. 
This went on for all the kids. In class when the teacher called the roll and the person whose name she called didn't stand, she'd look at the tape and make that child stand up and say 'Present.' That is how they learned what their new names sounded like, and that they should respond to the name when it was said.

All of that information is specific to Luther Standing Bear and Lakotas.

I understand that Alexie, in his classroom visits, is telling kids that the boy in the story is Spokane. Speaking as a teacher, I would love to see that in the book, and information about the ways that Spokane's name their children. At some point in the future, my hope is that the diversity within Native America will be common knowledge, and such notes won't be necessary. We aren't there, yet, and while I don't want Native writers to feel a responsibility to explain things to non-Native readers, I think it is, for now, necessary that their books include helpful notes.

Providing that information in a Note to Readers respects the writer's way of telling a story as they choose to tell it, and respects the outsiders need for more information with which to understand that story. It is one answer to Roger Sutton's question about how we can respect insiders and outsiders at the same time.

Update, May 15, 3:05 PM: I'll be back to add information about naming when I come across it. See:
  • Carter Revard's Traditional Osage Naming Ceremonies in Swann and Krupat's Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature (1987, University of California Press).
  • Anton Treuer's "What are naming ceremonies?" (especially the part about Ojibwe naming) in Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask (2012, Borealis Books).

Previous posts on Thunder Boy Jr.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Published in 2016: Books by/about Native peoples

We will be updating this page whenever we read something published in 2016.

If you compare what I have here with the CCBC list, you will notice that AICL received some books that CCBC did not, and vice versa. An asterisk indicates a book that appears here and on the CCBC list.

Recommended (N=16)

Not Recommended (N=19)

Reviewed but not able to put in recommended or not recommended (N=1):

Not Yet Reviewed (N=17)
  • Akulukjuk, Roselynn. (2016). The Owl and the Lemming. Inhabit Media. Canada
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). The Long Run. 7th Generation, US.*
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). Brothers of the Buffalo: A Novel of the Red River Way. Fulcrum Publishing, USA. 
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). Talking Leaves. Dial Books for Young Readers, US.*
  • Crate, Joan. (2016). Black Apple. Simon and Schuster. US
  • Daniel, Tony. (2016). The Dragon Hammer. Baen/Simon and Schuster, US.
  • Florence, Melanie. (2016). Rez Runaway. Lerner, Canada.
  • Flanagan, John. (2016). The Ghostfaces. Penguin, US.*
  • Holt, K. A. (2016). Red Moon Rising. Margaret K. McElderry/Simon and Schuster
  • Kwaymullina, Ambelin. (2016). The Disappearance of Ember Crow. 
  • London, Jonathan. (2016). Bella Bella. West Winds. US.
  • Modesto, Michelle. (2016). Revenge of the Wild. HarperCollins, US.
  • Peratrovich, Roy A. (2016). Little Whale. University of Alaska Press.
  • Petti, Erin. (2016). The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee. Mighty Media Junior Readers.
  • Robinson, Gary. (2016). Lands of Our Ancestors. 7th Generation, US.
  • Sammurtok, Nadia. (2016). The Caterpillar Woman. Inhabit Media. Canada.
  • Smith, Danna. (2016). Arctic White. Holt/Macmillan

A Close Look at CCBC's 2016 Data on Books By/About American Indians/First Nations

Eds. note: See AICL's list for 2016

On February 15, 2017, Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin released its statistics on the numbers of children's books by/about American Indians/First Nations and People of Color during the year 2016. 

This is vitally important work that CCBC has been doing for many years. Two important things to know about these statistics (I am not critical of CCBC at all in noting these two things; doing some of this work myself, I know how very hard it is to do, to get books, and then to categorize/analyze them).

The data is based on books that are sent to them. Small publishers generally cannot afford to send books out to review journals, bloggers, or centers like CCBC. That means books by small publishers who do great books by/about Native peoples may not be included in the data. It also means, however, that books by small publishers (or self published books) who do stereotypical books by Native people may not be included.

The data is statistical. It is a count. It is not about the quality of the books on the list. To see what they recommend, see CCBC Choices. 

CCBC sent me the log of Native books for their 2016 counts. For the last few years I have been taking a close look at their log, focusing on fiction (as tagged by CCBC; books tagged as picture books are not included in this list) published by US publishers. Here's what I see. 

Books in blue font are ones I recommend. 
Books in red font are ones I do not recommend.
Books in bold are from "Big Five" publishers.
Book in plain, black font are ones I have not read, with one exception (I have mixed feelings about Alexie's book.)

Fiction, US Publishers (books in bold are by one of the Big Five publishers)

Here's the list of fiction written by Native people (N = 4):
  • Bruchac, Joseph. The Long Run. 7th Generation
  • Bruchac, Joseph. Talking Leaves. Dial/Penguin
  • Erdrich, Louise. Makoons. HarperCollins
  • Smelcer, John. Stealing Indians. Leapfrog Press (Note: Smelcer's claim to Native identity is contested)

Now here's the books on the CCBC list, by writers who are not Native (N = 17):
  • Abbott, E. F. Mary Jemison: Native American Captive. Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan
  • Carson, Rae. Like a River Glorious. Greenwillow/HarperCollins
  • Flanagan, John. Brotherband: The Ghostface. Penguin
  • Flood, Nancy Bo. Soldier Sister Fly Home. Charlesbridge
  • Heacox, Kim. Jimmy Bluefeather. Alaska Northwest Books
  • Hitchcock, Bonnie Sue. The Smell of Other People's Houses. Wendy Lamb/Penguin
  • Inglis, Lucy. Crow Mountain. Scholastic
  • Harrison, Margot. The Killer in Me. Hyperion/Hachette Book Group
  • Lewis, Ali. Timber Creek Station. Carolrhoda Lab
  • MacColl, Michaela. The Lost Ones. Calkins/Highlights
  • Mann, J. Albert. Scar: A Revolutionary War Tale. Calkins/Highlights
  • Massena, Ed. Wandmaker. Scholastic
  • Oppel, Kenneth. Every Hidden Thing. Simon and Schuster
  • Patel, Sonia. Rani Patel in Full Effect. Cinco Puntos Press
  • Reeve, Kirk. Sun Father Corn Mother. Sun Stone Press  
  • Stokes, Jonathan. Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas. Philomel/Penguin
  • Velasquez, Crystal. Circle of Lies (Hunters of Chaos, Bk 2). Aladdin/Simon and Schuster

Who publishes what?
In 2016, the Big Five published two Native writers (Bruchac and Erdrich). Of those two, I've read and recommend Makoons. Bruchac's book is out for review.

In 2016, the Big Five published eight non-Native writers (Abbott, Carson, Flanagan, Hitchcock, Harrison, Oppel, Stokes, and Velasquez). Of those eight, I've read and do not recommend Carson, Hitchcock, and Harrison (not all reviews are online yet). I also do not recommend some of the non-Native books from small publishers: Flood, MacColl, Mann, Massena (not all reviews are online yet).

A comparison between 2015 and 2016

Books by Native writers............................3......................4............              
Books by Non-Native writers....................7.....................17...........

From US publishers, there were 10 in 2015. For 2016, it is 21. That is a huge change, but it is due to non-Native writers. Of the 17, I've read eight and found all of them lacking in some way. What will I find if I read the other nine? Based on experience, I'm not optimistic. Ernie Cox, at Reading While White, reviewed Abbott's book about Mary Jemison. I trust his review. I think it would end up on my not recommended list.

There's more to do, in terms of analyzing CCBC's data. That's what I've got, for now.


Update, Feb 23 2017, 10:20 AM -- back to list titles in fiction/Canada, and picture books in US and Canada. 

Fiction, Canadian Publishers. (Note: none in either category are by Big Five publishers.)

Native Writers (N = 2):
  • Currie, Susan. The Mask That Sang. Second Story Press
  • McLay, R. K. The Rahtrum Chronicles. Fifth House

Non-Native Writers (N = 4)

  • Bass, Karen. The Hill. Pajama Press
  • Koner, Miriam. Yellow Dog. Red Deer Press
  • Ouriou, Susan. Nathan. Red Deer Press
  • Richardson, Eve. Saving Stevie. Red Deer Press

It is interesting that there are not any books from the Big Five. The Big Five are in Canada, too, with "Canada" tagged on.

For example, Robbie Robertson's Testimony is published by Knopf Canada, which is part of Penguin Random House Canada. It is non-fiction, by the way, and it isn't meant for children. It came out in 2016. My guess is that it wasn't sent to CCBC. Robertson is Native. Another example is Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road. It is published by Penguin Canada. It came out in 2008, in the adult market, but is assigned to high school students. Boyden is not Native.


Picture books, US Publishers:

Native writers (N = 2):

  • Alexie, Sherman; illustrated by Yuji Morales. Thunder Boy Jr. Little Brown
  • Connally, Judy Shi, and Lawana Tomlinson Dansby; illustrated by Norma Howard. My Choctaw Roots. Choctaw Print Services.

Non-Native writers (N = 3)

  • Burton, Jeffrey; illustrated by Sanja Rescek. The Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim. Little Simon
  • Lai, Trevor. Tomo Explores the World. 
  • Marshall, Linda Elovitz; illustrated by Elisa Chavarri. Rainbow Weaver = Tejedora del acoiris. Children's Book Press/Lee & Low.


Picture books, Canadian Publishers (none in either category are by Big Five publishers)

Native writers (N = 9)
  • Avingaq, Susan and Maren Vsetula; illustated by Charlene Chua. Fishing with Grandma. Inhabit Media
  • Baker, Darryl; illustrated by Qin Leng. Kamik Joins the Pack. Inhabit Media
  • Dupuis, Jenny Kay (and Kathy Kacer); illustrated by Gillian Newland. I Am Not A Number. Second Story Press
  • Highway, Tomson; illustrated by Julie Flett. Dragonfly Kites/Pimithaagansa. Fifth House
  • Kalluk, Celina; illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis. Sweetest Kulu. Inhabit Media
  • Mike, Nadia; illustrated by Charlene Chua. Leah's Mustache Party. Inhabit Media.
  • Robertson, David Alexander; illustrated by Julie Flett. When We Were Alone. Highwater Press
  • Smith, Monique Gray; illustrated by Julie Flett. My Heart Fills With Happiness. Orca
  • Van Camp, Richard; illustrated by Julie Flett. We Sang You Home. Orca.

Non-Native writers (N = 1)
  • Currie, Robin; illustrated by Phyllis Saroff. Tuktuk: Tundra Tale. Arbordale

Monday, November 08, 2010

"Bestsellers in Children's Native American Books"

A colleague wrote to ask if I know of a study of the most-assigned Native author in schools. I don't know of one, but will be looking for one, or, trying to figure out how to get the answer to the question, which is basically, "What book about American Indians is most-often taught/assigned in school?" Course, that would vary by grade level and school and other factors like state, public/private, etc.

One thing I (always) wonder about is best-selling books. One source of info is Amazon. In their "Bestsellers in Children's Native American Books" (time/date of list: 7:23 AM, Central Time, November 8, 2010) are the following titles. Some are on their more than once. In some cases, its clear that the duplicate is a Kindle edition, but others seem to just be repeats. There isn't, for example, a note that says it is an audio copy.

It is, overall, a disappointing list and it makes me grumpy on this Monday morning...  I'm glad to see Native authors on the list, but duplicates of some really problematic books like Touching Spirit Bear?! And it is pretty easy to see that Amazon's customers want works of historical fiction or "myths, legends and folktales."  

#1 - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
#2 - Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell
#3 - One Little, Two Little, Three Little Pilgrims, by B. G. Hennessy
#4 - Island of the Blue Dolphins (Kindle), by Scott O'Dell
#5 - Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving, by Joseph Bruchac
#6 - Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
#7 - North American Indians, by Douglas Gorsline
#8 - Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times
*#9 - Encounter, by Jane Yolen
#10 - Sing Down the Moon, by Scott O'Dell
#11 - The Rough-Face Girl, by Rafe Martin
#12 - Paddle-to-the-Sea, by Holling C. Holling
#13 - Diamond Willow, by Helen Frost
#14 - Red Fox and His Canoe (I Can Read Book), by Nathaniel Benchley
#15 - The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare
#16 - The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, by Tomie de Paola
#17 - Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale, by Gerald McDermott
#18 - Touching Spirit Bear (Kindle) by Ben Mikaelson
#19 - Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
#20 - Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
#21 - Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, by Lois Lenski
#22 - Mountain Top Mystery (Boxcar Children), by Gertrude Chandler Warner
#23 - Grandmother's Dreamcatcher, by Becky Ray McCain
#24 - On Mother's Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott
#25 - Horse Diaries #5: Golden Sun, by Whitney Sanderson
#26 - The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynn Reid Banks
#27 - Sacagawea: American Pathfinder, by Flora Warren Seymour
#28 - Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War II, by Joseph Bruchac
#29 - The Heart of a Chief, by Joseph Bruchac
#30 - Little Runner of the Longhouse (I Can Red Book 2) by Betty Baker
#31 - Paddle-to-the-Sea, by Holling C. Hollins
#32 - Love Flute, by Paul Goble
#33 - Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, by Cornelia Cornelissen
#34 - The Journal of Jesse Smoke: A Cherokee Boy, Trail of Tears, 1838, by Joseph Bruchac
#35 - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
#36 - The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
#37 - The Legend of the Bluebonnet, by Tomie dePaola
#38 - Buffalo Woman, by Paul Goble
#39 - Cheyenne Again, by Eve Bunting
#40 - Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker, by Carolyn Meyer
#41 - Julie, by Jean Craighead George
#42 - Children of the Longhouse, by Joseph Bruchac
#43 - Sacred Fire, by Nancy Wood
#44 - Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell
#45 - Mama, Do You Love Me, by Barbara J. Joosse
#46 - The Year of Miss Agnes, by Kirkpatrick Hill
#47 - Sweetgrass Basket, by Marlene Carvell
#48 - Sitting Bull: Dakota Boy, by Augusta Stevenson
#49 - The Talking Earth, by Jean Craighead George
#50 - Rainbow Crow, by Nancy Van Laan
#51 - The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, by Paul Goble
#52 - The Polar Bear Son: An Inuit Tale, by Lydia Dabcovich
#53 - The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, by Paul Goble
#54 - Song of the Seven Herbs, by Walking Night Bear
#55 - Ten Little Rabbits, by Virginia Grossman
#56 - The Lost Children: The Boys Who Were Neglected, by Paul Goble
#57- Moccasin Trail, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
#58 - Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, by Scott O'Dell
#59 - Meet Kaya: An American Girl, by Janet Beeler Shaw
#60 - When the Legends Die, by Hal Borland
#61 - Sacajawea, by Joseph Bruchac
#62 - Knots on a Counting Rope, by John Archambault
#63 - The Porcupine Year, by Louise Erdrich
#64 - Star Boy, by Paul Goble
#65 - Jim and Me, by Dan Gutman
#66 - Kaya: An American Girl: 1764/Box Set, by Janet Beeler Shaw
#67 - Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native American Sacred Places, by Joseph Bruchac
#68 - Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
#69 - Weasel, by Cynthia Defelice
#70 - When the Shadbush Blooms, by Carla Messinger
#71 - On Mother's Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott
#72 - The Captive Princess: A Story Based on the Life of Young Pocahontas
#73 - Powwow's Coming, by Linda Boyden
#74 - The Gift of the Sacred Dog, by Paul Goble
#75 - Streams to the River, River to the Sea, by Scott O'Dell
#76 - Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts - Rhode Island, 1653 (Royal Diaries) by Patricia Clark Smith
#77 - Indian Trail (Choose Your Own Adventure) , by R. A. Montgomery
#78 - Arrow Over the Door, by Joseph Bruchac
#79 - At Seneca Castle, by William W. Canfield
#81 - Pocahontas, by Joseph Bruchac
#82 - Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving, by Joseph Bruchac
#83 - Christmas Moccsains, by Ray Buckley
#84 - The Game of Silence, by Louise Erdrich
#85 - Encounter, by Jane Yolen
#86 - Beyond the Ridge, by Paul Goble
#87 - Death of the Iron Horse, by Paul Goble
#88 - The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
#89 - Island of the Blue Dolphins (illustrated) by Scott O'Dell
#90 - Frozen Fire: A Tale of Courage by James Houston
#92 - Blood on the River: James Town 1607, by Elisa Carbone
#92 - The Give-Away: A Christmas Story in the American Tradition, by Ray Buckley
#93 - Mystic Horse, by Paul Goble
#94 - Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners, by Lucilee Recht Penner
#95 - Mysteries in Our National Parks: Cliff Hanger, by Gloria Skurzynski
#96 - Jim Thorpe, Olympic Champion, by Guernsey Van Riper Jr
#97 - Good Hunting, Blue Sky (I Can Read Book) by Peggy Parish
#98 - Guests, by Michael Dorris
#99 - Hiawatha and Megissogwon by Henry W. Longfellow
#100 - Sing Down the Moon, by Scott O'Dell

Observations? Books by four Native authors are on the list: Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, and Michael Dorris.  I'll return to this list later to share analyses and observations. Right now, I gotta head to class. The class? American Indian Studies 101, where, over the course of the semester, students gain insight and skills in recognizing problematic depictions of Native peoples. It is encouraging to see that development in them. I wish everyone in the US could take an Intro to American Indian Studies course. Then maybe there'd be some CHANGE in what they buy.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Beverly Slapin's Review of Pomplun, Smelcer, and Bruchac's NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS

Editor's Notes: 
1) This essay may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2012 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.
2) I selected Two Wolves as the illustration to use for Slapin's essay because Joseph Bruchac and Richard Van Camp are two Native writers giving us outstanding work.  A selected set of illustrations is available at Pages from Native American Classics. 


Title page for last story in book
Pomplun, Tom, editor, and John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), associate editors, Native American Classics (Graphic Classics, Volume 24). Eureka Productions, 2013.


The “Graphic Classics” books, unlike other graphic adaptations, are anthologies, with each short story, poem, or abridged novel illustrated by a different artist. Native American Classics highlights the nascent English writing and publication by Native people, including Zitkala-Sa, Charles A. Eastman, E. Pauline Johnson, and others. It’s not the only anthology of earlier Indian writing; many others come to mind. One of my favorites is Paula Gunn Allen’s excellent Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970 (Ballantine, 1995). One of the differences between Native American Classics and the other anthologies is that its graphic format will appeal to “reluctant” readers and others who are attracted to this particular genre. But Native American Classics is not without problems.

Way back, when the earliest Indian writers published their pictographs on vertical and horizontal outcroppings, they transmitted information, history, lessons, culture, language, and more. 

Fast-forward a few centuries, to the early 1900s. Stories by Indian writers of that era had to be both carefully written and suitable for publication by, of course, non-Native publishers. As such, many of the lessons they imparted were so subtle that a casual reader, especially one from outside the culture, might not recognize their messages.

If there were pictures, they supported the story rather than obstructing it; they provided a background rather than a foreground; and they enhanced, rather than interfered with, the reader’s imagination. And, perhaps most importantly, the pictures did not reinterpret the story; did not tell readers what to think.

“Telling readers what to think” is the main problem with some of the pieces in this collection, problems inherent in transmogrifying stories by the earlier Indian writers into a genre in which graphics foreground the story—and the graphic artists don’t always understand it or their work is mismatched. Another problem is that often, details are belabored in “dialogue bubbles,” at the cost of the integrity of the story. Yet another is that stories are sometimes “edited down” to what is seen to be the reading level for this kind of anthology. And finally, the stories would have benefited greatly with prefatory material that clearly set each in a historical, geographical, political and biographical context. This last problem, again, although inherent in this genre, stands out most glaringly in what is purported to be a “multicultural” anthology.

In the third edition (1992) of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children (Slapin and Seale, eds., New Society Publishers), there’s an essay by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Ojibwe), entitled, “Not Just Entertainment.” She writes:

Stories are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture, thinks. Such wonderful offerings are seldom reproduced by outsiders.

“Native stories deal with the experiences of our humanity,” she continues, “experiences we laugh, and cry, and sweat for, experiences we learn from.”

Stories are not just for entertainment. We know that. The storyteller and writer have a responsibility—a responsibility to the people, a responsibility for the story and a responsibility to the art. The art in turn then reflects a significant and profound self-understanding. 

To Lenore’s heartfelt comments I would add that adaptors and illustrators of stories—as well as editors of anthologies, if they are honest and really care—also must own up to these responsibilities.

Some of the stories and poems in Native American Classics are incomparably beautiful—some whose texts have been left whole and some that have been adapted. Some of the art in Native American Classics is—to use a descriptor I’ve recently been known to use too often—awesome. Others, not so much.

I can’t, in good conscience, “recommend” or “not recommend” this anthology. Rather, I chose to review each entry as a separate entity. Sorry for the length of this review; it’s the best I could do for the integrity of the stories and poems therein.

Teachers who would want to use Native American Classics to introduce “reluctant readers” to Native literatures should do so with caution.


“After a Sermon at the Church of Infinite Confusion,” by John E. Smelcer / art by Bahe Whitethorne, Jr. (Diné) (p. 2)

The poem beginning this anthology defies cultural logic and exemplifies incongruence between text and art. Whitethorne’s painting is of a Diné girl on Diné land. Flying into the foreground is a huge black bird, its beak wide open. The bird is larger than the child. Could be a raven, a crow, a blackbird, or maybe even a mockingbird. The painting was originally done for the cover of a children’s book called The Mockingbird’s Manual by Seth Muller (Salina Bookshelf, 2009) and someone must have thought it would be appropriate to illustrate this poem. It isn’t.

The girl’s name, “Mary Caught-in-Between,” is apparently supposed to be ironic. It’s not. It’s insulting. The singular experience of attending “sunday school” is interpreted as turning Mary’s whole world upside down; in reality, it would’ve taken years of Indian residential school to do that. Mary’s spiritual world appears to be inhabited by “Raven and Coyote,” whom she tells they aren’t “gods anymore.” But she’d know that Raven and Coyote never were gods and that you don’t worship tricksters—and you don’t talk to them, either. Mary is dressed in traditional Diné clothing, but children don’t generally dress like that just to hang out. And if she is indeed Diné, I don’t understand why a “totem pole” (on which she thinks that “god” was nailed) would even enter her consciousness. Is that big black bird supposed to be Raven? If so, there are ravens in Diné country, but Raven? No. He’s a Northwest Coast-area trickster. The poem itself is infinitely confusing, and a casual reader will probably think it’s authentic. Not recommended.

“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” (1901) by Zitkala-Sa (Yankton Nakota), adapted by Benjamin Truman, art by Jim McMunn, Timothy Truman and Mark A. Nelson (pp. 4-21)

“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” is a heartbreaking story about what happens when a Christianized Nakota man returns from mission school to proselytize his tribal community. The young man has become a stranger who disrespects his culture and community, his elders and his spiritual leader. It’s a tragic story with a tragic ending. There can be no positive outcome; Zitkala-Sa presents the dilemma and leaves out the moral. This is as it should be.

But it’s clear that the illustrators here do not “get” the subtleties of the story. While Zitkala-Sa’s Christianized narrator describes the community’s spiritual leader—aka “medicine man”—only as “tall and large” with “long strides [that]…seemed to me then as the uncanny gait of eternal death,” the artists portray him as a charlatan, as evil incarnate. He is dark and glowering and inhuman-looking, his head and face almost totally covered with eagle feathers; even his bear-claw necklace and the burning sage bundle he holds appear menacing.

When Zitkala-Sa writes, “seemed to me then,” she means that before the young man entered mission school, he saw the spiritual leader as a person whom he and the rest of the community respected. After the missionaries had finished with the young man, he saw the spiritual leader as someone with “the uncanny gait of eternal death.” Indeed, the medicine man had not changed, the young man had. Although I love “The Soft-Hearted Sioux,” I cannot recommend it in this form.

“On Wolf Mountain” (1904) by Charles Alexander Eastman (Santee), adapted by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) / art by Robby McMurtry (p. 22-44)

Told from the perspective of a gray wolf, “On Wolf Mountain”—from Eastman’s Red Hunters and the Animal People (1904)—shows their natural respect for, and complex relationship with, the Indian peoples who hunted large game animals on the plains. As well, it describes the relationship between the wolves and the white settlers (here, sheepherders), who attempted to disrupt the ancient rhythms of life and death, feast and hunger—a dance that existed long before the wagon trains, railroads, and banks got here. “It was altogether different with that hairy-faced man who had lately come among them,” Eastman writes, “to lay waste the forests and tear up the very earth about his dwelling…while his creatures devoured the herbage of the plains.” In one section, an enraged sheepherder whose flock is decimated by the wolves sets out to destroy them. A soldier tells him: “I told you before to lay out all the strychnine you could get hold of. We’ve got to rid this region of the Injuns and gray wolves before civilization will stick!” 

Both Bruchac’s faithful adaptation and McMurtry’s art—on a palette of mostly grays and browns—are right on target. In text and illustration, the wolves are as detailed as the humans, and on every few pages, McMurtry inserts Eastman’s face as the story unfolds. On the final page, McMurtry depicts Eastman telling his story to a group of Boy Scouts, an organization that he co-founded. “On Wolf Mountain” is highly recommended.

“The Red Man’s Rebuke” (1893) by Simon Pokagon (Potawatomi), art by Murv Jacob (Cherokee/Creek) (p.45)

This poem was part of the preface of a small 16-page booklet, a series of short essays printed on birch bark and originally written in 1893 as a political argument and protest against the Columbian Exposition. I can see Pokagon, in my mind’s eye, standing at the entrance of the Exposition, giving away (or selling) his booklet to the startled white people going in to see this celebration of the “discovery of America.” FYI, what follows are a few words from Pokagon’s speech:

In behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world. No; sooner would we hold the high joy day over the graves of our departed than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America. And while you who are strangers, and you who live here, bring the offering of the handiwork of your own lands and your hearts in admiration rejoice over the beauty and grandeur of this young republic and you say, “Behold the wonders wrought by our children in this foreign land,” do not forget that this success has been at the sacrifice of our homes and a once happy race.

Jacob’s painting of the death march known as the “Trail Where the People Cried,” or more popularly known as the “Trail of Tears,” is amazing. It’s wintertime and you can feel the deathly cold winter as the people lean into the freezing snow and wind. Pokagon’s short poem might have been paired with Jacob’s painting because the Potawatomi had their own “Trail of Death,” as it is known. Yet the Pokagon band of Potawatomi were not marched—they remain in southwestern Michigan—because Pokagon, as a hereditary chief, sold a substantial part of what is now the Chicago waterfront without his people’s permission. As a beginning of a discussion of Pokagon’s life, the Potawatomi people, and/or Manifest Destiny, “The Red Man’s Rebuke” is highly recommended.

“The Cattle Thief” (1914) by E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake, art by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) (pp. 46-53)

“The Cattle Thief,” a long poem, was originally published in Johnson’s anthology, Flint and Feather, in 1914; and is reprinted here in its entirety. An enormously popular performance poet, Johnson toured her native Canada, the US and England, placing her Mohawk name alongside her English name and strongly maintaining her identity as an Aboriginal woman. The Cree woman in “The Cattle Thief” is strong and resolute as she protests the murder of her elderly, starving father, called “cattle thief” by the white riders who have relentlessly hunted him down and now raise their knives to mutilate him. Standing over her father’s body, the woman harangues his killers, daring them to touch him.

And the words outleapt from her shrunken lips in the language of the Cree,
“If you mean to touch that body, you must cut your way through me.”
And that band of cursing settlers dropped backward one by one,
For they knew that an Indian woman roused, was a woman to let alone.

On a palette of mostly browns and blacks, Alvitre’s art effectively captures the bloodthirsty riders, the old man, and most of all, the courageous woman who strikes out against white predation of her people and land. “The Cattle Thief” is highly recommended.

“The Hunter and Medicine Legend” (1881) by Elias Johnson (Tuscarora), adapted by Andrea Grant, art by Toby Cypress (pp. 54-62)

Johnson’s story, in about three pages, is a good read. Children—and adults as well—who read or listen to it will see the action in their minds’ eyes, and will take in the lessons as well. Not so with the adaptation, which is belabored and too “cartoony” for my taste. The adapted text follows the original somewhat, but then veers into extraneous and annoying and hokey “conversation bubbles,” which explain what does not need to be explained. For instance, the text (and adapted text as well) read:

There once lived a man who was a great hunter. His generosity was…praised in all the country, for he not only supplied his own family with food, but distributed game among his friends and neighbors…. He even called the birds and animals of the forest to partake of his abundance.

Then, in the adaptation, the hunter explains to the animals, including two deer, why he is sharing his kill (a deer!) with them: “We are all connected in our life cycles...and so if I take, I will always give back.” Sounds like Tonto explaining something obvious to the Lone Ranger. Read the original. It’s much better. Not recommended.

“The White Man Wants the Indians’ Home” (date unknown; pre-1885) by James Harris Guy (Chickasaw), art by David Kainetakeron Faddon (Mohawk) (p. 63)

Little is known about Guy, other than that he was a member of the police force of the Chickasaw Nation, and that he was killed in a shootout in 1885. This poem was published in Native American Writing in the Southeast: An Anthology, 1875-1935, edited by Daniel F. Littlefield. Fadden’s amazing oil painting—on a bejeweled pallet of mostly sky blues, grass greens and browns—depicts a Mohawk couple against the backdrop of the land. Here are sunbeams breaking through the clouds, a bear in the sky, a deer in the meadow. It all comes together to carry this simple poem that laments the continued depredations of Indian lands. Recommended.

“How the White Race Came to America” (1913) by Handsome Lake (Seneca), as told to Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), adapted by Tom Pomplum / art by Roy Boney, Jr. (Cherokee) (pp.64-71)

Since its founding in the 19th Century, the Code of Handsome Lake has been a source of controversy, political divisions, and pain among the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse). It is known that Handsome Lake was recovering from alcoholism when he experienced his visions. It is also known that Handsome Lake’s mother was not Seneca and so, in this matrilineal society, he may not have been recognized as Seneca. In addition, Handsome Lake’s visions, as passed down in written form by his grandson, have a distinctively Christian influence, and forbid much of what is practiced today by the traditional Longhouse People. And finally, an important part of the controversy is whether or not it was proper to have taken his visions out of the oral tradition in the first place. That part of the Code of Handsome Lake is now produced in graphic format for the amusement of non-Natives belittles the whole thing. Not recommended.

“A Prehistoric Race” (1919) by Bertrand N.O.  Walker/Hen-To (Wyandot), adapted by Tom Pomplun, art by Tara Audibert (Maliseet) (pp. 72-79)

Bertrand N.O. Walker/Hen-To was a wonderful storyteller. In the book from which this story is told, Tales of the Bark Lodges, originally published in 1919, Grandma tells old Wyandot stories to her grandson. In these stories, the Wyandot dialect that Grandma speaks is authentic, understandable, and very, very funny; and when her grandson replies, he speaks relatively “standard” English. Since Grandma’s telling the stories to her grandson, she’s also, of course, speaking the animals’ parts. In this adaptation, Grandma tells the story, yet the animals speak dialect-free English. For instance, in the original story, Ol’ Buffalo tells Ol’ Fox that he wants to challenge Ol’ Turtle to a race. So Ol’ Buffalo says:

My frien’, I got make race with Turtle. You kind a smart, an’ you got sharp eyes, you be the judge, see who beat ‘em. You tell him, Ol’ Turtle, I beat ‘im on a ground’ or in a wata’, jus’ how he like, I don’ care nothin’. You tell ‘im come tomorro’ ova’ there by lake when sun come up jus’ ‘bout high as sycamo’ tree. You tell eva-body an’ he can come see race. I be down tha’, you tell ‘im that, Ol’ Turtle. He’s always best one, eva’ time; but I don’t think he could run, it’s too short his legs. Mebbe so he’s run good in wata’, tho’. Me, too, I could run fas’ in wata’ or anyhow. I bet I could beat ‘im’.

In the adaptation, this is what Ol’ Buffalo says:

I have to race with Turtle. You’re smart, and you’ve got sharp eyes—you be judge, and decide who wins. You tell Turtle I can beat him on land or in water, whichever he choose. Tell him to come tomorrow by the lake when the sun is as high as the sycamore trees. Tell everybody to come and see the race. Ol’ Turtle always says he’s best, but I don’t think he can run fast; his legs are too short. Maybe he’s faster in water, but I’m fast in water, too. I bet I could beat him.

Adapting a story is one thing, but to change the style and language is disrespectful and boring. And it makes Grandma appear to be unintelligent. The art is boring as well. Not recommended.

“I’m Wildcat Bill from Grizzle Hill” (ca. 1894) by Alexander Posey (Muscogee Creek), art by Marty Two Bulls, Sr. (Oglala Lakota) (pp. 80-81)

Alexander Posey was a journalist, essayist, poet and humorist, whose writing tended toward sharp political commentary. “Wildcat Bill,” which Posey wrote around 1894, is a boozing, bragging settler (“a gambler, scalper, born a scout; a tough; the man ye read about”). According to scholar Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., “‘Wildcat Bill’ is Posey’s attempt to imitate the speech of the white people then streaming into Indian Territory.” In this version, Marty Two Bulls makes sure that Wildcat Bill gets his comeuppance—from, of all things, a red-painted cigar-store Indian. Hilarious, and highly recommended.

“The Thunder’s Nest” (1851) by George Copway/Kahgegagahbowh (Mississauga Ojibwe), adapted by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Anishinaabe), art by James Odjick (Anishinaabe) (pp. 82-88)

This story was first published in Copway’s The traditional history and characteristic sketches of the Ojibway nation (1851) and is the story about how the Thunders, beings who wreaked havoc on the Ojibwe people, were subdued by the bravery of a young man. Although the art takes the place of a lot of the written story, it’s a faithful adaptation of Copway’s version. There is no dialogue—for which I am grateful—and the art is spot-on perfect. The Thunders are frightening, the young man is stalwart and the heart he holds in his hands is practically pulsating. Plus—and this is indeed a “plus” in books that illustrate traditional tales—the pipe is right, the clothing is right, the dwellings are right. It’s good to have a talented Anishinaabe artist illustrating an Anishinaabe story.

My only problem with Copway’s written story is that it appears to be a Christianized version of an old story that belies Indian peoples’ traditional respect for all the elements of Creation. Not having heard an oral version, I’m kind of skeptical of this one, and don’t know if I’d recommend it.

“They May Bury the Steel” (1875) by Israel Folsom (Choctaw), art by Larry Vienneau, Jr. (p. 89)

They may bury the steel in the Indian’s breast;
They may lay him low with his sires to rest,
His scattered race from their heritage push,
But his dauntless spirit they cannot crush.

Folsom’s short, evocative poem was originally published in an essay entitled “Choctaw Traditions: Introductory Remarks,” and republished in Native American Writing in the Southeast: An Anthology, 1875-1935, by Daniel F. Littlefield and James W. Parins. I especially like the repetition of the word “they.” We all know who “they” are. Vienneau’s print of a huge raven (or Raven) on a solid blue background, black with blue shining through its outspread wings, beak open, might evoke defiance, but I think the implied equivalence between Indian and Raven is funky. Folsom’s poem is recommended; the art, not so much.

“The Story of Itsikamahidish and the Wild Potato” (1914) by Buffalo Bird Woman (Hidatsa), as told to Gilbert L. Wilson, adapted by Tom Pomplun, art by Pat N. Lewis (pp. 90-95)

This story was found in Wilson’s field notes (vol. 16, #14) and later appeared in Native American Women’s Writing: An Anthology, ca. 1800-1924, edited by Karen L. Kilcup.  According to Hidatsa cosmology, Itsikamahidish is a complex kind of guy who appears in many forms, including as a human; sometimes he appears in the form of Coyote. This is a story about how Itsikamahidish, as Coyote, discovers wild potatoes, who warn him not to eat too much of them. Of course, Coyote being who he is doesn’t listen, and the consequences of eating too many wild potatoes are not lost on the reader. This graphic version is very, well, graphic; Coyote gets his comeuppance and we all know exactly why we shouldn’t eat too many wild potatoes. In Lewis’s illustrations—on a palette of riotous colors—Itsikamahidish looks just like Wile E. Coyote, the talking potato looks like Mister Potato Head, and the circular earth lodges appear accurate. I’m confused, though, about why Itsikamahidish’s sweetheart is an Indian woman, since the Coyote stories I’ve heard take place in the time before humans were created. However, if Itsikamahidish takes many forms, maybe he also dates humans. Recommended.

“Anoska Nimiwina” (1899) by William Jones (Fox), adapted by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), art by Afua Richardson (pp. 96-113)

Written about ten years after the event, this is the story of how Anoska Nimiwina, the dance of peace, came through the territory of the Osakie, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo, and brought an alliance with their enemies, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Caddo. According to Jones, this version of the sacred story of how a young woman brought peace to the warring peoples of the area was brought to the Sauk and Fox by messengers of the Potawatomi. What has been erroneously referred to as the “Ghost Dance” swept through the Plains nations; and it was brought about by the same desperation. The People believed that if they danced and prayed together in this good way, the predatory whites would disappear, the murdered ancestors would return, and the land and game animals would come back.

Richardson’s art, on a gorgeous palette of mostly blues, purples and browns, make a spectacular complement to Bruchac’s amazing adaptation of a story that reverberates even today in the Idle No More movement and a strong, courageous Indian woman. Highly recommended.

“The Stolen White Girl” (1868) by John Rollin Ridge/Cheesquatalawny (Cherokee), art by Daryl Talbot (Choctaw), color by Kevin Atkinson (pp. 114-115)

John Rollin Ridge is a notorious figure in Cherokee history. His father, John Ridge, and grandfather, Major Ridge, as leaders of the “Treaty Party,” were leading signatories of the Treaty of New Echota (1836), which ceded Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi, and was said to have resulted in the death march known as The Trail Where the People Cried, more popularly called “The Trail of Tears.” Years after followers of John Ross—who had led the Cherokee opposition to the treaty—assassinated Ridge’s father and grandfather, Ridge himself killed David Kell, a member of Ross’s faction. Then Ridge fled to California, and went on to become—a writer. A child of mixed parentage, Ross also married a white woman, Elizabeth. “The Stolen White Girl” is probably a romanticized version of their courtship; absent any of this context, the poem and illustrations read like an early version of the “dime novels” and their successors, the “Indian Romance” novels (“Savage Heart,” “Savage Flames,” “Beloved Savage,” you get the picture). Not recommended.

“The Middle-Man” (1909) by Royal Roger Eubanks (Cherokee), adapted by Jon Proudstar (Yaqui, Maya), art by Terry Laban (pp. 116-129)

In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, also euphemistically known as the “General Allotment Act,” which broke up the vast tribal lands and allotted small portions (about 160 acres) to individual Indian families to farm. The “surplus” lands were then opened up to settlers, and within decades, whites owned the vast majority of the lands. But “most” was not “enough,” and along came the real estate speculators, who, by using the American legal system, bilked Indian individuals of their land allotments. Eubanks, who had pursued careers in teaching and art, became famous for his biting political cartoons and cartoon-illustrated stories, one of which became “The Middle-Man.” Although there is some information on the Dawes Act here (in tiny print at the bottom of three of the ten-page story), it is not enough to carry this adaptation, which will lead readers to believe that Indians were (and are) unintelligent and easily duped. Not recommended.

“Changing Is Not Vanishing” (1916) by Carlos Montezuma/Wassaja (Apache), art by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) (p. 130)

Carlos Montezuma was a nationally known political leader, writer, essayist and poet, who aimed his political arrows at the white establishment and the BIA for the devastation imposed on Native peoples, and on those who believed the stereotypical portrayal of Indians in the media. Montezuma was not, as the notes here read, “the first Native American to earn a medical degree in an American University.” Actually, Charles Eastman (Santee Dakota) earned his medical degree in the same year, 1889. (Caution: Do your own research and don’t believe everything you read in Wikipedia.)

“Changing Is Not Vanishing” is Montezuma’s answer to those who would believe that changing is vanishing. Arigon Starr’s illustration, of four contemporary traditional and modern Indian people, includes two women, of whom Montezuma’s poem left out. Highly recommended.

“Two Wolves,” by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), adapted by Richard Van Camp (Dogrib Dene) / art by John Findley (pp. 131-139)

“Two Wolves” is one of my three hands-down favorites of this collection. (The others are “Anoska Nimiwina,” which Bruchac adapted; and “The Cattle Thief by E. Pauline Johnson.) “Two Wolves” is the story of a young Abenaki, just out of his teens, back from fighting in the Civil War. Hired by the Town Board to hunt down and destroy a wolf who has killed some sheep, Ash has been traumatized by the killing he has had to do in the war. The wolf has been wounded and scarred as well, and the irony is not lost on the young man: “That’s a good one, isn’t it?” he tells the wolf, “an Indian boy getting paid to scalp a wolf?” Ash, after tossing some of his dinner to the wolf (now named “Catcher”), decides he has “done enough killing for all of us,” and tells his new companion of his plans to head north to Canada. In the north, he says, is “land where there’s woods and deer. No sheep, no bounties paid for wolves or men.”

Findley’s art is amazing, realistic and detailed (save the members of the Town Board, who are appropriately caricatured). Especially poignant is Catcher’s sniffing at Ash’s wolf skin-lined bedroll. In the last two panels, the two lie down together, Ash’s head on his bedroll, and Catcher at his side. Or is Ash’s head on Catcher? Both art and story complement each other, a perfect balance, neither competing for domination. With “Two Wolves,” an anti-war story told in an “Indian” way—no “explanation,” no stated moral, no heavy-handed polemic—the reader is left to ponder the issues and explore the possibilities. Beautiful. Highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin