Saturday, November 18, 2006


Early childhood classrooms generally have a "Show and Tell" segment of the day during which one child talks about a special item he or she has brought from home. Bernelda Wheeler's Where Did You Get Your Moccasins? captures one of those moments.

The book is meant for reading aloud in an early childhood classroom. Here's an excerpt:

"Hi, Jody! Where did you get your moccasins?"

"My Kookum made my moccasins for me."

"Who is your Kookum?"

"My Kookum is my Grandmother. She made my moccasins for me."
This pattern continues throughout the book. With each page turn, Jody provides a little more information about his Native culture. The illustrations, by Herman Bekkering, depict a modern day elementary school classroom with low bookshelves. The children, Jody included, are shown wearing jeans and t-shirts. These pictures convey something a lot of children need to know: Native people are part of today's society.

Published in Canada, please order it from an independent bookstore! Or---order two copies. One for yourself, and one to give to a teacher!

[11/20/06 Note: For more information about the book, visit Waller Hasting's webpage.]

Friday, November 17, 2006

Marlinda White-Kaulaity's article in ALAN REVIEW

Thanks to Cynsations (Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog), I learned of an article I want to highlight today. The article is in ALAN Review and is written by a Dine (Navajo) woman in the PhD program in Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University.

Here's the first paragraph from "The Voices of Power and the Power of Voices: Teaching with Native American Literature":

"The weight and thickness of Mike's new literature book in English class intimidated him. He opened the book searching for Native American writers whose work he loved to read. Sherman Alexie was his favorite. As he fingered through the table of contents, all he found was a poem about Hiawatha, two stories in the mythology chapter, and one short story in the "Other Literatures" chapter in the back of the book. Sighing heavily, he gazed out the classroom window feeling bored and knowing that this English class would be more of the same. He closed his eyes and his mind, questioning the system and wondering to himself, 'Why can't we read the good stuff in English class?'"

Fortunately, the article is on-line in pdf. A sidebar features comments from Simon Ortiz, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Laura Tohe, all of whom give us outstanding literature about American Indians.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Joseph A. Dandurand's Please Do Not Touch the Indians

[Note: This review used by permission of its author. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of the author.]


Dandurand, Joseph A. (Kwantlen), Please Do Not Touch the Indians. Renegade Planets, 2004. 55 pages, grades 7-up

There’s a moment between sleeping and wakefulness that we’ve all experienced: a moment of transformation that may manifest itself as a falling tree, or a visit from a long-dead relative, or rain on the roof, or a memory too horrible to speak of; a moment of transformation in which time is timeless and reality is surreal.

Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman sit on a bench in front of Hank Williams Sr.’s Bait and Gift Shop. Visited by Sister Coyote, Brother Raven and Mr. Wolf, Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman exchange stories that weave forward, back and around, the way good stories do. Stories about a kind-hearted woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly and a two-headed baby in a jar, a boat full of fish and a salmon who seeks to seduce a raven, a grandma besieged by prankster grandchildren and a life bet for one ugly horse. And the Tourists who think that Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman are as they appear to be.

As Tourist transforms into a movie director shouting orders—“Let’s get some close-ups of those bleeding scalps. I want them to drip and drip…I want to see the children and the women screaming and crying.”— Wooden Indian Man and Wooden Indian Woman tell the lives of Indian people, speak their truths to power. Bitter, painful memories of all the indignities, large and small, heaped upon the people over the generations. And the children, slaughtered on the “battlefield,” the survivors raped and abused at residential school, left to the ravages of alcoholism and suicide. Now the children—Sister Coyote, Brother Raven and Mr. Wolf—jump and transform themselves into the sacred Beings they are. And Wooden Indian Man comforts Wooden Indian Woman:

Rest now. We will come back tomorrow and see what spirits come to visit us. Go to sleep, my love. Sleep and dream of days like this. Days filled with wonderful and alive spirits that play and sing, forever…

—Beverly Slapin

Friday, November 10, 2006

Thanksgiving Lesson Plans

Below is a post from back in September that I'm repeating today. Instead of the problematic "Thanksgiving Pilgrims and Indians" lessons, get the book I describe below and try some of the lessons from that book. If it is too late for this year, get it NOW so you'll be ready to do something different next year.

Native Americans: Lesson Plans

With Thanksgiving approaching, teachers across the country are getting ready to teach children about Native Americans. Unfortunately, far too often, November and Thanksgiving (and Columbus Day) are the only times of the year that Native peoples make an appearance in the curriculum. That is not "best practice!" I urge teachers to teach about American Indians throughout the year. Here's one book to help you do that.

A terrific resource for early childhood teachers is Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms, by Guy W. Jones and Sally Moomaw.

Published in 2002 by Redleaf Press, the book has a lot to offer. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

"Throughout this book, we have often relied on outstanding children's literature, usually by Native authors, to introduce positive, accurate images of Native peoples to children. It is our view that, with the possible exception of classroom visits by American Indian people, excellent children's literature is the most effective way to counter deeply held stereotypes and help children focus on similarities among peoples as well as cultural differences. The literature serves as a catalyst to extend related activities into other areas of the curriculum."

And here's an excerpt from Chapter 1:

"Omission of Native peoples from the curriculum, inaccurate curriculum, and stereotyping all amount to cultural insensitivity. This is heightened, however, when well-meaning teachers introduce projects that are culturally inappropriate."

Jones and Moomaw go on to discuss projects such as feathers and headdresses, peace pipes, totem poles, dream catchers, sand paintings, pictographs, rattles, drums, and brown bag vests.

Chapter 2 includes a lesson plan called "Children and Shoes" that uses Bernelda Wheeler's Where Did You Get Your Moccasins? and Esther Sanderson's Two Pairs of Shoes. It includes suggested activities in dramatic play (Shoe Store), math (Shoe Graph) and science (Shoe Prints), all of which convey similarities across cultures.

Chapter 6 is about the environment. Featured are two of Jan Bourdeau Waboose's books, SkySisters and Morning on the Lake. In the "not recommended" section that closes each chapter, this chapter says it is not recommended to ask children to make up Indian stories, and explains why.

As a former first grade teacher, I highly recommend this book to anyone working with young children. It is available from Oyate for $30.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Guest post: Kara Stewart, "Children's Books about Thanksgiving"

I am a teacher. I am also Native American (Sappony). I’m very lucky that my principal and lead teacher are supportive of me in that they are quite willing to listen to my views on teaching to and about Native Americans and act accordingly.

Recently, many colorful, attractive-looking books were put on display in our elementary school’s teacher resource room, available for check out to teachers as great books to read aloud during November. Many of them had the usual Thanksgiving scenes and theme on the cover.

Upon reading several of them, I began to feel uncomfortable. I had a feeling that several of them would be on Oyate’s “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” list. Sure enough, they were. But I felt I needed to give more solid reasons for removing them from the resource room than “they are on Oyate’s Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving list” and “the Indian teacher in the school is offended by them”. Often, it is difficult to articulate feelings of discomfort or offense, and present them in a way that others will understand, and also tell why those feelings have surfaced. I needed some help – something to give me more specifics, “hard data” almost, or other opinions to think about, especially the opinions of those that have critiqued many books like this.

So I did some digging. Oyate also has a section on their site called “Books to Avoid”, which you can find from the home page (left side bar, last choice). But none of the ones I wanted were listed (there are in-depth reviews of very common books, such as The Indian in the Cupboard, The Courage of Sarah Noble, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Little House on the Prairie, The Sign of the Beaver and more).

Also on the Oyate site, again under “Resources,” there is a link to Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving” (see the Longer Version) by Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin. I found this document very helpful and enlightening. I read it carefully to get a sense of what is a myth about Thanksgiving, and what is more historically accurate. As it turns out, much of what we accept and were taught about “The First Thanksgiving” simply is not historically supportable. Much of it simply is not true.

The Deconstructing article, in addition to giving the more likely historical facts and the reasons for them, also provides quite a few quotes from books on the “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” list as specific examples of part of the reason why those books are not recommended. Most of the books that were put out in our teacher resource room fell under this category – historically inaccurate - in addition to having other problems.

What we were taught about “The First Thanksgiving” and what many of us have inadvertently perpetuate in our students and even our own children seems to be a sort of mishmashed conglomerate of ideas that have been taught as ‘the way things were’ to students for many, many years. Much of that mishmash is made up of stereotypes of Native Americans. These stereotypes lead many Native Americans to be uncomfortable and offended with the “traditional” way Thanksgiving is presented to students. Many of the books were also written from very Eurocentric viewpoints, as if the Europeans’ version of events is the only true version, as if there was no thriving society in America before they came, as if the Indian viewpoint does not matter enough to write or consider. In other words, the books are “whitewashed.” In addition to that, in many instances, the historical inaccuracies also amount to ‘whitewashing’ – for example, an innocuous sounding, “The ‘Pilgrims’ found corn” covers the more historically accurate version which amounts to that the Europeans took the Indians’ cached corn in addition to items from a child’s grave and things from two Indian homes, all with no restitution. See the Deconstructing article for more on this point.

Several examples of Eurocentric writing that perpetuate stereotypes stood out to me. In The First Thanksgiving by Linda Hayward, the ‘Pilgrims’ spend 30 of the 48 pages in this book being afraid of the Indians. The book is peppered with phrases such as,
“They’ve been warned that Indians may attack them.”
America looks wild and strange. Is it safe? Are Indians hiding in the forest?”
“Suddenly they see Indians! But the Indians are frightened and run away.”
“They know the Indians are watching them. They can see smoke from their campfires. They can hear them in the woods. A guard is posted day and night.”
“The Indians must not know how few Pilgrims are left.”
“Indians are sighted nearby. They come closer and closer. Then one day an Indian walks right into the settlement. The children are terrified. But the Indian smiles and says, ‘Welcome’. His name is Samoset. He speaks English! The Pilgrims ask Samoset many questions. They give him presents. They want to trust this friendly Indian. Samoset comes back with an Indian named Squanto. He speaks even better English!”
The book then goes on to give an unrealistically oversimplified (and inaccurate) version of how, after that, the ‘Pilgrims’ and Indians were friends. (Read the Deconstructing article to find out why I put ‘Pilgrims’ in quotes.)

In addition to the extremely condescending tone of the book towards Native Americans (“He speaks even better English!”) and general feeling it leaves me with (Indians being akin to wild dogs that run and hide in the forest) is a clear message that Indians are not to be trusted. “They want to trust Samoset” (but can’t because he’s an Indian?). That is what will be passed on to every child that hears or read this book. They may not be able to articulate the message they are getting out of this book (just like I couldn’t before I put considerable thought and effort into understanding and articulating why it was so offensive to me), but they will be learning exactly that.

Another example of that sort of unthinking condescension that so frequently peppers the Eurocentric view in these books is in Marc Brown’s Arthur’s Thanksgiving. Let me just say that I love Marc Brown’s books in general and also his character, Arthur. Marc Brown is one of the authors I do author studies on. I promote and read many different Arthur books to my students. So the discomfort and offense this book gave me was doubly disappointing. In the book, Arthur and his pals are putting on the “traditional” Thanksgiving play for school. Through this book, they are passing on historically inaccurate information to kids. Here is a problematic excerpt as Arthur and pals try to decide who will play which part for the play:

Arthur showed Muffy a drawing of the turkey costume.
“Lots of feathers,” said Arthur. It’s a very glamorous role.”
“Yuk! Vomitrocious!” squealed Muffy. I should be the Indian princess. I have real braids."
“Brain, I’ve saved the most intelligent part for you," explained Arthur.
“No way will I be the turkey,” answered Brain. "I'll be the Indian chief."
Which leaves at least three impressions: 1) that there are “Indian princesses,” 2) “Indian princesses” all have braids, and 3) that a turkey is more intelligent than an Indian, since Brain assumed that Arthur was talking about the turkey when Arthur said he had saved the most intelligent part for Brain.

Jean Craighead George is another of my favorite authors. But her book, The First Thanksgiving is full of historical inaccuracies, many of which whitewash the situation. But her last sentence of the book is the killer, to me. She refers to Plymouth Rock and then says, “It is the rock on which our nation began.”

Excuse me? America did not begin until the ‘Pilgrims’ arrived? America had no cultures, societies, nothing until the ‘Pilgrims’ arrived and there was supposedly a Thanksgiving feast with the Indians? This is an obvious example of Eurocentric writing discounting any view but that of Europeans. It is highly offensive to those of us who are Indian or part Indian. It should be highly offensive to everyone since incorrect information has been passed along to all readers.

Some may say that I am overly sensitive to this topic in my reactions to the above examples of stereotypes and Eurocentric writing. I encourage you to substitute similar analogies in the above examples using “African Americans” instead of “Indians.” Did you try it? Sound a little fishy? Substitute in your heritage group for “Indians.” Starting to smart a little?

Now add to that a big theme that is based on historical inaccuracies – inaccuracies about a series of events, inaccuracies about your heritage group (as well as stereotypes), and inaccuracies about the supposed ‘culminating’ event. Starting to feel uncomfortable? Perhaps a little offended?

Let’s take it a step further. Let’s teach all of that about your heritage group – the stereotypes, the inaccuracies, the whitewashing – to kids as the truth. Let’s make school plays out of it and teach it as if it were fact. And then let’s continue to believe it and teach it and give life to it as adults despite many of your heritage group’s objections, and despite the availability of resources and information on how to teach accurately, non-offensively, and not inadvertently.

And now I can say that I understand why those books were on the “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving list from Oyate.

*It should be noted that the list of “Books to Avoid about Thanksgiving” is not exhaustive, which is why we all need to read critically with an understanding of historical accuracy as well as the issues of Eurocentrism and stereotypes. Oyate also has a list of References/Recommended books.

Kara Stewart

Edited on July 23, 2015, to update links.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

James Rumford's Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing

[Note: This review is used by permission of its author. It may not be published used elsewhere without permission of the author.]


Rumford, James, Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing, illustrated by the author and translated by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby (Cherokee). Houghton Mifflin, 2004; unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 1-4.

On a family road trip to California to visit the redwood trees called Giant Sequoia, a father relates the story of the origins of the Cherokee syllabary and the perseverance of its creator, Sequoyah. Sequoyah is portrayed as an otherwise ordinary man, a metalworker, who undertook the daunting task of setting speech to paper so that the Cherokee language would not “fade away.” Neither ridicule nor harassment from his contemporaries—not even the destruction of his home by arson—could stop Sequoyah from creating the syllabary widely used in Cherokee writing today.

Rumford’s text, reminiscent of traditional storytelling, is concise and evocative. Each paragraph in English is followed by a parallel in Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby. The book design, format and illustrations are a thing of beauty and perfectly complement this story within a story. The tall, slim format and mostly dark brown and forest green accents honor both the stately Giant Sequoia trees and the man, Sequoyah, whose name they bear. The bold-lined artwork—done with ink, watercolor, pastel and pencil on drawing paper adhered to a rough piece of wood, then “rubbed” with chalk and colored pencil—remind one of 19th-Century woodblock prints. The Cherokee writing serves both as an example of what Sequoyah accomplished, and as a beautiful design element that completes the wholeness of the book.—Beverly Slapin

Monday, November 06, 2006

Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War

Recently, someone asked if I had read Nathaniel Philbrick's book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. I have not, but there is an article about it in Indian Country Today.

The article, "Correcting history: Telling 'our' story" is by Paula Peters, who is Mashpee Wampanoag. For those of you interested in a Native perspective on Philbrick's book, take a look. It was posted November 3rd, 2006 in the Front Page section on the on line paper.

Also in Indian Country Today is an article about a forum, "Forum examines colonization mythology" that took place at U of Massachusetts, Boston, on October 10th. Philbrick was one of the participants. The moderator, Joan Lester, posed these questions:

"Are historians obliged to represent all participants? Lester asked. Where does an author go when there are no written sources? Does the reader have a responsibility to develop the critical thinking skills needed to recognize bias? And how do authors and readers move beyond longstanding stereotypes and misconceptions to a fuller, more accurate and respectful telling of the American story?"

Both articles are helpful as we think about the ways children are taught about Thanksgiving, and the ways that story is told in children's books.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Teaching about American Indians: "You don't want us to do anything!"

I'm getting a few private replies to my post asking teachers to think critically about using traditional American Indian stories as a model for a writing activity. One person said that while she has learned a lot from what I've been sharing on the blog, she is getting a little tired of my critiques. It seems that I can find something wrong with every lesson or activity on American Indians teachers do, or every children's book they use. One person, in a comment, said I am losing credibility with readers of the blog.

I can see why someone would feel that way. October and November are months when Native American content is very visible in schools across America. I've discussed problems in dressing up as an Indian at Halloween and problems in depictions of characters dressing up as Indians in favorite children's books. And, I've been critical about the ways that Native peoples are, and are not, presented in lessons about Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving.

So, it seems like a bit much right now.

But maybe it is because there IS so much wrong with the way we are teaching children about American Indians.

I don't think any given teacher is a bad (or racist) person because their lessons provide a heroic or romantic picture of America's history. Most likely, that teacher didn't get much in the way of critical thinking about teaching this topic in his/her teacher education program. Maybe there haven't been opportunities to think about this, either, once the teacher entered the classroom.

Teachers are overworked and underpaid. They and the profession often get little respect. Most are doing the best they can.

I'm not asking teachers to immediately drop all the lessons you've been doing for years. Meaningful change takes time. If a teacher elects to modify a lesson, it takes time to figure out what to do instead. That means a lot of time for research, thinking, writing, locating and developing new materials for their students.... Time most don't have, because they're struggling to do a good job as it is, given things like No Child Left Behind.

What I'm doing with this blog is offering some ideas for teachers to think about. My hope is that this will lead to change. I know some teachers can make changes right away, and others will modify something more slowly, and still others will think over my input and then reject what I offer because it is counter to the way they view things.

I have confidence in education and in educators. Teachers are caring people. They care about the children they teach. They want to do a good job, and if they're reading this blog, they are interested in thinking about the ways they teach about American Indians. I offer this blog to help them.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

American Indian "Pourquoi" tales

A few days ago, the White House proclaimed November to be National American Indian Heritage Month. This happens every year. Across the country, teachers begin their lessons on American Indians, and their professional organizations and associations help them by suggesting activities they can do.

For example, the ReadWriteThink website (maintained by the International Reading Association and the National Council for Teachers of English) has a page (to get to it, go to their calendar and click on November 2nd) .

Here's the activity at the top of the page:

"Engage your students in an exploration of Native American heritage through a study of Native American pourquoi tales. Pourquoi tales explain why something or someone, usually in nature, is the way it is. Have your students read a variety of Native American pourquoi tales and then write original texts."

The activity is very popular, most adults did this activity when they were kids. It seems harmless and fun, but is it?

Is it harmless to take a peoples way of thinking about the world and use it as a playful model for a writing activity?

Would you do this with Genesis?

There is a double standard at work, subtly undermining the integrity of indigenous peoples whose stories are trivialized in this way. Engaging in these seemingly harmless activities has ramifications for the way children learn to think about American Indians and others whose stories are used like this.

Let's stop doing it.

Or, let's do it to Genesis, too. Teach children that all religions deserve the same treatment.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


[Note: This review used by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of the author.]
Tingle, Tim (Choctaw), Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges (Cherokee). Cinco Puntos Press, 2006. Unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 2-5

Crossing Bok Chitto, originally one of the stories in Tingle’s excellent collection, Walking the Choctaw Road, is now a picture book.
In the early 1800s, Mississippi’s Bok Chitto River was a boundary, dividing the home of the sovereign Choctaw Nation from the “Old South” of plantation owners and their human property. Enslaved Black people who were able to get to the Choctaw side of Bok Chitto were free. According to the story, the Choctaws built a stone path just below the muddy surface of Bok Chitto—built it up in times of flooding and built it down in times of drought. It is this unseen stone path, and the generosity of a Choctaw family, that aids an enslaved Black family to cross to freedom. 

When her momma asks Martha Tom to fill her basket with blackberries for an upcoming wedding, the little girl crosses Bok Chitto, loses her way, and encounters the calling together of a Black church secreted in the Mississippi woods. After an enslaved Black father instructs his young son how to move among the white people without being seen—“not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!”—Little Mo escorts Martha Tom past the plantation house and back to the river, where she shows him how to cross. The relationship between the two children and their respective families deepens, and when trouble comes—“it always does, in stories or in life, trouble comes”—magic is made, and the Black family is empowered to cross to freedom. 

There are two concerns with this otherwise extraordinary story. One is that, in moving the text from a short story to a picture book, the description of the Choctaw was changed from “a sovereign nation of people” to “a nation of Indian people.” “Sovereign” may be one of the most important words in Indian Country, and children old enough to read this book—or have it read to them—need to be taught its meaning. 

There is something else that needs to be considered. For people to be defined by their condition of servitude—“slaves”—is a social construct that holds the institution of slavery in place. Rather, the word “enslaved” places the responsibility for servitude on the owners rather than on the owned, and raises a level of consciousness that the word “slave” does not. 

These issues notwithstanding, Crossing Bok Chitto is an awesome story of survival, generosity, courage, kindness and love; enhanced by Jeanne Rorex Bridges’ luminous acrylic on watercolor board paintings on a subdued palette of mostly browns and greens. In an endnote, Tingle describes how this particular story came to be. Today, Choctaw families—as well as Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole—continue to tell the stories of how they aided the “runaway people of bondage. "

—Beverly Slapin

Monday, October 30, 2006

American Psychological Association Resolution on American Indian Imagery

In 2005, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution calling for the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities used by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations.

The APA's Justification Statement for the resolution reads, in part:

“It is especially difficult when American Indian peoples are trying to present their tribal identity as accurately as possible, to have the dominant culture employ symbols, mascots, images and personalities that depict American Indians in an inaccurate and offensive manner (Staurowsky, 1999; Pewewardy, 1991).”

Here’s another excerpt from the APA Justification:

“The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, or religious group by other groups and social institutions—especially public educational institutions and educators—had the potential to teach children and youth that stereotyping of ethnic minority groups is acceptable (US Commission on Civil Rights, 2001).”

A lot of people are inclined to dismiss stereotypical images in a children’s book because “it is just a children’s book.” Others defend dressing up as an Indian, especially if the Indian is/was a real and heroic person (i.e. Pocahontas), arguing that such actions are informative to the person dressing up that way, and potentially to those who the person interacts with while dressed that way. And still others cite freedom of expression, first amendment rights, etc.

Read the APA document and consider what we do, as individuals who create, edit, publish, review, and purchase children’s books with American Indian imagery. You can read the entire statement by clicking below or pasting the URL in your browser window:

Justification Statement

Resolution Recommending the Immediate Retirement of American Indian Mascots, Symbols, Images, and Personalities by Schools, Colleges, Universities, Athletic Teams, and Organizations

Sunday, October 29, 2006

More on Indian Costumes at Halloween

In the comments section for "Cowboys and Indians and Tacos and Tequila," a mother who identified herself as a "Caring and Concerned but Decidely UN-PC-Mom" defended her decision to support her daughter's wish to be an Indian at Halloween.

Jean Mendoza, my friend, colleague, and co-author, submitted a reply to Un-PC-Mom. I think these two comments are important and should be read by all (not all visitors to the blog read the comments), so I'm posting both comments here. Directly below is the comment from Un-PC-Mom (her comments were not broken into paragraphs), and below it is Jean's reply to her.

Comment from "Caring and Concerned by Decidely UN-PC-Mom"

OK, I get that you don't want people to be insensitive to the Native American Culture. However, I do believe that children should be allowed to feel what they feel and want to be what they want to be. My daughter wants to be an "Indian." This is interesting because one of her best friends is actually Indian, from India. Different to that, she is fascinated by the Native American Dress and calls it Indian. We, as a family, are not disparaging of any ethnicity and she is immersed in many cultures, living here in New York City. We are middle class people who work hard for a living, and yet we do go to a private school. That school is not for profit and is of a developmental philosophy. We pay far less than the "privelaged class" of NYC, but we consider ourselves lucky to have found our cool school. One thing I find interesting about your blog is that it does not allow that historically, Native American Indians had a certain dress and look, and why is that not OK to observe as a costume? People dress as Marie Antoinette, don't they? People dress as Vampires. The point is, people dress as things that they find intriguing and actually might want to learn more about. I am very sorry if you find it offensive, but honestly, I find it an opportunity to talk organically with my child about what she finds interesting and then that opens the door to what is there academically. She certainly means no offense, being 6, and I, most certainly do not either. In this day and age, when so little is actually taught correctly about native american indians, I find it a great "in" to talk about everything with my daughter. I am sorry if it offends your sensibilities, but then, that is something for you to deal with. At the end of the day, do you want people to be insinserely NOT talking about Native America Indians, or do you want them to learn, by hook or by crook, what is real?

A caring, concerned, but decidedly UN-PC Mom
And here is Jean's reply:

Response to Un-PC-Mom in New York

I appreciate your participating in a conversation that you probably didn’t expect to encounter when trying to find information about Indian “costumes”. I’ve read your post a couple of times & think you may have misread Debbie’s work. I don’t see Debbie saying that supporting children’s mistaken ideas about Native Americans “offends sensibilities”. Instead, she is inviting you and the rest of the world to consider why you would want to continue to support a child’s mistaken ideas about other people – or about anything, for that matter.

You (un-PC Mom) said: historically, Native people had “a certain dress and look”. In fact, you probably know that there were/are HUNDREDS of ways of “dressing and looking”, historically, depending on one’s culture, gender, age & experience, time period, etc. You probably have yet to see a culturally authentic, historically accurate “Indian costume” for kids sold anywhere. The ones available (even the patterns sold for those who sew) are a hodge-podge of Hollywood Indian stereotyping and foolishness.

I’m wondering what resources you and your daughter would use to find information about “Indian” ways of dressing and looking? Without the most accurate resources and careful choices, the result is likely to be a pseudo-historical mélange of styles and inaccuracies that will add to her misinformation about what it means to be Indian, in either the historical or contemporary sense. Even if the costume is 100% authentic/accurate, you still run into the problem of allowing your child to think that "playing Indian" is somehow on a par with pretending to be a vampire or Marie Antoinette, which it isn't.

If your daughter’s wearing an Indian “costume” is “an opportunity to talk organically” with her, which then “opens the door to what is there academically” – where will you look for materials that won’t add to the misinformation she already has? Debbie has suggested Oyate; so do I. A lot of non-Native people are uncomfortable when they look at Oyate for the first time. The perspective is very different from that of the dominant culture. It can be painful to come face-to-face with the fact that much mainstream “knowledge” about indigenous people is actually false, inaccurate, even stupid. Good books by Native people are an excellent antidote for the misinformation that dominates popular culture.

"Mom", you mention that your child’s school is “developmental”. Many schools with that approach also implement an anti-bias approach to diversity. You might want to ask the principal and the teachers whether they use the anti-bias curriculum, and then check out the materials, yourself. One tenet is that it’s educationally and ethically appropriate to proactively support children’s authentic understandings of cultures, groups, and lives other than their own. That means challenging or doing away with activities that keep the misunderstandings alive. Anti-bias curriculum materials are available from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Maybe a question to ask is, “If there were Native children in my daughter’s school, would I be caringly, proudly ‘un-PC’ and let her dress that way for Hallowe’en? Or would I make a point of being sure that she did nothing that reflects my/her ignorance about someone else’s history and culture?”
If the answer is, “That would be something for THEM to deal with; let her dress as she likes” – then what does that show her about how to get along with other people? “Let them eat cake?” “It doesn’t matter what I don’t know, as long as I don’t MEAN to offend?”

I should probably identify myself: I'm white, married to a kind, intelligent and talented tribally enrolled Muscogee Creek man; we have 4 wonderful children and (yay!!) four amazingly wise and beautiful grandchildren. I've known Debbie for about 12 years and am honored to have worked with her from time to time.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Cowboys and Indians" and "Tacos and Tequilas"

In the last few hours, several people have found my blog by doing an Internet search using these terms:

"indian war paint for halloween"
"american indian halloween costume face paint"
"american indian war paint"
"halloween indian face paint example with picture"

I read this data as I ponder recent events on the UIUC campus. The Greek (fraternity and sorority) Houses are a significant element here. They have events in which a frat and sorority get together around a specific theme.

This practice started to come to awareness last year, with a "ghetto" party in which the (mostly) white students in the Greek system organized a party where they dressed up like "ho's and thugs."

This year, another party was exposed. This is the "Tacos and Tequila" party (publicly called a Fiesta). This time, students dressed as pregnant Mexican women. Some students attached little brown dolls to their shirts. Males dressed as "farmers" or "gardeners" --- the words they use publicly for what they privately said was "wetbacks" and "illegals." Of course, there is a heavy amount of liquor involved in this get together. Also coming to light are "Cowboys and Indians" parties.

From a rather disturbed perspective this afternoon, I feel some anxiety over what all of this says about society. What are we doing such that this sort of thing takes place? It isn't happening just here. The parties are happening on campuses across the nation.

Those who wrote to me saying that my posts about dressing up like Indian are hypersensitive.... please rethink that response. It isn't the innocent act you think it is.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gerald McDermott's ARROW TO THE SUN

Gerald McDermott’s Arrow to the Sun won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1978.

Awarded annually by the American Library Association, the Caldecott Medal is given to the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States during the preceding year. My guess is that most public and elementary school libraries order at least one copy of every book that has won the Caldecott. Many of these books are also made available in video and audio format. Due to their visibility and award-winning status, teachers use them extensively. For example, I did an internet search using “Arrow to the Sun”+K12. (K12 is one way of locating school web pages.) The search returned 23,200 hits.

Its popularity and acclaim aside, Arrow to the Sun has many problems. For Pueblo people, kivas are places of ceremony and instruction, not places of trial. However, in McDermott’s kivas, the protagonist must prove himself by fighting lions, serpents, bees, and lightning in four different kivas.

I think most teachers, prepping to use this book, would know that kivas are not scary places, but more like a church or temple. Hopefully, that teacher will pause as she reads the story, to tell her students that McDermott’s representation of a kiva is wrong. Fortunately for her students, they will have had a valuable experience, as they learn to question the books they read, no matter how popular they may be.

Course, it is award-winning because the people who selected the book, and the reviewers who gave it a favorable review don't know much, if anything, about Pueblo culture!

What if the teacher does not know anything about Pueblo kivas, and therefore, doesn’t question McDermott’s presentation? I think that her students are harmed by this misinformation. They will come away with a concept of kivas that is incorrect.

If one of her students should visit a pueblo on a vacation, he or she might express fear upon seeing a kiva.

And, what about Pueblo Indian children in this or any classroom where the book is used?

They, too, are harmed, but in a different way. Most likely, they know the story is wrong. How might they grapple with the error? Will they challenge or question the teacher, who is an authority figure they’ve been taught to respect? How might they feel, when asked to participate in a small group discussion on “how do you think the protagonist felt going into the kiva?” Will the child be distracted and unable to focus on school assignments in general?

Another problematic area of Arrow to the Sun is the status of the protagonist. In the story, the protagonist is mocked and chased away by other boys in the pueblo who say to him “Where is your father?” and “You have no father.” This conflict is the impetus for the boy’s journey to the sun. However, the conflict is one that does not reflect Pueblo family structure and values. The concept of illegitimacy does not exist. Children in Pueblo communities are born into large extended families. The stain of illegitimacy is European, not Puebloan.

If there is a copy of Arrow to the Sun in your school or classroom library, read it, and think about what I’ve shared here. I know some will reject what I’ve said as unimportant. It is, after all, a great story, but I hope others will reconsider using that book as “a great story” and use it as a tool in educating children about how authors and illustrators can get things wrong.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Jeanette Armstrong's DANCING WITH THE CRANES

[Note: This review is used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of the author. Dancing with the Cranes is available from Oyate, a non-profit organization.]

Armstrong, Jeannette (Okanagan), Dancing with the Cranes, illustrated by Ron Hall (Okanagan/Thompson). Theytus Books, 2005, unpaginated, color paintings, grades 2-up.

Last year, Chi’ and her Temma had come to the lake to watch the birds, and the geese had come so close that they could almost touch her. But now Temma is gone, Chi’s momma is expecting a baby, and none of the birds pay any attention to her. And the sound of a loon especially makes Chi’ feel like crying. The cranes come back in their season, but Temma is never coming back. 

As Momma helps her see the continuity of birth, life and death, Chi’ begins to understand that the cranes that come back every year may not all be the same individual cranes, and like the song of the cranes, “her Temma would always be inside of her." 

Hall’s stylized acrylic paintings are a stunning complement to this gentle, but deep, little story. Full-color pictures in shades of blue, brown and green with red and yellow highlights alternate with text pages on solid colors that complement those in the illustrations. And a “cutout” on each of the text pages further lend continuity to the illustrations. Like the traditional faceless Indian dolls, the artwork allows the young reader to imagine the characters’ facial expressions. In three pictures, a small design on the front of Momma’s dress draws the reader’s eye to where the beginning of a baby is growing. And the picture of Temma dancing with the cranes is awesome in its simplicity and beauty.

—Beverly Slapin

Monday, October 23, 2006


If you read comments to AICL's blog posts, you'll see that Fuse #8 (that's Betsy Bird, of School Library Journal) posted this comment to the Oct. 11th, 2006 blog about Columbus Day:
"I'd just like to point out that I'm very very fond of "A Coyote Columbus Story" by Thomas King. If you haven't seen this picture book, you might do well to give it a glance."
King's book is terrific. My dear friend and colleague, Jean Mendoza, has an essay about it in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. The essay, titled "Goodbye, Columbus: Take Two," discusses A Coyote Columbus Story and Jane Yolen's Encounter.

A gifted writer, Jean deftly critiques both books. Yolen is a powerful name in children's literature, and she's written many excellent books, but as Jean points out, Yolen's attempt to give readers a Taino perspective on Columbus ends up blaming the victim.

King's book is a far better choice. Some of you know that Coyote is a trickster. In this story, Coyote is a girl. Here's part of what Jean says:
A Coyote Columbus Story is no finger-pointing lament. None of its characters slouch in defeat with body parts morphing into thin air, as does the narrator at the end of Encounter. The reader sees indignation, not stoicism, on the faces of the people being kidnapped.
Your school or public library probably has a copy of Yolen's book, but not King's. Order a copy of A Coyote Columbus Story and a copy of A Broken Flute and read Jean's essay. You will gain insights that you can apply to other books.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

More on "I am part Native American"

On October 18th, I blogged about the phrase "I am part Native American." I will discuss the topic of Native identity in a series of posts. It is very complex, and filled with tension, but important. A statement claiming a Native identity is one that should be offered with a great deal of thought and care for several reasons.

One reason is the claim itself.

A lot of people say it, but, does the tribe they claim say it about them?

For example, I can say "I am Nambe Pueblo Indian" but I can also say "I am tribally enrolled." That means that Nambe claims me. They have listed me on the tribal census.

My family lineage was unbroken by any of the various efforts to assimilate American Indians into mainstream American society, and my tribe is among the tribes recognized by the US government. We are "federally recognized." You can read more about federal recognition at the webpage of the National Congress of American Indians.

I am what we call, in children's lit, an "insider" who can offer an "insider's perspective" based on a lived experience. I offer my critiques, reflections and reviews of children's books, teaching about American Indians, and playing Indian activities from a place of knowing that is enriched and informed by my experiences.

It is troubling to me when people say "I am Cherokee and I don't think there is anything wrong with dressing up like Indians at Halloween." In my experience, Cherokee people who are connected to their tribe generally don't say things like that.

My experience is that people who say "I am Native American and I don't see anything wrong...." are individuals for whom their claim to Native identity is based--not on their present day life--but on the great grandparent/ancestor situation. It seems to me that they are offering this claim to identity as a means to defend their use of what I feel is the inappropriate use or representation of American Indians.

As people charged with educating children and selecting books, we ought to pay attention to what we say and why we say it, what we claim, and why we claim it.

There's more to say about all of this another day. In the meantime, you may also want to read Oyate's statement on identity.

[Update, 12:54 PM, Oct. 23, 2006: Just above, I said "There's more to say about all of this another day" and I want to let you know that among the "more to say" is the idea of "federal" recognition, and "who can write" or retell stories about American Indians. ]

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Native-authored Plays on Internet Radio

Native radio is carried on the web by AIROS (American Indian Radio on Satellite). In November, we'll all have the opportunity to listen to three Native-authored plays that will be broadcast on Native Voice One. I don't know the suggested age for the listener, but think they are probably fine for YA audiences. Details below:

Celebrate Native American Heritage Month with a Three Course Feast for the Ear

The Native Radio Theater (NRT) Project presents three original radio plays, produced at a National Audio Theatre Festival workshop in West Plains, MO in June, 2006. Melba's Medicine, written by Rose-Yvonne Colletta (Lipan-Mescalero Apache) features a Native Grandmother who hosts her own radio talk show and gives out sage advice. Super Indian by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) is about an Indian with super powers and his side kicks General Bear and Diogi. THE Best Place to Grow Pumpkins by Rhiana Yazzie (Navajo) tells the story of a young girl who helps her grandfather fight his diabetes through a magical pumpkin patch. Funded by the Ford Foundation, NRT is a project of Native American Public Telecommunications and Native Voices at the Autry.

The hour-long special will be broadcast over Native Voice One (NV1) eight times during November. NV1--The Native American Radio Service distributes through the Public Radio Satellite System to Native American radio stations around the country. Listeners all over the world can hear it on the web at or

Thursday, November 16 at 8 a.m., 1 p.m., 6 p.m. E.T.

Saturday, November 18 at 1 p.m. E.T.

Sunday, November 19 at 1 p.m. E.T.

Twice on Thanksgiving Day, November 23 at 8 a.m., 1 p.m., 6 p.m. E.T.

Saturday, November. 25 at 1 p.m.

Sunday, November 26 at 1 p.m.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

“I am part Native American”

In recent weeks there has been an increase in comments to my blog. For the most part, I’ve left the comments alone as a place for dialog among readers to take place. Periodically, I will respond to a specific comment or set of comments.

Today I want to respond to a recurring phrase, in which someone says “I am part Native American” and then goes on to make his/her point.

To those who say that here or elsewhere, I urge you to be specific. It is critical that people learn that the phrases “Native American” or “American Indian” are very broad, encompassing over 500 different tribes, each one different from the next.

A lot of people write to me, asking if they should use "American Indian" or "Native American" or "Indian" in their teaching. I write back, saying that best practice is to specify the tribe. If you're a teacher in New Mexico, best practice is to teach your students about the American Indians of New Mexico. Apache. Dine (Navajo). Pueblo.

Do your part in working responsibly to help everyone know more about who we are. Be explicit. State your tribe.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Cynthia Rylant's Long Night Moon

[Note: This review is used by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be posted elsewhere without permission of the author.]

Rylant, Cynthia, Long Night Moon, illustrated by Mark Siegel. Simon & Schuster, 2004. Unpaginated, color illustrations; preschool-2.

Rylant begins Long Night Moon with this: “Long ago Native Americans gave names to the full moons they watched throughout the year. Each month had a moon. And each moon had its name…” Together with the artist’s description of the author’s “tribute to the Native American tradition of naming the full moons” as “lyrical” and “magic,” and the CIP data describing Long Night Moon as “Indians of North America—Fiction,” unwary teachers may be led to believe that this book has something to do with Indians. It does not. Rather, Rylant, whose ethnicity we might safely assume is not Native American, assigns her own imaginative names and behaviors to twelve of the full moons in a year: “In January the Stormy Moon shines…on a wild wolf’s back.” “In July the Thunder Moon…listens to the clouds beat their drums.”

In the excitement of writing kiddie-poetry about moons and wild wolves and drumbeats, Rylant may not have noticed that the thirteen full moons in the lunar year—by which traditional peoples reckoned the seasons—do not coincide with the twelve months in the Roman year.

The two-page spreads—charcoal, pencil and pastel scenes of a house and surrounding countryside in blues, purples, greens and grays—contain visual markers to lend continuity to the poem: a woman holding a baby, a small house, gazebo, telephone poles, fence, large tree, smaller trees. So what are we to make of two polar bears sleeping in March in the hollow of the big tree right outside the fence?

I can just see classroom teachers making a list of “Indian moons” on the chalkboard, teaching young students to make paper-and-feather necklaces featuring their favorite “Indian moons” or make up their own “Indian moon” names based on their own experiences (e.g., “rollerblading moon”). This kind of thing gives me a headache.—Beverly Slapin