Monday, September 04, 2006

Jean Mendoza: Reflections on THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD

[Note: Today’s post is by Jean Mendoza, professor in Early Childhood Education at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Jean and I are both former schoolteachers and have collaborated and commiserated many times as we raise our children in a college town that embraces a race-based mascot (“Chief Illiniwek”). See our article "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom".]

The list you shared several weeks ago of top-selling paperbacks is disturbing, and resonated with an experience I had recently. 

I’ve been revisiting Louise Erdrich's Tracks, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, and Four Souls. Recently, I noticed on a colleague's door a big poster of Caldecott (children’s book) Award winners, going 'way back. There on the bottom row was Robert Lawson's contribution to the "canon": They Were Strong and Good, a mostly uncritical look at some of that author's forebears. It contains the following lines (if I remember right):
"When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota--tame ones. My mother did not like them. They would stalk into the kitchen without knocking and sit on the floor. They would rub their stomachs and point to their mouths to show that they were hungry. They would not leave until my mother's mother gave them something to eat."
In contrast, Erdrich’s accounts of the fictional lives of Nanapush, Kashpaws, and Pillagers reflect a different historical and personal reality situated in essentially the same locale at about the same time as Lawson’s family stories.

For an adult reader, Erdrich provides a kind of unintended backstory for Lawson's superficial and bigoted child-directed comments about those "tame Indians". In order for the Lawson forebears to settle in Minnesota, the land had to be taken from families whose own forebears had made their lives on it, and from it, for millennia -- forebears who could undoubtedly have been described as “strong and good” themselves.

Obviously we are to assume that Lawson’s “tame Indians” were too lazy or incompetent to get food on their own, choosing instead to rudely enter the rightful home of Lawson’s hardworking family to beg. Erdrich’s characters may have been fictional, but the waves of disease, famine, and land theft were horribly real to the actual indigenous people of Minnesota & the Dakotas. What a small, shallow, relatively ahistorical world-view Lawson’s book expresses, despite the array of countries his ancestors hailed from!

Lawson does not seem to question what might have led up to the situation he describes. Did none of his strong/good ancestors ever say, “Hm; we prosper while others in the same space starve. How did this come to pass?”

In Four Souls, Erdrich has a (Euro-American) character describe a particular house:
“On the most exclusive ridge of the city, our pure white house was set, pristine as a cake in the window of a bakery shop.”
In the preceding chapter, however, Ojibwe elder Nanapush tells a more complete story of that house: the origins of the stones, the brick, the iron – and most importantly (as it turns out), the wood.
“Once this stone had formed the live heart of sacred islands,” says Nanapush; but now to the couple who occupy the house, that stone “was a fashionable backdrop to their ambitions.”
Not sure where to take this line of thought now, except that this experience makes me wish that if a teacher, parent, or librarian is going to recommend that a child read They Were Strong and Good simply because it has the Caldecott stamp of approval and seems like a good All-American story, that teacher/parent/librarian would first read Erdrich’s books.

There’s another “All-American” story behind Lawson’s – one that any child in the US ought to have access to, so that he or she doesn’t construct a false picture of how the US came to be.

I guess then the next step would be for that adult to recommend Erdrich’s children’s novels, The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence to the same child. In fact, ideally the child would have read Birchbark and Silence BEFORE giving Strong and Good a second glance. Then Erdrich’s picture of Ojibwe life can become a lens through which the child can consider the picture of “tame Indian” life Lawson presents.

Books like Lawson's seem never to fade into richly-deserved oblivion. A visit to the reader reviews indicates that They Were Strong and Good is still making some people feel fine about themselves, 60-some years after it was awarded the Caldecott, which means that it continues to be a tool for the disinformation of children, whether or not teachers, librarians and parents mean for it to be so.

By the way, I appreciated the comments from the mother whose daughter kept encountering Education of Little Tree. Thanks for the account of what critical reading and writing can look like (and feel like). Many people have written eloquently about the problems that book has and presents, and still it manages to be beloved of many who resist any questioning of its value – and who are determined to continue its legacy of bigotry and lies.

I’ve asked this question before in other circles and had interesting replies: Is there, or should there be, some kind of “ethics of aesthetics”, that would have an answer to the notion that, for example, an author's background or bigotry "doesn't matter because the book was well-written". Is an award for illustration, for example, a good enough reason to keep Strong and Good in print and on Recommended lists, when it perpetuates negative images of Native people (not to mention an apparently sympathetic or apologist view of slavery)?

At what point might an author, an illustrator, a publisher, a librarian, a teacher have a responsibility to say no to what's in a book in the interest of "doing no harm" to the child reader? Always, sometimes, never? And then, what constitutes "harm"...

---Jean Mendoza

Friday, September 01, 2006

LeAnne Howe, American Indian Studies at UIUC

Since the late 1980s, Native American students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have lobbied for the establishment of a Native American cultural house and an American Indian Studies program, and we've called for the retirement of "Chief Illiniwek."

With the support of former chancellor Nancy Cantor, UIUC opened its Native American House and American Indian Studies program in 2003. UIUC has yet to rid itself of "Chief Illiniwek," but I am confident its end as the officially sanctioned symbol of UIUC's sports program is near. (Some think UIUC's support of our program is an effort to buy us off or shut us up, but a glance at our website and public statements we have issued calling for its retirement indicates otherwise. )

In 2004, I was hired to be an assistant professor in American Indian Studies (AIS). Since then, we've hired four American Indian professors and will hire more.

Among our faculty is LeAnne Howe. Perhaps you've read her novel, Shell Shaker. It received an American Book Award in 2002. That year, Wordcraft Circle named LeAnne as Writer of the Year. Her collection of poetry and prose, Evidence of Red, came out last year. It won a 2006 Oklahoma Book Award. Later this month, her documentary Indian Country Diaires: Spiral of Fire will be broadcast nationally on PBS. Her books and poems can be used in high school junior and senior English classes.

Take a moment to visit our Native American House website. Encourage high school and college students to look over our pages. We have a lot to offer. UIUC is an exciting place to be.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

One family's experience with THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE

A reader of "American Indians in Children's Literature" wrote to me, describing her daughter's experiences with The Education of Little Tree. I invited her to write it up so I could post it to the blog. Here it is (I welcome others to write to me with similar accounts. You can remain anonymous or disclose as much personal information as you are comfortable with.)


A Georgia family's experience with The Education of Little Tree:

As a family, our experience with The Education of Little Tree has been both frustrating and enlightening. My daughter, now in 9th grade, essentially has had three readings of ELT. In 7th and 8th grades, it was a required classroom text for her. Since I knew Asa Carter's background, I gave both teachers copies of articles that discussed the book's authorship. The 7th grade teacher took the position that the author's background didn't matter because the book was well-written and gave an "authentic" representation of Cherokee life. She told the students about Carter's racist history but said that he had a change of heart before writing ELT. The 8th grade teacher, on the other hand, knew of his past and used the book to spark an investigation of writing "fraud" and misrepresentation, getting into the question of who should tell a story and for what purpose. My daughter's understanding of the book became very complex given the juxtaposed treatment of the text by both teachers.

However, her readings of the book extended beyond the classroom. Since she has a reading disability, she and I initially read the book together and had many discussions about some of the more unsettling aspects of the book that we uncovered--issues of racism, classism, sexism and ableism. She ultimately decided to counter ELT with a homework project based on another writer's memoir of growing up in America--Zitkala-Sa's American Indian Stories. My hope is that through these multiple readings and multiple lenses she is developing not only a sophisticated understanding of ELT, its author, and the issues surrounding both but also a keen critical eye towards reading in general.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cooperative Children's Book Center: Books By and About American Indians

The School of Education at the University of Wisconsin is home to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC). At CCBC, they devote resources and attention to multicultural literature. On their website is a page called “Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States” that documents the number of books published by and about African Americans, Asian/Pacific and Asian Pacific Americans, Latinos, and American Indians. 

Here’s their stats on American Indians for the period from 2002-2005. In each of these years, CCBC estimates about 5000 children’s books were published.

In 2002:
6 books by Native authors were published
64 books about American Indians were published

In 2003:
11 books by Native authors were published
95 books about American Indians were published

In 2004:
7 books by Native authors were published
33 books about American Indians were published

In 2005:
4 books by Native authors were published
34 books about American Indians were published

Prior to 2002, CCBC’s data combined the “by” and “about” totals as follows:
1994: 70
1995: 83
1996: 50
1997: 66
1998: 50
1999: 61
2000: 54
2001: 96

CCBC publishes several excellent print and internet resources. For example, take a look at their page on the Native Peoples of Wisconsin. You can access CCBC Choices (their annual review of recommended books) via the internet, in pdf format.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures

The Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures (ASAIL) began publishing “Studies in American Indian Literatures” (SAIL) in 1977. The purpose of the organization is to:

"... promote study, criticism, and research on the oral traditions and written literatures of Native Americans; to promote the teaching of such traditions and literatures; and to support and encourage contemporary Native American writers and the continuity of Native oral traditions."

By visiting the ASAIL homepage you can access on-line copies of the journal. Articles published in SAIL are generally about works of fiction for an adult audience, many of which are used in high school English classes (e.g. Silko’s Ceremony).

The Spring 2000 issue was devoted to children’s literature. Among the articles is “A Lingering Miseducation: Confronting the Legacy of Little Tree” by Daniel Heath Justice.

With over 30 years of articles, SAIL is a rich resource for anyone interested in literature by and about American Indians.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Are you reading "American Indians in Children's Literature" in Finland? Italy?

According to the stats report of the blog, readers are logging in from Finland, Italy, Belgium, Bermuda, Australia, Ireland, the Philippines and Canada (note: the report does not provide personal information that can be traced directly to a reader; only "location" such as Makati, Rizal, in the Philippines).

If you come back to read the blog again, I'd really like to hear (send me an email) what children in your country know and are taught about American Indians. What children's books do they read? Little House on the Prairie? While it is hailed as a classic here, it has a lot of problems with regard to its representation of American Indians (some of which are noted in the linked review).

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Most people are surprised to learn that the author of The Education of Little Tree is Asa Carter, the former Klansman and speech writer for George Wallace. In addition to discussion of his identity, leading scholars of American Indian literature have soundly criticized the story Carter tells.

Apparently unaware of the controversy and shortcomings of the book, teachers use the book in classrooms across the country. A google search of “Education of Little Tree” +K12 returned 12,600 hits.

Amy Kallio Bollman has an essay that captures the debate over the book. Titled “The Education of Little Tree and Forest Carter: What is Known? What is Knowable?”, it includes an extensive bibliography.

Two articles from my files that are not included in Bollman’s bibliography are:

Krupat, Arnold (2005) “Representing Cherokee Dispossession” in Studies in American Indian Literature, volume 17, no. 1, pp. 16-41.

Smith, Paul Chaat (1996) “Be Like Nick” in Winds of Change, volume 11 no. 2, pages 53-57.

And here’s one an article from, from 2001:
“The Education of Little Fraud” by Allan Barra. If you’re not a Salon subscriber, I think I can email the article to you.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Critical Literacy Podcast

I'm taking time this morning to listen to the Critical Literacy in Practice (CLIP) podcast. It is far easier than I expected. All I did was click on the "listen" button. I didn't have to open an audio program like RealPlayer, so I don't know how this works, or if it will work on your computer.

As noted in an earlier post, Vivian Vasquez's CLIP podcast was planning to feature Arigon Starr's song "My Heart is on the Ground." She did that, but it looks like there are two segments featuring Native content. I'm listening to the podcast as I write this post, to a song by Jesse James, who is the lead singer for Diga. According to the Diga website, James is from the Tlicho (Dobrib) community of Fort Rae in the Northwest Terrorities, and Diga's music "tells the stories of the culture, the elders, and the land." On that podcast (Show #6 "Unpacking Stereotypes Continued..., dated Monday August 14th, 2006), Vasquez poses a series of questions about the Tylenol ad I noted a few weeks ago.

The previous week (Show #5, August 7th) the podcast was titled "Rising up against stereotypes." It was on that show that Vasquez played Arigon Starr's song. In this show, Vasquez plays a clip by Dianne Lafferty, who relates an experience her daughter had in a skating show with a Walt Disney theme.

Take time to visit Vasquez's site and listen to her podcasts. And if you know of Native people doing podcasts, let me know. If they're related to education and/or children's book, I'll link to them.


Monday, August 21, 2006

INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD series by Lynne Reid Banks

The software that monitors traffic on my site includes a list of words and phrases people use that bring them to American Indians in Children's Literature. (Note: the software doesn’t provide names, email addresses or any information that can be traced back to you.) One that pops up often is “Indian in the Cupboard” and “lesson plan.”

Due to the many problems with that book, I do not recommend Indian in the Cupboard or any of the sequels. Here are some on-line reviews and an article about the book:

“A Demand for Excellence in Books for Children” by Jan LaBonty, published in the Journal of American Indian Education

And here’s another article, not available on-line. If you don't have access to it through a library, send me an email (dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com) and I'll send you a copy:

Tyler, Rhonda Harris (Jul/Aug 2000) Indian in the Cupboard: A Case Study in Perspective International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), Vol. 13, Issue 4

If any readers know of other reviews/discussions of this book, let us know. I have some notes on the first chapter, and, a link to an outstanding article about toy Indians here: Indian in the Cupboard, chapter one

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Review of Ruth Bornstein's BRAVE BUNNY

[Note: Beverly Slapin at Oyate compared Indian Bunny and Brave Bunny (for background see the blog post on August 14, 2006). She sent her review to me. With her permission, I'm posting it below. Her review may not be published elsewhere without her written permission. Remember to visit the Oyate site to order children's books about American Indians. And if you want more of their reviews, you won't regret getting Oyate's Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. --Debbie]


In 1973, Golden Gate Junior Books published Ruth Bornstein's little book, INDIAN BUNNY. In the same year, it was picked up by Scholastic, "by arrangement with Children's Press." Bornstein dedicated INDIAN BUNNY "to Noah, Jonah, Adam, and Jesse," whom we can presume to be her children. Here is the entire text of INDIAN BUNNY:

One day a bunny said,
Good-by, I'm going to be an Indian.
I'll follow the stream
And I'll walk along a hidden forest trail
—so silently
that not even the deer will hear me.
In the stream I'll find a tadpole
and he'll tell me how he turns into a frog.
I'll come to a meadow
and do a deer dance when the sun is high.
I'll climb a tree
and look far out.
An eagle will come to his nest,
so I'll hide in my friend the Owl's house
and watch him.
I'll climb down and find a feather the eagle
has floated down to me.
Then I'll follow the hidden trail
to the place where the animals meet.
and I'll watch them.
And when the sun is low
I'll silently steal away.
I'll gather round stones
to mark a place.
And I'll rub two sticks together
to make a fire.
I'll sit by my fire.
Maybe I'll hear the drums far off—
And I'll beat my drum in the night.
My friend the Owl will hear me.
And when the moon is high
and I crawl into my tepee,
my friend will fly over to say,
Sweet dreams.

That's all of it. A quiet, gently told tale with soft cadence; perfect to read in a dim light to little kids warmly tucked in bed. A sweet little goodnight story for the littlest kids to fall asleep to. Except that it's racist in its inception and imagery. A little bunny goes off and plays Indian, doing all the things that "Indians" do in the imaginations of non-Indian kids and their parents.

In 2003 (thirty years later), Gibbs Smith Publisher morphed INDIAN BUNNY into BRAVE BUNNY. Ruth Lercher Bornstein dedicated BRAVE BUNNY to "Jacob, Gabriel, Joseph, Rebekah, Kalia, and Olivia," whom we can presume to be her grandchildren. According to the publisher, BRAVE BUNNY was edited by Jennifer Grillone. The CIP summary: "A bunny decides that it is time to go into the world to meet and learn from other animals, especially his friend Owl."

So what kind of editing was done? The second line and the last line.

One day a bunny said,
Good-by, I'm going out into the world.

And when the moon is high
and I crawl into my tepee,
my friend will fly over to say,
Good night, Brave Bunny.

Some green and blue tint was added to the pictures. That's all. "Brave Bunny" is still sneaking around, wearing a feather, doing a "deer dance," rubbing two sticks together to make a fire, beating a drum, and going to sleep in his "tepee." I wonder how much Jennifer Grillone was paid for her "editing," and who thought it was a good idea to bring this offensive little book back into print.—Beverly Slapin

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Must-have reference books about American Indians

There are three encyclopedia's on American Indians that every school library ought to have. Each one includes a wealth of information, maps, photographs, and a bibliography for each entry. In each one, a good many of the entries are by American Indian scholars, researchers, and widely respected Native people. Ask your library to buy a new copy of each one. Get new personal copies for yourself (if you can afford it), but if not, get a used copy. They are:

The Native North American Almanac: A Reference Work on Native North Americans in the United States and Canada is edited by Duane Champagne, former director of American Indian Studies at UCLA. It is huge---with over 1000 pages---and used copies of it are available for under $20. The second edition was published in 2001 by Gale.

Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, edited by Mary B. Davis, Joan Berman, Mary E. Graham, and Lisa A. Mitten. It was published in 1996 by Garland Publishing, and is 787 pages in length. Used copies are available on line for as little as $20.

One of the editors, Lisa A. Mitten, maintains the excellent website "Native American Sites" that has the following subsections:
--Information on Individual Native Nations
--Native Organizations and Urban Indian Centers
--Tribal Colleges, Native Studies Programs, and Indian Education
--The Mascot Issue
--Native Media - Organizations, Journals and Newspapers, Radio and Television
--Powwows and Festivals
--Native Music and Arts Organizations and Individuals
--Indians in the Military
--Native Businesses
--General Indian-Oriented Home Pages

Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, former director of the Newberry Library in Chicago. It is 765 pages long, and was published in 1996 by Houghton Mifflin. Used copies are available for around ten dollars.

I find these encylopedia's helpful when I come across something in a children's book that I want to look up, or double check, or if I want more information on something that is mentioned in a children's book.

Friday, August 18, 2006

L. Frank Baum: Author of WIZARD OF OZ books and racist editorials on American Indians

Most people know The Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum, but not many know that Baum wrote scathingly racist newspaper columns advocating the killing of American Indians. NPR (National Public Radio) ran a story yesterday that says Baum's descendents are issuing an apology for his columns. You can listen to the story here: 'Oz' Family Apologizes for Racist Editorials

For background on the editorials, go here: L. Frank Baum's Editorials on the Sioux Nation

[Update: Feb 14, 2011
The link above doesn't work anymore. I'm working on it. In the meantime, here's a paragraph from the his editorial that ran in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, December 20, 1890:
The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism.]

I subscribe to "child_lit," which is a listserv (electronic mailing list) of people who write, illustrate, edit, publish, review, critique, read, and teach children's literature. I view it as an important group because key people in children's publishing are subscribers. Discussion topics are related to children's literature, and on occasion there is some focused (often heated) discussion of Native books. When I first joined this list in the mid 90s and posted the sorts of things I post here, I was often flamed by other subscribers who labeled me PC, hypercritical, etc. I don't get those nasty private emails anymore. Either people are just deleting and ignoring my posts, or, over time, they are thinking more carefully about what I have to say. And I should also note that in some ways, there is a creeping subtlety in terms of racist ideology. It is no longer explicit and blatant, but it is still there.

Anyway, child_lit is where I read about the Baum family apology (thanks to Kerry for the link). If you're involved with children's lit and want to see what child_lit is about, you can subscribe to the list. You'll start getting emails from the group. Yesterday there were 33 emails, so only subscribe if you're willing to receive that much email in a single day. If you don't like it, you can unsubscribe. I learn a lot by being on the list. To read about it and subscribe go to the child_lit webpage.

Returning to the Baum apology... If you've seen newspaper stories about it, post links in the comments section. In the NPR story, there was an interview with a woman (didn't catch her name) who is a descendant of a Wounded Knee survivor.

Update: Feb 14, 2011
Through comments to my post on Feb 12 (about Leo Politi playing Indian), I learned that the South Dakota Historical Society Press published two books for children, originally written by Baum as short stories. Here's one: Enchanted Buffalo. I'm ordering the book. 

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Tribal Publishers

I came across the bookstore for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma yesterday and saw they've got several children's books, some of which have Choctaw language in them. I ordered two of their books: Choctaw Jack, and Pashofa Pole and look forward to reading them.

Does your tribe publish children's books? Or are you a self-published author? Either way, I'd love to see what Native people are doing with regard to publishing Native stories. Send me an email with that info.

Getting published by the publishing houses that have the money to promote your work in catalogs, book fairs, etc., is very difficult. Some Native authors, like Cynthia Leitich Smith, have experienced success, but it doesn't come easily. She works very hard on her own writing, but also in teaching and working with others. Her love of children's books is evident on her website. Spend time there, reading her web pages. If you're interested in writing, go to Writing Books for Children and Teenagers.

And, go to your local bookstore. Are her books on the shelf? If yes, buy them! If not, talk to the bookstore manager and order a copy. If we don't buy books by Native authors, they'll go out of print. Ordering and buying them signals that consumers want these books. There is a perception that only Native people want children's books by and about Native people. That perception means a very tiny market for the books, and that perception is WRONG. Good books are good books. All children should have them in their homes, schools, and libraries.

Cynthia's books:

If you're looking for a picture book, order Jingle Dancer.
If you're looking for a chapter book for early elementary readers, order Indian Shoes.
If you're looking for a novel for late elementary or middle school readers, order Rain is Not My Indian Name.

If you're looking for a collection of short stories for high school readers, order Moccasin Thunder, edited by Lori Marie Carlson, which has Cynthia's story "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and his Equally Annoyed Soul Mate."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Native Art Posters (for teachers) from the Heard Museum

On the website for the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, there is an "Education and Research" page with items of interest to teachers. I have not seen their curruculum materials, but I am on the teacher's mailing list. Periodically, they offer posters through the mailing list. Below is a list of what they're offering right now. Total cost is $4.00, whether you want one poster or one of each. Over the years, I've ordered several. On the reverse side of each one is information about the art depicted and about the artist. I highly recommend ordering them, as they will prove useful in the classroom (perhaps in comparing art in children's books). Beneath the list of posters is ordering information. And, if you want to join the mailing list, go to their Teacher Mailing List.

High Moon over Monument Valley (basket) by Joanne Johnson (Navajo)
Storyteller Bracelet by Clarence Lee (Navajo)
Long Neck Jar by Barbara Johnson (Maricopa)
Canteen with Butterfly by Elizabeth White (Hopi)
Doll by Annie Fields (Mohave)

Navajo Code Talkers by Lorenzo Reed (Navajo)
Sandpainting by Rosie Yellowhair (Navajo)
Family Going to the Mountains by Laura Kerman (Tohono O’odham)
Rain Ceremony by Laura Kerman (Tohono O’odham)
Bracelet by Charles Loloma (Hopi)
Pot by Elmer Gates (Mohave)
Red Tailed Hawk Kachina by Dan Namingha (Hopi)
Purple Heart Bracelet (Navajo)
Ring by Monica S. King (Akimel O’odham/Navajo)
Teapot by Edison Cummings (Navajo)

Please make out your check ($4.00) to: Heard Museum
Send your check, a list of the posters you want and (please) your address to:
Education Department
Heard Museum
2301 North Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

NY Times, Tim Tingle and Marge Bruchac

Children's books by Native authors and illustrators rarely receive attention from mainstream papers like the New York Times. So, it was a surprise and a treat to read this week's article on children's books. The article is about multicultural literature. Three books are featured, two of which are the work of Native people.

Here's the link to the article: "Children's Books".

Take a look. It includes a photograph of Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle. His book is called Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom. I've looked at a copy of the book. My first impression is good. His writing drew me into the story, into its time and place. I'll read it again (just returned from vacation and must prepare for the start of the school year) soon, but if anyone has read it and wants to comment, please do.

The second book featured is by Marge Bruchac. Her Malian's Song is based on an event that happened in 1759. Bruchac is Abenaki. She is also a historian using her training to write children's books that counter the feel-good story of America. She does precisely that in Malian's Song. Along with the review in the NY Times, you can listen to a Vermont Public Radio commentary about the book or read the transcript here: "Malian's Song".

For more information about Tingle and his books (there is an audio CD available), go to his webpage: "Tim Tingle, Storyteller".

You can order Malian's Song from Oyate. And here is a page with more information about Marge Bruchac and her work:

Monday, August 14, 2006


A reader (Amanda) wrote to me about Indian Bunny, a picture book she found in her local public library. In the story, a bunny decides he wants to be an Indian. According to the Library of Congress catalog, Indian Bunny (written and illustrated by Ruth Bornstein) was first published in 1973 by Childrens Press. But, as Amanda found out, it was republished in 2003 with a new title. It went from Indian Bunny to Brave Bunny. Why the change from "Indian" to "Brave"?!

Other than the title, it is the same book. At the Amazon site, you can get the older one in a used copy. There are three reviews which say in part:
"Despite what some would consider a politically incorect titile, INDIAN BUNNY is a sweet story that young chilren enjoy and instills in them a small amount of respect for cultures other than their own."
"A very pro-native American (and pro-Pagan) introduction for the very young. "
"This was my first and favorite book in the world! It is a simply written and illustrated tale of a bunny who decides, one day, that he wishes to be an Indian. His story unfolds accordingly, along the banks of streams, and in fields and trees where he meets and befriends sacred animals and practices the ancient ways. The beauty of the story is its simplicity and profound sense of respect and mystery. It is a gentle spiritual quest suitable for even the youngest children or early readers. I still love it!"

Of course, bunnies appear frequently in children's books, and there is at least one very popular book that features bunnies dressing up like Indians. Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman came out in 1991. The illustrations (by Sylvia Long) are attractive. No doubt, some view the title as a clever take-off on "Ten Little Indians" which many children still sing in their pre-school classrooms.

It is a counting book, so (by definition), each page features a numeral and objects to count. In this case, the objects for counting are rabbits dressed in the regalia (note I did not say 'costume')* of a specific tribal nation. I urge readers---especially Native ones---to take a look at the book. Is your tribe represented? Is it correctly represented?

As some of you may know, I am Pueblo Indian, tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in New Mexico. In Ten Little Rabbits, there is a page intended to show Pueblo Indians. On that page, two male rabbits are shown dancing in Pueblo-like attire, standing in front of an adobe wall. But! They are shown facing each other, and there are only two of them (this is the page for the numeral two). There are no dances at Nambe that are done that way.

At the end of the book is a double-page spread (two pages facing each other) that have "information" about each tribe depicted in the book. I deliberately put "information" in quotation marks, because the "information" about Pueblo people is wrong. Grossman says that we "stage" a dance in which the male dancers "leap and stamp to wake up the spirits."

Sadly, this "information" makes the book more attractive to parents and teachers who are trying to bring accurate and authentic books to the classroom. I'm sure that Grossman and Long didn't intend to dupe their readers, but I think they've done all children a disservice. Once again, Native people are objectified (one little, two little....), and these gorgeous illustrations and "information" add to the already too-big pile of hooey that passes for knowledge about American Indians.

Next time you're in your local library, see if Ten Little Rabbits is on the shelf. If you're willing, approach the librarian, and point out problems with the book. It has FACTUAL errors. In my view, it should be weeded (pulled off the shelf and taken out of circulation).

If you're interested in reading more about Ten Little Rabbits, see Theresa L. McCarty's article "What's Wrong with Ten Little Rabbits?" published in 1995 in a journal called The New Advocate (volume 8, #2, page 98).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Feedback, please

This request is for parents and teachers.

In November I'll be at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. I'm on the Committee on Racism and Bias, and we'll be meeting at the conference. It might be nice to share with the rest of the committee "stories from the field." That is, stories from parents and teachers about positive/negative experiences with books by/about American Indians, or books that have Native characters.

This can be wide-ranging. A good book, a bad book, what you found when you tried to speak to a teacher or librarians about a book... How a child responded to a particular book...

Send me your comments and I'll share them. Send right to my email: (

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Arigon Starr

Some years ago, I worked with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), reviewing and selecting proposals for their annual conference. Through that work, I met Vivian Vasquez. She is currently a professor at American University, and has recently begun a podcast called CLIP, which stands for "Critical Literacy in Practice."

On Tuesday, August 8th, she will play Arigon Starr's song My Heart is on the Ground. I'm not yet up to speed on podcast's, but I understand you can listen to them on your computer. Here's the link to her site Camping in Canada, I doubt I'll be able to listen till I'm back in Urbana. Readers who know how to listen using a computer, please post info in the comments section. For new readers, read my blog post on July 26th for background (filed under archive dated July 23rd).

Saturday, August 05, 2006

"Indian Festival" Leaving Pennsylvania today, after spending a few days in beautiful country in the NW corner, where a small town called Tionesta is located. Next week, Tionesta will hold its annual "Indian Festival." Activities include a "Princess and Brave Pageant" an "Indian Costume Parade" and dancing by the "Allegany River Indian Dancers." The community and businesses of Tionesta sponsor the festival. Top sponsors are the "Tribal Council" followed by the "Chief Sponsors" who donate $100 or more in cash or merchandise, and last, the "Brave Sponsors." Icon for the "Tribal Council" is a shield with "TIF" on it; the icon for the "Chief Sponsors" is a headdress, and for the "Brave Sponsors, it is a single feather. I don't know if any of the people participating in these events are Native, or part Native. My hunch is that is not the case. It is one example of the many ways and places that Americans play Indian. Everyone we talk to here (hotel/restaurant staff, etc.) is very friendly. I don't disclose my identity, nor have I queried anyone about the festival. I know they don't mean any harm by engaging in the festival activities. I haven't seen any "honoring" sort of rhetoric, so don't think that is what they're up to, but if their festival were challenged by American Indians, what would they do? How do we, as people (Native or not), help others see the flaws in their activities in such a way that they become our allies? Back on the road! 

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve: " little is known about the women."

In Completing the Circle, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve says "so little is known about the women." In history textbooks, and in children's books, Native women and girls are largely absent. When they are present, they're anonymous figures and beasts of burden who prepare food, haul wood, tan hides, and take care of children. They are usually nameless and called "squaw," even by others in their tribe. Does that make sense? Would the Native peoples of the southwest or northeast use the same word for woman? Not likely, but as a society, we've come to think that all Native peoples call their women squaws (or "princess" --- but I'll save that discussion for another time). When we read "squaw" in Elizabeth George Speare's 1957 book Calico Captive, or her 1983 Sign of the Beaver, or Dalgliesh's 1954 The Courage of Sarah Noble, we don't even pause. It fits with our flawed ideas about Native culture and Native women.

In reality, each tribe has its own word for woman. And, women in Native societies past and present were not marginalized in the ways that history textbooks and childrens books suggest. Some books by Native authors give us a different picture, and that's what today's post is about. Instead of Calico Captive, Sign of the Beaver, or The Courage of Sarah Noble, read the books listed below. These authors provide readers with well-rounded female Native characters whose lives more accurately reflects the lives of Native women and girls.

For readers in elementary school:
Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
Daughter of Suqua by Diane Johnston Hamm
Children of the Longhouse, by Joseph Bruchac
Sees Behind Trees, by Michael Dorris

For readers in middle and high school:
Waterlily, by Ella C. Deloria
Night Flying Woman, An Ojibway Narrative, by Ignatia Broker
Halfbreed, by Maria Campbell

Saturday, July 29, 2006

"Wild Indian" stereotype

Yesterday at the doctor's office, flipping thru magazines on the table, I was surprised to see a full page Tylenol ad on the back page of an AARP magazine. The text said something like "when you have the grandkids for the weekend." It showed an elderly person holding the hand of a kid. In the kids other hand was an ice cream cone, and on his head was an Indian headdress with multi-colored feathers. The kid was not Native.
Parents use the "stop acting like a wild Indian" phrase when their kids are out of control, but I haven't seen it in an advertisement before. I have occasionally come across it in children's books.

AARP is a huge and powerful organization. There's a lot of people out there who get their magazines. I haven't heard any protest to the ad. Have you? Why not?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Shirley Sterling's MY NAME IS SEEPEETZA

A reader told me about an article by Shirley Sterling, author of one of the boarding school books I wrote about yesterday. The article is a beautiful and moving piece of writing, and I want to share it with you:

"Seepeetza Revisited: An Introduction to Six Voices"

The article is from the on-line issue of Educational Insights, specifically from V. 3 No. 1, dated October 1995.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

American Indian Boarding Schools - continued

Native singer/songwriter Arigon Starr heard about the critique of Rinaldi's book and wrote a song about it. To listen to a clip, read the lyrics, and order the CD, go here:

American Indian Boarding Schools

I think that when most people hear "boarding school," they think of elite private schools, and perhaps they think of Hogwarts (Harry Potter's school).

Many assume, incorrectly, that the boarding schools the US Government set up for American Indians were much like the elite private schools, but that was not the case. The goal of American Indian boarding schools was to "kill the Indian" and "save the man." In Canada, the schools were called "residential schools."

These schools are the subject of many children's books. Unfortunately, they generally provide a white-washed view of the schools. The best example of this is Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl. To see an extensive review of the book, go here:

If you're interested in children's books on this topic, there are a few that I recommend:

Home to Medicine Mountain, by Chiori Santiago (picture book)
As Long as the Rivers Flow, by Larry Loyie (middle grades)
My Name is Seepeetza, by Shirley Sterling (middle grades)
No Parole Today, by Laura Tohe (poetry for high school)

You may also be interested in non-fiction titles more appropriate for adult readers:
Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, 1879-2000, by Margaret Archuleta, Brenda Child, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. Also see Child's book Boarding School Seasons, and Lomawaima's They Called it Prairie Light.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Writing BY American Indians that isn't ABOUT American Indians

In my work, I search for books and stories about American Indians that are written (or retold) by American Indians. I do this because it is critical that Americans know that we are part of today’s America; that is, American Indians aren't dead and gone.

I’d bet that most of you know the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Why are so many people familiar with that phrase? I googled it and got 18,400 results, and I know it appears in many children’s books. Maybe America’s children are first introduced to that phrase by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in Little House on the Prairie.

Those who believed and acted on that phrase didn’t succeed.

We did not vanish. A good many of us are writers, and we don’t always write about American Indians, nor should we be expected to confine our creativity and interest to American Indian topics.

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s upcoming book, Santa Knows, may be an example. From what I can see on her webpage, Alfie (the protagonist) is not American Indian, and the story isn’t about American Indians. Smith and her husband co-wrote Santa Knows

My father is another example. He is retired now, but spent most of his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory where he designed and built high-speed cameras and published a lot of articles in scientific journals.

This particular post to my blog may seem a bit odd, out of place, perhaps, but I do want readers to know that not all American Indians write about American Indians. To some of you, that simple statement may seem a no-brainer, but with American Indians, we have to state the obvious again and again. Such is the power of stereotypical imagery.

Update, Feb 19, 2015

I've long since read--and love--Santa Knows. I definitely recommend it!

My father passed away in June of 2013. In addition to the scientific work he did at Los Alamos, he worked very hard, advocating for Native people interested in higher education, and, advocating for the ways that Native people are treated in the workplace. The local paper in Santa Fe has a wonderful article about him

Sunday, July 23, 2006

More Board Books

There are four additional board books by Beverly Blacksheep! They are Baby Learns about Weather, Baby Learns about Time, Baby Learns about Senses, and Baby Learns about Seasons. Oyate carries all eight titles. To order, call 510-848-6700 or email:

You can see some of Beverly Blacksheep's art here:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The 1700's: Writings about Indians

I spent the last three days studying materials in the Yale libraries. It is fascinating to do this sort of research. There is so much here; I worked very intensely and it will be awhile before I can write about the materials I saw.

Briefly, I read the diary of a soldier, dated 1759-1762. In several places he refers to Indians they fought. He didn't say "savage" or "heathen" --- just Indian. He didn't use "bloodthirsty" or any of those loaded words that we see with great frequency in children's historical fiction. I'm not making any generalizations from reading one diary (and, I was reading quickly, skimming in parts, so may have missed something).

I read a "dialogue" between several missionaries. Dated 1795, it is an account of their work with "the Delawares, the 6 Nations, the Mahikands, and some smaller tribes." In it I did come across the word "heathen" but it wasn't used with much frequency. Instead, these missionaries used the word "Indian."

There is much to do and I will need much more time to read and work here. For now, I head back to Urbana. A note: the staff at the Sterling and Beinecke libraries are wonderful and very helpful. If you're in the area, stop by the Beinecke, go upstairs, and see the panorama pop-up book of a wild west show...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Board Books

In some of my posts, I talked about words like "papoose" that some (incorrectly) think are "Indian" words that all Indians use, regardless of tribe or mother tongue.

Today, I want to talk about board books in which you'll find the real deal. By that, I mean these books are by Native authors, and they use their own language in the book. (Board books are those books meant specifically for babies and toddlers; the pages are thick cardboard.)

In 2003, a set of board books were published by Salina Bookshelf, located in Flagstaff, Arizona. The illustrator is a Dine (Navajo) woman named Beverly Blacksheep. They are bilingual books, which means that all the printed words are presented in two languages: Dine and English. The four are Baby's First Laugh, Baby Learns about Animals, Baby Learns about Colors, and Baby Learns to Count. Learn more about the Navajo Nation by visiting their website.

In the early 2000's (sounds odd to use that phrase), the Fond du Lac Head Start Program published two board books that use Ojibwe words. Boozhoo, Come Play With Us is a series of photos of children at the Head Start, doing the things children do in pre-school, but with the addition of Ojibwe words to name those things. The book is by Deanna Himango, with photos by Rocky Wilkinson; both individuals are Ojibwe. So is Lyz Jaakola, whose book Our Journey uses Ojibwe words for north, south, east, west, but also for sun and earth. And, here's the website for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation.

If anyone knows of other board books like these, please let me know.

As you may have noticed (above), I included links to tribal websites. By visiting these links and having children you work with visit them, we can let go of wrong ideas (Indians are extinct) or ideas that confine us to the past (Indians don't drive cars). We're very much are part of today's society. Nation nations and individuals are using the internet, just like everyone else.

I'm in New Haven, Connecticut this week, spending some time in the Yale library archives. I'm finding some interesting things that I'll use in my research and on the blog. Off to the archives!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

"Indian" words: Teaching about Indians, Part II

In children's books (and TV, movies, etc.) there are many words that are used to denote Indian people, their artifacts. These words are used uncritically, generally accepted as appropriate or correct. I want to poke at that usage a bit, prompting readers to pause a moment to think about those words.

For starters, there are over 500 different American Indian tribes/nations recognized by the US Government at the present time. Add to that the tribes/nations recognized by a state government and all those not recognized by the federal or state government, let alone the numbers of tribes/nations that existed prior to 1492, and you've got a huge number. They did not speak a common language, religion, material culture, etc.

Nonetheless, in children's books, a baby is a papoose, a woman is a squaw, a man is a brave or chief, and when they die, they go to the happy hunting ground.

The reality? Each tribe has its own word for baby, woman, man. If you're reading a story set at Nambe Pueblo (that is where I am from), and the author uses a word for woman, that word should be the Tewa (language we speak) word: kwee.

Course, the English word grandma would be fine, too.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Finding Books by Tribal Name

A reader asked if there is a resource that lists recommended books by tribal nation. I don't know of such a list, though I certainly understand that it would be tremendously useful to teachers and libraries looking for books specific to their geographic location.

Most of the resources I know of are comprehensive. That is, they include reviews of books they recommend, and books they do not recommend. They may list books in an index by tribe, but they do NOT recommend all the books they review. This is the case in A Broken Flute (edited by Seale and Slapin), Through Indian Eyes (edited by Slapin and Seale) and American Indian Themes in Young Adult Literature (by Paulette F. Molin). The Critical Biography at the Smithsonian groups books by region. Here's the link: (

These are all resources you can consult, but please remember!!! Being included does NOT mean the book is one that is being recommended. Same goes for books I mention in my blog posts. If you see a book title, make sure you know what I'm saying about it. (For example, in an earlier post, I mentioned Brother Eagle Sister Sky, but I do NOT recommend that book.)

Of course, any book listed on my "Recommended" list is there because I think it is of value and should be in every school and public library.

A word about the books sold by Oyate ( They are very careful in selecting books they sell. That is why I list them as "best resource" for getting these books. AND, they have books that don't get attention from major review journals. Let me explain... Books published by the big publishers (Dial, Scholastic, Harper Collins) have BIG budgets. They send copies of their books to the major review journals. Small publishers can't afford to do that. In terms of Native-authored children's books, a good chunk of them are published by small publishers, and some are self-published. So, great Native lit is overlooked. It needs word-of-mouth attention. To grow this body of literature, all of YOU have to buy it, and you have to ask for more of it. You can do that by writing to publishers when they publish something you like (or when they publish something you don't like, too). A publisher's mailing address or website is usually printed inside the book.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Marcie Rendon's POWWOW SUMMER (1996)

Back in the mid 90s I was reviewing for children's lit review journals. I was sent LOTS of books to review. Most were pretty dismal, but there were some gems in there, and Marcie Rendon's book Pow Wow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life was one of those gems. Her book (called a "photo essay" because it uses photographs to tell a story) follows an Anishinaabe family through a summer.

Like Muskrat Will Be Swimming (see my blog on July 6, 2006) by Cheryl Savageau, it is just what we need to help kids know that American Indians didn't vanish or ride off into the sunset. Savageau's book is a work of fiction. Rendon's is non-fiction. Get both.

Rendon has a website. I'll note it here, and add it to my links to Native writers websites.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Happy Hunting Ground"

In the landscape of words and phrases that are somehow associated with American Indians is "Happy Hunting Ground."

I spent a half hour or so, just now, trying to figure out where/when it entered common usage. So far, all I find suggests it dates back to the early 1800s, and that it is a paradise or heaven for American Indians....

Personally, I intensely dislike the phrase. Ann Rinaldi used it in at least one of her books, and I just ran across it in Lois Lenski's Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, first published in 1941. On page 59, Lenski writes:
After a time their grief subsided and they rejoiced to remember that their brother had gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds above the sky.
I'll spend more time digging on that phrase... Who said it first? Was it an American Indian? What tribe? Why? Skeptic that I am, I'll bet it was a non-Native person... A writer perhaps, or maybe a hobbyist! The hobbyists were (and are) pretty prolific at coming up with "Indian lore."

Update at 8:40 PM: Amazon has a nifty option, that allows you to search the text of a book. On a hunch, I searched James Fenimore Cooper's books and found he used "Happy Hunting Ground" in Pioneers, on page 760. That book came out in 1823. (Last of the Mohicans came out in 1826.) Any librarians reading the blog? If you can find an earlier reference, that'd be terrific!

A reader asked about CADDIE WOODLAWN....

When my daughter was in 3rd grade (eight years ago), one evening while doing reading homework, she said "Mom, I don't get it." She's a smart kid, so when she told me she didn't get it, I knew something was up. I asked her what she was doing. She held up Caddie Woodlawn. I knew right away what was coming. I was well into my graduate work by then, which centered on representation of Native Americans in children's books. Given UIUC's mascot ("Chief Illiniwek), Liz and I had (by then) many conversations about racism and representation and stereotyping.

By then, I had met and collaborated with Beverly Slapin at Oyate on some work. One evening, I talked with her about Liz and Caddie Woodlawn. The upshot of that conversation was that Liz dictated an essay to Beverly. The essay is called "Liz's Story" and it is in A Broken Flute, available from Oyate Here's part of what Liz said, back then, as an 8 year old:
And so we were reading it and when we got to the second chapter, it said, I'm not sure exactly what it said, that the Native Americans were sneaking around like dogs, and they picked up Caddie Woodlawn by her hair, and they were acting like dogs sniffing a bone. In another part it said that the Native Americans were massacring, murdering, and scalping the pioneers and made belts out of their hair and skin. They made the pioneers seem like angels and the Native Americans like inhuman monsters. I felt hurt inside, my eyes were watering, and I felt like I wanted to cry. But then I thought, there's something I can do about this.
In the remainder of her essay, she goes on to talk about how, the next day, she went to her teacher and the group to tell them how she felt about the book, that she wanted them to drop it. Due to the careful work of the teacher prior to this (social justice), the group had great empathy and agreed to choose a different book. Liz's best friend at the time was also in the group. She said she didn't want them to pick a book that made white people look bad.

In the end, I bought 10 copies of Erdrich's Birchbark House and that is what they read.

This episode brought out a lot. The teacher chose this book because they were studying historical fiction, and she wanted them to read something located in or near the Midwest. She was using best practice in that regard. And, it was convenient because there were multiple copies of the book available at the school. She thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct a flawed book, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.

Liz and I talked more about that episode. She said that when they (they were taking turns reading aloud) came to the phrase "Indian John," the boy who was reading at the time stopped and asked for a conversation about that name, suggesting they should change it (drop the "Indian). They talked about it, doing a fine job of applying critical skills. There were 5 kids in the group. In round robin style, each spoke about what they thought of the suggestion to drop "Indian." Child one said drop it. Child two said drop it. Child three said drop it. Child four was Liz's best friend, and she said she thought they should leave it as the author intended. Liz was next. Think of her dilemma. Follow her heart and vote to drop it, thereby leaving her best friend all alone in her vote? Remember---these are smart kids, but they're only eight years old. Liz voted with her friend, but they lost the vote anyway, and from that page on, the group did did not read aloud "Indian" when they came to that character's name.

I encourage everyone to get A Broken Flute. There are many essays in it, but also hundreds of reviews of books with American Indian content. A Broken Flute and Through Indian Eyes, both available from Oyate, are the very best resources out there to help teachers and librarians gain understanding and knowledge necessary to help them do a better job of teaching about American Indians.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

All-Time Best Selling Paperbacks

In December of 2001, Publisher's Weekly published a list of all-time best selling paperbacks. The list, compiled by Debbie Turvey, lists 376 books that had (by 2000) sold over a million copies. The list was created based on information provided by publishers, and represents actual sales (domestic sales only; does not include book clubs and international sales).

On one hand, it is great that there are a lot of children's books that have sold over one million copies. On the other hand, a close look at those books---with American Indians in mind---is troublesome.

Here, I list some books from that list that I have studied over the years that include problematic representations of American Indians, in text or illustration. None of the books on my recommended list are on the all-time best selling list, and, to the best of my knowledge, none of the books on the list are by American Indians. (Note: Hal Borland's When the Legends Die is on the list, but as noted in an earlier post, I haven't read it. )

#10 The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 6,394,587

#12 Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Copies sold: 6,172,525

#95 The Return of the Indian, by Lynne Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 2,357,061

#101 The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare.
Copies sold: 2,259,190

#128 The Secret of the Indian, by Lynn Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 2,059,126

#140 The Berenstain Bears go to Camp, by Stan and Jan Berenstain.
(Grizzly Bob tells stories around a fire, dressed in stereotypical buckskin and feathers.)
Copies sold: 1,945,447

# 245 Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink.
Copies sold: 1,442,225

#273 The Mystery of the Cupboard, by Lynn Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 1,369,456

A chilling thought: 23,999,617 readers (children, presumably) have read about savage, primitive, heroic, stealthy, lazy, tragic, chiefs, braves, squaws, and papooses.

If you'd like to see the list, go to

Thursday, July 06, 2006


One area of my research is the analysis of American Indian folktales that are marketed as picture books for children. I submitted an article on that topic to Language Arts (a journal for elementary school teachers). It will come out in their January 2007 issue.

The article title is "Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom." It features in-depth analysis of two picture book folktales: Turkey Girl by Penny Pollock and Dragonfly's Tale by Kristina Rodanas.

In the multicultural fervor, we seem to think that folktales are the best way to go. It might be, if the folktales were accurate in their presentation of Native cultures, but as I demonstrate in the article, it isn't easily done and the final products can be deeply flawed.

I strongly urge teachers and librarians and parents to get books that are about modern day Native people. Those that incorporate elements of traditional culture can do a lot to help children know that Native people are still here---that we didn't vanish.

An excellent example is Cheryl Savageau's book Muskrat Will Be Swimming. It is about Jeannie, a modern day Native girl whose family lives by a lake in what is called a "shanty town" and how she feels about being called a "Lake Rat" by kids in her school who live in "big white houses uptown." One evening when she is feeling especially blue about being called a Lake Rat, her grandfather tells her the traditional Haudenonsaunee creation story about Skywoman. In the story, Muskrat (a lake rat) brings earth up from the bottom of the lake to put on Turtle's back so the Woman who fell from the sky would have a place to stand. This moment with her grandfather strengthens Jeannie.

Read more about Muskrat Will Be Swimming at this site: Today (July 6, 2006) it is featured in the top left corner of their website.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Teaching about Indians, Part I

I often get private emails from teachers asking about best practice in terms of teaching about American Indians.

Over a series of blog posts, I'll answer some of the more common questions.

Question: Is it ok to dress up in Indian costumes and dance to teach about Indians?

Answer: No. Let's break the question down a bit and look at its parts:

"Costume." The clothing that we wear when we dance is not a costume. It is traditional clothing that isn't worn everyday.

"Dance." We dance---not as performance or entertainment---but as a form of worship. It is best to think of Native dance as prayer in motion. There are exceptions to this, of course. There are social dances, too, and there are performances of Native dance, but even with them, there is a lot of significance that distinguishes them from things like hip-hop or square dancing.

"Dressing up (like Indians)." We don't "dress up" for our dances. We get dressed. I put on my traditional clothes to take part in a traditional dance.

" Indians." As a society, we've been dressing up like Indians for such a long time (birthday parties, scouting, Halloween) that we rarely (if ever) pause to think about that activity. If you consider dressing up like a different group, perhaps you can see why this is not a good idea. Would it be appropriate to dress up like Japanese? Africans? Latinos? And do a dance that you think is Japanese, or African, or Latino?

Monday, July 03, 2006


In my "links" I include links to Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog and her website. She's got some terrific books (Jingle Dancer, Rain is Not My Indian Name, Indian Shoes).

Today I want to point readers to Joy Harjo's blog.

Harjo is an accomplished writer, singer, and musician. Though her work is primarily for an adult audience (and in some cases young adults), she does have a wonderful children's picture book out.

Take a look at The Good Luck Cat. Published in 2000, it is about a cat named Woogie who brings good luck to its family. The story is about the cat---not about the Native family it lives with. In a beautiful and subtle way, this book tells readers that American Indians live in today's modern society, that our lives and homes are not exotic. We're just people.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

In "comments" to my previous post, Opal noted that American Indians get short shrift in history classes, in part due to state standards that too often overlook this important part of America's history.

For any history teachers reading the blog, here are a couple of resources you can use to locate reliable information about American Indian history and culture.

The People: A History of Native America, by R. David Edmunds, Frederick E. Hoxie, and Neal Salisbury. This is a brand new textbook that can be used in high school or college classrooms. It is published by Houghton Mifflin.

Second are two encyclopedias:
Encyclopedia of North American Indians (1996), edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, and Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia (1996), edited by Mary B. Davis. Both editors relied heavily (and wisely) on American Indian scholars to serve as advisors, and to write entries, too.
Note on page design: When I started this blog, I used white text on black background because web-design books said that is easier on the eyes. But, I've decided I like the crisp feeling of white background, so I'm making some changes to the template. I may goof things up as I do this, so please bear with me!

Two readers have written to ask about two different books, wondering if I've read them, or know of any critical reviews of them. The two are Indian Captive by Lois Lensky, and When the Legends Die, by Hal Borland.

It is likely that I read both as a kid, but don't have a clear memory of either one. I do have a copy of Indian Captive, but haven't read it yet. Neither book is reviewed in A Broken Flute, but they may be in Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children . My copy is at my campus office, and I'm working from home right now. Perhaps a reader who has a copy handy can use the "comments" option and tell us if either book is reviewed in Through Indian Eyes.

There are a couple of other on-line resources with reviews of children's books about American Indians. Here's links to them:

Native American Books

"A Critical Bibliography on North American Indians for K-12," on the Smithsonian website. It is pretty extensive, and is arranged by geographical area.
Exciting news! The Before Columbus Foundation has selected A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children to receive a 2006 American Book Award. Go here for details about the book:

A Broken Flute includes a short essay written by my daughter when she was in the 3rd grade. It recounts her experience when her reading group started to read Caddie Woodlawn.

Some people feel the book is too expensive ($50), but I don't think you can find the depth and breadth and expertise it contains anywhere else. To get what it contains elsewhere, you'd have to spend hours and hours looking for articles, reviews, chapters. In that sense, this is a huge bargain. It has hundreds of reviews of books about American Indians---reviews written by people with knowledge and expertise about American Indians, much of it based on lived experience.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Full Text Article: Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom

One of the best articles I worked on is "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls." It was published by Early Childhood Research and Practice, an on-line journal that publishes its articles in English and Spanish. As the journal title suggests, the articles in the journal are about working with young children. Our article has been republished in several edited volumes about early childhood education.

The article is by my dear friend, Jean Mendoza, and myself. The first portion of the article provides background info on children's literature and education of young children. Later in the article, we discuss some popular books and authors, including:

Brother Eagle Sister Sky, by Susan Jeffers

Arrow to the Sun, by Gerald McDermott

Knots on a Counting Rope, by Bill Martin and John Archambault

A Day's Work, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler

A Gift from Papa Diego, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, illustrated by Geronimo Garcia

Jingle Dancer, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.

It is a meaty article, packed with good information for anyone interested in children's books and education.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In March of this year, I submitted an article for publication, in which I said that most books about American Indians are set in the past, not present. The reviewer questioned my statement, suggesting that there has been a lot of change in recent decades, and that my statement was outdated.

To see if my perception was accurate, I went to the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database, which includes over 1,200,000 records and over 220,000 reviews from 34 different sources such as KIRKUS, HORN BOOK GUIDE, and Booklist. I searched the database, using the terms "American Indians" and "Native Americans" and I limited the search to works of fiction published in 2000. My search returned 42 titles; seven are set in the present day; the remaining 36 are historical fiction.

I don't know what the data looks like for fiction overall. Generally speaking, are more works of historical fiction published than works of realistic or modern fiction? Is it at this same ratio (7:36)? What about works of fiction about other US minorities? If I did the search using African Americans as my search term, what would I find?

If readers of the blog know of articles that include these statistics, please let us know.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Hurray! I figured out how to add links to my page, in the space beneath my profile.

I finished the Duncan book Season of the Two Heart and didn't like it any better than when I posted about it earlier this week. Lots of problems in language, bias, tone.

The book is no longer in print, but my search of WorldCat at UIUC indicates that 189 libraries in Illinois own the book. Curious, I called a few of them to see when the book last circulated. At the Cissna Park library (I apologize for not providing more info about where (in Illinois) these libraries are located), their copy went out once since they added it in 1992. The head librarian said it would likely be weeded out. At the Crestwood Library, the book went out once, in 2000. At the Harvey library, it went out 7 times in 2004. And at our local public library (Urbana Free Library), it last went out in July of 2003.

So, people are still reading it. I wonder what they think about its negative representations of American Indians... Are the perceptions they have before reading it affirmed? Or are they jolted by the book?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A reader, Diana, wrote to say she working on a paper and finds the material on the blog useful. I wanted to post links to some of my on-line writing about American Indians in children's books, but can't figure out how to do it. I'll get it figured out eventually, but in the meantime, here's some of the articles:

“Teaching Young Children about Native Americans,” by Debbie Reese, ERIC Digest, EDO-PS-96-3, May 1996.

“Fiction Posing as Truth: A Critical Review of Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart is on the Ground: The diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, by Marlene Atleo, Naomi Caldwell, Barbara Landis, Jean Mendoza, Deborah Miranda, Debbie Reese, LaVera Rose, Beverly Slapin, and Cynthia Smith, in Rethinking Schools Online, Volume 13, No. 4, Summer 1999.

“Authenticity and Sensitivity: Goals for writing and reviewing books with Native American themes,” by Debbie Reese, in School Library Journal.Com, 12-2-1999.

“Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom:
Possibilities and Pitfalls,” by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese, in Early Childhoood Research and Practice, Fall 2001, Volume 3, Number 2.

“Native Americans Today,” by Debbie Reese, at ReadWriteThink, on-line lesson plans sponsored by International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English.


News first: Sherman Alexie is working on a young adult novel. It will be published (scheduled for release in 2007) by Little Brown, and is titled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. if you are unfamiliar with his work, take a look at his website:

I'm reading an old book by Lois Duncan, titled Season of the Two-Heart, published in 1964 by Dodd, Mead. I ordered it from a used book seller because it is about a Pueblo Indian girl who leaves her reservation to spend her senior year in Albuquerque to attend public school. She lives there with a white family. In return for room and board, she will take care of the two younger children (boys) and other chores (housekeeping and maybe some cooking).

There's some pretty outrageous passages. Duncan was trying to write a story about a girl in conflict who wants to leave her home for the white world. To do that, Duncan had to make Pueblo life unattractive and unappealing, and for readers, she had to create sympathy and support for the girl's decision. Here's one example:
"The nurse gave me some medicine," Natachu had said, "in a bottle. She says I am to put it on my head and on the heads of the babies. She says it will keep the little bugs from biting us."
And here's more in that thread:
"Medicine on your head!" Grandmother had been nearly beside herself with indignation. "First water and now medicine! Perhaps she would like you to cut off your head entirely! Medicine, indeed!"

"I've been using it for a couple of days now," Natachu had continued determinedly. "It works. My head hardly itches at all."

"Heads are supposed to itch," Grandmother had insisted. "It is the Great Spirit Himself who puts the little bugs there. If He did not wish us to have them. He would take them away Himself."

In the pages leading to this, the grandma (who is developed as a mean-spirited person who rules the family with an iron fist) objects to the indoor plumbing that was recently installed. She tells the family they are wasting water they'll need for drinking, and they should not use it on their faces and hands. Natachu has been washing her hair, and her grandmother says:
"See her hair; it is thinning already! All that water is washing the roots from her head."
I'm currently reading on page 37. The Boynton's (the family who takes her in) have a senior daughter named Laurie who resents having Natachu around. Laurie's character is developed as a popular, outgoing teenager who has all the latest clothes.

Duncan wrote this book 42 years ago. I wonder---do authors (like Duncan) go back and shudder when they read some of what they wrote? She, like any of us, is a product of our society. We are all socialized to think in certain ways about certain people, and whether we are aware of that socialization or not, it makes its way into what we say and do, often without our realizing it. Dirty Indians. That's what we have in Season of the Two-Heart.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Third post to the blog... I hope to post on a weekly basis, with news re children's books about American Indians, but also response(s) to emails I get from readers.

Larry Whitler posted the title of a book he wrote, called Oreo and Braun: XOB, The Full Circle Quest
and noted that some of the story is about a Native American man and his son and prejudice they experienced in 1886.

Larry---what tribe is the man? My blog is called "American Indians in Children's Literature." I use the global term "American Indians" because my discussions are on that topic, broadly speaking. However, I try to be specific when I discuss Native people or characters, if I have access to that information. For example, I do not say I am American Indian. Instead, I specifically say I am from Nambe Pueblo. This is important practice, as it gets across the idea that there are over 500 federally-recognized tribes in the United States. This specificity serves to counter the monolithic image of THE American Indian.

Also of interest regarding Larry's book... I don't know the book, but went over the the Amazon site to see what I could learn about it there. NOWHERE does it say that there is Native American content. Why is that? I pose that as a question to readers... Why do we, as a society, not see American Indians? Why are we (American Indians) glossed over, or viewed simply as part of the landscape, oftentimes not worth mentioning?

Even in Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, a lot of people omit reference to American Indians when they talk about that book. Why? In that book, in particular, there is a great deal of content about American Indians, specifically the Osage people. Look over the internet lesson plans. How many of those lesson plans have any mention of American Indians?

A bit of exciting news...

The Northern Arizona Book Festival has established the Michael Lacapa Spirit Prize. It will be awarded to an exceptional children's book, set in the southwest, published within the last two years. When a website with info is up, I'll post the link here.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I started this blog in May. This is my second post.

A reader asked (in comments to first post) if I know the work of Ani Rucki. I don't know Rucki's work.

It is the case that there's a boatload of children's books about American Indians out there. Kate Shanley, an enrolled Assiniboine woman from the Fort Peck reservation and professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana-Missoula, has a terrific article in which she talks about "the Indians America loves to love." That love drives a lot of people to write what they think are stories about American Indians. Their stories, however, are based on pop culture and romantic/savage ideas about who we are. (Note: Shanley's article is called "The Indians America Loves to Love and Read," in AMERICAN INDIAN QUARTERLY, 1997, p. 675-702.)

I don't know anything about Rucki, but my experience has taught me that, chances are, any given children's book about American Indians has major flaws.

I've been studying and writing about children's books about American Indians since 1994 when I began work on my PhD. Prior to that, I taught elementary and middle school in New Mexico and Oklahoma. I am tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, in northern New Mexico. I was raised there, and return home for the usual (weddings/funerals), but also for religious and spiritual gatherings.

As a schoolteacher, I taught my students about bias and stereotypes, about how books can be wrong. In graduate school, I honed my research and critical analysis skills. I've learned a great deal from others. Some key books include:



Kathleen Horning's COVER TO COVER

Betsy Hearne's two articles CITE THE SOURCE and RESPECT THE SOURCE

Below are some of the questions I have in my head whenever I sit down to analyze a Native story that is called a folktale. I invite conversation/discussion with readers of the blog about the questions.

When I consider a folktale, some things I look for are:

1) Is the person listed as the author listed as a "reteller"? That is, on the cover and/or on the title page, is the book "By Ani Rucki" or "Retold by Ani Rucki."

2) In the author's note, or in a source note, does Rucki say where she heard the story, or what source she found it in?

3) If Rucki provides info about her source, does she provide enough detail so that I could find the source if I wanted to?

4) In the author's note, does Rucki tell the reader the ways in which she changed/edited the story and why?

5) In a couple of reviews, there is mention that this is a Navajo folktale. How is that information provided in the book? Is it implied in the story itself or stated on the cover or title page?

I hope readers of the blog are interested in conversation about the questions I've listed above. My first post was a list of books, but my goal is for others to learn how to critically evaluate children's books about American Indians. With such skills, you own that knowledge and can carry and apply it with you wherever you go.