Friday, March 09, 2007

A Tlingit production of Macbeth

The first two paragraphs from an article in Indian Country Today:
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Battles are waged to the beat of drums, witches as land otters slink across the stage and Banquo's ghost dons a raven mask in a Tlingit language adaptation of Shakespeare's brutal and bloody tale of a murderous Scottish lord.

Sprung from the rainforests of southeast Alaska, this Washington, D.C.-bound production of ''Macbeth'' marries the Elizabethan tragedy with an ancient indigenous culture - an elaborate conceit that its players say brings new life to both worlds.
Readers of this blog who live in the Washington D
C area can see it performed at the National Museum of the American Indian. Below is the schedule. Tickets here: For tickets, call (202) 357-3030 or visit

March 8, 9 & 10, 7:30 p.m.
March 11, 2:00 p.m.
March 14, 10:30 a.m. free student matinee for school groups
March 15, 7:30 p.m.
March 16, 10:30 a.m. free student matinee for school groups
March 16, 7:30 p.m.
March 17, 7:30 p.m.
March 18, 2:00 p.m.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize

My dear friend, Cynthia Leitich Smith, has a new book out... It isn't like Jingle Dancer, or Indian Shoes, or Rain Is Not My Indian Name, all of which feature Native characters... Tantalize is quite a departure. It is a vampire story.

Cyn has a special knack for creating new dimensions in her books. For Rain Is Not My Indian Name, she created a companion website, rich with details that give the book greater depth.

For Tantalize, she is tapping into teen interest in vampires. This time, instead of visiting a companion website, teens can buy t-shirts, mugs, magnets, or posters with "Sanguini's" on them from Cafe Press or Printfection. The cutting board at Printfection caught my eye... Sanguini's is a restaurant that is a centerpiece in Tantalize.

While I'm not a fan of vampire stories, I can say that I was drawn into Cyn's tale. I read it a few months ago, and with great ease, can feel myself walking around inside Sanguini's. Visit Cyn's blog, Cynsations, and follow links to interviews with her about Tantalize. And get the book, too! Enjoy the menus, recipes, decor, characters...

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

VOYA Article "Native American Religious Traditions: A World Religions Resource List for Teens"

The February 2007 isssue of VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates) includes an article titled "Native American Religious Traditions: A World Religions Resource List for Teens" by Jan Chapman.

Chapman lists several books, some of which are excellent. Seale and Slapin's A Broken Flute is on her list. So are two volumes of Vine Deloria, Jr.

But the inclusion of Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree makes me wonder what criteria Chapman used to develop her list. Also questionable are the Will Hobbs book, and Scott O'Dell's, and several others.

And the Gabriel Horn book?! About it, Chapman says "Blending a New Age approach to spirituality with descriptions of Native American rituals, prayers, and stories, this book includes a fascinating look at ceremonies for marriage, birth, dreams, and healing."

I'm a bit cynical and sarcastic in these remarks, but it seems to me that Chapman didn't read the Deloria texts on her list. If she had, she'd know that New Age appropriation of Native spirituality is a primary concern to us (with "us" being Native peoples... I'm tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo).

Chapman's list makes no sense, and I urge librarians NOT to use it to add to their collections.


Update: 8:45 PM, March 7, 2007

Beverly Slapin read the VOYA article and sent me critical reviews of two of the books Chapman recommends. Oyate does NOT recommend them. They are below. First is Where the Great Hawk Flies, and second is Spirit Line. Note! Both reviews are used here with Slapin's permission and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

Ketchum, Liza, Where the Great Hawk Flies. Clarion Books, 2005. 264 pages, grades 4-7 (Pequot) 

It is 1782, two years after British soldiers and their Caughnawaga (Mohawk) allies laid bloody siege to a Vermont settlement. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Tucker and his little sister Rhoda, whose mom is a Pequot doctoress and whose dad is a white farmer, are confronted by the hatred and fear exhibited by their new white neighbors, one of whom is eleven-year-old Hiram Coombs, a survivor of the raid. Hiram’s fears, exacerbated by his flashbacks, are further heightened when the Tucker children’s Pequot grandfather shows up to pass along the “old ways,” that are “sliding away, like currents slipping down the river."

In alternating narratives, Daniel’s struggle to “find his own path” offers a counterpoint to Hiram’s racism and fear of Indians. As the two boys come to know each other and their families are brought together by an entirely predictable occurrence, their seething enmity gives way to a tentative friendship. 

Despite Ketchum’s discovery that her great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Pequot, she (Ketchum) shows an appalling lack of understanding of Indian ways. No Indian cultural markers here, not one. Grandpa scolds and lectures the children, handles other people’s medicine, grunts, stomps, chants, and complains about his losing his power—“I am an old man now. My skill is fading.”
“He shook the rattle, drummed the earth with his feet, and began to sing. His voice was high as the scream of the red-tailed hawk, wild as coyotes calling to one another on the ridge….The fire lit the pendant on Grandfather’s chest. He shook the rattle harder, then beat his chest with his fists. Swish. Swish. Thrum. Thrum. His voice rose higher, the drumming came faster, the rattle shivered until I thought it would explode…Grandfather’s mournful cries rang in our ears.”
Turns out all this dancing and drumming and rattle-shaking was Grampa’s death song. Pretty energetic for a dying old guy whose skill is fading. 

So Grampa dies, and Mom lops off her hair and rubs ashes on her arms and face—and then has to explain to her horrified husband and children why she’s doing this. Then she sets in to weave a basket. Although it would be an odd thing for a grieving Indian woman to do, it gives Ketchum the opportunity to write—this:
“Mother’s hands began to move and I watched her for a moment. Her fingers snaked a pale splint into the half-formed basket, twining the ash in and out through darker splints so the pattern alternated, dark, then light. Dark. Light. Mother. Father. A dark splint, a light one, woven together. My sister and me, formed from the two—each one of us a sturdy basket, held by the tight mesh of our parents’ weaving. Each neither Pequot, nor English, but both.”
Holy Belabored Metaphor, Batman! And ash splints are not twined, they’re plaited.


Daniel admires the quilling that decorates the bottom of his new deerskin pouch, and muses that "Mom must have spent long hours softening the hide, collecting the quills, then weaving them into this beautiful pattern." Let's get real here. Quills are not collected. (Can you imagine someone walking through the woods, looking for quills? Does the term "needle in a haystack" ring a bell?) There are three ways to get quills: (1) Find a dead porcupine, remove the quills, (2) Find a live porcupine, throw a blanket over it, remove the quills from the blanket, or (3) Find a porcupine, shoot it, remove the quills. 

Grampa verbally instructs Daniel on how to make a dugout canoe: “You must find a straight tree with no branches,” he explains. “A chestnut will last forever….First peel off the bark. Then build a fire inside the log and watch it carefully. Burn it, and scoop out the wood. It takes a long time." 

It does take a long time, even if you don’t have to look for a tree with no branches and then wait for the tree to fall. Grampa’s directions are pretty straightforward; he just left out a few steps: You have to chop down the tree, drag it to a clearing (preferably near the water), cut off the bark and shape the outside with an axe, then do slow controlled burning (using wet clay as a barrier) to shape the inside, scrape out the coals, repeat burning and scraping the length of the boat, then scrape the inside and outside smooth. This is not the kind of wisdom an Indian grandfather would pass on to his young grandson—by talking. He would more likely show his grandson how something this complex is done, and he would enlist the aid of other male family or community members. And all the while they were working together, grampa would be telling stories about patience, commitment, and passing down history. 

The red-tailed hawk who flies around, alternately bringing and taking messages and leading people to safety is busier than Rin-Tin-Tin. As the great Cherokee philosopher Tom King said, “the beauty of Native philosophy is that not everything means something.”

Finally, Indians don’t have “gleaming black eyes” or “eyes black as coal.” No one does. Where the Great Hawk Flies is a boring book besides. 

—Beverly Slapin


Thurlo, Aimée and David, The Spirit Line. New York: Viking (2004). 216 pages, grades 6-8; Diné (Navajo) 

Crystal Manyfeathers, a 15-year-old Diné (Navajo), is outspoken in her disdain for all the traditions in which she has been brought up. Yet Crystal, who is “the most talented weaver on the reservation,” must prepare for her kinaaldá, her womanhood ceremony, because that is what her mother, now deceased, would have wanted. Although her best friend, Henry Tallman, is a traditionalist, studying to be a hataalii, a healer, she decides to weave a large rug without the traditional “spirit line.”

When Crystal dreams about Spider Woman and the unfinished rug is stolen just before her kinaaldá, she must figure out what to do. As is typical of this formulaic sub-sub-sub genre one could call “young-person-coming-of-age-with-an-Indian-theme-fiction”: (1) the protagonist exhibits behaviors opposed to those of her own culture, (2) the question of what could cause her to feel so disconnected is not addressed, and (3) the culture itself is depicted in a way that makes no sense:
  • A young Diné woman raised traditionally would not consider her home “the middle of nowhere,” nor would she feel “suffocated by her father’s traditional culture.” This is her world. Even if she were to move to the city, she would be tied to the land that would always be her home. The “culture of her ancestors” would be her culture, and she would not think of it as “dead.”
  • There are many traditional weavers living and working on Dinétah who have been learning from and teaching each other for a long time; a 15-year-old would still be learning from her female elders. “Most talented” is not a Diné concept; it implies that the art of weaving is natural rather than learned, that there is competition to be the “best,” and that the learning is done when a certain level is attained.
  • Traditional Diné weavers incorporate a small opening or break—sometimes a light-colored piece of yarn woven into a border—as an acknowledgment that only Creator makes perfect things. It’s also a personal reminder to keep one’s heart “open” to learning. Crystal decides not to weave in this “spirit line” because she doesn’t believe in traditional ways. But she wouldn’t be weaving if she were not a traditionalist. Weaving is a sacred gift; it’s a way for Diné to embed the culture, it’s a constant reminder of why and how things are done.
  • Crystal’s father and her other relatives wouldn’t openly criticize her. Diné don’t criticize their children’s choices, nor do they impose their beliefs on their children. Rather, they allow them to learn about life in their own way and make decisions about their lives that support their own beliefs.
  • A visit to a traditional healer for assistance is not a casual thing. The whole family would be involved. They would arrange for the visit and pay in cash, food, sheep, goats, blankets, rugs. A person who does not believe in traditional ways does not consult a medicine man. A young woman would not just go for advice and then decide not to follow it. 
  • A person would not express to the healer how she felt as a result of the ceremony. Rather she would take in the experience and think about its significance. More than likely, it would be the medicine man giving follow-up instructions.
  • A kinaaldá is held to welcome a young woman into the circle of women. It is a blessing and an honoring, and physically rigorous, not to mention expensive. A young woman’s female relatives would not go through all the work and expense to arrange a kinaaldá if the ceremony “didn’t mean much to her,” nor would they have one if she weren’t ready or if they couldn’t afford it.
  • It’s stated that people must address each other only by nicknames, because calling people by their first names is culturally forbidden. This is because “Navajo names are supposed to contain power, and using them too much burns up your energy.” Actually, friends or relatives call each other by first names or nicknames or relationship names. Traditional Indian names are generally not used, except in certain circumstances.
  • Despite Crystal’s assertions that “traditionalists believed that even a single mistake by a healer during a Sing could cause the gods to ignore their efforts or, in some cases, make everything worse,” Diné healers take their jobs very seriously, but if someone makes a mistake, there’s something done to redeem it.
  • While many Diné don’t have personal computers, they have computers in school. In Rough Rock and Chinle and other places, every classroom has computers, credentialed teachers, and good bilingual and bicultural programs that teach cultural and academic language, as well as other subjects.

At home, Diné know each other as Diné, the people, not “Navajo,” a word used with outsiders. Diné generally refer to their homeland as Diné Bekayah or Dinétah, not “the rez.” Diné do not call white people “Anglos”; the Diné name for white people is “bilagaana.” “Crystal Manyfeathers” and “Henry Tallman” are not Diné names. It’s inappropriate for a Diné to discuss matters of spiritual significance with an outsider, especially a trader. Not weaving in a “spirit line” would make a rug less, not more, valuable. Schoolteachers do not teach weaving as part of “home economics.” A medicine pouch is not the same thing as a purse. A medicine pouch carries spiritual medicine; a purse holds spare change. And you don’t take a picture of a medicine pouch, even if it’s a device to move the plot. Boyfriends and girlfriends do not sing sacred songs to each other. Nobody, not even a gang member, would steal from a medicine man. Healing a minor itch does not usually call for a prayer. Diné don’t joke about death in any way. The term “walk in beauty” is not used casually; it is part of a prayer. Nobody I know has ever heard of a Diné deity called “Beautiful Flowers, the Chief of all Medicines.” There are all kinds of good songs, some used for protection, some used for specific blessings, but there is no such thing as a “Good Luck Song.” The word “luck” is not part of Diné vocabulary or belief. 

The authors appear to have relied on several Diné sources, particularly Monty Roessel’s excellent photoessays, Kinaaldá: A Navajo Girl Grows Up (Lerner, 1993), and Songs from the Loom: A Navajo Girl Learns to Weave (Lerner, 1995). But a quick comparison between these titles and The Spirit Line shows that the authors don’t know enough about Diné culture to write about it, even with help. In Songs from the Loom, for instance, Spider Woman instructs Changing Woman to leave a small opening in her rugs:
“If you don’t leave an opening,” she said, “you will close in your life and thoughts. You will be unable to learn anymore.”
Here is the Thurlos’ version of Spider Woman’s instructions via Henry (Junior) Tallman: 

I’m sure you were warned about Blanket Sickness and Spider Woman when you first learned to weave. If you omit the tribute due her, Spider Woman will leave cobwebs in your mind and trap your thoughts inside the pattern of your rug. Why would you ignore that—particularly after Spider Woman herself came to warn you?

It’s not the role of Diné men, even medicine-men-in-training, to talk to a young woman about weaving. It’s especially not their role to lecture her. If her mother had passed, her women relatives—grandma, aunties, sisters, female cousins—would make an extra effort to support her. They would teach her what she’d need to know as a woman and what she’d need to pass on to her own children. 

Once again, while young white middle-class readers will readily identify with the young protagonist here, cross-cultural authors have manipulated them into thinking they are getting something real. And the reviewers joined in, writing that The Spirit Line “contains accurate portrayals of Navajo customs” (School Library Journal), is “filled with well-integrated cultural details of Navajo life” (Booklist), and that “Navaho beliefs, traditions, and rituals are woven throughout the story line, and readers…gain an appreciation for the traditional ways of (Crystal’s) people” (Kliatt). With the critical writing that Indian reviewers such as Naomi Caldwell, Lisa Mitten, Debbie Reese, Doris Seale, and Cynthia L. Smith have been doing for years, there is no longer any excuse for ignorance. 

—Beverly Slapin (Thank-you to Linda Baldwin, Gloria Grant, and Linda Lilly.)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Lacapa Spirit Prize for Southwest Children's Literature: 2007 Winner

The 2007 Lacapa Spirit Prize was awarded to Little Crow to the Rescue: El Cuervito Al Rescate, written by Victor Villasenor, illustrated by Filipe Ugalde Alcantara.

From the press release:
Villaseñor’s bilingual fable, Little Crow to the Rescue, delightfully explores the interdependence of humans and animals. Crows learn to fear humans, sons learn from their fathers, fathers learn from their sons—all have knowledge that must be shared. One prize judge noted, “Villaseñor and illustrator Filipe Ugalde Alcántara have teamed up to create a book that will entertain and inspire young readers …Told with humor and respect for tradition, Victor Villaseñor hopes this story will inspire young people to share their wisdom with their elders. Illustrator Filipe Ugalde Alcántara uses brilliant color and bold images to visually tell this story. His paintings portray the curvature of the earth and suggest the circular nature of story that begins and ends by asking and answering the question of why humans cannot catch crows. Both story and illustration spring from Villaseñor and Alcántara’s Mexican heritages and have greatly enriched the body of Southwest children’s literature.”
The 2007 Lacapa Honor Prize for Narrative was given to Evangeline Parson Yazzie for Dzání Yázhí Naazbaa’: Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home: A Story of the Navajo Long Walk, published by Salina Book Shelf and the 2007 Lacapa Honor Prize for Illustration went to Kendrick Bennaly’s illustrations for Frog Brings Rain, also from Salina Bookshelf.

Lacapa (Apache, Tewa and Hopi) worked with the Apache tribe in developing multicultural educational curricula for Native school-age children and often used storytelling as a teaching tool. He was an exceptional storyteller and the talented illustrator of such books as The Magic Hummingbird, Spider Spins a Story, and The Good Rainbow Road. He is the author/illustrator of The Flute Player, Antelope Woman and Less Than Half, More Than Whole, the latter co-authored with his wife Kathy.

The Lacapa Spirit Prizes will be awarded to recipients during the 10th Annual Northern Arizona Book Festival in Flagstaff, April 20-22, 2007. This prize is made possible through the generous support of the Northern Arizona Book Festival and Rising Moon/Luna Rising, imprints of Northland Publishing, Michael Lacapa’s first publisher. More information on submissions requirements for next year’s award and the Northern Arizona Book Festival schedule may be found

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Kathleen and Michael Lacapa's Less Than Half, More Than Whole

In the first year of my graduate studies, I came across a book that deeply touched me. The illustrations are terrific, but it was the content of the illustrations that meant so much to me. Page after page had something that spoke directly to me, a Pueblo Indian, living in today's society. To some, it may sound odd to say "living in today's society" but that phrase is important. Necessary. Vital. So many books about Pueblo Indians cast us in the past, in romantic contexts, or somber ones, or ignorant and racist ways, or just plain wrong (see my entry on Ten Little Rabbits, which is in my post: Indian Bunny. No! Now it is Brave Bunny).

This book was different. Its pages showed Native teens in t-shirts. One holds a basketball. In another, a man leans against a fence, with a red ball cap on his head. Another depicts the inside of their home; Native art and basketry is shown. As I read the story itself, I came to a page that has this word "Saiya" and another with "TaTda" (I'm unable to place diacritic marks). I KNEW how to say those words. I knew what they meant. One is grandma and the other is grandfather.

My daughter's recent experiences at school made me think of that book. She didn't need it herself. Her identity as a young Pueblo Indian woman is strong. It speaks to us, though, because of what it can offer to others who know so little about American Indians of today. People see skin color and make a lot of assumptions. Being Native, being Pueblo... it is more than how you look. Less Than Half, More Than Whole is a gentle book that helps its readers think about the complexities of culture, of skin color, of identity. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


The University of Arizona, Tucson is home to Sun Tracks, one of the first publishing programs that focused exclusively on creative works by American Indians. Authors in the program include Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, Simon J. Ortiz, Carter C. Revard, and Luci Tapahonso.

One of my favorites from Sun Tracks is Mud Woman: Poems from the Clay, by Nora Naranjo-Morse. It came out in 1997 and is two things: a collection of her poems, and a series of photographs of her clay creations. You can read one of her poems here: Mud Woman's First Encounter with the World of Money and Business.

Those of you looking for Native poets for high school students should add MUD WOMAN to your collection. The preface provides background and context for the art this wonderful volume contains.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Jim Fortier's Alcatraz Is Not an Island

Blogging today---not about books---but about a documentary that ought to be in middle school and high school libraries. It is called Alcatraz Is Not an Island. Directed by Jim Fortier (Metis and Ojibwe), the film is about American Indian activism in the late 60s. Fortier focuses on the November 1969 occupation of Alcatraz by a group of American Indians.

I show the film each semester to students in my section of Intro to American Indian Studies. Prior to this, they had never heard of this incident. How many of you, readers of this blog, know about that takeover? It lasted 19 months and included negotiations with the Nixon administration. Films like this will go a long way to dispel stereotypical ideas about who Native peoples are.

PBS broadcast the film a few years ago and still has their website up: Alcatraz Is Not an Island. You can get a copy from Berkeley Media.

In addition to the film, get Troy Johnson's books about the takeover. They are filled with photographs taken during the occupation. Some of the photos are at Johnson's website. You can get one of his books, You Are On Indian Land! Alcatraz Island, from Oyate.

Fortier was on our campus (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) last week. He put together a montage of several of his films. Green Green Water, in particular, caught my eye. It is about hydroelectric power and its effects on First Nations people in Canada.

I'm also looking forward to the completion of his current project, Playing Pasttime, which is about All-Indian Fast-Pitch Softball. My colleague and friend, LeAnne Howe, is working with Jim on this documentary.

There's information about him on the NMAI website but spend time on his own webpages, learning about all his projects: Turtle Island Productions. Fortier's work is important, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Mom, Look! It's George, and He's a TV Indian!"

In 1998, I wrote an article for Horn Book, which is the most prestigious children's literature journal. The title for the article came right from my daughter, Liz. (In my post on Sunday of this week, I referred you to a page that is an account of her experience trying to work on positive climate for Native, African American, and Latino students at her high school.)

Back then, Liz was 'Elizabeth' --- a kindergartener, and she came out of her kindergarten classroom, as indigant as could be, to show me that one of her favorite characters, George, of the George and Martha books, was dressed like an Indian. Or, to use the phrase we had developed to describe these fanciful stereotypes, a "TV Indian."

In his blog post today, Horn Book's editor, Roger Sutton, refers to UIUC's Chief Illiniwek, to my article, and to this blog. Thanks, Roger!

Here's a link to the article:
"Mom, Look! It's George, and He's a TV Indian"

Here's a link to Roger's blog, called "Read Roger," dated Tuesday, Feb 20, 2007:
Hell with the Chief

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Children's books and American Indians

This blog and my work are focused on the ways that American Indians are represented in children's books. I contend that those representations have a significant impact on what people think they know about American Indians. Through text and illustration, children "learn" a lot about American Indians. And, what they "know" is affirmed by the words and images in their books.

This "knowledge" is affirmed in many ways. Through negative and romantic stereotypes in movies and television shows, and through mascots like UIUC's "Chief Illiniwek." This "knowledge" issues forth in the speech of children and adults, creating uncomfortable and hostile environments for Native children.

In an effort to create a safe space for Latino, African American, and Native students at her high school, my daughter, Liz Reese, created the "Minority Student Advocacy" program. She's at University High School ("Uni") which is the laboratory high school for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The MSA program is part of Uni's effort to recruit and retain students from the three underrepresented groups.

These efforts have met with resistance from students and parents. On Feb 7th, the school paper ran an editorial countering the need for the program. Comments to that editorial reveal the depth and breadth of racial intolerance and ignorance in this community. The primary target for these efforts was (and is) my daughter. Anonymous people commented about her skin color (apparently she isn't "dark enough" to really be an American Indian) and her identity (I'm Native, her father is white, and apparently, that means she can't really be American Indian). And, since we don't live "in a hovel on a reservation" our statements are without merit.

What children's books are in your collection? In what ways do they contribute to comments like those directed at my daughter? What do your students, parents, and community members "know" about American Indians?

If you wish to explore this situation more fully, go here. You will learn a great deal about what it means to be an American Indian living in a society filled with misinformation about who we are. The page is meant to keep people abreast of developments on the work my daughter is doing.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


[Note: This review is posted by permission of its author, Lois Beardslee. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Wargin, Kathy Jo, The Legend of the Petoskey Stone, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. Sleeping Bear Press (2004). Unpaginated, color illustrations, preschool-4.

My elders have told me that the very title, the very notion of this book so offends them that they will not open the book or even look at it. The Petoskey stone is so sacred to us that we have no origin story for it, they say. I understand. We are inseparable from our stories and our traditions, and to us, the fabrication of “Native American myths and legends” by white people is a threat to our very survival. When one disregards our culture, one disregards us as human beings.

I sometimes feel the urge to wash my hands after touching this type of book, but the concept of this one was so egregiously offensive to me that the book lay unopened on my office floor for over a year. I simply couldn’t find civilized words to describe such an uncivilized act against our local Indian people.

The Legend of the Petosky Stone purports to be a legend about a Native American chief from a community on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. It also purports to tell the origin of the name of the northwest Michigan town of Petoskey, as well as the transfer of that name to a fossilized coral that was made the official state stone. There is absolutely nothing factual or traditional in this book. The language pronunciation guides, the explanations, the translations, are all false.

On the northern end of Lake Michigan’s eastern shore is a large harbor that has always been populated by Native Americans, most recently, the Odawa and Ojibwe. People who lived in that region often identified themselves by that geographical location and were often referred to by others as being people who came from that place. The harbor and the western- and southerly-hooking peninsula that create it were called bidassigigiishik in Anishinaabemoin, the native language of the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi populations who traversed up and down the coast. The Anishinaabemoin name refers to the fact that one can watch the sun rise over the water from the peninsula—an unusual phenomenon on the side of a lake that faces west. The name is not romantic. There are no direct references or linguistic romantic nuances to magical rays of sun. It is a geographic term that is also somewhat lighthearted and amusing to those who understand that particular verb and how it is used.

When European-American culture came to have an increasing presence in the region, non-Indians transferred their own cultural and linguistic concepts of name identification onto the Indians and “named” some Indian families “Petoskey” in their written records. There are many Odawa families in the region with this surname today. In researching The Legend of the Petosky Stone, Wargin could have sought out any of these families—or any other local Indian families—for their input. She apparently chose not to. Rather, it’s as if she intentionally tried to avoid acknowledgement of historical and cultural facts in the manufacture of this regional “history.”

Wargin’s story-within-a-story is about a French fur trader who was made an “honorary chief” by the local Indians and who had a son by an Indian “Princess” who grew up to be a great chief named “Be do se gay,” allegedly meaning “rays of the rising sun” or “sunbeams of promise.” When my ten-year-old son looked at this poor mutation of a real word, which he knows how to pronounce, followed by its linguistically unjustifiable translation, his response was, “This is gibberish.”

In the backstory, a non-Indian parent recounts the “legend” to his non-Indian son, while they walk along a sandy non-Indian beach. The very first lines of the “legend” state:

Long ago in 1787, an Odawa Princess and her husband were leaving their winter home. He was a French fur trader who had been welcomed into her tribe as an honorary chief, and he had worked through the winter collecting furs in an area we now call Chicago. But when spring arrived, it was time for them to travel back to their summer hunting grounds along the shores of northern Lake Michigan.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stereotypes—in text and pictures—in a single spread of a picture book! A nameless and faceless Indian woman—a “Princess” with a capital “P”—marries a French fur trader living with the local Indians, who have made him an “honorary chief.” They travel to their “hunting grounds” along the shore in a birchbark canoe made with the outside of the bark on the outside, thereby guaranteeing that it will sink.

For those who may not see the problems here, bear with me. First, we don’t have royalty in this area. Never have. We also didn’t and don’t have “honorary chiefs.” The notion of an official “chief”—one person representing and speaking for everyone—is a European-American construct created to obtain signatories to treaties that took away our land and resources. The terms “Indian princess” and “Indian chief”—both deprecating monikers used by whites throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries—are loathed by Native people in this region. The idea of conferring such a title (even if it were an honor) upon someone from an outside culture (one that was in the process of extirpating the Native population for the purposes of taking over their resources) is beyond absurd. Not to mention: Voyageurs were hired for their ability to paddle long distances and portage heavy packages over trails that went around falls and rapids in waterways—not for their intellect or leadership qualities. And by 1787, most voyageurs were laborers who worked for trading companies picking up and transferring goods from one company-owned fort to another, so Wargin’s “honorary chief” would hardly have been an independent trader-businessman who gathered furs from a broad region. Especially in that canoe.

So this Indian “Princess” heads off with her “honorary chief” white guy husband into the “summer hunting grounds” to give birth by herself in a “hut,” while he waits outside, leaning comfortably against a tree, contemplating the night sky. Now, no self-respecting Indian woman would go off and do such a thing, endangering her own life and the life of her child. Had she chosen to travel she would have gone straight to one of many Indian communities along the well-traveled and heavily occupied coast. Wargin’s story makes our ancestors appear to be complete, irresponsible dolts who sacrificed common sense for magically superior white unskilled laborers. And Wargin’s use of the word “hut” belies the architectural competence of the peoples who thrived in the western Great Lakes for countless generations. Our architecture was regionally appropriate, site-specific and well-constructed. My ancestors did not live in huts!

Wargin’s French fur trader “honorary Indian chief” husband of the Indian “Princess” takes his newborn male offspring in his hands, proclaims that he “shall be an important man” (by virtue of what, I might ask…), and names him “Petosegay because the word meant the rays of the rising sun, or sunbeams of promise.” This is nonsense—a syrupy, silly translation of a word whose real translation I won’t mention here, to protect it from turning up in another children’s book.

Petosegay, of course, grows up to be a “headman, which meant he was third in line in his tribe.” This is cultural gibberish, perfectly augmenting Wargin’s linguistic gibberish.

“Over the years,” the story continues, “Petosegay was such a successful trader, hunter, and farmer that he was able to purchase land…” Petosegay would not likely have accumulated wealth and purchased land in early 19th Century Michigan. As an early form of biological warfare in an attempt to eliminate them so that the land would be available for European-American settlers and lumber barons, smallpox-infected blankets would have been intentionally distributed to his family. Other tactics used to accomplish this end would have included direct violence and withholding access to resources such as food. By 1836, the U.S. government had selected individuals among the survivors that it designated “chiefs” and coerced them into signing away title to most of the real estate, so that Michigan could soon obtain statehood.

That some of the remaining Indians in the region had to resort to farming was a result of the Indian Allotment Act, which took away the bulk of the treaty-guaranteed reservation land, making small parcels available to those Indians who found out how to file the appropriate paperwork. In 1855 the Allotment Act was implemented in northwest Lower Michigan, where roughly ninety percent of the land, deemed “surplus,” was given to white homesteaders. And non-Indian entrepreneurs and punitive policies resulted in the theft of more than ninety-nine percent of those lands actually allocated. The first deliveries of land patents to Indians in the region did not occur until the 1880s. Some occurred in the 20th Century, and many not at all. So Wargin’s “Chief Petosegay” would’ve been at least a hundred years old before he could have begun clearing his land for farming.

In Wargin’s “legend,” there is no Indian population, save the unnamed “Indian Princess,” her son, “Chief Petosegay,” and his unnamed wife and child. One is tempted to ask, “Where is everybody?” in a region that happens to constitute one of the largest concentrations of Native Americans east of the Mississippi.

Petosegay’s own home is represented as a small log cabin with a canoe next to it on the shore of Lake Michigan, surrounded by larger, more modern homes. In fact, the remaining Odawa Indians in the area were forced farther and farther away from the white towns that increasingly took over the most suitable locations on the coastline. Most Indians were driven inland or to distant shores without protective bays. Today, there are few, if any, precious feet of waterfront property available to members of the local Odawa tribe on the bay that surrounds the city of Petoskey, Michigan.

Throughout, Wargin and van Frankenhuyzen create images in which Natives in this region coexisted benignly (albeit with few financial resources) with their non-Indian neighbors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The history of Indian/non-Indian relations in the area continues to be wrought with segregation and economic inequalities.

Wargin says of Petosegay, “it wasn’t long before the whole town began to call him Chief as a sign of admiration.” I repeat: “Chief” is a deprecating moniker used by whites throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. My ten-year-old son, incredulous, asked, “Why do they show everybody in the town as being nice to him? They would have killed him or forced him to move because he’s an Indian.” And my son is right. Unless poor Petosegay took on the role of a literal community lawn jockey, he would not have been tolerated in the town of Petoskey or in any of the affluent white exurbs that built up around it. But, according to Wargin’s “legend,” Petosegay “gave” his name to the white community “he loved.” This gift of Petosegay’s is depicted by an illustration of an old Indian guy, surrounded by a group of applauding white people, undraping a sign that says, “Welcome to Petoskey.” As though, throughout the 19th Century, the Indian elders of that section of coastline, now called Little Traverse Bay, welcomed the settlers with smiles and freshly painted signs. Or maybe it was flowers and sweets…

Fast-forward to the scene of two Victorian ladies, in long dresses and holding parasols, one of many people (read white people) who “came to enjoy the beautiful lake and to breathe the fresh air, but they also came to walk along the shore and search for a special stone that appeared to hold the rays of the rising sun inside.” Those, of course, are the “Petoskey Stones,” which—fast-forward again—are now in the hands of that white father and his white son on the sandy white beach. The father tells his son that when he finds a “Petoskey Stone,” “I carry the promise of tomorrow, which means I will have one more day in the place I love best, with the person I love most.” As the little white boy holds the stone, sunlight falls upon the white son and his white father, and “it seemed as if all the nearby lakes, rivers, and forests whispered Petosegay’s name once again.”

In Kathy-jo Wargin’s little world, all is serene. “When [white] people search for Petoskey Stones, they hope to find the rays of the rising sun. And when they do, they carry sunbeams of promise…the promise of a shining new tomorrow…for everyone.” For her, there is no racism here, because there are no Indians here.

In reality, northwest Lower Michigan is a place where whites-only businesses still persist and Native American employment off the reservations is almost nonexistent. It’s a place where violence against Indians is both active and passive. It’s a place where Indians are non-existent for white people. And it’s a place where authors and illustrators such as Kathy-jo Wargin and Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen make money by creating pretty little books that celebrate white supremacy and Manifest Destiny.

This is all very personal for me and my ten-year-old son, who has to deal with this kind of thing every day. He doesn’t like what is said about his family and his cultural traditions in children’s books like this that are heavily marketed for classroom use. He doesn’t understand why adults who work in the local schools, libraries, and bookstores—who smile at him and call him by name—still insist upon confronting him with texts and stories that belie his home and family life and that of his ancestors. It makes him feel lesser.

—Lois Beardslee

[Lois Beardslee is a contributor to A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, published in 2005 by Alta Mira Press. Beardslee (Ojibwe/Lacandon) is the author of Lies to Live By and Rachel's Children and has been a writer and teacher for more than twenty-five years. An artist whose paintings are in public and private collections worldwide, Lois also practices many traditional art forms, including birch bark biting, quillwork, and sweetgrass basketry.]

Monday, February 12, 2007

Robert Parker's The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

A short post today, to let you know about a new book that, while not a children's book, does have bearing on the topic of American Indians and literature.

Go here for info about The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.

For those of you who know about Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Jane was his wife. She was Ojibwe. Her Ojibwe name name was Bamewawagezhikaquay. This title of the book is her name, translated into English.

She died in 1842, and, according to the book, she was the first known American Indian literary writer, the first known American Indian poet, and the first to write out traditional American Indian stories.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jan Bourdeau Waboose's SKYSISTERS

A few days ago, it was -6 degrees outside, and yesterday, snow fell most of the day. That snow took the edge off the bitter cold and as I brushed snow off my car, I remembered a scene in a favorite picture book in which two sisters are lying in the snow, looking up at the sky.

That book is SkySisters. In it, two Ojibway sisters walk through the winter night to see the SkySpirits (Northern Lights). As you can see on the cover, the illustrations by Brian Deines, are striking. Right away, they signal to the reader that these are kids of the present day. Inside, you learn that the girls are Ojibway. As they walk, they, like any other kids, are delighted when they see a rabbit. There is much young (and old) readers can gain by reading SkySisters.

I hope SkySisters is in your school library, and that teachers and librarians who brushed snow off their cars yesterday will read it aloud today and revel in the beauty of story and snow.

Published in 2000 by Kids Can Press, SkySisters is available from Oyate.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sharon Creech's WALK TWO MOONS

[Note: This review is used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]
Creech, Sharon, Walk Two Moons. New York: HarperCollins (1994). 280 pages; grades 5-up; Seneca

This is a poignant story revolving around two friends—Phoebe Winterbottom and Salamanca Tree Hiddle—whose mothers have disappeared, and the journey Salamanca makes with her grandparents to find her mother. The protagonists, Sal and Phoebe, are well developed as very bright 13-year-olds with overactive imaginations. Sal’s goofy grandparents, too, are well drawn, as are some of the minor characters—such as Mrs. Cadaver, whom Sal and Phoebe suspect is an axe murderer; and Mr. Birkway, the hyperactively joyful English teacher with no sense of privacy.

This beautifully written and compelling story is deeply flawed by the “Indian” material that is thrown together with no cultural or historical context and really has nothing to do with anything actually Native. Neither does Salamanca, although frequently referring to her “Indian blood,” and constantly repeating the overdone maxim about “walking two moons in another man’s moccasins.” (In chapter 44, the phrase is actually used nine times in four pages!) Most of what she says—such as that she was given her name because her parents didn’t realize that the name of the “Indian tribe to which my great-great-grandmother belonged” was actually “Seneca”—is ridiculous.

When Sal and her grandma discuss whether to use the term “Native American” or “Indian,” she recalls her mother saying that “Indian sounds much more brave and elegant” and that the “Indian-ness” in their background made them “appreciate the gifts of nature” and makes them “closer to the earth.” Does the author really think that there is some kind of a genetic Indian-earth-nature connection?

There are episodes involving cross-cultural “legends,” casual smoking and sharing of “peace pipes,” someone referring to himself as an “American Indian person” (as compared to an American Indian chair?), and a dance described this way:
The Indians had formed two circles, one inside the other, and were hopping up and down. The men danced in the outer circle and wore feather headdresses and short leather aprons. On their feet were moccasins, and I thought again about Phoebe’s message: Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins. Inside the circle of men, the women in long dresses and ropes of beads had joined arms and were dancing around one older woman who was wearing a regular cotton dress. On her head was an enormous headdress, which had slipped down over her forehead. I looked closer. The woman in the center was hopping up and down. On her feet were flat, white shoes. In the space between drum beats, I heard her say, “Huzza, huzza.”
One wonders why the author did this; perhaps she wanted an “Indian” title and needed to make some kind of a context for it. Although Creech’s characterizations are excellent, the way she manipulates the characters—and the child reader—is inexcusable. Not recommended.
—Beverly Slapin

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Racism, Power, and Privilege at UIUC

In previous posts to the blog, I've referred to incidents of stereotyping and racist acts that have been occurring at UIUC and elsewhere. Unlike other campuses with situations that have been on national news, UIUC has a racialized symbol/mascot for its athletic teams: "Chief Illiniwek."

In response to these incidences on our campus, a group of students, staff, faculty, and community members formed a coalition whose work led to a forum held here on Thursday, Feb. 1st.

Titled "Racism, Power, and Privilege at UIUC," it included 45 minutes for people to make statements, and 45 minutes for UI's President, and UIUC's Chancellor, Provost, and other top level administrators to respond to questions submitted by the audience. It also included context for the forum, and a list of demands developed to address the problems.

The forum was larger than expected. It was held in the largest auditorium on campus, which seats 1700. Two additional sites on campus were set up for overflow. The event was broadcast at those sites. Both sites were also full to capacity and students were turned away.

If you are interested in watching the webcast, go to the I-Resist website. It has a link to the webcast, but also to the page from which you can download software necessary to view the webcast. Or if you wish, you can go directly to the webcast page:

Central to the forum is the issue of representation, with students (and UIUC's mascot) dressing in ways thought to be the way that African Americans, Latino/a Americans, and American Indians dress and behave. These ways are, of course, stereotypical, whether they are deemed negative or positive.

These representations are familiar to all of us who create, review, teach, and otherwise use children's books. I've written here previously about how much "Chief Illiniwek" is similar to Native imagery found in popular children's books.

Many individuals gave powerful statements. Please view the forum and consider sharing it with your classes and colleagues.

And, if you're interested in following UIUC's mascot issue more closely, I created a blog on that topic. Recent developments? The regalia worn by the student who portrays Chief Illiniwek was bought from an Oglala man in the 1980s. He was destitute at the time. He family wants the regalia back. A few weeks ago, the Executive Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed a resolution calling for the end of Chief Illiniwek, and for the regalia to be returned to them. My blog on this is called A Native Perspective on Chief Illiniwek.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Good News about Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto

Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto has been selected for inclusion on the American Library Association's "2007 Notable Books List."

Visit Tim Tingle's website to learn more about his work. He is a Choctaw storyteller. Looking at his webpage, I see he's got a few other books that I will order.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Thinking, today, about three items: Museums, American Indians, the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, and a book called Battlefield's and Burial Grounds.

On Friday I was in Chicago giving a workshop for teachers. It took place at Chicago's Field Museum. During my presentation, I showed slides of the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children's books. Among the slides is one from Sid Hoff's Danny and the Dinosaur. Published in 1958 it is a perennial favorite and part of HarperCollins I Can Read series. In the story, Danny goes to a museum. Inside he sees "An Indian, a bear, and an Eskimo" in one of the exhibits. I showed a slide of that page in my presentation. There is much to say about why American Indians are placed alongside animals, but the point I wish to make today is about American Indian artifacts and remains that are held by museums across the country.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). From the NAGPRA website:

NAGPRA provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items -- human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony -- to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. NAGPRA includes provisions for unclaimed and culturally unidentifiable Native American cultural items, intentional and inadvertent discovery of Native American cultural items on Federal and tribal lands, and penalties for noncompliance and illegal trafficking.

In 1994, Lerner published a terrific book for children about the work of American Indians whose work led to NAGPRA. The book is called Battlefields and Burial Grounds: The Indian Struggle to Protect Ancestral Graves in the United States, by Roger C. Echo-Hawk and Walter R. Echo-Hawk. Unfortunately, it is out of print. Both men are Pawnee. This is an important book. Each year, hundreds of teachers take their students on field trips to museums. As you plan this year's trip, will you visit a museum that has American Indian exhibits? If so, spend time with Battlefields and Burial Grounds before you go. It will be time well spent.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Pamela Porter's Sky

[This review used by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Porter, Pamela, Sky, illustrated by Mary Jane Gerber. Groundwood, 2004. 83 pages, b/w illustrations, grades 4-6

It is 1964. Eleven-year-old Georgia Salois lives with her Paw Paw and Gramma, “high in the scrub pines” on the edge of the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana. Suddenly, on March 26, violent rainstorms overflow Birch Creek, destroying the Swift Dam and killing a number of people. The devastating floods take everything—the house, the barn, the livestock; nothing is left except the clothes on their backs, the washtub, a few blankets.

And—miraculously—a foal, whom Georgia names Sky.

Told in Georgia’s honest, open, child voice, the survival of her family and community becomes real. There is no complaining, no asking why; they accept what has happened and move on, rebuild. Georgia’s relationship with her grandparents, the economy of subsistence, the racism they encounter—all of it is real, told in Georgia’s matter-of-fact voice.

“The sheriff led us into the gym where the people who weren’t Indian were lying on cots with pillows and blankets on them,” she says. Unlike the white people who are fed for free, they are charged for the food and charged again for use of the plates and utensils, so “none of us at the Indian table even tried going back for seconds.”

Sky is based on the stories told to the author by her friend Georgia Salois. It is highly unusual for a non-Native author of children’s books to refrain from the need to “teach” something about Indians. Porter is highly unusual. It isn’t until page 58 that Georgia even mentions that she is Cree, and that is as it should be. And Georgia’s dialect—which Porter gets right, too—is engaging. —Beverly Slapin

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


According to the January 29, 2007 edition of Newsweek, the acclaimed Little House on the Prairie series is getting a makeover. For the 75th anniversary of the books, illustrations are being replaced with "photos of models as Laura" instead of the illustrations by Garth Williams.

Interesting, and makes me wonder the publishers will do (already did?) with the illustrations of American Indians? There are many. Are they keeping those? Or will they simply replicate them, in photo format? Will they use American Indian models? Will they make changes to the ways the Indians are shown so that they are accurate--more accurate than the illustrations done by William?

Diane Roback of Publisher's Weekly is quoted as saying these changes are occurring to appeal to readers of today who are more likely to pick up and read a book with Dakota Fanning on the cover of Charlotte's Web (she's in the new movie version of Charlotte's Web). This makes me wonder, again, about what the Little House publisher will do with the illustrations of American Indians? Retain the savage imagery that Americans love? I'd guess so, if they are making changes according to what the public will buy.

We will see.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom"

The January 2007 issue of Language Arts, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, is out. In it is "Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom," an article I wrote. In it, I discuss the ways that American Indian story is appropriated and distorted when authors retell those stories in picture books for children.

Specifically, I discuss McDermott's Arrow to the Sun, Pollock's Turkey Girl: A Zuni Cinderella Story, and Rodanas's Dragonfly's Tale. All three are widely available in bookstores, public and school libraries. But, all three are deeply flawed. Good stories, perhaps, but they provide little value in terms of informing readers about Pueblo Indians. And as many of you know, teachers often use children's books like these to teach their students about, in this case, Pueblo Indians.

Have you used one of these books in your teaching? Do you have it in your library? I hope the article is helpful to you, and that you view these books and others like them in a different way after reading the article.

I'll say again, I do not blame any teacher for embracing these books. We're all products of a society that romanticizes American Indians. That can change, though, and this article is one tool you can use to bring about that change.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Representation, Stereotypes of American Indians, "Chief Illiniwek"

Those of you familiar with UIUC know that its sports team mascot is "Chief Illiniwek" and that its sports teams are "The Fighting Illini." For many years, Native people on the UIUC campus and in the Urbana-Champaign community, and our allies have asked the University to stop using Native imagery for its sports program.

The regalia worn by the student portraying "Chief Illiniwek" was acquired from Frank Fools Crow in the early 1980s. He was Oglala Sioux. Details regarding how the University came to have the regalia are not clear. It may have been a gift, or it may have been purchased.

Pro-Chief groups at UIUC, including the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, maintain that this regalia is an endorsement and support for UIUC's "Chief Illiniwek".

Yesterday, the Executive Committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed a resolution asking that the regalia be returned to Fools Crow's family, and that the University cease use of its mascot.

We, at the Native American House on campus are authorized to distribute a press release and distribute the resolution. You can read the press release and resolution here:

Will the University return the regalia? The coming days will be revealing. The University claims it honors and respects Native peoples. That should prompt them to return the regalia immediately.

[Note on Jan 21st, 2007: If you are looking for information regarding the Facebook incident at UIUC, you can read about it at Inside Higher Ed: "Ugly Turn in Mascot Debate."]