Thursday, March 22, 2007

American Sociological Association statement on Native American nicknames, logos, and mascots

On March 6th, 2007, the American Sociological Association issued a statement about the use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sports programs. Here's some excepts from the statement, which you can read in its entirety by clicking here or going to their website and putting "mascots" in the search box. Their statement is similar to the one issued last year by the American Psychological Association. (See my post about it here or in the section to the right of this page, called Posts about Stereotypical Images.)

WHEREAS social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport reflect and reinforce misleading stereotypes of Native Americans in both past and contemporary times;

WHEREAS the stereotypes embedded in Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport undermine education about the lives of Native American peoples;

WHEREAS social science scholarship has demonstrated that the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport harm Native American people in psychological, educational, and social ways;

And it concludes with:

AND, WHEREAS the continued use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport has been condemned by numerous reputable academic, educational and civil rights organizations, and the vast majority of Native American advocacy organizations, including but not limited to: American Anthropological Association, American Psychological Association, North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Modern Language Association, United States Commission on Civil Rights, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Association of American Indian Affairs, National Congress of American Indians, and National Indian Education Association;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, THAT THE AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION calls for discontinuing the use of Native American nicknames, logos and mascots in sport.


Two of my favorite Native authors have incorporated themes related to mascots into their books. They are Joseph Bruchac's The Heart of a Chief, and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Rain Is Not My Indian Name.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Getting the 'Indian' Out of the Cupboard: Using Information Literacy to Promote Critical Thinking, by Rhonda Harris Taylor and Lotsee Patterson

In the December 2000 issue of Teacher Librarian is "Getting the 'Indian' out of the Cupboard: Using Information Literacy to Promote Critical Thinking," an excellent article by two Native women at the University of Oklahoma's School of Library and Information Science, Rhonda Harris Taylor and Lotsee Patterson.

In the article, they talk about many resources that will be helpful to librarians, teachers, and parents working towards helping children learn how to recognize stereotypical or biased characterizations of American Indians. These resources include videos as well as print and on-line publications. I've added this article to my list of articles on the right-hand side of this page. UPDATE: 1/30/2011....  Teacher Librarian reconfigured their website and the article is no longer available online to the public. Anyone with access to a library that carries Teacher Librarian can get it that way, but for those who don't have that option, I've got a pdf copy of it and will send it directly to you by email. My address is dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Eighth Graders Analyze SIGN OF THE BEAVER

[Note: This essay submitted by Karen, a classroom teacher, in response to my post (on March 17th) about using Caddie Woodlawn to teach about stereotypes.]

My students and I have done critical analysis much like this, years ago with Sign of the Beaver, and more recently with a history textbook's chapter on the Civil War. I was working with 8th graders in a Title I pull-out language arts and social studies class when we analyzed Sign of the Beaver. The history text analysis was done with my fifth/sixth grade class last year. We also think critically about historical events, looking at them from the perspectives of ordinary people affected by the decisions of those in power.

The one piece that I found essential to have in place before analysis of Sign of the Beaver was a thorough grounding in culturally authentic literature. Living and teaching in southern Vermont, most of my students are white. Before my students can think critically about stereotypes in literature, they need to see literature that's positive and authentic. That's equally true for the very few students who have strong Native ties or are black or Asian as for the white students.

Having said that, I think the analysis of specific chapters and passages in Sign of the Beaver was also successful because, as you suggest, we didn't read it as a novel or as literature, we just read those passages, largely comparing the ways in which Attean's speech, his grandfather's speech and that of Matt are described. The students, given to me to teach because they'd been unengaged in the "regular ed" classrooms, were vocal and articulate in their responses to Speare's depiction of Attean's speech as grunts. I can still hear their voices, 18 years later, as they "talked back" to Speare.

I don't do this more often for a couple of reasons: -first, with only so much time, I do want to make sure my students get that authentic literature. I'm reading Hidden Roots right now to my class. -second, even in snippets, literature is so powerful and can be so powerfully painful. When most of the kids are white, the possibilities of pain for others are so much greater, as my own sons (we're a multiwhateverish background family, black, white, Mi'kmaq, and mystery genes) have let me know. Thinking critically about historical events and about texts somehow doesn't hurt as much as the literature can.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Paul Chaat Smith is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma. He and Robert Warrior wrote Like a Hurricane, the Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. Published in 1996, it ought to be used in every high school class that looks at the Civil Rights Movement. Alcatraz was occupied by American Indians in the late 1960s. It inspired Native people to take action at sites across the country in the 70s.

I’ve recently found Smith’s website, Fear of a Red Planet. It includes Exile on Main Street, which is Smith’s cyberbook. I want to draw you attention to his essay,  “Home of the Brave.” In it, he talks about some of America’s favorite books, ones that masquerade as being by or about American Indians: Susan Jeffers’s Brother Eagle Sister Sky, and Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree. Here’s an excerpt from his essay:
Indians have been erased from the Master Narrative of this country, and replaced by the cartoon images that all of us know and most of us believe. At different times the narrative has said we didn't exist and the land was empty, then it was mostly empty and populated by fearsome savages, then populated by noble savages who couldn't get with the program, and on and on. Today the equation is Indian equals spiritualism and environmentalism. In twenty years it will probably be something else.
Visit his website. Read the entire essay. And, reconsider how you use Brother Eagle Sister Sky, or The Education of Little Tree.

Note: There is discussion of Brother Eagle Sister Sky in the article Jean Mendoza and I wrote for the journal, Early Childhood Research & Practice. The article is called "Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls." It is listed under "ARTICLES" (right side of this page) or you can click here to get to it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reflections on CADDIE WOODLAWN: Teaching about Stereotypes using Literature

One evening in 1999, when my daughter, Liz, (then a third-grader) was doing homework, she said "Mom, I don't get it." She’s exceptionally bright, so when she told me she didn't get it, I knew something was up. I asked her what she was reading. She held up Caddie Woodlawn.

I was well into my research by that time (study of representation of Native Americans in children's books). Given UIUC's “Chief Illiniwek,” Liz learned early on about racism, representation, and stereotyping.

By then, I was already collaborating with Beverly Slapin at Oyate. I told her about Liz’s experience reading Caddie Woodlawn. She invited Liz to dictate her experience for inclusion in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Titled “Liz’s Story” here is a portion of what eight-year-old Liz said:

"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."

Liz 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, and that she wanted them to stop reading it. Due to the teacher's social justice approach to teaching, Liz's group had great empathy and agreed to choose a different book.

Liz's best friend at the time was also in the group, and she said she didn't want them to pick a book that made white people look bad. In the end, I bought and donated 10 copies of Erdrich's Birchbark House. That is what they read instead. Liz went on to write a short play of one scene in the book, which her group later performed for their classmates.

This episode illustrates some of what good teachers must contend with in America’s under-funded schools.

The teacher chose this book because they were studying historical fiction, and she wanted them to read a story set in or near the midwest. She was using ‘best practice’ in that regard.

She chose that book because there were multiple copies of it available at the school.

She knew it contained derogatory content about American Indians, but, she thought it would give the students the opportunity to deconstruct stereotypical images, applying their critical thinking skills to issues of representation, etc.

As Liz’s experience documents, it didn’t work.

Back then, I called my friends and colleagues in children’s literature, asking them for ideas on what to do. One expressed disgust that an old, outdated book was still being used in the classroom. She suggested the teacher use the book, but NOT as a work of literature. Here’s her rationale:

If a book is well-written, readers will be drawn into it, identifying with characters, setting, story, etc. as they read it, cover to cover. It might be difficult, given that growing attachment to the book, to distance themselves enough to be able to critically discuss the negative representations of American Indians. Analyzing such representations is important, and using children’s books to do it is possible, but not if the book is read, first, as literature. Here’s a rough outline of what a teacher might do:

  1. Assign specific chapters to different groups of children.
  2. Ask each group to focus on passages about American Indians in their specific chapter. What words are used to describe them? What tone is conveyed?
  3. Repeat this exercise for the non-Native characters.
  4. Compare and contrast the two sets of data.
  5. Engage the children in conversations about differences in these representations.
  6. Talk about the period when the book was written.
  7. Talk about the period itself, and how people thought about American Indians at that time.

If any of you (readers of this blog) have done something like this, please write to me. I’d like to hear how it works in practice.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Headed to NYC for NCTE's Conference on College Composition and Communication

Next week I'll be visiting New York City (for the first time), attending NCTE's Conference on College Composition and Communication. I'm speaking at a session titled "Research on Cultures of Writing."

My paper is designed to look at the process of retelling American Indian stories. I will use two children's books in my session, Penny Pollock's Turkey Girl and Kristina Rodanas Dragonfly's Tale. Both are deeply flawed.

My hope is to reach teachers who teach writing, to help them help writers approach this task in a more careful, thoughtful way. My session is on Saturday, 3:30 to 4:45.

NCTE invited Joy Harjo and Lee Marmon to speak on Thursday morning. Previously on this blog, I'm talked about her book, The Good Luck Cat. Her poetry is in a new book by Lee Marmon, called The Pueblo Imagination. You may not recognize his name, but anyone that has followed Native photography knows his signature shot of an elder Pueblo man in sneakers. That photo is featured on the cover of The Pueblo Imagination. (The photo itself is called "White Man's Moccasins.") Marmon's daughter is Leslie Marmon Silko, author of Ceremony, which is often used in high school lit classes. I'm really looking forward to their session.

My family will join me in NYC on Friday, where we'll see Mama Mia. I'm looking forward to being in NYC, and seeing a musical that draws from the songs of my teen years. It should be great fun.

Update 3/18/2007: I've spent much of this afternoon listening to Joy's CD, Native Joy for Real. She's a musician, plays sax. Go here to see her CDs.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Margaret Bruchac's MALIAN'S SONG

Editor's Note: This review used here with permission of Beverly Slapin at Oyate. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

Bruchac, Margaret (Abenaki), Malian’s Song, illustrated by William Maughan. Vermont Folklife Center, 2005. Unpaginated, color illustrations, grades 4-up; Abenaki.

Malian's Song is neither myth, legend nor folktale, but a true account of the October 4, 1759, attack on the village of Odanack by Major Robert Rogers and his Rangers. Because the people were warned by one of Rogers' Mohican scouts, 32 of the villagers were killed, rather than the 200 later claimed by Rogers, but their homes were burned, and their stores of corn pillaged. This story has existed in the living traditions of Abenaki people for nearly 250 years, and Bruchac sets down this tragic event carefully and with great feeling. Young readers will see the loss and pain and sorrow, and they will also see how the people have continued, and do so still.

The illustrations are lovely. The people are dressed as they would have been in that day, in a combination of Native and English clothing. Maughan has beautifully drawn the close ties between family members and the strengths of each. The names are known: Malian was the young daughter of Simon Obomsawin; her cousin was Maliazonis. Malian's granddaughter was Mali Masadoques. In telling their story, Bruchac does them honor, and with respect for young readers.

This is Malian’s song:
"Nziwaldam, nziwaldam, anakwika ndodana
I am lonesome; I am lonesome; our village grows up to trees
Malian pihta oziwaldam, nda tomo widoba
Malian she is very lonesome; there is no friend anywhere.”
—Doris Seale

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Denise Low

In the last few years, working in American Indian Studies, I've met many Native men and women at tribal colleges, research universities, Ivy League schools... Some work with literature, writing it and/or studying it. I've noted some of that work in previous posts (see, for example, my posts about LeAnne Howe). Robert Warrior (Osage) was visiting here at UIUC this week. Last week I blogged about ALCATRAZ IS NOT AN ISLAND, a documentary in which he figured prominently. His book,co-edited with Paul Chaat Smith, about American Indian activism is excellent. It is called Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. I highly recommend it as an addition to high school classes studying Civil Rights and Activism.

I have yet to meet Denise Low, but hope to do so soon. She is part Lenape (commonly known as Delaware) and Cherokee, and is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. She's also 2007 Poet Laureate of Kansas. You can read some of her poems on the Kansas Poets website.

On that page, I especially like "Kene: Bald Eagle."

Read her essay "The Cancer of Sprawl" on the Counterpunch website, visit her blog, and use her poems with junior/senior students in high school lit classes. They are beautiful and powerful. An interview with Denise, and list of her work is here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Images of Indians in Children's Books

Starting a new blog, this one of images in picture books....

It is called Images of Indians in Children's Books. I'm just getting started on it, and I won't post to it as frequently as I do American Indians in Children's Books. I'm conceptualizing it as a teaching tool for courses that use, directly or indirectly, children's lit. It will also be useful for teachers, parents, and kids, too!

Here's the URL:

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.]