Thursday, September 21, 2006

Native Americans and Thanksgiving

Reenactments of historical events are a much loved pastime. I first came across one 12 years ago in Illinois. On a field were people dressed as knights, carrying all manner of weaponry. I thought it was a movie set, but learned it was a group that does this on a regular basis.

In school, we teach children to do reenactments, like "The First Thanksgiving." Lots of time is spent making hats and headdresses and other articles of clothing, and, talking about "The First Thanksgiving."

But is this particular reenactment best practice? Is it educationally sound? Certainly, it is fun for some of those who do it, but should teachers and children be doing it at all?

Teachers work very hard, but receive little respect for their work. And, they are underpaid, too, often spending chunks of their too-small salaries to buy things their schools cannot provide. Due to lack of time and resources, teachers often recycle activities from one year to the next. I think Thanksgiving reeactments are one of those things that gets recycled. Developing new ways of teaching about Thanksgiving will take time and money. Before that can happen, however, teachers must learn more about Pilgrims, Indians, and "The First Thanksgiving."

They can start with Deconstructing the Myths of "The First Thanksgiving," a free resource by Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin, available at Oyate. At the bottom of "Deconstructing the Myths" are two lists of recommended books. It includes three lists of books: 1) Recommended Books about Thanksgiving, Also take a look at their  "Books to Avoid" about Thanksgiving.

Not surprising, but still disheartening, is the number of books on the first two lists. Dow and Slapin's short list includes only one work of fiction: Jake Swamp's Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, published in 1995 by Lee and Low. The other five children's books on their list are non-fiction, and one is a teacher resource. In contrast, there are over 80 books on the "Books to Avoid" list, but it doesn't have to stay that way.

Teachers are a powerful group. You can effect change. Because of teachers' letters telling them that children were using "Indian Red" to color Indians red, Crayola changed the name of their "Indian Red" crayon to "chestnut." With Thanksgiving coming up, perhaps teachers can push publishers to give them better books. To find contact information for them, go to Children's Book Publishers at Kay Vandergrift's website on children's literature. (You'll have to hunt around on a publisher's website to find their "contact us" page with addresses and phone numbers.)

Obviously, we need more books on Dow and Slapin's recommended list, but they won't be written unless people ask for them.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Review of Ben Mikaelsen's TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Editor's Note, March 10, 2008: A lot of people come to this page from "Web English Teacher" and may be surprised to read the critical review below. I hope that you'll consider it and the other essays on this site about Touching Spirit Bear. Share what you read here with your students. How does information provided here compare to positive and favorable reviews? Does the negative review change your view of the book in any way?
SEPTEMBER 20, 2006: Beverly Slapin's review of Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear

Editor's Intro to Slapin's Review: American society loves to love Indians and things-Indian. Or rather, things they think are Indian. There’s a long history of exploiting our ways of being. Touching Spirit Bear is another example of that exploitation. You don’t have to buy or read it. There are better books available. To find them, visit the Oyate website.

[Note: This review is used here with permission of the author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]

Mikaelsen, Ben, Touching Spirit Bear. HarperCollins, 2001, 241 pages, grades 5-up; Tlingit

For centuries, restorative justice or circle justice has been practiced in one form or another by many Indian communities. The object is to restore the wellbeing of the victim or the victim’s family, rather than to punish the offender. This is done through a multi-step talking-circle approach, in which the people most affected by the crime, along with community representatives, come together to heal and to try to agree on a fair and reasonable settlement. The sentencing plan involves commitment by the community, family members, and the offender. In 1996, a pilot circle justice project, in conjunction with the criminal justice system, was initiated in Minnesota

In Touching Spirit Bear, Cole Matthews is an angry, out-of-control Minneapolis teen, the son of wealthy, abusive alcoholic parents, convicted of viciously beating a classmate. This manipulative and violent young offender is given one more chance: to take part in the circle justice program. Soon Cole finds himself on a remote Alaskan island in Tlingit territory, banished for a year, overseen by a Tlingit parole officer and a traditional elder—and watched by an enormous white “spirit bear.” Here, he resists, wrestles with, and ultimately comes to terms with this chance to take responsibility for what he’s done. 

Ben Mikaelsen’s writing, in places, is evocative and a dead-on accurate portrayal of a troubled teen. After the bear near-fatally mauls Cole, there are excruciatingly detailed descriptions of his struggles to survive by eating worms and bugs, a live mouse and even his own vomit. With broken ribs, legs and an arm, and too weak to get up, he defecates in his pants, and fights to stay alive. It is during this time that Cole begins to understand his vulnerability and his relationship to everything that surrounds him. It is here that his transformation begins. 

All of this having been said, Touching Spirit Bear is fatally flawed by Mikaelsen’s inexcusable playing around with Tlingit culture, cosmology and ritual; and his abysmal lack of understanding of traditional banishment. It is obvious that what he doesn’t know, he invents. Edwin, the Tlingit elder, instructs Cole to: jump into the icy cold water and stay there as long as possible; pick up a heavy rock (called the “ancestor rock”) and carry it to the top of a hill; push the rock (now called the “anger rock”) back down the hill; watch for animals and dance around the fire to impersonate the animal he sees (called the “bear dance,” “bird dance,” “mouse dance,” etc.); announce what he’s learned about the characteristics of that animal from his dance; and finally, carve that animal on his own personal “totem pole.”

This is all garbage. The purpose of banishment is to isolate a person so that, in solitude, he can think deeply about his life and relations, and prepare to rejoin his community. When someone is banished, he is left to learn on his own whatever is to be learned. It is not about white boys “playing Indian.” It is not about teaching white boys the rituals of another culture. And most especially, it is not about carrying rocks up a hill and performing a bunch of stupid cross-cultural animal impersonation dances.
The author’s own relationship with bears and his supposed almost-close-enough-to-touch encounter with a “three-hundred-pound male Spirit Bear” notwithstanding, Touching Spirit Bear is a terrible book.

—Beverly Slapin

[Update, 5/7/2008: Please read further information about Touching Spirit Bear here.]

Monday, September 18, 2006

"What Works Clearinghouse"

In the last few days, more than one Internet listserv has carried a post about the U.S. Dept of Education's "What Works Clearinghouse." It prompted me to visit the pages for the clearinghouse, and then to post my thoughts on the contents of the Character Education page. Below is what I wrote. This is important to me because of the lack of content regarding American Indians.

On Sunday, September 17, 2006, I went to the What Works Clearinghouse web page, interested specifically in the Character Education component. This was my first visit to the site, which is maintained by the US Dept of Education.

It was interesting (though not surprising, given the Bush administration's NCLB program and focus on "accountability") to see the Clearinghouse's emphasis on testable, measurable outcomes for a student's development of moral ways of thinking and acting. Morality and character, apparently, can be measured by tests.

Of equal interest to me was the topics in the "Facing Our History" portion of the Character Ed pages. In this module, students "examine historical events, in particular the events that led to WWII and the Holocaust."

There is some material on slavery, too, but as far as I am able to determine, not a single reference to moral questions regarding the treatment of American Indians. There is some material regarding the Eugenics programs, but it looks like it is limited to Hitler, when there was a very active program here (in the U.S.) as late as the 1970s.

It appears to me that the program, which "aims to promote core character education values and to help middle and high school students develop moral reasoning skills" deliberately uses events that make other countries the "bad guys" while avoiding immoral actions of the U.S. government, especially with respect to American Indians.

I've heard back from an individual who works in the Dept of Ed. He is going to forward my remarks to people in Washington responsible for the site, and he will let me know if he receives a reply. Frankly, I won't hold my breathe. I doubt the gatekeepers in the Bush Administration cares what I think. They have an agenda that has no room for challenge to their vision of America. Under his administration, they also developed a program at the National Endowment for the Humanies that is also, from my point of view, anti-Indian. I'll blog about that another time.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

American Indian Families in Fact and Fiction

At UIUC, I am involved with the Youth Literature Interest Group, a group of faculty and doctoral students in Education, English Studies, Library and Information Science, and (me) in American Indian Studies from UIUC, Illinois State University, and Eastern Illinois University.

On October 20-22nd, we are hosting a conference called "Family, Youth, and Literature."

On the program for the conference, you can see that I will be on a panel on Saturday morning (Oct. 21st). My presentation is "American Indian Families in Fact and Fiction." A brief look at some of what I will present:

In fact, there are over 500 distinct federally recognized tribes in the United States today. Is this diversity present in popular works of fiction?

This is stating the obvious, but oftentimes the obvious is ignored... Today and in the past, we have mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts who love and care for children and other members of the community. Are they included in popular children's books?

As a Pueblo Indian whose people speak Tewa, I called my grandmother "sa?yaa" (note that I am unable to use diacritic marks in the Blogger software) or "gram." The same is true across tribal nations. We use our own language (or English) to refer to women, men, babies, etc. We did not use the words that predominate in popular children's books: "squaw" or "brave" or "papoose."

In a nutshell, I will talk about the ways American Indians and their families are (are not?) portrayed in classic and popular children's books. I will also highlight books like Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer, that do a better job of presenting us as we are.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Indian Country Diaries: Spiral of Fire

Two weeks ago, I shared a little history about UIUC's American Indian Studies program, and I talked about LeAnne Howe, a member of our faculty. I noted her books (Shell Shaker and Evidence of Red) and mentioned her upcoming film, "Spiral of Fire." Today I want to call attention to the film.

Viewing films like this one can help you become better informed about American Indians. Being more informed will help you evaluate children's books, media, and lesson plans about American Indians.

To learn more about Indian Country Diaries, go to their website. There you will find a synopsis of the series, a screening toolkit, viewer's guide with questions for discussion, high resolution images and screen captures (lower resolution) of "Spiral of Fire." Here's the first paragraph of the synopsis:


“Spiral of Fire” takes author LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) to the North Carolina homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to discover how the mix of tourism, community, and cultural preservation is the key to their tribe’s health in the 21st century. Along the way Howe seeks to reconcile her own complex identity as the illegitimate daughter of a Choctaw woman, fathered by a Cherokee man she never knew, and raised by an adopted Cherokee family in Oklahoma. Howe’s search leads the viewer on a journey of discovery to one of the most beautiful places in America where Cherokees, living on lands they’ve inhabited for 10,000 years, manage their own schools, hospitals, cable company, tourist attractions and multi-million dollar casino. Yet, despite these successes, diabetes threatens 40% of the population, racism undermines self-confidence, and greed threatens to divide the community. “Spiral of Fire” reveals the forces at work to restore health, prosperity and sovereignty to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.


In addition to LeAnne's "Spiral of Fire," Indian Country Diaries includes a second documentary, "A Seat at the Drum" featuring journalist Mark Anthony Rolo (of the Bad River Ojibwe nation). "A Seat at the Drum" starts out at Sherman Indian School in Riverside, California. Riverside was one of the last boarding schools created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (see previous posts to the blog on children's books about boarding schools). Rolo spends time in Los Angeles, which, due to government relocation programs, has the largest urban Indian population in the U.S. (over 200,000 as reported on US Census).

The films will be broadcast nationally on PBS in November.

"Spiral of Fire" will premiere at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian on Friday, September 29 at 7:00, and on Saturday, September 30, at 1:30. LeAnne will at the premiere on Friday evening for a follow-up discussion.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Yesterday's assigned reading for students in my class at UIUC was Little House on the Prairie. Most of the students read the book in childhood, and some remember it being read to them by a teacher or parent. Re-reading it now as adults, they were surprised at the multiple occurrences of what they described as derogatory and racist depictions of Native people that they do not recall.

One young woman remembers the phrase in the book "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" and another remembers feeling worried that Laura and her family were in danger.

Along with the book, the students read Michael Dorris' essay "Trusting the Words," in which he describes the joy with which he set out to read Little House to his daughters, only to be taken aback by the negative portrayals. He tried to edit them out as he read aloud, but eventually gave up. His essay first appeared in Booklist 89 (June, 1993) and was reprinted in his book of essays, Paper Trail, published in 1994 by HarperCollins.

I suggest you take a second look at Little House. Note the ways that Native peoples are described, and consider whether or not the book ought to be set aside and used, perhaps, in contexts where readers are able to think critically about racism and colonization.

If you are interested in books and articles that critique Little House, there are several, including these two by Native people.

"Burning Down the House: Laura Ingalls Wilder and American Colonialism," by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, in Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America, edited by Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs), published in 2006 by University of Texas Press.


"Little House on the Osage Prairie," by Dennis McAuliffe, Jr., available on line at the Oyate web site.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Review of Nicola Campbell's SHI-SHI-ETKO

[Note: This review is used with permission of its author, by Beverly Slapin of Oyate. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission.]

Campbell, Nicola L. (Interior Salish/Métis), Shi-shi-etko, illustrated by Kim LaFave. Groundwood, 2005. 32 pages, color illustrations; grades 1-3

In just four days, young Shi-shi-etko (“she loves to play in the water”) will have to leave everyone she loves and everything she knows—to go to an Indian residential school where, among other things, her name, language and identity will be taken away. Until recently, this was the law and the harsh reality for Native children in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. “Can you imagine a community without children?” Campbell writes in a brief foreword. “Can you imagine children without parents?”

As Shi-shi-etko counts down the days, her large extended family—cousins, aunties and uncles, and Yahyah—fill her with their love, memories, and the strength to endure what they know will happen and what they are powerless to prevent. With her mother, a morning prayer in the creek. With her father, a paddle song in the canoe. With her yahyah, a visit to the woods. A sprig of hemlock, cedar and pine placed into a small deerskin bag.

Too soon, it is time. The cattle truck is waiting. With a prayer and an offering of tobacco, Shi-shi-etko tucks her deerskin bag inside the roots of a big fir tree, to wait for her return. She takes in everything one last time—“tall grass swaying to the rhythm of the breeze, determined mosquitoes, working bumblebees…each shiny rock, the sand beneath her feet, crayfish and minnows and tadpoles…”

LaFave’s rich and evocative digital illustrations, on a palette of mostly reds, complement this sad and gentle story. What happens to Shi-shi-etko at residential school is not told here. It does not have to be. After Shi-shi-etko, read to children Larry Loyie’s As Long as the Rivers Flow, then Maddie Harper’s “Mush-hole”: Memories of a Residential School, then Judith Lowry’s Home to Medicine Mountain, then Shirley Sterling’s My Name Is Seepeetza; all of these that they may know a shameful part of history that must never be repeated.

—Beverly Slapin

[Note from Debbie: Shi-shi-etko and the other books Beverly refers to in the last paragraph of her review are available from Oyate.]

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Native Americans: Lesson Plans

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

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

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

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

And here's an excerpt from Chapter 1:

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 08, 2006

Tintin in America

Yesterday's assignment in my class at UIUC was for each student to bring a children's book about American Indians to class. I'll talk more about what they brought in a later post, but for now, I want to talk about a specific book: Tintin in America.

One of the students brought Tintin in America. The author, Herge, is Belgian, and the book was published in Belgium in 1932. I will get a copy and read it, and invite anyone who knows the book to send me your thoughts (dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com).

In the book, Tintin goes to "Redskin City." From what I saw, the Indians are stereotypical characters in feathered headdress and buckskin. On the cover of the book, Tintin is tied to a post in front of two tipis. An Indian appears to be calling to others to join him; he brandishes a tomahawk in one hand and points to Tintin with the other.

An old publication date (1932), originally published in another country... But it was published here, too, in 1979, by Little, Brown. I'll spend some time reading and thinking about this book. There is a fan website called that says:

"Hergé had wanted to write a story about the oppression of the Indians in the USA, but his boss, Father Wallez fancied a story about the Chicago crime syndicate that would help illustrate how corrupt the USA really was. (Don't forget that Wallez was all in favour of a strong and unified Europe - without the rightist Hitler - type associations). That was not exactly what Hergé had in mind, so on page 16 he lets gangster Bobby Smiles flee to Redskincity, a town near an Indian camp. However, to stay out of trouble with Wallez, Hergé used the Indians to expose American corruption with the scene where the 'whites' found out about the oil on the Indian reserve, they established a town and oil industry within 24 hours.
Finding a publisher for this book in the USA was impossible. Even in the mid-1940s, American publishers insisted that Hergé replaced the 'coloured' people featured in the comic with 'whites'. Then again, the USA was not the only country that gave Hergé a hard time publishing this comic. Most foreign publishers (i.e. non-Belgian or French) seemed to have problems with the almost apocalyptical scene in which the soldiers move out the Indians of the reserve, and the speed in which the new town is created."

A lot of people here and around the world object to the treatment of American Indians. As the author of tintinologist says, Herge wanted to write a story about the oppression of American Indians in the United States.  In doing so, however, he uses stereotypical imagery. Does that imagery inadvertently negate what they're trying to accomplish? And what about people who don't know it is stereotypical?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

American Indian Library Association’s “American Indian Youth Literature Award”

For many years, individuals with the American Indian Library Association have worked toward establishing an award for outstanding children’s books about American Indians. Yesterday (September 5, 2006), they announced the first three recipients of the award.

Here is the portion of their press release with details about the books:


"Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story," by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, illustrated by Sam Sandoval, and published by the University of Nebraska Press is the winner for the picture book category. Accompanied by rich watercolor illustrations, the text relates a culturally vital tale from the Salish people of Montana about the significance of the gift of fire and how it should be respected.

Louise Erdrich is the winner of the middle-school award for "The Birchbark House," published by Hyperion Books for Children. Setting her book in the middle 19th century, Erdrich paints a detailed portrait of Ojibwa life through the experiences of 7-year-old Omakayas who lives on the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker on Lake Superior. "The Birchbark House" was Erdrich's first novel for young readers, and the first book she has illustrated. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and lives with her two daughters in Minnesota.

The young adult award is "Hidden Roots," written by Joseph Bruchac and published by Scholastic Press. The book is set within the historical framework of the Vermont Eugenics Program, a Native American sterilization program in the 1930s, and tells the story of the haunting effects of this shameful and tragic deed on one of the Abenaki families victimized by it. Author of more than 70 books for adults and children, Bruchac is of Abenaki ancestry and is a nationally recognized professional storyteller living in Greenfield Center, New York.


Thank you, AILA, for establishing this award. Awards do a lot for the longevity of a book. As demonstrated on this blog, and by people who've done this work for many decades, some pretty awful books get printed again and again. They’re hard to displace, but I am hopeful that awards like this one will help change that. We must not forget, though, that the bottom line is sales. All three books are available from Oyate.

If we don’t buy these books for ourselves, for our children, for their friends, for their teachers, they will go out of print, even if they are designated as award winners.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD, Review by Beverly Slapin

[Note: Yesterday’s post (written by Jean Mendoza) was about a children's book called They Were Strong and Good. Today, you can read Beverly Slapin's review of the book. Her review is also in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children.]
Lawson, Robert, They Were Strong and Good, illustrations by the author. New York: Viking Press (1940, 1994). Unpaginated, b/w illustrations, grades 2-3

Originally published in 1940 and republished in 1994, They Were Strong and Good is described by the author as being “the story of my mother and my father and of their fathers and mothers.”
"When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota—tame ones. My mother did not like them. They would stalk into the kitchen without knocking and sit on the floor. Then they would rub their stomachs and point to their mouths to show that they were hungry. They would not leave until my mother’s mother gave them something to eat."
Look very closely to find what was changed in the 1994 edition:
"When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota. My mother did not like them. They would stalk into the kitchen without knocking and sit on the floor. Then they would rub their stomachs and point to their mouths to show that they were hungry. They would not leave until my mother’s mother gave them something to eat."
This illustration is of a Black woman—a bandanna-wearing “mammy”—brandishing a broom at two Indians who are running away with stolen food.
In another section, the 1940 text reads:
"When my father was very young he had two dogs and a colored boy. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilius and Numa Pompilius. The colored boy was just my father’s age. He was a slave, but they didn’t call him that. They just called him Dick. He and my father and the two hound dogs used to hunt all day long."
And the 1994 text reads:
"When my father was very young he had a Negro slave and two dogs. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilius and Numa Pompilius. The Negro boy was just my father’s age and his name was Dick. He and my father and the two hound dogs used to hunt all day long."
This illustration is of a Black youngster dressed in rags, carrying two dead animals, walking behind his young white master. Several other illustrations also show Black people dressed in rags, in various positions of servitude.
They Were Strong and Good received the Caldecott Award in 1941, which even for that time period is a little surprising, given its stereotypical and derogatory depiction of both Native and African-American people. The 1994 edition is not improved by its minor textual changes. It was a horrid little book then with its sense of white entitlement and superiority and it’s a horrid little book now. In order for some children to be proud of their cultures, should other children be made ashamed of theirs?
—Beverly Slapin

Monday, September 04, 2006

Jean Mendoza: Reflections on THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

---Jean Mendoza