Thursday, June 14, 2007

Native students in Chicago Public Schools

On Tuesday (June 12), I was at Lakeview High School in Chicago for "The Faces of Native American Students." It was an achievement recognition ceremony and art exhibit to honor Native students in Chicago Public Schools.

My heart swelled to be part of that gathering. The accomplishments of children, from kindergarten through college students, were acknowledged. This was the first time the event was held.

The event itself was presented by Chicago Public Schools, Chicago's Title VII Indian Education Program's Citywide American Indian Education Council, Lake View High School's Native Club, and Lake View High School's chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering organization. They asked me to give their keynote address.

I talked with many of the students. At one point, I was talking with a six-year old avid reader. I asked if she'd read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. A 9th grader at my side brightly spoke up to say she'd read and liked that book.

The community there touched me in many ways. I plan to spend more time working with them. I am grateful to be included and welcomed into their community.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a key player in national politics and government here in the US. Among her many books is one called The Language Police. I think it accurate to say that she'd describe the sort of work I do as 'political correctness run amok'.

This morning, I discovered she's participating in a blog over at Education Week. I'll have to spend some time there, reading. For the time being, I've posted a comment. I've invited her to visit my blog. I assign selections from her writing in the Politics of Children's Literature course I teach here at UIUC.

Will she read my blog? Will she respond to my post? We will see. Do visit and read the Ed Week blog. Good stuff there in the "Bridging Differences" blog where Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier go toe-to-toe on curriculum, testing, and other subjects.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work. --Debbie

Sherman Alexie's blog

Sherman Alexie, author of a terrific YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has been writing outstanding fiction for many years, for the grown-ups. Most people would not use his books with teens, but you and should decide for yourself, based on the guidelines of your particular school. (Americans are an odd bunch. Glorify violence. Fear sex.) Do get True Diary for your library. Add it to required reading lists. It is one of my favorite books for young adults.

Alexie is a very engaging speaker, too. Quite funny. Nothing sacred. I've seen him do Bush's swagger, and he did a hilarious "why do you want to use us as mascots?!!! We LOST. YOU BEAT US."

In addition to True Diary, he's got another book out that he's promoting. It's called Flight. He's keeping a blog as he's out on the book tour. Take a look. It's laugh-out-loud reading.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

"We" the People?

A few years back, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association began a "We the People" Bookshelf program that was designed to, on an annual basis, select a handful of books with specific themes. These books would reflect the peoples of the United States of America. That first "shelf" of books was troubling in many ways. Those who view literature critically for its representation (or lack thereof) of American Indians took great issue with that list. We wrote letters to NEH and ALA to document our concerns, but no changes were made to that first shelf, and books chosen in the ensuing years give evidence that our concerns were not taken seriously. Or, perhaps they were, but the NEH in the Bush administration has a specific agenda driving the selection of books that dismisses us.

Conversations about those "bookshelfs" continue. Below is a post written by Professor Jean Mendoza, a colleague and friend with whom I celebrate and commiserate about life and books. Jean's post was part of conversation taking place recently on the CCBC-NET listserv. I share it here with her permission.


Date: Friday, May 18, 2007

Oh, goodness, this mention of "We, the People" touches a nerve.

A colleague and I have decided the NEH and ALA should call it, "We, Some People" because significant voices are left out and others effectively silenced in and by several of the selections each year.

If one believes (as I do) in the notion of "mirrors and windows" (per Sims-Bishop and others) -- that good literature for children offers them mirrors of their own lives and windows on the lives of people who are "different from them" -- several "WE, the People" selections are highly problematic, distorting both the reflections and the view....

After the first "Bookshelf" list came out, several Native scholars and parents noted the complete absence of books by Native writers, while two of the books, Little House on the Prairie and The Matchlock Gun, contained extremely negative representations of indigenous people. There was no way that a Native child could find in that collection (called Courage) any images of people of his/her heritage suggesting that his/her ancestors might in fact have been courageous, or even fully human and equal in importance to the "settlers". There were more problems with that year's list, but I'll just stick to the problematic representations of indigenous North Americans.

The next year, "Freedom" was the metaphor/topic and again no works by Native writers (or illustrators) were included, though one story with a Native protagonist, by a white writer, appears -- the problematic The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble. The implication of this absence is that Native people's stories have no relevance in discussions of "Freedom". The irony grows painful.

The next year's collection is called "Becoming American". Probably I shouldn't get started on that choice of title. Who was here first? Who may have struggled the most with what it means, or meant, to "become American"?? And who is unrepresented, except in a book by a white author? As my husband sometimes says, "The irony rusts me out."

And as for this year's shelf, entitled "The Pursuit of Happiness" -- apparently, in the eyes of the "We, the People" selection committee, no indigenous writers of books for young people have made their characters pursue happiness in a manner worthy of inclusion in the collection.

This bookshelf idea seems great -- who doesn't like free books? -- but the practices of those making the selections seem to me (as a parent, grandparent, and aunt of Native kids) blatantly exclusionary. The NEH and ALA have been hearing every year from people (parents, scholars, educators) who practically beg them to choose books that reflect greater accuracy, authenticity, and inclusiveness. And each year, it seems to me, the exclusions simply compound those of previous years. Ignoring voices of protest can, at least for a time, be effective in silencing discourse and perpetuating historical "whitewashing". If that is NOT the underlying purpose of "We, the People", then those who work on the project really ought to make some significant changes. (And if silencing voices and whitewashing history actually were an underlying purpose, then would such a project deserve participation by libraries and schools?) There is no reason to continue to present the distorted (or painted-over) mirrors and windows as the project has done since its inception.

In my humble and deeply frustrated opinion, the "We, the People" bookshelf project really ought to get in synchrony with reality.

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Early Childhood Education
Millikin University
Decatur, Illinois

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tim Tingle's Spirits Dark and Light: Supernatural Tales from the Five Civilized Tribes

[Note: This review used with permission by its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be published elsewhere without her written consent.]


Tingle, Tim (Choctaw), Spirits Dark and Light: Supernatural Tales from the Five Civilized Tribes. August House, 2006. 192 pages, grades 5-up; Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole

“You might see yellow knots on a floating backwater log,” Tingle cautions. “Better not reach for it, it might have teeth. Maybe it looks like a pile of leaves lying on the ground. Better not step on it, it might have fangs. Maybe it seems like a bunch of moss hanging from a tree limb. Better not touch it, it might have claws.” It might be Naloosa Falaya.

In Spirits Dark and Light, Tingle seamlessly weaves elements from traditional stories of the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole peoples into tellings that are eerie, gruesome, frightening, poignant—and just plain satisfying. In these stories in which the world of the spirits and the natural world come together, terrible witches and conjurers stalk the careless, the dead offer advice to the living, greed is properly punished, and heroism takes many forms.

Sometimes lessons are directly stated; sometimes they are inferred; sometimes a reader will have to look pretty hard to find them. And sometimes, as Tingle tells the reader, there may not be any. “Now I am not claiming this tale to have any moral attached to it,” he says. “But if it did, it might be this: if you pull a sticker burr out of your foot, a hard sticker burr that hurts bad, once you get that sticker burr out, don’t turn right around and poke it back in.”

Tingle is a master storyteller; his flow and timing are superb. Young readers will feel like he’s talking directly to them. The stories in Spirits Dark and Light are wonderful for reading aloud at a campfire or in a darkened room.—Beverly Slapin

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Elizabeth Anne Reese
Yun Povi

My daughter graduated from high school on Saturday. After receiving her diploma, my parents and nephews honored her with a Pendleton shawl. Beneath her graduation gown she wore her black manta and moccasins. With her tassel is an eagle feather. I am very proud of her and the work she's done as a young woman, trying to effect change at Uni High with respect to the recruitment and retention of Native, Latino/a, and African American students. She encountered a great deal of resistance from fellow students and their families. Some of that resistance was mean spirited and outright racist, but she kept her dignity throughout the year. She is an amazing Native woman.

(Note: Yun Povi is her Tewa name. Tewa is the language we speak at Nambe. Yun Povi means Willow Flower.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Further reading on HBO's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

I don't have HBO and didn't see the film this past weekend. I posted a couple of links with reviews last week. Here's another response.

The End of the Hollywood Trail

Hanah Geigomah

Friday, May 25, 2007

Kenneth Thomasma's books

A casting call is making the rounds in Indian Country... Too bad it is for the lead in a feature film based on Naya Nuki, one of the books in Thomasma's "Amazing Indian Children" series, which should more aptly be called "Amazing White Man's Indians." Those familiar with books about images of Indians will know my title for the series borrows from Robert F. Berkhofer's excellent book (published in 1979), The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present.

As you will read in Dovie Thomason's review essay below, Thomasma's books for children are quite a mess. And they're old, too, which should have been a heads-up to the film company. They're not classics or best sellers, but they do get put on lists (such as the Accelerated Reader program) by people who haven't read critically on bias and stereotyping.

Too bad the film makers didn't do more research. Ah, but I err. They're not into it for educational purposes, but for money. Naya Nuki is a Lewis and Clark story. The film makers missed the boat, I think, in the timing for this film, but I suspect they know it will get used again and again in classrooms.

Hmmm.... I wonder. If enough people wrote to the casting company (which is all the info we've got in terms of contacts), might the company drop the book and select another one? I think its worth a try. Write to Rene Haynes at Let's see what we can do. Read the review below to prep for your letter to Rene. (Note: The review is used by permission of its author and may not be published elsewhere without written consent. You can quote from it and cite this blog as your source. Even better, though, is to buy a copy of A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, from Oyate. The review and many others are in the book. )

Dovie Thomason's review:

Thomasma, Kenneth, “Amazing Indian Children Series.” Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. b/w illustrations; grades 3-5 
  • Amee-nah: Zuni Boy Runs the Race of His Life, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1995
  • Doe Sia: Bannock Girl and the Handcart Pioneers, illustrated by Agnes Vincent Talbot, 1999
  • Kunu: Winnebago Boy Escapes, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1989
  • Moho Wat: Sheepeater Boy Attempts a Rescue, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1994
  • Naya Nuki: Shoshoni Girl Who Ran, illustrated by Eunice Hundley, 1983
  • Om-kas-toe: Blackfeet Twin Captures an Elkdog, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1986
  • Pathki Nana: Kootenai Girl Solves a Mystery, illustrated by Jack Brouwer, 1991
  • Soun Tetoken: Nez Perce Boy Tames a Stallion, illustrated by Eunice Hundley, 1984
  • The Truth about Sacajawea. 1998 (not part of series)

White men who have tried to write stories about the Indian have either foisted on the public some bloodcurdling, impossible “thriller”; or, if they have been in sympathy with the Indian, have written from knowledge that was not accurate and reliable. No one is able to understand the Indian race like an Indian.
—Luther Standing Bear, 1928

Generations later, Kenneth Thomasma’s books embody the very problems Standing Bear wrote about. Using historical events as a background, teacher-turned-author Thomasma has produced a formulaic series called “Amazing Indian Children.” He also conducts writing workshops, storytelling assemblies and school programs, according to his press packet, “dressed in an Indian elk hide suit, complete with obsidian knife.” Choosing to represent Indian children, families, cultures and histories, he says his program “makes those Indian children proud of their heritage and restores self-respect to them that should never have been taken away.”

As a teacher, Thomasma could easily have accessed books by Luther Standing Bear/Ota K’te, Charles Eastman/Ohiyesa, Gertrude Bonnin/Zitkala Sa and others who wrote of their own lives as Indian children in the Nineteenth Century. Instead, he visited historical sites, read accounts by non-Native scholars, spoke with Native elders “to get the details right,” and added his own “speculations and educated guesses.” Does all of this qualify Thomasma to produce a series of children’s books about Indian children? Does it qualify him to interpret another people’s stories? Does it make his books a way of teaching “all kids what it was like to be an Indian child” or make “Indian children proud of their heritage” and restore “self-respect to them”? Can an outsider enter a community, speak with a few people and then understand enough to be the legitimate voice of its children? 

Thomasma may believe so, but it is not the voices of Indian children we hear in these books. Thomasma’s “amazing Indian children” are disadvantaged and struggling and heroic, and generally engage the sympathies of young readers. In Naya Nuki, one of the most popular books in the series, the main character is taken outside of her culture, away from her family, and put in a solitary cross-country trek with the odds of surviving stacked against her. She and her friend Sacajawea are “Shoshoni Indians,” and their lives, even before their capture, are described as hungry and desperate and ever wary of the “fierce…warlike tribes from the prairie.” But would she have thought of herself and her people as “Shoshoni Indians” or “Indians” at all? Wouldn’t she have thought of her people as Aqui Dika, their self-name, usually translated as Salmon Eaters (not Snakes)? Or, simply, wouldn’t she have used the terms “we” or “our people” or “our family”? From the first chapter, she even calls her friend “Sacajawea,” even though this did not become her name until years after their capture, when she was traded to the Arikara! Our young protagonist wanders through the entire story in a disembodied, out-of-culture state, seeing “Indians,” measuring the snowfall in inches and feet, counting the days and knowing “November” was near. She doesn’t think of her family often or comfort herself with a child’s memories that would make the family she longed to return to real to the young, empathetic reader. 

When not fearful of the pursuit by inexplicably “warlike” tribes, she is wary of “wild animals”—wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes and buffalo—and “fierce” weather. While much narrative is spent laboriously explaining (sometimes strangely, as when she makes “beautiful new moccasins” from untanned rawhide) various survival skills and close familiarity with nature, there is a fear of the “wilderness” that is not characteristic of the experience of an Indian child at that time. Her ability to survive, identify food and medicine, and recognize weather changes is described, not as the result of learning from relatives in an unbroken tradition of living with the land, but as instinctive. She “senses” and knows with no logical reasoning or teaching, seeming more like a part of the fauna of the “wilderness” than a child of people who knew the land intimately for millennia. She remains one-dimensional—an “amazing Indian child”—without ever being fully realized as a person and a member of a culture. 

The author’s voice becomes particularly alienating and offensive in his descriptions of ceremonial practices, which he turns into “pleasing the spirits of the hunt” or “angering the evil spirits of the dead.” And, of course, “chanting” for the “Great Spirit.” The rumbling of thunder, for instance, is explained as: “The Great Spirit surely must be angry. The heavens seemed to roar.” Surely these are not the thoughts of an Indian child in 1800. There is no sense of the worldview of her people. Why doesn’t Naya Nuki remember the traditional stories she’d heard that taught her relatedness to the land and all of the creatures of the land? The only stories mentioned are stories of war parties and battles, of heroic “braves” who are never just men or fathers or uncles. 

These problems may seem trivial compared to the hateful images of “sneaky, lurking, blood-thirsty, war-whooping savages” of the sort of literature Standing Bear observed as early as 1928 and which remains a concern today. But they still deny Indian characters in children’s books the full humanity necessary for non-Indian children reading them to view our complex cultures and for our own children to recognize themselves and their communities in what they read. 

Some may still ask, “But are these good books for my child or my classroom?” As literature, they are inconsistent and defy logic. The “heroic” deeds of the young protagonist are “thrilling,” but unbelievable. My daughter—who is both the same age as “Naya Nuki”—and I read some of Thomasma’s books together. Unlike most of her classmates, she has parents with a buffalo robe on their bed, so she was incredulous when she read of a young girl running for five hours with a buffalo robe bundled on her back and then floating across a river with it! An undernourished child running a 10K race with a robe so heavy it’s a struggle for an adult to move it from shelf to bed! Amazing, indeed! 

My daughter found the books “easy” to read, “never once having to look up a word in the dictionary.” Despite being described as “intermediate reading, ages 9-13,” they are written at a third-grade level and the writing is simple and choppy. This from Naya Nuki:
She could travel swiftly alone. She could run fast if she had to. She could hide in time of danger. She could climb trees to escape wild animals. She could find her own food. She could do it alone. She would do it alone.
As is probably true of most young readers, my daughter admired the children in these stories for their bravery and felt concern for their disadvantages, particularly the young Zuni boy born with a clubfoot, who is the main character in Amee-nah: Zuni Boy Runs the Race of His Life. Again, this is a “fictional story based on the life of a boy who actually lived,” although the boy who came to be known as “Nathan” is never fully identified. Permission to tell this story did not come from the person or family whose life Thomasma depicts; rather, it came from the son of missionaries who had told Thomasma the story when he was a young camp counselor in Michigan

Amee-nah, which means “lazy,” is the cruel “nickname” given to him because “he never went to sheep camp. He never ran in the stick races. He never played any games with the other boys.” This is the name that taunting bullies, his mother and only friend—and the narrator—use. It makes no sense except to dramatize their change to calling him Nathan (which, we’re told, means “gift from God”) after his foot is “miraculously” healed thanks to the intervention of the mission school’s coach and his philanthropic doctor friend. Throughout the story, the only ones who pray for the boy are the people of the mission school—Thomasma doesn’t mention the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Zuni people that often co-exist with Christianity. Thomasma’s telling of the traditional story of Dowa Yalanne uses the spelling common in the Catholic schools, rather than the traditional spelling. Despite the often laborious demonstrations of “research” that slow all of Thomasma’s books, he mentions only briefly the need to fast before the traditional stick races and eating only “paper bread,” which he never calls piki. Instead, the young runner
“wondered if paper bread really did any good. It was just a paper-thin bread made from cornmeal. It surely couldn’t satisfy a hungry appetite.”
There is no mention of the significance to Zuni people of corn or this special bread or the stick race. The lightning strike and rain during the stick race are not put in the context of Zuni belief, but serve only as dramatic background for one boy’s “amazing” victory. Here, the rain is just an element that makes the race treacherous, with no link to growth or nourishment or a good life. Amee-nah seems as much a stranger to his own culture as the young non-Indian readers of these books. Nothing of this book gives those readers any understanding of the people Thomasma presumes to represent. 

My daughter said the only thing she learned about the Zuni from this book was that they are good runners, and that she learned “nothing new” about history. She guessed that the children who went to mission schools must have really liked it because the “white teachers were so nice to the Indian kids.” To leave this impression, without ever mentioning the devastating effect on cultures and individuals of the mission or boarding schools, is worse than mere omission. To choose as his hero a boy who is unable to be worthwhile or whole until saved by white agencies is an unacceptable image for the experiences of Indian children. 

With no mention of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Thomasma cites World War II as the singular event that taught a Zuni boy “the high cost of freedom,” and mentions in another book that the Nez Percé “have gone on to defend the United States against enemies of our freedom. They have earned our respect and admiration” (italics mine). 

Despite the good counsel of people from the Shoshone, Zuni, Blackfeet, Nez Percé, Salish-Kootenai, and Winnebago nations, and despite the fact that the heroic children and happy endings carry the young reader along, Thomasma’s books are filled with errors of fact and perspective. His condescension is obvious in his prefaces and epilogues where he depicts Native nations as “a proud tribe” (Zuni), “a very proud people” (Kootenai), “proud of their past” (Nez Percé), and “a very special group” (Shoshoni). It would seem that we hold a monopoly on pride and specialness. 

All of Thomasma’s books are problematic and cannot be recommended on any level. As an Indian, a parent and a teacher, I want better for my daughter and all children.
—Dovie Thomason

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"I want to write a children's book..."

Occasionally, I have a conversation with someone who expresses an interest in writing for children. For those of you with that interest, visit Cynthia Leitich Smith's "technical and inspirational bibliography." Cyn writes, and she teaches writing. Her books are outstanding. Please do visit her pages. She has much to offer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, came out in the 1970s. This coming weekend, HBO will air a drama called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

As I describe the HBO film, I hesitate to say "Dee Brown's" Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, because HBO is playing fast and loose with Dee Brown's book. Some of you may have read the review of the film in the New York Times, but you should also seek out Native perspectives on the film.

You can start with these recent articles from Indian Country Today:

'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' debuts on HBO

HBO's 'Wounded Knee' movie makes positive contribution

The film provides the opportunity to discuss Native history, but also, the ways that HBO plays with history to turn this book into a drama.


Sunday, May 20, 2007


[Note: This review used by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be used elsewhere without her written permission.]
Rivera, Raquel, Arctic Adventures: Tales from the Lives of Inuit Artists, illustrated by Jirina Marton. Groundwood, (2007). 47 pages, color illustrations, grades 3-up. 

“[H]umans are not a polar bear’s preferred meal,” Rivera writes. “They are too bony, not like a nice fat seal.” These four tales, related for a child audience, are based on stories told by Inuit artists Pudlo Pudlat, Kenojuak Ashevak, Jessie Oonark and Lazarusie Ishulutak. Following each tale is a photo of the artist, a brief biographical sketch, and an image of a painting, print or sculpture that represents the artist’s work. Even considering that both author and illustrator are cultural outsiders, the book has a lot to offer. 

Rivera, who refers to herself as “Newbie-in-the-North,” renders the stories in a way that’s true to the way the artists see things; she respects the artists’ perceptions, even though those perceptions may not be her own. She has also resisted the temptation to portray each artist as an individual; rather, she places their lives and work in the context of the land, community and family from which they are inextricable. 

There are questions about Rivera’s telling of “Kenojuak and the Goddess of the Sea.” Traditionally, would Talelayu have been seen as a “Goddess” or would she have been seen as the protector of the sea and its creatures and environment? Talelayu has the power to—and does—wreak havoc on a people who depend on hunting and fishing for sustenance, and the people understand that it is their behaviors toward the animals and the environment that will either anger or appease her. 

Although Marton’s pastel illustrations lend continuity to the work, it would have been interesting to see each artist’s visual interpretation of the story, or at least of some of its elements. I would also have liked to see the text, or at least part of it, in Inuktitut as well as English.
—Beverly Slapin

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The word "costume" and American Indians

When I dance at Nambe for our ceremonial gatherings, I put on a dress called a manta. I put on other articles of clothing, too. I don't call it a costume. It is traditional clothing, and each piece of it has its own name, in English, and in Tewa (our language).

Somewhere along the way, as Native peoples and Europeans began to interact, the word "costume" was applied to our clothing. And, some of us also used that word to refer to the traditional clothes, or regalia, that I wear as a Pueblo Indian woman, or that someone of another tribe wears. I'm guessing "costume" was a term of convenience.

When is something a "costume" and when is it "regalia" or "traditional attire"?

Course, the context in which the item is a "costume" or "regalia" is what is important. I refer readers to posts on this blog around Halloween, when a lot of people wear "Indian costumes" as they trick or treat.

We will have conversations---many without an agreement---about when or why a non-Pueblo person can/should put on a manta, but one thing is certain. I would like people to refer to my attire, NOT as a costume, but as my traditional clothes.

What does this mean for teachers and librarians? When you're talking about the clothes that American Indians wear, call them clothes, or traditional attire, or regalia. If you know the specific words for the items you're talking about, use them. But it'd be great if we could all stop using the word costume.

Maybe an analogy is helpful? When a Catholic priest is in his robes, it is not proper to call it his costume. If you want to dress up like a Catholic priest for a play, or for Halloween, then what you put on IS a costume.

Does that analogy work? If you think so, consider pausing with children, when you're reading a book about American Indians that uses the word "costume" to refer to the clothing they wear.

Whether the analogy works or not, I invite your comments.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pocahontas and the stories about Jamestown

The media carried many reports last week about the Queen's visit to Jamestown. Today, I direct your attention to the editorial in Indian Country Today, for an assessment of her visit and the commemoration itself, from the perspective of the editors of the paper, all of whom are American Indians.

Here's an excerpt:

Just as the legend of Pocahontas as Jamestown's princess heroine persists in the American psyche, so does the myth of the ''founding'' of an American society based on the rights and dignity of the individual. Pocahontas, the young daughter of Powhatan, is almost always depicted as a love-struck teen who willingly aided the hungry settlers. Rarely is she imagined as a child captive of an unhygienic man twice her age. She is one among the handful of internationally famous Native Americans because she helped the Europeans in their quest to tame the New World. The message is loud and clear: The only good Indian is one who can be honored as a symbol of colonization, of a better life through white ''civilization.''

The Virginia tribal representatives who attended the events commemorating Jamestown hoped they might raise awareness of their survival and contemporary struggle for federal recognition. Despite a few vague euphemisms regarding historical or modern relations with the tribes of the Chesapeake area by either the queen or President Bush, the Native peoples of Virginia were clearly not considered one of the nations that, as Bush said, ''hold fundamental values in common.''

The editorial is called "The emperors have no clothes". Many of you will dismiss it as whining or political correct nonsense. I find the editorial crucial reading for anyone who teaches children, be it in the classroom, driving to the park, walking to the library, or flying to Disneyland. Engaging children with the content raised in the article is important---that is, if you wish them to be critical thinkers. Read the editorial, discuss it with your friends and colleagues, and consider the editorial as you plan and teach about America's founding, or about Pocahontas, or John Smith.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Illustrations of the "scalp belt" in CADDIE WOODLAWN

On Images of Indians in Children's Books, I've posted scans of the illustrations of the "scalp belt" in Caddie Woodlawn. There are two sets of scans. One from the earlier edition with Seredy's illustrations and one set from the later edition, with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

I have yet to substantiate--to my satisfaction--the existence of a "scalp belt" as an artifact actually made or used by Native people. It does appear in fiction by non-Native people, such as Zane Grey. I'm still looking, though, so I do welcome your leads.

A special request to librarians:

Can you tell me how many copies of the book you have in your library? And, can you give me any details as to its circulation in the last year or years?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Lois Beardslee's Rachel's Children

I heard about Rachel's Children last week at the Native Studies meeting in Oklahoma. I wrote to Beverly Slapin at Oyate to see if they carry it, and if they had a review that I could post. They do have it; I ordered a copy and look forward to reading it. Order your copy from Oyate. It is a non-profit organization whose book sales help them continue to do their work. You might find books cheaper at other places, but you'd be hard pressed to find one whose work is as important as Oyate's.

[The review below is used by permission of its author, Doris Seale, and may not be used elsewhere without her written permission.]


Beardslee, Lois (Ojibwe/Lacandon), Rachel’s Children. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press (2004). 147 pages, high school-up; Ojibwe

Rachel’s story comes to us in the voice of an interviewer who wants nothing from her but her knowledge, her stories, and a piece of her spirit; who observes her life with the sense of superiority that comes from profound ignorance.

Rachel is frighteningly intelligent, and she brings the interviewer and the reader face-to-face with what it is to be an Indian woman in 21st-Century America; what it takes to live with the land and not off it, and the courage and unremitting determination required to confront this country’s social system and survive it. Scarred, but still alive.

Nothing is exaggerated; not the prejudice, not the hatred and deliberate cruelty, not the sheer stupidity that stunt Native lives. But there is also the beauty of true things; the way the pollen comes off the evergreens in the spring, “a great yellow cloud” borne on the wind, sweeping up and out, new life. And the intensity of Rachel’s love for her children and her husband, and they for her.—Doris Seale

Monday, May 07, 2007

"We Have a Story to Tell" - Jamestown through Native Eyes

At a Native Studies gathering, I met Gabrielle Tayac. She works at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC. While returning to Urbana the next day, I caught up on Native news, and read an article called "The Story of Jamestown through eyes of a Native American." It is written by Gabrielle. The article led me to a resource at the NMAI website that will be of use to teachers and librarians who may be teaching (as I write) about Jamestown---particularly since the Queen of England was in Virginia last week for the Jamestown commemoration.

The resource, "We Have a Story to Tell: The Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region" can be downloaded. It is about 25 pages in length, and is designed for use in 9-12th grade classrooms. I think, however, teachers of younger children can use it to develop materials for their classrooms. And, book reviewers should read it and come to know this part of history so they're better able to identify errors (and if they're bold, biased presentation) in children's historical fiction.

"We Have a Story to Tell" is co-authored by Gabrielle Tayac, Ph.D., of the Piscataway Nation, and Edwin Schupman, who is Muscogee. Genevieve Simermeyer (Osage) is a contributing writer. The acknowledgements on page one list other Native people invoved in the creation and review of the book.

I know this will be welcomed by teachers and librarians. It includes pronunciation of tribal names, a lesson plan, a small group projects, maps, and photographs, AND, it includes National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (National Council for the Social Studies) and US History Standards from the National Center for History in the Schools.

I'm very glad to know of the resource and be able to point you to it.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The "scalp belt" in CADDIE WOODLAWN

(See additional material added in days following this post.)

I've been in Norman, Oklahoma the last few days, at a gathering of scholars interested in forming a Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. I think attendance was around 500, with 54 panels over three days. It was an international gathering, with indigenous scholars from many nations and many disciplines present.

In my paper, I talked some about problems with the ways that our traditional stories are retold and marketed to children. I've blogged about that here a few times, and written about it, too. "Proceed with Caution" is my most recent article on that topic. It was published in Language Arts, in January of this year.

I also talked some about historical fiction. Below is an excerpt from my talk about Caddie Woodlawn.

It was an invigorating conference. Next year we'll meet in Athens, Georgia. There is so much being done by Native scholars that would be of tremendous use to writers, editors, reviewers, teachers, librarians, and parents with an interest in American Indian people! It would be well worth your time to read books, articles, fiction, essays by those who organized the conference: Ines Hernandez-Avila, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Tsianina Lomawaima, Jean O'Brien, Robert Warrior, and Jace Weaver.

With deeper knowledge of American Indians, we all might be able to get books like Caddie Woodlawn off the shelves. They have use for study and discussion of stereotypes and bias, but the misinformation they impart to children must not continue to go unchecked.


The "scalp belt" in Caddie Woodlawn

When my daughter was in third grade, she was assigned to read a historical fiction novel called Caddie Woodlawn. First published in 1935, it won the most prestigious medal given to children’s books, the Newberry. This award ensures that a book will not go out of print, and that every library in the US will buy it. In the case of Caddie Woodlawn, it has been printed in other languages and made it into a movie. You can visit the Caddie Woodlawn Park near Menomonie Wisconsin, and sign the guest book. In a one year period, thousands of visitors from thirty-seven states and six foreign nations signed that guest book. If you live in that area of Wisconsin, your kids might go to Caddie Woodlawn Elementary School. Kids anywhere can buy and play with the Caddie Woodlawn paper dolls.

Caddie was a real person. Her name was Caddie Woodhouse. She told her granddaughter stories about her childhood. That granddaughter wrote those stories down. Hence, Caddie Woodlawn. The book is set in 1864 in western Wisconsin. On the second page of the book, Caddie and her brothers talk about Indians as they swim and float in the river:

“Do you think the Indians around here would ever get mad and massacre folks like they did up north?” wondered Warren, tying his shirt up in a bundle.

“No, sir,” said Tom, “not these Indians!”

“Not Indian John, anyhow,” said Caddie. She had just unfastened the many troublesome little buttons on the back of her tight-waisted dress. “No, not Indian John!” she repeated decidedly… “Even if he does have a scalp belt,” she added. The thought of the scalp belt always made her hair prickle…”

Caddie and her brothers come ashore at an Indian camp and quietly watch them work on a canoe. The text reads “Even friendly Indians commanded fear and respect in those days.” The Indians are fascinated with this particular family because unlike other whites they’ve seen, these ones have hair that is “the color of flame and sunset.”

Caddie is a tom-boy, and people ask her mother when she is going to make “a young lady out of this wild Indian.” Over and over, Indians visit Caddie’s family, hungry. Caddie’s mother, “frightened nearly out of her wits” feeds them bread and beans. According to the concordance at the Amazon website, “Indian” and “scalp” are among the 100 most frequently used words in the book, which is over 250 pages in length.

While the word scalp occurs frequently in any book like this, its context here is worth a closer look. Caddie is a friend of the Indians. Most of the townspeople are not. Fearing a “massacree” a group plans to go to Indian John’s camp and kill all the Indians there. The climax of the book is that Caddie sneaks out and rides a horse over a frozen river to warn Indian John. They decide they have to leave, but before they go, Indian John asks Caddie to keep his “scalp belt.” The scalp belt was his father’s. The scalps on it are from Indians his father killed. Caddie accepts the gift. She and her brothers decide to have a scalp belt show to show it off to their friends. They call it “Big Chief Bloody Tomahawk’s favorite scalp belt” and charge admission to see it.

I can go through Caddie Woodlawn, noting bias sprinkled throughout the story. I can point out problematic words like “squaw” and the repeated use of “brave” to refer to Native men. But I’m not a historian, and there are things that I have to read to be able to do a thorough analysis of the story.

For example: What is a scalp belt? I did a search of google web, google scholar, and google books and found hundreds---literally---hundreds of references to scalp belt, but most of them were to lesson plans and reviews of Caddie Woodlawn. I did a search using JSTOR (a cross-disciplinary database of scholarly journals), and was unable to locate the phrase. At this point, I conclude that there was, and is, no such thing as a “scalp belt.” Instead, it is the fanciful creation of Caddie Woodhouse (known to us as Caddie Woodlawn) or Carol Ryrie Brink, the author of Caddie Woodlawn (and granddaughter of Caddie Woodlawn). The author says all the people in the story are real. I wonder who Indian John was, and what tribe he belonged to. I wonder about the fears of the white families, the references to a massacre in which “the Indians of Minnesota had killed a thousand white people, burning their houses and destroying their crops.” When I read these books, I wonder, what is, and where is, the truth?

Update: May 7, 2007

Below are additional passages from the "scalp belt" material in the book. And, on my other blog, Images of Indians in Children's Books, I've posted an illustration from the book. When I have access to a scanner, I'll post a better image. For now, I'm making-do with a photo taken with my camera phone. (Note: There is a LOT of biased content about American Indians all through the book. In this particular instance, I'm focusing on the "scalp belt.")

p. 147: Passage where Indian John gives Caddie the scalp belt

"Look, Missee Red Hair. You keep scalp belt, too?"

"The scalp belt?" She felt the old prickling sensation up where her scalp lock grew as she looked at the belt with its gruesome decorations of human hair.

"Him very old," said John, picking up the belt with calm familiarity. "John's father, great chief, him take many scalps. Now John no do. John have many friend. John no want scalp. You keep?" John held it out.

Gingerly, with the tips of her thumb and first finger, Caddie took it.

p. 150: Description of scalp belt

Hetty and little Minnie crowded after Tom and Warren. It was a simple buckskin belt ornamented with colored beads, and from it hung three long tails of black hair, each with a bit of shriveled skin at the end."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

How Not to Catch Fish and other Adventures of Iktomi

{Note: This review is used by permission of its author and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.)


Marshall, Joseph M. (Lakota), How Not to Catch Fish and Other Adventures of Iktomi, illustrated by Joseph Chamberlain (Nakota). Circle Studios, 2005. 55 pages, color illustrations, grades 4-up; Dakota

“As usual, Iktomi was having an Iktomi sort of a day—doing as little as possible.” You see, Iktomi is a “non-farmer, non-hunter, and non-fisherman” (i.e., he has no useful skills nor does he have the drive to learn any). In these hilarious stories, Iktomi—ever hungry and/or sleepy—is swallowed by the largest catfish he has ever seen, is forced to return a Grade A premium piece of meat he had stolen, is trapped between two ash trees (because he annoyed Wind once too often), forgets to believe he can fly (with the expected results), apologizes to Old Bear (who is not exactly the forgiving type). Et cetera.

In one of my favorites, Iktomi, convinced that Pond is playing tricks on him, seeks out the advice of Rabbit:

“Various environmental and seasonal climactic factors contributed to the visual representation of your reflection in the pond, thus skewing your perception of the aforementioned reflection.” Iktomi was totally confused.

Don’t be put off by the length of each story; Marshall’s pacing is perfect. Along with a CD of Marshall telling the stories, How Not to Catch Fish is way better than anything cultural outsiders—like Paul Goble—who don’t know Iktomi have ever written.—Beverly Slapin

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto wins book award

Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto was selected as a recipient of the Jane Addams Children's Book Awards. These awards are given annually to children's books that, according to the Jane Adams website, "promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence." Tim's book has been discussed on this blog before (see review in the "Books Discussed" section of this page.) Below is the blurb from the Jane Addams webpage. It's an outstanding book. I am very happy to see it given this distinction.

The Choctaw people live on one side of the river Bok Chitto; plantation owners and African American slaves live on the other. A secret friendship between a Choctaw girl and an African-American boy is the first link in a chain of humanity that spirits the boy’s family across the river to freedom. The folk tale is a tribute to the Choctaws and Indians of every nation who aided African Americans running from slavery. Earth-tone paintings and striking use of white express the story’s blend of reality and magic perfectly.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Kids and Joy Harjo's The Good Luck Cat

Go to Joy Harjo's blog, scroll down to her entry for April 28th, and see a photo of three kids, holding copies of her picture book, The Good Luck Cat.