Monday, July 09, 2007

Children's Books about Canadian Residential Schools

Just found an article in The Looking Glass that reviews three children's books about Canada's residential schools for Native children. The article is called "Opening the Cache of Canadian Secrets: The Residential School Experience in Books for Children." The article, by Brianne Grant, discusses Nicola Campbell's outstanding picture book on the topic, Shi-shi-etko.

Reading the article this evening, and noting that another Harry Potter is soon-to-be-released, I remember that some people think these US/Canadian boarding/residential schools for Native children were like European, or eastern prep schools.

That, of course, was not the case. Read Grant's article, and the children's books she reviews, and you'll never confuse these schools with prep schools again.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

It's a small world

Spent yesterday at Disneyland in Anaheim, noting the presence of what I'll generously call "American Indians" at "It's a Small World."

As you can see, the "Indian" is wearing a large feathered headdress. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know this representation is THE image of an Indian, as seen in children's books, toys, and other media.

So, it is no surprise to see this at Disneyland...

Disneyland, who gave us all Poca...

No wait. Lest you think (as I did) that there'd be Pocahontas merchandise and imagery in abundance, there wasn't! Quite the surprise to see that all they had was the DVD. No dolls. No dress-up clothes. No action figures. No coffee mugs. I asked at the Frontierland store, and the clerk said "We don't have anything at all. Doesn't make sense, does it?" Any reader know the backstory with the absence of Pocahontas at Disneyland?

What are YOUR thoughts on the "Indian" imagery in Disneyland?

Do you have a better picture than the one I took in Small World? I'd like to post it, if you'll send it to me.

I gather the imagery is different at the Disney parks around the world. If you've seen other parks, I'd love to hear from you.... What is Indian imagery in other Disney parks? Send me photos, if you've got them.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Native poets - Earthworks series

Are you looking for new Native-authored material for your senior English classes? You might consider the Earthworks series. There is a terrific article about the books in Indian Country Today. Visit their website and read "Earthworks books series presents poetry and prose" for info.

Personal update: I'm in Flagstaff. Left Santa Fe on Tuesday, after lunching with a friend who will teach at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA). One of the authors in the Earthworks series, Allison Hedge Coke, teaches at IAIA. Another, LeAnne Howe, teaches with us at U of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. On this blog, I've previously posted info about Cheryl Savageau's children's book. She, too, as a book in the series. There's a lot here! Take a look.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lois Beardslee on Mackinac Island Press

Lois Beardless, author of Rachel's Children, offered the essay below for posting on this blog. It is longer than typical posts to this blog, but read it in its entirety. It is worth your time and thought. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission. ---Debbie

Promulgation of Damaging Ethnic Stereotypes as a Cottage Industry in Northern Michigan: Book Reviews
By Lois Beardslee

Lewis, Anne Margaret, Tears of Mother Bear, illustrated by Kathleen Chaney Fritz. Mackinac Island Press (2004). Unpaginated, color illustrations, preschool-grade 3.

Lewis, Anne Margaret, Gitchi Gumee, illustrated by Kathleen Chaney Fritz. Mackinac Island Press (2004). Unpaginated, color illustrations, preschool-grade 3.

Imagine confronting in your public schools, libraries, and community bookstores colorful children’s books full of imitation stories about your culture that utilize characters and words from your language but feature sexual predators, child molesters, murderers, and rapists from your extended family’s personal and oral histories. Imagine complaining to your local schoolteachers, librarians, and booksellers only to be told that this is acceptable, because the author has placed an obscure disclaimer in the front of the book, because the author is a very nice person with children of her own who claims to be honoring you by manufacturing these materials, because people from outside of your culture enjoy this particular form of lampooning you, or simply because the books make money for a lot of people outside of your extended family. Imagine this type of lampooning resulting in your inability to obtain equal employment at equal pay or resulting in deprecating comments directed at your children by their peers. This is what happens every day to the Anishinabeg, the aboriginal people of the western Great Lakes.

In the late 1990’s Chelsea, Michigan, publisher Brian Lewis decided to create a niche for himself by producing children’s books for schools and tourist gift shops based upon the local Native American cultures of northwest Lower Michigan, a region with one of the highest densities of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. The aboriginal populations still living in the area include primarily members of the Odawa (Ottawa) and Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribes. The latter is the second largest Indian tribe in North America.

Lewis’s business, Sleeping Bear Press, produced several books that profoundly offended the local Native American community and received scathing reviews by Native American scholars, including me. Among the offending books are: The Legend of Sleeping Bear (1998), The Legend of Mackinac Island (1999), The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper (2001), The Legend of Leelanau (2003), and The Legend of the Petoskey Stone (2004) all written by Kathy-jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuysen. All of these “Indian legends” were either manufactured by the author and publisher or based upon the historically tainted writings of nineteenth century ethnologist/Indian agent/wannabe-writer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. All are written in the style of Schoolcraft’s nineteenth century syrupy language and all promote nineteenth century stereotypes of Native Americans as simple, docile, primitive people—motifs that were used to justify the usurpation of Native lands and resources through the near extirpation of aboriginal residents.

The notion that a non-Indian can create alternative Native American legends and histories manifests residual racism, and the practice would not be tolerated were any other contemporary culture targeted in such a fashion. The practice has been described as disrespectful and exploitive by every Native American elder with whom I have discussed it. It is considered a threat to the very survival of our culture and is equated with genocide. When one disregards our culture, one disregards us as human beings. We are inseparable from our stories and our traditions. And we are tired of being told that we have no place in contemporary American culture unless we adapt these things to meet the marketing needs of non-Indians who have taken over more than ninety-nine percent of our traditional lands and now see fit to take over our cultural formatting as well.

Publisher Lewis sold Sleeping Bear Press and opened two new presses. One opened under his own name, Petoskey Press, co-publishes books with the University of Michigan Press—which has not published a Native American-authored book in years—and is currently promoting as non-fiction a recent collection of writings by a woman from Michigan who was well recognized within our community as someone who sought to impersonate an Indian and who had a poor understanding of our culture and our circumstances. That tome was edited by a non-Indian who appeared regularly at our religious and cultural ceremonies and expressed an affinity for local Indian culture. U of M acquiring editor for regional titles Mary Erwin informed me that this genre contains the type of material that is needed for white readers to be able to understand Indian culture—as opposed to materials written by actual Native Americans…

Brian Lewis also opened Mackinac Island Press, named after a Michigan fur trade era fort-cum-tourist location, under the name of his wife, Anne Margaret Lewis. This press continues to produce equally horrible children’s books fabricated in a style that Lewis claims to be “inspired” by traditional Native American literature. Her most recent works are Tears of Mother Bear (2004) and Gitchi Gumee (2004), both written by Ann Margaret Lewis and illustrated by Kathleen Cheney Fritz.

While openly exploiting a regional Native American genre, Lewis does not directly claim that her books are Native American stories or that they are Native in origin. She carefully words her disclaimers in the fronts of her books in a manner that is misleading. In Gitchi Gumee she summarizes: “Gitchi Gumee (big water) shares his many moods and faces with a young boy (Oshikinawe), and teaches him how to safely sail his vast waters.” The use of Native names implies that this story is based upon regional Native American traditions centered on Lake Superior. It is not. In Tears of Mother Bear Lewis summarizes: “As Grandpa walks the shores of Lake Michigan with his grandchildren he passes on the age old Ojibwe Sleeping Bear legend, and reveals the untold story of where Petoskey stones come from. They are the tears of mother bear.” Again, this is not a traditional Native American story. It remained “untold” because it was recently fabricated by Lewis. The only part of this story that is traditional is the part about a reclining bear—one of several traditional stories created to identify a large hill visible from out on the lake by the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, and other tribes who lived and traded on the shores of Lake Michigan. In all versions of the story told by my family, the bear is, in fact, dead. The milder version—made famous by a local national park named after a “sleeping bear” and exploited by non-Indian business entrepreneurs— is known by natives in the region as “the local white people’s Indian legend.” This is the version that was borrowed by Lewis as the springboard for her own Indian-style “legend.”

This story line had been exploited previously by the Lewises in Sleeping Bear Press’s The Legend of Sleeping Bear—which Brian Lewis successfully pushed to have made Michigan’s official state children’s book by the state legislature—a designation that was made without consultation or endorsement from Michigan’s aboriginal population. Official endorsement of a non-Indian product alleging to represent regional Native American culture is testimony to the extent to which dismissive notions of Michigan’s aboriginal population as simple, expendable, and without consideration are still ingrained in the state’s institutional psyches. This is institutional racism with roots in extermination policies that preceded statehood.

The content and format of Anne Margaret Lewis’s two new books drew red flags from the American Indian Librarians’ Association, and copies were sent to me for review. I contacted several Native elders here on the shores of northern Lake Michigan, to see if they found Lewis’s allegedly local Tears of Mother Bear as offensive as I did. My worst suspicions were confirmed. Elder after elder indicated that they found it offensive that a non-Indian publisher had fabricated an “Indian” myth about local fossils known as Petoskey stones, something they held sacred and referred to as “crown jewels.” They had already been saying the same thing about The Legend of the Petoskey Stone, a pseudo-Indian legend that had been produced a year earlier by Lewis’s husband Brian under a different press name. Again, elders found it offensive and exploitive that the Lewises had founded an entire cottage industry upon the exploitation of damaging ethnic stereotypes that not only hurt Native American people in real socioeconomic terms, but also steal from our traditions and our place within the culture of the region without giving anything in return. In the Native American community, people who willingly do for profit what the Lewises have done to aboriginal people are referred to as “the new homesteaders.” Such newcomers to northern Michigan’s last remaining outposts of Native culture arrive with an apparent lack of respect for the integrity and survival of the area’s aboriginal people and with a desire to take what they can from our community.

Over and over again, my elders used the word “disrespectful” in reference to Tears of Mother Bear and the Legend of the Petoskey Stone and the work of Sleeping Bear and Mackinac Island Presses in general. Many even refused to touch the books or look at them. Some of us find ourselves so deeply appalled by these books that we actually wash our hands after handling them, trying to perpetually cleanse ourselves, as though we have been victims of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Our objections to this material come not merely as mild distaste; the response is visceral. When we voice our objections, we are accused of being ungrateful and given the excuse that such cultural appropriations are meant only to honor us.
Cashing in by falsely filling a niche for regional Native American materials produced for a primarily non-Indian audience and to be utilized by primarily non-Indian educators is unjustifiable. It disenfranchises contemporary Native people, who continue to preserve more accurate and culturally sensitive versions of our own stories. The practice dismisses with a mere wave of a hand actual tribal stories and traditions that were developed and perpetuated over thousands of years.

I am an Ojibwe author and traditional storyteller whose family roots are in the northern part of the western Great Lakes and have lived most of my life along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior, in the exact locations where the Lewis’s stories are primarily set. My culture is the culture they extrapolate from, write about, and claim to be “inspired by.” I do not merely emulate this culture—I live it, and I work hard to preserve it. That said, let’s review Lewis’s newest books:

Let’s start with the title of Gitchi Gumee. This is derived from the spelling created in the nineteenth century by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his romantic epic poem, The Tales of Hiawatha, which was loosely based upon a character with a different name from the Ojibwe culture. The term supposedly refers to Lake Superior. Longfellow’s lack of understanding of the Ojibwe language resulted in this odd spelling and mispronunciation of the Native term for a large watershed basin. This awkward mispronunciation was subsequently burned into the American psyche by pop musician Gordon Lightfoot in his hit song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” (“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down to the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee...”) The term is popular on billboards for non-Indian-owned and -operated low budget motels and businesses along the shores of the great lake and immediately invokes images of wild and rustic cottage country fun to non-Indian motorists. Lewis’s pronunciation guide would not clarify this to the average classroom teacher or parent who might use this book.

The Ojibwe term that Lewis and Longfellow attempted to approximate actually has been applied to each of the Great Lakes. A similar term, different by a few syllables, is used to refer to Lake Superior in a larger geologic context. Geographic and geologic terms are central to the Ojibwe language and are not altered frivolously. Just as Inuit terminology for snow exceeds that of English usage, the Ojibwe language has a plethora of terms for water and waterways. Not only has Lewis adopted Longfellow’s racist nineteenth century assumption that the Ojibwe language is simpler than English (or that it can be learned and translated on the basis of motel billboards), she has promulgated it and thrust it into the twenty-first century.

Let’s look at Gitchi Gumee’s cover illustration. It is an image of an older white male winking from below the surface of the water to a child in a sailboat next to a historic lighthouse. The lighthouse and the sailboat are icons of contemporary non-Indian “cottage country” culture in the northern Great Lakes and do not reflect either contemporary or traditional realities for most aboriginal residents of the region. Recreational boating and recreational visits to historic lighthouses are rarities for a population that continues to have the highest unemployment in the state and is relegated to the bottom in socioeconomic terms. If anything, they symbolize for local Native populations our ongoing legal disputes over regaining access to waterfronts and harbors that were ours by treaty. In addition, the only—I repeat, the only—times we describe underwater-associated human characters in our traditional stories about the lakes are in very dangerous contexts, in preventive stories we tell to our children. Usually these stories are about characters that have been killed or intentionally kill other human beings.

In the case of an image of a middle-aged male who appears from beneath the water to lure a child, this occurs in only one context that I know of, and that is as a sexual predator, a persuasive character who sometimes disguises himself as a loon. When I first saw illustrator Kathleen Fritz’s image in the guise of an Ojibwe-style children’s story, I gasped in horror. The very notion, the very premise upon which this book is based—that of an older adult male luring and interacting playfully with a child from the surface of a body of water—implies the exact opposite of what our traditional stories actually say about a topic that would be profoundly important in any culture. Imagine how confusing and potentially shameful it would be for a Native American child from this region to be confronted in a classroom situation in which such stories from one’s own tradition about so sensitive a subject were arrogantly violated and contradicted by a book read or provided by an authority figure such as a librarian or a teacher. Imagine how disenfranchising it would be for a Native child to be confronted by materials that are produced and distributed and used in the schools in spite of objections by one’s family and one’s elders. There is nothing in this that would honor such a child or one’s cultural traditions. I cannot think of anything more presumptuous or absurd than telling the second largest Indian tribe in North America that they must completely reverse generations of traditions and stories to suddenly put an image of a sexual predator in a positive light, because an ignorant cultural outsider wants to cash in on an inexcusable error.

Now let’s look at Lewis’s summary, from the copyright page at the beginning of the book: “Gitchee Gumee (big water) shares his many moods and faces with a young boy (Oshikinawe), and teaches him how to safely sail his vast waters.” Both author and illustrator have fallen prey to the age-old stereotype that all things aboriginal and non-Western can be anthropomorphized. We do not anthropomorphize Lake Superior. We acknowledge that it is living, but we mean this in sophisticated, diverse biological, geological, geographical, and cultural terms. To give this immense lake, only part of the chain of basins we call our traditional home, a single, human personality trivializes Ojibwe culture and traditions as well as the contemporary members of our culture who are the keepers of those traditions. Our regional stories are based upon actual accumulated life experiences on these lakes that stretch back for thousands of years. They serve specific cultural purposes, whether as mnemonic devices for dangerous conditions and geographical markers, the prevention of physical and psychological injury, coping with daily household and family events, or simply as entertainment. But they are never taken lightly. They are cultural markers that web intricately with other aspects of our histories and our lives. To substitute “cottage country” non-Indian fantasies for them and to pass them off as the real thing or a sufficient substitute implies that we have no relevant past or future in our traditional homelands.

The text of Gitchi Gumee, is just as full of cultural faux pas as the story concept. The (visibly non-Indian) boy in the story is given the name Oshikinawe, which translates as post-pubescent or adolescent. We do not go around addressing our children like that in Ojibwe any more than someone would do it in English.. It is an absurd, condescending, de-contextualized way of utilizing our language. Most school-aged children would find the use of such a biological term as embarrassing.

Fritz’s illustrations borrow from a Greco-Roman, hence Western European, tradition of an anthropomorphized cloud-figure blowing out gales with puffed cheeks. The underwater images of fish are cartoon-like. All of these things contribute to defamatory stereotyping of Native peoples and traditions by intentional association with Ojibwe traditions, place, and language. Although it is alleged that the book is “inspired by” Ojibwe culture, there are no Indian characters in the book, just Ojibwe “names.” We are as absent and voiceless in this pseudo-Native American children’s literature as we are in the workforce and in contemporary regional decision-making processes. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a link between the two. Contemporary Native people do not need such basic concepts of cultural belittling inculcated into children as young as lower elementary school—or at all.

Giving an Indian name to an obviously white child implies that Native children are irrelevant, replaceable. No one would dream of using an illustration of a white child to depict an African American child or a Chinese American child in a cultural genre type children’s book. The use of this practice with aboriginal Americans is blatantly racist and promulgates notions that we are vulnerable or otherwise acceptable as victims of cultural appropriation to a greater extent than other cultural groups. It can be interpreted as nothing less than lampooning.

The story line of Gitchi Gumee is devoid of content, other than the simple message that the weather gets rough on Lake Superior. A boy, who appears quite young in the illustrations, is somehow brought to manhood by being lured into going out on an extremely rough Lake Superior, even in nighttime conditions, alone on a sailboat. There is nothing in either the text or the illustrations to tell how this comes about, and any serious references to the actual dangers of the lake are quite vague. I live part of the time on my family’s isolated island in Lake Superior, where my mother’s side of the family comes from, and we are very much aware of every geologic feature on the lake, which includes boat-crushing shoals and deadly winds. We have stories that go back for generations about mishaps associated with almost every landmark. I would not want my children to see this book if they were in elementary school—which appears to be its target age—out of fear that they might try something foolish on the water. Many of our friends and relatives still survive as commercial fishermen on these lakes—and fishing remains the single most deadly profession on the North American continent.

Cultural faux pas and inappropriate content aside, without even a basic story line to wrap itself around, the text of this book is syrupy and is set in awkward rhymes. “Dear boy…” an anthropomorphized wave calls out,
big water of many faces
I have been around for many years
and was formed from melted glaciers.”

Bad lyrics are bad lyrics. Period. This is not a book I would have used in my own classroom as a public school teacher of children of any nationality, and it is not a book I would like to see used in any context as a Native American parent.

I am equally disenchanted with Tears of Mother Bear, the alleged “legend” of the origin of the Petoskey stone, the state stone of Michigan—which by the way, it is illegal to remove from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, as is implied in the adjunct teaching materials that are made available to educators. The text begins:
As summer was fast approaching
And school was coming to an end
I’d be dreaming of summer vacation
Of traveling to our cottage once again

This book is an extension of “cottage country” fantasies about the role that Native Americans and Native American culture should play in the lives of modern immigrants to northern Michigan—romantic, but distant and as non-participants in an economy that was originally based upon the usurpation of Native American resources for purposes as trivial as entertainment—and, in the case of Sleeping Bear and Mackinac Island Presses, is apparently still based upon usurpation of cultural traditions and non-tangible resources. This racist approach is so ingrained in contemporary children’s literature and in the culture and educational practices of the region that there is no perceived need for pretense of anything more honorable on the part of the author. It’s right out there in the text: summer vacation equals Indian fantasies.

Tears of Mother Bear is not an Indian story; it is a fake Indian story that very intentionally mimics regional perceptions about aboriginal stories strictly for marketing purposes. It is exploitive. It exists for the sole purpose of generating income by appealing to a non-Indian audience, in spite of the repercussions of this replacement-type genre of pseudo-Indian legends to the Native community and its functioning relationship with everyone else in the region. It is disrespectful. It is disingenuous. It is poorly written. It is offensive to Native American people in the geographical region it professes to represent. And, thanks to the Lewises’ aggressive marketing, it is utilized by local librarians, booksellers, and educators throughout the Midwest as an easy, brainless alternative to more sensitive culturally and regionally appropriate materials written and illustrated by Native Americans—or anyone for that matter.

The Petoskey Stone as the official state stone of Michigan is a concept that generates a lot of interest and some economic exploitation. In Lewis’s addition to a storyline derived from a landmark on the shores of Lake Michigan—that is identified by the Ojibwe as a reclining or crouching bear—she claims that Petoskey stones are the tears of a mother bear who waits on the shore for her cubs. The cubs are one Ojibwe mnemonic device for the local islands that make up the southern end of an archipelago. In fine print somewhere between the title page and the beginning of the text and illustrations, Lewis acknowledges that this is an addition to the original story, but the meaning of her explanation is neither clear nor apparent to the casual reader, and the disclaimer is likely to be overlooked by most parents and classroom teachers. It would be easy for someone unfamiliar with regional Native traditions to assume that this is a story with regional aboriginal ties and to walk out of a bookstore with it or order it from a catalog. One gets the impression that the confusion may have been intentional. Not-quite Indian legends have proven to be a profitable genre for the Lewis family.

Publisher Brian Lewis appears to be aware of critical reviews of his books by Native scholars, as well as a trend away from traditional market acceptance of “Indian” stories by non-Indians. (Even the Michigan State Humanities Council has begun to step away from the practice of intentionally endorsing or hiring performers in this pseudo-ethnic genre.) In the case of his new product Gitchi Gumee, Lewis actually circulated an out-of-context quote by Wisconsin Ojibwe language instructor Jerrold Ojibway in support of the book. I spoke with Mr. Ojibway, and he made it clear that he does not endorse the book and cannot do so on behalf of the entire Ojibwe tribe. In fact, he could not even endorse it on behalf of his own band without approval from a tribal council. Mr. Ojibway indicated that in an e-mail by Brian Lewis he was misled to believe that he was being contacted about a job opportunity to consult on children’s books and to provide services as a language translator. His statement was meant to educate Brian Lewis about the need for legitimate Native American literature, rather than as an endorsement for Lewis’s book.

In this case, it appears that the publisher may be deliberately seeking to bypass regional aboriginal objections to a genre he has exploited extensively. Not only has the publisher been misleading about the level of Native American support for Gitchi Gumee, but he has also sought a source of support far from his home marketing base in Michigan, where many of his stories take place and where a large, culturally-erudite Native population continues to reside.

Is altering or extending a legitimate aboriginal tradition for the purpose of marketing it to non-Indians any different than completely manufacturing a new one? Doesn’t it send the same messages of inconsequential presence about the Native American people of a region? Doesn’t it disregard our historic presence, our collective consciousness, our objections to such appropriation and abuse? And wouldn’t eyebrows be raised if the same practices were applied to Germans, Jews, or African Americans?

The willingness by booksellers (including the private corporations that manage gift shops in our national parks) and educators (including the University of Michigan Press) to participate in the perpetuation of damaging ethnic stereotypes is inexcusable, especially in the face of objections by cultural insiders. Pushing simulations of aboriginal culture in lieu of aboriginal culture promotes notions of dispensability, which manifest themselves in statistical realities—our absence in public and educational employment and in community leadership roles. These socioeconomic realities have lethal effects, including elevated suicide rates, and it is inappropriate to inculcate regional culture with their promotion and tolerance using tools as basic and culturally-shaping as children’s literature.

Reasonable alternatives are available, including a very large selection of books by aboriginal residents of the Great Lakes. Oyate, a non-profit Native organization that reviews children’s literature for stereotypes and makes available children’s books by Native American authors and illustrators, has a website (click here: oyate) or will mail a catalog upon request: Oyate, 272 Mathews St., Berkeley, CA, 94702, (510) 848-6700. For more information on damaging stereotypes in children’s literature, see Seale, Doris and Beverly Slapin, eds. A BROKEN FLUTE, The Native Experience in Books for Children, winner of a 2006 American Book Award, or visit "American Indians in Children's Literature," the web site of Nambe Pueblo author and University of Illinois professor in American Indian Studies, Debbie Reese.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Borders promoting a "Chief Illiniwek" book

Today's post is a call to action. As regular readers know, I'm home (Nambe Pueblo) with family for awhile. My internet access is infrequent.

In email today, I learned that Borders bookstore in Oak Brooke, Illinois, is hosting a book-signing tomorrow, June 23rd. The book is a commemorative volume, all about the University of Illinois's mascot, "Chief Illiniwek." The "signer" will be the student who is currently serving as "Chief Illiniwek." After over 20 years, UIUC finally retired "Chief Illiniwek" this past spring. During those 20 years, Native people who spoke up asking that it be retired placed themselves and their families at risk.

It is not my wish to tell Borders how to run their business. They can sell whatever they choose. No doubt they feel that selling this particular book will bring them a lot of business. They sell many children's books about American Indians that I find problematic, but I don't ask they stop selling those books either.

For background on the "Chief Illiniwek" issue, please visit click on "Mascot Info" at the webpage of the Native American House at UIUC:

What I do wish is that they NOT actively promote the book by having a book-signing.

I can, and will, take my business elsewhere, and encourage others to do so as well. A few moments ago, I wrote to Borders Customer Care asking them to cancel the book signing. I got a standard auto-reply about how they cater to their customers, try to provide all viewpoints, etc.

That's not acceptable. Native people across the Americas have been asking that schools, businesses, and marketing campaigns cease using Native imagery that is 1) stereotypical, 2) biased, and 3) presents us as a vanished people.

Unfortunately, we are small in number, and that imagery generates huge revenues. It is not realistic to expect that any business is willing to do what is right in the face of their revenues. But we can express ourselves, make our viewpoint known.

I urge you, whether you are Native or not, to write to Borders and ask them to cancel the event. It is very late in the game (the signing is tomorrow), but letting them know how you feel may impact future decisions. And, it may cause them to issue a public statement that can be helpful to us in the long run.

What can they do instead? Have a book-signing of Cynthia Leitich Smith, whose book INDIAN SHOES is set in Chicago.

Their address is:


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

From Santa Fe Indian School...

Giving an on-line hello to people I'm meeting at the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School, where SFIS is hosting a conference. In attendance are 500 people who work primarily with Native children. the conference itself is called Access Native America.

Hello, to Shirley J., and Alana M., and Athena B., folks from Haskell, and all the other Native schools whose personnel have stopped by. I'm enjoying talking with friends I taught with here in 1988 when I taught at SFIS.... An on-line hello, too, to Felisa. Mark. Randy.

My daughter, Liz, is selling her beadwork. I'm hanging out with her, talking up my blog.

It's hot here in Santa Fe, but not humid. As I stepped outside this morning at dawn, I needed long sleeves and a sweater. The air was beautiful. Crisp. That's Nambe Pueblo, in northern New Mexico!

More another day...


Monday, June 18, 2007


Some time ago, I received a copy of D is for Drum: A Native American Alphabet by Debbie and Michael Shoulders. Right away I groaned. The cover shows a Pueblo Indian Buffalo Dance. Or rather, it attempts to show that dance, but gets it wrong. Any of you who've seen our Buffalo Dance will recall that the male dancers move in unison, as one. It isn't the case that one would face one direction and another would face a different way, as shown.

Moreover, the Buffalo Dances done by the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos typically include women dancers. There is usually a buffalo at the front, and then a woman, and then a buffalo and then a woman. Four dancers.

Toddy's illustration of each dancer is correct---as far as attire is concerned---and I really like that. And he shows the correct kind of drum we use, and a drumstick held by the drummer (too many illustrations incorrectly show Native people playing a drum with the hand, which is incorrect).

Toddy also shows people in the background, watching the dance. That is accurate, too. Family and tribal members and tourists both watch, but this watching is more akin to a gathering of people in a church. What is being 'watched' is not performance. It is prayer. Tourists and non-tribal people who gather generally know NOT to clap (thank goodness!). I don't know what they feel or experience. I hope they don't use the word "primal" to describe what they feel when they hear the drumbeat. I imagine they feel some of what I do when I'm in a church where a magnificent pipe organ is being played.

As for what is inside the book, below is Beverly Slapin's review of D is for Drum. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.


Shoulders, Debbie and Michael, D is for Drum: A Native American Alphabet, illustrated by Irving Toddy (Diné). Sleeping Bear Press, 2006. Unpaginated, color illustrations, grades k-4.

This title presents a mishmash of Indian cultural snippets, presented alphabetically and in rhyme, paired with side panels that purport to offer more information about each topic. Abysmally written, with trite error-laden rhymes and boring yet confusing “informational” text, the poor attempts at iambic pentameter highlight this cockamamie piece of dreck, typical of the quality of work of a press known for its picture books of made-up “Indian legends” that have become best sellers in Michigan and the Great Lakes Area.

The text veers between past and present tense, the selections are illogical and odd, and the rhymes are even odder:
Native Names are important words.They’re given to newborns with care.Honi means wolf, Woya means dove,and Nita is Choctaw for bear.
Toddy’s artwork, for the most part, is better than the text. But most of the faces lack individuality and bodies are distorted, there’s an eagle feather fan lying on the ground, and the horses look like they’re starving.

Finally, it shouldn’t have to be said that there is no such thing as “a Native American alphabet.” Perceiving some 600 nations of people as one giant ethnic group is as ridiculous as, say:
O is for Original Sin: A Fundamentalist Christian Convert AlphabetS is for Shetyl: An Eastern European Immigrant AlphabetP is for Polyester: A Suburban Episcopalian Alphabet
—Beverly Slapin

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bunky Echo-Hawk

Take a look at the work of Bunky Echo-Hawk. Provocative, intriguing, fun blend of Native themes and pop culture, politics...

This piece is called "If Yoda was an Indian"

(Update, 1/26/2008: His website isn't working. He's got an exhibit Jan-April at Aurora University in Chicago, called WEAPONS OF MASS MEDIA.)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Heading Home

I'm going home, to Nambe Pueblo, for awhile. Blog posts will be infrequent for a month or so while Liz and I goof off there, and Arizona, and California... A mother-daughter road trip. Looking forward to it!

If you're a new visitor to this page, take a look at all the sections on the right-side of the page. You will find many resources, articles, and book reviews.


Friday, June 15, 2007

American Girls - the store in north Chicago

Earlier this week I was in downtown Chicago, just walking, with dear friend Jean Mendoza. We walked past the American Girls store and decided to stop in and see the Kaya doll. Neither of us had been there prior to this.

Our first stop was the displays there on the ground floor. All kinds of products. Puzzle books, paper dolls, non-fiction, fiction... as many of you know, American Girl is a huge business success.

I learned that Kirsten has a "secret Sioux friend, Singing Bird." I never paid much attention to all the books, but probably ought to look into the ways that American Indians are presented in the historical dolls stories. Kirsten's stories are set in 1854 in Minnesota. My quick look into the Lakota history (in Duane Champagne's Native America: Portrait of the Peoples) says "By the early 1800s, many Sioux bands moved onto the Plains from their original woodland homes in Minnesota..." (p. 163). It was primarily Ojibwe's (Chippewa's) in Minnesota in the 1800s and now.

This is only a quick look into dates/tribes of Minnesota during the time of Kirsten. More extensive research could (and should) be done. Any teachers out there willing to take a class through such a study?

The historical dolls are displayed in the basement floor, so we went there next. First diorama to our right were things of Kaya's tribe (Nez Perce). Nearby was a diorama of Josefina. I noted the presentation of the horno (outdoor oven). There was a (fake) fire inside, and a loaf of bread on a paddle placed as though it had just come out of the oven. Thing is, when you actually cook bread in these ovens (we Pueblo Indians use them, too; our Tewa word for oven is panteh--can't put the correct mark over the a in this blogger software), the fire is completely extinguished and ashes cleaned out before the bread is placed in the oven. It would be better if American Girl removed the fake fire from the oven.

In the center of that floor section was a table on which Kaya and a tipi (spelled tepee) were displayed. She's almost as tall as her tipi, which is an error in scale. Same with her pony. The small scale of the tipi reminds me of the ways that igloos are typically shown in children's books. In truth, they were and are rather large. Again and again, however, they're shown to be about the size of a doghouse. That's a tangent, though. Back to American Girls.

Further along the way was a theater where stage shows (musicals) are presented several times a day. There were large posters of some child actors and scenes from the historical dolls. I didn't see one of Kaya. I asked a salesperson in that section about the shows. He said they do a musical that includes all the historical dolls as characters. He handed me a brochure. I studied it and said "I don't see a girl who is dressed as Kaya." He pointed to one and said "That's her. She does more than one character." He also talked about their other shows, with "bitty characters" and described, with great enthusiasm, the products for toddlers, how they're child-safe, and how they are designed to introduce children to American Girl. (This is when I really started feeling grossed out by the place.)

We went into the larger room with displays of the dolls and their things. In that area there were 15 foot-long (or thereabouts) displays for all dolls, except for Kaya. I asked the sales clerk (and there are many, all through the store) where the Kaya display was. She said it was around the corner, over in the other room. I asked why it wasn't with the others in the big room. She said they didn't have enough space, and decided to put her out there, because she didn't have as many accessories as the other dolls.

I replied that it was pretty typical, actually, to marginalize Native Americans, put them elsewhere, not in the mix, as it were.

She went on to say that they were trying to be authentic. According to her (or her script), American Girl has decided that, to be authentic, Kaya has to have little in the way of accessories. Clothes, furniture, etc.

Hmmm... I thought to myself. I guess all the other girls, according to this salesperson, had more in the way of material goods. The pioneer girl, the immigrant, etc. etc., they all had plenty of goods. How accurate is that?

The salesperson then said that Kaya would be in with the rest of the girls when they move to their larger building.

By then I was utterly disgusted with the entire place. I thanked the salesperson, and we left. I wasn't confrontational.

I should remind readers that, while I did ask questions that may have suggested I felt that Kaya ought to be in the big room with the other girls, that exclusion/inclusion/marginalization is just one slice of this discussion. Several weeks ago, I posted a review (read it here) that points to the multiple errors and flaws in the Kaya books. American Girl could do better, and you, as a consumer, can find much better books about American Indians for the children you work with, or parent, or teach....

(Note to Jean: If you want to add anything, please do!)

And, those of you who have more knowledge of the American Girl books, please comment, share what you know about the ways that American Indian characters are presented in the stories.

Note at 9:01 PM---Roger Sutton noted my post here over at Read Roger. Follow comments there, which are about the commercialization aspects of AG.

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.