Wednesday, February 14, 2007


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 It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Lois Beardslee

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

Monday, February 12, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jan Bourdeau Waboose's SKYSISTERS

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sharon Creech's WALK TWO MOONS

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Racism, Power, and Privilege at UIUC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 29, 2007

Good News about Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto

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

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

Sunday, January 28, 2007


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 26, 2007

Pamela Porter's Sky

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


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

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

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

We will see.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Representation, Stereotypes of American Indians, "Chief Illiniwek"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Marlene Carvell's Sweetgrass Basket

[This review is by Beverly Slapin and used with her permission. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Carvell, Marlene, Sweetgrass Basket. Dutton, 2005. 243 pages; grades 5-up (Mohawk)

Sweetgrass Basket is a young adult novel, told in the alternating voices of two young Mohawk sisters attending the now-notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the early 1900s. Unlike most young adult novels by cultural outsiders, Sweetgrass Basket contains no self-conscious “anthropological asides” to explain to readers what the writer assumes to be important details of an “other” culture. Rather, it’s a wrenchingly beautiful story of two sisters trying to keep themselves together in an atmosphere that fosters only hate and shame. But amidst all the abuse, the children resist the value system being foisted on them, sometimes with great good humor. “I must say,” the older sister Mattie says to Sarah about the hated Mrs. Dwyer, “‘that I hope she steps in a hole and is swallowed by the earth.’ Suddenly Sarah’s eyes brighten and a smile spreads across her face. ‘Mattie, how dreadful,’ she says in mock horror. ‘What a terrible thing to do to Mother Earth.’” The ending is a surprise that’s not really a surprise. Children died at Carlisle, in front of cold, hard white people who didn’t give a damn.

Carvell’s husband’s great-aunt Margaret, who attended Carlisle, was the inspiration for Sweetgrass Basket. Ordinarily, information like this would be enough for me to roll my eyes and close the book, at least for a while. But, as in Carvell’s earlier novel, who will tell my brother?, she really did her homework, and she’s a wonderful writer. I imagine Aunt Margaret is pleased as well.

—Beverly Slapin

Friday, January 12, 2007

Books by and about American Indians: 2005

Each year, the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison publishes an important year-in-review booklet called CCBC Choices. The essay from CCBC Choices 2006 is available on line. Below is an excerpt from the essay.

When CCBC Choices 2007 comes out, what will it tell us about books published in 2006 by and about American Indians? Will CCBC be able to say there were more than 4 books created by Native authors and/or illustrators? I hope so. Here's the excerpt from the CCBC article, "Publishing in 2005."

CCBC Statistics in 2005

Of the nearly 3,000 titles we received at the CCBC in 2005, we documented the following with regard to books by and about people of color:

• 34 books featured American Indian themes, topics, or characters. Of these, only 4 were created by individuals identified as American Indian authors and/or artists. Nine additional Native writers were featured in a single short story collection.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

News regarding Seale and Slapin's A Broken Flute: The Native Perspective in Books for Children

Shonto Begay.
Eve Bunting.
Ann Nolan Clark.
Alice Dalgliesh.
Barbara Esbensen.
Russell Freedman.
Gail Gibbons.
Tony Hillerman.
Susan Jeffers.
Thomas King.
Michael Lacapa.
Angela Medearis
Redwing Nez.
Scott O'Dell.
Patricia Polacco.
Delphine Red Shirt.
Robert San Souci.
Luci Tapahonso.
Nancy Van Laan.
Gloria Whelan.
Ed Young.

You may know some of these names, but not all. Each one has written or illustrated a book about American Indians, or a book that has American Indians in the story. Each of these individuals is in the index for A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. This is only a partial listing.

I refer readers to it again and again. It is now available in paperback for $35.00 from Oyate. I have a copy in my home office and one in my office on campus. I use it in my classes. A Broken Flute is an invaluable resource that ought to be in every classroom and school library.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Choosing Children's Books about American Indians

On Friday, January 26, I will be in Chicago leading a workshop for elementary school teachers and librarians in Chicago Public Schools. The workshop is called "Choosing Children's Books about American Indians. "

If you are a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, write to Jolene Aleck at for more information.

The workshop will take place at the Field Museum from 9 to noon.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Teaching Sterling's MY NAME IS SEEPEETZA and Tohe's NO PAROLE TODAY

Last night I watched a video in which a teacher engages her middle school students in a study of boarding schools for American Indian students. The study begins with the students reading Shirley Sterling’s My Name is Seepeetza and “The Names,” which is a poem from Laura Tohe’s No Parole Today.

The video is an hour long and is part of the “Teaching Multicultural Literature” series of teacher resources available on the Annenberg Media website. Here’s the annotation for this particular segment:

Workshop 3: Research and Discovery: Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe

At the Skokomish reservation in Washington state, Sally Brownfield and her students study and connect with the literature and issues related to the Native American boarding school program through community involvement and self-examination. Students use Shirley Sterling's novel My Name Is Seepeetza and the poetry of Laura Tohe as the lenses through which they explore topics of their choosing. The class visits the Skokomish Tribal Center to interview tribal elders about the impact of the residential boarding program on the community. Author Shirley Sterling visits the class and answers student questions related to her novel, her life, and their personal research topics. Students then decide how to make their learning public.


This blog has several posts about My Name is Seepeetza, but not enough about Laura Tohe's poetry. A post about her is forthcoming.

It is hard for me to say which portion of the video is the most powerful. Listen to the students, many of whom are Native, talk about the book and their own families. Listen to Laura Tohe’s poem, as the Native teacher reads it aloud. Listen to the elders and what they say about their days as students in a boarding school. And, listen to Shirley Sterling and all that she gives to the students in that classroom.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Some Thoughts On Teaching About Native Americans by John A. Duerk

[Note from Debbie: Several weeks ago, I began email correspondence with John Duerk, during which he shared his experiences as a teacher. I asked him to write an essay for the blog. Here it is.]

While teaching social studies in a rural, Illinois high school, I observed a high level of ignorance and defensiveness about the Native American experience here in the United States. As a teacher who cares about history and its connection to contemporary matters of social justice, I found this to be rather disturbing. Most of my students simply did not have much prior knowledge about Native Americans beyond the generic stories they are told in grade school or the racist stereotypes that are propagated through the mainstream media. This bothered me because there is a serious disconnect between perception and reality – a disconnect that creates barriers which prevent young people from coming to terms with the past and understanding the present. After all, how can students place the current Native American state of affairs in the proper context if they lack knowledge of human experiences that have led to us all to this point? They cannot. In my history and government classes I tried to address these problems with lesson plans designed to challenge and overcome their ignorance and defensiveness.

In US History class, two of the most invaluable lessons I taught involved the voyage(s) of Christopher Columbus and President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy. With regard to the lesson on Columbus, my students read an excerpt from his journal and discussed the language he used to describe the native people he encountered. Then my students read two recent secondary sources that presented contrasting views of Columbus (one positive, the other negative). Finally, they had to write a paragraph (at least five sentences long) explaining which view they agreed with and why. A class discussion also followed the paragraph writing. Many students commented about how they had never read a criticism of Columbus. This reality speaks to the inadequacies of social studies instruction at the elementary and junior high levels. As for the lesson on Indian Removal, I conducted a mock trial of President Jackson after students studied his policy (Indian Removal Act of 1830) and its results (The Trail of Tears). While students played almost every courtroom role during the trial (I played the judge to oversee the process), contrasting views (for and against removal) were presented through prosecution and defense witnesses. In the end, the jury had to decide Jackson ’s fate based on the case facts. Many students left with a more critical view of his presidency as well as an understanding that some government policies have been incredibly harmful to Native Americans. Ultimately, when young people read and discuss a combination of primary and secondary sources that detail the lives of Indians, then they are more inclined to grasp the depth of the events that transpired.

In American Government class, I taught a provocative lesson on the case of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist who is serving two consecutive life sentences for the killing of two federal agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Most of my students were unaware of the events that occurred that June day in 1975, much less the doubts many have as to his guilt. To begin this lesson, I lectured on the impoverished and corrupt state of the Pine Ridge reservation at that time, the goals of the American Indian Movement and why its members went to Pine Ridge, and who Leonard Peltier is. Next, students read an excerpt from Peltier’s book, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance (specifically Chapter 27 where he recounts the events of June 25th). Then, they watched either the documentary film Incident at Oglala, or the A&E American Justice special, Murder on a Reservation. Due to the fact that some students felt Incident at Oglala contained biases in favor of Native Americans, I used the latter program in later years to address this concern. While viewing either the film or special, I instructed my students to write down five comments and five questions about the case so we could have a solid class discussion afterward. Also, before the day of the discussion, they read a lengthy news article on the case and answered several questions that I provided. This lesson proved to be more controversial than the others in history class because the event is more immediately relevant. Moreover, it involves a member of a radical civil rights group that sought to protect indigenous people through physical force when necessary. Many students found the case very unsettling regardless of their view of Leonard Peltier (his guilt or innocence).

As a social studies teacher, I tried to provide my students with as much information as possible to build their knowledge base, promote analytical thinking skills, and stir their desire to question the institutions around them. Looking back, there is so much more I wanted to do, but alas, I made a serious effort to address the Native American experience in my classroom. Young people need to learn more about life here before the colonists arrived, and then trace that history to the present to fully understand how our country came to be. They must confront the uncomfortable realities we now live with. Only through critical inquest will we uncover truth. Only through reexamining our perceptions can we bridge the social, political, and economic divides between people. The public school system is one place where genuine change can begin when young people are nurtured with the proper instruction. If there is to be some justice for surviving indigenous peoples, then we owe them a significant place in our curriculum.

John A. Duerk is a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University and an activist who advocates a variety of progressive causes.

Duerk’s Resources for Teachers:

American Indian Movement website:

"The Journey of Christopher Columbus" website:

Leonard Peltier Defense Committee website:

No Parole Peltier Association website:

Peltier, Leonard. 1999. Prison Writings: My Life is My Sundance. New York , NY: St. Martin ’s Press, p. 123-130.

Stannard, David E. 1992. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World . New York , NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., p. 69-72.

Swanbrow, Dianne. 2005. Study: Explorer Still Widely Admired. The University of Record Online: The University of Michigan News Service, 12 October. Available on the Internet,

Treen, Joe. 1992. A Question of Justice. People Weekly. 4 May, v37, n17, p. 36-39.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1993. The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. New York , NY: Hill and Wang.

Wilson, Wendy S. and Herman, Gerald H. 2000. Unit 3: “Andrew Jackson and the Removal of the Cherokee Nation” (Mock Trial) in Critical Thinking Using Primary Sources in US History. Portland , Maine: Walch Publishing, p. 16-23, 131-141.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Geraldine McCaughrean's PETER PAN IN SCARLET

A couple of weeks ago, a reader of this blog wrote to me to ask if I’d read Geraldine McCaughrean’s book, Peter Pan in Scarlet, released on October 5 of 2006. It is the much celebrated sequel to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan which started out in the early 1900s as a short story and then a play.

The original had stereotypical portrayals of American Indians. The Disney film brought those images to the big screen, and that same stereotypical Native imagery is present in the Julie Andrews film, too.

It is surprising (and not) to learn that Native stereotypes are in McCaughrean’s sequel. I got the book, and below are excerpts from the first ten pages. When I finish the book, I’ll follow up. In the meantime, have any of you read the entire book yet? Any comments?
Reese notes on Peter Pan in Scarlet:

1) In the opening pages we learn that John is a grown up and that he’s been dreaming about Neverland. Each morning when he wakes, there is something from Neverland in his bed:

“…an alarm clock, a pirate’s tricorn hat, an Indian head-dress” (page 3).

Reese: "An Indian head-dress" -- of course, the single artifact that stands in to signal Indian.

2) All across London, other “Old Boys” are having the same dreams. Wendy, also now grown, decides they must go back to Neverland to find out why dreams are leaking out of Neverland into the “Here and Now.” The Old Boys say:

“Go back to Neverland? Go back to the mysterious island, with its mermaids, pirates, and redskins?” (page 10).

Reese: The word "redskins." In a children's book, in 2006. Defined in most major dictionaries as offensive, yet here it is.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Allen Sockabasin's THANKS TO THE ANIMALS

My family in New Mexico is among those coping with a huge snowfall. My sister says there's two feet outside her door. They're in northern New Mexico, at Nambe Pueblo. Winter has definitely arrived there, with two huge snowfalls in a week's time. Allan Sockabasin's story sounds perfect for my nieces and nephews. Beverly Slapin's review of Thanks to the Animals is below. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

Sockabasin, Allen (Passamaquoddy), Thanks to the Animals, illustrated by Rebekah Raye. Tillbury House, 2005. Unpaginated, color illustrations; all grades.
Winter arrives, as a Passamaquoddy family prepares for the trip north to the deep woods of Maine, their winter home. Everyone helps as they dismantle their house and tie down the cedar logs and everything else they need—canoe, food, clothing, baskets—on the bobsled, making sure there is enough room for the children to ride in the back. As Papa Joo Tum drives the horses and Mama and the older children settle in for the long ride, nestling together in the warmth of their sealskin coats and patchwork blankets, they don’t notice that little Zoo Sap has tumbled off the sled.
Alerted by Zoo Sap’s cries, the animals of the forest—large and small—come together to keep him warm until Papa Joo Tum comes to get him. Joo Tum thanks the animals, one by one, and carries little Zoo Sap—none the worse for wear—back to his family. This quiet, gentle story is enhanced by the warm, watercolor-and-ink paintings, my favorite of which shows little Zoo Sap contentedly and “safely sleeping in a great pile of warm animals.” Thanks to the Animals, with Passamoquoddy names for the animals in the back, is a perfect bedtime story.
—Beverly Slapin

Sunday, December 31, 2006

"I is not for Indian"

Pointing you, today, to an article linked in my "Articles" list on the right-hand side of this blog.

In 1991, Naomi Caldwell-Wood and Lisa A. Mitten, officers of the American Indian Library Association, published "Selective Bibliography and Guide for "I" IS NOT FOR INDIAN: THE PORTRAYAL OF NATIVE AMERICANS IN BOOKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE."

Now 15 years old, it is still one of the best articles out there for teachers, parents, librarians and others interested in learning how to look critically at children's books about American Indians.

It includes an annotated list of recommended books and books that should be avoided. It's a short article. It won't take long to read it, but will increase your understanding immeasurably. It is located on the website for the American Indian Library Association.

There's much to learn from the website. Click through the various links.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Books for young adults are often unsettling to adults who think teens are growing up too fast. These adults are uncomfortable with novels about sex, drugs, suicide, rape. I’d be willing to bet that these same adults prefer novels about American Indians that are peopled with tragic Indians of days long past...

Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed is about Larry Sole. He’s not romantic, heroic, or savage. And he’s not the hottie you see on some of those ridiculous “Savage” bodice rippers churned out by Cassie Edwards. Unfortunately, a lot of adults who read those bodice rippers and similar novels will reject Lesser Blessed because it does not align with their stereotypical taste and fantasies.

Larry Sole is a 16 year old boy of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation in the Northwest Territories of Canada. He’s in high school. He's skinny. He listens to rock music. And, he's in love.

Van Camp doesn’t turn away from the experiences high school kids have with drugs, sex, and fights, but he doesn’t glorify these moments either.

Van Camp’s story is gracefully and naturally, infused with Larry’s Nativeness. The stories told to him by Jed, his mother’s boyfriend, just are. Being Native isn’t something that is planned, that is orchestrated. It just is.

The Lesser Blessed. Published in 2004 by Douglas & McIntyre. A novel for young adults. Add it to your shelf. Recommend it to young adults you know.

Read a review of the book at Indian Country Today.

If you've got an account on MySpace, take a look at Van Camp's page.

Visit Richard Van Camp's website to see who his favorite Native authors are.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Deborah Miranda's, THE ZEN OF LA LLORONA

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


Miranda, Deborah (Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen/Chumash), The Zen of La Llorona. Salt Publishing, 2005. 106 pages, high school-up.

According to Miranda’s small gray Zen book, “everyone loses everything.” “Nonsense,” La Llorona howls back, “there’s always something left to lose.” La Llorona, for whom Miranda named her second book of poems and prose, appears and disappears throughout it. La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, eternally grieving for the children whose lives she ended in resistance to colonization, and knowing that the colonizer has eternally transformed her into a destroyer like himself.

“I am La Llorona’s daughter,” Deborah Miranda writes, “I should have drowned, but I didn’t.” Somehow, despite the rage and fear, depression and self-loathing and inconsolable grief and “this beast called bereftness” passed on to her from her own mother, she survived.

Along this hard life’s road, Miranda encountered racism, domestic violence, rape, abandonment, addiction, and ultimately, the loves of her life: her children and another Indian woman. She writes with clarity and grace; and her poems are so achingly beautiful, I want to copy them all into this review. In a love poem called “Mesa Verde,” she picks up “a stalk of some rosy blossom, unknown, unidentified.”

Tiny gold ants crawl on the hairy stem,

seek the deep center, enter it.

As we drive on, I leave the branch behind.

The ants will find their way home carrying

a burden so sweet it needs no name,

a story to tell about being taken up,

removed, finding the intricate paths back.

The Zen of La Llorona, poems of loss and despair, survival and strength, is, as acclaimed poet Sandra Cisneros, says, “wondrous stuff.” Deborah Miranda has a brave and loving heart, and I am honored to call her “friend.”

—Beverly Slapin

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Presentation of 2006 American Book Awards

Yesterday (December 15th), the Before Columbus Foundation presented the American Book Awards for 2006. This purpose of the award is to acknowledge excellence and multicultural diversity of American writing.

A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children (edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin) is amongst the winners this year. Below are the remarks Beverly read at the event. Doris Seale was unable to attend. With Beverly were some of the contributors to A Broken Flute: Barbara Wall and her son, Ryan Potter, and Janet King and her daughter, Cora Garcia.

I don't know this for certain, but I'm willing to bet that there is no other book out there that has as many Native voices within its covers as does A Broken Flute. The work of Seale and Slapin mirrors the work of Native communities. That is, we work together towards a common goal.

Thank you, Doris and Beverly, for making it possible for Native voice to be part of the conversations about children's books. You and Oyate make a difference.


Doris and I are greatly humbled by this award and we’d like to ask some people to stand with me in accepting it.

The great Lakota philosopher, Tatanka Iotanka—Sitting Bull—said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we will make for our children.” The great Cuban revolutionary, José Martí, said, “We work for the children because the children know how to love, because the children are the hope of the world.” 

So Doris and I want to thank the Indian children who had the courage to say what was in their hearts, knowing that their stories would be part of a book, and so no longer private. We also thank the parents of those children, who trusted us with their stories. Those of you who have read A Broken Flute may see that, for Indian children, survival is not a foregone conclusion, and for Indian parents, promises to keep them safe cannot in truth be guaranteed. 

In 1992, when we were in the thick of the struggle against the racism exhibited by a large textbook publisher—it was called “the textbook wars” and those of us who fought it were ridiculed as, among other things, “politically correct censors of the left”—a friend attempted to describe the problem to a group of people who clearly didn’t want to understand how white privilege supports white racism. She held up one of the textbooks and said, simply and without polemic: “In order for some children to be proud of their cultures, other children must be made ashamed of theirs.” 

It would be arrogant and foolish to think that a book that took 13 years of work, 60 contributors, much heartache—and a few laughs besides—can eradicate a problem that has been in existence for more than 500 years. For Doris and me, and for the many contributors, A Broken Flute is our attempt to make things better. Thank you.

Friday, December 15, 2006


[Note: This review is used by permission of its author and may not be published elsewhere without written permission of the author.]
Medicine Crow, Joseph (Absarokee/Crow), with Herman J. Viola, Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond. National Geographic, 2006. 123 pages, color and b/w photos, grades 5-8.

As tribal historian of the Absarokee (Crow) Nation, Joseph Medicine Crow would have to be a very good storyteller and have a very long memory. He is and does. Here, in short stories with an ironic humor that seems to be the forte of elders, Medicine Crow tells of a childhood lived mainly outdoors: bathing in icy rivers, mud fights, racing horses, stealing a cow from a white rancher, listening to stories about family and community, and counting coup.

In the old days, in order for someone to become an Absarokee war chief it was necessary to accomplish four life-threatening coups—capture an enemy’s horse, touch the first enemy to fall in battle, steal an enemy’s weapons, and lead a war party. Counting coup is about confronting fears. Such as Medicine Crow’s experiences at a Baptist mission school and later at public school, where he encounters racism and learns to fear whites. Such as his first hospital visit to have his adenoids removed, in which he encounters whites, a Sioux and a ghost (who turns out to be an elderly white guy). Such as his exploits while serving in World War II, in which he completes his four acts of bravery.

 Counting Coup is an excellent read that will resonate with middle readers, and might encourage them to interview their own elders.
—Beverly Slapin

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


"The People looked around them and they saw Black People, Chicano People, Asian People, many White People and others who were kept poor by American wealth and power.

The People saw that these People who were not rich and powerful shared a common life with them.

The People realized they must share their history with them."

What you've just read is an except from The People Shall Continue, a poem written by Simon Ortiz. His poem was published as a picture book in 1977. If you read American Indian poetry, you are likely familiar with his work. He is from Acquemeh (Acoma) Pueblo, and "The People" are the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Ortiz begins The People Shall Continue with Creation. Not Genesis, but Creation, as viewed by several different Indian tribes. From the opening pages of his book, children learn that there is more than one way to view Creation. And they learn about diversity in lifestyle, diversity that is dependent on place.

As the story continues, Ortiz tells us that "something unusual began to happen." That something is the arrival of what he calls "strange men" who came "seeking treasures and slaves." This happened to the People, everywhere. He tells us about resistance as he recounts the many ways in which the People persevered in the face of government efforts to stop us from being who we were and are.

His book, in short, offers a history of American Indians.

Here we are, nearly 30 years after the publication of his book, and the rich and powerful continue to cause suffering.

The title of Ortiz's book THE PEOPLE SHALL CONTINUE helps me when I read the news each day and learn of yet another incident in which the rich and powerful denigrate people of color. This morning I read about a parody of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" written by students at Tufts. The re-written song is "Oh Come All Ye Black Folk." It takes aim at affirmative action, but also, specifically, at 52 African American freshmen at Tufts, who, it is suggested, are there regardless of D's and F's. For more on this, Inside Higher Ed has the story I read.

As noted in an earlier post, racial tensions seem to be on the rise on college campuses across the country. A student told me last week that over Thanksgiving break, she overheard students at a bar talking about their "Trail of Beers" party.

A comment to my post about Philbrick's book suggested that on this blog, I "doth protest too much." That individual is not paying attention. The pile of ugliness is huge and it is everywhere.

And so I will protest, and, THE PEOPLE SHALL CONTINUE.

The People Shall Continue, written by Simon Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves, was published in 1977 by Children's Book Press.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Josefina, An American Girl

Today in class, one of my students shared a book in the American Girl "Josefina" line. The book is Welcome to Josefina's World, 1824: Growing up on America's Southwest Frontier. From the American Girl website is this synopsis:
Inside this beautiful hardcover book you'll see what growing up was like during Josefina's times in 1824 New Mexico. Look inside a Pueblo Indian village, and welcome a trading caravan from Mexico. 
To her credit, the student is critically analyzing the ways in which the series portrays dolls of color, and is finding problems with those portrayals.

One page of Welcome to Josefina's World includes an old, black and white photograph of two Pueblo women. One woman is sitting in front of the other. The camera position is behind and to their left. The woman in back has her hands on the shoulders of the woman in front of her. It is not clear what they are doing, but the caption says that lice were a problem, and that these two women were likely removing lice from each other.

Were lice a problem? Yes. Are they a problem? Yes. Only for Native people past or present? NO. Lice don't care about race, ethnicity, or class. Yet, it is one of those things that is attributed to lower class people of color. I'd have to get a copy of the "Welcome to..." book for each of the American Girls, but I'm willing to bet that the white dolls don't have lice. (If you're in a library with these books, you could help me and readers with this question... Send me an email or post your findings in the comments section of the blog.)

Thanks, Fi, for bringing this book to class.

Update: One of the other "Welcome to..." books (about Felicity, a white character) shows a lice comb as an artifact. I'm glad it is there, but I think that the two images are vastly different in what they convey and what they invoke in the reader. See comments below.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Scieszka's ME OH MAYA and Gibson's APOCALYPTO

Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto is about to be released. The previews promise a lot of action, and it looks like it features a lot of stereotypes, too, which means it'll probably do well at the box office. If you are interested in a critical review of Gibson's process of getting this film done, The Nation has one: Mad Mel and the Maya.

In the midst of the media attention of this film, I learned of a children's book by acclaimed author Jon Scieszka. Titled Me Oh Maya, it is part of his Time Warp Trio series of books in which three boys time travel, mostly to the past, but occasionally to the future. Me Oh Maya was first published in 2003 by Viking.

In Me Oh Maya the boys find themselves in a Mayan ball court. A "short brown-skinned guy in a wild feathered headdress stood on top of the wall looking down" at the boys and says to them "Explain yourselves or your blood will be spilled in sacrifice."

This guy turns out to be an "evil high priest" stands over them. His name, they learn, is Kakapupahed.

The Time Warp Trio series is pitched to kids who are "reluctant readers." This sort of book provides readers with clever writing that functions as a hook to draw in a kid who might otherwise not read. In this series, that hook is puns, lots of action, and, as the reviewer at School Library Journal notes, "a little bathroom humor."

In Me Oh Maya, the boys hear the high priests name and think "Cacapoopoohead":

They struggle, unsuccessfully, to contain their laughter. This "evil priest" is corrupt, and with the help of one of his relatives and her son, they manage to trick him and remove him from his position.

Reviews of the book say that kids can learn a lot about Mayan culture by reading this book. I don't think so. What they really learn is that it is perfectly fine to denigrate Mayan names and hence, the people who carry them. They learn that the Mayan's are fools who can be easily tricked ("primitive Indians" you know).

Those are my initial observations. There is much more to say about flaws in Me Oh Maya.

For now, I consider the context. A children's book. A feature length film. Both deeply flawed, yet those flaws escape notice. Why is that?

Monday, December 04, 2006


[Note: This review is used by permission of its author. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission.]
New Rider Weber, EdNah (Pawnee), Rattlesnake Mesa: Stories from a Native American Childhood, photographs by Richela Renkun. Lee & Low, 2004, 132 pages, b/w photos; grades 3-up

Rattlesnake Mesa is EdNah New Rider Weber’s recollections of growing up in the early 1900s. After the death of her grandmother, young EdNah is sent to live with her father at Crown Point Indian Agency on the Navajo reservation, and attend the Crown Point Indian School as a day student. Just as she is starting to feel at home, her sense of herself and the world is shattered when she witnesses some children being whipped. “I carried mortal shame, fear, and hurt away with me….I was just eight years old,” she writes. At the end of the school year, EdNah is uprooted once more and sent to the government-run Phoenix Indian School. Here, she finds rigid military discipline and the attempted eradication of everything she is. Despite the loneliness, despite the arbitrary punishment, there is more than a little subversiveness and outright rebellion—mocking the teachers behind their backs, underground games and songs. The children “learned early—laughing was best."

EdNah New Rider Weber is an awesome storyteller; her words will bring young readers into her world.
But several things about Rattlesnake Mesa are very, well, odd. For one thing, the voice shifts throughout the book from Weber’s conversational storytelling cadence to a strange, detached, “objective” outsider rhythm. This happens too often not to be noticed. In a piece about boarding school, Weber recounts how a little girl the students nicknamed “Old Thunder” had an “unbelievable talent—a natural ability to pass her stomach gases as she pleased. Complete control!” And in another section, there is an odd, outsider overemphasis on what people are wearing: “The Zuni women were richly clad in black mantas and white buckskin-wrapped moccasins. Navajo ladies wore velvet shirts, studded with old coins from the 1800s, and exquisite turquoise jewelry.” And there is an—odd—description of a ceremony that wouldn’t have happened quite that way. 

Another oddity is the black-and-white photos that illustrate the book. The endnotes say that in 1998 “[Weber and Renkun] set out to revisit the landscape of Weber’s childhood in New Mexico—searching for old memories and creating new images to recapture them….They searched for faces of children and elders who were part of the land, faces that helped Weber remember the people she had known in her youth.” It’s an interesting project for a photographer to visualize an elderly person’s stories. But there seems to be an unstated assumption that Weber had no memories until she saw these “faces of children and elders who were part of the land.” Otherwise, why would Renkun pose unhappy-looking children dressed in ‘50s-style clothing, to represent the boarding school experience? And what relevance is there for a shawl dancer, wearing moccasins, dancing alone, on hard rocky ground?

Questions remain: Why was it seen as necessary for Weber’s evocative recollections of her childhood to be contaminated with Renkun’s new-agey photographs and perhaps someone else’s writing? Why does Renkun, her husband and her son have wannabe-sounding Lakota names? And why does Renkun dedicate the book to her “Uncle Pete Rock (Che Nodin) full-blood Obijwa [sic], naval commander, athlete, and alumnus of the Carlisle Indian School (1918-1990)”? Carlisle was in operation from 1879-1918. 

This is a very disquieting book. I would like to have seen EdNah New Rider Weber’s stories as she told them, without the “fixing up.”—Beverly Slapin

Sunday, December 03, 2006


The audience for LeBeau's Rethinking Michigan Indian History is teachers. The material in the book will be helpful to teachers in grades 4-12 who seek to provide students with balanced instruction about Native peoples of Michigan.

LeBeau asks readers to consider these statements:
Stereotypical representations of Michigan's Indians are what most people of Michigan understand and recognize.
The U.S. Constitution protects and upholds Michigan Indian treaty rights.
Michigan's Indians are alive and well in the modern world and are not artifacts of the past.
Michigan's Indians change and adapt to circumstances and events; therefore, they are not frozen in any one image or time period.
Material in the book is teacher-friendly. "Objectives" are listed at the beginning of each lesson, followed by a narrative about the lesson topic, and then a set of Activities.

Some lessons are:
  • Defining Our Terms and Exploring Stereotypes: Building a Specific Context
  • Challenging the "Great Man" Theory of History
  • Indian Treaties and the U.S. Constitution
  • How Historical Maps Influence Thinking about Michigan's Indians
Each lesson includes color illustrations, maps, charts and examples of student drawings. All of this material is also available on the accompanying CD-ROM. Lessons can be used as stand-alone units, and have application in other states (not just Michigan).

LeBeau is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is the former director of Michigan State University's American Indian Studies Program.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dartmouth, Mascots, and Civility (or lack thereof)

Some weeks ago I wrote about UIUC's "tacos and tequila" frat/sorority "exchange." In weeks following, we learned that across the country, institutions of higher ed have had similar parties, including Cowboys and Indians parties.

Dartmouth's recent experiences around racist activity and representation of American Indians is in today's NY Times. This latest incident is a cartoon in a conservative Dartmouth paper not affiliated with the campus. The cartoon shows an Indian holding a bloody scalp, and the caption reads "The Natives are getting restless." The NY Times article quotes the editorial:

In an editorial, Linsalata wrote: ''While the onus may fall partly on the student body to facilitate an environment more hospitable to Indians, nothing can be done until the Indians themselves lay out measurable goals and steps for how this harmony can be achieved. Patronizing advertisements and excessive use of the race card are antithetical to this goal.''

"...the Indians themselves"?!! Linsalata's remark is outrageous. Dartmouth's Native students speak up regarding negative representations of Native people, and Linsalata says THEY must lay out measurable goals and steps for harmony. Where, in Linsalata's view of the world, is his own responsibility for that harmony?

For more, go directly to Dartmouth's school paper, The Dartmouth.

THIS societal context is the one in which all of you---parents, teachers, librarians, professors, students---must work. THIS mindset is why your work towards helping children know who Native people are, and what US history has been, is crucial. We are all responsible for the views that children hold, the views that they take to heart, that they rely on when they are adults. We can intervene, and we must.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Montana's "Indian Education for All" program

I've been hearing good things about Montana's "Indian Education for All" program. Essentially, it is an initiative designed to provide students in Montana with knowledge about American Indians. As is the case with most schools, students learn world and U.S. and state history, but very little of worth is taught about American Indians. In Montana, the school is taking significant steps to remedy that situation.

The program has many components. If you are interested in learning what they're doing, and how you might use their work to modify your teaching, or your district's curriculum, visit the website:

Montana Office of Public Instruction, Indian Education

Note: Today (Jan 22, 2013), I removed dead links to the articles referenced below.

The National Indian Education website has an article about it, posted in June of 2005: Montana's Public Schools to Teach about State's First People. Indian Country Today ran an article about the program in May of 2006: Montana prepares to implement unique 'Indian education for all' law.

And, the November 2006 issue of PDK features the program on its cover and has several articles about it.

If you are a teacher, parent, librarian, student, or professor in Montana and have first-hand information on the initiative, please share with us. Send me an email, and I'll post it to the blog. Or, use the comments option (below) if you prefer.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


[Note: This review is used by permission of its authors. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission from the authors.]
Kessler, Tim, When God Made the Dakotas, illustrated by Paul Morin. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2006. Unpaginated, color illustrations, grades 2-4, Dakota

Published by a Christian book house and written and illustrated by cultural outsiders, When God Made the Dakotas is a mishmash of Christian creation mythology and invented Dakota cosmology, replete with misplaced Dakota symbols and words (some of which are misspelled).

According to the jacket copy, “Tim Kessler’s creation story, framed as a Native American legend, reminds readers to find beauty and joy in what surrounds them.” In order to create a picture book about the Dakota landscape, one wonders why it was seen as necessary to make up a creation story about the Dakota people, since we’ve already got our own.

After Wakantanka/Great Spirit/Creator has made the rest of the world, he arrives at the world’s edge, where he is greeted by a Dakota medicine man named Woksape (wisdom). After each request from Woksape about what kind of land he wishes for the Dakota people, Wakantanka answers that he has already given that land to someone else. Finally, Woksape says he will take what’s left and Wakantanka, pleased with the medicine man’s humility, fashions for the Dakota people the wondrous Dakota land.

The depiction of Wakantanka as an elderly Indian guy—with white hair, face paint, and three goose feathers stuck in his hair—is more reflective of the Judeo-Christian ethos than it is to ours. In the belief system to which the author apparently ascribes, God is said to have created man in his own image. In our belief system, however, the Creator’s presence is manifest in all things, and does not appear simply in human form.

Further, no informed Dakota would give the Creator a detailed description of what kind of land he’d like his people to inhabit; this would be an insult to the Creator. To us, all creation is beautiful and a great mystery. From the beginning, we have developed a complex, symbiotic and reverent relationship with the land. We are not above the earth but are a part of it and our belief in creation and by extension our Creator stresses this relationship.

There are many other troubling aspects to this book. Here, Dakota people have to settle for the prairies that pale in comparison to the abundant lands that have already been given away. (Kessler’s God acts much like the white men in this way). This seems to diminish both the austere beauty and abundance of the plains, and the importance of the Dakota people. And, by the way, the Dakota live mostly in the woodlands further east. It is the Lakota who inhabit the plains.

That one “medicine man” speaks for a nation is not reflective of the Native value for the collective participation of the group, and of the respected elders, men and women, within the tribe. Finally, a promise by God that the plains will be forever pristine and depopulated belies the white people’s past and present economic and environmental roles in dramatically altering the face of the land to make it uninhabitable for humans, the buffalo and other living beings.

And when in the scheme of creation is this story supposed to have taken place? It seems odd, for example, that the Creator would have created the Pendleton blankets upon which the two are sitting before “he” finished creating the world. “He” creates Tatanka, the buffalo, out of his medicine bag; he creates Maga, the goose, out of two goose feathers. Which came first, something made out of animal hide, or the animal itself? Which came first, the feathers or the geese? It would seem pretty strange in a Christian creation story for God to apologize to Adam for not having enough material to fashion Eden to Adam’s specifications. Why, then, is it seen as acceptable for Wakantanka/Creator/Great Spirit to continually apologize to Woksape?

That this may be “only a children’s book” is where the most damage lies. Who, if not the children, are we more responsible to for instilling honest representations of peoples, an informed respect for the land, and an understanding that man’s heavy hand has much to do with both? If Kessler wanted to extol the beauty of the plains, he could have written what he knows, perhaps about the plains ecosystems, for he certainly doesn’t know the people.

Since everything else of ours has already been stolen, we could at least be left our creation stories. The final page of When God Made the Dakotas closes with the summation, “And it was good.” Pity that from this indigenous perspective, I can close only with the simple conclusion, “No, it is bad.”

---Janeen Antoine (Sicangu Lakota), with Beverly Slapin, Oyate