Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cynthia Leitich Smith at National Book Festival

Hurray! Cynthia Leitich Smith, one of my favorite authors will be at the National Book Festival. Cynthia is Muscogee (Creek), and has several outstanding books for children. Regular readers of this blog already know them, but for new readers, I'll note them here. All are set in the present day and are perfect for refuting the mistaken idea that Native Americans vanished and no longer exist.

Jingle Dancer. A picture book about Jenna, a Creek girl who is getting ready to do the jingle dance for the first time.

Indian Shoes. Short stories in the easy reader category, about a boy and his grandpa, living in Chicago.

Rain is Not My Indian Name. A terrific YA novel featuring Rain, a young woman whose best friend has died.

In addition to her books with Native characters, Cynthia has:
Tantalize. For teens into the vampire genre of books, this one is terrific.

Also appearing at the National Book Festival is N. Scott Momaday, author of House Made of Dawn. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969.

The event takes place September 29th on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This is a repeat visit for Cynthia. She was there in 2002, along with Vine Deloria, Jr.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Instead of Virginia Grossman's TEN LITTLE RABBITS, read Michael Kusugak's MY ARCTIC 1, 2, 3

[Note: This review is used with permission of Beverly Slapin and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Grossman, Virginia, Ten Little Rabbits, illustrated by Sylvia Long. San Francisco: Chronicle Books (1991). Unpaginated color illustrations; preschool-grade 1 

Kusugak, Michael (Inuit), My Arctic, 1, 2, 3, illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka. Toronto: Annick Press (1996). Unpaginated, color illustrations; preschool-up; Inuit

Although both of these are counting books, they are very different from one another.  Ten Little Rabbits has received several awards. It has been favorably reviewed in all of the major journals, can be found in most bookstores, and is featured on many “multicultural” lists and in catalogs. Long’s earth-toned ink-and-watercolor pictures are pretty and her rabbits look like rabbits. 

But it shouldn’t be necessary to tell people that counting rabbits dressed as Indians is no different from counting Indians. It objectifies people. Same faces, different blankets. As Teresa L. McCarty writes, 

The book’s implicit suggestion that children will learn to “count by diminutive-ethnic-group characters” is perverse and patently racist. That the author and the illustrator appear completely unconscious of this and choose to portray their characters as “cute” little animals reveals an especially insidious and societally acceptable form of racism. It is difficult to believe any writer, illustrator, or publisher today would accept or promote equivalent portrayals, for instance, of American Jews or African Americans. [1]

There are some who would ask, “but are the pictures authentic?” They’re neither authentic nor accurate. There’s no cultural relevance, no connection between each illustration and a people’s way of being in world. Even if the pictures were not contrived, the impact of this book—“rabbits as Indians”—on impressionable little kids is what makes it toxic. 

Neither Long’s lifelong “fascination with Native American cultures” nor her reading of Watership Down, which together “inspired a series of Native American rabbit illustrations that later became the basis for this book" [2] excuses what she and Grossman have done. On the other hand, My Arctic 1, 2, 3 is an example of a counting book that simply and beautifully reflects a people’s connection to the land. “I grew up in the Arctic Circle,” Michael Kusugak writes.
When I was a little boy we hunted seals, caribou and whales….We do not hunt animals all the time. Mostly, we watch them. We look at their tracks. We see how their coats change with the seasons. We watch what they hunt for food. We see how they hunt. In this book I want to show you some of the animals we have watched and the other animals that they hunt. Watching animals is fun.

My Arctic 1, 2, 3 is clearly more than a counting book. Unlike Ten Little Rabbits, it shows the relationships between the humans and the animals and between the different animals in an environment that demands that this relationship be understood. Each two-page spread, in luminous watercolors and ink, shows a certain number of animals on the left, and the animals they hunt on the right. The story comes full circle at the last spread that shows, on the left, Kusugak’s extended family picking “millions of berries (that) ripen in the fall” and on the right,
One lone polar bear walks along the shore, thinking of seals. It sees the berry pickers and says, “Never mind. They do not look like very good meals.” It continues on its journey, looking for what it might find…

There are words in Inuktitut for the animals themselves, and the last four pages, “The Arctic World of Michael Kusugak and His Family,” place all of the Arctic animals in the context of their relationship to the humans and each other. From start to finish, this is a beautiful book.
—Beverly Slapin

[1] Theresa L. McCarty, “What’s Wrong with Ten Little Rabbits?,” The New Advocate, vol. 8, no. 2, 1995, p. 98.
[2] from the Endnote.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Caribou Song, by Tomson Highway

Tomson Highway's Picture Books

Perusing the shelves at the Stratford Public Library (in Stratford, Ontario), I came across three books by Tomson Highway. I know he's Cree, and knew about his plays, but not his children's books. The three are a trilogy: Caribou Song came out in 2001, Dragonfly Kites in 2002, and Fox on the Ice in 2003. I skimmed Caribou Song. Characters are Joe and Cody, two young Cree boys. Modern day setting. Illustrations are terrific, done by Brian Deines, who also illustrated Jan Waboose's book, Skysisters.

The thing that struck me about them was the publisher --- HarperCanada --- and that the books have both English and Cree. Are HarperCanada and HarperCollins related? If so, I'm wondering if HarperCollins has ever published a US Native author, with text in English and one of our languages.

I can't sit with them right now but plan to spend time with them as soon as I get back to Illinois. Anyone out there know these books? Anyone out there in the US have them in your school or public library?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Thomas King's A Short History of Indians in Canada

In a bookstore here* yesterday, I got a copy of a Thomas King book I hadn't seen before. Called A Short History of Indians in Canada, it is a book of short stories. One is "Where the Borg Are." If you're a sci-fi fan, or a fan of Star Trek, you know who the Borg are... Here's the first two paragraphs of "Where the Borg Are."

By the time Milton Friendlybear finished reading Olive Patricia Dickenson's Canada's First Nations for a tenth grade history assignment, he knew, without a doubt, where the Borg had gone after they had been defeated by Jean-Luc Picard and the forces of the Federation. And he included his discovery in an essay on great historical moments in Canadian history.

Milton's teacher, Virginia Merry, was not as impressed with Milton's idea as he had hoped. "Milton," she said, in that tone of voice that many lapsed Ontario Catholics reserved for correcting faulty logic, bad grammar, and inappropriate behavior, "I'm not sure that the Indian Act of 1875 is generally considered an important moment in Canadian history."

Intrigued? I am!

[Note: This post originally appeared yesterday, underneath my post about Graham Greene. I'm reposting it as a stand-alone for searching purposes.]

*I'm in Stratford, Ontario, on vacation. Last night we saw Pentecost at the Studio Theater. During the scene where the art historians are taken hostage, one of the refugees (or terrorists, depending on your perspective) points out the door where the authorities are surrounding the church they're in. He says "Cowboys." He gestures to those inside the church, and says "Red Indians." Later in the play, there's a reference to a brutal murder from the past in which someone's face was, presumably, mutilated. The character made a clawing gesture and said "Red Indians." The murderer wasn't a "Red Indian," but that imagery was used to mean savage/barbaric. I gather "Red Indian" is the phrase Brits used to refer to American Indians.


Friday, August 03, 2007

Graham Greene as Shylock

I'm in Stratford, Ontario, where we spend a few days each year at the Shakespeare Festival. This year, for the first time ever, there is a Native actor on stage here. It's Graham Greene, and he's doing Shylock in Merchant of Venice, and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. We have tickets to both.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Greene:

“Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity is not unlike the First Nations people being forced into Christianity,” notes Greene, an Oneida who was born on Ontario’s Six Nations Reserve.

And the fundamental misunderstanding between Shylock and his Christian clients brings to mind such ongoing disputes as the continuing Caledonia land claim dispute in southern Ontario. “There are a lot of parallels there,” says Greene."

You can read the full article here.

And a few words about Thomas King...

In a bookstore here yesterday, I got a copy of a Thomas King book I hadn't seen before. Called A Short History of Indians in Canada, it is a book of short stories. One is called "Where the Borg Are." If you're a sci-fi fan, or a fan of Star Trek, you know who the Borg are... Here's the first two paragraphs of "Where the Borg Are."

By the time Milton Friendlybear finished reading Olive Patricia Dickenson's Canada's First Nations for a tenth grade history assignment, he knew, without a doubt, where the Borg had gone after they had been defeated by Jean-Luc Picard and the forces of the Federation. And he included his discovery in an essay on great historical moments in Canadian history.

Milton's teacher, Virginia Merry, was not as impressed with Milton's idea as he had hoped. "Milton," she said, in that tone of voice that many lapsed Ontario Catholics reserved for correcting faulty logic, bad grammar, and inappropriate behavior, "I'm not sure that the Indian Act of 1875 is generally considered an important moment in Canadian history."
Intrigued? I am!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Eds. Note: This review used by permission of its author, Doris Seale, and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.


Begay, Shonto (Diné), Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa, illustrated by the author. New York: Scholastic (1995). 48 pages, color illustrations; grades 5-up; Diné (Navajo)

In his first non-fiction book for younger readers, Begay explores “facets of Navajo life that are rarely touched upon in Western literature.” This is not a coffee-table book. It is not “American Indian wisdom,” it is not “Mother Earth spirituality,” it is not designed by those who are fascinated by Indians. The words tell the story of a life lived at such far remove from the clamor of urban society as to be nearly incomprehensible to those who inhabit that environment—although even here, what is called “civilization” impinges on the lives of the people.

A grandmother called Small Woman, so strong and gentle that she lived 113 years; the blessing of rain and how sweet the earth smells after a summer thunderstorm. An eclipse and a father who sang prayers for the sun’s return. Tribal fair with its throngs of people—every size, every shape, every color. Ceremony that brings balance back to the world. And the things that come in the night, mysteries, to test that balance: “Sounds pounding from within/Threaten my spirit/More than the sounds on the roof.”

And then there is that other world, the one that surrounds us, that requires us to make some sort of accommodation with its presence; the one, in fact, in which many of us live. The European hitchhiker of “Coyote Crossing,” in the bed of the truck, “quietly sitting there, nibbling on his organic snack, oblivious to what just happened.” The coal mines on the mesa with machines as big as buildings, the trucks, the trains, the jets, that disturb Grandfather’s morning prayers. But “still we sprinkle pollen for another day/Still we have faith.” Ancient truth still exists, “Like pictographs, like broken pottery shards/We have yet to see the picture whole.” Still the spring comes, “For this generation, and many more to come,/This land is beautiful and filled with mysteries./They reveal themselves and their stories—/If you look carefully and listen....”

The pictures are magnificent, and there is much to see in them that might not at first be noticed. Look carefully at the pattern of earth and snow on page 12, for instance, and you will see a running horse, a man with what may be a dog—or something, a deer, a jackrabbit, Cousin Toad—the life of the land.

This is a strong and beautiful book. There is healing in it. Accept the gift as it is given.
—Doris Seale

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An oft-posed question: "Who can tell your stories?"

Over on Saints and Spinners, a fellow blogger is discussing the question of telling stories (see her post on July 29th.) Stories, that is, from another cultural group. That blogger is a storyteller, and she's left Native stories alone, because she's not sure if it's appropriate, what permissions are involved, etc.

Course, we all know storytellers (and writers) that do this without thinking it through. Some are unaware of the issues involved, and others choose to ignore the issues, claiming that storytellers throughout history change details whenever a story is told again...

Which is true enough, but, when those details are so major that the story no longer reflects the values of the culture from which it originated, then it is no longer that culture's story, and should not be labeled as such. That erroneous labeling happens all the time. It is a major problem. When questioned, defenders of these books put forth 'creative license' and 'freedom of speech' arguments.

To return to the question posed at Saints and Spinners.

There is no easy answer.

Some years ago (note I didn't say "many moons ago") I was at a children's literature conference. Illustrator James Ransome was a guest speaker. He was asked why he had not illustrated any books about American Indians. His reply was something like "I haven't held their babies."

Consider that simple statement and what it embodies.

If I trust you, I will let you hold my baby. Foremost in my mind is that she is vulnerable. I don't want her hurt in any way. I don't let just anyone hold her. I have to trust that you will not hurt her.

If you are a storyteller, what is your relationship with, for example, the Pueblo people. Are you retelling Pueblo stories? Do you know any Pueblo people? Have you held their babies?


Sunday, July 29, 2007

NPR story: "Is Ancient People's End a Warning for the Future?"

Today (July 29, 2007), NPR is broadcasting a segment called "Is Ancient People's End a Warning for the Future?"

There are some glaring problems with the segment. Assuming you listened carefully and thought you were learning something about Pueblo people, I (regular readers of this blog know I am from Nambe Pueblo) offer the following.

We Are Still Here. In the broadcast, and on the webpage, there are explicit and implicit suggestions that we no longer exist.

On the webpage is a photo of the archaeologist interviewed for the segment. Here's the caption:

Archaeologist Kristen Kuckelman kneels in one of the ancient houses, or kivas, at Goodman Point Pueblo. Her research points to climate change as contributing to the disappearance of the Anasazi, or Pueblo People of the Southwest.

Two glaring errors in that caption are:

1) Equating house and kiva. They are not the same thing. One is a place you live. The other is a place for learning and ceremony. This error is also in the broadcast. It surprised me that an archaeologist would make that mistake.

2) "...disappearance of the Anasazi, or Pueblo People of the Southwest."

We didn't disappear. We moved.

That simple fact, however, is left out of the story. As such, it allows listeners to more firmly pack their mistaken notion that we no longer exist.

Later in the broadcast, a water manager says:

"They obviously didn't have our technology. They didn't have Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam. And when there was a change in the climate, they could not adapt to it," he says.

Couldn't adapt, so we disappeared. That word... adapt. A troublesome word---who or what adapts or is adapted? And what does it mean, to adapt?

He's talking, obviously, about that long-held notion that American Indians weren't using the land properly, and that Europeans, whose technology was superior, were justified in their actions to claim the land. Course, he's talking about water here, and says that dwindling water will mean that cities will buy water rights from farmers...

From farmers? Actually, one of the major water rights cases in northern New Mexico is between farmers and PUEBLO INDIANS.

The NPR story is rife with bias and error. There are some interesting aspects to it, and some things worth knowing, but I urge you to listen and read critically, always. It will take the concerted effort of all of us to change the ways that American society thinks/speaks about, and treats, American Indians.

And that includes writers, teachers, parents, librarians, and professors who write, edit, publish, review, and purchase children's books.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Stories for a Winter's Night: Fiction by Native American Writers, edited by Maurice Kenny

Due to limited budgets, we too often don't hear about outstanding books published by small presses. Small presses can't afford to send their books out for review, so they're not reviewed in the major journals.

Stories for a Winter's Night: Fiction by Native American Writers is one of those books. Published by White Pine Press in Buffalo, NY, it came out in 2000. In 2001, Skipping Stones included it on their 2001 list of Honor Award books. I learned of it, I think, through Richard Van Camp.

Stories written by Native authors...

Well known writers like Joseph Bruchac and James Welch whose works teachers and librarians are familiar with...

Writers the general public knows (those that read Native lit): Wendy Rose, Kimberly M. Blaeser, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko...

In all 37 stories and poems, by 36 different Native writers. Some you know, some you don't, some you should.

The collection is wide-ranging in scope. There's a boarding school story, a traditional story... Stories about children, and animals. By living writers, and some who've passed on, this book will be terrific in a high school English lit class. The stories will generate much discussion. I'll include one below, as a sample.

Here is a list of each story/poem and its author. And, the intro is by esteemed scholar of Native literatures, A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff.

The Stolen Girl - Traditional Cheyenne Story (Grinnell)
The Flood - Joy Harjo (Muscogee-Creek)
White-Out - Phyllis Wlf (assininiboine/Ojibway)
Needles - Ray Fadden (Tehanetorens; Mohawk)
Coyote Meets Raven - Peter Blue Cloud (Mohawk)
Dlanusi - Robert J. Conley (Cherokee)
Deer Dance - Evelina Zuni Lucero (Isleta-San Juan)
Nothing to Give - Gail Trembley (Onondaga-Micmac)
The Hunter - Larry Littlebird (Laguna/Santa Domingo)
Subway Graffiti - Wendy Rose (Hopi/Miwok)
The Car Wreck - Dwayne Leslie Bowen (Seneca)
Hogart - Ted Williams (Tuscarora)
King of the Raft - Daniel David Moses (Delaware)
Shapechanger - Ines Hernandez-Avila (Nez Perce/Chicano)
Brewing Trouble - Kimberly M. Blaeser (Anishinabe)
Benefit Dinner - Eric Gansworth (Onondaga)
Peter Schuyler and the Mohican: A Story of Old Albany - Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)
We're Very Poor - Juan Rulfo (Mexican Native)
Webs - Lorne Simon (Micmac)
Earl Yellow Calf - James Welch (Blackfeet/Gros Ventre)
Hici - Craig Womack (Muscogee-Creek/Cherokee)
On Old 66 - Carol Yazzi-Shaw (Navajo)
A Child's Story - Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Santee/Yankton Sioux)
The Bear Hunt - Louis Littlecoon Oliver (Muscogee-Creek)
Yellow Cat Incident - Louis Littlecoon Oliver (Muscogee-Creek)
Train Time - D'Arcy McNickle (Salish/Metis)
The Blanket - Maria Campbell (Metis)
Haksod - John C. Mohawk (Seneca)
History - Gloria Bird (Spokane)
Oh, Just Call Me an Indian - Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibway)
Tahotahotanekentseratkerontakwenhakie - Sallli Benedict (Mohawk)
Che - Anna Lee Walters (Otoe/Pawnee)
His Wife Had Caught Them Before - Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna)
She Sits on the Bridge - Luci Tapahonso (Navajo)
The Panther Waits - Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma)
Piegan Still Life - Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
The Derelict - E. Pauline Johnson (Mohawk)


Gail Trembly

The woman was young, blond, beautiful

like the girls in slick magazines who model

jeans. She chose to wear a bone choker

with an ermine tail as though it is possible
to appropriate a culture by wearing its artifacts.

She read a poem in which she said that she was

the white girl who always wanted to be Indian
when she grew up. I sat feeling sick, recognizing

that strange phantom pain in the gut, listening

to her romantic distortions about Eagle boy dancing
in her dreams, about cruel Indian men who undressed

her and then scolded her for being naked before

them when she was on her moon. She invented

unreality because she refused to witness the real

hard work of living in a world distorted by forced

assimilation, by faked authenticity, by loss

that beat in counter rhythm near the heart
and made the whole world seem out of balance.

She did not speak of struggle, stolen land,

the Earth raped so that strangers could reap
great profits no matter what the cost. Her desire
was for vision to fill an empty life. One more

taker, she invented ceremonies that mystified,
that made healing seem a hollow exercise untied

from the web of light that weaves things seamlessly

into being, untied from the people who for generations

shared a sense of what made things whole in a given

place. I sat and watched speechless, caught,
too paralyzed to walk away and make a scene,
aware how often revelation is impossible to explain.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

ALA President, Loriene Roy (Anishinabe)

The president of the American Library Association is Loriene Roy. She is Anishinabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa), and has done a lot of excellent work with Native children through her "If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything" program. She is a long-term member of the American Indian Library Association.

Loriene was on NPR recently, talking about multicultural literature. Click here to listen to the interview. She talked about Baby's First Laugh, by Beverly Blacksheep, one of the board books discussed on this blog last summer (Tuesday, July 18, 2006).

And, keep up with Loriene by visiting her blog, "Pin-ding-u-daud-ewin" which means "to enter into one another's lodges" or her website.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

THOMAS KING lectures on-line

If you know Thomas King's A Coyote Columbus Story, you might be interested in listening to him on line.

In the last weeks, the Australian aboriginal radio program, "Awaye," has been broadcasting a series of Massey Lectures given by King in 2003. Two segments on line are:

King's novels are terrific. There are several weeks left in the summer. Add one to your summer reading list, and scoot it to the one you read next. They are:

  • Medicine River
  • Green Grass, Running Water
  • Truth and Bright Water

They'd work well in a senior high school lit class. Listen to the segment on line, but read his novels, too, and his most recent book, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. All are available from the non-profit organization, Oyate.

Some years ago, King had a radio program called Dead Dog Cafe. Get them, too, from Oyate.

(Note: Thanks to Ashley T., a student at UIUC. I made my way to the King segments after reading quotes from Million Porcupines on her Facebook page.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Eds note: Updated on June 8, 2015 to reflect Rowling's tweets.

Initial post: July 24, 2007:

The first Harry Potter book came out when my daughter, Liz, was in grade school. We do a lot of reading-aloud in our home, and we read the HP books aloud, taking turns reading.

Liz went out late Friday night to pick up a copy of the seventh book. Saturday morning we began reading it aloud. We finished last night (Monday).

(If you're reading the book and do not want to know any of the content until you've finished it yourself, you should stop reading this post.)

I was reading aloud when we got to page 216. At that point in the book, Harry is looking at a photograph of Albus Dumbledore's family. We were surprised to read this:

The mother, Kendra, had jet-black hair pulled into a high bun. Her face had a carved quality about it. Harry thought of photos of Native Americans he'd seen as he studied her dark eyes, high cheekbones, and straight nose, formally composed above a high-necked silk gown.

Liz and I were surprised and yet not surprised, given the degree to which pop culture uses Native imagery.

Some thoughts:

Harry/Rowling may be referring to the engraving of Pocahontas, shown above. There is an oil painting based on the engraving, in the National Portrait Gallery. From the Smithsonian website is this info:

Unidentified artist
Oil on canvas, after the 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe, NPG.65.61
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The engraving was acquired from Maggs Brothers, in London. You can see a larger image here. There's another one here. Note the differences in hat/earrings. There are other paintings of her that Rowling may have seen, but they don't show Pocahontas in the "high-necked silk dress," so I'm pretty sure it is this engraving she's being influenced by.

So what to make of Rowling's inclusion of this passage? Many readers of the books would assert that race /racial purity is a prominent if not THE theme on which the entire series is built on. The cast of characters is diverse, too, but till Deathly Hallows, there had not been anything with regard to American Indians. With this passage, can we say her book is more inclusive now? Is it, really, though? Or, does it matter?

(Note: There's a provocative on-line article about race in Harry Potter... Called "Harry Potter and the Imbalance of Race," its author, Keith Woods, points to the normalization of whiteness in the books.)

As Liz and I read that passage in the book, we wondered if/how it would be developed in the remainder of the book. But, that was it. Given all the romantic new-age imagery associated with American Indians, I wondered if Rowling was going to go there. She didn't, and I am glad she didn't.

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

Update, June 8, 2015:

One of my close friends, Sarah Hamburg, wrote to me about a series of tweets Rowling sent out on June 7th. Here's a screen capture of a question to her, and her answer:

Rowling followed up with another tweet:

And then one more:

Definitely unsettling, and something to keep an eye on!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Beverly Slapin's "How to Turn a Traditional Indian Story into a Children's Book (For Fun and Profit)

Today's post is a provocative essay by my friend and colleague, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

A lot of you may take issue with it. I ask you to consider how it might feel if it were your specific culture, ethnic group, church group, family, whose stories were being turned into a children's book....

And that this practice was happening for--literally--hundreds of years....

And that this was being done without your knowledge or input...

And that those who were doing it were trivializing your most fundamental ways of thinking about the world...

And that through these books, literally (again) millions of children were "learning" about who you are...

And that "learning" led people to love, cherish, honor, respect and emulate you and your ways.


How to Turn a Traditional Indian Story into a Children’s Book (for fun and profit)

1. Go to a special collections library and peruse the traditional Indian stories told to and written down by non-Indian anthropologists. Don’t worry about asking anyone’s permission to use or change the stories you discover—Indians may consider many of them sacred, but according to copyright law, they are public domain and yours for the taking.

2. Choose a particular story that resonates with you. Carefully extricate all of its cultural markers. Be sure to remain oblivious to the language and lives of the people whose story you hold in your hands. That way, you can be more objective.

3. Magnify the details you think are important—and get rid of everything else. Cut out all references to violence, sex, bodily functions, spiritual beliefs, or anything else you don’t particularly like or understand.

4. Belabor the prose to make it seem more authentic. For instance, if the story reads, “There was no fire here then, only far upriver at world’s end,” change it to: “Long ago, the animal people had no fire. Day and night, they huddled in their houses in the dark, and ate their food uncooked. In the winter, they were so cold, icicles hung from their fur. Oh, they were miserable!”

5. Improve on the dialogue. Let your imagination run wild. If the story reads, “I am going!”, change it to: “Farewell, my parents, and do not grieve. I have another home under the sea and I’m going there!”

6. Find a talented illustrator who is good at copying artifacts in a museum. Make sure he has seen “Dances With Wolves.” Or, forget about authenticity altogether—find an artist whose imagination is as fanciful as yours. In any event, make sure that the illustrations match your interpretation—your vision, if you will—of your story.

7. Have your manuscript and illustrations vetted by several non-Indian anthros. Make sure to thank them in the introduction. Call up an Indian, too—any Indian. Even if she hangs up on you, you can thank her in your introduction. After all, she picked up the phone when you called.

8. Think up an imaginative title that will make a publisher see in­come potential. Calling your story a Coyote story is good. Publishers like things called Coyote stories, even if they’re not. If the publisher bites, you can always make your story a Coyote story.

9. Remember to write under your title the phrases, “a Native American legend” (or “myth”) and “retold by” (you).

10. After your manuscript and illustrations are complete, write a short preface about the Indians who “told” this “myth” or “legend.” (Remember to discuss them in the past tense.) Also make sure to refer to Indian spiritual beliefs (even if you don’t really know anything about them) as “superstitions.”

11. Done! Now sit back and collect your awards. Be well praised by reviewers for your warm, sensitive, storytelling and the sympathetic voice you have given to “America’s first people.”

12. Be prepared to sit on multicultural panels throughout the country, educating and enlightening the thousands of eager teachers and librarians who thirst for your knowledge.

(Thank-you to Clara Yen and Katy Horning.)

© 2007 Beverly Slapin


Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I posted Beverly Slapin's review of Where the Great Hawk Flies some time ago, but not as a stand-alone review. It was included in a post about a VOYA article. In case you missed it then, here it is. I use it with her permission. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

Ketchum's book is one of those that gets favorable reviews from the mainstream review journals. Booklist gave it a starred review. Kirkus called it "terrific historical fiction." VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates) said it is "written with beautiful, touching metaphors and authentic speech." I note these favorable reviews, because far too many of the mainstream journals fail again and again to do even an adequate job of reviewing books about American Indians. It is frightening, and outrageous, that the children's book publishing industry continues to give kids awful books like Where the Great Hawk Flies. Writers keep coming up with these messed-up books, editors at publishing houses keep accepting them, reviewers keep on giving them positive reviews, teachers and librarians keep buying them, and all the children who read them are worse off than before! Here's Slapin's review.
Ketchum, Liza, Where the Great Hawk Flies. Clarion Books, 2005. 264 pages, grades 4-7 (Pequot)

It is 1782, two years after British soldiers and their Caughnawaga (Mohawk) allies laid bloody siege to a Vermont settlement. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Tucker and his little sister Rhoda, whose mom is a Pequot doctoress and whose dad is a white farmer, are confronted by the hatred and fear exhibited by their new white neighbors, one of whom is eleven-year-old Hiram Coombs, a survivor of the raid. Hiram’s fears, exacerbated by his flashbacks, are further heightened when the Tucker children’s Pequot grandfather shows up to pass along the “old ways,” that are “sliding away, like currents slipping down the river.”  

In alternating narratives, Daniel’s struggle to “find his own path” offers a counterpoint to Hiram’s racism and fear of Indians. As the two boys come to know each other and their families are brought together by an entirely predictable occurrence, their seething enmity gives way to a tentative friendship. 

Despite Ketchum’s discovery that her great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Pequot, she (Ketchum) shows an appalling lack of understanding of Indian ways. No Indian cultural markers here, not one. Grandpa scolds and lectures the children, handles other people’s medicine, grunts, stomps, chants, and complains about his losing his power—“I am an old man now. My skill is fading.”
“He shook the rattle, drummed the earth with his feet, and began to sing. His voice was high as the scream of the red-tailed hawk, wild as coyotes calling to one another on the ridge….The fire lit the pendant on Grandfather’s chest. He shook the rattle harder, then beat his chest with his fists. Swish. Swish. Thrum. Thrum. His voice rose higher, the drumming came faster, the rattle shivered until I thought it would explode…Grandfather’s mournful cries rang in our ears.”
Turns out all this dancing and drumming and rattle-shaking was Grampa’s death song. Pretty energetic for a dying old guy whose skill is fading. 

So Grampa dies, and Mom lops off her hair and rubs ashes on her arms and face—and then has to explain to her horrified husband and children why she’s doing this. Then she sets in to weave a basket. Although it would be an odd thing for a grieving Indian woman to do, it gives Ketchum the opportunity to write—this:
“Mother’s hands began to move and I watched her for a moment. Her fingers snaked a pale splint into the half-formed basket, twining the ash in and out through darker splints so the pattern alternated, dark, then light. Dark. Light. Mother. Father. A dark splint, a light one, woven together. My sister and me, formed from the two—each one of us a sturdy basket, held by the tight mesh of our parents’ weaving. Each neither Pequot, nor English, but both.”
Holy Belabored Metaphor, Batman! And ash splints are not twined, they’re plaited.
Daniel admires the quilling that decorates the bottom of his new deerskin pouch, and muses that "Mom must have spent long hours softening the hide, collecting the quills, then weaving them into this beautiful pattern." Let's get real here. Quills are not collected. (Can you imagine someone walking through the woods, looking for quills? Does the term "needle in a haystack" ring a bell?) There are three ways to get quills: (1) Find a dead porcupine, remove the quills, (2) Find a live porcupine, throw a blanket over it, remove the quills from the blanket, or (3) Find a porcupine, shoot it, remove the quills.
Grampa verbally instructs Daniel on how to make a dugout canoe: “You must find a straight tree with no branches,” he explains. “A chestnut will last forever….First peel off the bark. Then build a fire inside the log and watch it carefully. Burn it, and scoop out the wood. It takes a long time."

It does take a long time, even if you don’t have to look for a tree with no branches and then wait for the tree to fall. Grampa’s directions are pretty straightforward; he just left out a few steps: You have to chop down the tree, drag it to a clearing (preferably near the water), cut off the bark and shape the outside with an axe, then do slow controlled burning (using wet clay as a barrier) to shape the inside, scrape out the coals, repeat burning and scraping the length of the boat, then scrape the inside and outside smooth. This is not the kind of wisdom an Indian grandfather would pass on to his young grandson—by talking. He would more likely show his grandson how something this complex is done, and he would enlist the aid of other male family or community members. And all the while they were working together, grampa would be telling stories about patience, commitment, and passing down history. 

The red-tailed hawk who flies around, alternately bringing and taking messages and leading people to safety is busier than Rin-Tin-Tin. As the great Cherokee philosopher Tom King said, “the beauty of Native philosophy is that not everything means something." 

Finally, Indians don’t have “gleaming black eyes” or “eyes black as coal.” No one does. Where the Great Hawk Flies is a boring book besides. 
—Beverly Slapin

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Teacher Reconsiders Virginia Grossman's TEN LITTLE RABBITS

"The Miss Rumphius Effect" is a blog maintained by a teacher named Tricia. Yesterday (July 16th), she wrote about Virginia Grossman's Ten Little Rabbits, which is a picture/counting book that features ten little rabbits. She writes about why she no longer uses it with children. Her post is titled "Reconsidering Ten Little Rabbits: Evaluating Books from the Viewpoint of Other Cultures."

The strength of what she says lies in her ability to reconsider the book once she had new information about it, and then, to stop using it. I've certainly had that experience many times.

I remember--vividly--reconsidering The Five Chinese Brothers when I began graduate study at UIUC in 1994. I grew up on our reservation (Nambe) in New Mexico, attending a US government day school in first grade. The librarian from the local public school would drive over to our school every two weeks with a cardboard box filled with books. The fourteen (or so) of us Pueblo kids would choose books from his box. That box of books was our library. [As I write this, I can cynically imagine an author reading my blog and thinking "hmmm... that would make a good story." I hope nobody tries to turn my story into a book or a passage in a book. I can imagine the ways the story would be done wrong, as the author filled in gaps with his/her (likely) faulty knowledge of my life as a kid on our reservation.]

Two books stand out from that time. One is Little Owl Indian. I will write about that one another day.

The second is The Five Chinese Brothers. It carries enormous significance for me---a kid learning to read, and loving that books could take me to other places and times. In graduate school, I gained new information about it, and I let it go. I took it off its pedestal, and now use it in my classes to describe that process... That process of letting go of something with emotional significance. It isn't a bad thing to do, or a sign of weakness. It is called learning.

Update: July 18, 2007
The Spring 2007 issue of Journal of Children's Literature, published by the Children's Literature Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English includes a column called "A Dozen Great Books." On the list is The Five Chinese Brothers, of which the columnist says "Five brothers who look exactly alike use their special powers to save First Brother from being unfairly punished."

In the intro, the columnist says "...I longed to retitle this column 'A Dozen Great Books That Tickled My Imagination, Delighted My Sense of Humor, Taught Me The Power of Language, Encouraged Me To Listen To My Own Stories, Allowed Me To Glimpse The Vast and Varied Word Beyond the Cornfields of Illinois Where I Was Growing Up, Encouraged Me To Go Within Myself And Listen To My Own Stories, Comforted Me, And Basically Changed My Life.'" She also says she came to know the book through Captain Kangaroo's television program.

Below is what I said last August about Ten Little Rabbits, in a post about a book called Brave Bunny. I hope you read what I wrote and also what Tricia has to say at "Reconsidering Ten Little Rabbits: Evaluating Books from the Viewpoint of Other Cultures." The tribes represented (or rather, misrepresented) in Ten Little Rabbits are Sioux, Tewa, Ute, Menominee, Blackfoot, Hopi, Arapaho, Nez Perce, Kwakiutl, Navajo.


Bunnies appear frequently in children's books, and there is at least one very popular book that features bunnies dressing up like Indians. Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman came out in 1991. The illustrations (by Sylvia Long) are attractive. No doubt, some view the title as a clever take-off on "Ten Little Indians" which many children still sing in their pre-school classrooms.

It is a counting book, so (by definition), each page features a numeral and objects to count. In this case, the objects for counting are rabbits dressed in the regalia of a specific tribal nation. I urge readers---especially Native ones---to take a look at the book. Is your tribe represented? Is it correctly represented?

There is a page intended to show Pueblo Indians. On that page, two male rabbits are shown dancing in Pueblo-like attire, standing in front of an adobe wall. But! They are shown facing each other, and there are only two of them (this is the page for the numeral two). There are no dances at Nambe (my home) that are done that way.

At the end of the book is a double-page spread (two pages facing each other) that have "information" about each tribe depicted in the book. I deliberately put "information" in quotation marks, because the "information" about Pueblo people is wrong. Grossman says that we "stage" a dance in which the male dancers "leap and stamp to wake up the spirits."

Sadly, this "information" makes the book more attractive to parents and teachers who are trying to bring accurate and authentic books to the classroom. I'm sure that Grossman and Long didn't intend to dupe their readers, but I think they've done all children a disservice. Once again, Native people are objectified (one little, two little....), and these gorgeous illustrations and "information" add to the already too-big pile of hooey that passes for knowledge about American Indians.

Next time you're in your local library, see if Ten Little Rabbits is on the shelf. If you're willing, approach the librarian, and point out problems with the book. It has FACTUAL errors. In my view, it should be weeded (pulled off the shelf and taken out of circulation).

If you're interested in reading more about Ten Little Rabbits, see Theresa L. McCarty's article "What's Wrong with Ten Little Rabbits?" published in 1995 in a journal called The New Advocate (volume 8, #2, page 98).

UPDATE, MARCH 26, 2009:
See also the review by Lisa Mitten and Naomi Caldwell Wood, of the American Indian Library Association.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Joseph Bruchac's Wabi

[Note: This review used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be published elsewhere without Slapin's written permission. Wabi is available from Oyate. ]

Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Wabi. Dial, 2006. 198 pages, grades 5-up.

If you’ve been raised as an owl (even if you find out later that you’re also a human), there’s one thing you need to know: “If you don’t hop off the branch, you’ll never catch anything.” That’s what Wabi finds out from the wisdom of his great-grandmother, who is also a shape-changer. And hop off the branch Wabi does, into the adventure of his life.

As Wabi watches and listens to the people in the village below, he learns what it is to be human. But in his quest to find out who he is and where he belongs, his way of seeing the world remains delightfully ornithno-centric: “If you can hear the deliciously terrified heartbeat of a mouse hiding in the grass far below your treetop perch, it is not at all difficult to make out a human conversation within a nearby wigwam.”

Wabi is at first perplexed by the humans: their physical makeup, with fingers instead of talons and legs that bend forward instead of backward; their homes, built like upside-down nests; their eating habits that eschew “delicious-looking chipmunks” and “yummy and crunchy” baby crows; and their etiquette, which precludes the presenting of one’s beloved with a live rodent.

With Abenaki words sprinkled throughout the narrative and elements from traditional Abenaki tales—and the great Tao interpreter Chuang Tsu—seamlessly woven into the story, Wabi rescues a wolf cub who becomes his devoted companion, falls in love with a human girl, and engages in mortal combat with monsters intent on destroying their world. The sometimes gruesome encounters will resonate with middle readers, as will Wabi’s wry observations (“It is very easy to locate a large, bloodthirsty creature when it attempts to tear out your throat”).

Bruchac’s considerable talents shine through Wabi’s story; There’s not a single wasted scene in this expertly crafted thriller.—Beverly Slapin


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.