Friday, May 25, 2007

Kenneth Thomasma's books

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

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

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

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 (Note: The review is used by permission of its author and may not be published elsewhere without written consent.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 24, 2007

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

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee


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

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

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

'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' debuts on HBO

HBO's 'Wounded Knee' movie makes positive contribution


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

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Raquel Rivera's ARCTIC ADVENTURES: TALES FROM THE LIVES OF INUIT ARTISTS

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The word "costume" and American Indians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pocahontas and the stories about Jamestown









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

Here's an excerpt:

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

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


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

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Illustrations of the "scalp belt" in CADDIE WOODLAWN

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

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

A special request to librarians:

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Lois Beardslee's Rachel's Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 07, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The "scalp belt" in CADDIE WOODLAWN

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


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

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

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

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


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

____________________


The "scalp belt" in Caddie Woodlawn

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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



Update: May 7, 2007

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


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

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

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

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

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



p. 150: Description of scalp belt

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


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

How Not to Catch Fish and other Adventures of Iktomi


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto wins book award

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

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

Monday, April 30, 2007

Kids and Joy Harjo's The Good Luck Cat

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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Queen Elizabeth, American Indians, and Comments from Abroad

In the April 29th edition of the UK's Sunday Times is an article titled "Queen flies into PC war over fate of American Indians." The Queen is flying to Virginia to take part in a commemoration to mark the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. The lives of American Indians and Africans are part of the story of Jamestown. Hence, the use of "commemorate" rather than "celebrate."

Note also, that it is cast as "PC" by the reporter, Sarah Baxter. Some may view it as PC; I view it as a significant effort to be honest, to be thoughtful about that period of history.

How do children's books, fiction and non-fiction, talk about Jamestown?

What about lesson plans? Documentaries? Feature films?

The article says the Queen is being asked to apologize "for the slaughter of American Indians and the introduction of slavery..." Comments ask about apologies from the US government. The comments thus far (ten as I write) generally say "get over it" and remind me of my interest in knowing how children's books in other nations portray American Indians.

Read the article (I don't know how long it'll be available on line; many papers charge for articles after a few days). It provides much to think about.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

American Girls Collection: Kaya

A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, includes a review of the Kaya books in the American Girls Collection. Far too often, popular books aren't given the critical attention they should receive. And, far too often, the reviews they do get fail to note problems regarding the ways that American Indians are portrayed. Some reviews from A Broken Flute appear on this blog, but, by far, the best option is for teachers, librarians, parents, professors, editors, publishers and students to buy the book itself, and get it directly from Oyate. Doing so allows Oyate, a non-profit organization, to continue to do this work. [Note: the review is used here with permission, and may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin at Oyate.]

______________________________

Shaw, Janet, “American Girls Collection,” illustrations by Bill Farnsworth and Susan McAliley. Middleton, Wis.: Pleasant Company. Color illustrations; grades 3-6; Nimíipuu (Nez Percé)

Book 1—Meet Kaya: An American Girl. 2002, 70 pages

Book 2—Kaya’s Escape! A Survival Story. 2002, 72 pages

Book 3—Kaya’s Hero: A Story of Giving. 2002, 73 pages

Book 4—Kaya and Lone Dog: A Friendship Story. 2002, 81 pages

Book 5—Kaya Shows the Way: A Sister Story. 2002, 73 pages

Book 6—Changes for Kaya: A Story of Courage. 2002, 70 pages

Kaya and the River Girl. 2003, 48 pages

Little girls have been playing with dolls for as long as we have been human. If you are a Native mother, you would be hard put to find a doll to give to your daughter that would come near to being a representation of herself unless you made it. And that is what makes this Nimíipuu (Nez Percé) doll in the “American Girl” series so enticing. It’s too bad that the Pleasant Company did not produce something that genuinely transmits the Nimíipuu culture.

This series of stories taking place in 1764 could have been worse. The young protagonist has a name, a family, and friends. In the course of the series, she grows and matures. The author does not represent the Nimíipuu people as savages. But whatever information she got from her advisors is filtered through a white consciousness and further adapted to fit the mold of this formula historical fiction series. All life-threatening conflicts are resolved by the end of each story, and all moral and emotional conflicts are resolved by the end of the series. This writing style is an especially bad thing in historical books about Indian people, whose conflicts—over, for instance, water and land rights, the government’s theft of treaty funds, the issue of sports mascots—are ongoing. And books conceptualized as teaching tools—or worse, books enlisted in the cause of selling a product—usually result in writing that is stilted and boring. This series is no different. Some of the problems:

• Indian parents and grandparents lecture so that the author can convey information about the people. Besides being culturally dissonant, this breaks the cardinal rule in literature of “show, don’t tell.”

• Anachronistic wording such as the Lakota word “teepee” and the French words “travois” and “parfleche” are used throughout, even in dialogue. Nimíipuu words during that time period might have been translated as “dwelling,” “pony drag,” and “carrying bag.”

• By having Kaya talk in similes and metaphors, comparing all her thoughts to nature—“her thoughts whirled like smoke in the wind,” “she glides over the ground like the shadow of an eagle,” “her feelings were all tangled up like a nest of snakes”—the author misses the subtleties of Indian language and thought patterns. Throughout, faces are “dark” and “gleaming,” eyes are “dark,” cheekbones are “high,” expressions are “fierce,” and Indian characters “cock their heads” in thought.

• Traditionally, Nimíipuu names given to children had to do with ancestors, place, and responsibility; and names were changed several times during a person’s life. Unless the baby was dying and had to be named very quickly, naming was done after great consideration, often by an elder or holy person. It’s unbelievable that any 18th Century Nimíipuu mother would name her baby for the first thing she saw after giving birth—this is a stereotype that goes back even further than Will Sampson’s joke in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”[1]

• Swan Necklace was the English translation of a Nimíipuu leader’s name, but one wonders why—and in some cases, how—the author came up with names for characters such as “Speaking Rain,” “White Braids,” “To Soar Like An Eagle,” “Light On The Water” and “Bear Blanket.” Did she research traditional Nimíipuu name giving or did she just spin the wheels for authentic Indian names?[2]

• One can understand the author’s quandary in not wanting to use “Tonto-speak,” but sign language, a visual-gestural form of communication, has a different syntax than spoken languages and does not translate into standard grammatical sentences. Here, Kaya signs to Two Hawks: “But there’s hardly any game up this high. We’d still have nothing to eat.”

• A prepubescent Indian girl in 1764 would not have had a relationship with her father that included physical touching. Generally, girls stayed with their mothers or aunties and grandmas; and boys stayed with their fathers or uncles and grandpas. Unless it was an emergency, it is not likely that Kaya would have ridden behind her father on a horse, holding onto him. Nor is it likely that she would have “put her arms around his neck while he held her tightly against his chest for a long time.”

• Horse-stealing raids were not the same as raids to capture women and children, nor were they done at the same time. Nor would raiders feed captive children “only scraps from their meals.” Captive children were taken into adoption, often given to a family to take the place of children who had died, and treated as well as the other children.

• The “enemy tribe” is unnamed; in any event, people from horse cultures did not whip or otherwise abuse their horses. Previously owned horses were accustomed to being ridden and wild horses were gentled—not “tamed”—by their owners.

• Hunters would not have brought back buffalo to camp and given “the meat and hides to the women.” Rather, the camp moved to the hunting grounds so that the women could butcher the meat right there.

• Kaya’s sightless sister, “Speaking Rain,” as all Native children, would have been taught to take care of herself. She would not have to hold hands while walking with someone, nor would she be constrained from picking berries or gathering firewood, nor would she ask questions about things she could figure out for herself.

• The people all look alike, they are all the exact same tone of brown, and their facial and physical features are the same, too. In pictures where the women and girls are sitting, they’re sitting in the wrong position. Indian women in this time period would not have sat with their legs crossed, nor would they have sat with their legs up, hugging their knees.

Kaya and the River Girl, a 2003 tack-on to the series, is the most stupefyingly contrived of all of them. Here, Kaya loses a spontaneous foot race to a girl named Spotted Owl, who is from the “River People.” For 21 pages, Kaya obsesses about losing the race: she’s angry and miserable, her pride is injured, her feelings are bruised, her voice is grim and cold, she struggles with her shame. Finally, when the two girls come together to rescue an elder woman named Elder Woman, they become great friends.

• The non-fiction sections at the end of the books, called “A Peek Into the Past,” are uneven. While some parts convey good information, particularly the boarding school story in Kaya’s Escape! and the story of the Dalles Dam in Kaya Shows the Way, other parts are rife with error. For instance, in Meet Kaya, the author states, “Early white explorers, including French fur trappers, mistakenly believed that all Nez Percé wore shells through their noses and gave them that name.” How could anyone look at someone and “mistakenly believe” him to be wearing a shell through his nose? The Nimíipuu people were called “Nez Percé” by the French because they pierced the septa of their horses’ noses so that the horses could breathe better and run faster.

• By setting these books in 1764—before white encroachment—the author and publisher were able to sidestep the nasty parts of what happened to the Nimíipuu and to relegate some of the history to the “Looking Back” sections. The series oversimplifies and sanitizes Nimíipuu history, and by doing so, makes history more palatable to the contemporary sensibilities of the young non-Native girl readers for whom this series was conceptualized.

The Kaya series exactly illustrates the problem with which we are constantly contending: It’s almost impossible to tell another people’s story in a believable way, no matter how good one’s intentions may be and no matter how many cultural advisors there are. And writing to formula is never a good idea.

—Beverly Slapin



[1] The punch line is too raunchy for this publication. Rent the movie.

[2] Thank-you to Tom King, Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

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

~~~~


Beverly Slapin's review of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
[On April 12th, I posted first impressions of Sherman Alexie's YA book. Below is Beverly Slapin's review, used here with her permission. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]
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Alexie, Sherman (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, art by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown (2007), grades 7-up. ISBN 978-0-316-01368-0
Hardcover, 16.99
What do you do when, every day, you leave your home reservation—“located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy”—to attend a high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot and you have to pretend not to be poor and your best friend becomes your worst enemy because you deserted him and you know your parents are sacrificing for you and doing the best they can but sometimes you have to hitchhike home? And, oh, yeah, you have a big head, huge hands and feet, you’re nearsighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other and you stutter and lisp. What do you do? You draw cartoons about your life and play basketball, that’s what.
Called “Junior” by his friends and relatives on the Spokane reservation and “Arnold” by the white people in the other part of the world he inhabits part-time, he’s an Indian boy coming into adulthood, literally weaving and dodging and rolling with the punches. But Absolutely True Diary is not just a litany of pain; it’s also about strength and resilience and endurance and culture and community. And laughter, lots of it, at the joys, at the sorrows, even at the tragedies. And always and ever, it’s about the land. As Junior and Rowdy climb almost to the top of the biggest tree on the reservation, they see “from one end of the reservation to the other. We could see our entire world. And our entire world, at that moment, was green and golden and perfect.”
Absolutely True Diary, illustrated with Forney’s amazing black-and-white cartoons, tells Alexie’s truths. This is his life. He really does enjoy reading Emily Dickenson and his sister really did die a tragic death. He can be arrogant as all hell, but this Indian boy can write. He’ll have you laughing out loud and then he’ll spin you around and whomp you upside the head. He’ll break your heart every time. I mean it.—Beverly Slapin
[Note from Debbie: The book will be available from Oyate as soon as it is available.]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Louise Erdrich Rejects Honorary Degree

News from last week (April 20th, 2007): Louise Erdrich, author of several outstanding children's books was offered an honorary degree from the University of North Dakota.

Why? Because UND's mascot is the "Fighting Sioux." The article appeared in several papers, including the Minneapolis-St. Paul StarTribune: "Author Erdrich rejects UND honors over 'Fighting Sioux' nickname."

Native students, staff, and faculty at UND and UIUC, and Native organizations and tribal nations have long called for the end of these mascots (or symbols, as the term of choice at UIUC) for sports teams. UIUC's "Chief Illiniwek" is no longer being used at UIUC.

If you haven't yet bought and read and shared The Birchbark House or its sequel, The Game of Silence, visit the Oyate website and get them. They are excellent.

------------------------------
Update: 11:30, 4/25/2007
Here is the text of Erdrich's letter:

Dear President Kupchella,

It means a great deal to me that the University of North Dakota has offered me an honorary degree. I would like to thank the professors and members of the administration who worked so hard for my nomination, and also the trustees for this great sign of support.

The University of North Dakota has educated members of my family, and members of my tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. I am proud of my family's association with this fine institution. I would be only to happy to accept this degree, were it not for the UND endorsed logo. The Fighting Sioux logo has alienated many good and hardworking tribal people, as well as decent folk who do not like to see others denigrated as sports symbols.

I know all of the arguments about the logo inside out, as do you, President Kupchella, but I would just like to add these comments. The Fighting Sioux logo has become a locus for hatred. By holding onto this antiquated symbol, UND tacitly endorses biased and racist behavior against the very people I believe you would, truly, rather honor and know as the complex people we are.

The University of North Dakota could provide great leadership and further the cause of human understanding, as well as take a step toward acknowledging the first people of the Dakotas, by removing this symbol and declaring peace. No more Fighting Sioux. Let us stop using American Indians as mascots the way animals are used.

Again, I regret having to having turn down this wonderful honor. My family regrets this too. I really do wish that I could accept.

Sincerely Yours,

Louise Erdrich

Friday, April 20, 2007

Richard Van Camp's WHAT'S THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING YOU KNOW ABOUT HORSES?



Several weeks ago I wrote about Richard Van Camp’s novel, The Lesser Blessed, which I recommend for YA readers. Today I want to call your attention to his picture book, What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? It joins Jingle Dancer and The Good Luck Cat as my favorite picture books by and about American Indians.

Published in 1998 by Children’s Book Press, it is beautiful, funny, and engaging. Van Camp’s style of writing, paired with George Littlechild’s art make for an irresistible read.

You’ll learn about the Dogrib people (First Nations, Canada)...  Where they are, some of their words, and, life in the Northwest Territories. It is that life in the Northwest Territories that the book opens with:


Today it is forty below
in my hometown of Fort Smith
in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
It is winter and I am cold.
Not even my long johns and parka
can help me today.

It is so cold the ravens refuse to fly.
My dog, Holmes, refuses to bark.
My dad’s truck, which we call
the “Green Death,” refuses to start
and I cannot go outside.



Lively and rich, isn’t it? And funny! It continues that way, throughout the book. I love reading this book, feeling Van Camp's words, and studying Littlechild's illustrations. Get a copy, and, look, for example, at the page where Van Camp talks about being half Indian and half white, and how Littlechild illustrates that line. Lots to think and talk about!




Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Putting Lucy Pretty Eagle to Rest," by Barbara Landis



A character in Anne Rinaldi's white-washed portrayal of American Indian Boarding schools is Lucy Pretty Eagle. In our extensive review of Rinaldi's book, we provide some information about Lucy Pretty Eagle.

A newly published book, Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences, edited by Clifford E. Trafzer, Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, includes a chapter titled "Putting Lucy Pretty Eagle to Rest." It is written by Barbara C. Landis, of the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Rinaldi's book is set at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle. Barbara is one of the eight co-authors of our review.

Teachers interested in developing or revising lesson plans about American Indian Boarding Schools will find Barbara's chapter useful, particularly as they engage questions regarding what an author does when creating a character, how/why an author might use a real person as a character in a book, how that character's family (in this case tribal nation, and American Indians) might feel about that use, etc.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jodi Picoult and Native Mascots

My daughter and I read aloud to each other, something we've done since she was little (she's now a senior in high school). Last week we picked up Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper and started reading.

One of the characters in the novel is a lawyer named Campbell. On page 116, he says:

  • I'm remarkably calm, really, until the principal of Ponaganset High School starts to give me a telephone lecture on political correctness. "For God's sake," he sputters. "What kind of message does it send when a group of Native American students names their intramural basketball league "The Whiteys'?"
  • I imagine it sends the same message that you did when you picked the Chieftains as your school mascot."
  • "We've been the Ponaganset Chieftains since 1970," the principal argues.
  • "Yes, and they've been members of the Narragansett tribe since they were born."
  • "It's derogatory. And politically incorrect."

Reading that passage gave me pause.

Obviously Picoult knows something about mascot issues. I looked up her website, and on the Q&A page, there is a question about her research. She says she is meticulous about it, and mentioned that, for Vanishing Acts, she "went to the Hopi reservation to attend their private katsina dances." So now, I'm curious about that book, and have many questions about her trip to the Hopi reservation, and what/why/how she used what she learned in the book. The mascot material in My Sister's Keeper is fine, but the subject matter of Hopi dance.... I'm not sure. If anyone has read that book and is willing to share, please do!

[I was reading aloud to Liz while she worked on a pictorial beading project. A few weeks ago, the guest artist at UIUC's Native American House was Teri Greeves, whose beadwork is internationally acclaimed. If you want to see some of her work, go here. It is not what you'd expect when you hear "Native beadworker."]

Friday, April 13, 2007

Jorge Argueta's Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra

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

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Argueta, Jorge (Pipil/Nahua), Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra, illustrated by Lucia Angela Pérez. Groundwood, 2006. Unpaginated, color illustrations, grades 1-up

In a clear, child’s voice, Argueta’s poems, in Spanish and English with Nahual words dispersed throughout, are intense, honest and moving. They are about gratitude for Mother Earth, for the four directions and for all the gifts of life. They are about the beauty that is all around. They are about healing from the wounds of racism. And they are about knowing who you are forever. Whether he is called Tetl (by his grandmother), or Jorge (by everyone else), this young boy knows who he is and who his relatives are. And he knows what keeps him strong: “Mother Earth tells me,/’Do not be sad anymore/my Indian boy./You are as beautiful as the wind.’”

Pérez’s vibrant pastel art, on a bright, multicolored palette, perfectly complements Argueta’s poems. Each painting invites discussion. Here is Tetl, wearing a t-shirt that reflects the rays of the sun. Here are Tetl and his friends, sitting and standing on the huge stones that we always knew were alive. Here is Tetl, in the company of the gorgeous macaws, who taught the humans the Nahuatl language. Here is Tetl, contemplating a ripening ear of corn, “a bearded child/laughing with all its teeth.” And here is Tetl, protecting himself from racist taunts.

Don’t hesitate to read and show this beautiful book to young children. It is for them, and for all of us.—Beverly Slapin


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sherman Alexie's THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN

First impression, with more to come later...

As I read the first pages, I wished the depiction of Native life wasn't so bleak. It feeds stereotypical notions of the tragic victim. For that reason, many will keep reading, because it feels familiar to them, and in that save-the-Indian way some adopt, it nourishes that impulse.

I hung in there because Alexie is a gifted writer, and before much longer, the depth and beauty of Native lives and life on the reservation began to shine through.

I'll write more later, but definitely, a book worth reading and sharing, with teens and adults.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More on ELIZABETH GEORGE SPEARE'S SIGN OF THE BEAVER, from Christine Rose and Michael Eshkibok

Editor's Note: Below is an essay from an organization called Students and Teachers Against Racism. Its authors sent it to me, with permission to post it here.
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Students and Teachers Against Racism
PO Box 801
Fairfield, CT 06824

203-256-9720

A report on the effects of The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare

Students and Teachers Against Racism is an organization whose purpose is to identify and remove discrimination against American Indian students from the classroom and from curriculum. In our experience, we have found that certain kinds of material, especially involving stereotypes, used in the classroom can contribute to civil rights violations. American Indian children may also experience anger and shame when confronted with certain books and material, particularly when they feel they have been misrepresented or history is wrongly depicted. Some American Indian children may feel that a school that promotes such material is offering them the blatant message that the school harbors anti-Indian feelings towards them.

American Indian students suffer higher drop-out rates than any other ethnic group. In some urban areas, those rates may average around 10-20 percent. However, on reservations and in border towns, these rates can soar to 30-50%. Historically, education has not been kind to American Indian people and as a result, parents who had negative experiences with their own schooling may not encourage their children to complete their education. American Indian children need all the support they can get in order to be successful in school. A book like Sign of the Beaver reminds American Indian children of the hateful attitudes of non-Indians in the past, and brings those attitudes into the classroom today. The fact that the book completely misrepresents historical truth is yet another reason to remove it from the school. If a book like this is to be used at all, it must first be used with lesson plans that explain stereotypes and propaganda, and how they were used to undermine American Indian people in order to inflict genocide in the pursuit of Westward expansion.

It is imperative that schools recognize that the materials used in the classroom effect the students that they teach. In order for American Indian students to succeed, they must believe that the school respects them and has full confidence they can succeed. Any book that promotes the attitude that non-American Indian students are superior to Indian students, can dislike them without reason, and can mock their ways and culture only serves to alienate the American Indian students from the class. The Sign of the Beaver is guilty of all of these attitudes.

Two people within our organization assessed the book. One is an Ojibwe doctoral candidate who is focusing his dissertation on racism, the other is a White, Civil Rights case worker for our organization. We have assembled this report based on their findings. We sincerely hope that this helps bring understanding to the situation at hand.


The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Books that are written by whites about Indians virtually always, even with the best of intentions, stereotype Indian people. Many writers will defend their writing by saying they have done considerable research, however, unless the writer has had extensive contact with the specific tribe they are writing about (and preferably that tribe has approved it) the opinions formed by the writer can only be done from their own cultural perspective, and often, bias.

In books that portray the past without historical accuracy and with disregard for the American Indian perspective of history, the ways of American Indians are often judged according to white standards of civilization rather than from a position of respect for the culture they are depicting. Since the non-American Indian perspective is often based on blaming the victim, it is easy to see how the young American Indian child might become angry at the manner in which their ancestors are portrayed. The fact that whites held themselves harmless while removing the Indians from their land, destroying their crops and fields, destroying their homes, disrupting their culture and frequently forcing the Indians to starve, as well as committing outright genocide, is a perspective that must be exposed in the classroom, not perpetuated.

In books such as The Sign of the Beaver, The Indian in the Cupboard, and the Little House on the Prairie, Indians are almost always portrayed speaking pidgin English, appearing lazy or foolish, and as being backward and un-evolved. This is seen from Chapter Three on, in The Sign of the Beaver we were able to highlight at least 36 pages out of 135 that contained some kind of anti-Indian reference such as stereotypes, cultural misrepresentations, and other offensive passages based on bias rather than truthful representation. For the sake of brevity we will only highlight some of the more offensive statements in the following paragraphs:


Chapter Eleven, page 52:
Or they would tramp along the creek to a good spot for fishing. Attean seemed to have plenty of time on his hands. Sometimes he would just hang around and watch Matt do chores. He would stand at the edge of the corn patch and look on while Matt pulled weeds. 
"Squaw work," he commented once.
Matt flushed. "We think its man's work," he retorted.
Attean said nothing. He did not offer to help. After a time he wandered off without saying goodbye. It must be mighty pleasant, Matt thought to himself, to just hunt and fish all day and not have any work to do. That wasn't his father's way, and it wouldn't ever be his. The work was always waiting to be done, but if he got the corn patch cleared and the wood chopped today, he could go fishing with Attean tomorrow-if Attean invited him.

The implication that Matt has so much work to do and Attean does nothing but hunt and fish reflects the condescending attitude of settlers at the time. The Puritan ethic was that hard work kept the devil away. American Indian people certainly had their share of hard work in sustaining their lifestyles even in harsh weather. However, because the type of hard work American Indian people needed to perform in order to survive was not recognized as generating profit, by the settlers’ standards it was judged less important.

Early writings also show that the settlers were astonished at the hard work American Indian women did. However, what is virtually always left out of the conversation is that women worked hard because they were seen as equals to men in every way, which was not true of the status of European white women, who were often written about as possessions, who had little say in the home, in business, in politics or any other decision making process. In fact, Susan B. Anthony arrived at the idea of fighting for women's rights from the Oneida women with whom she spent considerable time. The opinions of American Indian women were valued and respected, and they were often the ones who retained rights to their home, possessions and children. All of that was unheard of by the settlers, who treated women and children as possessions. Therefore, the implication that "squaw's work" was demeaning was a white value, and does not accurately reflect the American Indian values at all.

Page 97:
Attean think squaw girl is not good for much.

Women were highly regarded in all tribes, and were seen as sacred in that they are creators of life. Many tribes were, and still are, matriarchal societies while white society has always been patriarchal. Also, the use of the word squaw is inappropriate as it reflects women's genitalia. While it may not have been used by all tribes exclusively in that manner, from tribe to tribe it was. The word entered common usage from the traders who adapted the word for use for prostitutes. It is not a word that connotes respect and there have been many complaints by Indian women who even today are called squaw by ignorant people. It is not a good word to teach children to use. The same can be said for the book's constant reference to redskins, which is said to have originated from the time when Indians were hunted for bounty. Since the entire dead body was difficult to transport, Indians were skinned, and the bloody skins were called redskins. The period of time The Sign of the Beaver takes place is indeed during the time and in the specific area where colonists hunted Indians for bounties. It is gruesome and offensive to many American Indian people today, and the word redskin is often seen as being the same kind of racial slur as nigger.

This next passage shows another cultural misrepresentation:

Matt knew that the Indian boy came day after day only because his grandfather sent him. For some reason, the old man had taken pity on this helpless white boy, and at the same time he had shrewdly grasped at the chance for his grandson to read. If he suspected that Attean had become the teacher instead, he would doubtless have put a stop to the visits altogether.

Attean's grandfather was kind and had Attean bring food each day for Matt. Later in the book, the grandfather insists that Matt attend a ceremony to celebrate his involvement with Attean in the killing of the bear. At the end of the book, the grandfather has Attean ask Matt if he would like to travel with the tribe as they are forced to relocate because the trappers had eliminated too much of their food sources. The grandfather certainly recognized that Attean was spending a considerable amount of time with Matt, so why on earth would he have put a stop to Attean's teaching Matt how to survive? In fact, in light of what was happening historically, precisely at that time and in that area, with tribes being forced to relocate due to having their forts burned, their people killed by diseases purposely brought into their midst and bounties that were offered for their scalps by proclamations from the government, it is amazing that the grandfather didn't leave Matt there to fend for himself in the first place.

It seems that the only reason to portray the grandfather as disapproving of Matt gaining anything in the relationship with Attean, is to attribute unattractive behavior based on lack of generosity on the grandfather. Not only is this passage inconsistent with other descriptions of the grandfather, but American Indian cultures in general actually disapproved of greedy and withholding behaviors. In essence, this passage exists solely to promote racism, which unfortunately happens throughout the book.

Chapter Eighteen, page 94:
He was not surprised when she led him straight to the most substantial cabin in the clearing. He had recognized on the night of the feast that Saknis was a chief.

Accumulated material wealth is a white value. It is unlikely the chief would have had the most substantial cabin. In most tribes, the chief was chosen to be so because he eschewed wealth and gave most of his possessions away. Greed has always been the antithesis of American Indian cultures and many tribes celebrated good fortune by giving away their possessions. This societal trait was documented by Columbus, by the Franciscan monks who decried the cruelty of the Spanish soldiers, by the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, and in many other documents.

Beyond the cultural misrepresentations, the book is rampant with stereotypes which are as hateful and blatantly racist as any to be found anywhere.

Chapter Sixteen, page 78:
Then he was aware of the Indians. They sat silently on either side of the fire, their painted faces ghastly in the flickering light.

Their painted faces would have been ceremonial and perhaps dramatic. A word like ghastly insinuates horror, which was not the intent and is not respectful of the culture.

Page 79:
The Indians seemed satisfied. Smiles flashed in their dark faces. There was rough laughter, and then, seeming to forget him, they began to jabber to each other.

This comment about their jabbering to each other minimizes the beautiful and intricate Algonquin language. The image painted is cartoon-like, and again, very disrespectful and mocking.

Page 81:
A lone Indian had leaped to the head of the line, beating a rattle against his palm in an odd stirring rhythm. He strutted and pranced in ridiculous contortions, for all the world like a clown in a village fair. The line of figures followed after him, aping him and stomping their feet in response.

The ridicule in this passage is hateful, mocking, demeaning and probably better describes the exaggerated antics of today’s abusive Indian sports team mascots rather than of a American Indian involved in a ceremonial dance. Can you imagine how an American Indian child feels about this when they are described in such disrespectful terms? Ridiculous contortions? Clown in a village fair? There is nothing in this that embraces American Indian culture.

But then:

Matt found it simple to follow the step. His confidence swelled as the rhythm throbbed through his body, loosening his tight muscles. He was filled with excitement and happiness. His own heels pounded against the hard ground. He was one of them.

In this remarkable passage, all demeaning, belittling, ridiculous images disappear. Suddenly, when Matt, perhaps because he is white, dances in the same fashion, he is empowered. This passage is incredibly distressing. There are many whites who try to follow American Indian culture, appropriate it, and then tell American Indian people they are not performing their culture properly. There are stories of team mascots dancing ridiculously and telling American Indian people to be honored if they see a white person mimicking their ways in inappropriate venues. There are whites who attempt to learn American Indian spirituality, then charge money for ceremonies. There are boy scouts that hold pow wows and tell American Indian attendees that they are dancing wrong. This passage rings with the very offensive suggestion that when Indians dance they are clowns. When the white boy dances, he is empowered. It is beyond condescending and well into imperialistic.

Throughout the book, Matt describes Attean in ways that make it clear he admires Attean, he is jealous of Attean, daydreams of besting Attean, distrusts Attean and very often says that he dislikes Attean. We are never given any reason he should have disliked Attean so much, since Attean teaches him to hunt, find his way though the woods, makes sure he has enough to eat, and invites him, against his grandmother's wishes, to participate in a ceremony. All of this is summed up in the fact that Matt is racist, and this book promotes the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to dislike someone for no reason, even if they save your life.

While in real life, we are not compelled to spend time with someone whose company we do not enjoy, a book like this absolutely promotes the idea that whites are superior and that racism against Indians is acceptable. It is a poor choice of books to subject any child to, no matter their race.

As an organization, we are glad this book has been brought to our attention. We have had far too many complaints of children being called the names in this book, as well as violent and racist behavior on school grounds ranging from bullying to white gang whipping an Indian child, to ignore the fact that this book puts the minds of all children in harms way.

Report prepared by Christine Rose, Copyright 2006
Michael Eshkibok, Ojibwe, UND Doctoral Candidate, consultant for this report

Monday, April 09, 2007

More on HOW THE MOON REGAINED HER SHAPE

Earlier this month, I posted Beverly Slapin's review of How the Moon Regained Her Shape.

I have a copy of How the Moon Regained Her Shape now and am posting my thoughts today. Back in August of 2006, I received an email from Sylvan Dell Publishing, that described several of their books. The email subject line was "Science and Math through Literature for young children." I read thru the email, and saw there was a book listed there called How the Moon Regained Her Shape.

I requested a copy, and began a brief correspondence with an editor at Sylvan Dell Publishing. The book, she noted, was based on traditional Native stories, but not from a specific tribe or its stories. I replied that such books are a concern to me. There are too many books out there that "draw on" or are "based on" stories from an assortment of Native nations as though our ways are interchangeable. What this does is force-fit hundreds of nations into a single, stereotypical, image. It doesn't challenge people to move beyond a generic stereotypical image.

Reviewers like Heller's book because of its theme: bullying. The sun, in Heller's story, bullies the moon. In fact, there is a note on the final page of the book that says:
Bullies: In this story, the sun bullies the moon. A bully is someone who is mean or hurts other children either physically or verbally. Sometimes the bully acts this way to get something or to feel important. Children who are being bullied often need the help and support of their friends, just as the moon does in this story.
As I read reviews and the author's note, I am reminded that fans of Touching Spirit Bear say its strength is that it helps kids learn and understand bullying and the consequences of bullying. The fact that it gets so much wrong about Tlingit culture is inconsequential--to them. The bullying theme is far more important---to them. Ironically, I think we can call this dismissal of Native objections to misrepresentation a form of bullying!

I anticipate that fans of How the Moon Regained Her Shape will say that its use to teach about the moon, or, to teach about bullying, are more important than the mess it makes of Native culture. They might even say that we Natives ought to feel good that our culture is used in such good ways.

Americans. Love. Indians. Or rather, some (most?) Americans love their imagined Indians. Real Native people that object to how Native peoples are portrayed? Not loved as much, if at all.

How the Moon Regained Her Shape is a success in the book world. The American Booksellers Association listed it as a "Book Sense Children's Pick" in 2006. It is listed in both, the "Accelerated Reader" and "Reading Counts" programs.

I object.

And you, teachers, should, too. For critique of the content, read Beverly Slapin's review.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Deanna Himanga's BOOZHOO, COME PLAY WITH US



Boozhoo, Come Play With Us is a terrific board book. Published in 2002 by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, this board book for toddlers is comprised of photographs of Native kids at the Fond du Lac Head Start, with two lines of text on each page.

At the top of the first page is "Boozhoo, Whitney." In the center of the page is a photo of Whitney, and beneath it is "Boozhoo means hello."



This pattern continues throughout the book. At the top of every page is "Boozhoo, (name of the child in the photo)" Below each photo is a line of text.



Here's two pages from inside:



The inside cover is a note that says "In an effort to develop culturally appropriate materials for our children and families, the Fond du Lac Head Start Program dedicates this book to the many children of the Fond du Lac Reservation."

Inside the back cover is a pronunciation guide for the Ojibwe words used in the book. And, the back outside cover is a collage of all the children shown in the book. The text at the top reads "Gigawaabaamin means" and at the bottom, "see you around."

An outstanding board book, I got my copy from Oyate for six dollars.

Maybe this book can help teachers displace the erroneous and ubiquitous "HOW" as the way Indians say hello.

Note, 6/25/2012: You can also get the book directly from the Fond du Lac Tribe

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Beverly Slapin's Review of Janet Ruth Heller's HOW THE MOON REGAINED HER SHAPE

[Editor's Note: This review used by permission of Beverly Slapin, and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]
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Heller, Janet Ruth, How the Moon Regained Her Shape, illustrated by Ben Hodson. Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2006. Unpaginated, grades 1-3

Every time I say (or even think), “This is the stupidest book I’ve ever read,” along comes something even worse. Cosmic justice, maybe. Punishment for using hyperbole. 

From the jacket copy:
From the days of early humans, people have used folklore to explain why events of nature occur.
No. Oral stories are not just any old things made up by an individual on a whim; they are told and retold for many generations to document scientific and historical events, and to teach children and adults respect for the environment and their responsibilities in stewardship for the land. Teaching stories also contain lessons about safety, courage, and proper behavior.

From the jacket copy: 
Influenced by Native American folktales, this fascinating story explains the phases of the moon, while providing a life lesson for children as they observe how the moon was able to overcome adversity and build self-confidence.
No. There is no such thing as a “Native American folktale.” There are Hopi stories, Lakota stories, Abenaki stories, Anishinaabe stories. Stories belong to specific Native nations, or clans, families, or individuals within those nations. Moreover, I sincerely doubt that there has ever been an oral story about the moon “overcoming adversity and building self-confidence.” Certain elements of creation, such as Moon, Sun, Wind, Water, Fire, Earth, are sacred. They don’t overcome adversity because there is no adversity for them to overcome. They don’t build self-confidence because the need for “self-confidence” is a European-American cultural marker.

From the jacket copy:
After the sun insults her, the moon is very hurt and disappears—much to the chagrin of rabbits who miss their moonlight romps.
No. Sun and Moon do not behave that way towards each other; rather, in oral stories, their relationship with each other and with Earth are complementary. Although rabbits have been seen to romp, they mostly come out at dusk to mate and look for food. As prey animals with non-stereoscopic vision, lagomorphs tend to be pretty serious.

From the jacket copy:
With the help of her many friends and admirers, the moon regains her self-confidence until she is back to her full size.
No. The whole idea that Moon looks for wisdom among humans is disconnected from anything it purports to be based on. Even Disney, whose animal characters are pretty damned anthropomorphic, doesn’t have them coming to humans for “self-confidence.”

The artwork, if you really have to call it that, was done with acrylic paints, handmade papers, wallpaper, pencil crayons, gesso, ink, and glue on watercolor paper. The result is some kind of faux-Pueblo design elements (Moon looks kind of like Kokopelli without his, uh, flute) and the Indian characters (“Round Arms,” a kind of zaftig woman, and “Painted Deer,” a kind of artist who paints his face and wears feathers standing straight up) appear to have been executed by an Indian wannabe on happy pills.

I guess it could be said that “author,” “artist,” and “publisher” would have had to have astronomical chutzpah to bring this thing out. No, wait! Stop! I didn’t say that! What I meant was: “This is a pretty bad book.”

—Beverly Slapin