Monday, January 07, 2008

Observations: Natives in the News and the Role of Children's Books

Each morning I get a "google alert" email comprised of links to news stories published in the preceding 24 hours on the phrase "Native Americans" or "American Indians."

This morning, there was a link to an article in the Telegraph, whose tag is "Britain's No. 1 quality newspaper website." The article is called "And the protester is..." It is about moments of protest at the Oscars. The part of the article that google snagged for me is this:


When presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann declared Marlon Brando best actor for The Godfather, a young woman dressed as a native American squaw appeared on the podium.

I am appalled that whomever wrote the article used the word "squaw." Its use in the article demonstrates the strength by which Brits are gripped by outdated and biased imagery of American Indians. It was used in a matter-of-fact way, just as it was used in a lot of older classic works of children's historical fiction published here in the United States.

In the present day, I think that more and more Americans know it is a derogatory term and choose to use it only when seeking to provoke. I hasten to add that there are still people who think it an appropriate word. See, for example, my post here in which a non-Native woman asked a Native woman what they should call Native women if not squaws. In that post, I made the argument that seeing the word "squaw" in children's books may give it credibility it doesn't deserve.

I read the Telegraph piece with another news story in my mind. In the past few days, the Washington Post has run a couple of articles that seek to paint Rick West, former director of the National Museum of the American Indian, in dark tones. The paper claims that his travel to places like Europe and New Zealand was uncalled for. It suggested he was not tending to business here, but living it up in expensive hotels.

I view the Post's critique as ridiculous. One of our major problems is that people here and around the world think we no longer exist. And what they think they know about us is pretty awful. I was in Greece two years ago, went into a shop and saw stereotypical ceramic Indians-in-headdresses adorning the walls. In France, I was stunned when a Columbian performance troupe set up outside the train station in Venice, and proceeded to entertain the crowd with stereotypical American Indian dance and music. I watched them put on face paint, fringed and beaded buckskin, and large feathered headdresses, and I watched the crowd snap pictures and applaud enthusiastically.

Those observations from my trip, the Telegraph story, the "Chief Hawah" book Marion Boyars published recently, and my experience with the cab driver in NYC in November 07 are evidence that Rick West's lectures and meetings abroad are vitally important.

People around the world are mis-educated about American Indians. The work of those who seek to change that is two-fold and must take place in many venues. One, we must point out the stereotypical and biased representations when we see them. Two, we must point TO books and resources that provide accurate information about American Indians.

Children's books play a role in that mis-education. Instead of using those classic, award-winning books of historical fiction as literature, would we do a better job of educating American children if we'd use those books to talk about writing and perspective instead? (I'm speaking here, to international audiences as well... Books published here and read abroad, too.)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Tribal Protocols Regarding Research

There's been some conversation on YALSA regarding accuracy/authenticity in representation of American Indians.

In a reply to the conversation, I wrote about "freedom of expression" in the context of sovereign nation status and tribal protocols for research.

There was a time when researchers could go to a reservation and conduct research, do interviews, take photographs, etc. Due to appropriation, misrepresentation, and disrespect, tribes have become very careful, very guarded.

Increasingly, tribes are saying 'no' to use of Native culture by outsiders, and, to researchers.

Increasingly, institutions are recognizing and responding to tribes assertion of control over cultural and intellectual property. Museums are returning Native artifacts to tribes from which they were taken by archeologists, anthropologists, and, speaking bluntly, opportunists who dug up Native graves, removed artifacts, and sold them. Use of photographs is under tighter control, too.

In Arizona, one of the state institutions that has photographs of Hopi dances has stopped releasing them to the public. On their internet pages, you can learn that the photos exist, but there is no 'thumbnail' of the image. You can go to the institution and view them, but you cannot reproduce them.

In the past, Native people have been studied and, the study is used for the benefit of the scholar, with no benefit to the tribe itself. In recent years, tribes are writing protocols for researchers who wish to go out there and study this or that aspect of the tribe.

No longer is it acceptable to just go to a reservation and do research. Tribes are controlling access. Researchers know this, but, perhaps, writers do not, and so they do not seek permission to do research and write a children's book.

Click here to go to the Hopi Tribal Council's page on protocol. Do read it, and consider its application for writers of children's books.

UPDATE, 9:38, January 5, 2007:

On their page "Intellectual Property Rights" is this:

In this information age, we are concerned with protecting our own ideas. These ideas may be in speeches, music composition, computer programs, television, and other media. Our nation’s courtrooms are filled with cases in which someone allegedly breached that intellectual property right.
Through the decades the intellectual property rights of Hopi have been violated for the benefit of many other, non-Hopi people that has proven to be detrimental. Expropriation comes in many forms. For example, numerous stories told to strangers have been published in books without the storytellers' permission. After non-Hopis saw ceremonial dances, tape recorded copies of music were sold to outside sources. Clothing items of ceremonial dancers have been photographed without the dancers’ permission and sold. Choreography from ceremonial dances has been copied and performed in non-sacred settings. Even the pictures of the ceremonies have been included in books without written permission. Designs from skilled Hopi potters have been duplicated by non-Hopis. Katsinas dolls have also been duplicated from Hopi dancers seen at Hopi. Although the Hopi believe the ceremonies are intended for the benefit of all people, they also believe benefits only result when ceremonies are properly performed and protected.
All of these actions are breaches of Hopi intellectual property rights, used by non-Hopi for personal and commercial benefit without Hopi permission.
Through these thefts, sacred rituals have been exposed to others out of context and without Hopi permission. Some of this information has reached individuals for whom it was not intended (e.g., Hopi youth, members of other clans, or non-Hopi).
Please be mindful of the personal ethics involved in and laws surrounding this issue.

Update: Feb 3, 2013

I am still trying to retrace my steps to find the state institution with no thumbnails. I do want to add one more resource to the ones I provided above. This, too, is Hopi, and its an agreement between Hopi Nation and the Museum of Northern Arizona. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Video interview: Joseph Bruchac

Scholastic has a video interview of Joseph Bruchac. He's written some excellent books. Among those I hold in great regard is Hidden Roots.

In the video, he is asked what book he'd like to see made into a movie. His answer? Skeleton Man. I really like that book. When I got it, I read it aloud to my daughter. We were engrossed with it, stayed with it till we finished. It is terrific. It would make a great movie!

Bruchac is very important to the work that I do. Some years back, I wrote a chapter called "Native Americans in Children's Books of the Twentieth Century." It was published in Linda Pavonetti's book, Children's Literature Remembered: Issues, Trends, & Favorite Books. I opened that chapter with this paragraph:

If asked to name a Native American (or American Indian) author of children’s books, Joseph Bruchac, of the Abenaki tribe, is likely to be at the top of the list. Readers should note Bruchac’s tribe (Abenaki); Native Americans prefer to be identified by a specific tribe rather than Native American or American Indian when possible. Bruchac has written numerous children’s books about Native Americans. His work spans several genres: The Story of the Milky Way (Dial, 1995) is traditional literature, The Heart of a Chief (Dial, 1998) is contemporary realistic fiction, Arrow Over the Door (Dial, 1998) is historical fiction, Crazy Horse’s Vision (Lee & Low, 2000) is biography, and Bowman’s Store (Lee & Low, 2000) is his autobiography. What is not well known in the field of children’s literature is Bruchac’s role in mentoring aspiring Native authors. Indeed, he is recognized as the single most important force in the nation in publishing and promoting the work of emerging Native American writers (Lerner, 1996). Bruchac was instrumental in establishing the Returning the Gift festival in 1992. Held in Norman, Oklahoma, it was conceived as a gathering at which Native authors could share their work and talk with and/or mentor aspiring Native American authors. It evolved into an annual Returning the Gift festival and the formation of several organizations whose goals are to publish the work of Native authors and provide beginning authors with mentors. Native American authors who serve as mentors include Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) whose Ceremony is widely used in high school classrooms, and Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene). Also serving as a mentor is Gayle Ross (Cherokee), known for her picture book retellings of traditional literature and oral storytelling, and of course, Bruchac himself. In addition to the festival, Bruchac established the Greenfield Review Press, a small publishing house devoted to publication of Native authors. Without question, Bruchac has been significant, not only for his own writing, but also for his efforts to mentor and promote the work of other Native authors.

His books are in most libraries, and that is a good thing for all readers. There is a book, based on the gathering, called Returning the Gift: Poetry and Prose from the First North American Native Writers' Festival. In March, Michigan State University will host the next Returning the Gift Native Writers Conference. Click here for info.

And, click here to see the video interview of Joseph Bruchac.

Update: Jan 2, 2008, 3:45 PM---Eliza Dresang did an interview with Bruchac, archived on the CCBC site. To read it, click here.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Jan Brett and Sherman Alexie

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


Today is December 31, 2007. We’re ending one year and starting another. Looking over the NY Times list of best selling children’s books, I note two books that are on the lists. These two books capture all that is good, and all that is not good, about books by and about American Indians.

On the picture book list is Jan Brett’s The Three Snow Bears. It represents all-that-is-not-good. I would not buy it.

On the chapter books list is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It represents all-that-is-good. I recommend it, and I give it as gifts. It is astounding on so many levels.

Before I start this discussion, I want to state clearly that I do not believe Jan Brett (or anyone who likes her new book) is racist or misguided. Mis-informed, or maybe, mis-socialized, mis-educated…. That is the root of the problem.

Both books have been on the best selling list for 14 weeks. As of today The Three Snow Bears is ranked at #4; Absolutely True Diary is ranked at #5.

The accompanying NYT blurb for The Three Snow Bears:
"Aloo-ki and the Three Bears: the Goldilocks tale goes to the Arctic Circle."

The blurb for Absolutely True Diary:
"A boy leaves his reservation for an all-white school."

Jan Brett is not an indigenous person. But like many writers, she has written (and illustrated) a book in which Native imagery figures prominently. A lot of writers retell Native stories, changing values and characters in such a way that the story can no longer be called Native. Pollock disneyfied The Turkey Girl, a story told among the Zuni people. Brett didn’t try to retell a Native story. She told an old favorite classic, and set her story in the Arctic. Her Goldilocks is an Inuit girl she named Aloo-ki.
The book flap for the hardcover copy says that Brett went to the Nunavut Territory in northern Canada, I gather, to climb to the Arctic Circle marker. While there she visited a school and according to the flap (note: authors don’t generally write the material on book flaps), “Jan saw the many intelligent, proud faces that became her inspiration for Aloo-ki.”

Why is “faces” modified with “intelligent” and “proud”? Is it Inuit faces that need these modifiers? Do you see such modifiers about the faces of any-kids in any-school? (I also want to say at this point that Brett's inspiration reminded me of Rinaldi's inspiration when she saw the names of Native kids on gravestones at Carlisle Indian School. Rinaldi was so moved by their names that she used the names, creating characters to go with them.)

The flap also says that she visited a museum where she “marveled at images of Arctic animals in Inuit clothes and felt a door had opened.”

My colleague, Theresa Seidel, addresses problems with the story (and the flaps) in her open letter to Jan Brett. She points out that in The Three Snow Bears, we have another book in which an author/illustrator puts Native clothing on animals, effectively de-humanizing American Indians.
Yes---Beatrix Potter did that in her Peter Rabbit stories, and nobody is making a fuss over that, but there is a difference

The humanity of the people Potter’s bunnies represent is not questioned. Those people are recognized as people. Regular people. Not people (like indigenous peoples of the US and Canada) who are adored and romanticized. And, they're not a people who most others think vanished. Some people might put Princess Di on a pedestal and swoon over who she was, and they might swoon over some part of English culture, but they don’t do that to all of the English people. 

In contrast, far too many people think we (American Indians, Inuits, First Nations) no longer exist. We (or rather, some semblance of who we were/are) do, however, make frequent appearances in fiction, as mascots on sports fields, as inspiration for troops whose helicopters and battleships and missile’s named after Native tribes, and on products from tobacco to automobiles to foodstuffs. For too many, we are an idea, not a living, breathing people whose kids go to the same schools as yours do.

Brett had good intentions. She was inspired by the people, their art, their world. And she she wrote and illustrated this book that subtly and directly affirms problematic notions of who we are. It is a beautifully illustrated book. (As a work of low fantasy, we must suspend our disbelief so we buy into the polar bears living as humans do. Look closely, though... The polar bears wear their parkas when they go out, but leave their boots behind.)

Aloo-ki is surprised to come upon “the biggest igloo she had ever seen.” That’s worth a challenge, because it suggests that Aloo-ki is accustomed to seeing smaller igloos. Problem is, most people think that igloos are cute dwellings, about the size of dog houses. They’re actually quite large. If you saw the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), you saw just how big igloos are. (Go to the movie’s website and view the galleries

In sum, Brett’s book is pretty to look at, a trinket, a decoration, but Native peoples are not trinkets or decorations. 

Turning now, to Alexie’s book…

Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on his reservation. His book is largely autobiographical. It is HIS story, his LIVED story, that he gives us in Absolutely True Diary. He doesn’t retell a traditional story. He gives us a story of a modern day Native boy, living life in these times, not some far-off, exotic place, distant in time and location. His story is note cute or charming. It is gritty.

We can agree that children who read picture books have different needs than those who read chapter books. But it IS possible to write picture books about present day Native kids. Native authors who’ve written precisely this kind of book are Joseph Bruchac, Joy Harjo, and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Today, Diane Chen (a blogger at School Libray Journal) wrote about the need for discussion and growth, so that the children’s book world (and American society) can move beyond the place we are STILL at, where problematic books about American Indians are written, published, favorably reviewed, bought, and read by kids across the country.

We can do better, but the Jan Brett’s and their editors, their publishers, and reviewers, teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers, all have to listen to our concerns. This is not, from my point of view, an issue of racism. It is an issue of not-knowing, and being unwilling to admit errors.
With a new year upon us, can we give it a try?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

"Retired bishop apologizes for mistreating the Miwoks"

On December 26, 2007, the Marin Independent Journal ran a story about what I view as an important moment in the history of relationships between the United States and American Indians. Missionaries and their missions figure prominently in our histories. Religious denominations set up schools and sought to Christianize us. Today, there are many children's books about the missions, especially those in California.

Some years back, I was asked to review a children's book (non-fiction) about the California missions. It was a biased book, devoid of the harsh conditions and brutal treatment of American Indians. In preparing my review, I drew upon Native scholarship on the missions. The review was rejected.

I'm hopeful, therefore, that the event described in the Marin article will be repeated in other churches across the country, and that more people will learn an unbiased history of the missions, and that books about the missions will become more accurate.

You can read the entire story in the Marin paper by clicking here. I am pasting the opening paragraphs below:

You could have heard a pin drop when Bishop Francis A. Quinn, during a Mass at the Church of St. Raphael in San Rafael, apologized to the Miwok Indians for cruelties the church committed against them two centuries ago.

Indians who were present seemed stunned.

The retired bishop, in green brocade robes, lofty miter and carrying a shepherd's crook, lent heart and historical gravitas to the Mass, part of the 190th birthday celebration of Mission San Rafael Arcangel the other day.

Coast Miwok Indians once occupied the lands from the Golden Gate to north of Bodega Bay. When Spanish padres launched the San Rafael mission in 1817, the Indians built it, maintained it and helped it survive, according to anthropologist Betty Goerke, who has studied the Indians for 30 years.

But they paid dearly for their participation. Bishop Quinn conceded that the church authorities "took the Indian out of the Indian," destroying traditional spiritual practices and "imposing a European Catholicism upon the natives."

He conceded that mission soldiers and priests had sexual relations with Indian women and inflicted cruel punishments - caning, whipping, imprisonment - on those who disobeyed mission laws. He acknowledged that the Indians had a "civilization" of their own - one that valued all of nature - long before the Spanish imposed an alien, European-type life upon them.
The article goes on to quote the tribal chair of the Miwoks, Greg Sarris. Sarris is the author of some terrific books (not written for youth), but depending on one's view on what is appropriate, they'd be fine in a high school English class. One is Grand Avenue, and another is Watermelon Nights. I'll leave further discussion of Sarris for another day.

The point of today's post is to ask you to look over books on your shelves---books about the missions, specifically those in California, and consider the content of those books. Does the book gloss over the treatment of Indians? Does it make the mission look like a wonderful thing for the Indians?

Bishop Quinn's apology stands out because the United States government has not yet acknowledged what the Canadian government has acknowledged and apologized for. That is, the history of the boarding and mission schools that were designed to "kill the Indian, save the man."

We are all aware of the sexual abuse experienced by non-Native youth. Nightly news has covered it quite a lot in recent years. In addition to sexual abuse, however, Native people were on the receiving end of a concerted effort, a government-funded effort, a Christian effort to erase Native identity, culture, values, language.

I don't expect that any work of juvenile nonfiction about the mission schools will include description or even mention of sexual abuse. But what do we do with the books full of half-truths (speaking generously)?

And, what will be the impact of Bishop Quinn's apology?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christians and Indians: Comenius and Alexie

Over on the email discussion list for YALSA-BK (an ALA listserv for people who work with young adult literature), there is a discussion going on about Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Specifically, the discussion is about Alexie's inclusion of masturbation. I gather that librarians in Christian-based schools are considering not ordering the book. Most of the discussion suggests that the librarians in those schools should let kids make their own decisions. Masturbation is a very real part of teen life.

I don't think it is a Christian versus American Indian situation. I do think we're past that.

There was a time, though, way back when (and maybe not so way-back), Christians called us pagans and heathens with no morals... Take, for example, Orbis Pictus.

Back in 1657, John Amos Comenius wrote Orbis Pictus, an encyclopedic picture book for children that is now commonly identified as the first picture book for children. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) established a nonfiction book award, and named it the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.

Comenius was, according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, a Czech educational reformer, a Protestant minister.

In his book, Comenius includes a section about religion. Therein he says

The Indians, 10. even at this day, worship the Devil, 11.

The numeral 10 refers to the illustration, shown here, that accompanies this section. It corresponds to a figure meant to be an Indian. Likewise, the numeral 11 corresponds to a figure meant to be the Devil.

The illustration of the Gentiles is in two parts. The larger of the two is an indoor setting. It looks like a gallery of statues, each one in its own arched enclosure. The smaller illustration is set outside. I draw your eye to the figures on the right side of the smaller illustration. To the building with a shingled, pitched roof, in front of which sits the devil. The Indian is on his knees in front of the devil. The devil's right arm is raised over the Indians head, and its left arm is touching the Indians shoulder.

Here, in Comenius's words is the text that begins on page 185 of the book published in 1887 (viewed at Amazon using the "search inside" option):

Hence are divers Religions
whereof IV. are reckoned
yet as the chief.


The Gentiles feigned
to themselves near upon
XIIM. Deities.

The chief of them were

Jupiter, 1. President, and
petty-God of Heaven;

Neptune, 2. of the Sea;

Pluto, 3. of Hell;

Mars, 4. of War;

Apollo, 5. of Arts;

Mercury, 6. of Thieves,
and Eloquence;

Vulcan, (Mulciber)
of Fire and Smiths;

Aeolus, of Winds;

and the most obscene of
all the rest, Priapus.

They had also
Womanly Deities:
such as were Venus, 7.
the Goddess of Loves,
and Pleasures, with
her little son Cupid, 8.

(Pallas), with
the nine Muses of Arts;

Juno, of Riches and Wed-
dings; Vesta, of Chastity;

Ceres, of Corn;

Diana, of Hunting,
and Fortune;

and besides these Morbona,
and Febris her self.

The Egyptians,
instead of God
worshipped all sorts
of Beasts and Plants,
and whatsoever they saw
first in the morning.

The Philistines offered
to Moloch, 9. their Children
to be burnt alive,

The Indians, 10. even to
this day, worship the
Devil, 11.

I said, above in parens, "maybe not so way-back" because there are still plenty of Christian missionaries out there, moving amongst Native people on the reservations, trying to get them to church.

When I was in first grade, I think, I went to catechism, memorized prayers, and made my "First Holy Communion." Course, in the summer, we'd all pile into the very cool VW bug and bus driven by the Baptist folks who took us to summer day camp. I don't recall it being called Bible School, but that is what it was. I loved it. I don't recall learning prayers or teachings from the Bible. What I loved was the crafts we did. Those plaster of paris items that we'd paint... Were they of Jesus? Mary? I don't recall. It was the activity itself that I remember. I had a good time. In contrast, I hated catechism. I really liked the watch I got as a present when I did the "First Holy Communion." It was a Cinderella watch, sold on a ceramic Cinderella figurine. That figurine, and those plaster casts.... I can almost feel their cool smooth surfaces. But am I a Christian? No.

This post is a bit meandering... What is swimming through my thoughts are Christian perceptions of what is good, what is right. In Alexie's book, fear of sex. In Comenius and in my childhood, a perceived need to Christianize us, to stop our ways of worship.

As someone who studies and writes about images of Indians in children's books, Comenius is an important work to note and think about. If his book is the first book for children, then his image of an Indian is the first non-Native produced image of an Indian in a book for children. As such it stands as a book-end of sorts that I will be thinking of as I continue my research.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A reader's response to MIKO KINGS

Last week I posted a link to an article about LeAnne Howe's Miko Kings. That post generated this comment from Jean Mendoza:

The article sheds some light on what LeAnne's book is like. But reading
The Miko Kings itself has been a rare treat.

As you indicate, Debbie, it's "about" a great many things: Indian baseball. Being in love. Families. The real, life-and-death hazards of living in (or visiting) contested/colonized territory. Losing everything through no fault of one's own. Making choices that cost everything. And ... doing research when one has a personal stake in the outcome -- or maybe the impossibility of believing one doesn't have a personal stake in the outcome?

The author has an astonishing way with voice. More than one character addresses the reader in first person. There's skillfully rendered humor and pathos, plus love and bigotry, oppression and resistance, history and .... well, mystery. Read it! Read it! Read it! Read it!

Miko Kings may remind some readers of Linda Hogan's Mean Spirit, which focuses on Osage families in Oklahoma.

I know very little about the Negro Leagues, though one of their former players (perhaps the last surviving?) lives not far from my home community, and makes occasional appearances at public events.

The book brings up a lot of questions; makes me curious to know more about What Happened.
Miko Kings is published by Aunt Lute, a not-for-profit, multicultural women's press.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Pointing you, today, to an excellent source for videos (VHS and DVD) by and about American Indians. That source is VisionMaker Video, a service of Native American Public Telecommunications. You won't find Dances With Wolves here. Instead, you'll find videos about American Indians. In Costner, you had a film in which Native peoples were the backdrop for a story that is essentially about a white man.

As you prepare your next purchase order, make sure you include at least one of these videos. If you're at a university, ask your library to order copies of these films, and put them on your syllabus.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Article re LeAnne Howe's MIKO KINGS

Some weeks back I wrote about Miko Kings, a new novel written by Choctaw author, LeAnne Howe. Inside Illinois ran a story about it in November. I'm pointing to that article today. The book is excellent. Lots to chew on.

Baseball novel explores role of the game in American Indian life

If you're still out looking for a gift for a book reader, get this one.

And, if you've already read it and want to submit a short response to it, I'll be glad to post it here.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

An Open Letter to Marion Boyars Publishers (London)

In October, I received an email from a pre-service student in Nebraska. She asked me to help her get word out about a book she came across in a local bookstore. Below is her letter. By design, I only include illustrations on this blog that I like to look at, that are well-done, accurate, etc. Illustrations that are racist go on my other blog. I will talk about problematic books, but don't give their illustrations/covers any space here. To see the illustrations in Chief Hawah, click here.



October 8, 2007

To: Marion Boyars Publishers

24 Lacy Road
London SW15 1NL

Cc: Meryl Zegarek, Public Relations, Marion Boyars Publishers
Borders Books

Barnes and Noble, Inc.


RE: Chief Hawah’s book of Native American Indians, Illustrated by Chris Brown, Marion Boyars Publishers, copyright September 2006.

Dear Sir and/or Madam:

The purpose of this letter is to inform you of a book you are publishing and/or selling is highly offensive to Americans and specifically Native American peoples. As a pre-service teacher, I stumbled upon Chief Hawah’s Book of Native American Indians, Illustrated by Chris Brown. The cover illustration alone would tell any 21st century American this is a book that should never have been published. It is filled with stereotypes and false and/or inaccurate information.

I found it in Borders Books on a trip to find a Multi-Cultural picture book for my Children’s Literature class at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I actually purchased it in a moment of panic to get it off the shelf. Later, as I sat in my car preparing to drive home, I realized this is a book that I have to do something about… because I am an American.

I went home and searched the Web to find it is also sold at Barnes and Noble,,, and many, many more booksellers. After reading the publisher’s synopsis at, I felt nauseous. Children will learn nothing from this book except that perpetuating old stereotypes is apparently is still in fashion in the UK publishing world, and the American booksellers must never actually look at the books they buy to sell to the public.

My copy of Chief Hawah is undergoing a Kym Johnson Rutledge Do-Over. I am having all of the incorrect information, corrected. I’m using several different people from several different tribes to correct it in a page-by-page style. When complete, I will have a lovely flip-out book to use as an EXAMPLE of the horrifying STEREOTYPES that still plague our world. Specific images and carefully selected examples the writer and illustrator both selected to use in order to depict the First People of the United States as savages, poor parents, believers of witch-craft, etc., will also be incorporated in my flip-out version of the book so that I may educate my students of the extent people will go to in order to make money. It will be used to show others what a seed of racism looks like.

Finding Chris Brown had used nearly the same graphic in his other children’s book, Shiver Me Timbers!: A Fun Book of Pirates, was an amazing moment for me as I am an artist; I’m a well-educated painter holding a BFA. Brown chose to use the image he created to depict a Pirate, an unlawful, crime-seeking, monstrous-type of ancient character, to have the exact same look as the fictional character he created to represent this Native American book, Chief Hawah. That is absolutely PATHETIC to relate the two images for children. Historically, pirates probably elicited a lot of fear when honest seafarers came in contact with them. Do you think the people of the United States should feel the same fear when they meet a Native American person?

The words of the book are equally as disturbing as the illustrations, since nearly every page has inaccuracies or misleading information written in inflammatory and sensationalized style. The back cover lists the name of Rebecca Gillieron as the person responsible for these words.

You should be ashamed of what you have presented as educational to the CHILDREN of the world and specifically our children of the United States. The back of this Marion Boyar book cover explains this book is, “Aimed at early learners, Marion Boyars Children’s books are designed specifically to challenge young children in a fun and imaginative way.” Wow. You really should be ashamed.

Native Americans are not now, nor have ever been, SAVAGES. Yet, you have visually depicted them that way. Native Americans are not one giant clump of dead people from the past. For every tribe, past and present, there is a different culture.

  • To you Marion Boyars Publishing… Get it right or don’t print it.

  • To you Booksellers… at the very least, get this edition OFF YOUR SHELVES and OUT OF YOUR INVENTORY, RIGHT NOW.

  • To you Chris Brown and Rebecca Gillieron... shame on your lack of knowledge. If you would like to come to the States and meet real Native Americans, I invite you. It would be a pleasure to show you what Native Americans are really like. I humbly extend my invitation to you to come to Omaha, Nebraska and stay in my home for a visit. Here on the Plains you will have to opportunity to learn much from many of my good and knowledgeable friends. The book you could illustrate and write as a result of a visit would be one with completely different images and correct information, which would be something you could feel pride in; instead of the shame this book has brought on you.

Submitted by,

Kym Johnson Rutledge

Pre-Service Teacher and

Student of University of Nebraska at Omaha

Daughter of Mary Strain (Miami)

Granddaughter of Violet Johnson (Cherokee)

Granddaughter of Olive Strain (Miami)

Great-granddaughter of Mun-go-ze-quoh (Miami)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Open Letter to Jan Brett

Below is a letter to Jan Brett regarding her new book Three Snow Bears. The letter is written by Theresa Seidel.

An Open Letter to Jan Brett

I met you over twenty years ago when my daughter was in kindergarten and you visited her school during a young author conference. I became an instant admirer of your books. They are always beautifully done and your work as an illustrator is second to none. The use of borders to tell “the rest of the story” is a feature I always look forward to seeing. Your joy for writing shows through when you work with children.

As an Indigenous woman and a worker in a public library, I find your newest book, The Three Snow Bears, bothersome on many levels. I don’t feel honored when someone not of a culture appropriates elements of an indigenous culture for their own gain.

My red flag was:

I first saw the book when a mother and daughter picked it up and the mother said that she could use it to read as a “Native American” story to her daughter’s class. After reading the cover flaps of the book, I could see why. You do not claim to be Native American. You had traveled to Baffin Island to study the people and animals. You go on to explain how you looked at the faces of the children and got the character, Aloo-ki. The book is not a Native American story. It is a story of the three bears and Goldilocks done with an Inuit twist.

You went to the museum and studied the displays and artwork. You say that you saw traditional clothing on animal artwork in a museum and that was the inspiration for your book. I do understand that the people you visited have this depicted in THEIR artwork. But it belongs to them. They shared their culture with you. Did they do this with the intention that you would take it and make it into a book?

I was holding your book and seeing snow bears wearing traditional Inuit clothing. For hundreds of years Native people have been treated as less than human. This book immediately brings to mind another book done to “honor” Native people, Ten Little Rabbits,” by Virginia Grossman. Ten Little Rabbits is just a remake of Ten Little Indians with rabbits wearing Native attire. Depicting minority populations as animals in children’s books has long been used as a de-humanizing tactic.

I could not believe that you, Jan Brett, would do this, so I turned to your website for more information. Upon looking at the mural page, I had my answer. This page describes the outfits on each of the bears and tells about those items of clothing in Inuit life. I am not Inuit so I cannot speak to whether the information presented is accurate. The Goldilocks character’s outfit is not mentioned, but rather how she drives a sled team.

Another concern that I have about the book is that Aloo-ki steals boots. The children ages 3-6, to whom I read, would catch this almost immediately. They know that you don’t take something that belongs to another and keep it without asking. Aloo-ki took the boots not because she needed them, but because they were prettier than the boots she was wearing.

This book could have been nicely done without a Native twist. I am really trying to understand your motivation for using an Inuit theme for this book. Do you feel you are promoting a culture by showcasing it to the world? Did the people you visited ask you to do so; or did you assume that by them sharing culture with you that you had the right to use it? Are you going to give back to the community something for appropriating their culture?

Is this something you will continue to do as you travel? I did have some qualms after reading your {Jan Brett} book “Honey…Honey…Lion” as it took a story from an Indigenous culture to use. It was nice to see money from this book supporting a local foundation. Does giving back to the locals after cultural appropriation make it okay?

Here are the criteria I used for judging The Three Snow Bears:

Is the book written by a Native author or with a Native author?

Is it using another culture to gain financial rewards?

Is the book depicting Native people as less than human?

Could you remove the Native aspects and still have a good book? If so, what was the motivation to include them?

Is the culture being portrayed correctly?

Please explain how this book should make an Indigenous person feel “honored.”


Theresa Seidel

Note: I did send a letter to Jan Brett on her “contact the author” portion of her web page, so that she could reply to me in private. She did not reply to my letter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Published in 1996, Mihesuah's book, American Indians: Stereotypes & Realities has, fortunately, been reprinted several times. Studying its listings in WorldCat, it looks like universities throughout the country have the book, but, not many public or school libraries.

I urge you to get a copy for your library. It is a very reader-friendly book and will help teachers, librarians, and parents spot stereotypes and counter them in their conversations with children and adults. And, it will be helpful to, in book selection and lesson planning.

In her Introduction, Mihesuah notes that old movies such as The Searchers, The Unforgiven, and White Comanche were filled with blatant racism, but more recent films such as Dances With Wolves miss the mark, too. Specifically, she says this about Dances With Wolves:

"...the Lakotas, a tribe popular among hobbyists and New Agers, are positively portrayed as people with human emotions, values, and spirituality, whereas Pawnees, whose culture is no less humane than that of the Lakotas, were insultingly characterized as barbaric. As so few movies portray Indians in their current circumstances, a movie so widely popular as this one tends to perpetuate the image of Indians as living in the world of the past, and however inadvertently, reinforces the belief tha all Indians were just like the Lakotas of the northern Plains" (p. 10).

Each chapter begins with a stereotypical statement, immediately followed by a "Reality" in boldface.

For example, chapter [14] starts like this:

Indians get a free ride from the government

The benefits Indians receive from the government derive from treaty agreements, which purport to compensate them for the surrender of some or all of their invaluable lands

It is followed by a discussion and, in most chapters, a list of recommended readings. The chapters are a few pages each and include maps and photographs, too.

Here's the entire Table of Contents:

[1] Indians are all alike

[2] Indians were conquered because they were inferior

[3] If Indians had united, they could have prevented the European invasion

[4] Indians have no civilization until Europeans brought it to them

[5] Indians arrived in this hemisphere via the Siberian Land Bridge

[6] Indians were warlike and treacherous

[7] Indians had nothing to contribute to Europeans or to the growth of America

[8] Indians did not value or empower women

[9] Indians have no religion

[10] Indians welcome outsiders to study and participate in their religious ceremonies

[11] Indians are a vanished race

[12] Indians are confined to reservations, live in tipis, wear braids, and ride horses

[13] Indians have no reason to be unpatriotic

[14] Indians get a free ride from the government

[15] Indians' affairs are managed for them by the B.I.A.

[16] Indians are not capable of completing school

[17] Indians cannot vote or hold office

[18] Indians have a tendency toward alcoholism

[19] "My grandmother was an Indian"

[20] Indians are all fullbloods

[21] All Indians have an "Indian name"

[22] Indians know the histories, languages, and cultural aspects of their own tribe and all other tribes

[23] Indians are stoic and have no sense of humor

[24] Indians like having their picture taken

And, there's great material in her appendices:

APPENDIX A: Do's and don't for those who teach American Indian history and culture

APPENDIX B: Suggested guidelines for institutions with scholars who conduct research on American Indians

APPENDIX C: Course outline for American Indian history and culture survey with suggested projects

APPENDIX D: Outline for course "American Indian Women in History"

Mihesuah is Choctaw, and is currently a professor at the University of Kansas. Click here to visit her webpage at KU.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Below is my first post to this blog, dated May 8, 2006. In preparing an article about my work as a blogger, I am revisiting--in my memory and with my laptop--the time when I created this blog. I'm reposting that first post today because in it, I reference those from whom I learn and learned, and I want to remind readers that we all learn from someone.



May 8, 2006

I started this blog in May. This is my second post.

A reader asked (in comments to first post) if I know the work of Ani Rucki. I don't know Rucki's work.

It is the case that there's a boatload of children's books about American Indians out there. Kate Shanley, an enrolled Assiniboine woman from the Fort Peck reservation and professor of Native American Studies at the University of Montana-Missoula, has a terrific article in which she talks about "the Indians America loves to love." That love drives a lot of people to write what they think are stories about American Indians. Their stories, however, are based on pop culture and romantic/savage ideas about who we are. (Note: Shanley's article is called "The Indians America Loves to Love and Read," in AMERICAN INDIAN QUARTERLY, 1997, p. 675-702.)

I don't know anything about Rucki, but my experience has taught me that, chances are, any given children's book about American Indians has major flaws.

I've been studying and writing about children's books about American Indians since 1994 when I began work on my PhD. Prior to that, I taught elementary and middle school in New Mexico and Oklahoma. I am tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, in northern New Mexico. I was raised there, and return home for the usual (weddings/funerals), but also for religious and spiritual gatherings.

As a schoolteacher, I taught my students about bias and stereotypes, about how books can be wrong. In graduate school, I honed my research and critical analysis skills. I've learned a great deal from others. Some key books include:



Kathleen Horning's COVER TO COVER

Betsy Hearne's two articles CITE THE SOURCE and RESPECT THE SOURCE

Below are some of the questions I have in my head whenever I sit down to analyze a Native story that is called a folktale. I invite conversation/discussion with readers of the blog about the questions.

When I consider a folktale, some things I look for are:

1) Is the person listed as the author listed as a "reteller"? That is, on the cover and/or on the title page, is the book "By Ani Rucki" or "Retold by Ani Rucki."

2) In the author's note, or in a source note, does Rucki say where she heard the story, or what source she found it in?

3) If Rucki provides info about her source, does she provide enough detail so that I could find the source if I wanted to?

4) In the author's note, does Rucki tell the reader the ways in which she changed/edited the story and why?

5) In a couple of reviews, there is mention that this is a Navajo folktale. How is that information provided in the book? Is it implied in the story itself or stated on the cover or title page?

I hope readers of the blog are interested in conversation about the questions I've listed above. My first post was a list of books, but my goal is for others to learn how to critically evaluate children's books about American Indians. With such skills, you own that knowledge and can carry and apply it with you wherever you go.

Before you leave this post, take a look at Headlines at National Native News and once there, click on "Today In History."

Thursday, December 13, 2007


[This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin of Oyate.]


Turner, Ann, Sitting Bull Remembers, illustrated by Wendell Minor. HarperCollins, 2007. Unpaginated, color paintings, grades 3-5; Hunkpapa Lakota

The text of Sitting Bull Remembers is vaguely reminiscent of Eve Bunting’s awful Cheyenne Again, in which a Cheyenne youngster at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School draws in a ledger book and, in his heart, is home again. Here, “Sitting Bull,” incarcerated at an unnamed place that is probably Fort Randall, remembers his life of freedom.

In this dark room,

in this place of fences, strange smells,

and men with yellow eyes

where finally I am caught

and cannot get free,

I close my eyes and am home again….

The name of the revered Hunkpapa visionary, philosopher and war leader was Tatanka Iotanka. When he autographed picture postcards during his gigs with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he signed his name “Sitting Bull,” and his signatory pictograph shows a buffalo bull sitting on his haunches. Although he has come to be known as “Sitting Bull,” that was not how he referred to himself. Tatanka Iotanka was not a “chief,” although the whites called him that, and his people were not the “Sioux,” although the whites called them that. Turner’s historical note at the end of the book is full of inaccuracies.

Tatanka Iotanka was beloved by his people and respected by his enemies. As Doris Seale wrote about another author of another book dealing with the same people and the same time period, “Assigning thoughts, feelings and motivations to one biographee is risky business, especially when writing about someone who essentially inhabited a different universe.” Doing this in a picture book is doubly risky, because fewer words have to tell a larger story, and pictures have to convey a larger meaning. There aren’t too many people who can successfully bring this off, and Turner and Minor can’t either.

The problems they were unable to—or unwilling to—deal with include cultural markers that they don’t recognize, but apparently think they do. An example: Turner’s “Sitting Bull” narrates an episode to demonstrate to the young reader the important attribute of generosity. This is how it comes out:

Once, chasing buffalo, an older man’s

bow broke and he could not shoot.

Another hunter lost his horse early in the chase.

That day I shot four buffalo and gave away two,

so no one would go to his tipi empty-handed.

Minor’s painting here shows a solitary Sitting Bull shooting a solitary buffalo. Neither text nor painting contains any internal logic. Where, one might ask, is the rest of the hunting party? Where, one might also ask, is the rest of the herd? And what on earth, one would most probably ask, did Sitting Bull do with the other two buffalo? Eat them himself? He would’ve had to be very hungry.

Minor’s art integrates double-page watercolor and gouache paintings with two-dimensional colored pencil ledger-style illustrations. While some of the pictographs have been copied almost exactly from Sitting Bull’s visual autobiography (see, for instance, counting first coup at age fourteen), others are outrageously flawed. For instance, the pictograph representing Sitting Bull’s vision before the Custer fight of “blue soldiers riding upside down into our village” came straight out of Turner’s and Minor’s imaginations, rather than Sitting Bull’s experience. Sitting Bull actually recounted his vision of “soldiers falling upside down into camp” as a gift from the Creator, who told him, “I give you these, because they have no ears.” Minor’s painting of Sitting Bull sitting alone on an ammo box and holding a Calf Pipe is taken from a photo of him with Seen-by-the-Nation, the elder of his two wives, when they were prisoners at Fort Randall in 1882. And Minor’s representation of a monarch butterfly perched on Sitting Bull’s hat both on the cover and the first interior spread (implying that it has some spiritual significance, maybe a spirit guide?) was actually a dead butterfly pinned to his hatband in a well-known portrait.

There is more just like this, in word and picture. Turner’s “Sitting Bull” is incredulous at the “noise and smoke and greed” of the white people. “I do not understand such ways,” he says. “They are not the way of the Sioux.” And elsewhere, he asks, “How could they break their word for the sake of a yellow rock?” Tatanka Iotanka was a military genious and a diplomat as well. He was not ignorant and he was not blindsided by the ways of the enemy.

After Turner’s “Sitting Bull” has surrendered, he says,

Here I am—the one they wanted—

the medicine man, the war leader,

caught like a bear in a trap

without claws (they took my weapons)

and with only some of my people left.

Now the white men give us food,

and the once proud warriors are like toothless old ones,

dependent on gifts.

It is doubtful that Tatanka Iotanka ever felt sorry for himself. And it is doubly doubtful that he would have disrespected elders in this way. Yet this dreadful dirge-like account of his life continues all through this story.

In the final two-page spread, a meadowlark sits on a piece of deadwood in a barren meadow, and Turner’s “Sitting Bull” says,

But when I open my eyes

it is all gone,

and only my voice is left,

telling of how it used to be.

But Sitting Bull’s voice is Turner’s voice. It’s clear she doesn’t know anything about Sitting Bull or anything about the land he and his people inhabited and fought to keep. A Lakota friend said about this book, “What arrogance, what hubris, to put words in Sitting Bull’s mouth.” And another Lakota friend remarked, “This is kind of pathetic.”

The author’s and artist’s caveats nothwithstanding (Turner’s, that her work is an “imaginative exploration of the side of history that the facts cannot always give us” and Minor’s, that “artistic license has been taken to create the strongest visual story”), there is no excuse for what they have done. Sitting Bull Remembers is no better than Turner’s atrocious The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita.—Beverly Slapin

Monday, December 10, 2007


Richard Van Camp's Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns will be given to every newborn baby born in British Columbia in 2008. Irked Magazine has a couple of images from inside the book. Click on the link, scroll down, and click on the pics of the babies. They'll pop up much larger than you see here. According to the article in Irked, the book gift program is the "Books for BC Babies" initiative. Over 42,000 babies will be born in BC during 2008; over 42,000 families will have this gem in their home.

That is awesome! Congratulations, Richard!

Any library in the world that serves children ought to get several copies of this book. And readers who know of newborns or about-to-be-newborns, ought to give this book to the family. At present, it is (as far as I know) only available from Oyate.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Graham Greene's comment on stereotypes/appropriation

Graham Greene is Oneida, and is, perhaps, the most recognizable Native actor in film and TV today. In this clip I found on YouTube, he offers a comment on stereotyping and appropriation.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Sadly, another excellent book about American Indians is out of print... Michael Lacapa's Less Than Half, More Than Whole. You can get used copies on the web, but if you want a new copy, go to Oyate.

They also have an audiotape of the book.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Several months ago, I learned from Richard Van Camp that he had a board book in the works. It is out now, but you can't get it from Orca, the publisher. I tried. It's on backorder. You can get it, though, from Oyate.

Below is a review of the book, written by Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.
Van Camp, Richard (Dogrib), Welcome Song for Baby: A lullaby for newborns. Orca, 2007, color photos, preschool-up
Hey ya hey
Hey ya hey
Hey ya hey
Dear one
Cherished one
Loved one
You have made the world beautiful again
It’s said in some Indian nations that babies are especially sacred because they’ve just come from the Spirit World. In making this lovely little board book, Van Camp said he went back into his heart and mind to the potlatches, giveaways and feasts to witness the honoring and spirit of celebration and becoming a family. The color photographs, of babies together with their parents, together with other babies, asleep, sleepy and looking at their new world, perfectly complement Van Camp’s lullaby.
Welcome Song is a song of hope, a song of joy, a song of celebration, an honoring song for babies and the promise they bring to the universe—Beverly Slapin

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


When Ten Little Indians came out in 2004, Alexie did an interview with Wisconsin's Public Radio program "To the Best of our Knowledge." Click here to listen to it. Ten Little Indians is a terrific collection of short stories.

The segment also includes an interview with Gayle Ross. She's a storyteller and writer. I really like her books. One is The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale, which she did with Joseph Bruchac. Illustrations for that book are by Virginia A. Stroud. The beauty and importance of this book begins with Stroud's "Illustrator's Note" and Bruchac and Ross's "The Origin of the Story," both of which precede the story. In these notes, readers learn how illustrators and writers can prepare their work in a way that conveys a fundamental respect for Native peoples, their histories, and their stories.

Equally important is what you see when you open the book and start reading the story:

See the family? They aren't in some fake tipi... They're in a living room, much like yours or mine, with a fireplace and a big comfy chair. This opening visually grounds the story and Native people in the present day.

The first line is "This is what the old people told me when I was a child." None of that "many moons ago" or "in the days of the ancients" kind of prose that too many non-Native writers use!

Note, too, that it is tribally specific, right up front in the title. It says "A Cherokee Tale."

The closing page returns to the present day, with the grandparent and two children outside looking up at the stars of the Milky Way.

This book is far better than Rodanas's Dragonfly's Tale, or Pollock's Turkey Girl. If you recently bought one of them, take it right back to the store and get your money back. Ask, instead, for The Story of the Milky Way. This is one you can count on.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Alexie on Charlie Rose, 1998

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

Knowing teachers spend a fair amount of time developing background to teach certain novels, I'm providing this interview of Sherman Alexie. He was on Charlie Rose, 1998, talking about his then-released film SMOKE SIGNALS. If you're going to teach Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, you may consider viewing SMOKE SIGNALS, too. Preview it first, though. Make sure it will fare well in your school's video policy.