Tuesday, January 29, 2008

John Smelcer's Identity

Since posting this in 2008, I've written additional items about Smelcer. See them here: AICL's posts about John Smelcer


In the update to my post on Sunday about John Smelcer, I said that readers had written to me, saying that Smelcer is not Native. I checked into it and found some deeply troubling articles published in 1994 the Anchorage Daily News.

The upshot? He is not Native.

This situation makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. I dislike exploring the background of an author. It feels icky. But a greater concern is the integrity of the work of Native peoples.

There is a long history by which Native peoples and our cultures are deemed irrelevant, rendered invisible, tokenized, and appropriated. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, one of our leading scholars in Native studies, writes about this in her books and articles. She says that the thrust of Native studies is to form an educational strategy for the defense of our tribal nations, and the defense of our land and treaty rights. Another scholar, David Wilkins, asks us to consider how our work affects the continued existence of our nations.

My own area of research and writing is centered on children's books. Part of this work means, for me, consideration of the creation of these books. It means doing what I can to guide readers to work with integrity, that is respectful of Native peoples, our histories, our futures.

I will repeat here what I said yesterday. I do not draw hard and fast lines, saying that only Native people can write stories about Native people. Some wonderful books about American Indians have been written by people who are not themselves Native.

This post is going to get over-long and complicated, so I'll return for now to Smelcer.

Here is what I learned from the Anchorage Daily News article called "UAA Finds Professor Isn't Native. University Reviewing Records." It was in the Metro Section of the Final Edition on May 3, 1994, on page 1.

  • He was hired the previous year by the University of Alaska Anchorage in their effort to increase the ethnic diversity among its faculty. Administrators at the university were under the impression he was Native.
  • In a letter sent to UAA prior to his hire, he said he was "affiliated with Ahtna" and referred to his "Native American Indian heritage."
  • The head of Ahtna, a man named Roy Ewan, wrote a letter of recommendation for Smelcer, that said "Ahtna recognizes John Smelcer's tribal membership."
It isn't clear to me yet how or why his identity was challenged. Information about that identity was brought to the attention of the university. Some of that is:
  • He was adopted by a Native man named Charlie Smelcer, who said "He's a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian just like anyone else is."
  • Ewan said his letter was a mistake. He said "When they told me this guy was Charlie Smelcer's son, I just assumed it was his blood son," Ewan said.
The article said that Smelcer did not believe he had misrepresented himself. This is an excerpt from that portion of the article:
"I was very careful with the dictionary, finding that word 'affiliated,'" he said, "After all, I was an English major."

Smelcer also said he knew his letter would leave the impression that he was an Alaska Native by birth. He said he considered himself a Native even though his parents were not. "My entire life has been surrounded by my Alaska Native family," he said.

But in a telephone interview from Juneau, Charlie Smelcer flatly denied that description. The senior Smelcer, a retired Army officer, said that, "in no way, shape or form" was John Smelcer raised in a Native environment.

"He was a middle-class kid who grew up around a military environment, with cars and television and everything else like that," Smelcer said. "If he's used my Native heritage for his personal or professional gain, then that's wrong."
Smelcer said that nobody at UAA ever asked him "point blank" if he was "a blood Indian." The article concludes with this:
But Smelcer said he did not know whether he would be able to pursue his academic career now. The recent interest in his birth and background had left him feeling confused, he said. "Suddenly, I don't know who I am anymore."
Additional articles in the Anchorage Daily News indicate that he resigned his position in the middle of the university's investigation--not about his identity--but on "whether he told the truth about having poetry accepted for publication in the New Yorker magazine and other journals," (see "UAA Professor Quits among Credentials Probe," August 3rd). The paper says there was a forged letter in his files from an editor at the New Yorker. Smelcer says he didn't put it there. Other presses Smelcer was going to have poems published in denied that they were going to publish his poems.

So... That is what I've learned so far.

The politics of identity within Native circles can be vicious and ugly. There's a lot at stake. Writers of Native stories know that the book buying public will be more inclined to buy a book written by a Native author. Claims are made, but not checked. This happens all across the country, in many, many places. Some claims are flat-out fraudulent. Some are misguided. Others are very thin. And some, like Smelcer's, are both tragic and outrageous.

Publishers or reviewers could ask, point blank, "are you...." of authors who claim Native heritage or identity. But they don't ask that of other writers, so, is it appropriate to do so here? These are very complex matters, but they are important, and they require a lot of reading and thinking to understand these complexities.

One good text to read to begin exploring the identity question is Eva Garroutte's Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America.

Update: Sunday, Feb 3. All the information in the Anchorage Daily News has been confirmed as accurate. My inquiries to the Ahtna tribal office were directed to John Smelcer's father, who told me that his comments in the Anchorage paper are accurate.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

John Smelcer's THE TRAP

5:29 in the morning in Illinois. Still dark out. I made some coffee and started reading John Smelcer's The Trap. I'm on page 25, not racing through it.

Savoring it, instead, because Smelcer's words, his descriptions... They're so evocative of my early childhood. I stayed with my grandparents a lot when I was little. Our houses, made by my grandfather and father out of adobe, were connected to each other, sharing a common wall at one end, with our house perpendicular to theirs.

The door to my grandmother's house opened right into the small kitchen. To the right was a table on which stood buckets of water that we'd haul from the river that runs through our reservation. That was before the Bureau of Reclamation build a dam to regulate the water. Sometimes there was a lot of water, sometimes it was a trickle, and after a thunderstorm, there was often a roaring flood. In the winter, we'd take a hatchet with us so we could get to the water beneath. (For those who don't know northern New Mexico, it is more like Colorado than Arizona.)

To the left was my grandma's wood stove. It had a damper on it that, in my mind's eye, I can see her reach out to adjust. There was always a pot of coffee on that stove. And underneath it was "the pot" we'd use during the night if we had to pee. Out by the woodpile was the outhouse.

The floor was wood planks, polished smooth, placed over the ground. Knotholes had lids from tin cans nailed over them. I'll have to ask my dad if there was a time when a rattlesnake was living underneath the planks. It's a memory, but, I don't remember how they got it out. It may have only been the vivid imagination of a kid.

In the evenings, I'd play at her feet, counting and sorting the buttons in her tin button box. I'd watch her feet work the paddle of her sewing machine as she sewed. I don't have a clear memory of what she made. Quilts, maybe, out of old clothes. But also traditional clothing we wear for our dances.

Reading Smelcer's book reminds me of all this. His characters and setting are very real to me. His story is set in the far north. I grew up in northern New Mexico. Hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, apart, but still so close.

More later...

UPDATE, JAN 28, 2008
---I'm hearing from readers about Smelcer's background, specifically, that he is not Native. As readers of this blog know, questions about Native identity are very complex. US government policies figure prominently in discussions of identity, largely because of programs that sought to "kill the Indian, save the man" and others like those through which Native women were sterilized against their knowledge and/or against their will. I don't know, yet, what the concerns are with respect to Smelcer's identity, but will post them here when I know more.

As I noted above, I've only begun reading his book. If the quality of the writing and its feel, for me, remain strong throughout, some may ask what it means with respect to the "who-can-write" insider-outsider debate. It does not, in my view, mean only Native people can write Native stories. What was, and will be, troubling, is the USE of Native identity when the person is not Native.

With that statement, we get into the "who gets to say" question about whether or not someone is Native. To that, my response is... Does the tribe claim that person? I can say I'm Nambe all I want, but if our tribal council doesn't claim me, then my claim is empty. Tribes differ in how they make those decisions. There are hundreds of tribes, bands, nations, and we all have different histories and ways of governing.

This very conversation about identity makes people nervous and anxious, and I suspect that some will say "why bother" when it is so complex. Some will say "let the book and the writing speak for itself." That is ALREADY the case in much of mainstream society. Looking at such things in isolation, however, is a disservice to all concerned. Context matters. History matters. These are questions of ethics and morality.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Reviewing Children's Books for Major Journals

I am often asked why I don't review for the major children's lit review journals (Horn Book, School Library Journal, etc.).

Back in the 1996, I was a book reviewer for Horn Book Guide. I occasionally review a book for them now, but that is rare. I don't recall exactly when I quit, but there were several reasons. I was a grad student then, and doing a thorough review takes a long time.... I needed that time for my studies.

There was another reason, though, that I stopped reviewing for them on a regular basis. That reason is the subject of an article I wrote that was published in Studies in American Indian Literatures. The article, "Contesting Ideology in Children's Book Reviewing," is online here.

In the article, I discuss the rejection of a review that I submitted. I gave the book a negative review because it shows a boy playing Indian. My review was rejected. The editor, Roger Sutton, said "We review books not on the basis of what they say, but on how well we judge them to say it." He said he understood my objection, but that Horn Book was not the place for that critique.

I thought he was wrong, and I was pretty steamed. I sought to explore my idea that Horn Book was not serving librarians with its adherence to literary criteria. I learned a great deal through that exploration, as articulated in the article.

That was ten years ago.

Since then, I've met Roger and many others. As Sherman Alexie said, the people in children's book world are really nice. Within this community, there are points we will never agree on. But we keep talking.

In May of 2006, I started this blog as a means to keep talking in an unfiltered, unedited, unrejectable way. Here, I share my perspective, research, and expertise on representations of American Indians in children's books, pop culture, etc. I sought to make it a resource, too, linking to items written by people that I've learned from. In some ways, it is a cyberspace classroom.

This cyberspace classroom allows me to provide reviews and a perspective that I can't give you through the mainstream journals. In some ways, it is a journal.

Last week I asked people to write to me, telling me how they use the things I put here. I learned it is used in college courses, and by librarians, as a selection aide. Authors wrote to me, too, as did editors. If you're among those who wrote, please know that I am deeply grateful. Your words confirm my belief that this is an important undertaking.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

AILA's "American Indian Youth Literature Awards"

As noted last week, the American Indian Library Association (AILA) announced recipients of its American Indian Youth Literature Award. Click here to read the press release. It includes information about the books, and details regarding when the awards will be presented to the recipients. If you've got questions, contact information for the Chair of the award committee is listed at the top right. Her name is Naomi Caldwell. She is co-author of two excellent items the blog links to:

"I is for Inclusion: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People"


I is not for Indian: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People


Sunday, January 20, 2008


A new book from Tim Tingle...  But first, a few words about his Crossing Bok Chitto.

Last week, Tim Tingle's excellent Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom, was the recipient of the American Indian Library Association's Youth Literature Award. Published in 2006, it is one of the brightest spots in that year's picture books. It is set during the time when Choctaw's were forced to leave their homelands in Mississippi, and the relationship is between the Choctaw's and a Black family who, with the help of the Choctaw's, escaped the plantation and slavery. Tingle is Choctaw, and he's a storyteller. In an essay included in the book, he says:

Crossing Bok Chitto is a tribute to the Indians of every nation who aided the runaway people of bondage. Crossing Bok Chitto is an Indian book and documented the Indian way, told and told again and then passed on by uncles and grandmothers. In this new format, this book way of telling, Crossing Bok Chitto is for both the Indian and the non-Indian. We Indians need to know and embrace our past. Non-Indians should know the sweet and secret fire, as secret as the stones, that drives the Indian heart and keeps us so determined that our way, a way of respect for others and the land we live on, will prevail.”

On November 1st, 2006, I published here Beverly Slapin's review of Crossing Bok Chitto. There was a brief---but fascinating and informative---series of comments to that post. I encourage you to read them.

In 2007, August House published Tingle's When Turtle Grew Feathers: A Folktale from the Choctaw Nation. I read it aloud last weekend in my office (nobody there but me), thoroughly enjoying the story and opportunities to play with voice. The opening gives you an inkling of what I mean...

"Most everybody knows about the race between Turtle and Rabbit. But the Choctaw people tell the story differently. They say that the reason Rabbit couldn't outrun Turtle was that he wasn't racing a turtle at all. He only thought he was. It all took place on the day when Turtle grew feathers."


Kids will love When Turtle Grew Feathers!

I love it. It joins Joseph Bruchac and Gayle Ross's The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale at the top of my list of traditional Native stories in picture book format. Why? There's no ambiguity in its origin or in its title or in its marketing... It's subtitle isn't "A Native American folktale." It is specific. This is a story from the Choctaw people.

But there's even more specificity in Tingle's subtitle. He uses the word "Nation" thereby conveying a fundamental piece of information about American Indians. When we use that word, we do because of legal relationships American Indians have with the United States government. We have nation-to-nation, negotiated, diplomatic relationships. That's more information than a teacher may want to impart to a classroom of kindergarten children, but it IS important information for the teacher interested in providing her students with stories about American Indians that come from Native people for whom the story is a living entity. For your reference, click here to visit the Choctaw Nation's website.

Back to the book.

It was favorably reviewed by the mainstream review journals, which is cool, but here's something wonderful...

It is available in a "Classroom Backpack" that includes 7 paperback copies of the book, and a CD of Tim reading the story. DO order a copy of the book, and consider getting the backpack, too. And, take a look at Tim's website. He does a LOT of school visits. Invite him to your school!

(Note to New Jersey librarians: I'll feature the book at my session there in April.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A child's experience with CADDIE WOODLAWN

Comment posted today, by Jeff, regarding his daughter, who has been asked to read Caddie Woodlawn... The comment is the third one posted to "Reflections on CADDIE WOODLAWN" posted on March 17, 2007.

If you are able, Jeff, keep us updated!

Monday, January 14, 2008

2008 American Indian Youth Literature Award

The American Library Association announced its awards today. Affiliated with the ALA is the
American Indian Library Association. They, too, announced their awards today.

Picture book...
Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw tale of Friendship, published by Cinco Puntos Press, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridge.

Middle School...
Joseph Medicine Crow's Counting Coup: Becoming a Crow Chief on the Reservation and Beyond, published by National Geographic

Young Adult...
Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published by Little Brown, art by Ellen Forney

These are TERRIFIC books, and I hope that every school and public library in the United States and Canada order multiple copies right away. And if you're not bound by specific agreements to buy books from a jobber, please order them from Oyate.

Congratulations to the all those involved in bringing these wonderful books to us!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Romantic Fiction, Historical Fiction, and American Indians

This may seem a bit off-topic because it isn't ABOUT children's or young adult books/media...

I'm speaking about authors who use Native imagery in their writing. Specifically, I'm talking about Cassie Edwards, who writes romance fiction, purchased---presumably---by librarians, teachers, and moms across the country. She is, in fact, regarded as one of the top ten best-selling writers of this genre. She's written two series in which the hunk is a savage Indian. Literally, one of her Indian-themed series is called "The Savage Indian" series.

She's been in the news this past week. Media scrutiny began with a blog that listed, side by side, excerpts from one of her books, with excerpts from other books. In comparing the two sets of excerpts, the blogger calls them "Startling and Eerie Similarities." The AP picked up the story, and today's NY Times has it, too.

Here's an excerpt from the NY Times article:

In the novel “Shadow Bear,” published by Signet in 2007, the bloggers said a reader was able to find lines that appear to have come, with little or no modification, from a few sources, though mostly from a novel, “Land of the Spotted Eagle” by Luther Standing Bear, and an article about black-footed ferrets from Defenders of Wildlife magazine.
It is outrageous, of course, and plenty of folks are pretty steamed about it. She is far from the first to do this, however, to books written by Native people.

Children's book author Ann Rinaldi did something akin to this in her book My Heart is on the Ground. Myself and several of my colleagues wrote an extended essay about that book. The first essay appeared in Rethinking Schools. and later on in Multicultural Review, and Multicultural Education. A longer critique is at the Oyate site, and if you wish to compare passages Rinaldi used with the writings of others, read '"Literary License" or "Muted Plagiarism?"' She, too, used Luther Standing Bear's writing.

Questionable use of sources aside, Edwards' books are best sellers, but they're dangerous in this way. She does some research, enough to be able to introduce plots that hook the reader with a semblance of authenticity.

For example, the heroine in one of her books is the daughter of an anthropologist who works for the Smithsonian. He's out west to gather information about Indians before they vanish. That activity did, in fact, take place. The Smithsonian sent people out west to collect information, under the notion that Indians were about to vanish. So, Edwards has a hook.

Now we're learning, according to the news reports, she's using material from Native and non-Native sources to flesh out her stories. If she acknowledged her sources, that could be seen as a good strategy.

However! The stories themselves are so deeply enmeshed and woven with romantic, tragic, stereotypical characters, that the novels work towards strengthening and affirming the readers mistaken ideas about who American Indians were and are.

What is troubling is that some (most?) of Edwards' fans buy books for children. And, they likely draw on their "knowledge" about Indians to make their choices. Hence, it is hard to interrupt the sales of children's books filled with stereotypical imagery. In short, Edwards success feeds the on-going creation and consumption of stereotypical children's books about American Indians.

With Edwards writing for the adult market and Rinaldi writing for the children's market, all of us are caught in a destructive cycle that must be stopped. Every reader, Native and non-Native, from babies to elders, should learn that American Indians are not mere figments of the past, but people of today who live lives much like any-American.

It is likely that many who read this will object to my criticism of Ann Rinaldi, a favorite in the children's writing community. Some will be moved to defend her. Poor Ann Rinaldi.

To which I reply "Really? How about all those kids who read her book and think they've learned something or gained insight to American Indians? How about feeling some outrage on their behalf?"

If you've got Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground in your library, pull it. Throw it away, or, use it in a critical media lesson.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


News to me, but very cool news!

Alexie's 2nd YA Novel: Radioactive Love Song"

So far it is only listed with Amazon Canada, with a pub date of Sep 09...

Publisher is Little Brown...

Interview with him at Pop Candy says:

Well, after the success of this book, do you plan to work on more young-adult fiction?

I will be delivering another one soon. I can tell you the title of it: Radioactive Love Song. It's about an urban Indian kid's epic odyssey in a car with an iPod stuffed with his mother's favorite love songs.

Note: Over on the right side of this page, down at the bottom, I've added a new section called "Reese's Get---Reject List" in response to lot of questions I get along the line of "what shall I get instead of..."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

First Nations writers Larry Loyie and Nicola Campbell

Pointing you, today, to an interview at papertigers.org. In the interview (conducted by Aline Pereira) Cree writer Larry Loyie talks about his life, his books, and his views on books about First Nations people. Back in July of 2006, I included his As Long as the Rivers Flow in a short list of books about boarding schools that I recommend.

Since then, I've read Nicola Campbell's Shi-Shi-Etko and also highly recommend it. Read a review of her book here.

If you've got Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is On the Ground, replace it with As Long as the Rivers Flow. And if you've got Eve Bunting's Cheyenne Again, replace it with Nicola Campbell's Shi-shi-etko. Rinaldi and Bunting are well-established writers, but both missed the mark in their books about boarding schools. Keeping their books means, in effect, continuing a long history of mis-educating readers about American Indian and First Nations history, culture, and life. You have the option of providing your students with better books. It sounds corny, but I'll say it anyway: Seize that opportunity!

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 http://www.atanarjuat.com/galleries/movie.php).

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, Amazon.com, Alibris.com, and many, many more booksellers. After reading the publisher’s synopsis at www.marionboyars.co.uk, 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)