Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Margaret Craven's I HEARD THE OWL CALL MY NAME


[This review used here by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission. You may link to it from another site, but cannot paste the entire review on your site.]

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Craven, Margaret, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. New York: Doubleday (1973). 159 pages; grades 7-up; Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl)

It is possible for an author to put down, in truth and beauty, the lives of a people not her own. Such authors are few and far between. Margaret Craven is one of them.

Mark Brian is a young vicar, dying but not knowing it, assigned to minister to the bishop's “hardest parish,” the Kwakiutl village of Quee (“inside place”), which the whites call Kingcome. He encounters a place of incomparable beauty and a people of ancient tradition and ceremony, of prefabricated houses and an alien­ated younger gen­eration. In this place, and from these people, he learns of living and dying, of compas­sion and commitment.

Writing in the third person, Craven clearly and with great good humor sympathizes with the villagers. She describes how they take revenge on the intruders by serving them mashed turnips, and how they “cautiously confabulate” about the newcomer's “looks, his manners, even his clean fingernails.” “He will be no good at hunting and fish­ing,” Jim tells Chief Eddy.

He knows little of boats. All the time he says we. “Shall we have dinner now? Shall we tie up here?” Pretty soon he will say, “Shall we build a new vicarage?” He will say we and he will mean us.

Craven has the handful of white characters doing and saying things that will have (at least) Indian readers chuckling. Such as the British anthropologist who insists on calling the people “Quackadoodles.” “For the past century in England,” she argues, “this band has been known as the Quackadoodles and as the Quackadoodles, it will be known forever.” And there is the teacher:

This was the teacher's second year in the village. He did not like the Indians and they did not like him.... The teacher had come to the village solely for the isolation pay which would permit him a year in Greece studying the civilization he adored.

Craven's writing is spare, simple, and beautiful, with understanding and compassion. Here, the swimmer, having laid her eggs, meets her end:

They moved again and saw the end of the swimmer. They watched her last valiant fight for life, her struggle to right herself when the gentle stream turned her, and they watched the water force open her gills and draw her slowly downstream, tail first, as she had started to the sea as a fingerling.

After Mark has died, and the villagers have laid him to rest, she writes:

Past the village flowed the river, like time, like life itself, waiting for the swimmer to come again on his way to the climax of his adventurous life, and to the end for which he had been made. Wa Laum. That is all.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a book of great beauty that can teach much, without polemic, for those who will listen.

—Beverly Slapin

Monday, September 03, 2007

New Study: "...Exploring How Indians and Non-Indians Think About Each Other"

PUBLIC AGENDA issued a new report a few days ago, subtitled "A Qualitative Study Exploring How Indians and non-Indians Think About Each Other." Note the word "qualitative" in that subtitle. It means the research consists of interviews. In this case, the researchers interviewed people in 12 focus groups: "7 with Indians, including 2 conducted in the Crow language, and 5 with non-Indians."

Called Walking a Mile: A First Step Toward Mutual Understanding," it is definitely worth reading. How does is relate to children's books about American Indians? There are references in the report to the way American Indian content is taught in schools. An excerpt from page 9:

"...historical depictions and school curricula about American Indians have changed in the last 30 to 40 years, providing a more balanced picture of U.S. history. However, a few felt that even these depictions are too often superficial, relegated to elementary school or laden with political correctness."

Read the report. How do your thoughts align with those of the interviewees? Think about your teaching, or the books in your house/library/classroom. What role do they play in developing perceptions of American Indians?

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Eugene Sekaquaptewa's COYOTE AND THE WINNOWING BIRDS

Some time back, I discussed Beverly Blacksheep's board books that include English and Dine (Navajo) language. Today, I draw your attention to Eugene Sekaquaptewa's Coyote and the Winnowing Birds: A Traditional Hopi Tale.

The story is presented in English, but also in the Hopi language. And the illustrators are twenty-two children of the Hotevilla-Bacavi Community School at Hopi.

It is based on a story told by Eugene Sekaquaptewa, translated and edited by Emory Sekaquaptewa and Barbara Pepper.

In addition to the inclusion of Hopi language, note the style of telling the story itself. The first page reads:

Yaw Orayve yeesiwa.
Everyone was living at Oraibi.

One line of text, providing basic information in a straightforward way. There is no "many moons ago" or "in the days of the ancient ones" in this book. There is no romantic, waxing prose found in too many retellings of Native stories.

From my read of the story, the straightforward text communicates that the Hopi people are a people of the present day. Not vanished, or exotic. Any child picking up this book will recognize the art as something he or she could have produced. It is child art. But it is child art done by Hopi children, which communicates (as does the text) that Hopi children are part of the present day.

Designed for children at the school, the book includes information about the Hopi alphabet, a Hopi to English Glossary, and an English to Hopi Glossary. Still, any child will enjoy Coyote and the Winnowing Birds, and the other book in the series, Coyote and Little Turtle. They will go a long way in countering the misperception that Native peoples no longer exist.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Education of Little Tree (again) and Spirit Bear (again)

A North Carolina newspaper ran a column a few days ago, about the summer reading list for Kernodle Middle School. As teachers across the country plan for the coming year, the column, "Ahearn: 'Native' book on 7th-grade list a 'slap in the face'" is worth reading.

Ahearn (the columnist) did a fine job, noting the controversy that is the backstory of The Education of Little Tree, but also in her interview with Native parents and community members.

The school principal indicated the book is used at Kernodle, based on its inclusion on a list prepared by the National Middle School Association. I tried, unsuccessfully, to find the list. Is it on line somewhere?

Teachers across the country place great confidence in professional organizations. We should all remember that people in those organizations have been taught and socialized to view American Indians in limited, and too-often biased and stereotypical ways.

Change can happen, but it will be driven by teachers and parents and librarians who think critically about how American Indians are presented in books, stories, curriculum materials, movies, videos, cartoons, etc.

This blog/resource is intended to help with that effort. Read the articles and reviews. Visit the websites I link to.

I'm sure the teachers and staff at Kernodle are taken aback by the column and criticism's being directed at them. But as Ahearn noted, there's more information available now than ever before, and being proactive is necessary.

This blog has included discussion of The Education of Little Tree several times. I've also blogged several times about another book students at Kernodle are reading, Touching Spirit Bear. I hope you find them useful. Share them with teachers and librarians. Books like this cannot be used "as is." If you teach them, or read them, use the information presented below. Help children and teens to know that books are not sacred. They contain errors, and they often mislead and miseducate.

One family's experience with The Education of Little Tree

"Home of the Brave," by Paul Chaat Smith (critique of Brother Eagle Sister Sky and The Education of Little Tree

Forrest Carter's Education of Little Tree

A Review of Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear


Reaction to Slapin's review of Touching Spirit Bear

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Gail Haley's TWO BAD BOYS

[Eds. Note: This review used here with permission. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin and Gayle Ross.]

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Haley, Gail E., Two Bad Boys: A Very Old Cherokee Tale, illustrated by the author. New York: Dutton (1996). Unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 2-3; Cherokee

Let me first say two things. I don’t tell this story publicly. It’s part of the long creation story that is told in ceremony every year at Green Corn time. An elder once told me that the Earth needs to hear these stories, but how, when and to whom they are told must be respected.

The second thing is that, in order to tell a good story, you have to know that the story is alive. You have to make it comfortable in your interior landscape. Most Native stories that find themselves wandering around in the psyches of non-Native storytellers and writers would be in a place as foreign to them as Mars would be to the average Earth-dweller. That’s where you’d find something like Two Bad Boys.

Gail Haley’s retelling of our sacred story about Kanati and Selu mirrors the Christian myth about Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and how work came into the world.

In Haley’s version, First Man (Kanati, the Hunter), First Woman (Selu, the Corn Mother) and Boy lead an idyllic life, until Boy’s reflection in the river springs to life and becomes Wild Boy, Boy’s alter ego and trouble-making playmate. Wild Boy tempts the well-behaved Boy into mischief, involving freeing all of Kanati’s game animals from a cave and discovering Selu’s secret source of vegetables. And because of the two bad boys’ disobedience,

Since that time, people have had to hunt for their meat, plant their vegetables, and work in this world.

All of the major review journals praised this “cautionary tale about two bad boys whose actions change the world forever.” Publishers Weekly, for instance, called it “conscientiously researched,” and from Kirkus Reviews:
The transgression of moral authority and the dual nature of existence are themes which have echoes throughout western literature; this Cherokee legend confirms the universality of human nature.

But Two Bad Boys is not, in any way, at all, “a very old Cherokee tale,” nor is it, in any way, at all, what our story is about. There are layers and layers of meaning in this most sacred story that are contained in essential elements that Haley did away with in order to make it a “children’s story.” The entire process of eliminating what makes the story sacred is what makes Haley’s version a desecration. Two Bad Boys is the cultural equivalent of retelling the Easter Story and leaving out the crucifixion. It’s that insensitive.

“Sge, sge! Sge, sge! My story rattle has sounded; it is time to begin!” Haley begins. Turtle shell rattles are not green, blue, yellow and white—and our turtle shell rattle is not a story rattle. It is carried by our traditional healers, one of whom was Yunini (Swmmer), who told the story of Kanati and Selu to anthropologist James Mooney. Haley probably saw the photo of Yunini holding his turtle shell rattle in Mooney’s book and figured it was a “story rattle.”

Throughout Two Bad Boys, Haley changes our story to reflect her own Christian values. For instance, in our traditional story, the two boys spy on Kanati while he is hunting. They see him release the animals from the cave, and know how he always manages to find game. But in Haley’s version, Wild Boy, knowing the answer, asks Kanati where he finds such good meat, and Kanati responds:
Ah, my son…[I]t is the way of the Hunter to know the secrets of the four-leggeds and the winged ones. It is the proper way of young boys to accept what they are given and not ask so many questions.

The Christian concept that “children should be seen and not heard” is not an aspect of traditional Cherokee culture, nor is it in our stories.

From the very beginning Haley homogenizes and sanitizes all of the essential elements of our story. She glosses over where Wild Boy comes from. In our traditional story, Wild Boy is born from the blood of a piece of game that Selu was washing in the river. In Two Bad Boys, Haley has him just coming up out of the river to play with Boy.

In our story, Kanati and Selu catch Wild Boy and adopt him. Haley says in her story, “Ku! We all wish they had not; for although they had captured him, they could not tame him.” That’s editorializing and it’s not Cherokee. We would never say in a story that we wish something had or had not happened. The story is as the story is and it explains several important things.

Haley’s delineation of the two boys as good and evil with the evil boy always leading the good boy astray is not in our traditional story either. In our story, Wild Boy makes suggestions and the boys go off together and do their mischief. The moralistic tone Haley inserts in order to make the boys the focus of the story is completely at odds with our traditional story. Over and over again, she does this.
In our story, when Kanati discovers that the boys have released the game animals, he goes into the cave and kicks the covers off four jars. The boys are immediately covered in swarms of bedbugs, flies, lice and gnats, and they get stung. Then, Kanati says to them:
“Now, you rascals,” said he, “you’ve always had plenty to eat and never had to work for it. Whenever you were hungry all I had to do was to come up here and get a deer or a turkey and bring it home for your mother to cook; but now you have let out all the animals, and after this when you want a deer to eat you will have to hunt all over the woods for it, and then maybe not find one. Go home now to your mother, while I see if I can find something to eat for supper.” [1]

Haley’s version:
“You two bad boys did not heed my words,” he shouted. “Now I must go away. And you will have to track the animals and bring them down with bows and arrows. This you have brought on yourselves.” And he strode off to the Western Land of the Darkening Sun.

In our story, the boys go straight home to their mother who feeds them with corn and beans while they await Kanati’s return. Instead, Haley has the boys “cold as well as hungry,” having to “hunt every day to find enough meat just to stay alive.” During the long hard winter, they spend “many hours staring into the fire and regretting what they had done.”

The final part of our story—that Haley so desecrates here—is the hardest part to talk about. In our traditional story, when the boys see Selu making food from her body, they are horrified. They immediately decide that she is a witch and that they must kill her. As soon as she comes back into the house, she sees them and knows their minds. She allows the boys to kill her and sacrifice her body into the ground. She gives them detailed instructions on how to do this so that the corn will always grow and Selu will always continue to feed her people.

The whole rest of the story—Selu’s death, the preparation of the ground, how the corn grows from her blood—is very, very sacred. What happens after Kanati comes back and finds Selu gone is incredibly beautiful and powerful. This told story can—and often does—go on for hours.

The blood, the pain, the very real elements involved in two sons’ turning on and killing their mother—all of this represents a very sacred powerful aspect to the reverence in which we hold corn. Corn is never taken for granted. Corn is alive.

But here is how Haley disrespects and trivializes our story: After the “two bad boys” figure out how Selu produced the food, they do the same.

But when they came down the ladder, Selu was waiting for them. “You two bad boys,” she cried. “Because you have helped yourselves, our lives must change forever.” With a wave of her hand, the building pulled loose from the earth and flew away to the West.
“The corn and beans in your basket are all that you have left. From this time on, you must dig the earth, plant the seeds you hold, then tend and harvest the plants when they are ready,” she told them.

Then Selu flew away to join her husband in the Western Land of the Darkening Sun. Since that time, people have had to hunt for their meat, plant their vegetables, and work in this world.

A children’s book about the Easter Story, in which the author has left out the crucifixion because it is too bloody, would have been thoroughly trashed by professional reviewers. No question about it. Yet Haley’s superficial, Christianized, abominable retelling of what is without doubt one of the most powerful and sacred stories we hold, went unchallenged; and in fact, was highly praised.

No one has the right to do this. This review was a very painful thing for me to write.

—Gayle Ross



[1] I am quoting from our story of Kanati and Selu as told by Yunini (Swimmer), a traditional Cherokee healer and storyteller, to James Mooney, who published it in 1900 in Myths of the Cherokee. All of the stories that Swimmer told to Mooney are the most complete, the most detailed, of any in Mooney’s collection.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cynthia Leitich Smith at National Book Festival

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


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













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















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















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














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

The event takes place September 29th on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This is a repeat visit for Cynthia. She was there in 2002, along with Vine Deloria, Jr.
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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Caribou Song, by Tomson Highway


Tomson Highway's Picture Books

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


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

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

Saturday, August 04, 2007



Thomas King's A Short History of Indians in Canada

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

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

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

Intrigued? I am!


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

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

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Friday, August 03, 2007










Graham Greene as Shylock


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

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Greene:

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

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


You can read the full article here.


--------------------------------------
And a few words about Thomas King...

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Shonto Begay's NAVAJO: VISIONS AND VOICES ACROSS THE MESA


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 31, 2007

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

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

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

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

To return to the question posed at Saints and Spinners.

There is no easy answer.

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

Consider that simple statement and what it embodies.

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

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

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two glaring errors in that caption are:

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

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

We didn't disappear. We moved.

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

Later in the broadcast, a water manager says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

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

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

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

Stories written by Native authors...

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

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

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

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

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

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

----------------------



NOTHING TO GIVE
Gail Trembly


The woman was young, blond, beautiful

like the girls in slick magazines who model

jeans. She chose to wear a bone choker

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

She read a poem in which she said that she was

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

that strange phantom pain in the gut, listening

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

her and then scolded her for being naked before

them when she was on her moon. She invented

unreality because she refused to witness the real

hard work of living in a world distorted by forced

assimilation, by faked authenticity, by loss

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

She did not speak of struggle, stolen land,

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

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

from the web of light that weaves things seamlessly

into being, untied from the people who for generations

shared a sense of what made things whole in a given

place. I sat and watched speechless, caught,
too paralyzed to walk away and make a scene,
aware how often revelation is impossible to explain.
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Thursday, July 26, 2007

ALA President, Loriene Roy (Anishinabe)


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

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

And, keep up with Loriene by visiting her blog, "Pin-ding-u-daud-ewin" which means "to enter into one another's lodges" or her website.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

THOMAS KING lectures on-line


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Native imagery in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS


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

Initial post: July 24, 2007:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

Update, June 8, 2015:

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



Rowling followed up with another tweet:



And then one more:



Definitely unsettling, and something to keep an eye on!

Friday, July 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

© 2007 Beverly Slapin

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Liza Ketchum's WHERE THE GREAT HAWK FLIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Teacher Reconsiders Virginia Grossman's TEN LITTLE RABBITS

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

---

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Joseph Bruchac's Wabi

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Children's Books about Canadian Residential Schools

Just found an article in The Looking Glass that reviews three children's books about Canada's residential schools for Native children. The article is called "Opening the Cache of Canadian Secrets: The Residential School Experience in Books for Children." The article, by Brianne Grant, discusses Nicola Campbell's outstanding picture book on the topic, Shi-shi-etko.

Reading the article this evening, and noting that another Harry Potter is soon-to-be-released, I remember that some people think these US/Canadian boarding/residential schools for Native children were like European, or eastern prep schools.

That, of course, was not the case. Read Grant's article, and the children's books she reviews, and you'll never confuse these schools with prep schools again.


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