Sunday, February 24, 2008


The crossword puzzle in yesterday's Washington Post had this clue:

Native American infant

Course, there were seven spaces for the word, and, most people would say "papoose" and happily fill in the boxes. Their answer would be correct, but let's take a minute to think about the word.

"Papoose" is kind of like "squaw." Both words are used as though every Native nation in what is now called the United States of America, and in Canada, too, called their women "squaws" and their babies "papooses."

In the early pages of Little House on the Prairie Pa tells Laura that she'll see a papoose when they get to Indian Territory. And, at the end of the book, as Laura watches the Indians pass by their house, she sees one and cries out "I want it!" Like that baby is a toy? Something she could have?!

In fact, both words are rooted in a Native language, but there are hundreds of tribal nations, and hundreds of tribal languages. We don't all speak the same language.

Here's info about papoose, provided by the Oxford dictionary:

1. offensive a young North American Indian child

I don't think it is offensive.  It just isn't used right. Same thing with "squaw".* The thing for all of us to do is understand that "Native American" and "American Indian" lead us to think that all Indians are alike and speak the same language, dress alike, etc. If we move past that idea to think about a specific tribal nation, we're in a completely different place. What is the Navajo word for baby? What is the Cherokee word for baby? What is the Hopi word for baby? See what I mean?

Saturday, February 23, 2008


I get a lot of email from people asking about sources on the web they can use to learn about American Indians. There's certainly plenty of these sites out there, but most of them are kind of a mess!

I did a search using "American Indians" as the search term. Over three million hits... The first one looked scholarly, with a lot of text in small type, but all the verbs were past tense, and, the material itself was stereotypical, biased, and just plain wrong. Here's two examples... The section called "Games and Amusements" starts out like this: "Naturally careless of the future, the Indian gave himself up to pleasure when not under immediate necessity or danger." And, in a section called "War" is this: "As war is the normal condition of savagery, so to the Indian warlike glory was the goal of his ambition, the theme of his oratory, and the purpose of his most elaborate ceremonial."

There's a LOT of that kind of information on websites. Using those sites will affirm stereotypes and add to the mass of incorrect information that people think is knowledge about American Indians.

Before you start looking at websites, I highly recommend you start with Elaine Cubbins site "Techniques for Evaluating American Indian Websites." Cubbins is a member of the American Indian Library Association. Her site has excellent tips, such as the one I'm pasting below. Do visit the site, and view websites with as much care as you view children's books.

If the site claims to represent a tribe or a tribal view, is there information supporting the claim that it is an "official" or authorized Web site for the tribe?

Welcoming statements by tribal leaders, links to information about services for tribal members, and claims of the official nature of a site are possible clues, but are not conclusive evidence to identifying a tribe's official site. When in doubt, find out from a reliable source: call, write or email the tribe and ask. A good indication is if a server is owned by the tribe, but tribes do not always own the server where their official Web sites are located. For an example of this, see the tribal web site for the Miami Nation at

If a site claims to speak for a tribe, check with that tribe to verify the site's authority before believing that it actually does represent tribal consensus.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

First person: Leveled Readers featuring Native families

A few days ago, I posted information about a series of Leveled Readers that feature Native families. I've been getting email from people who use and recommend the series. Today, I'm posting a comment to my post about the series. I want to highlight that post, because of what Lynnie (the person who submitted the comment) says. She is Oneida, and has young children.
(Personal note: Thanks, Lynnie, for your comment!)


Lynnie said...

These are EXCELLENT books. The characters are very real and quite engaging. Children from any background can relate to their situations. My daughter's favorite, Dean's Fish, is about a little boy who helps catch and prepare a fish. As a teacher, I can see that they are "leveled" (meaning each set gets progressively harder for the beginning reader), making them great choices for Preschool through Second Grade. My older daughter can "read" the Level Ones by memory and is quite proud. As an Oneida Indian with a pretty culturally-mixed family, I appreciate this representation of real Indian life that includes many shades of skin color. I also notice there is a mixed race family in "Crabs for Dinner" Many of the stories include grandparents, and characters are of all different body types. Eaglecrest really did a great job with these books! I really couldn't ask for anything more, except that they make more of them.

Powerful endorsement! Here's pages from Dean's Fish:

And, pages from Crabs for Dinner


Sunday, February 17, 2008

American Indians in Fact and Fiction: LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote about portrayals of American Indians in Little House on the Prairie, countering the "savage" and "primitive" imagery with information about treaties. A primary intent of this blog is to provide a different image of American Indians. Not one of perfect people, but one that is real, of mothers and fathers, grandparents and children. Caring. Thoughtful. Grumpy. Mean. Sad. Happy. All those words we use to describe people we know. Those same words can and should be used to describe American Indians.

I'm critical of Wilder and a good many other writers for the ways they describe Indians in their books. When you have a minute, read the passage in Little House where the Indians enter the house. Something about them smells bad. Laura realizes it is the "fresh" skunk skins they are wearing. They are, apparently, impervious to the pungent skunk odor! Let's back that up, though. Wouldn't they know how to skin skunks without puncturing the glands where the skunk oil is? Wouldn't they prepare the skin by tanning it before wearing it?

Those portrayals can and are defended by saying that is what people really thought about Indians at that time.

Key words: "at that time."

Certainly, newspapers created and affirmed those ideas. And, some lawmakers likely believed those images to be true.

People used to think the world was flat. We learned that was not the case, and we don't teach 'the world is flat' to children. Should we still teach books like Little House on the Prairie?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

American Indians in Fact and Fiction: LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE

Classic and award-winning books of historical fiction suggest---powerfully---that American Indians were primitive people. Through these books, children are allowed to think that Indians were less-than-human. Primitive in lifestyle. Primitive in intellect.

But, that is not the case.

Here's a few facts to consider next time you read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie.

Charles took his family into "Indian Territory" in 1868.

By then, about 800--yes, that's right 800--treaties had been negotiated between the tribes and the federal government.

Let's think about that word a minute...


Treaties are legal documents. They are contracts whose terms are negotiated between two (or more) states.

In order to enter into a treaty, one state has to recognize the other as a state.

States are entities comprised of people with territories that are recognized by the other state, and, these state entities have systems of government. Both states have leaders who enter into diplomatic negotiations.

So. Laura Ingalls Wilder is giving you an image of Indians that is a disservice and an insult to who they were. I think you could say she does you (the reader) a disservice, too, leading you to believe something that is not true.

She isn't solely responsible for this disservice. She had help in preparing her manuscripts. And, she had an editor, too.

You might want to take a few minutes to peruse lesson plans teachers use when they teach this book in their classrooms. If you find one that challenges the ways that American Indians are depicted, let me know! I'd love to see one. Is there a lesson plan out there, that helps children see the errors in these images?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Leveled Readers featuring First Nations families

Just got this review (below) from Beverly Slapin... Lest you think these are only suitable for Native children, think again! Non-Native children learning to read by reading about Native families! I think that's terrific.

Best practice for young children is the here-and-now of their lives. That concept, however, seems to vanish when it comes to teaching anything about First Nations or American Indians. Instead of the here-and-now, kids in too many classrooms have the long-ago-and-far-away view of Native peoples.

These readers push us all to teach children that indigenous peoples are still here.


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

Adams, Lorraine, and Lynn Bruvold, Eaglecrest Books: Leveled Readers. 2003, color photos.

Here are Louis and Annette, helping their rabbit prepare for her new bunnies. [Images from A Bunny to Love (Level 16)]

Here are Natalee and Josh, going on a dog sled ride. [Images from The Dog Sled Ride, (Level 16)]

Here is Kelley, teaching Martina how to dance and giving her the powwow regalia she has outgrown. [Images from The Powwow (Level 16)]

Here are Martien and his dad, going spearfishing. Here is Grandma, making new slippers for Danielle and Tahya. Here are Tiara and Kayla, going all the way to the store to get milk—without getting tired. Here is Hayley, figuring out why her cat, Bonkers, always seems hungry. Here are Alysha and Taneesha, fixing a flat bicycle tire. Here are real Indian children, belonging to real families and real communities, going about their lives. No made-up “myths and legends,” no self-conscious drama, no ethnographic expositions—just well-written, respectful little stories, supported by beautiful photographs that everyone will enjoy. This outstanding beginning-reader series will encourage empathy and discussion, and will motivate young listeners to read as well.

Set of 50 leveled readers, pb 325.00, available from Eaglecrest and  Oyate.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Recommended Materials: Boarding Schools for American Indians

As more resources and books are published on this topic, I will add them to this list. I highly recommend items listed here.


Picture Books
  • Campbell, Nicola. Shi-shi-etko, Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2005
  • Campbell, Nicola. Shin-shin's Canoe, Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2008.
  • Santiago, Chiori. Home to Medicine Mountain, San Francisco, Calif: Children’s Book Press, 1998.

For Upper Elementary
  • LaFlesche, Francis. The Middle Five: Indian Schoolboys of the Omaha Tribe, University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
  • Loyie, Larry, and Constance Brissenden. As Long as the Rivers Flow: A Last Summer before Residential School, Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2003.
  • Sterling, Shirley. My Name Is Seepeetza, Groundwood Books, 1998.

Middle and/or High School
  • Qoyawayma, Polingaysi. No Turning Back: A Hopi Indian Woman’s Struggle to Live in Two Worlds, University of New Mexico Press, 1977
  • Tohe, Laura. No Parole Today, West End Press, 1999.


  • Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1875-1928, University Press of Kansas, 1997
  • Archuleta, Margaret, Brenda J. Child, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima (Eds.) Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, Heard Museum, 2000
  • Child, Brenda. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940, University of Nebraska Press, 2000
  • Cobb, Amanda J. Listening to our Grandmothers' Stories: The Bloomfield Academy for Chickasaw Females, 1852-1949. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000
  • Gilbert, Matthew Sakiestewa. Education Beyond the Mesas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
  • Johnson, Basil. Indian School Days, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995
  • Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School, University of Nebraska Press, 1995
  • Trafzer, Clifford E., Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences, Bison Books, 2006.



  • The Indian Boarding Schools: Keeping the Culture Alive, is a two-part series, prepared with the full participation of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. Go here to order the series and view the trailer.
  • In the White Man's Image, PBS, 1992
  • Shi-shi-etko, Moving Images Distribution, 2009.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dovie Thomason: Lakota/Kiowa-Apache Storyteller

I spent much of yesterday with Dovie Thomason. She was at UIUC's Spurlock Museum for it's annual storytelling event.

I'd be willing to bet that most people---when they think of Native stories---think of stories about animals. That isn't a bad thing, but it isn't the only kind of story Native people tell.

Recently, Dovie is telling a very different story.

You can get her Lessons from the Animal People, or her Fireside Tales: More Lessons from the Animal People, or Wopila, a Giveaway: Lakota Stories from Oyate.

You can invite her to your school, or your college, or city, or performing arts center, to tell the stories of the Animal People.

But, consider inviting her to tell the story she told here yesterday: The Spirit Survives: The Boarding School Experience, Then and Now.

As she started, she said "There are some stories you don't want to tell your children. And, there are some you have to."

The story she's telling is among the too-many dark episodes in U.S. history about the ways this country has treated American Indians... It is among the stories that are completely left out of textbooks used in elementary or high school.

It is about Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879. The school was designed to "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." In her story, she talks about being at Carlisle a few years ago, with her daughter, standing in the cemetery, reading the headstones there. Headstones of children who were at that school.

To get in touch with Dovie, write to her at this address:
Dovie Thomason
P.O. Box 6351
Harrisburg, PA 17112

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Update: Friday, Feb. 8, 2008---Two thoughts

First, it isn't enough to read what Beverly Slapin wrote below... You have to do more than laugh or talk about it with others. She makes many powerful points, doing so with humor. Consider how you might act on what you read. Could you, for example, ask teachers to reconsider using those books in the classroom? Could you avoid buying those books as gifts?

Second, visit Oyate's website and order books from their catalog. It is the single-best-place I know to get terrific books by and about Native peoples. They have books from U.S. and Canadian publishers. They have books published by large publishing houses who can afford to send their authors out on book tours, and books published by tiny publishers that can ill afford to send books to review journals. Oyate has music and video, too, and excellent teaching materials. And, it is a not-for-profit organization.

[Note: This post may not be published elsewhere without the written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin.]

1. Name your characters in the traditional Indian way, using the formula that has been followed for decades: an adjective or participle followed by a noun. The adjective should be a color, the participle should imply animal or supernatural skills, and the noun should be an animal or natural occurrence or weapon. Young children are always named with a diminutive adjective followed by a predator (if a boy) or cute baby animal or form of flora (if a girl), and elders should always have the adjective “gray” in their names. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of making up names, go to authentic Indian sources. Just be sure that you cite them in your “author’s note.”

A good example: “There I found the Indian burial ground, with dozens of white headstones bearing the names of the Native American children from all tribes who had died while at the school. The names, with the tribes inscribed underneath, were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities…. [T]heir personalities came through to me with such force and inspiration, I had to use them. I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they may reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it.”[1]

2. Take get extra points for using the terms “brave,” “maiden,” and “papoose,” instead of “man,” “woman,” and “baby.” Don’t bother with “squaw.” It’s controversial. Also take extra points for the number of times you refer to Indian eyes and hair as “dark” or “black.” And remember: Almost all of your male characters should be referred to as “warriors,” whether or not they have ever seen battle.

A good example: “She had a round, moon face, with large, half-moon eyes of black…. She did not smile, but her dark eyes continued their piercing stare as if they were on the mission of a vision quest…. Her dark eyes rested on mine…[2]

3. Never, ever have your Indian characters use contractions. Indians did not do that. And, whenever possible, make sure your Indians eschew articles, conjunctions, adverbs. The clunkier the dialogue, the more authentically Indian it will appear. And if you want to create really authentic Indian speech, think Tonto.

A good example: “Attean learn…. White man come more and more to Indian land. White man not make treaty with pipe. White man make signs on paper, signs Indian not know. Indian put mark on paper to show him friend of white man. Then white man take land. Tell Indian cannot hunt on land. Attean learn to read white man’s signs. Attean not give away hunting grounds.”[3]

4. Make sure that you use as many relentlessly garbled metaphors as you can. That way, your protagonist will sound more Indian.

A good example: “Yet hope tiptoed on softly moccasined feet, setting my heart beating with excitement.”[4]

5. Or, if you choose to tell the story in the third person, you can do even more with illogical similes.

A good example: “Broken blades of corn stuck up out of the blackness, like dead warriors waiting for the Great Spirit to call them…. She gave no sound, but her heart cried out like a wounded eagle.”[5]

6. And if you wish to combine similes with metaphors, jump in with both feet and let your imagination run wild as a buffalo fleeing a railroad train.

A good example: “Your legs are your friends. You must teach them to run like the antelope. Then your enemies will not be able to catch you. Your eyes are your friends. You must teach them to see like the eagle so that you are a great hunter and your enemies cannot approach without your knowledge. Your ears are your friends. They will tell you what your eyes cannot see in the night. Teach them to hear the beetle that crawls on the ground. Then you will be able to hear the snake that slithers in the grass and it will not be able to bite you. Your arms and your hands are your friends. They must be strong and quick like the cougar’s.[6]

7. If your Indian protagonist is speaking, make sure that she or he leaves the narration every once in a while to give an ethnographic exposition to the reader. It is imperative that this explanation begins with “It is the custom of our people to….” This form of writing not only teaches young readers very interesting facts about how your Indians lived, but it also shows their teachers how much you know about how your Indians lived.

A good example: “It is the custom of our people to burn the possessions of the dead. And thus I burned our tepee.”[7]

8. Make sure that your Indian narrator represents the world in one way and then contradicts this representation. Nobody understands Indian worldviews anyway, so you don’t have to be too careful.

A good example: “My brother Nanolatch is ‘He Who Leaps with the Salmon.’ Nana means ‘Salmonwife’ but no one ever calls me that. It is my sacred name. When you say it aloud, you set the spirits loose. You can never predict what will happen then.”[8]

9. Make sure that your Indian narrator portrays Indian belief systems and ceremonies as mindlessly violent.

A good example: “I’d have to grow up and be a warrior—decorate my body with eagle feathers, dance the secret Sun Dance. Some of them torture themselves during the dance to show how brave they are. They hang themselves from a pole by leather thongs pulled through their chest muscles. I could do that. I’m brave enough.”[9]

10. If your Indian narrator is a young woman, have her mount a quasi-feminist critique of what you perceive to be a patriarchal society.

A good example: “Have a successful Initiation or fail, the end is the same for all Kwakiutl girls. We will marry some boy we did not choose and leave this village. A wish twists sharply in my belly—not to be born…female, but to be male.”[10]

11. If your protagonist is a white boy, make sure that your Indian character exists in order to teach him all about hunting, honor, dignity, loyalty, decency, and the necessity of washing up before dinner.

A good example: “Tom, I want to explain. I want to and I don’t know the words. I always hated men who could talk and talk, but now I almost wish I was one of them. Then I’d know what to say to you to make you know. I am a Choctaw, Tom, and I must follow the Choctaw way….I lived my whole life believing it and I’ll die believing it. It can’t be any other way, boy. It will come surely and in its time, as winter does when the fall has gone. I don’t like the winter, when the trees are old-looking and the animals lose their flesh, but I know it has to come.”[11]

12. If your protagonist is a white boy, make sure that he, after having lived in an Indian camp for a while, runs things ever more efficiently than the Indians ever did themselves.

A good example: “Jimmy discovered how hard it was to get things going. He had wanted to leave by dawn, but it was quite another matter to pack up ten saddles and nine travois, then round up the horses and direct fifteen women, thirty-five children, and three elders.”[12]

13. Through the voice of your white protagonist, make sure to describe Indians in ways that connote the three B’s—barbarism, brutality and bloodthirstiness.

A good example: “To Jimmy’s horror, some held spears in the air, dangling scalps from a recent raid on a wagon train. Jimmy clamped his hand over his mouth and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He had heard about such things, but he hadn’t thought friendly Indians killed people. A sickening, sweet odor brought tears to his eyes. He was afraid and angry at the same time….But now this—this atrocity!…He counted six scalps, all caked with blood. One was a woman’s long red hair, one a girl’s blond pigtails, four were men’s scalps, three dark, one gray. Jimmy thought about his family. His little sister wore pigtails, his uncle Lefty had gray hair. Molly’s hair was long and flowing. He pictured their house pierced with burning arrows and his mother crying for help….He hated himself for thinking that living with Indians would be carefree.”[13]

14. If your Indian narrator is an old man, have him remember the past with the oratorical skill of a white person trying to sound Indian.

A good example: “I wear white man’s clothes. Some of my grandchildren’s grandchildren do not speak Choctaw. Our great traditions seem fragile now. But that day as I watched Moshi ride away on his horse, I felt the eagle spirit race through my blood.”[14]

15. Feel free to take words from well-known Indian leaders and ascribe them to your characters, even though they are from totally different nations. Make sure to appear humble in your “author’s notes” so that no one will accuse you of stealing anything.

A good example: “The Crow people did not live on the coast, like Sings-the-Best-Songs and Drums-Louder and the people of the Wolf Clan, but I have lent Chief Plenty-Coup’s words to Sings-the-Best-Songs because they are more beautiful and more apt than any I could invent.”[15]

16. If you don’t know something about a particular tribe, just make stuff up, and rationalize, rationalize, rationalize.

A good example: “I’ve tried to take a little from several of the peoples of the northwest coast—Kwakiutl, Haida, Nuu-chah-nulth, and others. I cannot claim to know enough about their rich heritage to draw them, any of them, accurately. In any case, this is a work of fiction. But it is dedicated to them, and the wolves, whose hunting prowess they respected and admired.”[16]

17. Always remember, you are the author; you are creating your tribe, you are entitled to invent anything you want.

A good example: “While I tried to provide authenticity in depicting the pre-contact life of the Kwakiutl, I still had to remain true to my characters, who created their own world and understood it through their viewpoints. Certain aspects, like their names, tattooing, the Salmon Being chant…are my own interpretations. The ceremonies and rituals in the transformation potlatch have been altered and simplified to suit this story.”[17]

18. If you run out of things to say in your “author’s note,” feel free to invent otherworldly rationales to justify what you have created.

A good example: “The image of a girl carrying a spear formed behind my eyes, but I didn’t know if a Native American woman would have been allowed to become a warrior….The more I read, the more I found that what I’d imagined was entirely plausible.”[18]

19. And finally, don’t be afraid that your writing will be considered stupifyingly abysmal. You have captured the Indian way of talking, the Indian way of thinking, and, well, the Indian way of being.

A good example: “I see no happiness ahead…. I see no village in the moons to come where my wickiup will be a place of warm contentment. Once my heart was certain in the ways of our people, and my moccasins were set in the path I knew to be good. Now I travel in the moccasins of another and know not the path I follow or where it will lead.”[19]

20. Above all, stand firm in your belief that Native American people are expendable and that you, with your myriad talents and numerous awards, are a suitable alternative who can best tell their stories.

A good example: “In doing historical research, I ran across the story of the Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the heart-wrenching accounts of young Native Americans…. Here was a story that must be told, I decided… There I found the Indian burial ground, with dozens of white headstones bearing the names of the Native American children from all tribes who had died while at the school. The names, with the tribes inscribed underneath, were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities…. In one respect I hoped to bring them alive again and show their plight and their accomplishments to young readers today…. [T]heir personalities came through to me with such force and inspiration, I had to use them. I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they may reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it.”[20]

—Beverly Slapin

[1] Rinaldi, Ann, My Heart Is On the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880. Dear America Series. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1999, pp. 195-196.

[2] Ellington, Charlotte Jane, Dancing Leaf. Johnson City, Tenn.: The Overmountain Press, 2007, pp. 124-126.

[3] Speare, Elizabeth George, The Sign of the Beaver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983, p. 31.

[4] Landman, Tanya, Apache Girl Warrior. London: Walker Books, Ltd., 2007, p. 68.

[5] Von Ahnen, Katherine, Heart of Naosaqua. Boulder, Col., Roberts Rinehart, in cooperation with the Council for Indian Education, 1996, p. 38.

[6] Burks, Brian, Runs With Horses. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995, p. 4.

[7] Landman, op.cit., p. 26.

[8] Schwartz, Virginia Frances, Initiation. Allston, Mass.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003, p. 13.

[9] Osborne, Mary Pope, Adeline Falling Star. New York: Scholastic, 2000, p. 111.

[10] Schwartz, op. cit., pp. 31-32.

[11] Ashabranner, Brent, and Russell G. Davis, The Choctaw Code. Greenville, S.C.: 1961, 2006, pp. 32-33.

[12] Gregory, Kristiana, The Legend of Jimmy Spoon. San Diego, Cal.: Harcourt, 1990, 2002, p. 130.

[13] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[14] Fitzpatrick, Marie-Louise, The Long March. Hillsboro, Ore., Beyond Words, 1998, n.p.

[15] Branford, Henrietta, White Wolf. Cambridge, Mass., Candlewick Press, 1998, p. 91.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Schwartz, op. cit., p. 265.

[18] Landman, op. cit., inside back cover.

[19] Von Ahnen, op. cit., p. 94.

[20] Rinaldi, Ann, op. cit., pp. 195-196.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Subjects not taught: American Indian Activism, and, Code Talkers

The spring semester is well under way here at Illinois. Every time I teach Introduction to American Indian Studies, students are surprised at how little they're taught in elementary and high school about American Indians of the present day. Most teaching confines Native peoples to the distant past, and, presents us as primitive creatures, bloodthirsty savages or tragic heroes.

The first week of class, we talked about American Indian Activism. We watched an excellent documentary by James Fortier called Alcatraz is not an Island, and, we read Robert Allen Warrior and Paul Chaat Smith's Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. Read Mark Trahant's review of the book here. My students talked about their studies of the civil rights movement in elementary and high school, but that never learned about American Indian activism. I wrote about this last year. Below is a clip from the documentary.

Last week there was a screening of a documentary called Navajo Code Talkers. Many of my students went to it and again, spoke of what they don't learn in school. They talked of the irony of a government that purposefully set out to "kill the Indian and save the man" later attributed success in military engagements to Native peoples and languages they had earlier sought to destroy. Native language was first used as code in WWI. Read about the Choctaw Indian Code Talkers at this page, from the Choctaw Nation's website. Read, too, about the Comanche Code Talkers here.

Textbooks may not include information about Code Talkers or American Indian activism, but you can do something about these omissions using children's books. You could, for example, use Joseph Bruchac's book on the Navajo Code Talkers. Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed him about the book. You can read the interview here. And, read Beverly Slapin's essay "Children's Books about Navajo Code Talkers."

Clip from Alcatraz is not an Island:


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 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!