Friday, March 28, 2008

Eric Gansworth's poem, "Loving That Land O'Lakes Girl"

I met Eric Gansworth earlier this month at the Returning the Gift meeting at Michigan State University. He is an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation. While at MSU, I bought two of his books. One is about Big Foot. Titled Breathing the Monster Alive, the art throughout the book is Gansworth's. If you work with teens who are into graphic novels, you should take a look at Breathing the Monster Alive. I've only begun reading it, and I remember--as does Eric--watching "The Legend of Boggy Creek" when I was a kid, and being... afraid.

As I write this post, I'm at the Native American Literature Symposium, being held this year at the Mystic Lake Casino in Minneapolis. Eric is tonight's keynote speaker. At Michigan State, he read the poem I share with you today (below). It is from his book A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function.

Some of you will love this poem; others will not. Some of you will think it does not belong in the arena we call children's literature, and for little ones, it certainly does not. Critically-thinking high school students, however, will love it--assuming they've developed a critical eye with regard to representation of American Indians.

Loving That Land O'Lakes Maiden

She is the first lesson
in love for many Indian
boys, all tanned hide
and feathers, features straight
out of Hollywood, but she lights
the spark for those red boys
and probably for some
black and white and brown
ones as well, for anyone
who learns her
tricks, really, and they're
not that hard
to master.

She stares out at all from a burst
of sunrise and lush flora kneeling,
hands suspended before her,
framing her bossom with infinitely
smaller versions of herself.

First release her from the cardboard
landscape she inhabits, then
carefully remove the product
placement in front of her,
and just below, fold her spine
back, and back again without
regard to the vertebrae
you snap along the way.

Carefully position her
and her magical side emerges
transforming those round knees
into ample breasts, ditching her
old franchise for Hooters, as she
flashes you with a smile and so much more.

She is by all accounts
"like buddah," all slick
skinned, sweet and soft,
lightly salted,
and when you touch her
you leave an impression
that stays until the next
hot thing comes along.

Is it any wonder Indian women
have grown tough and strong
with competition like that?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Anne Rockwell and Marc Aronson

Anne Rockwell and Marc Aronson? You may wonder why the names of these two individuals are the title for today's post...

Yesterday, Anne Rockwell submitted a comment to "Lois Lenski Lecture." Rockwell is the author of a picture book called Thanksgiving Day. As her comment indicates, she doesn't like my critique of her book.

Earlier this morning, I read Marc Aronson's column (dated March 1, 2008) in School Library Journal. It's called "Consider the Source: Selective Memory" and its subtitle is "Biographies for young readers aren't telling the whole story."

In November of 2007, I critiqued Rockwell's feel-good story about Thanksgiving. Her story is a lot like a Hallmark Greeting Card. I know---that sounds harsh---but I think it is a fair characterization. If you want to read my critique, click here.

You can read her entire comment by visiting this post. She said, in part:

"I've never had my(printed and published) words twisted to the degree you did in your blog about my book THANKSGIVING DAY. How you construed a fictional kindergarten child's words "..thankful that the beautiful land of Massachusetts had enough for everyone..." to mean that she was saying this justified white people's taking the land away from American Indians since they didn't know how to manage it. To quote you..."Wow!"

I have never said such a thing in print or out, have never thought such a thing, and can only hope there are readers who will go to the book and read it for what it says, not what you twist it to say."
In my critique, I didn't say that the child that said those words.

That idea is one that Americans--Rockwell included--are socialized to think. Like she says, she never said it, and she never thought it either. That "it" is part of a thing later called Manifest Destiny that justified removal of Native peoples from their homelands. Rockwell's story is romantic. It is uncritical. It is a problem.

Marc Aronson says it well in his column. Here's his last paragraph:

"Rather than examine famous peoples’ lives or historical movements critically, today’s children’s books often leave kids with little more than legends—George Washington and the cherry tree; Thomas Jefferson, the sage of Monticello, minus any mention of Sally Hemings, the young slave with whom current DNA evidence shows he fathered six children; our nation’s “glorious” Westward expansion, told exclusively through images of heroic whites and savage Indians. The point of overturning these and other myths isn’t simply to set the record straight; it’s to point out that our interpretation of history is constantly being challenged, debated, and revised. The only way we can bring that crucial message to young people is if we risk sharing our doubts about the very accounts they were taught in elementary school. If we do that, students may at first feel like they’ve been fooled. But just as in middle-grade and YA novels that turn fairy tales upside down and inside out, young people will have an opportunity to use what they’ve learned as a baseline to develop new, more accurate understandings—which is precisely what we want."

Part of the work this blog is doing is turning fairy tales upside down and inside out. My critique of Rockwell is upsetting to her and others who are not looking critically at the way history is presented to children. I'm glad Rockwell visited the site, and while this sounds uncaring, I'm glad that she's upset. Perhaps her next book will be different.
UPDATE, MARCH 6, 2010.
I am copying comments to the post (above) directly into the bottom half of the post. Anne Rockwell is amongst the people who submitted comments to the post.

First comment, submitted on March 26, 2008 at 11:09 PM CDT:

How can I not weigh in on this! Balance I think is what the old people talk about. Balancing the bad with the good so that there ia a picture of reality that we can live with, that minorities can live in, that is real. The fairy tales of North America based in mainstream ideology and pragmatism have no room for the children of Indigenous Americans/Canadians. I was considering today that there is little room for survival in such stories for the self esteem of Indigenous Cannadian/American children. And as long as these types of stories are the "bildungs roman" of North American society racism continues to infiltrate the youngest minds with literacy. Anti racism writing and education requires that we speak the unspoken that keeps us bound in the cruel dance of oppression/repression. Its true that developing our critical reasoning is painful. I walk that road everyday with my students. But the insights they achieve in the process are priceless, life-giving and I know that as they go out to teach in the school system and in the institutions of learning and their own lives they will be mindful and deliberate to create spaces for all children to live and thrive. Thank you Marc for your insight and reason-able-ness. Thank you Anne for your honest reaction. Thank you Debbie, for allowing space for mindfulness to thrive for the sake of children, our precious future unto 7 generations

?eh ?eh naa tuu kwiss, Ahousaht First Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth
Marlene Atleo, Education, U of M, Ahousaht

Second comment, submitted on March 27, 2008 at 11:54 AM, CDT

Marlene, thank you for your comment.

Since my original comment on Debbie's blog (which has brought up so much name-calling, thrown gauntlets commanding "DO NO HARM", snide and Irrelevant words, such as "Hallmark, feel-good, etc.) dealt NOT with a reviewer's right to dislike or like a work.

I'll say again that is NOT the issue. I'd like to walk away from the fray, but as long as you've made the first comment that is thouht-provokig or intelligent, I'd like to point out yet again what my comment WAS about, because it brings up the whole question of ethical reviewing of books for children.

My sole objection was to Professor Reese saying my words meant something quite different from what I wrote, different from what was printed on the page--a lie that she uses to bear out her own political agenda.

I write for very young children. They come from all over American, from varying cultural backgrounds, from families of highly variable skill in the English language. So I choose my words carefully. I AM NOT WRITING IN CODE, sending secret messages about "Manifest Destiny" to little children.

To turn my written words into llies on a blog, is wrong, unethical, and completely outside guidelines for reviewers. It even brings up the "fair use" doctrine of the U.S. Copyright Law, to quote and/or misquote so extensively from a published text, and then "translate" that text into Herspeak, or whatever.

I'm depressed to find that this is hard for commentors on her blog, many of whom I assume are teaching students, to understand.

Anne Rockwell

Third comment, submitted on March 27, 2008 at 11:39 PM

I can empathize with you Anne. Its seems easier to write stories for children but its really more difficult. For my teacher education course in Aboriginal education at a major Canadian university in a province with about a 25% of Aboriginal people in the public schools. I use resources that include the Oyate/Amira publication: The Broken Flute which reviews books and provides rationale for the perspectives that are taken in the critique. We can't afford to be naive about children's literature. Children are stolen in a variety of ways and literacy is one of them. We need to develop good critiques that permit us to see through discourses that are not healthful. Normative discourses that seem to reveal actually hide more than they reveal. Pretty scary stuff in my opinion. Today on my classroom wall one of my student's committee members commented on the picture of the residential school girls in their dorm beds and wondered out loud if that wasn't just another form of exploitation. Debbie's claims in the big picture have validity.

Its a validity that is hidden in the normatie mystification of the double speak of Americanese which obscures and erases differences and in its place creates homogeneity that is not life affirming. What is the myth of Thanksgiving really about? Have you researched the sad stories of the settlers? Have you asked yourself why you would want to write a book about it for little children? Depression is probably a first stage. Critical consciousness evolves in a similar form to grief. First there is denial, then anger, then bargaining and etc. but there is no turning back from critical turning back

marlene atleo

Fourth comment, submitted on March 28, 2008, 11:38 PM CDT

I also appreciate Anne's willingness to stay in the conversation. And Marlene, it's so good to have you "weighing in"!

I wonder, Anne, what WOULD you have someone do -- for example, those of us who are parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents of Indigenous North American children? What might an author regard as the optimal way for us to say, "Ouch, wait, there's a problem with your book?" Most authors, having writ, are inaccessible to anyone who might want to have a critical conversation about the book.

For some of us, labeling our "agenda" as purely political just doesn't quite tell the whole story. When it comes to misrepresentations of Indigenous experience, my agenda (for example) actually lives where politics and family coincide. When I think of Native children reading books that elide the experiences of their ancestors, experiences that are directly connected to the current state of things -- I have specific children in mind: their smiles, their vulnerabilities and strengths, their spirited sense of themselves, their presence on my lap when I read aloud.

Melissa Thompson had a very thoughtful and well-researched article in The Lion and the Unicorn in 2001, titled, "A Sea of Good Intentions: Native Americans in Books for Children". In it she does several things, including taking a look at the language of some US Supreme Court decisions and how the images of Native people created and/or expressed by chief justice (o irony!)John Marshall back in the early 1800's STILL LIVE in people's minds today, and are passed along via contemporary books for young people. John Marshall knew his own writing was political.

To write about historical moments is to make political statements, whether or not we do so consciously. Whom does one consult? Whom does one quote? Speak for? Acknowledge? Leave out? I would hope that authors would choose their words with care - but the words we choose can't help but be influenced by the political discourse that has been part of the fabric of our lives from the beginning: Who is present and who is absent? Who has autonomy and who doesn't? Who "deserves" autonomy and who shouldn't have it? (for a strange reading experience, see what Marshall says about that! He was essentially writing legal fiction, that became law.) Who has power over others and who doesn't? Which behaviors are valorized, and which ones are reviled or ignored?

Anne, you are asserting you didn't intentionally say anything in your book about Manifest Destiny etc. -- and that's believable. I used to believe the whole, old Thanksgiving mythology myself: middle class white girl in a whitebread world. But so much of the real story was left out of what i "knew" that I see in retrospect that the stories misinformed me and left me less capable (for a long time) of fully understanding what the roots of the US are really like. I wonder how we're supposed to steer this boat if we don't know everything about it....

Jean Mendoza

Fifth comment, submitted on March 30, 2008, 8:40 PM CDT

Let's go to the original review again. Debbie wrote: "Through Michiko and Kate, we get outrageously simplistic descriptions. Greeted kindly? Shared the land? And not mean people looking for someone to fight with?! Only Jessica's words have some semblance of truth, but they, too, are problematic. Her words carry the weight of the idea that there was plenty of land, and that the Indians weren't using it properly, so it was only fitting that the more industrious Europeans should take and own it..." Rockwell's focus on what the Jessica character said is misleading. Debbie criticized Jessica's words only in part, saying they had "some semblance of truth." She also criticized several other things in the book, some of them relatively minor. Debbie even praised a few things. All in all, I'd say it was a typical review. No way did it violate the copyright laws by quoting from the book. In fact, this is exactly what the fair-use provision is for. Rockwell is wasting her time making veiled threats. Now that Rockwell has responded to Debbie's one-sentence comment on Jessica, it would be interesting to hear her response to the overall point of the critique. Namely: "This seemingly sweet book is really quite loaded. Loaded in its false message of comradery [sic] between the colonists and the Wampanoags. Loaded in its efforts to hide the conflict from the child reader..." As for Jessica's words, they do convey the idea that Massachusetts was unoccupied and that Indians didn't have a claim to the region. What would the girl have thought about Massachusetts 55 years later, after King Philip's War exterminated most of the remaining Indians? "Oops," said a sadder but wiser Jessica, "I guess the beautiful land of Massachusetts didn't have enough good things for everyone after all." You see the point, Ms. Rockwell? History proves that America didn't have enough "good things" for the Indians and the Europeans. At least not in the Europeans' minds. Hence the genocidal policies that led to the destruction of the Indian way of life. So Jessica's claim was false or misleading, and Debbie noted it as such. What would you expect an educator like her to say: that the Pilgrims didn't wipe out the Indians eventually? Why should she, since they did? P.S. For more on our Thanksgiving myths, see Ten Little Pilgrims and Indians. Rob Schmidt

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wordcraft Circle Awards

Today, I point you to the awards given by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Native Wiki describes the organization and its history here. It was established in 1992 at the first Returning the Gift gathering of Native writers, held in Norman, Oklahoma. When I started this blog, Wordcraft was off-line. It's back, now. In 1997, Wordcraft began giving awards. Among their categories is an award for children's books. (Note: Some years they specify a title; other years they do not.)

Cheryl Savageau (Abenaki)

Richard Van Camp (Dogrib)

Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe)

Joy Harjo (Muscogee) for The Good Luck Cat
Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) for Rain is Not My Indian Name

Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)

Linda Boyden (Cherokee)

Deborah Duvall, (Cherokee) Rabbit and the Bears

Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) for The Good Rainbow Road
Marge Bruchac (Abenaki) for Malian's Song

James Blue Wolf (Cherokee) for Speaking for Fire
Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Two weeks ago, I was at the Returning the Gift meeting held at Michigan State University. I was invited to talk about children's books.

Prior to heading up there, I received a wonderful surprise from Kimberly Roppolo, Director of Wordcraft. The work I do on this blog was recognized with a "Writer of the Year Award." Thank you, Wordcraft, for this honor.

Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) - Writer of the Year, Blog

Monday, March 24, 2008


So many books and stories about American Indian and First Nations peoples confine us to the past. Verbs are in past tense. Stories are set "long ago." Historical fiction abounds. Native characters are flat, stock, stereotypical savages or heroes of days long past.

Given that state of affairs, is is not surprising that children (and adults) don't know that Native people are very much part of the present day, and that we live our lives with many of the same conveniences everyone else has. Computers. Cars. Jeans.

When I work with teachers, I suggest they develop lessons with visuals that show their (non-Native) families and ancestors, coupled with images of Native children and their ancestors. I suggest they talk about "special clothes" that are only used at certain times for specific purposes.

Now, there's a terrific--absolutely terrific--children's book that does precisely that. It is When the Shadbush Blooms. The book is written by Carla Messinger (Turtle Clan Lenape), with Susan Katz, and illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden (Wolf Clan Mohawk). Published by Tricycle Press in 2007, the book is about the Lenni Lenape people, past and present.

Turning to the first double-page spread in the book, the text reads:

"My grandparents' grandparents walked beside the same stream where I walk with my brother, and we can see what they saw. Deer leap in the woods. Hawks fly in circles overhead. Frogs splash, and turtles sun themselves."
The stream runs down the center of the two-pages. On its left bank (left side of the page) are the grandparents' grandparents, in clothing they would have worn in their time. On the right bank (right side of the page) are two children, shown wearing clothes kids wear today. T-shirts, cut-offs, and sneakers. One points to the frog. In the sky is a hawk, and behind the grandparents, just at the edge of the trees, is a deer. Encircling them all are shadbush in bloom. On that first double-page spread, the words are "Mechoammowi Gischuch" and "When the Shadfish Return Moon."

That pattern of telling continues throughout the book as one cycle, or moon, and its work and play follows another. These cycles are noted at the top outside edge of each page, in the languages spoken by the narrators, Traditional Sister on the left, and Contemporary Sister on the right.  Here's a page about winter activity (click on the image and a larger image will open):

Beyond the story itself, the book includes information about the Lenni Lenape culture and language. This book is a many-layered treasure.

Such a treasure, in fact, that it is a nominee for the Children's Book Council's "Children's Choice" awards. If you are a teacher or librarian working with kids, go here to vote for it! And, buy it from Oyate.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tribal Press: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma publishes books about the Choctaw people. Among them are several children's books. If you've read any of them, let me know!

Click here to get to the page of their children's books.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Interview with Joseph Bruchac

I received an email from the Learning First Alliance. They recently posted an audio interview with Joseph Bruchac on the Public School Insight blog. I listened to the segment called "The Effect of Persistent Stereotypes of American Indians on Young Children" and recommend you listen to it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

McDermott made up the "Dance of Life" in ARROW TO THE SUN

Sharing some new (to me) information about McDermott's deeply flawed award-winning book, Arrow to the Sun.

On page 27 of Gerald McDermott and YOU, written by Jon Stott, published in 2004, Stott says:

"Although the Dance of Life depicted on the final page of the story is McDermott's own creation, it is true in spirit to the agrarian culture he depicts in the story."

Stott suggests students in middle/upper elementary grades who are studying the book consider researching traditional Pueblo ceremonies, but, he says (bold text is his):

It is extremely important, however, that students realize that these were and still are sacred ceremonies and that photographing or drawing dancers is permitted only with specific permission from the various Pueblos. Therefore, teachers should not encourage the drawing or photocopying or representations of these sacred ceremonies."

I find Stott's words somewhat hypocritical. How can he praise the book in the first place, knowing McDermott made up that dance, and go on to tell students not to draw, photocopy, or represent sacred ceremonies?

That he provides this caution tells us he knows very well that Pueblo people object to the appropriation and denigration of our stories. It seems to me Stott ought to be using what he knows to critique the book. Instead, he says students can create "written narratives about the Boy's experiences in the kivas..."

You may want to read what I've written about McDermott's presentation of kivas. In short, McDermott portrays them as places of trial. In fact, they are places of learning and gathering.

Given its made-up and erroneous information, this book is best shelved in the fantasy section. It certainly does not belong in the non-fiction section! And it certainly does not merit it's Library of Congress subject line "Pueblo Indians--folklore."

I recommend it be weeded. Can you, will you, weed a Caldecott book?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Letter to "American MOM"

Earlier today, "American Mom" posted this as a comment to my post about Smeltzer. I'm not sure why she posted there. She's talking specifically about my critique of historical fiction, specifically, Little House on the Prairie.

Get a life and find out there are more people than just indians. Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinners of every skin color- indians, whites, blacks etc.
By not allowing Indians in literature (as your comment in Little House on the Prairie), are you trying to erase that from our history?
No it may not be a happy thing, but indians did kill whites and whites killed indians. I dont teach my children to kill anyone unless they are in defense of themselves or their family. Dont try to lie about history.
be real
American MOM

Here is my response:

Dear American MOM,

From what you said, I gather you are Christian. I trust you know that people of your faith persecuted those who were not of your faith. And, I trust you know that your faith is only one of many.

In my critique of Little House on the Prairie, I seek--not to erase Indians from history--but to rid bookshelves of incorrect images of American Indians. It is factually wrong for you to allow your children to learn that American Indians were primitive, or barbarians, or uncivilized, or simple-minded. That is precisely the way they are presented in the Little House book.

If your child is doing her math homework, and writes down "5" for the answer to 2 + 2, you would tell her that is incorrect. You would help her to understand that her answer is wrong. You'd erase the 5 and write the correct answer.

That is what I am doing with Little House. The information is wrong. In my work, and on this blog, I am trying to correct Laura Ingalls Wilder's mistake.

Was it a mistake on her part? Did she know otherwise? Perhaps. Did her editors know otherwise? Maybe. For us, adults that is, we can and should think about how it happened that she portrayed American Indians the way she did.

With regard to the education of children, we should not let those kinds of portrayals reach our children without some serious conversation. Letting them go unchallenged and unmediated leads them to feel a sense of betrayal when they find out that their books essentially lied to them.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Richard Van Camp: Books in Braille

I'm in East Lansing, at Returning the Gift, a meeting of Native Writers. It's first gathering took place in the early 1990s. Joseph Bruchac was a key individual in the early years of this group.

I'm meeting Native writers and storytellers here whose work I've blogged about. I'll share thoughts, books, insights in the coming days.

It has been our (daughter Liz is with me) distinct pleasure to meet Richard Van Camp. He's got four books now, that I recommend highly: What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses, A Man Called Raven, The Lesser Blessed, and, Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns.

Yesterday, he handed me a copy of What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses that was different than my copy. It had acetate overlays on each page, turning it into a book in Braille. The overlays are available for all three of his picture books, available at no charge at Special Education Technology-British Columbia. They've got other books there, too, by the way. To find Richard's books, scroll down to the section called "Author Created Books."

Richard's presentation here was about comic books and graphic novels. I'll write about that later in the week. Visit his NativeWiki page! He does a lot of terrific work and writing. A book to look forward to? A young adult novel, to be published by Orca, titled Blessing Wendy. In an interview that appeared in the Vancouver Sun, January 19, 2008, Richard said this about the book:

"It deals with very mature themes,” he says. “It’s about how five young Dogrib men grieve for a cousin who was molested by the [school] principal. It’s about the ceremonies they create in her honour because they should have protected her. It’s also about what makes a warrior today and what is left behind in a town when the trust has been stolen."

Monday, March 03, 2008

Lois Lenski Lecture

Last semester, I was invited to give the Lois Lenski Lecture at Illinois State University (ISU). The Lenski lecture series began in 1994, in honor of Lois Lenski, author of a great many books for children.

Last week, ISU's radio station did an interview of me, to run today (Monday) in advance of the lecture itself.

I talked about problematic texts like Little House on the Prairie, providing historical context for the book (some of which I've posted here in the last two weeks). And I talked about books I recommend, specifically Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer.

At the outset of the interview, the interviewer asked me about UIUC's mascot, what I think of it, and what I think of the student referendum last week. The referendum was on the UIUC student ballot last week. It asked if students want the mascot to be reinstated. It passed, 7000 or so in favor, 2000 or so opposed. UIUC is a large campus, with over 42,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

We went on to talk about the subject of my lecture, which is children's books. I talked about problematic texts like Little House on the Prairie, providing historical context for the book (some of which I've posted here in the last two weeks). And I talked about books I recommend, specifically Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer.

I tuned in this morning to listen to the interview. It was all of a minute long, but an interesting minute it was. Centered on the mascot. I was more than a bit perturbed with the pieces they used. I was surprised, too. I've done interviews about the mascot in the past, and about Y-Indian programs, and Boy Scouts, and I learned that media people selectively edit what I say. I've never been pleased with that editing. It is generally done in a way to make me sound a bit loony, or, like I hate all white people, or that I think they're all racist...

So I stopped doing those kinds of interviews. I thought the interview with ISU was about my study of children's books and I let my guard down. That was a mistake.

The interview is important, though, because it provides a window into all manner of human behavior and human action. The radio station is a media outlet. They're after a story. The one they think more of their listeners will want. So they went for the mascot angle.

Between now and 7:00 this evening, I'll be revising my remarks for the lecture, incorporating this episode.

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.