Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Beverly Slapin's review of Joseph Bruchac's BUFFALO SONG

[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin.]
Bruchac, Joseph, Buffalo Song, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. Lee & Low, 2008, preschool-up

For millennia, the great buffalo herds provided material and spiritual sustenance for the Salish and other Indian peoples who inhabited much of North America. This sacred relationship was disrupted time and again, as the Salish were pushed west out of their hunting territories by the better-armed Plains nations, who themselves were pushed out by the eastern tribes, retreating from the expanding United States. As the government’s oppressive policies and overhunting by the encroaching whites combined with a series of epidemics and failing military and political alliances, the effects on the Salish and their beloved buffalo were particularly devastating.

By the 1870s, when Buffalo Song begins, the buffalo are once again scarce and in danger of disappearing. A young Nez Percé boy and his father rescue a buffalo calf whose entire herd has been slaughtered. They bring the little orphan to a Pend d’Oreille man named Sam Walking Coyote, who, with his family, are raising several other buffalo calves. Drawing in good part on oral interviews with Salish elders in the 1920s and ‘30s by the Montana Writers Project, Bruchac weaves together the stories of the boy and his father, the calf and his adopted family, and Walking Coyote and his family’s compassion and dedication that led to the establishment of the Pablo-Allard herd and the eventual restoration of the buffalo. In doing so, he fashions the events of a complex story into a satisfying and accessible picture book that will resonate on many levels with young children.

The preface to Buffalo Song is Bruchac’s recounting of a Salish story told in 1926 about the return of the buffalo. Weaving in and out of historical and mythological time, both the original tale and Bruchac’s reframing of it as a creation story mirror the great struggles for herd restoration from the nineteenth century up to and including the present. Together the two versions become, in fact, a re-creation story about the revitalization of the great herds and an honor song for what the Salish have done.

But few books are perfect. Unfortunately, Farnsworth’s oil-on-canvas paintings, on a palette of mostly greens and earth tones, do not match the literary level of Bruchac’s story. Except in several places, Farnsworth’s buffalo and horses exhibit a far greater range of color, motion and expression than do his Indians. Nevertheless, for all it is and all it says, Buffalo Song is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
Buffalo Song is available from Oyate.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Something I wrote ten years ago...

Ten years ago today (April 15, 1998), a reflection I wrote was published on-line at the site maintained by Kay Vandergrift at Rutgers. It is among my earliest publications. Kay and I were (and are) active participants on discussions on the child_lit listserv. [Note: Then and now, heated discussions take place. There and other places, I strive to help people see the problems with stereotypical, biased, and erroneous (sometimes I call them LIES) about who indigenous people were and are. As you may know, my critiques draw a lot of fire from writers and their fans who defend their stories with "freedom of expression" and "freedom of speech" and "creative license." I'm not always diplomatic or kind in my responses to them. I care more about the child, Native or not, who is "learning" from their messed-up books.]

I'm pasting that reflection here today, and I've added some images. It captures my thoughts of ten years ago, and there are things in it that I want to respond to. For now, here's that essay.


Thoughts on Not Seeing Oneself

I grew up on a small Indian reservation in New Mexico. There are nineteen different Pueblos in New Mexico, and ours is called Nambe. As a first grader, I attended the Day School at the Pueblo, which is the same U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Day School my father attended when he was a child. I was so excited to be in school, so eager to learn how to read.

Twenty-five years later, I was teaching first grade for the public school district that eventually consolidated Nambe Day School and other small districts north of Santa Fe. My students would often bring books from home to share with classmates at story time. One day, Gabe brought in a book that struck a chord deep within me. It was Tip, a basal reader, but it was the Tip from which I had learned to read, twenty-five years before. I looked at dear Tip, the brown and white terrier who was always into one sort of mischief or another, taking Jack's ball, Janet's doll, or scattering the pile of leaves Jack had made. "No, No, Tip! Stop, Tip, Stop!" they'd say to him. I cherished the memories that surfaced as I turned the pages, reliving those moments.

Five years later, I moved from the Pueblo to central Illinois, to work on a doctorate in early childhood education. As I walked neighborhood streets, admiring the two and three story homes and the leafy trees, I felt an odd sense of joy, as though I were in a dream world. For the first time in my life, I could actually experience what it was like to play in a huge pile of orange, red, and brown leaves!

During my second semester, I took a course in multicultural children's literature and slowly became aware of why I felt I was in a dream world. It became clear that I was finally in the place Tip took me to. Those images I saw in Tip represented something I did not have as a child, but had found and embraced joyfully as an adult.

The feelings of joy became bittersweet as I realized that I treasure the two and three story houses and the huge piles of leaves because those images were connected to learning to read. I began to wonder - what if my basal reader had contained illustrations of brown Pueblo children playing in a sandy arroyo? What if the illustrations showed the gorgeous adobe homes that now merit million dollar price tags? Would my experience in central Illinois be the same?

Of course, this is an unanswerable question, but it does speak to the need we recognize in the 90's, for children to see themselves in their books--to see their life experiences validated in the books they read, be they basal readers or children's literature. This means that we need to give children books with characters that look like they do. We say it is necessary for their self esteem.

I don't know if my childhood self esteem was hurt by not seeing myself in my books, but I do know my heart soars today when I see my culture in the pages of Dianne Hoyt-Goldsmith's Pueblo Storyteller or Marcia Keegan's Pueblo Boy, or Michael Lacapa's Less Than Half, More Than Whole. I suspect this is true for all of us, with different books and in other media. Aren't we all thrilled when we see national magazines do a feature story on a small town near our own? Don't we all sit up straighter and grin?

Multicultural literature is suffering a sort of backlash as the 90's draw to a close. Some critics attack multiculturalism as an effort to balkanize America and view it as a threat to national unity. I view it as an affirmation of self, a validation of oneself. I count, you count, we all count! As we all assert our needs to be validated and then act on that validation, we will probably struggle as a country as we sort through this period. I do not want to sound like Pollyanna, but I do hope we can recognize, validate, and respect the cultures within our country and then reap the rewards of our efforts. We can only be the richer for it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

2008 Lacapa Spirit Prize Winner

Winner Named: Lacapa Spirit Prize for Southwest Children’s Literature

April 6, 2008

The Lacapa Spirit Prize is proud to announce its 2008 winner. Named for Michael Lacapa, children’s book illustrator and writer who died in 2005, the award honors the legacy of his artistic vision and talent for storytelling. This prize acknowledges great books for children that best embody the spirit of the peoples, culture and natural landscape of the Southwest. Books published in the two years prior to the award are eligible for consideration.

The 2008 Lacapa Spirit Prize for Narrative was awarded to “Jóhonaa’éí: Bringer of Dawn” by Veronica Tsinajinnie, illustrated by Ryan Singer, published by Salina Bookshelf Inc.

“Jóhonaa’éí: Bringer of Dawn” is a beautiful and peaceful story of the relationship the sun has to the earth and its inhabitants as he rises every morning and brings dawn. Veronica Tsinajinnie’s bilingual narrative is powerfully subtle in its presentation of Navajo culture. The story chronicles the journey of Jóhonaa’éí, the sun, as he passes over land, plants, animals, and humans, ushering in a new day. After Jóhonaa’éí wakes the field mice, the rabbits, and the sheep, he is “contented to know his job is done…” He finally arrives at a hogan door to wake “his children” who live inside. The sun then watches as the family offers “white corn to the morning spirits” and “give thanks to the bringer of dawn” before they begin their day also content to know that their job is done as well. Young readers will delight in Tsinajinnie’s progressive repetition, recognizing the daily path as one they, too, walk.

Michael Lacapa (Apache, Tewa and Hopi) worked with the Apache tribe in developing multicultural educational curricula for Native school-age children and often used storytelling as a teaching tool.

He was an exceptional storyteller and the talented illustrator of such books as “The Magic Hummingbird,” “Spider Spins a Story,” and “The Good Rainbow Road.” He is the author/illustrator of “The Flute Player,”Antelope Woman” and “Less Than Half, More Than Whole,” the latter co-authored with his wife Kathy.

The Lacapa Spirit Prizes will be awarded to recipients during the 10th Annual Northern Arizona Book Festival in Flagstaff, April 25-26, 2008. This prize is made possible through the generous support of the Northern Arizona Book Festival. The festival schedule may be found at www.nazbookfest.com

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Congrats to creative force behind WHEN THE SHADBUSH BLOOMS

When the Shadbush Blooms, written by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden has been selected for inclusion on the 2008 Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts!

It is among thirty books selected by the Children's Literature Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English.

I wrote about the book on March 24th of this year. Congratulations to all those involved in the creation of this lovely book!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Erdrich's Illustrations on Notecards

As fans of Birchbark House know, the illustrations in the book were done by Louise Erdrich.

Her store, Birchbark Books, was exhibiting at the Native American Literature Symposium I attended in Minnesota earlier this month. Among the many wonderful books were notecards that are reproductions of the art Erdrich did for Birchbark House.

Click here to get to the on-line site for the store. At present, their catalog is not available online, but contact info is, so call them up if you want a set of the cards. I got several sets. If I recall correctly, each set was $12 and includes six cards.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Letter from Nambe Leader

As sovereign nations, we have forms of government and systems by which we select leaders. At Nambe Pueblo (my home), we elect a governor to lead and represent us. Today, I received a letter from a former governor, Thomas F. Talache. With his permission, I am posting his letter today.


April 4th, 2008

Hi Debbie:

I occasionally search on Google News to see if there is any "Nambe News" happening and found an article about you and the blog you write. I visited your site and am writing to let you know how proud I am of you and all the great work you are doing in representing our Tribal Nation out in your part of "Indian Country."

I am now living and working in Denver, Colorado and have been active with Denver's Metro Indian leadership since my work with the Council of Energy Resource Tribes brought me up here in 2006.

I am still active with Native youth nationally. You can visit our website, "When Your Hands Are Tied" to see the movie trailer of our award winning documentary that is still being presented in film festivals in different cities and Tribes in the United States.

I miss home a lot, but former governors have to pay bills, too. In any case, thanks for your leadership and example of the very best that Nambe has to offer.

Thomas F. Talache, Former Governor
Nambe Pueblo Tribe of Tewa Indians


Update, April 4, 6:30 PM...
The article Governor Talache refers to is in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Click here to read it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Art by Bunky Echo-Hawk

Last summer I talked about the work of a terrific artist, Bunky Echo-Hawk. His artist statement is on the website of the Native American Rights Fund (click on "Today's Warriors" and then on "Culture Warriors" to get to it).

A member of the Yakama and Pawnee tribes, he does a lot of shows, including "live painting." In October of 2005, he was visiting Native students at Brown University.

I ordered the print shown here, "If Yoda Was An Indian" on-line. You can buy prints of his work here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Nicholson and Morin-Neilson's NIWECHIHAW/I HELP

(Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin.)

Nicholson, Caitlin Dale, and Leona Morin-Neilson (Cree), Niwechihaw/I Help. Color paintings by Caitlin Dale Nicholson, Cree translation by Leona Morin-Neilson (Cree). Groundwood, 2008, preschool-up.

Traditional Indian elders generally teach by showing, and children learn by helping. As they go for a walk in the woods to gather rosehips, a young Cree child learns by watching and helping his Kokum. As the child follows his grandmother—walking, praying, picking, listening, eating—he is learning about his place in the world, his relationships to his family and to the land, culture and community. There is no lecturing or moralizing here, just quietness, appreciation of what is, and a good time. In Cree and English, the spare text is complemented by vibrantly colored acrylic-on-canvas paintings

—Beverly Slapin

Note from Debbie: The book is available from Oyate.

Monday, March 31, 2008

On LITTLE HOUSE: "Oh, mom, you would hate it," she replied: "they're wild savages."

At the Native American Literature Symposium last week, I did a presentation on my blog and research. A few moments ago, I received this letter from Vanessa Diana. She was at the conference, too. (Were you sitting beside me at Hershman's session, Diana?) We talked a few times while there, including as we sat in the lobby, the last night, when the fire alarm went off and those of us on the 5th floor had to evacuate that floor for a short while! Hershman shared his chair with me. He and Vanessa were cheery. (I was quite the grump, having been sound asleep when the alarm went off.) Here's Vanessa's letter (and a heartfelt thanks to Vanessa for sending it):

Dear Debbie,

Thank you for your informative presentation last week at the Native American Literature Symposium. I had thought I was pretty aware of the negative portrayals of Native Americans in children's literature, had had long talks with my children about why Peter Pan ("what makes the red man red?"), Curious George and others were harmful representations, but I confess to having never read Little House on the Prairie. Like many American kids in the 70s, I grew up with the beloved TV version, though. So I gave my 9-year-old daughter Amaya a copy without thinking twice.

Well, after your presentation I called home to talk with Amaya, who is a voracious reader. "How would you describe the portrayal of Native Americans in Little House?" I asked her. "Oh, mom, you would hate it," she replied: "they're wild savages." Then she thought for a moment and added, "Actually most of the books about pioneer days give the same portrayal, unless they're written from the Indians' perspective." [Yes, she's only 9!] How scary that my fourth grader already sees this pattern clearly. She also commented that when children at her mostly white elementary school play at recess, they often do the war whoop. I should add that the curriculum at my children's school does include factual history about Columbus (not just the Columbus-as-hero model) and tribal diversity, and both of my children's teachers have made an effort to include diverse perspectives in their reading curricula. But as you mentioned in your presentation, these educational efforts don't seem to translate on the playground.

As you might guess, I came home from NALS with some new books for my kids, including Erdrich's The Birchbark House for Amaya! And I'm looking forward to sharing your blog with teachers and librarians in my community. Thank you again for your work.

Vanessa Diana
Westfield State College
Westfield, MA

Sunday, March 30, 2008


As noted yesterday, I've been in Minnesota this week at the Native American Literature Symposium. I met many terrific Native writers, including Heid Erdrich, Gordon Henry, Evelina Zuni Lucero, and Hershman John. In an afternoon session, I laughed aloud in Hershman's session, and snapped up a copy of his book, I Swallow Turquoise for Courage.

Hershman talked about Coyote. And then he showed us an animated short of Coyote. Made in 1965, "Coyote and the Lizard" is an old film, low-tech in comparison to present day animation, but it was hilarious. In it, some little lizards are playing, sliding down a hill on flat rocks, much like snowboarding. Their grandpa watches them as they play. Along comes Coyote. He wants to play, too, but the grandpa, knowing Coyote is trouble, tells him "No, you can't play. You're just going to be bad." Coyote asks again and again and again, promising he won't be naughty, so the grandpa finally says ok and tells him to get a thin rock. Coyote gleefully gets a rock and takes his ride, but it is too slow for him. He wants to go faster, so gets a bigger and heavier rock to slide down on...

All the while, the little lizards watch Coyote. Their expressions are terrific---smiling, happy, then wide-eyed and open-mouthed as they see Coyote's too-big rock. Going way too fast, he tumbles head-first off the rock, which overtakes him and then the rock rides Coyote down the hill.

The film was made for Navajo schools, and the narration is in their language. Hershman translated it as it played, with perfect timing and delivery. He remembers it from his own childhood. After the film, he read aloud a poem from his book, in which the Coyote story figures prominently. That poem is here.

Read more about Hershman by visiting his webpage, and get his book from the University of Arizona Press. Hershman's book can be used in high school English classes.

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 consciousness....no 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.