Saturday, April 04, 2009


On Thursday, I was in La Crosse, Wisconsin to give a couple of lectures in the Curriculum Center at the university. It was a great visit, and I especially enjoyed meeting the people that work in the library. (Thanks again, Michele Strange, for arranging my visit.) We had an engaging conversation at lunch. The warm welcome was continued later in the day by faculty in the College of Education, Peg Finders and Richard Gappa. If you were in the audience and have a question, please do write to me or use the Comment option below.

The next day, I was at the Cleary Center on campus to participate in the Act 31 conference, which is a 2-day symposium about Wisconsin Indians. The conference is designed for teachers and takes place every year. If you're in Wisconsin, I urge you to attend next year. It is a valuable opportunity. Children from a local elementary school are brought in as part of the conference for some mini-sessions geared toward them. So, in addition to the session where I worked with teachers, I spent the morning visiting with 4th and 5th graders, talking about Wisconsin Indians, stereotypes, and books.

Many hands eagerly shot up when I asked if any of them had read Birchbark House. It was wonderful to see their enthusiasm for the book.

I also asked them if they had read Little House on the Prairie. Again, several hands went up. I asked if they remembered that the phrase "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is in the book three times. They shook their heads. I asked them to imagine how a Native girl might feel when they read that phrase, or heard the teacher read those words. One boy said "She'd feel horrible." I asked "Why would she feel horrible?" And he said "She'd feel worthless."

Powerful words "she'd feel worthless." Obviously, he understands.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Dear Penny....

Dear Penny Pollock,

I have some questions about your book, When the Moon is Full: A Lunar Year.

On the page for January, you say it is "The Wolf Moon." Beneath the poem on that page, you say "Native Americans believed that wolves became restless in January."

I see at least two problems with that statement.

Do you mean to tell us that all Native Americans call January "The Wolf Moon?"

You use a past tense verb. Do Native Americans (whichever ones you're talking about) no longer believe that wolves become restless in January?

I see on the book flap that you are "a descendant of Wyandotte Indians." Why did you not write a book about the Wyandotte people?

I'd like to know more about your life as a Wyandotte woman...


My letter to Penny sounds mean, doesn't it? I ask Penny some pointed questions, and, I question her claim to Wyandotte ancestry. Penny may, in fact, have Wyandotte ancestry, but it seems to me that her identity as a Wyandotte is not a lived one. It's an imagined one, informed by romantic notions of who American Indians were. Contrast who she is with the people in this video clip, posted by my colleague, Tracy Peterson, on his Facebook page. It is an exerpt from the upcoming PBS series "We Shall Remain." The series promises to be outstanding. It's consultants are the most esteemed scholars in American Indian Studies.

UPDATE, APRIL 5th, 2009

Beverly Slapin sent me her review of Pollock's book. I'm pasting it below. Her review may not be published elsewhere without her written consent.

Pollack, Penny, When the Moon Is Full: A Lunar Year, illustrated by Mary Azarian. New York: Little, Brown (2001). Unpaginated, color illustrations; kindergarten-grade 3

A lunar year has 13 full moons, but Pollack’s “lunar year” has only 12 full moons, to correspond with the months of the Roman calendar. If this isn’t confusing enough, she bestows so-called “traditional Native American names” on each of the 12 full moons, to five of which she adds sometimes bizarre, always sweeping, generalizations about Native peoples. For instance, January is allegedly called “the Wolf Moon,” which Pollack explains by saying, “Native Americans believed that wolves became restless in January.” Where did she get this?

Tying this all together is an assortment of stupefyingly amateurish short poems. For example,

Full moons come,

full moons go,

softening nights

with their silver glow.

They pass in silence,

all untamed,

but as they travel,

they are named.

Now, the idea of wild untamed moon(s) seems a little incongruous, since our moon is a large hunk of rock, so it has to be assumed that Pollack just needed something to rhyme with “named.” Also, we only have one moon, so this “full moons come, full moons go” just adds to the confusion.

Azarian’s hand-colored woodcut illustrations feature big-eyed animals with human expressions in contemporary scenes. Only one shows humans—two generic figures, facing away from the reader, holding hands and looking at the moon.

Bringing up the rear is a question-and-answer section, framed by a generic “Indian” design. One wonders, for instance, where Pollack got this one:

Why do full moons have names? The Native Americans kept time by the Moon. They knew that every month had a full moon, so “many moons” meant many months. They chose names that reflected something special about each of these time periods. The elders passed along the names, mainly through storytelling.

The question-and-answer format here is especially misleading because it carries a false sense of authenticity. So young readers, rather than being motivated to think critically, are simply handed questions and—wrong answers. They are being told what to think, rather than being taught how to think.

—Beverly Slapin

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

SLJ Article: "Straight Talk on Race" by Mitali Perkins

April 1, 2009. A new issue of School Library Journal is up. It includes "Straight Talk on Race," by Mitali Perkins.

There's much to think about (and respond to) in her article. For now, I point you to this portion of the article, where Mitali discusses her novel, The Sunita Experiment.

After the novel was published, a reviewer chastised me for the “unnecessary exoticization” of my protagonist. Here’s how I ended the story, with Sunita championing her South Asian heritage by trying on a saree and modeling it for the guy she likes:

“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still Sunita Sen and not some exotic Indian princess coming to cast a spell on me?”

“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of her trademark smiles just to prove it.

I fumed, but, dang it, the reviewer was right. Exotic Indian princess? What was I thinking? Enduring a twinge of shame, I moved on and tried to learn from my mistake.

When my publisher decided to reissue the book in 2005, I was asked if I wanted to make any changes. “Yes!” I shouted, pumping my fist.

Here’s how the book, renamed The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, ends now:

“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still the same Sunita Sen? The California girl?”

“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of her trademark smiles just to prove it.

Thank goodness for second chances.

Mitali's self-disclosure is important. And rare. For her disclosure, I am grateful. I can point to it as an example of an author accepting and incorporating criticism, using that criticism to grow. To make the book better. To give the reader something better than was there before.

Years ago when Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is On the Ground came out, I approached her at an NCTE conference, introduced myself, and started talking. I wanted her to revisit that book, rethink it, maybe even rewrite it. I wanted her to join me in a conference panel where we could talk about mistakes and growth. I imagined how much the industry could change. Ann Rinaldi is a leading writer. She's got lot of fans. It seemed to me such a wonderful opportunity.

She didn't see it that way. She drew back from the table where she was sitting, pulling away from me. She listened to me and said no, and, that she'd never write another book about American Indians again.

Part of me was really glad that she said she would never write another one, but part of me was disappointed over a lost opportunity.

That Mitali is openly writing about her decision means a lot. Thank you, Mitali.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Research Study on Effects of Subtle Discrimination

Yesterday, a comment was submitted to "Jan Brett and Sherman Alexie" posted here on December 31, 2007. In that post, I compared Brett's The Three Snow Bears to Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both were on the New York Times best seller list. Brett's book objectifies and dehumanizes American Indians; Alexie's book does not. In his book, readers come to know the life of a Native teen, with its ups and downs, its richness and its hardships. Beautiful, brutual, honest.

Teresa (the person who submitted the comment yesterday) did not like the critique of Brett's book. Here's what she said:

You mention, "in The Three Snow Bears, we have another book in which an author/illustrator puts Native clothing on animals, effectively de-humanizing American Indians." Animals and cartoon characters are constantly pictured in clothing worn by Americans of all races. I don't feel dehumanized by animals in children's books wearing jeans and t-shirts. Nor do I think you would even blink if you saw a book in which animals were dressed in traditional European, African, or Asian clothing. I'm a big fan of Sherman Alexie's books and also of Jan Brett's beautiful illustrations. Your over-sensitivity loses me here.

Her comments reflect how difficult it is to recognize subtle forms of racism. I hasten to say that I don't think Teresa is racist. She is not able to see what I am trying to help her see, but that does not mean she is racist.

This morning in ScienceDaily I read an article about a study on subtle discrimination that may help understand why it is hard for some to see problematic depictions of American Indians as inappropriate or hurtful. The article is called "Racism's Cognitive Toll: Subtle Discrimination is More Taxing on the Brain." It summarizes research done by Jessica Salvatore and J. Nicole Shelton, two psychologists at Princeton. Here's a couple of key excerpts:

The problem is that we have limited cognitive resources, so when we are solving one problem, we have difficulty focusing on another at the same time. Some psychologists reason from this that subtle racism might actually be more, not less, damaging than the plain antipathy of yesterday, sapping more mental energy. Old-fashioned racism--a "No Negroes Allowed" sign, for example--is hateful and hurtful, but it's not vague or confusing. It doesn't require much cognitive work to get it. But if you're the most qualified candidate for a job, and know it, and still don't get the job for some undisclosed reason--that demands some processing.

That last line, about being qualified for a job, points to the research study itself. Participants in the study were either black or white. The researchers created a situation in which participants observed fair and unfair hiring decisions and then took the Stroop test that tests capacity for mental effort. Salvatore and Shelton's research question was to see if experiencing subtle racism interfered with mental capacity:

It did, at least for blacks, and more than the overt racism did. As reported in the September issue of Psychological Science, black volunteers who had witnessed unfair but ambiguous hiring decisions did much less well on the Stroop test, suggesting that they were using all their mental resources to make sense of the unfairness.

Interestingly, white volunteers were more impaired by overt racism than by the more ambiguous discrimination. Salvatore and Shelton figure this is because whites rarely experience any racism; they do not even notice the subtle forms of racism, and are thrown off balance when they are hit over the head by overt acts. Many blacks, by contrast, have developed coping strategies for the most hateful kinds of racism; it's the constant, vague, just-below-the-surface acts of racism that impair performance, day in and day out.

So. Let's go back to Teresa's comment, and let's think about children in classrooms, observing racism in books, classroom materials, etc.

Teresa can't see the problems in Jan Brett's book. It takes work to subtle forms of racism. Again, this is not an attack on Teresa. Her comments are representative of a lot of people (I'd say the majority of people) who resist critiques like those found on this site.

Racism, whether it is overt or subtle, is costing us in ways we may not realize. Research studies like the one by Salvatore and Shelton may help us revisit and rethink our views about books like The Three Snow Bears.

What does this mean for the classroom?

A lot of people argue that we should teach books like Little House on the Prairie because it allows us to talk about attitudes people had "at that time." I think that is a good use of the book, but only with students who are much older. I suggest that book be read in high school and college, not elementary school. And I will also note that the majority of lesson plans on LHOP do not address the racist attitudes in the book.

I do wonder, though, if upon the conclusion of a discussion of LHOP, the Stroop test were given, how the students would fare?

UPDATE, MARCH 31, 2009 - 4:30 CST
Mitali Perkins has an article about race in the April issue of School Library Journal. Anticipating push-back on her article, she blogged about it today, referencing my post. If her article is accessible online, I'll link to it here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Erdrich's PORCUPINE YEAR in SLJ's "Battle of the (Kids') Books"

School Library Journal launched their first annual "Battle of the (Kids') Books" today. Among the contenders for "the Baddest Book of Them All" is Louise Erdrich's The Porcupine Year. The judges selected sixteen books they deem "the very best" published in 2008.

I'm not at all sure how this will work. Take a look at the bracket. Porcupine Year is matched up with The Hunger Games.

NOTE: Hunger Games is not about King Arthur as previously said here. That was an error on my part, pointed out in a comment (below). Hunger Games is "a gripping story set in a postapocalyptic world where a replacement for the United States demands a tribute from each of its territories: two children to be used as gladiators in a televised fight to the death" according to the Publisher's Weekly review.

According to info at SLJ, the pairings are random. Forgive my lack of sports knowledge. Is that how the Sweet Sixteen is done? Random?

So... in that bracket, it looks like author Ellen Wittlinger will choose between Porcupine Year and The Hunger Games. Reading through the blogosphere, there's a lot of cheering going on for this Battle of the (Kids') Books competition. There is some resistance, too. One blogger writes that the same books are getting more attention, that there are other books that could benefit from attention.

I'm glad Louise's book is included. It is definitely a terrific read. If you want a signed copy, order one from her store, Birchbark Books.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Rumford, James, Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing, illustrated by the author and translated by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby (Cherokee). Houghton Mifflin, 2004; unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 1-4.

On a family road trip to California to visit the redwood trees called Giant Sequoia, a father relates the story of the origins of the Cherokee syllabary and the perseverance of its creator, Sequoyah. Sequoyah is portrayed as an otherwise ordinary man, a metalworker, who undertook the daunting task of setting speech to paper so that the Cherokee language would not “fade away.” Neither ridicule nor harassment from his contemporaries—not even the destruction of his home by arson—could stop Sequoyah from creating the syllabary widely used in Cherokee writing today.

Rumford’s text, reminiscent of traditional storytelling, is concise and evocative. Each paragraph in English is followed by a parallel in Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby. The book design, format and illustrations are a thing of beauty and perfectly complement this story within a story. The tall, slim format and mostly dark brown and forest green accents honor both the stately Giant Sequoia trees and the man, Sequoyah, whose name they bear. The bold-lined artwork—done with ink, watercolor, pastel and pencil on drawing paper adhered to a rough piece of wood, then “rubbed” with chalk and colored pencil—remind one of 19th-Century woodblock prints. The Cherokee writing serves both as an example of what Sequoyah accomplished, and as a beautiful design element that completes the wholeness of the book.—Beverly Slapin


This book is available from Oyate.

The Cherokee Nation website has a page about Sequoyah.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Solomon, Chad (Ojibwe), and Christopher Meyer, The Adventures of Rabbit and Bear Paws. Little Spirit Bear Productions, 2008, color art by Chad Solomon, grades 3-up

Modeled on the popular Asterix Adventures, these Ojibwe-centric graphic novels—two, so far—are set in eighteenth Century colonized North America. The protagonists are Ojibwe brothers dealing, in their inimitable ways, with their land-hungry new neighbors. Rabbit is a shrewd, cunning little guy, a headstrong kid who often confuses bravery with bravado. His younger brother, Bear Paws, is way larger and stronger, kind of gullible, and always ready to pull Rabbit out of a scheme-gone-awry. The two are good, likable kids, sprinkling themselves with spirit powder to transform into animals, trying to get out of trouble, trying to get out of chores, and generally remembering the old stories and the traditional lessons they impart. In “The Sugar Bush,” our young heroes encounter a troop of bumbling British soldiers who don’t speak Ojibwe and have no idea how to live on the land. In “The Voyageurs,” Rabbit and Bear Paws embark on what might be the single strangest journey in the history of the fur trade.

Young readers will enjoy following the adventures of Solomon’s and Meyer’s energetic young characters, and the joking and ironic word-plays between the Ojibwe adults and children and animals. Solomon’s appealing artwork is uncluttered, with light, bright colors and minimal inking; the font is a good size for the dialogue and the panels are easy to follow. And, no matter what happens, Rabbit and Bear Paws’ breechclouts stay remarkably in place.—Beverly Slapin


The Adventures of Rabbit and Bear Paws is available from Oyate.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lecture at U Wisc La Crosse

If you are in the area of La Crosse, Wisconsin, I'll be giving a lecture there next week. To register, contact Michele Strange at 608.785.8943 or send her an email. Her address is strange.mich at uwlax dot edu.

Monday, March 23, 2009

First Nation Communities Read

In 2003, First Nations public librarians in Ontario launched the First Nation Communities Read program. Books considered for their annual award are ones that (criteria is excerpted from their website):

  • are written and/or illustrated by, or otherwise involves the participation of a First Nation, Métis, or Inuit creator;
  • contains First Nation, Métis, or Inuit content produced with the support of First Nation, Métis, or Inuit advisers/consultants or First Nation, Métis, or Inuit endorsement.

The 2009 book is Which Way Should I Go, written by Sylvia Olsen with Ron Martin, illustrated by Kasia Charko. On the program's website, you can download a "tip sheet" for using the book. It includes links and programming ideas.

Prior books are:

2008 - Ancient Thunder, written and illustrated by Leo Yerxa, published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press.

2006 - As Long as the Rivers Flow, written by Larry Loyie with Constance Brissenden, illustrated by Heather D. Holmlund, published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press.

2005 - SkySisters, written by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illustrated by Brian Deines, published by Kids Can Press.

2004 - Solomon's Tree, inspired by Tsimpshian master carver Victor Reece, written by Andrea Spalding, illustrated by Janet Wilson, published by Orca Book Publishing.

2003 - Dragonfly Kites, written by Tomson Highway, illustrated by Brian Deines, published by HarperCollins Canada.

Visit the site, and take a look at the posters created each year. They are gorgeous!

Saturday, March 21, 2009


In Sherman Alexie's novel, Indian Killer, Marie is a college student enrolled in a Native lit course taught by Dr. Mather. She is Native. He is not. Because it's a Native lit course, she hopes there will be other Native students in the class. That was not the case. Here's an excerpt from page 58:

While Marie was surprised by the demographics of the class, she was completely shocked by the course reading list. One of the books, The Education of Little Tree, was supposedly written by a Cherokee Indian named Forrest Carter. But Forrest Carter was actually the pseudonym for a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Three of the other books, Black Elk Speaks, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, and Lakota Woman, were taught in almost every other Native American Literature class in the country and purported to be autobiographical, though all three were co-written by white men. Black Elk himself had disavowed his autobiography, a fact that was conveniently omitted in any discussion of the book. The other seven books included three anthologies of traditional Indian stories edited by white men, two nonfiction studies of Indian spirituality written by white women, a book of traditional Indian poetry translations edited by a Polish-American Jewish man, and an Indian murder mystery written by some local white writer named Jack Wilson, who claimed he was a Shishomish Indian.

Marie approached the professor:

"Excuse me, Dr. Mather," Marie said. "You've got this Little Tree book on your list. Don't you know its a total fraud?"

"I'm aware that the origins of the book have been called into question," said Mather. "But I hardly believe that matters. The Education of Little Tree is a beautiful and touching book. If those rumors about Forrest Carter are true, perhaps we can learn there are beautiful things inside of everyone."

Those "beautiful things" are stereotypical ideas... If you are interested, I wrote an essay about it in 2006: Forrest Carter's EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE.

Oliver La Farge's LAUGHING BOY

People write to me, asking about La Farge's portrayal of American Indians---in this case, Navajos in his Laughing Boy. Published in 1929 by Houghton Mifflin, the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930. It is a Signet Classic and is included in books created to help teachers select literature for use in high school and college classrooms.

If you're interested in a critical essay about Laughing Boy, I suggest you read Leslie Marmon Silko's "An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts." It is on page 211 of Geary Hobson's The Remembered Earth.

Silko writes:

Since white ethnologists like Boas and Swanton first intruded into Native American communities to "collect" prayers, songs and stories, a number of implicit racist assumptions about Native American culture and literature have flourished. The first is the assumption that the white man, through some innate cultural or racial superiority, has the ability to perceive and master the essential beliefs, values and emotions of persons from Native American communities.

Silko notes that La Farge was educated at Harvard and spent several summer vacations doing ethnographic work on the Navajo Reservation. She writes that he cared deeply for the Navajo people. That time, though, and his care, did not make it possible for him to write a novel that accurately portrays the Navajo people. With respect to accuracy, Silko offers the response of her students:

In the summer of 1971, the Navajo students in a Southwestern Literature class at Navajo Community College concluded that Laughing Boy was entertaining; but as an expression of anything Navajo, especially with relation to Navajo emotions and behavior, the novel was a failure. And for the non-Navajo or non-Indian, it is worse than a failure: it is a lie because La Farge passes off the consciousness and feelings of Laughing Boy as those of Navajo sensibility.

As noted, the novel has a lot of accolades. Maybe that's why romance novelist Cassie Edwards used it to write Savage Dream, one of the titles in her "Savage" series. Some of my students start to laugh aloud as I read the titles in the series: Savage Love, Savage Intrigue, Savage Hope, Savage Destiny... There's over 20 books in the series. Edwards was in the news in January of 08 for plagiarism. If you want to see a point-by-point analysis of her use of Laughing Boy, see what Smart Bitches put together.

I'm sure high school teachers don't use books like those by Cassie Edwards in their classrooms. They are, after all, soft-porn romance novels. Lest you think, however, that she captures Native culture in a good way, discard that thought. And while you're at it, discard Laughing Boy if you're using it in your classroom. Choose a Native author instead. Silko, perhaps, or Simon Ortiz. Or James Welch. Or Louise Erdrich. Or Sherman Alexie. Or Thomas King. You do have choices.

And if you feel compelled to respond to this post, asking me if I think non-Native people have no business writing books about Native people, rest easy. I don't think that only Native people should write Native novels.

But... What is the motivation for the question in the first place? Concern for freedom of speech? Ok, I defend that, too, but if you're looking for good books about American Indians, don't you think it makes sense to look for Native writers? Choosing their books does not mean you defy anyone's freedom of speech.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Verla Kay's Broken Feather (published in 2002 by Putnam), got mixed reviews. The review by School Library Journal's, S. K. Joiner is the most helpful to librarians, parents and teachers who wish to avoid stereotypical, romanticized, and inaccurate depictions of Native people.

Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus goofed. Both gave it a starred review, saying things like "will hook readers" and every one of Kay's words "sparkle."

It's a picture book. Here's the words on the first page:

Broken Feather,
Native boy,
Filled with spirit,
Strength and joy.

Bows and arrows,
Corn-husk pouch,
Bushes rustle,
Natives crouch.

Natives crouch? They always do that! Book after book shows Indian men that way for one reason or another, usually to attack the settlers. Why are these Nez Perce men doing it? The second page tells us why...

Small voice, whisper,
"Father, who?"
"White men hunting,
Passing through."

Kay is giving us the classic "plight of the Indians" narrative. Vanishing Indians, that is. She attempts to give readers a look at conflict between the Nez Perce people and Europeans.

Along the way, she and Stephen Alcorn (the illustrator) feed the stereotype monster. A man plays a drum with his hands while other men dance in a circle in the stereotypical ways... Every single dancer has one foot off the ground, arms thrown out or skyward. That scene is repeated on a second page later in the book:

Warriors chanting,
Big drums, beat.
Angry faces,
Stomping feet

It's followed by a page about defeat and then "Forced to tramp, Natives marching..." to a reservation where Broken Feather asks his father why this happened. His father's answer? That there were many of them, and few Nez Perce, and now, he says to his son "it's up to you." Up to him to do what? We aren't told.

The last page shows Broken Feather as an adult looking out over a river and mountains. In his hand is a single feather. I guess its the feather he wore as a child. Now he's in a full headdress. That's the end of the book. It is followed by two notes. One from the author and one from the illustrator.

Meant for young children, this book fails to give them the 'here and now' information young children need. Kay's note suggests she was at a museum where she saw Nez Perce culture, and that she talked with a Nez Perce tribal member. Her book would have been so much better if she'd taken the reader into the present day, with a few pages about contemporary Nez Perce children.

Then again, she'd still has that title "Broken Feather." It seems to me she's steeped in the plight narrative and would have to do a lot of work to break out of it. Alcorn, too.

Problems with this illustration: Man is shown playing drum with his hands instead of drumstick; dancers are frenetic.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cultural Knowledge

The New York Times is running a series called "Where Education and Assimilation Collide." It caught my eye because, to many American Indians, education and assimilation carry a lot of freight. Called heathen, pagan, and savage by Europeans who first came to what became America, missionaries tried to Christianize us in mission schools, and, early U.S. government boarding schools were designed to assimilate us with the motto "Kill the Indian, save the man."

The Times article is not about American Indians, it is about immigrants of today. Reading the article, this stood out:

Few of these students had heard of the Pilgrims, much less the history of Thanksgiving. Idioms like “easy as pie” and “melting pot” were lost on them. They knew little of the American Revolution, much less the Bolshevik.

“American students come to school with a lot of cultural knowledge that other teachers assume they don’t have to explain because their kids get it from growing up in this country, watching television or surfing the Internet,” Ms. Cain said. “I can’t assume any of that.”

Cultural knowledge. Ms. Cain is right on. Kids do gain a lot of "cultural knowledge" about the United States just by growing up here, watching TV and surfing the net. But is it really "knowledge" or is it something else? What counts as "knowledge" and just what would the NY Times reporter say about "the history of Thanksgiving?"

Societies tell stories about their origins. Americans fix the American origin story back there in time with the Pilgrims and the Indians and the "First Thanksgiving." But the story that is told is a romantic one that is incomplete. A more complete history, a more accurate "cultural knowledge" would serve us all well.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Theresa Sidel, a colleague in the American Indian Library Association, wrote to me, noting passages in Freedman's Washington at Valley Forge. In children's literature, Russell Freedman's books stand out for his style and research. When viewed for Native content, however, they fall short, as Theresa points out below.

We just got copies of "Washington at Valley Forge" by Russell Freedman, c. 2008, published by Holiday House ISBN: 978-0-8234-2069-8 (Hardcover)
The book only mentions American Indians on pages 33, 42, 47-48, 66, and 68.
No mention is made of Skenandoah, Chief of the Oneida Nation, who sent baskets of corn to the starving soldiers. One has to wonder why Freedman would fail to include that in a history book for children. I know it isn't the most well-known fact, but it is easily found on the internet.

The Oneida are mentioned as follows:

pg. 66:

"Lafayette's force included forty-seven Oneida Indian scouts, "Stout-looking fellows and remarkably neat," according to Private Joseph Plumb Martin, who was assigned to the expedition. The Oneidas had adopted Lafayette into their tribe and named him Kayweda, after one of their greatest warriors."
pg. 68:

"The Oneida scouts, bringing up the rear of the retreating American column, made their own contribution to Lafayette's escape. As British cavalrymen brandishing sabers galloped toward the retreating Americans, the Oneidas let loose with a hair-raising war whoop, startling the horsemen and frightening their steeds. The horses bolted and turned heel, giving the Americans time to reach the river safely. Later, when the British began their own retreat, the Oneidas rushed back across the river and harassed the enemy's flanks as the redcoats hurried toward Philadelphia."
Here is the one that bothers me the most though, pg. 47-48:

"A French interpreter at the camp was similarly moved while walking in the woods before breakfast one morning. From a distance he heard " a most powerful voice...yet melodious," singing a song from a popular French opera. He was astonished "when suddenly I saw...before me a tall American regimental and two large epaulets on his shoulders." The singer was a Canadian Abenaki who spoke French and English. Raised by Jesuit priests under French rule in Canada, he had joined the Americans at the beginning of the war; rising to the rank of colonel in the Continental army."
With everything he knew about this man why did he not include his name? Well, perhaps by some fluke it was never I went to the internet and found the piece with almost exact wording in less than five minutes: "Colonel Louis at Oriskany and Valley Forge" by Darren Bonaparte (Originally published in The People's Voice, September 30, 2005) the account of Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, a young French officer assigned to Baron von Steuben. If Freedman had gone to the next paragraph he would have known that the man was " Nia-man-rigounant,....Colonel Louis, it is the name which I received with the baptism."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Effects of American Indian stereotypes

In several places on American Indians in Children's Literature and in my writing, I reference resolutions of the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association. Both associations, in their resolutions, call for the end of use of Native imagery in sports mascots. The resolutions are based on research studies that document the harm caused by this sort of imagery.

Whether its a sports mascot or a character in a children's book, there are many similarities. Here's UIUC's now-officially-discontinued "chief illiniwek":

Shown here are some characters in children's books. See the similarities?


One of the people doing the research on effect of these images is Stephanie Fryberg at the University of Arizona. She was on our campus yesterday giving a lecture wherein she presented some of her research findings.

Its quite frightening. I'm not being alarmist or dramatic. Her research is compelling. There are consequences for all children exposed to stereotypical images of American Indians.

If you'd like a copy of her most recent publication, write to me and I'll send it to you. It appeared in BASIC AND APPLIED SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY in 2008, and is titled "Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots," by Stephanie Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus, Daphna Oyserman and Joseph M. Stone.

Here's the abstract:

Four studies examined the consequences of American Indian mascots and other prevalent representations of American Indians on aspects of the self-concept for American Indian students. When exposed to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, or other common American Indian images, American Indian students generated positive associations (Study 1, high school) but reported depressed state self-esteem (Study 2, high school), and community worth (Study 3, high school), and fewer achievement-related possible selves (Study 4, college). We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.

In the study, they showed high school students images of Pocahontas, Chief Wahoo, posters from the American Indian College Fund that say "have you seen a real Indian," and, statements reflecting negative stereotypes of American Indians. They tested self esteem and efficacy (community worth) of Native and non-Native students.

If you'd like me to send you the article, write to me at debreese at illinois dot edu.