Sunday, November 09, 2008

Rigoberta Menchu's three books

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

Menchú Tum, Rigoberta (Maya), and Dante Liano, translated from the Spanish by David Unger, color illustrations by Domi (Mazateca). Groundwood, grades 4-up:

The Girl from Chimel. 2003

The Honey Jar. 2006

The Secret Legacy. 2008

In 1992, Indigenous and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s Nobel Peace Prize brought to a world audience the truths of the U.S.-orchestrated and –supported Guatemalan government’s 36-year campaign of genocide against the Maya peoples there—and of one of the longest guerrilla resistance movements in Latin America. After her brother and mother were “disappeared” and her activist father was tortured and burned alive in the assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1980, Menchú went into exile and took up residence in Mexico, where she taught herself Spanish in order to denounce to the world the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army.

Despite the hardships and poverty her people have endured—and rebelled against—ever since the Spanish conquest, Menchú’s wonderful recounting of her childhood stories in these titles, in close collaboration with Guatemalan author Liano, shows what it is to live with beauty and integrity, with land, culture and community. Domi’s oil paintings, on a jeweled palette of all the colors of the Maya forests, jungles and mountains, are a luminous symphony of colors and images.

As The Girl from Chimel begins, Rigoberta introduces herself and her village:

I am Rigoberta. Chimel is the name of my village when it’s large, and Laj Chimel when it’s small, because sometimes the village is large and sometimes it’s small. During good times, when there’s honey and the corn is so heavy it bends its green stalks, when the yellow, green, purple, white and multicolored orchids bloom, displaying their beauty, then my village is big and it’s called Chimel. During bad times, when the river dries up and ponds can fit into the hollow of my hand, when evil men walk the earth and sadness can hardly be endured, the village becomes small and is called Laj Chimel. Right now, I’m remembering Chimel…

It is in the hearts of the people of Chimel, then and now, that the old stories reside. Traditionally, told stories such as the ones in Menchú’s trilogy teach children how the world works. For young Rigoberta and other Maya children, this is how they are taught about the history of the land and right behavior; about compassion, courage, and generosity; about asking permission from the nahuales, the spirits who reside in everything; about planting seeds and harvesting fruits; and ultimately, about fighting injustice and struggling for a better world.

In The Honey Jar, Menchú imparts some of the cultural knowledge she learned as a child: How Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon created the stars, and Mother Earth and Father Sky, whom they carefully instructed in the creation of sea, land, plants, and animals. How each creature was assigned to be a nahual, a keeper of something. How the elders were given power and wisdom and why they deserve respect. What happens when people violate nature’s laws and don’t apologize and what happens when they do. How monkeys are descended from humans (not the other way around). How the weasel taught people to be grateful for what they are given. How a man and a buzzard exchanged bodies and what they learned from their horrible experience. How the hormigo tree, suffering from nostalgia—the illness borne of longing “to sing and release from its heart all the trills the birds had sung throughout its life”—is given the gift of music.

In The Secret Legacy, Seven-year-old Ixkem’s grandfather is 100 years old, and he is ready to pass on his legacy and knowledge. Of all the people in the village, Grandfather chooses his youngest granddaughter to be the new caretaker of the cornfields. “But I’m too little,” Ixkem protests. “Neither age nor size has anything to do with it,” her grandfather assures her.

Off they go together, the old man and the little girl, through the forest, to the cornfield, the “best place to scare off parakeets, blackbirds, wild boar, squirrels, turtle doves, the smallest of worms and moths and even a few invisible insects who wanted to eat the corn. Now it would be Ixkem’s job.” Her yelling and thumping reach the nahuales who live at the center of the earth. A committee of b’e’n (as the nahuales are called in K’iche’ language) brings Ixkem down to their underground turf, where she tells them about life on the surface and the amazing stories her grandfather told her.

Among them: How an arrogant, boastful lion learns a lesson in humility. How the futures of young children can be shaped by what is done to their umbilical cords. What makes good people good and bad people bad. How a hummingbird brings happiness into the world. About the miracle of falling in love and the requirement of a lengthy courtship. How happiness comes from a peaceful heart and the love that others know how to give. Why the light in our eyes is a reflection of those who love us.

In exchange for these stories, the b’e’n whisper a secret in Ixkem’s ear for her to take back to her grandfather. Now that he knows that Ixken will hold this secret legacy for the next hundred years and that the Maya lineage will “live forever in the forests, in the jungles, in the mountains and on the coasts of Guatemala,” the grandfather happily closes his eyes.

When one considers the past and recent history of the Maya peoples, Menchú’s children’s stories become even more poignant, and each story in each book has a significant message for children today. As Ixkem explains to the tiny b’e’n,

There are some bad people with lots of power….They declare war on others, they enslave their fellow man, and they don’t know how to share their wealth. Of course there are good people who fight for peace, set slaves free and give to others. The future of the world depends on these good people.

In The Girl from Chimel, there is a story of Rigoberta’s mother, who as a child fought off a pack of coyotes to rescue her pet pig. It was said that the whole village was awed by her courage.

Our elders said, ‘This is a good sign. She’ll grow up to be a brave woman who will survive many challenges. She should thank her nahuales and they in turn will give her strength and wisdom and will protect her memory forever. Her sons and daughters and grandchildren will all be courageous.”

If there’s a word to describe Rigoberta Menchú and her mother and all the Maya people who continue to struggle to maintain land, culture and community, that word would be “courageous.”

These three beautiful storybooks are about a happy little girl, secure in her world, with a “heart full of sunlight,” who, as an adult, wants for the world all that she had: “a mountain to protect me, a river to refresh me, birds to sing to me.” Both Rigoberta Menchú and her stories are an international treasure.

—Beverly Slapin


These books, and others reviewed on this site are available from Oyate.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Congratulations to Denise Juneau!

Extending warm congratulations to Denise Juneau, who was elected to be the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Montana. She is the Director of Montana's "Indian Education for All" initiative. I wrote about that program in 2006. Good things happening then, and good things happening now for all children in Montana.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Montana's "Indian Education for All" program

I've been hearing good things about Montana's "Indian Education for All" program. Essentially, it is an initiative designed to provide students in Montana with knowledge about American Indians. As is the case with most schools, students learn world and U.S. and state history, but very little of worth is taught about American Indians. In Montana, the school is taking significant steps to remedy that situation.

The program has many components. If you are interested in learning what they're doing, and how you might use their work to modify your teaching, or your district's curriculum, visit the website:

Montana Office of Public Instruction, Indian Education

The National Indian Education website has an article about it, posted in June of 2005: Montana's Public Schools to Teach about State's First People. Indian Country Today ran an article about the program in May of 2006: Montana prepares to implement unique 'Indian education for all' law.

And, the November 2006 issue of PDK features the program on its cover and has several articles about it.

American Indians - Exit Polls

My little sister is a first-time voter. She voted for Obama. So did my parents and my siblings and their spouses. My daughter (at Yale) spent hours making calls for Obama.

A Washington state newspaper is reporting that exit polls indicate that 89 percent of all Native voters supported Obama. In McCain's homestate (Arizona), 74 percent of Native voters supporter Obama.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


Oh dear! With the election, I lost track of an important event that I wanted to alert readers to, ahead of time. As it is, anyone who visits this site as of 4:45 Central Time on Nov 6th, please hop over to a live chat with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Joseph Bruchac.....

Times for the livechat are: 6 p.m. PDT, 7 p.m. MDT, 8 p.m. CDT, 9 p.m. EDT Nov. 6.

Click here.

Alexie on Obama

Salon has a piece on their site called "The new era of Obama. Sherman Alexie, Joan Blades, Robert Dallek, Greil Marcus, Dan Savage and others weigh in on Obama's historic presidential win."

Alexie made six points. Here's the first one:

1. Yes, it's historic and incredible that a black man is president of the United States. But, dang it, it's just as important that a black woman is the first lady. Think about it. Jackie O! Lady Bird Johnson! And Michelle Obama in her Gap dresses! Please don't discount the cultural power of the first lady. I am very excited to see how Michelle Obama also revolutionizes the White House.

Click here to read the piece in its entirety, and thanks to Angela Haas for pointing to this (on Facebook).

My husband and I are Obama supporters. We voted early in Illinois so we could drive to Lafayette, Indiana to knock on doors on Election Day. First-time canvassers, it was a memorable experience.

We had a list of 100 addresses in two neighborhoods. I assumed they were Democrats, but that was a wrong assumption. Most of the doors we knocked on weren't opened, because most people were at work. Homes were small. No apartments, no duplexes. Lots and lots of dogs barking inside. Definitely animal lovers, and gardeners, too. Lovely gardens, and nifty Halloween decorating, too.

One home was empty. A contractor was there, painting. I wondered if this was a foreclosed home. At another home, a new family was living in the home. They'd bought it recently; it was a foreclosure.

One elderly white man told us he'd already voted. We asked if he'd voted for Obama, and he became angry, saying "hell no!" Later, an elderly white woman said "I hate that bastard. I wish those two guys had shot him." As we walked, a college-aged white man drove by, saw our Obama materials, and yelled out something about Obama's "nuts" (and I don't think he was referencing sanity). A little later he drove by again, yelling "Obama is a terrorist." A middle-aged white woman, getting in her car, said she had voted early, and said tersly that she didn't care to discuss her vote. I assumed she was for McCain, but she may have been an Obama supporter, tired of all the canvassers and phone calls.

Not all the white people we spoke with were angry. One young couple with a toddler said they'd just moved there, and that they'd voted for Obama. They were enthusiastic and hopeful. A white guy, around 30 years old, said he was just headed to the polls to vote for Obama. Another said he'd already voted for him, but that his partner had voted for McCain. An older white woman, in poor health, said she supported Obama but wasn't going to vote. We offered to arrange a ride, but she shook her head. She said they (DNC people) know her well, that she's voted Democrat before. I wondered if she didn't feel up to being in a long line. I've read that the elderly felt they couldn't stand in long lines.

At the only African American household on our list, there were three people who could vote. One had done so, the second had tried but was turned away without proper ID, and the third had not registered in time. The first was trying hard to get the second necessary ID so she could vote. It seems to me that the effort to get people registered must be coupled with teaching them what they need to vote successfully. And, along with that, I wonder about Indiana's policy about voting and ID's. I won't say this was a racial issue, because back here in Illinois, my students reported difficulties voting, difficulties related to ID's and proof of residency.

There was a Latino household; they'd voted for Obama.

And school was letting out, kids were coming home. One boy told us their classrooms had a mock election, and that Obama won. That boy was Latino. A white girl, same age (4th grade or so), on another street, said she'd voted for McCain because hardly anybody was voting for him. She did want a door-hanger (with Obama's pic and info on where to vote). A few minutes later, we talked with her again because her address was on our list. She said her mom voted for McCain and gets mad about all the Obama calls and stuff people leave on the door. Her mom wasn't home. On we went and walked by a truck on the street. It had an Obama door-hanger on its side mirror, and we realized that it was the door-hanger she'd asked for.

As I noted, it was a memorable experience. I learned a great deal, first-hand, much of it in line with the analyses being done about voters.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Posters for your classroom or library

The American Library Association has this poster available at their site. It is the art from the cover of Tim Tingle's outstanding picture book, Crossing Bok Chitto. That art is by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. What is especially cool is that the poster includes the title in the Choctaw language. Awesome! The poster is $16.00, and there are bookmarks, too, for $8.50.

You can order the book from Oyate.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Alexie on Colbert Report

If you're in Canada and unable to see the video clip above, click here.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Copies of Tomson Highway's picture books....

Great news! For those who act fast, that is! Lakehead University bookstore has copies of Tomson Highway's three picture books. According to their website, they've got seven or eight copies of each one. To get to the books, start here. Enter "Highway" in the search box on the top right.

Back in 2002, Highway was interviewed (click here to listen) and spoke about his writing, language and the Cree language specifically, and the influence of television.

Highway is at Lakehead University (in Canada) this semester as Artist-in-Residence in the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

American Indians and November

With a few days left in October, librarians and teachers across the country are (likely) in the midst of planning activities about American Indians. Why? Because that month is "American Indian Heritage Month."

I urge parents, teachers, and librarians to provide children and patrons with books that portray American Indians in the present day. Given that Thanksgiving happens in November, there is strong precedent for doing the "Pilgrim and Indian" theme. Don't do it! You have the opportunity to disrupt the deeply embedded notion that American Indians and instruction about American Indians belong in the past.

The single best resource for you is an excellent book called A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. It's got critical reviews of hundreds of books that portray American Indians. If you can, get the book from Oyate. A paperback copy costs $37.00. If you were to try to get all the information on your own, you'd spend hours and a lot of money in copy machines and you still wouldn't get the perspective and depth you'll find in A Broken Flute. The phone number for Oyate is 510-848-6700.

If you have a friend who is a teacher, get him/her a copy as a gift. If you are able, get a copy for your local library and donate it in the name of someone you care about.

And, don't confine reading or teaching about American Indians to the month of November. Read books by writers like Cynthia Leitich Smith all year long.

Did Rasmussen call you?

Rasmussen Reports called my home a few minutes ago... I guess the information I gave them will be folded into the next "Daily Presidential Tracking Poll."

Among the questions asked was one where my choices were:

African American
Asian American

Why isn't "American Indian" or "Native American" among the options?

I was asked a slew of questions about favorability, party affiliation, age, gender, education, issue I am most concerned with...

And the final question of "if the election were held today, who would you vote for? Press 1 for Obama, and 2 for McCain."

I pressed 1 for Obama. I am among First Americans for Obama.

I'm also following the campaign of Denise Juneau. She's running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Montana. Juneau is tribally enrolled with the Three Affiliated Tribes. Those tribes are the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. Juneau's opponent calls Juneau "a young Indian."

Did reading that last sentence give you pause? It should, but I'm not surprised if it didn't. Try substituting "a young Indian" with, say "a young Black." Her opponent is saying "Vote for me (white woman)! I'm running against a young Indian." Indian Country Today ran a piece on Juneau.

I've written before on this blog about Montana's Indian Education for All initiative. As director of Indian education in Montana, Juneau has oversight for the initiative. It is a model worth looking at.

I hope Ms. Juneau prevails.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Books by and about American Indians: 2007

According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin...

In 2007, approximately 5000 children's books were published. CCBC received approximately 3000 books for review. Here are stats:

Forty-four of the 3000 books they received were about American Indians. Of those 44, 6 were written by Native authors. Looking at stats they compile by year:

Year---Number of bks---About Amer Ind---By Native writer

If you go here you can see stats I laid out above, and stats for other groups, too: African/African Americans, Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos.

One of the publications you can get from CCBC is CCBC Choices. You get it by becoming a Friend of the CCBC. In the 2007 essay (included in the 2007 CCBC Choices) is this:

These statistics represent only quantity, not quality or authenticity. Additionally, a significant number—well over half—of the books about each broad racial/ethnic grouping are formulaic books offering profiles of various countries around the world.

The statistics, of course, tell only one part of the story. Throughout the year, it wasn’t the numbers but individual books that made a profound impact on us— compelling, vivid works that represent some of the finest creative output of authors and artists in 2007: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie...

As readers of this blog know, I've written about Alexie's book several times. It's a huge hit and is being used in literature classes across the country, from high schools to universities.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Following up: John Smelcer

A colleague, Perry Nodelman, author of The Pleasures of Children's Literature (a textbook I use), has blogged about John Smelcer here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Indigenous Languages on Indigenous Peoples Day

Today is Indigenous Peoples Day. If you're interested in bringing a Native language into your classroom, library, home, or office, order a wall clock from the Indigenous Language Institute. Yesterday I posted a photo of my wall clock, with Tewa words in the place of numbers.

The Institute has clocks available in the languages listed below, but will work with you to get one in your language:

  • Anishnabemowin
  • Anishinaabemowin—Michigan
  • Chickasaw
  • Chinuk-Wawa
  • Chemehuevi
  • Comanche
  • Diné
  • Hopi
  • Kanien’kéha
  • Keres
  • Kiowa
  • Lakota
  • Luiseño
  • Lushootseed
  • Maliseet
  • Māori
  • Mi'kmak
  • Mikasuki/Seminole Tribe of FL
  • Nimipu Nez Perce
  • Nomlaki
  • Okanagan
  • Oneida
  • Passamaquoddy
  • Penobscot
  • Potawatomi
  • Sauk
  • Seneca
  • Tewa
  • (Northern) Tewa
  • (Northern) Tiwa
  • Tolowa
  • Umoⁿhoⁿ
  • Ute Mountain Ute
  • Yup’ik

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Native Americans don't use watches"

The clock shown here is hanging in my home. If you look closely, you'll see that the numbers are Tewa words (Tewa is the language we speak at Nambe). I've put it here today for a specific reason. A Native reader wrote to me earlier this week to say that her cousin's middle school daughter's teacher said that Native American's do not use clocks or watches to tell time. The girl rose her hand, told the teacher that she's Native, and that she uses a watch. The teacher replied saying that most Native Americans do not.

Maybe this teacher is among those who think that 'real' Indians live today in the same way Indians lived hundreds of years ago. Maybe this teacher is doing a Columbus "discovered" America unit, and his/her head is in that time period. Whatever the case, I wish more teachers would be comfortable admitting mistakes..

They aren't alone, of course, in their misinformation about who American Indians are! Newspapers play a role in 'what we know' about this or that topic. The Native American Journalists Association has conducted studies on the ways that newspapers cover Native news. Their most recent study is called "The Reading Red Report: 2007." Among the findings is the on-going use of stereotypes and cliches in headlines. With details about the method for the study, I think middle and high school teachers might want to read it and conduct similar studies with their students.

Note: I got the clock from the Indigenous Language Institute.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Slapin review of Erdrich's THE PORCUPINE YEAR

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

Erdrich, Louise (Ojibwe), The Porcupine Year, b/w illustrations by the author. HarperCollins, 2008, grades 4-up

It is 1852, and Omakayas, the little girl we have come to know and love, is 12 winters old—“somewhere between a child and a woman—a person ready to test her intelligence, her hungers. A dreamer, who did not yet know her limits. A hunter, like her brother, who was beginning to possess the knowledge of all that moved and breathed. A friend who did not know how far her love might extend…. A girl who’d come to know something of her strength and who wanted challenge, and would get it, in the years of her family’s exile from their original home…”

Her little brother, Pinch (soon to be called “Quill”), has determined (all by himself) that the little gaag, the baby porcupine he’s convinced Omakayas not to kill for soup, has been given to him as his “medicine animal.” In this “porcupine year,” as it will come to be known, the ever-encroaching chimookomanag, the white people, have forced the large extended family to embark on a perilous journey away from their beloved home, the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker. As they travel north toward Lac du Bois to reunite with Mama’s sister’s family, there are hard decisions to make, the enemy Bwaanag (Dakota) to avoid, raging fires to escape, lost chimookomanag children to take care of, treachery that leaves them near starvation, and the heroic death of a tough-as-leather old woman whom Omakayas had thought was “unkillable.”

This porcupine year is indeed challenging, and another writer might have mired this book in tragedy and unrelenting sorrow. But Erdrich does not abide maudlin drama: here, children can be silly, parents can overreact, grandparents can allow space to learn, and baby porcupines (especially those destined for soup) can be really, really cute.

Omakayas is a loved and treasured member of her family, growing into a strong young woman with a clear mind and a heart open to all that awaits her. She knows that nothing will ever take the place of her original home, but she will learn to love the new place her family now inhabits: land, culture and community are still intact. The Porcupine Year, as its predecessors, The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence, will resonate with young readers long after the last page has been turned.—Beverly Slapin

Note from Debbie: If you've got a choice, get Erdrich's books from Oyate, a non-profit organization that does a lot of terrific work that benefits all children.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"READ" in Native Languages

Last year I posted about a graphic of the word "READ" in several Native languages, developed at the Tulsa City-County Library. A few minutes ago, they sent me an updated graphic that you can use. The word is in these languages: Ojibwe, Coast Miwok, Pyramid Lake Paiute, Cherokee, Seminole, Lenape, Wyandotte, Wanarama, Ponca, Comanche, Mvskoke, Caddo, Miami, Northern Paiute, Pawnee, Citizen Potawatomi, Chickasaw, Omaha, Choctaw, Sauk, Wasq'u, and Osage.

Thanks, Sue, and all others involved in creating this graphic! For those of you who are preparing materials for November (Native American month), download the graphic. Put it on display, surrounded by books by Native writers. Cynthia Leitich Smith, Joseph Bruchac, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Richard Van Camp, Nicola Campbell....

Click here to get the graphic in pdf.

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Another source for books by Native authors is Below is the text on their "About Us" page.

About us

The North American Native Authors Catalog ( specializes in work by American Indian poets, writers, historians, storytellers and performers. Our online catalog was the first of its kind when we launched in 1996, featuring more than 700 titles from over 90 different publishers, complete author bios, and tribal information. Our publications range from novels and books of poetry to children's literature, historical analysis, journals and newspapers, sacred traditions and more. Compact Disks (CDs), and Cassette tapes cover several of these areas, including traditional storytelling, poetry and Native American music. All books and tapes listed in this catalog are authored or co-authored by people of Native American ancestry. This catalog grew our of the Native American Authors Distribution Project, which has been selling books at Northeastern Pow Wows, book fairs, and by direct mail since 1980.

In 1992, we helped put together Returning the Gift, a gathering of Native American writers held at the University of Oklahoma. Returning the Gift, the first major meeting of Native American writers ever held, brought together more than 200 Native authors from across the continent. Most of the authors who participated have publications found in this online catalog, and more will appear in the future.

The overall goal of the North American Native Authors Online Catalog is to increase the distribution of creative work by Native writers, and to raise public awareness of the range, strength, and beauty of contemporary Native American writing, research, storytelling, and performance.

The North American Native Authors Catalog is a project of the Greenfield Review Press, a Native owned and managed 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The Greenfield Review distributes and has published many of the works included in this catalog, in addition, a percentage of proceeds are used to support Native American cultural and literary foundations, including, but not limited to the Returning the Gift Project and the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

Monday, September 29, 2008


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

Duncan, Barbara, The Origin of the Milky Way & Other Living Stories of the Cherokee, illustrated by Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee). University of North Carolina Press, 2008, grades 4-up

Duncan, education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, selected these stories from her earlier publication, Living Stories of the Cherokee (University of North Carolina Press, 1998). The 26 short, appealing stories are grouped by seven themes, a reflection of the sacred number: living with people, living with animals, living with plants and the earth, living with spirits, living with monsters, living with Cherokee language, and living with the past and future. The living stories—because they’re still being told, they remain alive—teach in a traditional way what’s important in Cherokee culture.

Told by Cherokee elders Davy Arch, Robert Bushyhead, Edna Chekelelee, Marie Junaluska, Kathi Littlejohn, and Freeman Owle, these stories are effectively put down in a style known as “ethnopoetics,” which reflects the words and speech pattern of the storyteller by breaking a line when a teller pauses. So, in reading the stories, one can almost “hear” the story being told.

The stories told here teach that everyone has something to contribute (even if you are a rattlesnake, a small clumsy child or a bird with big feet), that bragging and boasting will get you nowhere (except maybe a ratty-looking tail), that generosity can get rewarded in a number of ways (including being taught all the cures of the forest), and that the sight and smell of strawberries can remind us not to fight with those we love. All of the stories—which range from very funny to very sad to very scary—teach connection to land, culture and community.

Shan Goshorn’s luminous cover painting shows an elderly storyteller sitting on a porch, surrounded by Grandmother Spider bringing fire, two Little People, the Corn Woman Spirit, the dog who created the Milky Way, and the wolf whose clan was taught the medicine ways. Duncan’s introduction for young people, explaining past and present Cherokee life and the nature and purpose of Cherokee storytelling, avoids the overbearing tone that is all too common in collections compiled by people who lack a relationship with the community. Highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

[Note from Debbie: This book is available from Oyate, a Native not-for-profit organization.]

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nicola Campbell's SHI-SHI-ETKO being adapted for film

Nicola Campbell's terrific picture book, Shi-shi-etko, will be available as a short film! It is currently in production. Details here: "Short film reflects Sto-lo culture."

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Nicola Campbell's SHIN-CHI'S CANOE

Keep an eye out for Nicola Campbell's new book, Shin-chi's Canoe. Her first book, Shi-shi-etko, is astounding in so many ways, honestly, poignantly, telling the story of Shi-shi-etko in the days before she leaves her family and community for a residential school. Shin-chi is her little brother, and this story is set at the school. I've not seen it yet, but look forward to it with great anticipation.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

There is a "supplier of library promotional materials and reading incentives" called Upstart that sponsors a contest called "Vote for Books" (thanks, Christine, for writing to tell me about this contest). It is loosely timed to follow the presidential election cycle, with the votes tallied on November 4th and winners announced November 5th.

As I understand it, this is how it works:

January 1 to April 31st: Visitors to the site nominated books in these categories: Picture Books, Chapter Books, Series for Young Readers, and Series for Older Readers.

May 1st: Most-nominated books were announced.

Sept 1: Voting begins on top eight finalists in each category.

Sept. 22: Round 2 begins with top 4 in each category.

Oct 13: Two top finalists will "face off" in the final round of voting.

Nov 4: Votes will be tallied

Nov 5: Winners will be announced

This "voteforbooks" campaign is relevant to American Indians in Children's Literature because two of the books in the current round (round 2) in the "Series for Older Readers" category are Meyer's Twilight and Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Both books have Native characters, but as I and others have noted on this blog, both writers do a poor job at depicting Native culture.

But! Both are top sellers. Erroneous presentation of American Indians, apparently, doesn't matter.

Odd, too, that LHOP is in the same category as Twilight. LHOP for older readers?!

That category, Series for Older Readers, has two other books still in the running. They are Harry Potter and The Spiderwick Chronicles. I don't know how the sponsors decided what books to put up against each other in the brackets, but it does seem (to me) that it was arranged so that the "face off" would be between Harry Potter and Twilight. We'll see.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


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

Carlson, Keith Thor, and Albert “Sonny” McHalsie (Stó:lo), I am Stó:lo! Katherine explores her heritage, photos by Gary Fiegehen, illustrations by Rachel Nicol-Smith. Stó:lo Heritage Trust, 1998, grades 5-up

As a school project about cultural heritage is planned, fourth-grader Katherine McHalsie is not happy when another student voices his thoughts about Native peoples based on a cowboy-and-Indian movie he saw on TV. So Katherine sets out to research her heritage.

In conversations and hands-on experiences with her large extended family and Stó:lo (Coast Salish) elders, Katherine learns about the importance of story, community, ceremony, history, and her ancestors. And she learns that everything—the trees, the fish, the land—is alive, everything has spirit, everything has volition, everything has purpose.

From learning history while watching her father transform a small piece of cedar into a carved sturgeon, to learning about keeping safe while listening to her brother relate a particularly scary story, to learning about traditional foods while helping her mother pick and clean stinging nettles, to learning about traditional fishing while helping her father mend a eulachon net, to learning about traditional basketry while helping an elder gather and split cedar roots, to learning about the responsibility that goes with being given a traditional name, to learning about the land and place-names while watching a gigantic whirlpool arise seemingly out of nowhere, Katherine learns about the Stó:lo people by living in the community, by listening to and working with her elders, and by, as her father tells her, “being Stó:lo.”

When she returns to school ready to present her report, Katherine is more confident about what she has learned and what she has yet to learn. She informs the class that she is not going to talk about “horses and buffalo,” but rather about “something that has special significance for me.” Unwrapping the carved sturgeon her father has made, she begins.

The engaging narrative is enhanced by lovely photos of Katharine and her extended family. Maps, archival photos, artwork, a glossary, and a key to the Stó:lo writing system all work together to complement the story and set it in time and place. In a lengthy preface well worth reading, Carlson relates the collaborative process by which I am Stó:lo! came to be; it’s an honest discussion by a non-Native author of how serious obstacles and ethical dilemmas were dealt with by the Stó:lo chiefs and elders who guided the project, and by the McHalsie family with whom he worked. Highly recommended.—Beverly Slapin


Note from Debbie... I am Sto:lo! is available from Oyate. Using their online catalog you'll find it in the section labeled Grades four & up.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Charlie Brown Halloween - Indians?

I was in a local department store and saw this t-shirt. Is this from the Charlie Brown Halloween show?

Obviously, I'm inquiring about Peppermint Patty (I think that's her name), 2nd from left...

Update, 2:31 PM CST, Sept. 18th---Thanks (Rodney) for the info. The image is not Halloween costumes; it is from "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving." What was their Thanksgiving pageant about?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Alphabet materials with "I is for Indian"

A friend wrote to me yesterday, telling me of a school-sanctioned alphabet program that has "I is for Indian" materials. The program is called "Sunform Alphabet." Produced by Sundburg Learning Systems, based in Illinois, it is not an old item. The copyright is 1991.

For decades, educators have written about why "I is for Indian" is inappropriate. While I can't think of a recent alphabet book that has that sort of thing in it, there are older ones that still circulate. One example is Alligators All Around, by Maurice Sendek. With the brilliant and beautiful alphabet books published these days, the older ones with stereotypical images of Indians are being displaced. That is progress.

The Sunform Alphabet program, though, is a problem. If it is being used in your school, the following items may help you have it withdrawn.  From the American Indian Library Association are two publications:

"I is not for Indian: The Portrayal of American Indians in Books for Young People"
Compiled by Naomi Caldwell-Wood and Lisa A. Mitten
June 29, 1991, published by the American Indian Library Association

"I is for Inclusion: The Portrayal of American Indians in Books for Young People"
Compiled by Naomi Caldwell, Gabriella Kaye, and Lisa A. Mitten
Updated in October of 2007, published by the American Indian Library Association

You might also find statements issued by the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association helpful in developing your argument. Both issued statements calling for an end to the use of Native imagery for school mascots. These statements are based on the association's review of studies about the effects of this sort of imagery on Native and non-Native children.

Comparing mascot images with stereotypical images in children's books and school materials makes a compelling case. You might find the illustrations below helpful in making a case for talking about mascots --- with the goal of getting rid of them. Shown below is "Chief Illiniwek" a mascot no longer in use. Also shown is Grizzly Bob, from Berenstein Bears Go To Camp.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Joseph Bruchac at 2008 National Book Festival

Among those invited to participate in the 2008 National Book Festival is Joseph Bruchac. He will be in the "Teens and Children Pavilion" from 11:10 to 11:45 AM, and sign books from 12:30 to 1:30 on Saturday, September 27th.

Last year, two Native writers were there: Cynthia Leitich Smith, and N. Scott Momaday. View the webcast of her talk here and his here.

Note (Sept. 12, 2008):

I neglected to say that the National Book Festival takes place in Washington DC at the National Mall. Here's a link to the homepage for the festival.

Also! there's a "toolkit" for each author. Bruchac's materials include an interview that starts out with this question: "What sparked your imagination for your newest book, March Toward the Thunder?" Click here to get to that page.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Native students pick RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME

Just read some terrific news over on Cynsations...

Cynthia Leitich Smith's novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name is the recipient of the Dishchii'Bikoh High School Reader Award. The school is on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. I am not surprised that teenagers would make this choice. It features a Native teen of the present day. Refreshing and awesome in so many ways.

Congratulations, Cyn!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Across the country, students are headed back to classrooms. Many teachers and students are watching the Democratic Convention and are aware that race has been a significant conversation in this year's campaign. If you're developing lesson plans around the subject of race, the video When Your Hands Are Tied will prove useful. Click here to go to the companion website and view a trailer. You can get a free copy of the DVD from Oyate. Given Oyate's non-profit status, consider ordering another video from them, or a book, or a CD.

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

When Your Hands Are Tied. 2006, 56 minutes, color, grades 7-up

“When you’re given all these obstacles and barriers,” says Hataalii (healer) Eric Willie (Diné), “when they tie your hands behind your back and your legs together, and they leave you just crawling, what do you do? You develop new ways to communicate, you develop new ways to express self-identity, and that’s what I see with today’s children.”

As Indian communities all over Turtle Island struggle to heal from the generational trauma of the Indian boarding schools, Indian young people struggle to resist the negative pressures of the dominant society. That’s why When Your Hands Are Tied is so important. It’s an exceptional film that explores the realities of Indian young people navigating between the traditional and the contemporary, maintaining strong ties with their communities while expressing themselves in unique ways. The Pueblo, Diné and Apache teens seen here are photographers and filmmakers, breakdancers and rappers, rockers and skateboarders, and all are very talented. The teens—mentored by a young Diné healer, the governor of Nambé Pueblo, a director of American Indian Studies, and artists who are their role models: singer/songwriter Radmilla Cody, rappers Mistic and Shade, the high-energy rock band Blackfire, skateboard artist Douglas Miles and others—learn that it is possible to honor the past while looking to the future. With young people showing and telling what they’re doing, breathtaking views of the land, and amazing music—including Blackfire’s rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Mean Things Happenin’ in This World”—When Your Hands Are Tied will resonate with Indian teens everywhere.

When Your Hands Are Tied was co-produced by Mia Boccella Hartle and Marley Shebala (Diné/Zuni) as an educational tool to reach families, communities, schools, libraries, and treatment centers, so that everyone can see a positive reflection of what’s happening with Native young people today. Funded by a not-for-profit charitable organization with limited funds, this excellent film was given to us to distribute at no cost to anyone who can benefit from it. Feel free to order it if you can use it well.

DVD, no charge

(As you know, Oyate is an often cash-strapped, grassroots 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you.)

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Audio: THANKS TO THE ANIMALS by Allan Sockabasin

On January 2, 2007, I posted Beverly Slapin's review of Allen Sockabasin's terrific picture book, Thanks to the Animals. Sockabasin is Passamaquoddy. I reread his book yesterday, looking over the Passamaquoddy words included on the last page. I also learned that you can listen to Sockabasin and his daughter reading the story aloud. She reads a line in English; he reads it in Passamaquoddy.

When you're developing lesson plans for the wintertime, plan on using Thanks to the Animals, and teach your students about the Passamaquoddy people. They're in Maine. Click here to go to the tribe's website. Read through their "History" page.

Too many people think Native peoples were primitive, but the fact is, we were recognized as Nations and as such, entered into diplomatic and trade relationships with Europeans.

In spite of efforts to 'kill the Indian and save the man,' Native peoples are still here, and you may be surprised to know, we've got our own governments and services. The Passamaquoddy's, for example, have a police and fire department. Imagine the power of sharing that information with readers who think that Native peoples no longer exist!

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Audio: "How! and Other Approaches to American Indians"

A friend (Thanks, Teresa!) sent me the link to an audio file of a panel at the 2007 Virginia Festival of the Book. The panel included Karenne Wood and Garbrielle Tayac. Both women share powerful stories. Click here to listen.

Karenne is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation, and, she is Director of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Gabrielle is Piscataway and works as a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Teaching Van Camp's THE LESSER BLESSED

If you teach literature in high school, or if you teach Native lit in a college or university, consider teaching Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed. Readers of this site know I've written several times about Van Camp's work. Today, I direct you to an article called "I Liked It So Much I E-mailed Him and Told Him: Teaching the Lesser Blessed at the University of California." The author is Jane Haladay, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke. Here's the first paragraphs. To read the entire article, click on the title (it is hyperlinked) and scroll down to page 66. The article is from the journal, Studies in American Indian Literatures. At the end of her article, Haladay includes an appendix she called "Presentation Guidelines for Making a Strong Presentation."

"I Liked It So Much I E-mailed Him and Told Him"Teaching The Lesser Blessed at the University of California


Class ends like a scene from the novel itself. "Okay, when we meet next week we'll be into our second novel, Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed," I announce.

From the back corner of the room Luana, a Tongan student, is scrutinizing Van Camp's moody book flap photo. "He's hot!" she proclaims. The class -- seventeen women and three men -- laughs. "

Yeah," I concede, "he's a good looking man." I pause. "But he looks even better in person." They perk up, watching me in anticipation. "He's a bit young for me, though," I finally say. More laughter.

"Do you know him?" Luana asks.

"Yes, I met him at a conference last fall. If you ever get a chance to hear him read his stuff, go! He's an incredible storyteller."

"Where's he at again?" Luana asks.

"Vancouver," I tell her.

"Vancouver . . . ," she echoes dreamily.

"Is that in Washington?" somebody else asks.

"It's in Canada," Luana answers.

"I guess you could transfer up there," I say to Luana, "but I hear it gets pretty cold." Not long after this, Luana dropped my class with no explanation. I still wonder if she transferred.

This essay is just one story in the ongoing conversation of how to approach teaching indigenous literatures in colonial educational {67} institutions. My pedagogy stresses sharing an interactive process of reading and reflection with my students, what black feminist scholar bell hooks terms "engaged pedagogy" in her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Hooks's description of engaged pedagogy insists that discomfort, confusion, pleasure, risk-taking, and revelation are not only acceptable but are necessary in the process of acquiring knowledge. While all ethical educators encourage their students to view texts as the ultimate authorities about their own stories' meanings, the complex cultural content of Native texts pushes me and my students even further in recognizing that none of us, sometimes not even the authors themselves, may fully understand what and how the stories "mean" -- and that their meanings are multiple. Through sharing my experiences teaching Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed, I hope to reveal the power of this particular text and the way its effects on students who willingly engage it can create a collaborative learning atmosphere that is transformative. This environment requires me to relinquish primary authority (not always easy) to open a space for student vulnerability and voice, while simultaneously remaining an active moderator and guide shaping the direction of the class. In such a space, students, author, and educator share power in the discussion and comprehension of culture and story.

Students' and my own interactions with the novel's author, Richard Van Camp, a member of the Tlicho, or Dogrib, Nation, have become another strand braided into the collaborative process of teaching The Lesser Blessed.1 I am sharing these interwoven stories to outline the possible ways in which both educators and authors may interact with and be inspired by the "consumers" of their textual productions, those hungry readers of and listeners to their stories. The Lesser Blessed is now taught in only a smattering of U.S. and Canadian high schools, colleges, and universities, and to date there is a dearth of literary criticism on the novel.2 It is my hope that this essay may add to a growing body of discussion around this vital text and encourage other educators to include it in their aboriginal/ Native and other literature curricula.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Leitich Smith Interviews Bruchac

On her blog Cynsations, Cynthia Leitich Smith regularly features interviews she does with writers. On Tuesday, she posted an interview with Joseph Bruchac. Click here to read it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"O is Ojibwa"

I'm in Ontario, Canada for a few days (Stratford, to be specific). Stopped in a bookstore, saw a book called M is for Maple: A Canadian Alphabet. Skimmed it quickly and found this on the 'O' page:

O is Ojibwa,
just one of the tribes
that spanned this vast country
before settlers arrived.
We're Canadians all,
but we must never forget
that our land was their land
and we owe them a debt.

I must say, the last three lines blew me away! I've never seen anything like that in an American children's book... Lynne Cheney's alphabet book is a good example. On the N page she writes something like "N is for Native Americans, who came here first."

M is for Maple, by Mike Ulmer, illustrated by Melanie Rose, was published in 2001. I'm sure a good many First Nations people object to Ulmer's "We're Canadians all." In fact, a good many First Nations people do not consider themselves Canadian at all.

Ulmer is a sports columnist for the Toronto Star. While his poem about the Ojibwa is problematic, it also opens the door for some interesting conversations. I wonder if any teachers are having conversations in their classrooms about that page?

UPDATE: August 7, 2008, 12:15 PM

I'm in the children's section of the Stratford Public Library. I've pulled a copy of M is for Maple. Here's more observations on each page. My remarks are in brackets.

A - Anne [of Green Gables]
B - Banting and Best [men who invented insulin] and Bonder [first Canadian woman to fly in space.'
C - Canada and Kim Campbell [page shows Kim Campbell, first female prime minister, in 1993]
D - Dionne Quints [quintuplets taken from their parents at birth in the 30s, lived till age 9 in a theme park where visitors paid to see them.]
E - "Eh" and Edmonton [page shows map of Canada]
F - Fox [Terry Fox lost a leg to cancer; aimed to run across the country to raise money for cancer research; died before he could finish; inspiration for "Terry Fox Runs" held ever year.]
G - Grain, and Governor General who "represents the English monarchy"
H - Hockey [kids shown; range of skin/hair color]
I - Islands [there are many in Canada] and, Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, where 27,000 people of Innu descent live. Illustration is a small island with a house, a dock, and a rowboat.]
J - Justice [illustration is of a Mountie; Royal Canadian Mounted Police formed in 1873 "to bring order to the West."]
K - Klondike [gold rush. I wonder if its history in Canada parallels that in California?]
L - Louisbourg [a place the French and British fought over; the text says the garrison "stands as evidence of France colonizing this land." No mention here of lands belonging to First Nations prior to British and French arrival.]
M - Maple and Montreal [the sidebar says "Long before the first Europeans arrived, Canada's aboriginal peoples had discovered the food properties of maple sap, which they gathered each spring." Note use of past tense.]
N - Northern Lights and Northern Dancer. [Text reads "N is for Northern, the great Northern lights, those mystery visions that light up our nights. The Innu believed that the lights showed a game being played by the Sky People in their heavenly domain." Again, note past tense. Northern Dancer is a racehorse.]
O - Ojibwa and Ottawa.
P - Oscar Peterson, a jazz pianist and Peggy's Cove, a town in Nova Scotia.
Q - Quebec [Sidebar says that since 1534, Quebec has existed as a unique and wonderful French culture. What about prior to 1534?]
R - Rocket [a hockey player named Rocket Richard]
S - Stampede [page is about the Calgary Stampede and rodeo]
T - Toronto and Trudeau
U - Underground railroad and Ukranians [illustration is of an African American family approaching a house, at night]
V - Victoria, which is "the most common name for cities and roads all named in her reign."
W - Wind and Winnipeg [illustration of two dark haired children in the wind]
X - the spot the last spike in the railroad that spanned the country
Y - Yoho, a national park.
Z - Zipper

Persons: Campbell, Dionne Quints, Peterson, Rocket, Trudeau
Things: Anne, Eh, Governor General, Hockey, Justice, Klondike, Maple, Northern Dancer, Northern Lights, zipper
Places: Edmonton, Islands, Iqaluit, Louisberg, Montreal, Peggy's Cove, Quebec, Victoria, Yoho, Toronto
Events: Stampede, X, Underground railroad
People: Ojibwe, Ukranians

It is a mixed bag, this book... Unusual recognition of First Nations peoples but a tendency to use past tense verbs. And as pointed out in the first comment (below), the view is white Canadian. That is the norm by which other things are presented. There seems to be an intent to present diversity of gender and gender roles (scientists, political leaders) and race (jazz musician is black).

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What is wrong with celebrating diversity?

Among the ALA newsletters I get is one from Booklinks. The theme of the August 2008 issue is "Celebrating Multicultural Literature." I think "celebrate" is a problematic way to approach this body of literature.

Celebrations are meant to mark an event or moment or accomplishment. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We do this with cake, balloons, and sometimes, with the exchange of gifts.

As a Native woman, parent, educator, I don't want my Nativeness to be celebrated with material objects. I'd much prefer a fundamental respect for who I am, who Pueblo peoples are, who Native peoples are... I don't want to be honored, on a pedestal...

When we 'celebrate' culture by eating the foods of that culture, or making a craft of that culture, what are we doing? When we plan that sort of activity, what are we conveying, and what are we leaving out or ignoring?

What does it mean to respect a culture/people?

For me, it means an honest presentation of history, of issues, of present day struggle and success... All of it. The good and the bad, the matter of fact. It means publishing books that tell all of that.

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