Thursday, September 23, 2010

Garth Nix on Aboriginal Stories

One morning, earlier this month, while we had our morning coffee and caught up on news (using our laptops), my husband told me that Garth Nix had been on the Hugo Awards that had taken place the night before.

Nix is one of our favorite authors. As a family, we read Sabriel aloud on car trips, and did the same with Lireal and Abhorsen.  This summer, we listened to the Keys to the Kingdom series in audio book.

I looked up the Hugo Awards website and found Nix's remarks. I was quite surprised to read his first sentence:
First of all, let me acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this convention centre is built, the Kulin Nations - and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
The remark itself wasn't unfamiliar to me. I hear it when I go to conferences in American Indian Studies, or, to gatherings of Native people. Quite often, a Native person will begin their paper or speech with that acknowledgment. What surprised me was that the someone in this case is Garth Nix (he's not indigenous) and that he was delivering the remarks at a a major non-Native gathering.

I recalled that somewhere I'd read (and wished I had noted it) that Garth Nix knows the ins and outs of using indigenous stories. So, I asked colleagues on child_lit (an international children's literature listserv) and learned that it is fairly common for speaker's to preface remarks with that acknowledgment.  And, colleagues pointed me to a place where I could read more about Nix and his views on indigenous stories (thanks, Charlie and Judith!).

In his collection of short stories, Across the Wall, Nix writes (p. 140-141):
"The Hill" was written for an interesting international publishing scheme, in which a bunch of publishing houses in Europe and Allen & Unwin in Australia decided to simultaneously publish the same collection of short stories in English and four European languages, with the theme of the new millennium.

I was one of the two Australian writers invited to participate, and I wrote "The Hill" in an attempt to try to tell an overtly Australian story---something I'm not known for, since nearly all of my work is set in imagined worlds. This proved to be somewhat problematical, particularly when in the first drafts of "The Hill," I made the major characters part Aboriginal and tried to interweave a backstory involving Aboriginal myth and beliefs about land. I knew this would be difficult to pull off, but I didn't expect my Australian publisher's reaction, which was basically that, as a white Australian, I simply couldn't use either Aboriginal characters or Aboriginal myth. My initially simplistic attitude was that, as a fantasy writer, I should be able to draw on anything from everywhere for inspiration; that I could mine any history, myth, or religion.

After some discussions with both the publisher and an Aboriginal author, I realized that the issue was more complex, and that many Aboriginal people would feel that I was not inspired by their myth but was appropriating something valuable, one of the few things of value that hadn't been taken over in the process of colonization. It would be particularly hurtful because, as an Australian, I should know that some Aboriginal people would consider this yet another theft.

So the fantasy element of "The Hill," inspired by some Aboriginal myths, was removed and I rewrote it in a more straightforward way. However, given the constraints of the multilingual publishing schedule, and some misunderstanding along the way, the original version of the story is the one that got translated and is in the Norwegian, French, Spanish, and German editions. Only the English-language version is different.

I'm still not sure where I stand on the matter of allowable use of myth, legend, and history, save that if I do decide at some point to seek inspiration from the rich traditions and lore of the Australian Aboriginal people, I will ask permission first.
That's quite a lot of information, and it tells me a lot about Nix.  He starts with his lack of knowledge about the complexities in using indigenous characters and story and how he felt about his publisher telling him not to use Aboriginal material. But instead of digging in his heels, he went on to study and think about the issue, and share the development of his thinking with his readers.

Thinking about this reminds me James Ransome's remarks...  I heard him speak at a children's literature conference several years ago. He was asked why he had not illustrated children's books about American Indians. He replied that he "hadn't held their babies." In other words, he didn't know them well enough to do it with the care and sensitivity required to do it well.

I wish other writers in the field of children's and young adult literature would think as carefully about these issues as Nix and Ransome. We'd all be better off if they did!

[Note: Nix's first novel, Ragwitch (published in 1990), begins with an Aboriginal midden (described as a garbage heap) where the main characters find a ball that has a rag doll inside. I haven't read that book and don't know if the doll is meant to be Aboriginal.] 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Political ideologies

Taking a quick moment out of preparing for today's classes by pointing to a neat intersection between the readings for Intro to American Indian Studies, and, the Politics of Children's Literature (both are courses I'm teaching this semester at the University of Illinois).

For Intro to AIS, we're studying Wallace Coffey and Rebecca Tsosie's article, "Rethinking the Tribal Sovereignty Doctrine"published  in the Stanford Law and Policy Review.  Here's the parts that intersects with the chapter we're discussing in the children's lit course. Coffey and Tsosie write:
A prime example of the link between legal doctrine and the script that emerges from American history is the infamous "Doctrine of Discovery" that undergirds Marshall's understanding in Johnson v. McIntosh that Indian nations retain a mere "right of occupancy" on their lands while the European sovereigns perfected the balance of the fee simple simply upon "discovery and settlement." (122) Chief Justice John Marshall described Indian people as
fierce savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country of a wilderness; to govern them as a distinct people, was impossible, because they were as brave and as high spirited as they were fierce, and were ready to repel by arms every attempt on their independence. (123)
Just above that, they cite an opinion by Justice Rehnquist wherein he cites the 1965 Oxford History of the American People. In writing his opinion, Rehnquist relies on this passage:
The Plains Indians... [were organized into units] of a few hundred souls, which might be seen in the course of its wanderings encamped by a watercourse with tipis erected; or pouring over the plain, women and children leading dogs and packhorses with the trailing travois, while gaily dressed braves loped ahead on horseback. They lived only for the day, recognized no property rights, robbed or killed anyone if they thought they could get away with it, inflicted cruelty within a qualm and endured torture without flinching. (120).
What I wish to emphasize for now is "the link between legal doctrine and the script that emerges from American history" as I share (below) what we're reading in Perry Nodelman's The Pleasures of Children's Literature (p. 121):
[P]olitical ideologies almost always work to distribute power unequally among people in a society, and to justify the unequal distribution.
Coffey and Tsosie are talking about legal cases in which American Indian tribes lost their land. They cite supreme court justices who find that Indians don't deserve their land because, the justices would have us believe, Indians were---and are---different and inferior.

Though the justices cited the Oxford text, they could just as easily have cited passages from children's books! Maybe the justices were PRIMED to believe what they read in the Oxford text BECAUSE they read some of these award-winning and classic works in children's literature! See how nicely all these stereotypes work out to disadvantage American Indians?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

NPR's "State of the Re:Union" episode on Espanola = NPR FAIL

National Public Radio (NPR) is running a program called "State of the Re:Union." The website has information about the program:
State of the Re:Union has set out to explore how a particular American city or town creates community, the ways people transcend challenging circumstances and the vital cultural narratives that give an area its uniqueness.
Currently (September, 2010), the program is featuring an episode on Espanola, New Mexico.  Espanola is just a few miles from Nambe Pueblo. As regular readers know, I'm from Nambe Pueblo, or, Nambe O-ween-ge. I learned about the episode on Espanola from Matthew Martinez, a friend from Ohkay Owingeh.

Espanola is a small town. There are several pueblos within a few miles of it. Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara Pueblo are closer to Espanola than Nambe is.  Matthew's words about the episode were a clue as to what I'd find when I listened to it. He said: 
Any radio program that starts off as "settled by Spanish conquistadors in 1598" raises some flags . . . and no discussion with local Tewas and our take on the acequia (often non-communal) system...
I clicked on the link and listened, transcribing and paraphrasing the program as I listened to it. Below is that rough transcript. 

Though this post about the NPR program may seem beyond the scope of American Indians in Children's Literature, it parallels what I see in children's books. In too many of them, American Indians are not part of the story of America. Our mere presence messes up a tidy narrative that a writer (of a children's book, a TV show, a movie, or an NPR segment) wants to tell. I know that a lot of writers listen to NPR and read American Indians in Children's Literature. Hence, I'm taking this opportunity to analyze the Re:Union episode on Espanola, New Mexico. (Or rather, just the first segment of that episode, which has to do with water.)

In the transcript:

  • N is the NPR narrator
  • MS is Miguel Santistevan. He's a PhD candidate in Biology and Sustainability Studies at the University of New Mexico. From Taos, New Mexico, his bio is here.
  • JL is Jack Loeffler. He's from West Virginia, long-time resident of New Mexico. When he says he is an "aural historian" he took care to spell out aural (a-u-r-a-l). I don't know why he did that. He's making a distinction from an oral historian, but I don't know what an "aural" historian is---that's a new one for me.
  • SR is Sylvia Rodriguez, an anthropology professor at the University of New Mexico
  • JM is Joseph Merhege, a landowner in Espanola
  • MG is Margarita Garcia, Miguel's wife
  • NM is New Mexico; NNM is northern New Mexico

The transcript is in black type. My comments are in red and preceded by DR

N: Just before 6 AM. Sun peeking over mtns. It is summertime. Miguel Santistavan crawls out of bed, steps out of his humble home in Taos and starts by playing his wood flute. Then he turns water on for irrigaters--135 members. He's supervisor of an acequia.They've been using acequias for irrigation since the mid 1700s. Whole communities formed around the tradition. Water is not a big deal around most of country, but it is in NM.

MS: In NNM few things are more important than water, and the unique way people shared it for centuries. Growing up, I didn't know the acequias were 11,000 years old and went back to the Middle East, and had all this rich culture attached to it. All I knew was it was flowing water and when I was a kid, me and my brother would play in it, catch frogs, snakes...

N: An acequia is an irrigation ditch that carries water to farmers fields. Miguel is a biologist and mayordomo---an elected official who oversees distribution of water to other farmers.

MS: This is our local government, our water system. Older than U.S. by 25 years.

N: Each acequia has own mayordomo; ditches used for thousands of years. These ditches used to distribute water to indigenous communities around world. In NM water has been shared communally for as long as anyone can remember. Belongs to no one and yet to everyone. Very different way of looking at water than the rest of the country does.

DR: Not quite right. What is missing so far in the segment is the fact that Pueblo Indians had developed irrigation systems prior to the arrival of the Spanish. There's a gesture towards that important fact later in the interview, but here and later, the narrative omits the fights that the Pueblo Indians took up to protect their water rights. Take a look at, for example, this letter from 1899 sent by U.S. Indian Agent Walpole to the G. H. Howard, Special Attorney for Pueblo Indians, which says 
The Indians from Nambe came to this office today complaining that certain Mexicans near Nambe are imposing on them in regard to their water rights. Please give this matter your immediate attention and take steps to protect the rights of the Pueblo of Nambe. 
Read this Writ of Injunction from 1900, which instructed Mayordomo Teofilo Lopez to stop diverting water from the Rio Nambe (that's the river that begins on our reservation).  Or, see this letter from 1903, regarding the use of water that originates on land owned by Taos Pueblo.

Those documents date back over one hundred years,and while they are old, they are part of the legal documents and history of the area. The NPR segment also does not mention the current Aamodt lawsuit either. Filed in the 1960s, it is very well known in northern New Mexico.  

MS: The way we deal with it, we measure water in units of time. You get water for 8 hours, 4 hours... In proportion to amount of land you irrigate.

N: And this method is nothing new? Its passed down by generations?

MS:  Yeah, its ancient history, going all the way down to origin of acequia. And that is completely antithetical to the way the state does it.

N: And while acequia based on community and cooperation, being mayordomo not easy. Miguel learned that years ago, before he was elected, when he was trying to irrigate his field one time in June. Water not making it to the end of his rows.

MS: Called mayordomo and told him "Somebody stealing my water." Mayordomo said "There's no more. It's one of those years. There's just no water." Miguel didn't believe him. Then the mayordomo said "I am the mayordomo and I am not god. Can't pick you up and move you to the river. There's no more water in the river."

DR: When I was a kid in the 1960s growing up at Nambe, we'd go down to the river to play all the time. The river was more like a small creek that we could leap over. There were times when it was more of a trickle than a creek. Other times it roared with snow melt, and sometimes, it was a churning torrent of flood waters the color of chocolate milk. One summer we used the smooth river rocks to make a dam that blocked the stream and allowed a little pool to build. I do mean little---we were no more than ten years old at the time. We splashed around in this pool that was probably the size of a dining room table and a few inches deep. But then, the mayordomo drove up in his truck and yelled at us. I don't remember what we did. Run, probably, and he must have taken down our little dam.

In the 1970s, the Bureau of Reclamation built a dam above our waterfall so they could control the water year-round and make the flow of water more reliable for irrigation purposes. Now there's a man-made lake at Nambe.  It is a great place to fish and camp.
N: NM is a land that forces you to deal with hard reality.  When I got off the plane it seemed like I landed in another world whose orbit was too close to the sun. Desert as far as eye could see. Arid, unforgiving, and extremely hot in summer, but also beautiful, peaceful. In midst of two opposing visions is the Rio Grande, which has given water to these people for centuries.

DR: Hard reality? It's all relative to where you grow up! The forces I struggle with are the humidity I find in Illinois, Florida, Connecticut...  I wonder, too, where this NPR reporter got off the plane. Santa Fe is not a desert, and neither is Albuquerque. If he'd landed in Phoenix, maybe he could say there was desert as far as his eye could see, but not northern New Mexico! I guess its all in how you define desert. Certainly, northern New Mexico is not a lush place, but its far from a barren, sand-covered desert.

JL: The Tewa people that included, and still includes, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, Pojoaque, Cuyamungue, Tesuque and Nambe. My name is Jack Loeffler, from WVA, lived in NM since 1962. For last 35 years, made my way as aural historian.

DR: Listening to Jack Loeffler, I wondered why they chose to talk to him rather than a Pueblo person. They could have easily spoken to Joseph Garcia, former president of the National Congress of American Indians, former governor of Ohkay Owingeh, and currently Chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council... 

Certainly, any Pueblo Indian they'd have talked to would not leave out Picuris Pueblo when naming the Eight Northern Pueblos! And, adding Cuyamungue to the list?! I'm not sure why Jack did that... Prior to Spanish arrival, there was a pueblo named Cuyamungue, but it isn't there anymore.  

N: Europeans arrived in 1598 when Spanish conquistador Onate and group of settlers claimed land where Chama and Rio Grande meet. They brought cattle, Catholicism and acequias.

DR: Claimed land? Why no mention of the violent struggles that took place? The Pueblo Indians were treated so badly by the Spanish and Catholics that in 1680, we revolted and drove them out of our homelands. The Pueblo Indians burned the churches and killed the friars and Spanish who abused and persecuted them. Our leader was Po'pay. Today, there is a statue of Po'pay in Washington D.C. in the National Statuary Hall Collection. It is---I'll add---the only statue there that was carved by a Native artist. The artist is Cliff Fragua of Jemez Pueblo.

SR: And one of the first things they did was dig ditches along the rivers. My name is Sylvia Rodriguez, anthro, UNM, 22 years.

JL: That whole acequia system actually jibed with the Puebloan practices of irrigation that were taking place prior to coming of Spanish in 1598.

DR: Thanks (not) NPR, for this crumb you and Jack just tossed our way! 

N: Over time, old and new mixed together and the water ran through.

DR: That's a huge gloss.... the old and new mixed together...  It wasn't and isn't that simple, as demonstrated by the letters and lawsuit I pointed to above.

SR: You have, with the Pueblo peoples and Spanish and Mexican settlers and farmers, peoples who were both depending on the same sources of water and who developed systems for sharing of water, for distribution of water, for management of water that they had in common

JL: The acequia connotes a state of reciprocity with land. Its not just culture, its culture within context of landscape. Once that happens, the landscape becomes homeland and the culture  becomes rooted.

N - They came and put down roots and soon it was hard to see where earth stopped and their feet began.  They dug acequias to let water flow to their crops. Land passed down from generation to generation and with it a way of life. And acequias remained a cornerstone thru the Mexican American war, the railroads, joining the union and beyond. Until the mid of the 20th century.

DR: Land passed from generation to generation...  Sounds nice, but, how the Spanish came to hold title to that land is also very complex. Consider, for example, the Bursum Bill, introduced in Congress in 1922. It was supposed to settle disputes between Pueblo Indians and non-Indians over ownership of land, but it heavily favored non-Indians. Our leaders organized in opposition to it and the bill didn't pass.

SR: This is the place where the atom bomb was created, and the nuclear economy transformed New Mexico. Transformed the Rio Grande corridor. Transformed education, urban development, so you have a vulnerability of the native population and increasing inability to hold on to their patrimony.

DR: By "native population" she doesn't mean the Pueblo Indians; she's referring to the Spanish. Note that she didn't say anything about transformations that took place when Onate arrived amongst the Pueblo Indians...  Messes up that tidy narrative to include it, I guess.

N - Outsiders came in. From east, from California all people looking for pristine blue skies, red hued mesas. Northern NM began to look a lot like other cities. Strip malls, developments, steadily paving over ancient ways of the acequias. We're in the check outline at Walmart. Today, there is only a handful of farmers here. Over years, they have transitioned to jobs at the nuclear labs and places like Walmart. Many are still active acequia members who grow food and raise sheep, but only on the side.

JM: Never used to see cars. Just team of horses pulling a wagon. Now all of a sudden, all this traffic. Not pleasant.

N: Joe Merhage has been farming his land full time. He has a gorgeous 16 acres across from Walmart.

JM: We used to have farm there where Walmart is. We planted chili.

N: His sisters when he dies, will probably sell his land.

JM: It is worth a lot. Millions. I want you to know that. But money is not important to me. At this stage of game, or anytime, I have never been a materialistic person. I taught school for $2000 a year. What would I do with 4 or 5 million?

N: The contrast in Joe's farm and Walmart is stunning. One day the new world will come knocking and his farm will be another loss in the war of tradition and progress.

MS: And nowadays when we look at acequias, if you're a developer or a politician, the first thing you might think is water or water rights. But those of us who work the acequias, we think community.

DR: And those of us who are Pueblo think water rights AND community. Our communities need water, too! The struggles are on-going and very ugly. Local Spanish people point to the casinos and casino hotels some of the pueblos are running and contend that the pueblos, through these casinos, are wasting water that they (the Spanish) should have for their farming purposes. My point in writing this is to let NPR listeners know that the ReUnion episode about Espanola romanticizes and misrepresents the history and people, and, it omits Pueblo Indians of today. That is a serious error.

N: As economy shifts from farms to big box stores and people sell their land, the water rights are transferred to developers. These developers don't use the acequias. Many times they bulldoze over them, or they do not maintain them. That's key. Acequia needs all to participate to keep water flowing. Entire community must work, but with fewer farmers and more development, flow of water is being interrupted.... And in NNM water is everything.

MG: It's the lifeblood. People say it. Its real.

N: Margarita Garcia is Miguel's wife. She sees the importance of the acequias.

MG: I wouldn't have the language, the Spanish, those words, my words, songs, music, because people couldn't come here without water. They wouldn't have survived. Its everything. My entire culture.

N: As the older generation of farmers fades away, people like Miguel and Margarita are crusaders for ancient tradition. Miguel started a program working with youth to document what they've learned in films and slideshows. Legislation has been passed that gives more power for the acequias in its struggle with developers. Across country, water rights are contentious with states fighting each other. Solutions hard to come by, and yet for hundreds of years, communities in NNM have figured out how to make it work.

DR: "Figured out how to make it work" is just too tidy an ending. Too romantic, too optimistic... And wrong. We're all still trying to figure out how to make it work! I've got many friends who are Spanish. We all went to school together at Pojoaque. I hope my remarks in this post don't upset them or add fuel to the fire over water rights. None of us are well-served by history or stories that are romanticized, incomplete, biased, or inaccurate.

N: Miguel's day ends same as began. He's gatekeeper. Morning and night. Turning rusty metal wheel that controls flow of water. To see video and pictures, go to state of

DR: I went to the website to see the pictures. The only image of anything remotely signifying Pueblo Indians is a ceramic bust on the ground, propped up against a pole. There's no explanation of who it is supposed to be, but to me, it looks nothing like any Pueblo men I know.  

No Pueblo voices in the segment, and the only Pueblo image is that bust? Come on, NPR! You can---and should---do better.