Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Angela Shelf Medearis's DANCING WITH THE INDIANS

Angela Shelf Medearis's Dancing with the Indians was picked up by Reading Rainbow and turned into a video. The story has so much potential to enrich our understandings of American Indian and African American relationships in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The author is Angela Shelf Medearis. In a note in the back of the book she writes that her great-grandfather escaped from slavery in 1862 and ended up in "Okehema, Oklahoma" where she says he was accepted as a member of the Seminole tribe. He married a Seminole woman and they had a son. Their marriage did not last, and he moved near Oklahoma City and married an African American woman in 1909 or thereabouts. Twice a year, he would take his family of nine children to Okehema for a week-long powwow.

I taught at Riverside Indian School in Oklahoma, and, my colleagues there (I'm thinking of the Native teachers) spoke of going to Okemah. According to the Okemah website, the town was established in 1902 and named after a Kickapoo chief. Given the date (1902) it likely is not the town that Medearis great grandfather went to.

I can't find any place named Okehema, but in a certain sense, that doesn't mean anything. Not all small towns, much less small Native towns and communities, are on maps, or in books, histories, etc.

There are, as Medearis says in her note, Seminole's in Oklahoma. Through Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, they were removed there from Florida between 1838 and 1842 where they set up several towns and schools for their children. They are now known as the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Some Seminoles remained in Florida, and are known as the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Do visit the Florida website and read its history pages.

The story of Medearis's great-grandfather and his life with the Seminoles is an important one. There is much to be studied and learned about the lives of African Americans and American Indians. From adoption stories like the one Medearis tells, to the American Indian tribes who owned slaves, we have a lot to learn.

It is because we know so little that I am so disappointed in Dancing with the Indians. The last line in her note says "The text for Dancing with the Indians was inspired by my ancestor's experience." I think, then, the book offers us an important story, but that story is ruined by the stereotypical imagery and factual errors in Medearis's writing and Byrd's illustrations. It is a bit complicated... perhaps by Medearis's knowledge of her own African American cultural traditions.

Take, for example, the page where Medearis writes:
Our wagon nears the camp.
Drums pound and move our feet.
Soon everyone is swaying
to the tom-tom beat.
Tom-tom is a drum, but it is not a phrase used by American Indians. It is, however, used to describe East Indian, Asian, and African drums. Of course, it is a common phrase, and East Indians, Asians, and African and African Americans all probably have their own words for it, in their own languages. Just as we, American Indians, use the English word "drum" but have our own tribally-specific words for drum. Nonetheless, if you go onto the Internet, you'll see a lot of sites that say that a tom-tom is an American Indian drum. There are lot of sites with instructions for making a tom-tom, and from what I've seen, they are tied to American Indians, not any of the other groups that actually make and use tom-toms. Those sites are incorrect. American Indians do not use the word "tom-tom".

A significant difference in a tom-tom and an American Indian drum is how it is played. In the illustrations of Dancing with the Indians, the men are shown playing the drum with their hands. That is correct, IF they are playing tom-toms, but, in fact, these Seminole's would be playing drums, and using a drumstick, not their hands as shown here:


Prior to that page, Medearis tells us that the first dance they do at the camp is a Ribbon Dance. The text reads: "The women gather around. Shells on wrists and ankles make a tinkling sound." She doesn't say anything about the ribbons the women wear in their hair. It is the ribbons, however, that the illustrator chose to focus on. His illustration, however, is incorrect. He shows the women putting ribbons on their ankles, and holding them in their hands. That is not a correct portrayal of that dance:

I also doubt that the women dance in quite the way Byrd shows on the next page. Two of the women have lifted a foot nearly waist high, kicking it out to the left. I'm a bit confused, however, if the women are doing the Ribbon Dance, or if they've started doing the Rainbow Dance. There is no text that says they're doing a Rainbow Dance other than a "Soon the Rainbow Dance comes to a colorful end." That information is on a page that, interestingly, shows what looks like a Pueblo Indian drum, and, a drumstick. Neither of the two men by that drum are actually playing it. They are looking off into the distance at, I gather, the women doing the Rainbow Dance.

On the next page, "the rattlesnake dancing starts." The first illustration for it is the one I've shown above, where the men are playing the drum with their hands.

Medearis describes the rattlesnake dance, saying the dancers join hands, and then "twist and writhe and curl, the coils of a giant snake. The slithery animal glides into the smoky night."   I have to do more research on the Seminoles Ribbon, Rainbow, and Rattlesnake dances. On the dedication page, Medearis says that her great-uncle and aunt had to search through "sixty years of memories" to answer her questions and provide her with information for the book. That's a lot of years to sift through. Perhaps the names and descriptions of the actual dances they saw are lost in those sixty years. Then again, maybe the Seminole's do those dances, just as she describes them! If you're a Seminole, or, if you're seen these dances, please do submit a comment.

Turning, now to some of the text and illustration that is stereotypical. Medearis describes the dancers as "fiercely painted" and "reckless" and "fearless and untamed."  She says they "stamp and holler." All of those words capture the stereotypical savage Indian that in that stereotypical framework, roamed the land, terrifying the brave pioneers. The accompanying illustrations show a frightened child, drawing back from that "angry cavalcade" as shown:

On the next page, she says, they "sing of ancient battles gloriously fought and won, of shaggy buffalo, and brave deeds they have done."  Battles, definitely, but buffalo? Not likely. That illustration shows a man in Plains Indian style clothing, riding a horse, hunting buffalo with a bow and arrow.

This gathering Medearis writes about takes place at night. As dawn approaches, the Indians invite the visitors to "Dance the Indian Stomp Dance, join us one and all."  They "dip and stomp and sway" and the illustrations show them in very active poses, with legs kicking and arms thrown this way or that, hair caught in the intensity of their motions, bent way forward at the waist. But, none of that looks at all like the Stomp Dance I've seen.

In summary, it is a vitally important story, and we need that story, but not quite the way it is told or shown in this book, and that's too bad. Instead of this book, I suggest you take a look at Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto.


To cite this page using MLA style:
Reese, Debbie. "Angela Shelf Medearis's Dancing with the Indians." American Indians in Children's Literature. Web. 14, Apr. 2010.

Please share the link to this page with your colleagues and others who work with children and books:

(Thanks, Kristen C., for writing to ask me about this book. I've had notes on it for a long time, and your question prompted me to write up those notes and post this review essay.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

In the early 1950s, Ann Nolan Clark said...

This morning, Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal posted the book that is at the top spot in her series of Top 100 Children's Novels. To prepare the series, she asked her readers to submit a list of their favorite novels. Up top is Charlotte's Web. In her discussion of the novel, she notes that it did not win the Newbery Medal. The following paragraph prompted the title for my own blog post today ("In the early 1950s Ann Nolan Clark said...):

The book won a Newbery Honor in 1952, losing out the gold to The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. To determine why this might be, the blog Heavy Medal decided to conduct a formal reading of Clark's book. In Part One they simply discuss the decision to read it. In Part Two and Part Three they really pick it apart and thoroughly consider it. From my own point of view, and as I understand it, the simplified reason for why Clark beat White may have something to do with the fact that the librarians on the Newbery committee were tired of handing out medals to books about middle American white kids. The Secret of the Andes took place in Peru! It was new and exciting. And to steal from Nina Lindsay, this is what Clark said in her Newbery acceptance speech, "I have worked with Spanish children from New Mexico to Central and South America, with Indian children from Canada to Peru. I have worked with them because I like them. I write about them because their stories need to be told. All children need understanding, but children of segregated racial groups need even more. All children need someone to make a bridge from their world to the world of the adults who surround them."

Notice that? Ann Nolan Clark, speaking in the early 1950s, said "I write about them [Spanish and Indian children] because their stories need to be told." Clark was not Spanish or American Indian. She was an outsider to the people she wrote about. Like many, she meant well. Today's writers mean well too, just as Clark did, over 50 years ago. But why aren't today's non-Native writers helping Native people get published?

I am one amongst many that ask that question. Connie A. Jacobs asks that question in her review of Native American Picture Books of Change. Here's an excerpt of her review, published in Studies in American Indian Literature, (Volume 17.3, 2005, 123-126):

Central to Benes's study is the work of Clark who taught for the Indian Service and worked at Zuni and Tesuque Pueblos and who retold oral tales and wrote stories about life on the Navajo, Lakota, Taos, Picuris, and Blackfeet reservations. Benes claims Clark's authority to tell these stories as she quotes from the dustcover of Clark's award-winning book In My Mother's House, 1941: "'Clark found there was a need in Indian schools for books written from the Indian point of view.' It explains that the stories she tells took form in children's notebooks, capturing the original rhythm and pattern of their thinking" (43). It is statements like this that call into question how much Benes really understands about the validity of non-Native writers telling and retelling tribal stories and legends. How could Clark, who is not Native, claim the need for books written from a Native point of view and then tell the stories herself?

Non-Native people who, for what ever reason, find themselves working with Native people today could do more than "tell their stories" the way that Clark did. I wish they would.

Monday, April 05, 2010

"Fairy Tales: Zero Tolerance?"

Over on Worlds of Words, Marilyn Carpenter has an essay up called "Fairy Tales: Zero Tolerance?"

I read it this morning, and, like what I read. Carpenter's essay is about details of Chinese culture in Donna Jo Napoli's Bound. Click on over and read what she has to say.

I make similar arguments here on American Indians in Children's Literature. Course, here I refer to American Indian content, while Carpenter is focused on Chinese culture. The larger point is that authors must get the details right!

For examples of problems I've found, take a look at:

Gerald McDermott's ARROW TO THE SUN

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

Also see "Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom" published in Language Arts in January, 2007, where I discuss Penny Pollock's Turkey Girl, and Kristina Rodanas's Dragonfly's Tale. (Send me an email [dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com] and I'll send you a copy.)

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Tim Tingle's SALTYPIE

Before you read Tim Tingle's Saltypie to your child or students in your classroom or library, spend some time studying what Tingle says at the end of the book, on the pages titled "How Much Can We Tell Them?"

There, you'll learn a little about Tim's childhood, and some about his father, grandmother, the Choctaw Nation, and, the rock-throwing incident in the book. Here's an excerpt:
I always knew we were Choctaws, but as a child I never understood that we were Indians. The movies and books about Indians showed Indians on horseback. My family drove cars and pickup trucks. Movie Indians lived in teepees. We lived in modern houses. Indians in books and on television hunted with bows and arrows. My father and my uncles hunted, too, with shotguns, but mostly they fished.
I have similar memories of my own. I watched the Indians on television and thought they weren't really Indians. I knew that we were Pueblo Indians, but we didn't look or live anything at all like the ones on TV, so I figured they weren't real. Tingle's note has a lot of very powerful information in it:
We know our history never included teepees or buffaloes. We were people of the woods and swamps of what is now called Mississippi. Early Choctaws had gardens and farms. For hundreds of years, they lived in wooden houses.
Long before explorers arrived from Europe, we had a government, a Choctaw national government. We selected local and national leaders. We recognized women as equal citizens. 
Did you do a double take as you read his words? I bet your students will! Indian people---prior to Europeans arrival on the continent that came to be known as North America---had governments?! Women were equal citizens?!! Those are powerful and important words for you (the adult) to carry with you every single time you pick up a book that has American Indians in it. We weren't primitive. We weren't savage. 

Tingle's note goes on to talk about things the Choctaw people experienced, such as the Trail of Tears, boarding school and racism. And, he talks about stereotypes in children's books, and he suggests that teachers can use Saltypie to dispel some of those stereotypes.

Turning now, to the book itself. In it are several stories.

The first double-paged spread of the book shows a young boy with bees around him. He's wearing a bright green button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. That boy is Tim, and the stories in the book are from his life.

First up is getting stung by a bee. His opening sentences capture the reader right away:
A bee sting on the bottom! Who could ever forget a bee sting on the bottom?
No doubt, those lines will elicit both laughs and groans from children--especially those who know the throbbing pain of a bee sting!  Obviously in distress, Tim runs to an arbor where his grandmother, who he calls Mawmaw, comforts him, but teaches him, too, when she asks "Didn't you hear the bees?" and says the bee sting was "some kind of saltypie." 

From there, Tingle takes his readers back to his grandmother's early years as a mother, and tells us about the word "saltypie."

The year was 1915, and Tim's grandparents (and Tim's dad, who was then two years old), moved to Texas. On that first morning his grandmother stepped outside her new home, and was struck in the face by a stone, thrown, Tingle writes, by a boy. Covering her face with her hands, blood seeped between her fingers. Not knowing it was blood, Tim's father (then a toddler), thought it was cherry pie filling. He reached up, got some on his fingertip, and tasted it. Course, it wasn't the sweet taste he expected, and he uttered "Saltypie!" and spit it out.  His mother hugged him. Though she was crying and shaken by the incident, she saw humor in her son's unmet expectation of something sweet, and laughed as she held him.

Moving forward in time to 1954, Tim is six years old, and he and his dad are visiting Mawmaw and Pawpaw, who still live in that house they moved to in 1915. Tim asks if he, like the adults gathered around the table, can have a cup of coffee. He watches as Mawmaw pours coffee, and sees that she puts her thumb into each cup before she fills it. He doesn't want her thumb in his cup, and covers it with his hand. Pawpaw and Tim's aunt are surprised by his action, and his aunt takes him outside for a moment, where he learns that Mawmaw is blind.

In a family gathering that night, Tim learns a lot about his grandmother's life. From his uncle, he learns about the stone that was thrown at her, and that people back then didn't like Indians. When he asks his uncle "What is saltypie?" his uncle says
"It's a way of dealing with trouble, son. Sometimes you don't know where the trouble comes from. You just kinda shrug it off, say saltypie. It helps you carry on."
The next story Tingle relates is set in 1970, when his grandmother is hospitalized for an eye transplant through which they hope she will regain her sight. His extended family is gathered round, waiting, telling stories to pass the time. By then, Tingle is a college student.

One of the stories Tim told is about his grandmother's years at Tuskahoma Academy, a boarding school for American Indian girls. The color palette on the page for that story is, appropriately, a somber blue. There, Mawmaw as a young child, stands, looking wistful, stuck at the school at Christmas time. That illustration is exceedingly powerful. Actually, it is only one of many illustrations in the book that are astounding in what they convey.

The illustrator for the book is Karen Clarkson. Like Tingle, she is enrolled with the Choctaw Nation. As I noted earlier, the very first page shows us young Tim, in agony, having been stung by a bee. Page after page, Clarkson's illustrations portray a modern Native family. From bright sunny pages bursting with life to the quiet ones that slow us (readers) down to absorb the stories told on that page, Clarkson's illustrations are terrific.  

I particularly like the one of the family, waiting for news about the operation. The waiting room is crowded with members of their family who catch up on news and tell stories. I've spent many hours with my own family---siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles---as we waited for the outcome of a family members surgery. That large gathering often takes hospital staff by surprise when they first start working amongst Native people.

From Tingle's note at the end of the book, to the stories he tells, and Clarkson's illustrations, this book is exceptional. As I said in my earlier post today, order your copy from Cinco Puntos Press. Here, I'll say ORDER SEVERAL COPIES!  And, learn more about Tim Tingle and Karen Clarkson. While you're at it, order Tingle's other books, too. Crossing Bok Chitto and When Turtle Grew Feathers are gems.

And yes, if you're wondering, Mawmaw does regain her sight:
It was so right that my father, who had given us this word [saltypie] fifty years ago in a moment of childhood misunderstanding, would now take it away in a moment of enlightenment. He lifted his eyes and spoke.
"No more saltypie," he said. "Mawmaw can see."

The closing paragraph in this very fine book is the one I'll end this post with, too:
We all leave footfalls, everywhere we go. We change the people we meet. If we learn to listen to the quiet and secret music, as my Mawmaw did, we will leave happy footfalls behind us in our going.
We can, if we choose, leave happy footfalls, and books like this one can help us do that.

Words about Words

This morning's "Google Alert" (I have one set up to let me know when someone has written about my blog) included a link to Scientist Gone Wordy, where Rachel (the blog owner) talked about the power of words. In her post this morning (April 2, 2010), she pointed readers to my site (hence the alert from Google Alerts).

As anyone that has heard me speak at a conference or invited lecture knows, I have uttered plenty of words that expose my own biases. Paying attention and recognizing the power in the words we use is an on-going process. I self-disclose my own ignorance and examples of offensive speech to demonstrate that I'm just like most people. There's a lot we don't know, and having it brought to our attention is unsettling and embarrassing.

I like to think of myself as being tuned in for bias in the media, but once I started reading NPR Check (now NPR Team), I realized I had not been applying my critical media skills to NPR!. I had assumed (incorrectly) that NPR was more on the liberal and progressive end of the political spectrum.

Towards the end of her post, Rachel ended by talking about gender.  It reminded me of one of the findings in my doctoral dissertation. There, I examined illustrations of American Indians (actual American Indians, non-Native characters playing Indian, images on objects such as the Indian head penny) in children's books recommended in Young Children, the practitioners journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Whether it was an actual American Indian character, or a character playing Indian, or an image on an object, the majority of the images were male.

I'd need to do a study of the gender of the Native people in historical fiction in order to make a definitive statement, but thinking about classics like Little House on the Prairie or Matchlock Gun, most of the portrayals are of Native men...   

New book! Tim Tingle's SALTYPIE

I just read Tim Tingle's new picture book, Saltypie...  First impression? Wow! When people ask me for a short list of recommended books, Saltypie is going to be on that list.

Tingle is Choctaw, and author of the award winning Crossing Bok Chitto. Order your copy of  Saltypie from Cinco Puntos Press.

More soon...

Monday, March 29, 2010


I recently read a galley copy of Nancy Bo Flood's Warriors in the Crossfire (Front Street, 2010). Flood is a gifted writer. Her book is a page-turner and a quick read. 

There are, however, specific parts of the book that give me pause. One example is her descriptions of a dance that Joseph (the main character) does. Given my study of the (inaccurate/romanticized/stereotypical) ways that American Indians are portrayed in most children's and young adult literature, I wondered if Flood's portrayals of the Chamoru (also spelled Chamorro) and Carolinian people---from their dance to their stories---was accurate.

As of this writing (March 29, 2010), reviews from two journals are available. Kirkus gave the book a favorable review, saying
"The understated design, which includes Japanese characters in the chapter titles and brief, impressionistic poems as chapter lead-ins, makes this volume stand out. An important and little-known perspective on World War II." 
while the review in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books was more qualified:
The narration, however, rings with the formal, stilted cadence generally associated with Hollywood portrayals of cultural outsiders in films of decades past: “‘Kento, I must carry my father to the sea. I cannot carry my father alone.’ Kento did not look up. ‘I am sorry, Joseph. I cannot help you’; “You have turned your back on us. . . . You have become . . . Japanese.” Nonetheless, readers who can visualize the living, breathing characters behind the awkwardly mannered voices will be rewarded with a heart-pounding reimagining of desperate times. A historical note is appended Review Code: Ad -- Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area. 
The Bulletin's reviewer zeroed in on cadence, referencing Hollywood portrayals of cultural outsiders. That is similar to my concerns with the ways that Flood describes dance (p. 40):
“I had learned from my father the ancient words of the chants and the ancient movements–the leaping, twisting, striking stick against stick. Gleaming with sweat and coconut oil, we danced, beating the rhythm faster and louder. Slapping, whirling, chanting our battle cries, we called to our ancestors. Guide us! Give us strength to leap, to fly, to defeat our enemies.” 
"Leaping", and "twisting" and "faster and "louder"...  Flood's words and image sound a lot like outsider description. In a lot of children’s and YA lit, outsiders describing Native dance say that Native people “stomp” and “leap” and “hop.” See, as one example, page 8 of Sign of the Beaver, or, the illustrations of dance in Dancing with the Indians, or Peter Pan, or, Little House on the Prairie, or, Touching Spirit Bear, or Walk Two Moons, or.... (you get the picture).

I've seen videos of the stick dancing Flood is describing, and it doesn't match with her description. Maybe it is not the same dance.  Still, though, I can't imagine an indigenous person describing dance quite that way. That whole section of her book could have been done differently. She could have had Joseph telling the reader how the Japanese describe the indigenous dances. She does this a little bit on page 32, when she writes "But to the Japanese, we are all the same, we are natives, barbaric outsiders, gai-jin."

Like Lyn Miller-Lachman, Warriors in the Crossfire inspired me to learn more about WWII, Saipan, the indigenous peoples of Saipan, Japanese occupation of Saipan, and, the samurai.

I have a copy of Chamoru Childhood, a collection of stories written by Chamoru people. I wrote about it a few months ago here. Knowing Keith Camacho, one of the Chamoru authors in the book, also figures prominently in how I'm responding to Flood's book.

From Keith, I learned about We Drank Our Tears: Memories of the Battles for Saipan and Tinian. The latter is a collection of stories told by men and women who lived through the invasion of Saipan. If you wish, you can go here and see a little of what the book contains. The page includes a bit of info about Benita Borja Cepeda's story, as told to her granddaughter, Madisa Lisa Messo Omni. There are photographs of both, and, the art at the bottom of the page is done by Madisa. Here's an excerpt about the book:
A project of the Pacific STAR Young Writers Foundation under the direction of Katharyn Tuten-Puckett, this new book is a moving collection of stories told to CNMI school children by their elders who experienced the war when they, themselves, were children. Each of the 74 stories, related by the students and accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations and photographs of the students and the elder who's story is being told, is a unique and memorable experience. No one who reads these stories can help but be struck with a profound sense of awe, respect and admiration for these families who's courage and perseverance brought them through the war.

We Drank Our Tears is important as a history. But perhaps its greater value is in the sharing of the collective experiences that define modern-day Chamorros and Refalawash people. Whether you live on-island or off, this book belongs on your shelf and in the hands of young readers who can only benefit from knowing something of the recent past that had such a profound affect on their parents and grandparents who lived it. It can go a long way toward bridging the generation gap with appreciation and understanding.
I've ordered a copy of We Drank Our Tears and look forward to it. 

In the meantime, I'll work on my analysis of Warriors in the Crossfire. I've got lots of questions. Like on page 39, the Emperor has ordered a victory celebration, and Japanese officials command the men and women of the village to perform. They do "sacred warrior dances." The Japanese men and women sit in chairs and watch the dance. I'd like to know more about that command to dance.

Update, March 30, 6:52 PM
To see a previous discussion of tribal protocols on intellectual property, go here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hopi Runners

For young adults who visit your library looking for information about athletes or marathon runners, consider offering them an article from a journal....  Here's the opening sentences:
On the afternoon of April 20, 1912, fifteen-thousand people lined the streets of Los Angeles to witness 151 contestants compete in the Los Angeles Times Modified Marathon. Officials of the Times hosted the marathon to secure a Western candidate for the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, and news of the event attracted runners from across the nation. Two Hopi runners, Guy Maktima and Philip Zeyouma, from the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona, stood beside the many athletes who gathered near the start line and waited for the sound of the pistol to begin the race.
Sound good? The author of the article, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert (he is Hopi), continues, saying that nobody took much notice of the Hopi runners. That changed halfway through the race:
When word spread among the thousands of spectators that the "Little Hopis" had broken away from the lead group, people rushed to the finish line and waited for the runners to make their final approach.
Want more? The article, "Hopi Footraces and American Marathons, 1912-1930" is in the March 2010 issue of American Quarterly.  I read about the article at Matt's blog, Beyond the Mesas. Here's an excerpt from there:
Not long after the school established its cross-country team, Zeyouma won the Los Angeles Times Modified Marathon in April 1912. His victory also gave him an opportunity to compete in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
Congratulations, Matt, on the article, AND on having YOUR photographs used on the journal's front and back cover!

Teacher, librarians, parents... if you want a copy of the article and don't have access to it, send me an email and I'll send it to you. Write to me at dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com. 

Stereotyping, Bias, and American Indians

What are you doing at 11:00 AM on April 13th? Set aside an hour to attend a free, online conversation called "How do we change a stereotype?"

The session part of the Smithsonian Institution's Problem Solving with Smithsonian Experts series. The host for "How do we change a stereotype?" will be Paul Chaat Smith. I've written about him several times here on American Indians in Children's Literature. (See Paul Chaat Smith on Brother Eagle Sister Sky and The Education of Little Tree. And buy a copy of his book, Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong.)

The promo for the session is: 
The American Indian Experience: From the Margins to the Center
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened its doors in Washington in 2004. The goal? Nothing less than to change how we see the lives of Native peoples. NMAI curator Paul Chaat Smith leads a discussion on hard lessons and brilliant mistakes from the front lines of Washington’s most controversial museum.
Hard lessons? Brilliant mistakes? Most educators have been learned some hard lessons, and, we've made some brilliant mistakes, too! And why is it "Washington's most controversial museum"? I wonder what we will learn from Smith? I registered for the session and encourage you to do so, too. Go to "How do we change a stereotype" for details. The registration link is bottom right of the page.

As you think about your teaching---how, when, and why---you include American Indians, take a look at Julia Good Fox's blog post, "Texas is Not Alone: Moving Past U.S. Dis-education about Tribal Nations."  For those of you who follow Education news, you know she's referring to the textbook fiasco in Texas. Good Fox talks about her work with public school teachers. She is Pawnee.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pa (as a kid) played that he was hunting Indians

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is Favorite Book #23 in Elizabeth Bird's SLJ "Top 100 Novels" countdown. Published in 1932, Bird says "As of right now, it has sold about sixty million copies in thirty-three languages."

Sixty million! That's a lot of people reading these words in "The Story of Pa and the Voice in the Woods" that begins on page 53:

"When I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, I had to go every afternoon to find the cows in the woods and drive them home. My father told me never to play by the way, but to hurry and bring the cows home before dark, because there were bears and wolves and panthers in the woods.    

"One day I started earlier than usual, so I thought I did not need to hurry. There were so many things to see in the woods that I forgot that dark was coming. There were red squirrels in the trees, chipmunks scurrying through the leaves, and little rabbits playing games together  in the open places. Little rabbits, you know, always have games together before they go to bed.    

"I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians. I played I was fighting the Indians, until all woods seemed full of wild men, and then all at once I heard the birds twittering 'good night.' It was dusky in the path, and dark in the woods.

There is no further mention of Indians as Pa continues his story. (The voice he heard was actually an owl.)

It is that last paragraph above that gives me pause. Wilder writes "I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians." Indians who she then calls "wild men." Wilder tells us this story, presumably a story her Pa told to her... A story wherein Pa tells her how he imagined himself, as a kid, hunting Indians. Hunting Indians. 

Pa (the adult) told Laura (the child) and Laura (the writer) told children that Indians are like animals to be hunted.

Did that paragraph leap out at you as you read the book?

When you read the book to children now, what do you do with that passage?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

American Indians in California - Resources

Update from Debbie on May 6, 2021: Dr. Miranda's site is no longer accessible. You can find an article by her about the missions, at the Zinn Education Project: Lying to Children About the California Missions and the Indians. 


On When Turtles Fly, Deborah Miranda is compiling resources for teachers to use in lesson plans about California. She began this project a few weeks ago, with her post titled 4th Grade California Mission Projects.

When we think of California today, we do not, for the most part, teach about American Indians who were there prior to it becoming "California." When we teach about the Gold Rush, we do it in a celebratory or adventurous fashion, and we fail to teach students that those miners (amongst others) committed horrific crimes against Native people. When we teach about the Missions, we gloss over the treatment of Native people at those missions, and we ignore the legacy the Missions had on the lives of Native people. Some Native people embraced Christianity; some imported elements of Christianity to their existing systems of worship; others rejected it.

Here's Deborah's bio, from her page:
I am a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of the Greater Monterey Bay area in California. Currently I am an Associate Professor in the English Department at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. I teach Composition, Native American Literatures, American Ethnic Literatures, Women's Literatures, Creative Writing (Poetry and Memoir), among other courses. My first book of poetry, Indian Cartography, was published by Greenfield Review Press in 1999 and won the First Book Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas. The Zen of La Llorona, my second collection, was published by Salt Press in 2004.

We can do better, if we are open to revisiting what we were taught. Bookmark her site!
  • If you're a teacher, use it to develop your lesson plans. 
  • If you're a writer, use it to do research.
  • If you're an editor or reviewer, use it to fact check manuscripts and books.

Monday, March 08, 2010


Yesterday, I posted initial thoughts about Anne Rockwell's picture book biography of George Washington. I'm returning to it today, and will do so again later this week.

In yesterday's post I wrote about the word shared and how Rockwell uses it in two of her books, and I wrote about the persistence with which writers put American Indians in the same sentence as animals.

Today, I want to look at the opening paragraph in the book.
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America. 
I'm focusing on that paragraph to show you how bias looks and what it teaches.

Anne Rockwell is a prolific writer. Though I've not studied her picture books for very young children, I can see by perusing the titles, that an early childhood teacher would use many of them.

How might her biography look if the focus was George Washington and his interactions with American Indians? That's not the book she wrote, so, some may deem it unfair to criticize her treatment of American Indians and American Indian history. Her first sentence is
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America.  
Rockwell's book was published in 2008. Three hundred years ago puts the story in the year 1708. Rockwell is correct. At that point in time, there was no United States of America. Her next sentence could be "Instead, there were hundreds of Native Nations." But this is her next sentence:
Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.
That sentence is also correct. In 1708, there were thirteen English colonies in North America. But! I'd insert an additional sentence, and, I'd rewrite her sentence so that the paragraph would say "Europeans who had fled Europe had come to North American and were occupying the lands that belonged to the Native Nations. These Europeans set up thirteen English colonies."

You following that? I'll put it here, in clean copy. Here's Rockwell's opening paragraph, followed by my rewrite of her opening paragraph:
Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.

Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were hundreds of Native Nations. Europeans who had fled Europe had come to North America and were occupying lands that belonged to the Native Nations. These Europeans set up thirteen English colonies.
See the difference? See how she shapes the story with her choice of what to say and how to say it? She's telling this story from her point of view as an American. I'm revising her story from the point of view of an American Indian.  Her statements are factually true. So are mine.

But, she avoids telling her readers that the birth of the United States was complicated. She  keeps some information from her readers, and as we saw yesterday, she presents bears, wolves, and, American Indians as something George wasn't afraid of.

She's creating an image for her readers. In that image, American Indians are animal-like and living in the woods. The Indians she presents are not civilized, living in colonies like the Europeans.

But, her presentation is not true! American Indians were, in fact, highly developed, self-governing societies. They had leaders with whom Washington and the like had diplomatic negotiations with.  She is concealing that information from her readers. Being generous, I can say that she probably does not know she's doing that. It isn't a deliberate decision.

[Personal note: I grow weary and angry at myself for constantly saying "Native people were not primitive." But, that false idea is so well taught in America that it needs to be said again and again and again.]

Presenting Indians as primitive and uncivilized savages lets Rockwell (she's not the only person who does this. Most writers do it.) portray the Europeans as superior to the indigenous peoples, which ultimately works to say that Europeans were right to take Native lands as their own. I said as much when I critiqued Rockwell's book about Thanksgiving. She responded, saying that she never thought that, and that I was twisting her words. You could say that I am "reading between the lines."

Some might say I'm reading too much into what Rockwell says in that opening paragraph. Again, it isn't an isolated case. Most people who write about that period omit or inaccurately portray American Indians.  I think it is wrong to do so. What do you think?

Update, March 9, 6:30 AM: --- In a comment (see comments section), K pointed out that there are still hundreds of Native Nations and said my sentence suggests there are no longer any Native Nations. Regular readers of this site, and, readers with knowledge about American Indians know that there are, in the present day, hundreds of tribes.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


Several years ago, Anne Rockwell wrote a book called Thanksgiving Day. Reading it as a Native mother and scholar in American Indian Studies, Thanksgiving Day book is a mess. Rockwell seems not to know that a lot of American Indian people call that day "Thankstaking" or "A day of mourning." In that book, one of her characters, playing the part of a Pilgrim, says (bold is mine):
Michiko was thankful that she and all the other Pilgrims were greeted kindly by the Wampanoag people, who shared the land with them.

Last year, that word "shared" appeared in her picture book biography, Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington (published in 2008 by Harcourt). On the opening page, she writes (bold is mine):

Three hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Instead, there were thirteen English colonies in North America.

In the one called Virginia, a tall boy loved to get on his horse and gallop through the woods alone. He wasn't afraid of bears, or wolves, or the native hunters with bows and arrows who shared those woods.

Sharing is a big part of what we teach children in early childhood classrooms. Hence, the sharing aspect in both of these books work well in those settings.  Course, in those settings we're talking about a toy, or a book, or a special chair. Rockwell is talking about something else completely. The land and woods she's referring to are not the same thing as a toy, or a book, or a special chair.

Note that in the Thanksgiving Day excerpt above, Rockwell says the Pilgrims were greeted "kindly" by the Wampanoag people. In text and illustration of the book, it looks like the Pilgrims and Wampanoags were great friends! Course, by then, the historical record shows, the Wampanoags were familiar with the ways of the Europeans.

In Big George, Rockwell tells her readers that the woods are dangerous... The young George has to be mindful of bears, wolves, and Native hunters with bows and arrows.  Putting Indians-to-be-feared in the same sentence as animals-to-be-feared is a common thing for writers to do. It is, however, a problem, because it equates Indian people with animals. Laura Ingalls Wilder did it, too, in Little House on the Prairie way back in 1935, but Rockwell repeats that error 74 years later. When will that stop?

Let's look at the sentence again...

He wasn't afraid of [...] the native hunters with bows and arrows who shared those woods.

Doesn't make sense, does it? Why should he be afraid of Indians who share the woods with George?

Please see Part 2 of my analysis of Big George.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

"An Author Responds"

I thought it might be useful to my readers to identify blog posts that prompted an author to reply, in protest, of my review.

So, I added a label called "An Author Responds" to the "LABELS" section. To find it, look over at the right side of the page and scroll down to LABELS. It is beneath the "BOOKS REVIEWED ON THIS SITE..." section.

Among the authors that have responded to critiques on American Indians in Children's Literature are Sharon Creech, Beth Kanell, Ben Mikaelsen, Anne Rockwell, and John Smelcer.

American Indians in Children's Literature featured at DIVERSE: ISSUES IN HIGHER EDUCATION

I read this article when it came out in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and meant to link to it, but can't find a link. So, I'm pointing to it today. They sent Nick Burchell, a professional photographer to my office.  That's the photo he took.  I think vanity is the reason I didn't point to the article when it came out. The work I do is about the work, not about me, and the article is mostly about me. I enjoyed talking with Mary Annette Pember, the reporter who did the article.  

Getting to Know Debbie Reese

Recent articles Pember did include one about graduation rates of American Indian and Alaska Native students, and another about elders as educators at tribal colleges. On the Diverse site, enter her name in the search engine to see other topics she's done.

American Indians in Children's Literature featured at COLOR ONLINE

On Thursday, March 4th,  COLOR ONLINE featured American Indians in Children's Literature. This is from their "About Us" page:

We are a community organization dedicated to empowering young women. We operate a library and offer support to young girls at local non-profit in Detroit. Our blog focuses on women writers of color. Founded in September 2005, my vision was to engage reluctant and non-readers. We were a lit studies group. To call us a book club is not only limiting but it fails to describe what I envisioned for us: a collective that explored the arts and made a connection between all art forms and our lives, a community where we encouraged one another and discovered our voices, a space where girls felt empowered by experiencing a cultural, political and a spiritual awakening.

Click on over to COLOR ONLINE and spend some time going through the site. They've got a lot of reviews there, and, thought provoking writing, too.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Congrats to Cynthia Leitich Smith: ETERNAL on NY Times best seller list

Wow!  Eternal, Cynthia Leitich Smith's vampire novel, will appear on the New York Times "Children's Best Sellers - Paperback" list this coming Sunday. She's Muscogee Creek. The book is for ages 14 and up.

Read her reaction at her site, "Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith Debuts at #5 on The New York Times Best Seller List." Visit her web page on the book, where you will find a link to an excerpt, and, a trailer for the book, too. 

Congratulations, Cyn!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Something Will Rogers said...

A friend asked me what I know about Will Rogers, famous TV and radio personality, part Cherokee...

He asked, in particular, about this:

"My ancestors may not have come over on the 'Mayflower' but they met 'em at the boat!"

Those seventeen words are all over the Internet, from one quotations page to the next. But!!! That is not all Rogers said...

Take a look at The Papers of Will Rogers: The Early Years, by Will Rogers, Arthur Frank Wertheim, and Barbara Bair. See, specifically, page 31. I'm using bold to mark the part that is left off in all those quotation sites:

"When questioned about his heritage in a scene in one of his films, he informed a passport officer, who had inquired whether he was an American citizen, that his mother and father were both part Cherokee and he "was born and raised in Indian Territory. Course I'm not one of these Americans whose ancestors come over on the Mayflower, but we met 'em at the boat when they landed. And its always been to the everlasting discredit of the Indian race that we ever let 'em land."

That passage is footnoted, and the corresponding note reads (p. 39):

"This passport office scene is from the 1930 Fox film, So This Is London. Rogers continued his soliloquy by reaffirming his statement in the face of scandalized expressions from a pair of onlookers: "It was," he said, referring to the discredit due the Indians for letting the Pilgrims land. "That's the only thing that I'd ever blame the Indians for."

Interesting, isn't it? What gets left off?  I wonder about biographies of him, written for children and young adults. Is the full quote in them?

As a society, America reveres Will Rogers, 
but I wonder if they know he said that Indians 
never should have let the Pilgrims land?

(Thanks, Brian, for asking me about him...  Given the embrace of Will Rogers, it is worth looking into what children and young adults are told about Rogers!)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thoughts on Sharon Creech's WALK TWO MOONS

Have you ever used Google Earth? It's a fascinating tool that lets you look at a place (like your hometown) via satellite photographs.

A few years ago, I started seeing "lit trips" online.  Using Google Earth, people put together a webpage that shows places named in any given book. A few days ago while reading Open Culture, I came across a site called Google Lit Trips, where "lit trips" for books are categorized by grade level. There, teachers have uploaded the lit trips they created.

Google Lit Trips is a great project. As a person who loves technology, travel, and children's literature, I find great value in the project itself.  I wondered what books teachers have created lit trips for...

In the K-5 category is Holling Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea. It's an old book, published in 1941. It won a Caldecott Honor Medal, which attributes to its staying power. In it, an Indian boy (his tribal nation is not named and he does not have a name) carves an Indian in a canoe (from the illustration, the canoe is about ten inches long) and puts it into the water in Canada.  The Indian--called "Injun" by some characters--travels to the Great Lakes, the ocean...   I can see the allure of doing a Lit Trip for this book, but I wonder what the teacher does with the word Injun?

In the 6-8 grade category is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. Her book is the focus of today's post.

Walk Two Moons won the top prize in children's literature--the Newbery Medal--in 1995. Obviously, the committee believed the book is extraordinary. As I noted on Feb 17, 2010, the book is on the Top 100 list of novels on Elizabeth Bird's blog, A Fuse#8 Production. There, Elizabeth writes:
The plot as described by School Library Journal reads, "13-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels west with her Grams and Gramps to Lewiston, Idaho, the destination from which her mother did not return. As Sal entertains her grandparents with stories of her friend, Phoebe, who sees "lunatics" around every corner, threads from many life stories are seamlessly entwined. This pilgrimage wonderfully mirrors the journey of discovery that is adolescence, as Sal's search for the truth about her mother becomes a journey of discovery about much more."

Most of what I've read about the book focuses on the themes of loss, grieving, acceptance. Here, I provide a close reading of the Native content in the book.

In an interview, Creech says that the idea for the story came from the fortune in a fortune cookie. This is from the Scholastic interview:
How did you come up with the title Walk Two Moons?
I had discovered a fortune cookie message in the bottom of my purse and the message was: “Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.” I realized that everything that I was trying to say in this book had to do with that message; that you need to get to know someone well before you form an opinion about them, and in a way, that's what we writers are doing every day with our characters. So I liked the parallel there.
The words on that fortune sound familiar, right? Perhaps you know the phrase as "never judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes." The Yale Book of Quotations has the "walk a mile in his moccasins" phrase listed in its "Modern Proverbs" section as follows:
Never criticize anybody until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
Lincoln (Neb.) Star, 10 Oct. 1930. This 1930 usage is actually worded "never criticize the other boy or girl unless," etc., described as an "Indian maxim." Later versions sometimes refer to "shoes" rather than "moccasins."
I've never seen the "two moons" variation, but, I'm not doubting that Creech found it in a fortune cookie. Above it is called a maxim. Other places, I've seen it called "An American Indian proverb." It, like so many other Indian "sayings" is poetic, sounds cool, just like an Indian might say, etc. Kind of like "happy hunting grounds" but did it, in fact, originate with an American Indian?! Research to do on that... 

In the interview, she said that the saying itself captured what she was doing with the story, so, she used it for the title. In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, she said:
My cousins maintain that one of our ancestors was an American Indian. As a child, I loved that notion, and often exaggerated it by telling people that I was a full-blooded Indian. I inhaled Indian myths...  I crept through the woods near our house, reenacting these myths, and wishing, wishing, for a pair of soft leather moccasins. (I admit --but without apology--that my view of American Indians was a romantic one.)
"without apology" --- I find that remark unsettling. Substitute "American Indians" with, say, "African Americans." One romantic view of African Americans is the one of happy slaves. Might Creech be unapologetic for holding a romantic view of African Americans as happy slaves? I'm thinking about "without apology" and what it means. 

Going back to the saying (walk two moons), and Creech's notion (her word) that she is part American Indian...  Both are significant to the story that is Walk Two Moons

The name of the main character is Salamanca (or Sal, which is short for Salamanca). She is thirteen years old and has long black hair---so long, in fact, that classmates ask her if she can sit on it. The book is realistic fiction, meant for ages 10 to 14 or thereabouts.

Sal lives in Euclid, Ohio with her dad. Creech herself grew up in South Euclid, Ohio. In 1957, Creech was 12. Her family took a trip from Ohio to Idaho. In Walk Two Moons, Creech recreates that trip. Hence, what she includes in the book are childhood memories.

I'll assume then, that the setting for Walk Two Moons is also 1957. But when I do that, some aspects of the story don't make sense.

On page 7, we learn that Sal's parents thought her great grandmother's tribe was called Salamanca. So, they named their daughter Salamanca. Later, they found out the name of the tribe was actually Seneca. (Note: There is no tribe named Salamanca.) We aren't told how old Sal was when her parents figured out what the correct tribal name is.

This Seneca heritage is from Sal's mother, who is called Sugar. Her family name is Pickford. Sal says that these grandparents "stand straight up, as if sturdy, steel poles ran down their backs. They wear starched, ironed clothing," they never laugh, and they work very hard at being respectable.  Grandmother Pickford's name is Gayfeather. Her single act of defiance is to name her daughter Chanhassen (p. 16)
It's an Indian name, meaning "tree sweet juice," or--in other words--maple sugar. Only Grandmother Pickford ever called my mother by her Indian name, though. Everyone else called my mother Sugar.
What, I wonder, was Gayfeather acting in defiance of? Being respectable? Or, was she defying her husband? Was her husband white? Did he not like that his wife was Indian? It seems that Gayfeather wants to pass an Indian identity down to her daughter, but why doesn't she tell her daughter what tribe they are? Was Gayfeather trying to live like a "civilized" Indian? An assimilated one who'd been through government boarding school?  And the name, Gayfeather...  It is the name of a plant, and it sounds plausible as an Indian name, but it also sounds-like-an-Indian-name that someone (in this case Creech) made up.

I looked up the word chanhassen, and found a town in Minnesota called Chanhassen. According to the town's website, Chanhassen is a Dakota word that means tree with sweet sap, or sugar maple tree. I also found it in American Place-Names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary, published in 1970. The entry there reads (p. 86)
Chanhassen MN  From two Siouan words, coined by R. M. Nichols, 'tree sweet juice,' to mean maple sugar.
Clearly, Creech used the latter in naming Sal's mother Chanhassen. Note that the Place-Names dictionary says it is from two Siouan (Sioux) words. The info on the Chanhassen town website says it is a Dakota word. Dakota's are Sioux.

Nobody, however, calls Sugar by her Indian name, Chanhassen, except her own mother who gave her that name.

Let's imagine Creech imagining Salamanca's parents as they try to think of a name for their child. Sal's mother says "Let's name her after my great great grandmother's tribe. I'm not sure what it was...  It started with an S. Maybe it was Salamanca." Her father says "Ok, we'll name her Salamenca."

Creech could have said Sioux, because that is the source of the word Chanhassen, but instead, she chose  Seneca as her character's tribal heritage. So, Gayfeather, a Seneca woman, gave her daughter a name based on Sioux words. Ok, that's plausible.

For whatever reason, Gayfeather does not tell Chanhassen/Sugar their tribe, or, if she does, Chanhassen/Sugar doesn't remember it. That may be the case because they aren't living amongst that tribe, nor do they have any contact with them.

Sugar grows up, gets married, and has a child. She wants to give her daughter the name of her tribe as her daughter's personal name. Except, she can't remember "Seneca" and names her "Salamanca" instead.  

Later, Sal's parents find out the actual name was Seneca, not Salamanca. As the story unfolds, we learn that Sal's mom was proud of her Seneca heritage. We don't know how old Sal was when this remembered conversation took place: (p. 57): 
My mother had not liked the term Native Americans. She thought it sounded primitive and stiff. She said "My great-grandmother was a Seneca Indian, and I'm proud of it. She wasn't a Seneca Native American. Indian sounds much more brave and elegant." 

Recall that Sharon Creech has a cousin that said they are part American Indian, and that Creech herself likes that idea...   This "part American Indian" family story is familiar. There are a lot of people who, through a family story, believe that they have American Indian heritage. They don't know the name of the tribe, but, they have a certain love of romantic, noble, heroic Indian imagery. They know very little about who American Indian people were, or are....  Hence, Sal's mother (and maybe Creech, too) likes "Indian" because it sounds "more brave and elegant."Brave and elegant fit in the romantic image.

Earlier in this post I said that some aspects of the story Creech tells don't make sense. The discussion of Native American is one example. That phrase, Native American, was not in use in 1957. It is unlikely that Creech, in school in the 50s, had a teacher who taught her students to say Native American instead of Indian. That teaching came later, possibly in the 70s in a handful of places, and more with the passing of time. This is an instance of "presentism" --- a word in literary analysis that means an author has put today's ideas into someone of the past. The hotel name is another example (p. 74-75):
     That night we stayed in Injun Joe's Peace Palace Motel. On a sign in the lobby, someone had crossed out "Injun" and written "Native American" so the whole sign read "Native American Joe's Peace Palace Motel." In our room, the "Injun Joe's" embroidered on the towels had been changed with black marker to "Indian Joe's." I wished everybody would just make up their minds.
That last line, "I wished everybody would just make up their minds" gives me pause. Who, or what perspective, does that reflect? It sounds to me a lot an emotion that emanates from someone who derisively says "PC run amok." But again---the time period doesn't make sense, IF we say the book is set in 1957.

If, however, we say the book is set in, say, the 1990s when it came out, Creech's references to Native American, and Injun make sense.

But! When Sal and her grandparents stop at Wisconsin Dells, they see Indian dances. In talking with Native colleagues and friends in that area today, they said there used to be dances done there at a place called Stand Rock, or Standing Rock. Here's what Creech writes (p. 56)
     Gram and I poked our noses into an old fort, and then sat on the grass watching a group of Native Americans dance and beat drums.

There's more on p. 57:
     The crowd was clapping, the drums were beating. I was all turned around and could not remember which way we had come. There were three signs indicating different parking areas. The drums thundered. I pushed further into the crowd of people, who were now clapping louder, in time with the drums.
And more on page 58: 

     The Indians had formed two circles, one inside the other, and were hopping up and down. The men danced in the outer circle and wore feather headdresses and short leather aprons. On their feet were moccasins, and I thought again about Phoebe's message: Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.
     Inside the circle of men, the women in long dresses and ropes of beads had joined arms and were dancing around one older woman who was wearing a regular cotton dress. On her head was an enormous headdress, which had slipped down over her forehead.
     I leaned closer. The woman in the center was hopping up and down. On her feet were flat, white shoes. In the space between drum beats, I heard her say, "Huzza, huzza."
Apparently, what 12-year-old Creech saw in 1957 was a dance program put on for tourists. The dancers were, in fact, Native dancers. The crowd of tourists would (not knowing any better) clap along with the drums.

Sal's/Creech's description of dancers "hopping up and down" bothers me.

The dance itself sounds like a Round Dance, which is a social dance. Click on this youtube video to see one being done. (Note: the people in the video are not wearing traditional clothes. But see? They're not hopping.)  I'm not sure how Sal's grandma ended up in the middle, with the Indians dancing around her. That doesn't make sense either. And that headdress she's wearing? Where did she get that? There's no mention of it at all anywhere in the story.

After Wisconsin Dells, they stop at Pipestone National Monument. Sal watches Indians working in the quarry. She asks one if he is a Native American. He says he is "a person" (p. 73), and Sal asks if he is a "Native American person" (p. 73). He replies, "No, I'm an American Indian person." and Sal says that she is, too, "in my blood."

Again (as in the hotel name), Creech, through Sal, shares a view of these different phrases. In this case, she creates a Native character who, presumably, grew up with his Native community (unlike Sal or her mother), and he, like Sal's mother, prefers 'American Indian' to 'Native American.' He validates Sal's mom, and Creech, too.

Sal and her grandparents then smoke a peace pipe with "an American Indian person" and then decide to buy two pipes to take with them.

You can, in fact, buy pipes there that are made by Native people.  I suppose it is possible that a visitor to the monument might find "an American Indian person" sitting outside under a tree smoking a pipe much like someone would smoke a pipe they buy at a cigar shop, but it doesn't quite fit with  how those pipes are typically used by the various tribal nations who use them.

In several places, Sal talks about her mother's love of Indian stories. Here's an excerpt from page 150-151:
   My mother once told me the Blackfoot story of Napi, the Old Man who created men and women. To decide if these new people should live forever or die, Napi selected a stone. "If the stone floats," he said, "you will live forever. If it sinks, you will die." Napi dropped the stone into the water. It sank. People die. 
     "Why did Napi use a stone?" I asked. "Why not a leaf?"
     My mother shrugged. "If you had been there, you could have made the rock float," she said. She was referring to my habit of skipping stones across the water.
That story is similar to a much longer story called "The Blackfeet Creation" that appears on page 145 of George Bird Grinnell's Blackfeet Indian Stories, published in 1913. Grinnell was not Blackfeet. He was an outsider to the Blackfeet, studying them (and others, too, like the Pawnee), and publishing books about them in the early 1900s. I haven't studied his work, so I don't know if it is reliable as a source of stories about the Blackfeet.  In Grinnell's book, Napi created a woman and child out of clay and then made them human. They walked to a river together (p. 148-149):
     As they were standing there looking at the water as it flowed by, the woman asked Old Man, saying, "How is it; shall we live always? Will there be no end to us?"
     Old Man said, "I have not thought of that. We must decide it. I will take this buffalo chip and throw it in the river. If it floats, people will become alive again four days after they have died; they will die for four days only. But if it sinks, there will be an end to them." He threw the chip into the river, and it floated.
     The woman turned and picked up a stone and said, "No, I will throw this stone in the river. If it floats, we shall live always; if it sinks, people must die, so that their friends who are left alive may always remember them." The woman threw the stone in the water, and it sank.
     "Well," said Old Man, "you have chosen; there will be an end to them."
     "Not many nights after that the woman's child died, and she cried a great deal for it. She said to Old Man, "Let us change this. The law that you first made, let that be the law."
     He said, "Not so; what is made law must be law. We will undo nothing that we have done. The child is dead, but it cannot be changed. People will have to die."
I don't (yet) know if Grinnell's account is, in fact, a story that the Blackfeet people tell. It sounds a lot like the Christian story of Creation, so it is possible that the story emerged as a result of missionaries and their influence on the Blackfeet. It is also possible that Grinnell changed the Blackfeet story as he listened and then recorded it according to his perspective.

And, it is possible that Creech found a different version of the story. Hers differs from Grinnell's with regard to who threw the stone. Creech specifically selected a story about life and death, because Sal is struggling to make sense of life and death. At some point, I may return to this particular portion of Walk Two Moons and study Grinnell's work.

Same goes for the story she uses near the end of the book (p. 278):
When I drive Gramps around in his truck, I also tell him all the stories my mother told me. His favorite is a Navajo one about Estsanatlehi. She's a woman who never dies. She grows from baby to mother to old woman and then turns into a baby again, and on and on she goes, living a thousand, thousand lives.
Where, I wonder, did Creech find that story? I found some information about Estsanatlehi in the American Folklore Society's journal (see Memoirs of the American Folk-lore Society, Volume 5, 1897) that says the English translation for Estsanatlehi is Woman Who Changes (p. 34):
The name Estsanatlehi is derived by syncopation from estan, woman, and natlehi, to change or transform. She is so called because, it is supposed, she never remains in one condition, but that she grows to be an old woman, and in the course of time because a young girl again, and so passes through an endless course of lives, changing but never dying.
Note the publication year of 1897. Again, we have an account by an outsider. In this case, it was Washington Matthews, a major in the U.S. Army who later lived amongst the Navajo people, reportedly making friends with them and gaining admittance to ceremonies to which they did not generally admit white people. And again, I may at some point study Navajo texts about Estsanatlehi and compare them to what Matthews recorded.

Like the Napi story that Creech excerpted above, I expect there's a lot more to this Navajo story than is related by Creech. Like the Napi one, it is about life and death. Hence, Creech chose to use it in telling Sal's story.

There's more...  Sal and her grandparents visit the Black Hills in South Dakota, and Sal wonders if her mother hated having white President's faces carved in Sioux Holy Land. She says (p. 179):
    It was fine seeing the presidents [on Mt. Rushmore], but you'd think the Sioux would be mighty sad to have those white faces carved into their sacred hill. I bet my mother was upset. I wondered why whoever carved them couldn't put a couple Indians up there too.
Her choice of the word 'sad' points to the tragic Indian "plight" - the romantic image that Creech is unapologetic for in her speech. That unapologetic stance resulted in a book with a lot of romantic and stereotypical imagery. Creech incorporated a lot of information about identity, too, but it doesn't work--at least for me.

She's an outsider to Native culture, trying to write a story as if she's an insider. But her story is based on outsider's writings, and outsider's understandings, and it doesn't work. Yes, the book won a Newbery Medal, but if the committee had analyzed the Native content, I'm not sure they would have made the same decision. For the committee and all the people who love the book, it seems to me that the Indian content doesn't really matter. It is simply a device, or, a decoration on a story about a young girl coming to terms with life and death. All of this Indian decoration is embraced by readers because readers, too, know little about the life and death of Native people.

In the end, Creech's story unapologietically adds to the already too large body of stereotypical "knowledge" people carry around with them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Elizabeth Bird's Survey of Top 100 Children's Novels, #90 thru #66

A week ago (Feb 10, 2010), I wrote about Elizabeth Bird's survey at SLJ. She asked readers to send her a list of their all time favorite novels. With that info, she's compiling a list, providing quite a lot of information about each book that is on the list of Top 100. On Feb 10, I wrote about two of the books on the list: Indian in the Cupboard, and, Caddie Woodlawn. Today, I'm taking a quick look at books between #90 and #66.

Number 94 is Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom, published in 1930. (Note, April 17, 2010: I'm adding this book today.)
  • On page 16, Roger is "keeping a sharp lookout lest he should be shot by a savage with a poisoned arrow from behind a tree."
  • On page 137, the children come across what they call a "Red Indian wigwam" from which emerges "a very friendly savage".  Ransom's use of "Red Indian" was (is?) common in the United Kingdom.
  • On page 231, Nancy shouts "Honest Injun" .
  • On page 267, Nancy writes that John had "come at risk of his life to warn you that savage natives were planning an attack on your houseboat."
I think I'll have to find some time to study Swallows and Amazons.... 

Number 85 is On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The word "Indian" appears 12 times in the book, most of them about their time in Indian Territory. 
  • On page 143, Mary tells Laura to keep her sunbonnet on or "You'll be as brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?"
  • On page 218, Laura says "I wish I was an Indian and never had to wear clothes!" Course, Ma chides her for saying that, especially for saying it "on Sunday!"
I've written a lot about Wilder's books (see set of links at the bottom of this page), specifically, Little House on the Prairie, which I expect will be in the top tier of Elizabeth's survey. 

Number 78 is Johnny Tremain, written by Esther Forbes, published in 1943.  I'm going to have to reread that one...  I pulled it up on Google books and it looks like Forbes may have done a reasonable job describing the way the colonists dressed for the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773. The popular perception in America (thanks to a lithograph titled "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" done in 1846, 73 years after the event took place) is that the colonists dressed in fringe, face paint and feathered headdresses, but they did not do that. Here's what Forbes wrote in Johnny Tremain about the colonists getting ready (p. 140):
...they started to assume their disguises, smootch their faces with soot, paint them with red paint, pull on nightcaps, old frocks, torn jackets, blankets with holes cut for their arms...
See? No fringed buckskin. On page 141, Forbes writes that Johnny "had a fine mop of feathers standing upright in the old knitted cap he would wear on his head..."

I have notes on this somewhere....  I don't recall red paint and feather caps, but the rest of what Forbes writes matches what I recall. I'm mostly glad to see the accuracy of her description of the disguises, but disappointed when I get to page 143:
"Quick!" he [Rab] said, and smootched his face with soot, drew a red line across his mouth running from ear to ear. Johnny saw Rab's eyes through the mask of soot. They were glowing with that dark excitement he had seen but twice before. His lips were parted. His teeth looked sharp and white as an animals.
The character, Rab, in his painted face, becomes animal like. That is a familiar frame: Indian people and animals, very much alike. And of course, it is wrong.

In her discussion of Johnny Tremain, Bird includes a clip from the 1957 Disney film of the movie. In the clip, the colonists, some in fringed clothes, some in knit caps with feathers stuck into them, some with headbands and feathers, and some with painted faces, sing "Sons of Liberty."

Number 66 is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. On February 5, 2007, I published Beverly Slapin's review of the book here. In a nutshell? Not recommended! [Note, April 16, 2010: Also see my review essay, "Thoughts on Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons", published on Feb. 25, 2010.]

Number 63 is Gone Away Lake written by Elizabeth Enrich in 1957. I did a search of content (used Google Books) and found four uses of "Indian" in the book.

  • Page 141: "Now and then (unnecessarily since they never looked back), he would freeze and stand still as an Indian in the shadows."
  • Page 198: "She just sat there, Baby-Belle did, with her arms folded on her chest staring at Mrs. Brace-Gideon severely, like an Indian chief or a judge or somebody like that."
  • Page 217: "the pale little crowds of Indian pipes and the orange jack-o'-lantern mushrooms that pushed up the needles."
  • Page 756: "in the distance, by the river's edge, a tiny Indian campfire burned with the colors of an opal."

In Gone Away Lake, one of the characters is named Minnehaha, which is from Longfellow. I don't know why she's named that. It is commonly regarded as an "Indian" name, but it is not. We can thank (or blame) Longfellow for so much of the mistaken information that circulates!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Video: Do All Indians Live in Tipis?

Over on the right side of this page, I feature a link to a book called Do All Indians Live in Tipis? I wrote about the book when it came out, and just found a video of the same name at the Library of Congress webcast page.

The video is a lecture given by Edwin Schupman, one of the authors of the book. It is 48 minutes long. Schupman starts by engaging his audience in a "Name that tune" game (he doesn't call it that). The meat of his presentation starts about 20 minutes into the video. He asks pointed and provocative questions about "perpetual ignorance" of Americans when the subject is American Indians. 

Click over to Do All Indians Live in Tipis. Watch. Listen. Think. Do what you can to interrupt the cycle of perpetual ignorance.

Buy several copies of  the book, and host a showing of the video at your library.

Schupman is Muscogee and works at the National Museum of the American Indian. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Elizabeth Bird's survey of Top 100 Children's Novels

A while back, SLJ (School Library Journal) columnist Elizabeth Bird invited her readers to send her a list of their top ten children's novels. She asked them to rank the books, in terms of "biggest impact" and "second biggest" and so on.

She compiled the information she received, and on Feb 8, 2010, she started blogging her findings on her blog, "A Fuse #8 Production." On that day, she presented books #100 through 91. She's done a terrific job presenting the books. Quoting from people who submitted them, reviews of them, criticism, discussion guides, and, providing book covers (some books have had many covers over the years) and links to videos of those that were made into films. As she posts over the next couple of weeks, I'll respond as I can.

In the opening paragraphs to her Feb 8 post, she said there "are heroes and villains" in the list, and she guarantees that

"you will see one book that makes you boo, and another that makes you cheer, perhaps in the same post. There are books included here that I adore and there are definitely books here that I abhor. My job is to never show the difference. So sit back and get ready to complain or cheer in turns. It's totally within your rights."

I don't like her use of "complain." Especially as the flip side of cheer. The word "complain" (for me) has negative connotations. It suggests a whiny orientation that lacks in substance. Instead of thinking about negative criticism, people are prone to wave it off as "politically correct." 

Anyway, it is no surprise that Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks is on this list. Bird quotes Eric Carpenter, one of the readers who submitted his list of top ten books:
My third grade teacher read this one to the class. Three years later I remember scraping my birthday money together to order the 3 book set from Scholastic. I read these books until the covers came off. Rereading this brought me right back to those childhood days when I would challenge myself to read all three in a weekend (cold central NY winters made such feats a necessity.)
I like that Bird provides her readers with links to the Oyate critique of the book, and that she quotes  from the Oyate review.  Here's what Bird used:

"The object here was not to draw an authentic Native person, but to create an arresting literary device. Although the little 'Indian' is called Iroquois, no attempt has been made, either in text or illustrations, to have him look or behave appropriately. For example, he is dressed as a Plains Indian, and is given a tipi and a horse. This is how he talks: 'I help... I go... Big hole. I go through... Want fire. Want make dance. Call spirits.' Et cetera. There are characteristic speech patterns for those who are also Native speakers, but nobody in the history of the world ever spoke this way."  

I wish, however, that she had used the excerpt below instead of, or in addition to, the one she chose (by the way, Bird's post is missing a paragraph break after "spoke this way." Her "School Library Journal ascribed this in part..." are Bird's words and are not part of the Oyate review). Doris Seale wrote the Oyate review, and it it includes an except right out of the book.

He saw an Indian making straight for him. His face, in the torchlight, was twisted with fury. For a second, Omri saw, under the shaven scalplock, the mindless destructive face of a skinhead just before he lashed out... .The Algonquin licked his lips, snarling like a dog... .Their headdresses... even their movements... were alien. Their faces, too—their faces! They were wild, distorted, terrifying masks of hatred and rage.
See the difference? The part Bird used is about stereotypes. That is important information about the book. But, the one I wish she had used is about the way the Indian is characterized as animal-like. I wonder if there were any Native children in Eric Carpenter's 3rd grade New York City classroom? I wonder how they may have felt, reading that passage in the book?

The book in spot #93 is Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink. In discussing Caddie Woodlawn, Bird links to "Reflections on Caddie Woodlawn" posted on American Indians in Children's Literature in March of 2007, where I recount my daughter's experience with the book. Please click on Reflections and read Jeff Berglund's comment.  I saw Jeff just last week. We were both at the American Indian Studies conference at Arizona State University.

Bird includes links for teachers. Among those links is a bibliography of "books on American Indians to help young people develop an awareness of an alternative point of view" and to "broaden cultural understanding."  I looked at the books on there and, while I was glad to see Birchbark House at the top, the point of view it offers is overwhelmed by most of the other books on the list, including a book by Kathy Jo Wargin. If you're interested in a Native critique of Wargin's work, read Lois Beardlee on Mackinac Island Press. Beardslee writes
Lewis’s business, Sleeping Bear Press, produced several books that profoundly offended the local Native American community and received scathing reviews by Native American scholars, including me. Among the offending books are: The Legend of Sleeping Bear (1998), The Legend of Mackinac Island (1999), The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper (2001), The Legend of Leelanau (2003), and The Legend of the Petoskey Stone (2004) all written by Kathy-jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuysen. All of these “Indian legends” were either manufactured by the author and publisher or based upon the historically tainted writings of nineteenth century ethnologist/Indian agent/wannabe-writer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. All are written in the style of Schoolcraft’s nineteenth century syrupy language and all promote nineteenth century stereotypes of Native Americans as simple, docile, primitive people—motifs that were used to justify the usurpation of Native lands and resources through the near extirpation of aboriginal residents.
The bibliography also includes Douglas Wood's The Windigo's Return, a book that Betsy Hearne took to task in "Swapping Tales and Stealing Stories" and one of Paul Goble's books. Goble's books have been soundly critiqued by a leader in American Indian Studies, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. For details, see "About Paul Goble and his books..."

In addition to Birchbark House, the bibliography does have some books that I, too, would recommend. Patty Loew's Native People of Wisconsin is an excellent book that I've not yet written about.

At the end of the Feb 8 post is a link to the next set of books. I wonder what I'll find there?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Editorial: "Sucking the Quileute Dry"

Yesterday's New York Times ran an Op-Ed by Angela R. Riley. She's the director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA. Titled "Sucking the Quileute Dry," Riley's editorial is about the sovereign nation status of Native Nations, and our intellectual and cultural property. She focuses on Twilight and how Stephenie Meyer and the industry that has sprouted around her books violates Quileute sovereignty.

Riley is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma. She has a law degree from Harvard, and, she has served on her tribe's Supreme Court. 

Click over to Riley's editorial at the Times page.  If you're a librarian, print the editorial and post it where your patrons can read it. Librarians and teachers can also set up a time to talk with students about the issues Riley raises.

IF YOU ARE A WRITER, OR AN EDITOR, OR A BOOK REVIEWER...  Study the editorial. Apply Riley's words to your writing, or editing, or reviewing.


If you want to read more on the ways that the Quileute's are portrayed in the series, look over to the bottom of this page. There you'll see several links to posts about the series.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Tony Hillerman

I had an email earlier today, asking if I recommend Tony Hillerman's books.  I've skimmed some of them and didn't like what I read. Though I've not analyzed them, I do not recommend them.

Larry Emerson, Dine (Navajo) said this about Hillerman:

"Tony Hillerman privileged & authorized himself to write about Navajos & in doing so appropriated, re-imagined, and recreated "Hillerman Navajos" at the expense of Diné realities. Hillerman created a new domain [read dominion] of knowledge while cashing in at the same time."
I met Larry a few years ago when he was a post doctoral fellow here with us (American Indian Studies, University of Illinois).  Consider his words " the expense of Dine realities."  Hillerman wrote mysteries that sold well, but what do his books do for the people he wrote about? Glancing at the titles, it is clear he liked writing about sacred aspects of the Dine people, but what are the Dine realities Emerson refers to?  You might read Navajo news media to get a sense of their realities, the things they contend with. Here's some sites to read:

Navajo Nation (tribal website)
Navajo Times.
Navajo Hopi Observer

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Second Post: The POC Challenge

Near the end of my post About the POC Challenge, I wondered if people participating in the POC Challenge are reading critics of color. I posed the question because my research on children's books about American Indians shows that most reviewers do not have the expertise necessary to recognize flaws in the way that authors and illustrators portray American Indians.

This lack of knowledge means that some deeply flawed books get starred reviews, nominated for (and win) awards, and end up on "Best Books" lists. All of this praise means the book is purchased by more people, and the flaws are passed on to more and more readers. Hence, misconceptions and erroneous information flows into the child or young adult who reads the book, and they go on to select and read books whose images of Indians feels familiar to them.  It's a cyclical and burgeoning problem for all of us.

A handful of new and old books that have been discussed here on American Indians in Children's Literature demonstrate the depth and breadth of the problem. I note them below, but start looking around on this blog and you'll find many others.

Arrow to the Sun, by Gerald McDermott, won the Caldecott in 1978.

Bearstone, by Will Hobbs, a popular writer with many books about American Indians.  

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, won the Newbery in 1995.

Take a look at the lists of books discussed on this site (lists are by title and by label). There, you'll find Touching Spirit Bear, Sign of the Beaver, Twilight, Little House on the Prairie...

I thought, at first, that the books eligible for the Challenge were books written by people of color, but I see now that any book with a character of color is eligible, and, based on the book list being generated, the "color" is not limited to the four groups in the United States commonly labeled as "underrepresented" (American Indian, African American, Asian American, Latino/a American). To gain insight to those four populations and books about them, read Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 and Using Multiethnic Literature in the K-8 Classroom. Both are edited by Violet J. Harris.

To focus specifically on American Indians, participants can read my site, but they can also read A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin.

In comments to my first post about the POC Challenge, Thomas Crisp referenced the GLBT challenge. He referenced the work of David Levithan's work on this body of literature, but look for articles by Crisp, too. I like a word Cynthia Leitich Smith used in her comment: Commitment.  I hope the bloggers participating in the challenge become committed to reading criticism, and applying that criticism to their reviews.