Sunday, April 18, 2010

Portrayals of American Indians in SLJ's 2010 "Top 100 Children's Novels" - compiled by Elizabeth Bird - PART ONE

In his July/August 2009 editorial in Horn Book Magazine, Roger Sutton poses a question about eligibility for the Coretta Scott King Award. I was looking at Horn Book's articles online, trying to find Neil Gaiman's speech (the one he gave when he won the 2009 Newbery). I was doing that because I'd just read an interview with Gaiman, in which he said something that surprised me, and I wondered if he repeated it in his Newbery speech. He did not.  Here's what he said in the interview:
"The great thing about having an English cemetery is I could go back a very, very, very long way. And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you’ve got a few dead Indians, and then you don’t have anybody at all, unless you decide to set it up in Maine or somewhere and sneak in some Vikings.”

I blogged that remark and provided some context for how I interpret it, too. [Update, April 18, 9:00 PM---Mr. Gaiman responded, clarifying his remarks, so please do go read what he said.] I'm reading his words after having spent the better part of the previous 24 hours studying (again) the ways that American Indians appear in Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels. I conclude that the ignorance on display in the Top 100 novels is alive and well---frighteningly so---in Mr. Gaiman. While he exhibits ignorance about American Indians in that remark, his book (at #80 on the list)  does not actually have anything to do with American Indians. Neither does L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. It is #40 on the list. Baum, however, was outright racist in the editorials he wrote for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Here's an excerpt from the editorial dated December 20, 1890:
"The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the gory of these Grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism."
Turning, now, from ignorance and racism of authors, to portrayals of American Indians in Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels. Here's my list (see notes at bottom):

#99 - The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks, published in 1980
#94 - Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome, published in 1930
#90 - Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan, published in 1985
#87 - The View from Saturday, by E. L. Konigsburg, published in 1996
#85 - On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1937
#78 - Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, published in 1943
#68 - Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, published in 1994
#63 - Gone Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enrich, published in 1957
#61 - Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli, published in 2000
#59 - Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, published in 2003
#50 - Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell, published in 1960
#46 - Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, published in 1961
#42 - Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1935
#41 - The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, published in 1958
#34 - The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis, published in 1995
#31 - Half Magic, by Edward Eager, published in 1954
#25 - Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, published in 1868/1869
#24 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, published in 2007
#23 - Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1932
#17 - Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, published in 1990
#16 - Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, published in 1964
#13 - Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, published in 1977
#1 - Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White, published in 1952

If I studied the Library of Congress info for these books, I think only one---Julie of the Wolves---would be categorized in some way as having to do with Native people. None of the authors above is known to be an American Indian, with the possible exception of Wilson Rawls. He said his mother was part Cherokee. He does not assert that identity for himself.

In a video interview, Elizabeth Bird talked about the lack of diversity on her list. There, she talks about how she developed the list. It was a tremendous amount of work, and I'm grateful to her for doing it. Her list provides us with a snapshot that is worth mulling over, for lots of reasons. My particular lens, of course, is American Indians. At 2:48, Elizabeth notes that the list lacks diversity.

It lacks diversity, I agree. Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Richard Van Camp---none of the more successful Native writers are on the list. But overall, it does not lack for portrayals of American Indians.

I say that in jest, of course, because most of those portrayals are in some way, stereotypical or biased. If you are a librarian, and you use this list to build your collection, you will not be providing your readers with a single worthy image of American Indians. A few of them are innocuous---like the Indian blanket in Charlotte's Web---but most are problematic. From "Honest Injun" to sitting "Indian style" to hunting Indians, there's a lot to say.

In the coming days I will work with my notes and develop some observations, but I am pasting the notes below and invite your thoughts. (I apologize in advance for inconsistencies in style and format of presentation. Some of what you'll find was posted before to American Indians in Children's Literature.) If you use some of this info for something you write, please cite this blog as the source of your information.



Number 99 is The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, published in 1980. See Feb 10, 2010.

Number 94 is Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom, published in 1930.
  • 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 93 is Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, published in 1935. I wrote about it on Feb 10, 2010

Number 90 is Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, published in 1985. On page 17 is "Indian paintbrush".

Number 87 is The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg, published in 1996. Early in the book, there is a discussion of what constitutes diversity. Mrs. Olinski tells Mr. Rohmer that the Academic Bowl team includes "a Jew, a half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian." (p. 22). Mr. Rohmer tells her the first three don't count, and that the proper term for the Indian is "Native American".  (The Indian on the team is East Indian.) 

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 73 is My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, published in 1959. The word "Indian" appears on six different pages.
  • On page 22, Sam writes that he read that river birch "has combustible oil in it that the Indians used to start fires."
  • On page 31, he remembers that Indians made dugout canoes with fire.
  • On page 43, he refers to feathers in an Indian quiver.
  • On page 65, Sam has pancakes that are flat and hard, which he imagines Indian bread is like. 
  • On page 108 is a reference to "playing cowboys and Indians."
  • On page 141, it is springtime, but aspens and birch trees "were still bent like Indian bows."

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!

Number 61 is Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, published in 2000.   On page 10, Spinelli writes that Stargirl wears outrageous clothes to school. Among them is "An Indian buckskin." 

Number 59 is Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, published in 2003.   On page 206, Flatnose tells Basta that it will be hard to find Meggie, Mo, Elinor, and Dustfinger's trail in the dark. Flatnose replies "Exactly!" and "We're not bloody native trackers, are we?" 

Number 50 is Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, published in 1960.  I have not yet read this...  And that is a huge problem, given its status... 

Number 46 is Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, published in 1961.  

  • On page 10, "The land we lived on was Cherokee land, allotted to my mother because of the Cherokee blood that flowed in her veins." 
  • Page 43, "I reached way back in Arkansas somewhere. By the time my fist had traveled all the way down to the Cherokee Strip, there was a lot of power behind it.
  • On page 143, where Rubin says "A long time ago some Indians lived here and farmed these fields."
  • On page 254, Billy recalls that he "had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred."
According to Bird, much of the book is based on Rawls childhood in Scraper, Oklahoma where he lived until he was 15 or 16. Given his birthyear (1913), he was in Oklahoma from 1913 to 1928 or 1929. Scraper is in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, and is near Tahlequah, which is where the Cherokee Nation's offices are located. I was surprised, on reading Scholastic's guide for the book, to learn that Rawls's mother, Winnie Hatfield Rawls, was part Cherokee. The guide says (page 6):
"...she had been given some land in Oklahoma by the federal government. (The United States gave land to some Native Americans who had been displaced from their original land.)"
Gave?! Gave?!   Nope. The guide is referring to the process by which the United States government forcibly moved several Indian Nations from their homelands TO what came to be called Indian Territory, and then, took that land from them, too, through acts passed by Congress that were designed to break up their identity as Native Nations and allot them parcels of land.

But going back to the book itself, Rawls, who (if the guide is correct) was part Cherokee. It seems to me he was not at all familiar with that identity. He has the character, Rubin, saying "A long time ago some Indians lived here...." Was Billy part Cherokee? Maybe he was hiding that identity. Maybe Rawls and his family hid that identity. The violence inflicted on Native people during that time prompted many to hide it...  I'm curious about the legend, too. I wonder if that is a story from the Cherokees oral tradition? And I wonder why, when Billy went to Tahlequah to get the puppies, he doesn't mention any Cherokees there?

Number 42 is Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Published in 1935, I've had a lot to say on American Indians in Children's Literature about the book. Scroll down to the bottom and see the set of links, or, look over in the sidebars...

Number 41 is The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, published in 1958. Given its setting (1687, in Connecticut), there are references to fights with Indians, fights with Indians and wolves, and Indian attacks (see pages 40, 51, 59, 145, 187, 191, and 192).

Number 34 is The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.
  • Page 50: "...looked like we were in the Wild West and I was a wagon train and Byron was the Indians circling, waiting to attack
  • Page 88: "This looked like the Indians circling the wagons again, but this time it was Byron who had to be the white people!"

Number 31 is Half Magic by Edward Eager, published in 1954. On page 45, the children are approached by a "ragged Arab" to whom Martha says "How!" Mark hisses to her, under his breath "What do you think he is, an Indian?"

Number 25 is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, published in 1868 and 1869.
  • On page 201, "Laurie opened the parlor door and popped his head in very quietly. He might just as well have turned a somersault and uttered an Indian war whoop, for his face was so full of suppressed excitement and his voice so treacherously joyful that everyone jumped up..."
  • On page 245, "It was a pictorial sheet, and Jo examined the work of art nearest her, idly wondering what unfortuitous concatenation of circumstances needed the melodramatic illustration of an Indian in full war costume, tumbling over a precipice with a wolf at his throat, while two infuriated young gentlemen..."
Number 24 is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in 2007.  Reading it aloud with my daughter when it came out, we surprised when we got to page 216. At that point in the book, Harry is looking at a photograph of Albus Dumbledore's family. We were surprised to read:
"The mother, Kendra, had jet-black hair pulled into a high bun. Her face had a carved quality about it. Harry thought of photos of Native Americans he'd seen as he studied her dark eyes, high cheekbones, and straight nose, formally composed above a high-necked silk gown."

Number 23 is Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1932. I wrote about this on March 19, 2010, quoting the passage from the book where Pa, as a kid, played that he was hunting Indians. Here's the specific passage (from page 53), but do go read my entire entry on that day.
"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.' 

Number 20 is The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, published in 2005.
  • On page 171: "It was one of those weird roadside curio shops that sell lawn flamingos and wooden Indians and cement grizzly bears and stuff like that.

Number 17 is Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, published in 1990.
  • On page 80, a kid sits "Indian-style" and, 
  • On page 150, John tells Maniac what he imagines: "the blacks sweeping across Hector one steaming summer night; torches, chains, blades, guns, war cries; marauding, looking, overrunning the West End; climbing in through smashed windows, doors, looking for whites, bloodthirsty for whites, like Indians in the old days, Indians on a raid... That's what they are, Giant John nodded thoughtfully, "today's Indians."
Number 16 is Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, published in 1964.
  • On page 4, Harriet and Sport talk about what they will be when they grow up. Writing about character names and professions in her notebook, she says "You've got to have a doctor, a lawyer---" and then, Sport interrupts, saying "And an Indian chief."
  • On page 96, Ole Golly blushes when Mr. Waldenstein calls her attractive. The text reads "The crimson zoomed up Ole Golly's face again, making her look exactly like a hawk-nosed Indian. Big Chief Golly, Harriet thought, what is happening to you?"
Number 13 is Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, published in 1977. This is from page 128:
After lunch, they trotted through the drizzle to the Smithsonian to see the dinosaurs and the Indians. There they came upon a display case holding a miniature scene of Indians disguised in buffalo skins scaring a herd of buffalo into stampeding over a cliff to their death with more Indians waiting below to butcher and skin them. It was a three-dimensional nightmare version of some of his own drawings.

Number 1 is Charlotte's Web by E. B. White, published in 1952. The word "Indian" appears twice, both times in reference to a blanket that Lurvy won.


What Neil Gaiman said...

Oct 10, 2010 Note: If you've reached this page by following a link from Neil Gaiman's "Blog-on-a-train" post, I invite you to read my two responses to his post:
Friday, October 8: "Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians"
Sunday, October 10: "Part II---Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians"


In a 2008 interview about his The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman said
"The great thing about having an English cemetery is I could go back a very, very, very long way. And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you’ve got a few dead Indians, and then you don’t have anybody at all, unless you decide to set it up in Maine or somewhere and sneak in some Vikings.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Over the last few days, I've seen a few references to a new series of graphic novels by a Swampy Cree (First Nations, Manitoba) writer, David Robertson.  I read an article about him in the Winnipeg Free Press (posted April 8, 2010, by Trevor Suffield, titled "Graphic novelist feels power of responsibility in latest offering"). In it, Robertson talks about his first graphic novel, titled The Life of Helen Betty Osborne, and that it is being used in some schools in Winnipeg. Below is a book trailer for the novel (link to youtube, if you can't see the video below:

Here's another video about the novel (link from youtube:

I've ordered The Life of Helen Betty Osborne and look forward to reading it. I'll also get a copy of Stone, the first book in the "7 Generations" series Robertson is working on. Here's the book trailer for Stone (here's the link if the video won't play:

Robertson's books are published by Portage & Main Press, who also published In Search of April Raintree.

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.