Saturday, August 06, 2011

Playing Indian and Catherine Bateson's BEING BEE

A reader of AICL wrote to tell me that the main character in Catherine Bateson's Being Bee plays Indian at one point in the novel. On page 65, Bee puts a feather in her hair:
That made me an Indian so I whooped around for a while and pretended to stalk some buffalo, but then Honey, the dog from next door, spotted me, so she stopped being a buffalo.
Bateson is Australian. Being Bee won the Children's Book Council of Australia Award in 2007. Obviously, Bateson is relying on stereotypes of American Indians that circulate around the world.

Bateson is portraying something that kids do (play Indian). Several weeks ago, I used Survey Monkey to see how common the activity is, not knowing that Survey Monkey's free service only applies to the first 100 responses, which I got within a couple of days.  Survey Monkey would let me see additional responses if I subscribed to their service, which is quite expensive!

I immediately closed the Survey Monkey survey and sent out an email letting people know I'd closed it. Several readers replied, suggesting I use Google's survey option next time. I'm grateful for the suggestion and will look into it.

Reading the 100 responses I got gave me some info about the "play Indian" activity, but it also taught me a bit about constructing surveys. For now, here's a summary.
12 of 100 said they've seen it in the last year. Three provided details. One said it was at a school event at Thanksgiving, and one said it was at a girl scout event and the third one person said it was teens, not young children.

12 of 100 saw it within the last ten years.  One provided details, saying it was at a birthday party for a five-year old.

23 of 100 saw it longer than 10 years ago.

20 of 100 saw it longer than 30 years ago.

33 of 100 respondents said they have never seen a child playing Indian at playtime.  Five said they did see it at a school Thanksgiving event, and two saw it at Halloween.

96 respondents saw the playing Indian activity in the US. Two respondents saw it in Australia and 2 saw it in Canada, with all four seeing it over 10 years ago.

What can we conclude from these responses? I could say that almost 10% of the respondents saw it in the last year. For me, that suggests the activity is common--more common amongst young children than I thought.

I see it at the University of Illinois all the time. Adults put on headdresses to go to Illinois basketball and football games, even though the "Indian" mascot is no longer being used here. There were people in headdresses at the World Cup games. My mother has been ill (her illness is the reason my website was not updated for so long), and as I sat with her in the hospital, I saw a patient watching The Price is Right game show. A contestant (is that the right word?!) was wearing a headdress. And the new fashion trend "hipster" is using a lot of "Indian" motifs...

All-in-all, discouraging.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Buffalo Dusk" by Carl Sandburg

Some years back, I came across "Buffalo Dusk" by Carl Sandburg. The poem is in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children: A Treasury of 572 Poems for Today's Child (1983) selected by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. Here it is:
The buffaloes are gone.
And those who saw the buffaloes are gone.
Those who saw the buffaloes by thousands and how they
     pawed the prairie sod into dust with their great hoofs,
     their great heads down pawing on in a great pageant of dusk,
Those who saw the buffaloes are gone.
And the buffaloes are gone.
Sandburg was wrong, but is that what he thought when he wrote the poem in 1920? How many people, in 1920, thought "those who saw the buffaloes" were gone? It wasn't true then, and it wasn't true in 1983 when Jack Prelutsky chose the poem for the collection... Did Prelutsky think so in 1983? And when Lobel was drawing the buffalo herd that accompanies the poem, did he think so?    

Monday, July 18, 2011

AICL reader on McClure's THE WILDER LIFE

Editor's Note: Today's post is by a Teacher Librarian, NW of Chicago. She writes:

I have spent a long time pondering your comments about the Laura Ingalls Wilder books because, as you can guess, I loved the books when I read them as a child. However, something happened that put everything in perspective for me. I recently listened to the audio book, The Wilder Life: my adventures in the lost world of Little House on the Prairie, written by Wendy McClure. It is a memoir recording her year of visiting all the places Laura had lived and how she felt about the experience. As a Little House fan, I was riveted. I thought that throughout the book, McClure did an adequate job of pointing out Wilder's prejudices when writing about the Indians. However, toward the end of her book, McClure wrote of this incident:
p. 318

I bought a sunbonnet at the museum store, my sixth one.

"I had a feeling you would buy one on this trip," Kara said, as we walked back out to the car. "I bought something, too." She went through her bag in the backseat and pulled out a feathered headband, the kind they used to sell in dime stores for playing cowboys and Indians. "Picture time!" she said.

I started laughing. "Oh my God," I said. "Yes!" We put on our mythical headgear and took pictures of ourselves standing together in the parking lot. It seemed a fitting way to end the trip.
In my mind, the incident was a totally "unfitting" way to end the book. This scene ruined my empathetic feelings toward the author and illustrated how Wilder's stereotypes are still alive and well.

Friday, July 15, 2011

CHICKADEE, Erdrich's next book in BIRCHBARK HOUSE series

Back in May, Louise Erdrich blogged about Chickadee, the next book in the Birchbark House series. In it, Erdrich writes, Omakayas and her family have moved onto the Great Plains:
I realized that for the sake of this book series we had to move there around 1866.  This is a fascinating year for all sorts of reasons, but for the main character, Chickadee, it is a year of unusual adventure.   Some odd things happen to Chickadee.  He challenges a man named Skunk.  He is kidnapped by two brutish louts who want a servant.  He learns to cook a wretched concoction called bouyah.  Chickadee runs away from well meaning but heartless missionaries.  He learns to survive completely alone in the woods helped by his namesake, the chickadee, who teaches him a song that can heal.  There is lots more, including a visit to Saint Paul, the first city he has ever seen, and composed at the time of shacks, pubs, treeless mansions, and lots of trading companies.  
I'm definitely intrigued. In comments, Erdrich says the book will be out in November of 2012. In the meantime, you might want to get the first three and read (or reread) them. Consider getting signed paperback copies from Erdrich's store, Birchbark Books.

The Birckbark House 

The Game of Silence

The Porcupine Year

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Indians in the House" episode of LHOP TV show---deleted or not?!

Many of you may know that I've written about the "Indians in the House" scene of Little House on the Prairie. I don't think I've yet shared what is called a "deleted scene" from the pilot for the television series. Here's the specific segment. It is rather ominous in music and action of the Indians... 

In the book, Laura and Mary are definitely afraid for Ma and Carrie, but the TV segment is especially scary. I don't know if it was cut or not. Comments on the Youtube site say it wasn't. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Anita Silvey recommends LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS

Yesterday (July 10, 2011) at "Children's Book-A-Day Almanac," Anita Silvey featured Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. She writes that the Little House books "remain one of the best-loved stories of childhood."

Best loved story for whom?

Are they "the best-loved stories of childhood" for everyone? Little Town on the Prairie has Pa in blackface. Dawn Friedman addresses it in her post "Pa in Blackface: Confronting racism in our children's books." I don't think everyone would look on this as a "best loved" story. Would you, for example, knowing it has blackface in it, call it one of your best loved stories? (Update, Feb 5, 2013: Added Garth Williams' illustration of blackface, from page 258.) Here's Pa in blackface:

Same thing with Little House in the Big Woods. On page 53, Pa regales Laura and Mary with his days of youth when he'd pretend he was "a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians." Here's the passage where he said that: 
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.'
Would you call a book in which the characters romanticize hunting people one of your "best loved" stories?

And of course, there are multiple problems with Little House on the Prairie. (Scroll down to the "labels" section of AICL and you'll see that I've written about the book several times.)

There is no disputing the love and adoration readers shower on the series, but it is a blind love and a blind adoration that has ramifications for all of us. Thinking of a people as "wild" makes it easier to hunt and kill them. I'm thinking the uncritical embrace of these books is akin to planting seeds that will get watered later when someone deems it in America's best interests to go to war...  

I wish that Silvey would take a moment to give her readers a critical view of the Little House series. In her post about Julius Lester, she writes that Lester and Pinkney's Sam and the Tigers removed "the racial sting" associated with Little Black Sambo. "Racial sting" is a mild way to reference racist stereotypes, but she did acknowledge the problems with LBS. I wish she could do the same with LHOP.

Friday, July 08, 2011


Rethinking Schools is an excellent source of materials for anyone who looks critically at schooling. Their newest item is Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. It has outstanding essays including Herbert Kohl's "The Politics of Children's Literature: What's Wrong with the Rosa Park's Myth."

Essays specific to AICL's content are:

"Why I'm Not Thankful for Thanksgiving" by Michael Dorris
"A Barbie-Doll Pocahontas" by Cornel Pewewardy
"Human Beings are Not Mascots" by Barbara Munson

It also includes "Fiction Posing as Truth," the first short-essay I wrote with a group of Native and non-Native women who worked collaboratively on in-depth study of Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground

There are forty-eight different essays. Forty eight! The book is priced at $18.95 and well worth it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

10th Anniversary of RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME

Click over to Cynsations and read Cynthia Leitich Smith's reflections on Rain is Not My Indian Name. A gorgeous cover that I love to look at, a great story for ten thousand reasons (can you tell I like it?!), and, a hearty congratulations to Cynthia.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tim Tingle, ALA 2011

On Sunday at ALA 2011, I went by the Cinco Puntos booth, hoping Tim Tingle might be there. He was scheduled for a session at 4:00 to talk about the graphic novel, Trickster, edited by Matt Dembecki. He was there and we visited for awhile. It was terrific to hear him extoll American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) and the work I do. When he works with teachers, he tells them to spend a few days at AICL. I'm glad he recommends it.  Well---glad is not the right word... The right word is thrilled.

I'm working on a post about the session itself. The panel included Matt Dembicki, Tim, and another author with a story in Trickster, Michael Thompson. All three delivered remarks I want to share with readers of AICL.

As I write, I'm in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, watching the sun rise. I'm here for a couple of days to do some research in the de Grummond Collection. I read the galleys for a couple of books by Berta and Elmer Hader. There wasn't any correspondence in the Hader files or any notes at all that might give me insight to their thinking as they prepared these two books:

Prior to this trip, I had not read either book. Published in 1962 and 1943, both are told from the perspective of a boy who lives in a city and imagines the life of an Indian boy is better than his own.  In both, the white boy gets to be Indian for a day...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

ROBOPOCALYPSE by Daniel H. Wilson

A friend wrote to me yesterday to tell me about Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse.

I looked it up and am blown away by the story and the author, too. It is a run-away hit in the adult market and Steven Spielberg has got the rights to turn it into a movie. I'm going to get it as soon as possible. I think it has the potential to cross-over and be a big hit in the young adult market, too.

Here's why I'm so psyched about it:

Wilson is Cherokee. A tribally enrolled Cherokee, that is, who grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma (regular readers of AICL know that I write a fair bit about claims to Native identity). Here's an excerpt from an interview from the Amazon page:
One of the most interesting robot battling groups in the book is the Osage Nation in Gray Horse, Oklahoma. You are part Cherokee and grew up in Tulsa. How did your upbringing shape the residents and setting of Gray Horse in the book?
In 1889, the United States government took Indian Territory away from Native Americans and gave it to settlers. Nevertheless, there are still dozens of sovereign Native American governments operating in Oklahoma. These mini-nations have their own governments, police forces, hospitals, jails, and laws – all while co-existing with the US government. Growing up as part of the Cherokee Nation, I always felt that even if the wider world were to crumble, the nucleus of these tribal communities would hold firm. That’s why in Robopocalypse the Osage Nation keeps operating as a bastion of humanity in the face of a total government meltdown. 
And here's a video of Wilson talking about the book. About halfway in, he starts talking about sovereign nations.

Regular readers of AICL will get why I'm so excited. I look forward to reading Wilson's book.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Editor's Note: My critique of Alvin Ho was posted on Saturday, June 18th, 2011. I let the author know about the critique. She responded. I pasted her response below, and followed it with more questions. 

Today (June 16, 2016), I'm adding this: check out Sarah Park Dahlen's "Who is 'The Other?'" in THE EARLY READER IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AND CULTURE, edited by Miskec and Wannamaker, published by Routledge Press. 
SATURDAY,  JUNE 18, 2011

In comments to "Chief Read Heap Much" on June 16, 2011, Wendy submitted a comment about Lenore Look's Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes (2010). The illustrations are by LeUyen Pham. It is pitched at children in 2nd through 4th grade.

Here's what Wendy said:
Have you all read the latest Alvin Ho book? There's an almost astonishing "playing Indian" theme. I can't understand it on multiple levels. Why did the author think this is something kids still do? As an Asian American didn't it seem at all "off" to her? And how on earth did it get past the editors and readers at the publisher? It's a major part of the plot. (My review: 
Her comment prompted me to dash over to the library and get a copy.  Reading the book, I can see why the Alvin Ho books (I think this is the third one) are appealing and getting starred reviews. In writing and format, it feels a bit like Alexie's Absolutely True Diary. By that, I mean it is a quick read, lot of humor, and cool illustrations throughout. See what I mean?

Engaging writing and cool art, but Wendy is right. Below are summary, excerpts, and illustrations. Beneath the summary is my discussion, in italics.


In chapter three, Alvin is going down the street and stops at Jules's house because there's a lot of noise coming from his yard. Alvin peers through the bushes and sees that a bunch of kids (he calls them "the gang") are playing "King Philip's War." Alvin tells us that it was the "war between settlers and natives that nearly wiped out all of Massachusetts a hundred years before the American Revolution wiped out everyone else" (p. 35). Here's the illustration on that page:

The child in the bottom right corner is Pinky, playing the part of King Philip. He tells Alvin that it is "settlers against Indians" and that they're practicing for an upcoming birthday party that Alvin doesn't know about:
"Do you have settler gear?" Pinky asked.
I shook my head no.
"How 'bout Indian gear?"
I shook my head again.
"No wonder you haven't been invited," said Pinky. "No war paint, no moccasins, no fun."
That night, Alvin makes a wish:
"I wish for the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit with fringe," I said, my breath dripping on the glass. "Complete with bow and arrow and the huge feather headdress that makes you look like a giant bird."
In the next chapter, Alvin hopes for the invitation to arrive, but he's sure he actually needs that outfit in order to be invited. He does get an invitation, but it is to Flea's party. She's a girl, and he hates girl birthday parties. His mom wants him to go, and Alvin thinks that if he agrees to go, maybe his mom will get the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit for him:

Having agreed to go to the girl party, he dashes to his room and makes a list of things to do (p. 51):
Get my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Eat breakfast in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Go to school in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Walk down the street in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Sleep in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Play settlers and Indians with the gang.
Go to Hobson's party in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
In subsequent chapters, Alvin continues to think about the party and how much he wishes he could get the outfit and the invitation so he can "play Indian" (p. 85). In chapter 12, he is at the mall with his mom. They are there to buy a present for Flea (her real name is Sophie). At the store, Alvin's mom pulls a box from the shelf and says "Wouldn't she look adorable in this?" and shows him the box (p. 141) :
I was staring straight into the plastic window of the Deluxe Indian Princess outfit with fringe, complete with baby carrier and explorer map and moccasins.
Alvin sees that the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit is on the shelf, too, but they aren't there to get something for him, and they don't buy it. As the story continues, Alvin gives up. In chapter thirteen, Alvin is hanging out more with girls than guys. He doesn't like that he is more aligned with the girls and the girl party than the guys and the guy party. At lunch one day, he is sitting with the girls. They're all talking about Flea's party and what they're going to wear to it. Alvin is furious, as he chews on his goldfish crackers and thinks (p. 144):
A man wears steel-toed boots. A man wears work gloves. A man wears war paint. A man wears an enormous feather headdress that makes him look like a giant bird. A man doesn't talk about what he's going to wear. He just wears it. 
Then, he burps, spraying the girls with chewed up bits of goldfish crackers. The girls are grossed out, and Alvin races out of the cafeteria. Spraying the girls with goldfish, it turns out, is what gets him invited to the party. On the playground, Hobson tells him to bring a present, and to dress as an Indian.

The problem is, he doesn't have the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit. Another problem, it turns out, is that Flea's party and Hobson's party are at the same time. He tells his dad about it, and his dad tells him that he's got a dilemma. Alvin doesn't know what that word means, and he shakes his head. His dad assumes that he's going to do the right thing and go to Flea's party.

The next morning, Alvin gets ready for Hobson's party, and puts on the Deluxe Indian Princess outfit. It doesn't have a headdress, so he makes one out of buttons, ribbons, and one hundred Popsicle sticks.

When the time comes, he heads to Hobson's party. Before he gets there, he runs into the boys in their outfits. Some are settlers in Pilgrim hats and some are Indians. They're practicing for the party because it isn't quite time to be there yet. Alvin joins in the play:
I ducked. Then I gave a loud whoop.
Loud whoops went round and round.
Invisible arrows went up and down.
Indians fell.
Settlers fell.
Indians rose from the dead.
Settlers rose from the dead.
Loud whoops went round and round.
It was terrific!
Then I stopped.
I could hear my dad's voice in my ears. "You know the right thing to do and you do it. No one has to tell you."
Alvin tries to ignore his dad's voice. He thinks of how fabulous his outfit is, and that playing settlers and Indians is great, but he doesn't feel wonderful. Finally, he decides he has to do the right thing: go to Flea's party instead. He takes off the outfit, puts it in a box and goes to Flea's party where, having eaten a lot of ice cream that gives him gas, he "explodes," excuses himself, and goes home. The books ends with "Alvin Ho's Creepy Glossary" of words.


When I got to the glossary, I thought, "This book needs another glossary entry... STEREOTYPE. And, it needs that word stamped in big letters on the front of the book." From the feathered headdress to the war paint to the war whoops and bow and arrow, all the elements of the stereotyped Indian are in this book.

I want you to imagine a Native parent, reading the book aloud to his or her children. They're having a good time, but then, they get to page 35.  

Or, imagine a Native child... All his friends are into a new series about an Asian American kid named Alvin Ho. He decides he'll check it out, too. So he does, and then... he gets to page 35. 

Suddenly, the fun of the book is gone. Suddenly, a stereotyped image of you is in your face... 

What some people see as harmless fun---dressing up as Indians for a birthday party---is not harmless fun. It is stereotypical, and it is racist. I don't often use that word in my writing. Using it puts up a barrier. Nobody likes to see the word, especially if it can be applied to something they have done. 

And what about that party theme.... settlers and Indians?! That's a new one for me, at least in terms of a child's birthday party. What was Look (the author) thinking as she developed the plot? Was she trying to develop authentic play-Indian scenario, and used King Philip's War as the way to bring in some authenticity? 

This might seem an in-your-face thing to do, but I'm going to hashtag Look on Twitter and see if she might explain what she was thinking about as she wrote this book. Did she, or as Wendy asks, her editor and readers at Random House not pause a moment and consider whether or not they ought to go forward with this book? 

In their review, Kirkus gets it right:
Troubling in this volume, however, is that at the coveted boys’ birthday party, everyone is dressing up as Indians and settlers, and Alvin figures his ticket is a "deluxe Indian Chief outfit." Although there is a brief note in the always-creative glossary regarding the colonization of Native peoples’ land during King Philip's War, there is no textual mitigation of a running joke that seems anachronistic at best--readers may well be left feeling uncomfortable with the stereotype. 

I was uncomfortable, and so was Wendy. How about you? 

Update, 4:24 PM CST, June 18th, 2011

See Sarah Park's blog post about the book. (Thanks, Allandaros, for letting me know the link was not working. I've fixed it.) Sarah wrote, in part:
I’m trying to process this as an Asian American scholar of Asian American children’s literature. How are Asian Americans complicit in perpetuating stereotypes of cultures not our own? Why? And from where (or from whom) do we learn these stereotypes? What makes us think it’s okay?It grieves me that we participate in the denigration of already oppressed cultures, whether intentionally or not (intentionality doesn’t matter – impact matters).
Update, 8:26 AM CST, June 19, 2011

Lenore Look responded in a comment. I'm copying it here as well:

Hi Debbie, thanks for alerting me on twitter. your comments deserve a more thoughtful reply than 140 characters, so i'll respond here. I'm terribly sorry that my work offended you. But stereotypes are offensive. My intention, as from the first of the series, is to highlight seldom-mentioned historical events/facts that textbooks and popular historians tend to exclude, many of which seem to involve a collective shame. In this case, it was King Philip's War, in which the Native population of New England, already thinned by smallpox and other European diseases, fought viciously against English encroachment and in turn was mercilessly slaughtered by the settlers, who were also nearly wiped out by the fighting. It happened 100 years before the American Revolutionary War and forged the beginning of a new national identity, separate from England, for the colonists. It was a seminal event for the later rebellion, yet when is this ever mentioned in the elementary classroom? Or mentioned anywhere at all?

As for the stereotyped play and costumes . . . well, when kids play "cowboys and Indians" or "settlers and Indians" (being that this is colonial Massachusetts history), that's how i imagined they would play and dress, based on how it's been done in the past and as recently as the Disney Pocahontas craze in the mid-to-late 90s. Politically correct? No. But do kids play politically correctly? No. Should I perpetuate play that is not politically correct? No. But I would not be TRUTHFUL if I were to fabricate a scenario for them that conforms to our current, enlightened-adult sense of how kids should play if that’s not the behavior that we’ve already passed to them. And good writing is about being honest, regardless of how discomforting it might be, especially when echoed in our children's play.

My job as a writer is not to erase unpleasantness, stereotypes, or even racism from a child's world. My job is to hold a mirror to that world and allow them to look at it more directly than they might otherwise. I believe in eradicating stereotypes as much as you, but eradication does not include erasing our shameful portrayal of Natives in the past and pretending that none of it has been passed down.

Are kids supposed to “get” this? I expect they will get what they need to ask about King Philip’s War and about juvenile behavior encouraged by adult-generated culture and props. If not, then the adults who get it, should start the conversation.

Thank you for your close reading of Alvin, and for starting the discussion.


Update: 3:08 CST, June 19, 2011:

Thanks, Lenore, for taking time to respond to my questions.

Incorporating history into your books is great, but I'm not sure I understand why you chose King Philips War.  You include that war because you think it is fundamental to an American identity. What do you think is the shame in that war? That's where I'm confused. Is it shame over colonization that you think keeps it out of history books? I'm not sure why textbook writers would feel shame at that moment of colonization. They certainly glorify other wars, periods of conquest...

If it is shame over treatment of Native peoples, then, it makes me wonder why you don't feel shame at using shameful stereotypes. You had other choices for a birthday theme. Like a Star Wars one...  Or a Harry Potter one! Something more contemporary. Course, both of those might have trademark issues, but I think you get my point.

I think in being "TRUTHFUL" to the way some kids in the US do birthday parties, you're passing that practice on to your readers as an ok thing to do. Nobody in your book says "wait a sec." You leave it up to kids and adults to say "oh, they shouldn't be doing that." You assume the adults are going to use it as a teaching moment, but most of the reviews don't even mention it. Kirkus did, but on GoodReads, Amazon... very rarely is someone saying anything about it. Maybe you had to cue them somehow, via an author's note?

If you're comfortable continuing this conversation, I'd like to know if you and your editor, or you and your illustrator, talking about those stereotypes. What did you say to each other?

Update, Friday June 24th, 10:06 AM CST

Author Cheryl Savageau tried to submit a comment but Blogger was not working. She submitted to me via facebook. I'm placing it here:

Cheryl Savageau said:

Look is kidding herself if she thinks what she is writing is in any way true. All it shows is her own ignorance and racism - I am not afraid to use that word. I am Abenaki, and from Massachusetts, and kids here do not, and did not, even in my childhood, play "settler and Indian." We played cowboys and Indians, because that's what we saw on TV. Kids these days (I'm using my grandsons and their friends as references) play aliens, Star Wars, and Mario Brothers. Does she want her children's book to start another bout of "play" that would not be tolerated about any other racial group? As for the King Philip's War reference - His name was Metacom. The "Indians" were Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Pawtucket people and yes, some Abenaki people later in the war. She describes the "Indians" as "fighting viciously." Why is that the "Indians" are the ones who are vicious? They were defending their lives, their land, their families from invaders. Did she mention that the English displayed Metacom's head on a stake in Boston for 20 years? Who's vicious? I suggest that this book is vicious in its stereotypes, its exploitation of a piece of history that she dug up to justify a silly, bigoted, and basically untruthful story. I am going to post on Amazon and I urge others to do the same. (I tried to post this on the blog site, but it didn't get posted somehow. Feel free to copy and post it as part of that conversation.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Chief Read Heap Much"

I'm doing some research on Caldecott Medal books that include images of American Indians. Today I'm looking at The Rooster Crows: A Book of American Rhymes and Jingles by Maud and Miska Petersham. Published in 1946, there's one rhyme in it that shows a kid wearing an Indian headdress. I came across an article from the September 29th, 1947 issue of Life magazine...

On page 140 is "Feathers for Reading." The subtitle is "To win Indian headdress, children of an Iowa town wade through a record number of books." The program started when the librarian, Mary Woodward, ran a contest to get kids to read. For each book a child read, they'd get a turkey feather from Woodward. The article highlights Leo, the kid who read the most books and therefore has the most feathers for his headdress. He read 136 books in 1947, and had read 157 the summer before...  That's Leo on the right. The caption for the photo is "His summer's reading, piled on the grass, towers over Leo, although he is 4 feet 4 inches tall. His dangling champion's headdress gives him the right to the title, "Chief Read Heap Much." All these honors are beginning to pall on Leo, however. He is tired of competition and the necessity of always picking out thin books. "Next year I'm going to read thick ones," says Leo.  I wonder how he got that name, "Chief Read Heap Much"? Did he choose it? Did the librarian choose it? Maybe the person who wrote the article?!

And here's Leo reading one of those thin books. The book is Mei Li, by Thomas Handforth. I haven't read Mei Li but am surprised to learn it won the Caldecott in 1939 to serendipitously run into another Caldecott winning book. (Edits due to KT Horning's question in comments.)  I'm wondering if there are critical essays on it? I think Cai may have written about it.  I'm including the photograph here for colleagues studying representations of Chinese in children's picture books.

Leo isn't playing Indian in these photographs, nor does the article say he or any of the other children do that. It was, however, quite the thing-to-do back then...  Philip Deloria's Playing Indian (1998) is a good source for information about playing Indian.

Playing Indian, and, THE LOST ONES: LONG JOURNEY HOME (documentary)

Periodically I have conversations with someone who is determined to figure out how to justify playing Indian. I understand the impetus. Movies, television shows, and many children's and young adult books have shown American Indians in such a way as to cause Americans to think about an Indian way of life as a thing to be desired.

American Indians "lived off the land" and their material artifacts (housing, weapons) were "so cool" and they lived "as one with Mother Nature."

There's powerful allure in all of that, and playing Indian seems a way to put in practice something one has learned about an Indian way of life, or is is seen as a way to honor American Indians in that particular pre-contact period of history.


If you take the stance of a Native person, however, who looks back on Native history, there's more to consider. If, for example, a non-Native person wants to play Indian, and do it "right" (accurately), he or she might choose the Lipan Apache and read books about the Lipan Apache.

My first questions are: What books did you read? Who are they written by? When were they written? Are they accurate? How do you know they are accurate? What time period of Lipan Apache life are you playing? 

I've selected Lipan Apache for a reason. Below is a clip from The Lost Ones: Long Journey Home. It is a documentary about two Lipan Apache children. Their people were being pursued by the army in the 1870s. The two children survived the attack and ended up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. They were among the first students to attend the school. For over 100 years, the Lipan Apaches have told stories about those attacks and about the two children, wondering what happened to them. The Lost Ones is about the children, and how the Lipan Apaches found out that the children ended up at Carlisle. A few years ago, tribal leaders went to Carlisle and visited the cemetery where the children are buried. 

As you watch the video, imagine yourself playing Lipan Apache prior to these pursuits by the army. Lots of people have cultural and religious ways of being that are different from, say, a mainstream American one.  Would you play Jew in the time period before the Holocaust? Would you play African before the slave ships arrived? 

I'm uneasy asking those questions but I'm grasping at straws, trying to get people to see us as people, not as romantic figures of the past.

Playing Indian, no matter how well intended, confines us in a past in a way that prevents people from learning that we're still here, and that we're part of today's society, just like anyone else. Just because we use modern tools does not mean we are no longer "Indian." And, doing all that research to play Indian "accurately" means you're not spending any time studying and thinking about something you could do that would actually be helpful to those Indians you want to emulate and honor. Instead, why not do some research into cases being heard by the Supreme Court this year? An excellent source for that information is Turtle Talk, a blog published by several Native lawyers. Another good source is the Native American Rights Fund.

If you're amongst those who want to play Indian or want to justify playing Indian, revisit that idea as you watch the video.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Amazon deleted my review of Killen's NOT ME!

***Update, 2:41 PM CST, June 14th. Please visit Killen's blog. She and I are talking with each other there about the book, Amazon, next steps...***

***Update, 3:18 PM CST, June 15th. If you tried to submit a comment here or at Killen's blog and were unsuccessful, please write to me directly (dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com). Blogger's comment interface is not working properly right now.


A few days ago, I wrote about Nicola Killen's picture book, Not Me!

I also went to the Amazon website and submitted a review. I did not make a copy of it so don't know exactly what I said.  To the best of my recollection, this is what I wrote. I titled it "Nary a mention of the stereotyped play Indian on the cover?"

The cover of this book sends me away from it.

As an American Indian mother, it is an assault on my child's heritage and identity.

As a professor in American Indian Studies, I might show the cover to my students to discuss stereotyping and anti-Indian imagery.

Playing Indian is like black face. Insensitive. Inappropriate. Racist.

As I noted on my blog that day, "J. Bennett" responded to my review. Amazon automatically sends you an email letting you know when someone has commented on your review. Because of that email, I do have J. Bennett's comment with a time stamp of June 13, 2011, 5:49:56 AM PDT.
J. BENNETT says:
I'm sure an an American Indian Mother you may feel that this book has come over insensitive. But to accuse the book of being all out racist is blatantly wrong. If you had actually bought and read this book you would see that the Indian head dress is just part of a group dress up session including children of white, black and asian origin.
Although the author may have been unintentionally insensitive to you, she has obviously tried hard to be inclusive.
When Amazon deleted my review, J. Bennett's comment went away, too.

I think that Amazon's policy is to delete reviews with obscene language, but I did not use obscene language. As far as I can tell, this is the first time they deleted one of my reviews.

Update: Tuesday, 1:54 PM CST, June 14, 2011

A few hours ago I went back to the Amazon site and resubmitted another review of Not Me! In my resubmission I did not use the word "racist."  Two other individuals have posted reviews that are also critical of the play Indian theme.  None of them have been removed by Amazon.

Update: Wednesday, June 15th, 3:20 PM CST.

Friend and colleague Sarah Park tried to submit a comment but repeatedly received an "error" message. Her comment is in response to "Calizona" on Killen's blog. Sarah posted her comment at her blog. You can read it here: Not Me!

Monday, June 13, 2011

DAUGHTER OF WINTER by Pat Lowery Collins

Daughter of Winter by Pat Lowery Collins is one of those books that a lot of people write to me about. I ordered a copy from the Urbana Free Library in April and read it, making notes as I did. I meant to write about it right away, but the news broke about bin Laden and the use of Geronimo's name for bin Laden, and I set Daughter of Winter aside and am returning to it now.

Here's the product description from the Amazon site:
It’s 1849, and twelve-year-old Addie lives in the shipbuilding town of Essex, Massachusetts. Her father has left the family to seek gold on the West Coast, and now the flux has taken the lives of her mother and baby brother, leaving Addie all alone. Her fear of living as a servant in some other home drives her into the snowy woods, where she survives on her own for several weeks before a nomadic, silver-haired Wampanoag woman takes her in. Slowly, the startling truth of Addie’s past unfolds. Through an intense ancient ceremony, and by force of her own wits and will, Addie unravels the mystery of her identity — and finds the courage to build a future unlike any she could ever have imagined. 
I like the cover. The story? It doesn't work. Glaring problems abound. That "nomadic, silver-haired Wampanoag woman" turns out to be Nokummus, Addie's grandmother who, we're told several times, sits cross-legged. 

  • On page 107, "Nokummus sat cross-legged on a pile of blankets..." 
  • On page 108, "It is time for a story," she said, cross-legged again..." 
  • On page 111, "...we sat cross-legged together inside a large wetu.  
 Why insert "cross-legged" each time? Does it matter? Is it an important detail? Would it have mattered if the first sentence read "Nokummus sat on a pile of blankets..."  and the last one said "we sat together inside a large wetu." 

Let's think about sitting with your legs crossed. I sit that way when I'm sitting on my bedroll when we're camping. I don't do that because I'm an Indian! It just happens to be a comfortable way to sit when you don't have a chair handy. I'd bet that you sit that way, too. It isn't an "Indian" thing to do, but it is definitely associated with Indians...

I don't know how, when, or why "sit Indian style" came into common use. I found an interesting discussion about it, wherein a photographer says that kids today don't know what it means. He asks (in a forum) about the phrase. Reading comments there and elsewhere, it looks like the phrase is dropping out of use. Young children are being taught to sit "criss cross applesauce" or "like a pretzel" instead. Course, adults still use it without pause. A good case in point is Laura Bush, who uses it in her book, Spoken from the Heart. She writes on page 47: "We would stand silently with our binoculars, or sit Indian style, and wait for the birds to swoop down..."

In two other places in Daughter of Winter we read about Nokummus sitting. On page 156 Nokummus "sat down by the fire." Later on page 251, she sits on a stoop.

How do other characters sit? At one point, Addie and John are by a fire. They "sat" as John cooks a rabbit. 

Am I belaboring this point?! Maybe. I'll move on to other aspects of the book that yanked me out o the story...

Like...  the way that Nokummus is described.  From here on, I'll need to distinguish summary from my thoughts. I'll put my thoughts in italics.

In chapter one, Addie walks in the early morning. She sees a cloudy mass that "began to rise into the air, geyser-like, to become a gauzy figure with arms outstretched, long flowing hair, and an aura of golden light" (p. 12). The figure takes on features and then the "cavernous mouth" begins to speak in words "laden with years and intoned like a dirge" (p. 12). It says "I have kept your feather and shell" (p. 12).   

That's pretty dramatic stuff! Scary, too. 

In chapter two, Addie has fallen asleep in her house. Darkness has fallen and she wakes in the dark. Searching for a candle "she passed a closed window, her eyes traveled to the blackness outside it, blackness that was suddenly penetrated by the shadowy specter of a wizened face framed in wild white hair" (p. 20).   

Even more scary! That figure is now outside her house!

In chapter seven, Addie is walking home from school. She sees someone walking along the same path she's on. From "the leather breeches and wildly colored skirt tucked up into her beaded belt" she figures out that it is "the old Wampanoag woman who often appeared throughout the town and its surroundings and always traveled alone" (p. 53).

Addie wonders if the woman speaks English. As she passes by her, Addie says "good day" and the woman reaches out and grabs Addie, who "jumped at the sudden rough hold. It scratched her skin and felt more like the claw of an animal than a human touch" (p. 53). She tries to get away, but when she stops struggling, the woman lets her go. Addie looks at her and "couldn't contain her horror" at the woman's face. "[T]he features sprang at her--the black eyes, the thin lips, a string of small moles beneath the hairline, the wizened cheeks--and she saw again that same face as it had appeared at her window only nights before, framed by hair as white as the snow on the ground" (p. 54).

And even scarier! The figure has now touched Addie!

The woman asks Addie to call her Nokummus. When Addie says "Nokummus" aloud, the woman smiles, "displaying blue and missing teeth" (p. 55).

By the time Addie runs away, I've got a pretty firm image of Nokummus fixed in my mine. She's scary but, she seems to know things about Addie that Addie needs to know, so she hopes Nokummus will help her out when she runs away. But, it is a long time before Nokummus appears because she's been testing Addie's courage and perseverance in the face of struggle. 

When she does appear, Addie has passed the test, and so, Nokummus is intent on turning Addie into the tribal leader that White Moon (Nokummus's daughter and Addie's birth mother) turned away from to marry Addie's white father. 

Nokummus has never gotten over that decision, and ever since White Moon died (when Addie was a baby), Nokummus has been searching for White Moon's grave.

The novel is sprinkled with many Wampanoag words and information. Cooper has obviously done a lot of research, but I think the novel is a good example of how research can still fail to produce a work that is a realistic portrayal of a Native character or life. In all that research, didn't Cooper find stories about Native grandmothers that were kind, caring, women? Were they all intense and obsessive?

To me, this grandmother is a nut. If I think of her as an insane woman, then the novel works. But I don't think that Cooper means us to think of the woman as insane. She's just a Native woman. All the drama around her life might appeal to that uninformed reader, but to me, it just doesn't work.

Another part of the story that doesn't work for me is the naming. Nokummus tells Addie (see page 65) that before White Moon died, she gave Addie the name "Little Red Tree" because "you were a very long baby, very red in the face." I wish that Cooper's book had an author's note that told me where she got that idea of naming. As it is, it just feels to me like one more instance of Indian fakelore.  

The cover of the book is gorgeous. I wish I could say that about the story.  

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Nicola Killen's NOT ME!

This morning, friend and colleague Thomas Crisp pointed me to Nicola Killen's Not Me! One look at the cover, and you know why he wrote to me. He does outstanding work as a scholar and a teacher. In fact, last month Tom won the Marguerite Cogorno Radencich Award as Florida's Outstanding Teacher Educator in Reading for 2011.

Not Me! was published in 2010 by Egmont Books in the UK.

I guess Killen and her editors at Egmont don't know that playing Indian in this stereotypical way is not cool. I'm pretty sure that Killen wouldn't have a kid in black face...  And even if she did, her editors would reject it outright...

Digging around online, I see that its Subjects categories include Social Issues, and Manners & Etiquette. Pretty ironic, eh?  Playing Indian is a social issue! It may seem like harmless fun, and some may characterize it as "honoring" American Indians, but, either way, it isn't harmless and it isn't honorable.

Instead, it contributes to mistaken and erroneous ideas about who American Indians were/are... Honor goes hand in hand with respect. How would you define or demonstrate respect?

Digging around some more, I see (on blog posts and AmazonUK reviews) that young children love it and want it read to them again and again.

Nobody says WTF!!! (Ok, that isn't a polite thing to say, but I'm a bit frustrated reading all the comments about "how wonderful" it is...) 

I'm tagging this as not recommended.

Update: Monday, 8:12 AM CST, June 13, 2011

I submitted a comment yesterday to Killen's blog. She replied, and I've replied. If you're interested in the developing conversation, here's the link: Show and Tell: The Picturebook Makers.

I also submitted a comment to the Not Me! page on the Amazon website. It generated a response from "J Bennett" who also submitted a review saying:

"I love this book. Just the perfect gift for any little ones that you may know. I wish I had more nephews and nieces to buy this for! Cute and fun in equal measure!"

I don't know if she submitted her review before or after reading mine.

Friday, June 10, 2011

WORSE THAN ROTTEN, RALPH by Jack Gantos and Nicole Rubel

As I move out of my campus office, I'm finding books I've meant to write about...

Did you read Worse than Rotten, Ralph (1978) by Jack Gantos and Nicole Rubel? It is about a cat named Ralph who hangs out with some alley cats and gets into trouble.  I don't think it went out of print. Thirty years later, it is still going strong... even available for your Kindle! It is an engaging story.  Mischief-making is a lot of fun to read about. 

Below is a page from inside, after Ralph meets up with the alley cats. The text on the facing page reads:

"To the park!" ordered the leader. Ralph and the alley cats climbed up into a tree and knocked hats off the passers-by. Ralph knocked off almost as many hats as the other cats.

See the striped cat in the left corner? In a headdress? I guess that alley cat has taken the headdress away from someone hawking a Wild West Show. See him (her) below that cat? With arms upraised, holding a hatchet (tomahawk?)?

NOTE: A headdress is not a hat. Like a yarmulke, it is worn for specific events and ceremonies.

Reading Jack Gantos: An Author Kids Love (Parker-Rock, 2002), I learned that Gantos wrote the text, and Rubel did the illustrations. They were living in Boston at the time. Was there a Wild West show in Boston around then?! On Flickr I found a photograph taken in 1930 of a Wild West Show in Boston... I wonder what prompted Rubel to include the Wild West performer in the illustration?

Parker-Rock says that school librarians chose Worse Than Rotten, Ralph as one of the best books of the year. There are eighteen books about Rotten Ralph.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work. --Debbie

This is the Australian cover for Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian! Wow! It does what Scott Andrews suggested yesterday in his comment to my post about the original cover and one created by a teen reader.

This cover-conversation started on the yalsa-bk listserv when Joy shared the cover the teen created. This morning (reading the yalsa-bk discussion via digest), I read Lucy's email with the Australian cover. She said that basketball isn't big in Australia, so, she didn't think a cover with a basketball would work there.

Doing a search in Google images, it looks like this cover is also the one used in New Zealand. I'm wondering if it is available anywhere in the U.S.?

Notice, too, the comment from Neil Gaiman? It says "I have no doubt that in a year or so it'll be winning awards and being banned."

In my search of covers, I also found a couple of others. This one, with the white background, is the copy I got. It is the cover used on the ARC (advanced reader copy):

This one is for the audio book:

This one, I gather, is the collector's edition. The website with this cover says it is "beautifully designed with a nifty new look that includes a foil-stamped, die-cut slipcase and 4-color interior art." 

And here's a page of that 4-color interior art:

Interesting all around...

Update, 7:20 CST, June 9, 2011

I sent out a request, asking colleagues to point me to additional covers. Thanks, Alison in the UK, for these from Amazon!

The editors for this version are Gunthild Porteous-Schwier and Ingrid Becker-Ross.  

This one doesn't list editors but there is a colon after the title, followed by "Lekturen Englisch."
I clicked on the look inside option. Inside is an "About the Author" page that is not in the U.S. editions I have on my shelf.  The text in this version is in English, but along the margins are numbers that function like footnotes to notes included at the bottom of the page.  The author's note says that Alexie was "often teased and bullied by other children on the reservation." At the bottom is a note that says:
to tease and bully hanseln, tyrannisieren
I think that language is Dutch.

I'll add other titles as I learn of them. 


Update, 5:38 AM CST, June 10, 2011

Melanie in the UK pointed me to the French cover. See the shadow image on the wall? See the feather? Suggesting his Native identity is a shadow...  It would be fascinating to collect the thoughts and decision making process of the individuals who created the new covers.

John in Illinois suggested a search of Amazon UK. I did so, and found this one. No accompanying info on language, editors, etc... [Update: 6:26 AM CST, June 10. Sarah on child_lit says the language is Japanese.]

Mary in North Carolina pointed me to another cover for the audio book:

Using WorldCat, I found the Spanish version:

I think this is German (please let me know if I'm wrong):

Here's a book talk of Das Absolut:

Update: 9:08 AM CST, June 13, 2011

Malin in Sweden wrote to point me to the cover used on the Swedish translation:

Cammie submitted a comment (below in comments) directing me to another cover for the French translation:

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Nothing quite like starting a new novel and running into 'native as in born here, not savage' on the first page.

The book is What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci.

Teen-created cover for Alexie's PART-TIME INDIAN

Editors Note on Feb 25, 2018: Please see my apology about promoting Alexie's work. --Debbie

On the yalsa-bk listserv, a librarian in California wrote that some books are a hard sell to students because they have unattractive covers. Her example is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Here's the cover:

I love the cover. For me, it reflects the narrow way that a lot of Americans see American Indians. Not as people, but as toys in a cowboy and Indian context.  But I am a Pueblo Indian woman. My perspective is different from, say, the students in Joy's library.  One of her students created a new cover for the book. Here's the cover, available at Joy's wiki:

Cassie (another subscriber) says the book cover is great because the basketball and the geometry book speak directly to a teen reader, and that the necklace on the book "adds a touch of the unknown."

It would be interesting to find out which cover appeals to whom. I'm definitely going to ask my nephews on the reservation to tell me which one they'd pick up first... I'll let you know what they say.

What do you think? Which one do you prefer? Which one do you think teens would prefer?

Update, 11:44 AM CST, June 8, 2011
Below are comments I receive on my facebook posts, and, by private email:

Martina, Dine (Navajo) said her teens picked up the book on their own last summer. The cover didn't turn them away. Their actions suggest they were drawn to the book because of the cover.

Susan in Oklahoma works with Creek, Euchee, and white students in their Summer Reading Program. She asked the group and says that they "all liked the original cover best."