Friday, October 08, 2010

Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians"

In April of 2010, I happened across an interview Neil Gaiman gave, in which he said he didn't use an American graveyard for The Graveyard Book because an American graveyard would only have "a few dead Indians" in it.  (Note: Before you rush down to comment on what I say here in this post, please read this entire post, the original post "What Neil Gaiman said" and the second one "Following up on What Neil Gaiman Said.")

I wrote about the remark on April 18 in "What Neil Gaiman said" and Pam Noles Kynn wrote on her LiveJournal about what I wrote. Suddenly, words were flying about the internet, saying I and/or Pam Noles had called Gaiman racist. 

His fans, angry at me and Pam Kynn, began inundating American Indians in Children's Literature with comments in his defense.

Meanwhile, he smoothed things over with Pam Noles Kynn and told me he would write something more about it on his blog when he found some time to do so, which was yesterday (October 8). At his blog, he wrote:
Over at Debbie Reese correctly called me out earlier this year on something particularly stupid and offensive I said last year when I was asked at ABA about why I hadn't set The Graveyard Book in the US. I think I mostly was trying to answer with my Author Head rather than my Being Interviewed Head -- trying to describe how I perceived my potential cast of characters in a European Style graveyard in a small US city (like the UK one in The Graveyard Book). I remember thinking at the time that it was a remarkably stupid thing to have said, but stupid things come out of your mouth when you're being interviewed, and you press on.

I was put out of sorts by Deb's initial post (mostly because I was reading it going "but that OBVIOUSLY wasn't what I meant"), and was idiotically grumpy on Twitter, but when I was called on it (by Pam Noles), and finally looked at the actual words recorded, I realised that people were perfectly sensibly taking what I said to indicate that I thought that a) the US was pretty much unpopulated before the arrival of the white colonists in the 17th century, and/or that b) I was being dismissive of the slaughter of Native Americans, or simply that c) Native Americans were somehow inconsequential in the history of the Americas. (None of which was my intention. But intentions only take you so far.) And you don't use a phrase like "dead Indians" without summoning, wittingly or unwittingly, the shadow of the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian".

People have asked how I would have felt about the phrase "a few dead Jews" in the same place in the interview, which made me feel additionally guilty, as one of the things I missed about The Graveyard Book was that I didn't actually put any Jews in my graveyard. I wanted to, but couldn't make the history and the burial customs work.

Probably I should write a Graveyard Book story with some secretly buried Jews in it, and some dead Native Americans a very long way from home.

Anyway, apologies to all concerned, particularly to Debbie Reese.

People are glad that he finally wrote about his remarks in that interview. I am, too, but I wasn't after an apology. I did want him to address the ease with which such a remark could be made and that the remark would go unchallenged for months and months (the interview took place in October of 2008; I came across it in April of 2010).

To his credit, Gaiman did reference "the only good Indian" phrase, but his source has its own set of problems. If you clicked on the link, you were taken to an entry at Trivia There, you read that the phrase originates with General Sheridan, but that information is incorrect. More reliable than Trivia is a 1993 article by Wolfgang Mieder. Titled "'The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian'": History and Meaning of a Proverbial Stereotype" Mieder's article was published in the Journal of American Folklore. (Send me an email request and I'll send you a copy.) Mieder carefully traces the phrase and its use. I cite Mieder's findings in a chapter I wrote about its use in Little House on the Prairie. The phrase, by the way, was not in common use during the time Laura Ingalls and her family were in Indian Territory.

Just prior to the apology line, Gaiman says that he should write a Graveyard Book story with some dead Native Americans that are far from home. He could, in fact, because many Native peoples ended up in England. Some by force (Squanto) and some by choice (Pocahontas) and Native people who toured the world as cast members in Wild West Shows. Some died there (Squanto made it back; Pocahontas did not).  If you're interested in a novel about a Native man in the Wild West Shows, read The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch. It isn't meant for children, but could be used in high school English classes. There's an interview with Welch here.
Once this post is uploaded, I'll tweet the link. It may or may not bring closure to this particular episode, but I do hope that Gaiman's readers, friends, colleagues, and editors (as well as anyone else who followed this episode) come away with a more thoughtful reflection on the ways that we speak---intentionally and not---about American Indians.

Final comment added at 3:24 after initial upload:

Thanks, Neil, for being willing to reflect on the interview and your response to my initial post about it. And, a heartfelt thanks for acknowledging your reaction and emotion, and, your understanding of a perspective that is not your own. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Garth Nix and his thinking about to/not to write about indigenous peoples. That sort of public reflection from him and you has great potential to move the literature itself forward to a place that respects American Indian and indigenous peoples worldwide, and our concerns.

Update: October 9, 2010, 7:11 PM

I read ithiliana's entry at her LiveJournal and see that I've made an error above. I confused Pam Noles and Kynn.  On realizing the error, I crossed out Pam Noles above and inserted Kynn.  I'm also working on a stand-alone post about ithiliana's analysis.

Update: October 10, 2010, 10:55 AM

I've followed up with another blog post, "Part II --- Neil Gaiman on "a few dead Indians" because I was holding back yesterday, unsure of how to say all that I wanted to say. ithiliana's analysis (noted in my first update above) helped me get my thoughts together.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Scholastic, Joseph Bruchac, and the out-of-print status of HIDDEN ROOTS

A few weeks ago, I posted news that Joseph Bruchac was going to bring his out-of-print Hidden Roots back into publication by publishing it with his own press.

Earlier today I learned from him that Scholastic will not revert rights to him so that he can reprint Hidden Roots. He was told that Scholastic will continue to make it available to the school market through book clubs, but that means you and I can't get it (unless we have access to a school book club and the book is actually listed in the new catalog each month.)

From Joe, I also learned that his previously positive relationship with Scholastic has changed drastically. This happened when the editor he worked with for years left Scholastic. Since then, Scholastic has been slow to respond to his questions and has not kept him informed of the status of his books as had been done in the past. He was not told, for example, that Hidden Roots or Geronimo were out of print and that Scholastic has no plans to reprint them.

How to make sense of this, I wonder... 

Were those two books not money-makers for Scholastic? Scholastic is, after all, a business that wants to be profitable, and, it wants books that will sell.  So.... what does Scholastic offer in the way of books about American Indians? Or books written by American Indians?

I went to their site and searched. I found these books when I searched on "Native American."

The Journal of Jesse Smoke, A Cherokee Boy. Hmm... No author listed on the website. I dug around and found out the author's name: Joseph Bruchac! The Journal of Jesse Smoke is in the "My Name is America" series of historical journals that Scholastic has been publishing for several years now.  It was preceded by the "Dear America" series of historical diaries that featured female protagonists. (The "My Name is America" series is historical fiction journals featuring male protagonists.) Anyway, when the Dear America series first got started, Scholastic did not include the author's name prominently on the books. Many readers thought they were actual diaries. The reading community wasn't happy with being misled that way, and so, Scholastic started adding author's names to the book spine (not sure about the covers).  I guess they didn't think it necessary to do that on the website? Or, did they revert back to the misleading style of packaging the books? I haven't read The Journal of Jesse Smoke.

A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park. I don't think there is anything in it about American Indians. I don't know why it came back in the search.

The Starving Time: Elizabeth's Jamestown Colony Diary. As with Jesse Smoke, no author's name is provided on the website, but the author's name (Patricia Hermes) IS on the cover.  I haven't read it, but given its setting, I'm guessing Elizabeth had some run-ins with Indians... 

Greetings from the Fifty States: How They Got Their Names, by Sheila Keenan and Selina Alko. This book was probably scooped up in the search because a lot of states' names are Native words.

The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, by Paul Goble. Originally published by Simon & Schuster. This won the Caldecott when it came out in 1979. Goble is not Native, but has published a great many books about American Indians. Some---especially his Iktomi stories---have been met with strong objections from Elizabeth Cook-Lyn and Doris Seale. I've got to look into The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses. From everything I can find (online), there is no mention of a tribe. This is a generic "Native American" story. And, on the Scholastic website, on the Discussion Guide, one suggestion is to "Have the class leaf through the book's illustrations to find symbols that they readily associate with Native Americans (e.g., arrows, feathers as hair ornaments, tipis, men with long, braided hair, etc.). Wow! Children can, in fact, associate all those things with "Native Americans"----but if the kids come to think (as many do) that all Indians live in tipis, then, that exercise is a problem, and, it points to the problems with a generic "Native American" story...

Dear America: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, by Kathryn Lasky. I haven't read this book, but maybe I should! The description on the Scholastic page says that the protagonist wants "more than anything" to meet and befriend a Native American...  And then "Her wish comes true when she meets Squanto..."

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Native story, Native writer, award-winning book.

The First Thanksgiving, by Garnet Jackson. This looks like one of those wonderful (not) stories that doesn't name the tribes (Wampanoag, for example) who encountered the Pilgrims. Instead, it is "Native Americans" and Pilgrims...

If You Were at the First Thanksgiving, by Anna Kamma. Based on description provided, it's the same-old-same-old lovely (not) story...

Saving the Buffalo, by Albert Marrin. His previous books about American Indians were a mess.

Of all those, I'd order two (Jesse Smoke and Diary) if I was interested in Native stories by Native writers.

But consider how many Pilgrim/Indian stories are in this set! And, how many non-Native writers presenting---explicitly and implicitly---outsider perspectives on Native Americans! It really seems to me that Scholastic ought to bring Hidden Roots and Geronimo back into print. I'm guessing, though, that they're catering to the public, that they are after the dollars that those Thanksgiving stories bring into their coffers...

Come on, Scholastic!  Bring Hidden Roots back into print! Or, give Bruchac the rights to do it! The book is discussed in several children's literature textbooks. It won the award given by the American Indian Library Association!

I'm going to write to Scholastic and ask why they aren't going to keep it in print. They've got an online form to use, if you're interested in writing as well.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Downloadable PDF "Selecting Children's and Young Adult Literature about American Indians"

Earlier today I made a downloadable two-page document called "Selecting Children's and Young Adult Literature about American Indians." It includes a few short introductory paragraphs and the three "top ten" lists (by grade level) shown at the top right of American Indians in Children's Literature.

You can print and use it as needed, without writing to me for permission.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Books by and about American Indians: 2009

Each year, I rely on CCBC Choices to provide me with statistics about the number of children's books about American Indians and by American Indians published in the previous year. Each year, I add to the table from the previous year. It's not a spiffy-looking graphic, but the info is important!

Year---Number of bks---About Amer Ind---By Native writer and/illustrator


As CCBC is careful to note:
These statistics represent only quantity, not quality or authenticity. A significant number—well over half—of the books about each broad racial/ethnic grouping are formulaic books offering profiles of various countries around the world. Additionally, the number of books created by authors and illustrators of color does not represent the actual number of individual book creators, as some individuals created two or more books.
What are the 33 books about American Indians? And who are the 12 authors/illustrators (keeping in mind that the number is not 12 different authors or illustrators)? I'll need to do some research to find out what books they received. Reading their website, I see one of the books they received is Joseph Bruchac's Night Wings. I haven't read it yet.