Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer/Owls See Clearly at Night

As I watch the snow fall outside, I remember a book that I presented in Chicago last January at the Chicago Metro AEYC (Association for the Education of Young Children) meeting. That book is Julie Flett's Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer/Owls See Clearly at Night, published by Simply Read Books. Its subtitle is L'alphabet di Michif/A Michif Alphabet.

Flett is Metis. Her language, Michif, has prominence in the book. For example, on the 'A' page, she's got the letter 'A' and "Atayookee!" Beneath "Atayookee" is the phrase "Tell a story", which is what Atayookee means. That pattern continues throughout the book. The text is on the left of each double page spread. To the right is Flett's art.

Isn't the cover gorgeous?!

The rest of the book, is, too. Flett's art is stunning. Each page invites you to be with that page, studying the composition of what she gives you on that page.  Here's another page (the illustration is from the publisher's website; in the actual book, the text is on the left page):

And below is a scan of the page I showed at the conference (my scan is dark; the page itself is white as snow). It is the art for the 'I' page. "Itohteew" is the Michif text, and "He/she goes" is the English translation.

I also love the page that shows two Michif children wearing blue dresses and moccasins, dancing a jig. And I love the 'S' page: "Li Siiroo" which is Syrup. In the illustration, there's a cabin in the background. In the foreground is a tree with its tap and bucket. Peering at it is a dog, and a gorgeous black and red bird is flying towards the cabin. And I also like, well... Truth be told, I love this book, cover to cover! 

In the front of the book is an Introduction with information about the Metis people and the Michif language. There's a glossary in the back.

In preparing this post, I learned that in April of 2011, it won the 2011 Christie Harris Illustrated Children's Literature Prize in British Colombia.  And in August, it won the 2010 IBBY Canada Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Picture Book Award. Congratulations to Flett and her publisher, Simply Read Books!

Monday, January 09, 2012

Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of the Quileute Wolves

Coming up this Saturday (January 14, 20120 at the National Museum of the American Indian is "Behind the Scenes: The Real Story of the Quileute Wolves." If you can't be there, you can watch the webcast of Chris Morganroth, Quileute elder. At the NMAI website about his talk, you'll find a link to the webcast.

Here's the blurb:
Listen to traditional Native stories and watch stories told through dance. Chris Morganroth, a Quileute elder, tells traditional stories geared towards kids and families. Morganroth also gives an introduction to Quileute culture and discuss how the tribe is presented in the popular Twilight books and movies.
I wrote about Morganroth on December 6, 2009. He's been pushing back on the Twilight books for a while. I look forward to listening in next week!

The Washington Post carried a story today. It has more info, so do take a minute to read it, too: Quileute tribal museum show debunking Twilight movies opening in Washington, DC


Prompted by a friend, I finally read Caleb's Crossing. Written by acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks (she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for March), I found it more than disappointing.

The Caleb in the title is Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. He was the first American Indian to graduate from Harvard, way back in 1646. But, as Brooks tells us, Cheeshahteaumauk was the inspiration for the Caleb in her story.  She's careful to tell us this is fiction. She's making up all kinds of things about him.

Her Caleb gets that name from Bethia, the protagonist. She names him.  He calls her Storm Eyes. It is her teachings that bring him to the notice of her father (a minister) who brings him into their home for education and enlightenment. They rescue and convert this heathen salvage (oh, I forgot... her father insists they call them by their tribal name rather than salvage).

The real Cheeshahteaumauk died soon after he graduated from Harvard.

In Caleb's Crossing, Bethia saves Caleb on his death bed. She does that by visiting his pagan uncle and going through a ceremony that she cannot disclose (cleverly can't disclose). After that, she goes to Caleb and whispers to him, in Wampanoag, verses she's learned from that pagan uncle. This comforts him tremendously ("the lines of pain of a sudden all erased" p. 297) and then she lights a bundle of herbs and waves them around the room. Last, she puts a wampum belt on his chest. With his last breaths he sings his death song.

That isn't the first time Bethia goes Native. She did it early in the novel, too, when she comes upon a village where the people are dancing. She removes her sleeves, hose, and shoes and "found the rhythm. Thought ceased, and an animal sense drove me until, in the end, I danced with abandon." (pp 30-31).

Early in the book when I read the passages where Bethia first looks at the Indian she would name Caleb, it was like reading one of those bodice rippers you get at the grocery store, where a white woman gazes at the body of the Indian man shown on the cover. It was hard, in other words, for me to take this novel seriously.

I asked colleagues who study Native literature about Caleb's Crossing, and of the several who responded, nobody defended it. Indeed, one pointed to the USA Today review that said the novel is a mashup of Avatar and Dances with Wolves. (For those who don't know, both of those films are much derided within Native circles.) Click here to read the review in USA Today.

I don't know why the novel is called Caleb's Crossing. It is far more about Bethia than Caleb. The answer may be on page 230, where Bethia and Master Corlett (he runs the prep school that Caleb goes to prior to going to Harvard) are talking about President Chauncy (he runs the Indian College at Harvard) who, Corlett says "has come to think of the entire venture as a kind of milch cow" (p 230).

Looking at the reviews of the novel, I think that Caleb is a milch cow for Brooks and her publisher! I wish she hadn't used Caleb Cheeshahteaumuak as she did.  She could have chosen a different name for that character and still told the story she tells. In the Author's Note (page ix), she writes:
I have presumed to give Caleb's name to my imagined character in the hope of honoring the struggle, sacrifice and achievement of this remarkable young scholar.
Unfortunately for all of us, I think her book dishonors him and his achievements in the same ways that stereotypical mascots are said to "honor" American Indians. The thing is that people do really want to know about American Indians. There are better places to go for that knowledge and there are ways to become more informed and critical readers of these 'honorable' portrayals. One place to start is by reading articles in journals like Studies in American Indian Literatures. If more writers and editors spent time with critical works like those found there, the result would be better literature for all of us.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Teaching for Change's Busboys and Poets Bookstore

Earlier this week, Don Allen at Teaching for Change asked if I'd be interested in having my recommended book lists on their bookstore website. Of course, I'm interested in calling as much attention as possible to excellent books by Native authors, so I said yes. The bookstore link on their site goes to the awesome Busboys and Poets bookstore... Correction (Jan 7, 2011, 12:20 PM): Teaching for Change's bookstore is inside the Busboys and Poets restaurant.

A couple of years ago, I was in Washington DC for meetings of the Reading is Fundamental Multicultural Advisory board. While there, I went to Busboys and Poets. If you're ever nearby, stop in. Here's their mission statement:
Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted... a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul... a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide... We believe that by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.
In addition to terrific food (restaurant and coffee shop) they have a bookstore and a full calendar of events that includes lectures by authors. Given the mission statement, it is not surprising that Teaching for Change has a professional relationship with Busboys and Poets, and I'm glad to be part of that progressive network. If you can, attend one of the many events Teaching for Change schedules. 

Update, Jan 7, 2011, 12:20 PM: For details on that relationship, read the About Us page.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Day three with Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!

Editor's note: I finished reading Russell's book. I do not recommend it. I do not recommend playing Indian, in fact or fiction. 

Two days ago I started reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia, writing up summaries and my comments for each chapter as I read. Yesterday, I read a few more chapters, summarizing and commenting as I read. Today, I finished the book.

Note 1: My comments on each chapter are indented and in bold text. Plain font is for summary.
Note 2: Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens in the book. In other words, Note 2 is a spoiler alert.
Note 3: I'm reading the book in ebook format. I don't have reliable page numbers for excerpts I use below. At some point I'll get a hard copy and add page numbers.


Chapter Fifteen: Help Arrives, Then Departs
Ava and the Bird Man are out on the water and swamp areas, headed to the Eye of the Needle. Ava tells the Bird Man that there are a lot of Seminole ghosts out there and that her sister is "...named for a Seminole chieftain. The whites killed him with malaria. He died in Fort Moultrie, South Carolina."

Debbie's comments:
Ava calls him a chieftain and I do see that term in some sources but the ones by Native scholars like Theda Purdue use "war chief" instead. He did die of malaria at Fort Moultrie, but before he was there, he, his wives, and his children were held at a prison in Saint Augustine. Another awful detail: Purdue writes that he was buried headless because an Army doctor "made off with his head as a trophy" (page 190, The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast by Theda Purdue and Michael D. Green). In The Native Peoples of North America: A History, Volume 1, Bruce E. Johansen writes that the doctor was a surgeon named Frederick Weedon, and that he kept Osceola's head in a medical museum until it was destroyed in a fire in 1866.  If interested, you can read testimony of three military officers who verified that Weedon had the head. Will we find out WHY "the Chief" and his wife chose that name for their daughter?! 

Ava continues:

After the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, the Seminole people were hunted like animals. They built the palm-thatched chickees for use as temporary shelters, hiding places. President Jackson sent a letter to the Seminoles that we reproduced in our museum, the last line of which reads:
"But should you listen to the bad birds that are always flying about you, and refuse to remove, I have directed the commanding officer to remove you by force."

She provides more history, and then says:

My sister was named for the Seminoles' famous warrior and freedom fighter, War Chief Osceola, who, legend has it, said, at a time when General Jessup was upon them, and all seemed lost:
"If the Great Spirit will show me how, I will make the white man red with blood; and then blacken him in the sun and rain... and the buzzard live upon his flesh."
Debbie's comments:

Jackson's statement is in a letter. You can read it here in the Library of Congress publication. Scroll down and read details about how the removal was to be carried out. The only place I'm able to locate the second excerpt (Osceola's words) is in "Outing Magazine" which was a sports magazine published in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Russell precedes that excerpt with "legend has it" which gives her the space to attribute those words to him. This reminds me of Gina Capaldi's picture book biography of Carlos Montezuma. She went overboard, putting words into his mouth. Her disclaimer is less visible than a passage preceded with "legend has it."

Ava goes on:

These Seminoles, the "real" Indians that the chief envied in a filial and loving way, were in fact the descendants of many displaced tribes from the Creek Confederacy. This swamp was not their ancestral home either, not by any stretch--they had been pushed further and further into the swamp by President Jackson's Tennessee boys and a company of scarecrows from Atlanta, a militia that was starved and half-crazed. We Bigtrees were an "indigenous species" of swamp dweller, according to the Chief and our catalogs, but it turned out that every human in the Ten Thousand Islands was a recent arrival. 

Debbie's comments:

Why does Russell have "real" in quotation marks, followed by information that says the Seminoles are descendants of displaced tribes? She is also collapsing a lot of history into a too-small period, and then she says her family and the Indians of the area are all the same. That's unsettling! It is a bold attack on the sovereignty of the tribes who were there!

Ava talks a bit about the Calusa's and then says: was not until the late 1800s that our swamp was recolonized by freed slaves and by fugitive Indians and, decades later, by the shocked, drenched white pioneers shaking out wet deeds, true sitting ducks, the patsies of the land barons who had sold these gullible snowbirds farms that were six feet underwater. And then by "eccentrics" like the Bird Man and my parents. 

Debbie's comments:

That suggests that there was nobody there at all between 1830 when the Removal Act was passed and the late 1800s. I suppose it depends on what "recolonized" means.  The Seminole tribe says they never left:
Historians estimate there may have been only a few hundred unconquered Seminole men, women and children left - all hiding in the swamps and Everglades of South Florida. No chicanery, no offer of cattle, land, liquor or God, nothing could lure the last few from their perches of ambush deep in the wilderness. The U.S. declared the war ended - though no peace treaty was ever signed - and gave up.

The Florida survivors comprised at least two main factions: Maskoki speakers who lived near Lake Okeechobee and those who spoke the linguistically-related Hitchiti tongue (also called Miccosukee or Seminole) and lived to the south. In the remote environs of such uncharted Florida wilderness, the Seminoles remained, living in small traditional camps of cypress frame/palmetto-thatch chickees, isolated from Florida society and the rest of the world until well into the 20th century . . . long after most tribes had experienced assimilation, religious conversion and cultural annihilation.

The descendants of these last few Indian resistors are the members of today's Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and the unaffiliated Independent or Traditional Seminoles.

Among the "white pioneers" Ava references decades later is her grandfather (remember, he purchased that land in 1930). 

The Bird Man asks Ava if her sister is like "the war chief Osceola" to which Ava says "Oh, no! She wears barrettes and stuff. She's a real girl-girl. She's not like us."

Debbie's comments:

Not like us... which means... What? What does it mean?

As they continue towards the Eye of the Needle, Ava wonders if Ossie has already made it home and found her note:

I pictured Ossie sitting Indian style on the burgundy sofa in her polka-dotted pajamas.

Debbie's comments:

Sitting "Indian style"?! We know what that means---with legs crossed. If this time period is 1980, then, Ava thinking "Indian style" makes sense. In recent years, use of that term has diminished as teachers become more aware of stereotyping. But, did it need to be in here at all? What if the sentence was "I pictured Ossie sitting on the burgundy soft in her polka-dotted pajamas." Does that take away from anything? Maybe Russell is trying to get us to see Ava as a product of her time. There are definitely plenty of people who understand the mistreatment of American Indians in historical contexts and still play Indian at Halloween or birthday parties, or, at sports events where a mascot is a stereotyped Indian.

Ava and the Bird Man talk a lot as they row/walk to the Eye of the Needle. He asks her if she knows about a bridge built in the 1920s. Ava nodded, told him about her grandfathers photos of African American bodies after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. He took these photos to document something that official records did not. She goes on:
Most mainlanders hear "homeschooled" and they get the wrong impression. There were many deficits in our swamp education, but Grandpa Sawtooth, to his credit, taught us the names of whole townships that had been forgotten underwater. Black pioneers, Creek Indians, moonshiners, women, "disappeared" boy soldiers who deserted their army camps. From Grandpa we learned how to peer beneath the sea-glare of the "official, historical" Florida records we found in books. "Prejudice," as defined by Sawtooth Bigtree, was a kind of prehistoric arithmetic--a "damn fool math"--in which some people counted and others did not. It means white names on white headstones in the big cemetery on Cypress Point, and black and brown bodies buried in swamp water.
She calls her grandpa a true historian who is a true egalitarian:
Tragedies, too, struck blindly and you had to count everyone. Grandpa taught us more than any LCPS Teach Your Child ...! book about Florida hurricanes, Florida wars. From his stories we learned as children how to fire our astonishment at death into a bright outrage.
Debbie's comments:

Maybe it is grandpa's teaching that is at the root of Kiwi and Ava's frustration with their father for his persistence in playing Indian. 

Towards the end of the chapter, they run into Whip Jeters, a park ranger who has known Ava and her family for a long time. He's surprised to find her with the Bird Man, but Ava and the Bird Man convince Whip that they're cousins.

Chapter Sixteen: Kiwi Bigtree, World Hero

Recall that in chapter fourteen, Kiwi rescued (I should note that the girl he rescued wasn't really drowning; she was fooling around) a girl at the World of Darkness pool where he is working as a lifeguard.  In this chapter, the media swarms on the story, portraying him as a hero. He is interviewed and photographed or the newspaper:
He hadn't allowed himself to be photographed for the Swamplandia! brochures for years; in the most recent one he was fourteen, wearing his sister Osceola's red ribbon around his forehead and furious about it, a feather sticking up behind his head like a middle finger.
Debbie's comment:

This is some of the frustration that I mentioned earlier.

Kiwi realizes that this rescue story could help Swamplandia! and starts talking about it to the reporter, telling her that he belongs to the "Bigtree tribe of Swamplandia" and referring to the billboard of his father wearing a headdress. The reporter doesn't know what he's talking about but he goes on talking about Swamplandia hoping some of the information will make it into the newspaper. When he sees the paper the next day, he is disappointed that most of the article is about the girl, and that it says nothing about Swamplandia.

Chapter Seventeen: Ava's Eclipse
The niggling doubts Ava has been feeling are full blown by the end of this chapter. She and the Bird Man have found and passed the Eye of the Needle and pass by islands with people on them. Ava calls out, thinking Ossie is there, and the Bird Man slaps her.  She realizes she doesn't know who he is and that she was wrong to trust him. At one point she thinks of her dad, drunk on the couch, wearing his feathered headdress.

Debbie's comment:

I don't remember prior references to her father being drunk. I'm not making an association between the drunken Indian stereotype here, and I don't think Russell is either. Ava's thought makes me feel sad for her.

Chapter Eighteen: Kiwi Rolls the Dice
Kiwi goes to a Seminole-owned casino with two friend/co-workers. There is a beauty pageant taking place. Kiwi realizes that the pageant MC is his dad. He puts the money he has with him in an envelope and hands it to a dealer, asking her to give it to his dad. She tells Kiwi to take the money himself, that the man, Sammie, is a nice guy who they all love. Kiwi takes off, conflicted over what he's realizing. All these years, he believed his dad went on periodic month long trips to the mainland to meet with investors, but, it looks like those business trips were just periods when he works at jobs like this one.

Chapter Nineteen: The Silently Screaming World
The chapter opens with Ava realizing that the Bird Man is having sex with her. She doesn't struggle but shortly after that, she runs away. They've been gone from Swamplandia! two days. She spends a night alone huddled in the dark and the next morning gathers her thoughts and gets her bearings. She starts out for higher land.

Chapter Twenty: Out to Sea
Kiwi goes to visit his grandfather at the retirement home, hoping his grandfather can fill him in and affirm his suspicions about his dad.  But, his grandfather's mind is gone and they end up fighting. Kiwi goes back to his room at the World of Darkness and finds that his friend/co-workers have a new poster for him. They thought the poster Kiwi has of his mother is there for Kiwi to use when masturbating. In replacing it, they've torn it in half. They don't know that is his mother.

Chapter Twenty-One: Mama Weeds
Ava continues her journey through the swamps. She comes to a cabin with a clothesline on which are hung items she recognizes as Ossie's favorite shirt and Louis's jacket...  She thinks the woman who appears is a ghost named Mama Weeds. The woman is wearing a dress that Ava thinks once belonged to her mother. She tries to tear it off the woman, and then, she takes off again. She's got a piece of the dress in her hand and is wearing the jacket.

Debbie's comment:

The last chapters of this story are just as heavy and dark as they can be. I'm not at all sure that Ava is alive anymore... 

Chapter Twenty-Two: Kiwi Takes to the Skies
After rescuing the girl, Kiwi was promoted again, to pilot of an in-the-works World of Darkness airplane ride. In this chapter, he is able to fly a plane. While up, he sees a woman waving frantically at the plane. He decides to land (his instructor lets him try it), which he does successfully. He finds the barge and Ossie. She tells him that Louis Thanksgiving left her at the alter. The chapter closes with her asking about Ava.

Chapter Twenty-Three: The End Begins
The Bird Man finds Ava. She dives into an alligator pond, is bit on the leg, wrestles the alligator, and gets away from it. She swims through a tunnel and the Bird Man doesn't find her again. She hears the crackle of a park ranger's radio and is rescued. The ranger asks if she's related to Osceola Bigtree, who has also just been rescued. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are reunited and go to "the Chief's" hotel room. The family is reunited. They stay on the mainland. Ossie is on medication. Ava doesn't tell anyone about the Bird Man or what happened to her. The last paragraph ends with:
I think the Chief was right about one thing: the show really must go on. Our Seths are still thrashing inside us in an endless loop. I like to think our family is winning. But my brother and my sister and I rarely talk about it anymore--that would be as pointless as making a telephone call to say, "Kiwi, are you there? Listen: my blood is circulating" or, "Howdy, Ossie, it's today, are you breathing?" We used to have this cardboard clock on Swamplandia! and you could move the tiny red hands to whatever time you wanted, NEXT SHOW AT __:__ O'CLOCK.

Debbie's comments:

That's it. End of the story.  After I've had some time to think about the story, I'll write up those thoughts. In the meantime, I invite your thoughts and comments, either through the comments option below, or through the "Contact AICL" button in the bar at the top of the page. You can also write to me directly at

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Day Two with Russell's SWAMPLANDIA

Editor's note: I finished reading Russell's book. I do not recommend it. I do not recommend playing Indian, in fact or fiction. 

Yesterday I started reading Karen Russell's Swamplandia, writing up summaries and my comments for each chapter as I read. I'm picking it up again today. Before reading below, go read Day One with Russell's Swamplandia where I wrote about chapters one thru five.

Note 1: My comments on each chapter are indented and in bold text. Plain font is for summary.
Note 2: Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens in the book. In other words, Note 2 is a spoiler alert.
Note 3: I'm reading the book in ebook format. I don't have reliable page numbers for excerpts I use below. At some point I'll get a hard copy and add page numbers.


Chapter Six: Kiwi's Exile in the World of Darkness

Kiwi takes a job at the World of Darkness, which is the reason tourists have stopped going to Swamplandia. There, he meets some unusual people like the oblivious character, Leonard Harlblower. Kiwi thinks:
Even Chief Bigtree--an "indigenous swamp dweller" who was actually a white guy descended from a coal miner in small-town Ohio, a man who sat on lizards in a fathered headdress--even the Chief seemed like a genius of self-awareness next to this kid Leonard.
Debbie's comments:

In chapter six, Russell used "indigenous" but without quotation marks. Here, she uses them. Is this inconsistency in her writing, or is it a way for the different characters to show that self-awareness?

Chapter Seven: The Dredge Appears
With "the Chief" gone, Ava and Ossie take care of Swamplandia and their property. This includes cutting down melaleuca, an invasive tree:
Ossie was cutting the saplings down, and I was painting herbicide onto the stumps. We were tree warriors, I told Ossie. We had come to the Last Ditch for a massacre.

"This is a pretty boring massacre," said my sister. "When is lunch?"

Debbie's comments:

Playing savage Indians now?! Russell's writing has a good bit of humor in it, but this particular stereotype (bloodthirsty savage massacring Indian) is not in the least bit amusing. 

It is while they are out cutting down the saplings that Ava and Ossie find an old dredge. Ossie starts trying to communicate with its ghosts. She takes up with one in particular, named Louis Thanksgiving.

Chapter Eight: Kiwi's Debt Increases
Payday finally arrives and Kiwi finds out that things he thought were free (his uniform, food he eats while at work, and a room he stays in at the theme park) are not free. Instead of a check, he is given a bill.

Chapter Nine: The Dredgeman's Revelation
Ossie is in love with Louis, calling him her boyfriend. Ossie tells Ava his life story, from birth to death. He had friends in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): "calm men, family men, bachelors, ex-preachers, hellions, white men, black men, the children of Indians and freed slaves"

Debbie's comments:

The CCC was a government work relief program that ran from 1933 to 1942.  Grandpa Sawtooth bought the island that would eventually have Swamplandia on it in 1932. That means the barge and work being done by its crew was done while he was there. I don't know if that matters later on in the story or not. 

I'm not sure that the CCC was integrated in a way that would have made it possible for Louis to work with black men, or with "children of Indians and freed slaves." I'm wondering why Russell used "children of Indians and freed slaves" instead of whatever word they were called in the 1930s.  I'm not sure that Louis would have worked alongside anyone who wasn't white. For the most part, the CCC wasn't integrated.

From his work on the CCC, Louis went to work on the dredge, but his friends chose not to go:
...the lone Indian on the crew, Euphon Tigertail, who had survived subhuman conditions while working on the Panama Canal, decided that he couldn't work in the swamp any longer. He'd been undone by miniscule foes, the chizzywinks, and the deer flies. "You sure you want to be a dredgeman for this outfit, Lou?" Euphon had whispered, both of them staring at the hulk of the dredge. 
Debbie's comments:
Hmmm...  I think this is the first time in the book that Russell provides us with words spoken by a Native character. Cool that it isn't stilted Indian-speak ("Um, that right, Kemosabe")!

Studying maps they found on the dredge, Ossie tells Ava that Louis has told her about a door to the underworld. Ava recognizes it as an Indian landmark called Eye of the Needle that is a day's hourney by airboat from their island. They had not been there, but their grandfather had:
Grandpa Sawtooth took a photograph of the Eye of the Needle passageway during his rambles in the forties: a gray channel cut between two twenty-acre islands made entirely of shells. These islands looked like twin boulders to me, or like one island that lived net to its echo. Two intricate skulls rising out of the river. They are hundreds or maybe even thousands of years old--the Calusa Indians constructed the mounds out of clay and every kind of local shell: oysters and conchs and whelks. The Calusa Indians were well established in our swamp when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513, and they probably hugged the shoreline of Florida for hundreds of years before the European contact; by the late 1700s their tribe had disappeared, undone by Spanish warfare and enslavement, and by microbes: smallpox and measles. The Calusa shell mounds, these seashell archipelagos, had outlasted their architects by at least five hundred years. You can find them scattered throughout the Ten Thousand Islands; visitors will drag their kayaks up a shell mound's glittery shoes and picnic there. On the Gulf side a 150-acre shell mound supports a modern township. But the Eye of the Needle was a special landmark, known only to locals, and very remote.

Debbie's comments:

This is a history lesson! In a Google Everything search, the first hit was a social studies page that has much of the information Russell shares. Thankfully, Russell does not replicate the bias on that page (it presents the Calusa's as the aggressors in conflicts with the Spanish). A Google Videos search turned up an interesting documentary that dates one of the layers in a particular dig at 2000 years old. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are homeschooled but don't really study. In one place in the book, they worry at what grade level they'd be placed if they went to public school. That worry suggests the kids are not very well educated, so, the idea that Ava would know all this about the Calusa Indians kind of doesn't work.

On the third weekend without their father, Gus (he runs the ferry) comes to check on them. He finds Ava coloring, using "our Bigtree tribal colors: Indian red and heron blue."

Debbie's comments:
I'm curious about the time period for this story. Due to a way-cool effort by teachers, that "Indian red" crayon was retired in 1999 in response to teachers who felt that children wrongly perceived that color was intended to represent the skin color of American Indians. because children were using it on coloring sheets when they were coloring Indians. Crayola responded and changed the name to Chestnut. Below is a screenshot of the relevant part of their webpage. If the time setting for Swamplandia! is pre-1999, then it makes sense that the crayon is in the box that Ava is using. If it is post-1999, she could be using an old box. So--it is plausible and not necessarily a critique. More than anything, I suppose, I'm seizing Russell's use of "Indian red" as a teachable moment.  (In chapter nine, Ava watches the news and learns of the famine in Uganda. That was 1980, and again, in 2011.)

A few days later, Gus arrives with a letter for Ava. This one is from the Secretary to the President at the University of Loomis. It reads:
Thank you for your inquiry. I have done some research on your behalf; unfortunately no such Commission or Committee or alligator-wrestling competition has ever existed. You might visit the Miccosukee Indian Reservation to watch a live alligator show.
Ava tears the letter into bits.
Debbie's comment:
Hmm... Are we going to find out that the trophy is a fake? Part of the hype for the park?

The chapter ends with Ossie going into the dredge again to see Louis. Ava meets and befriends the Bird Man (he's a guy who travels around driving birds away from places they aren't wanted). When Ava returns there the next morning, the dredge is gone.

Chapter Ten: Kiwi Climbs the Ladder
Back at the World of Darkness theme park, Kiwi gets a new job as a life guard.

Chapter Eleven: Ava Goes to the Underworld
In a panic, Ava tells the Bird Man about Ossie and the missing dredge. Reluctantly, she also tells him about Louis, the ghost boyfriend. To her surprise, he believes in ghosts and knows where the Eye of the Needle is. He agrees to help Ava find Ossie.

Chapter Twelve: Kiwi Goes to Night School
Kiwi goes to the local community college to begin a GED class. When it is his turn, he introduces himself and tells his classmates he needs to help his dad get out of debt and wants to go to college. Students immediately start ridiculing him, calling him "white boy." He wishes he could tell them about the island:
...about Chief Bigtree's "Indian" lineage; how as a kid they'd put makeup and beads on him, festooned him with spoonbill feathers and reptilian claws; how at fourteen he'd declared: "I'm a Not-Bigtree. A Not-Indian. A Not-Seminole. A Not-Miccosukee." This category "white" gave him a whistling fear, a feeling not unlike agoraphobia.
Debbie's comments:

Recall in chapter two, Kiwi is frustrated when his dad tries to talk to them in a booming "chieftain" voice? Here, we learn that Kiwi didn't like playing Indian. Seems like he thought he had no culture, and being called white, or realizing that his identity is being ridiculed, scares him. 

Chapter Thirteen: Welcome to Stiltsville
Ava and the Bird Man stop at an abandoned village on stilts (Stiltsville) for the night.

Chapter Fourteen: The Drowning Chain
The drowning chain is a net used to rescue swimmers. At the end of the chapter, Kiwi (not using the drowning chain) rescues and revives a girl. Crowds gather round and take photos of him.

That's it for Day 2 of Swamplandia!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Day One with Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!

Editor's note: I finished Russel's book, and do not recommend it. It is redface. It is playing Indian. At the end of this post you'll find links to Day Two and Day Three of my chapter-by-chapter summaries. 

7:30 AM, January 2, 2012
Back in April, a reader wrote to me about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! I got an ebook of it today and will start working through it, posting notes here as I go. Based on what I read in April, I am not looking forward to this book in which a family plays Indian. I doubt it deserves the praises it got from NPR and the New York Times.  

My comments on each chapter are indented and in bold text. Plain font is for summary. I'm reading the book in ebook format. I don't have reliable page numbers for excerpts I use below. At some point I'll get a hard copy and add page numbers.

Chapter One: The Beginning of the End
We meet the family:
the dad: "Chief Bigtree"
the mom: "Hilola Bigtree"
the older sister: "Osceola"
the older brother: "Kiwi"
the grandfather: "Sawtooth"
the protagonist: Ava

Debbie's comments:

That is quite a set of names! Will we find out that Ava also has a nickname? And how did Russell (the author) settle on Osceola as the name for Ava's sister? Osceola was a Seminole leader. On the Seminole Nation's website, he is described as follows: "Elegant in dress, handsome of face, passionate in nature and giant of ego, Osceola masterminded successful battles against five baffled U.S. generals, murdered the United State's Indian agent, took punitive action against any who cooperated with the white man and stood as a national manifestation of the Seminoles' strong reputation for non-surrender."

Ava tells us that her family, "the Bigtree tribe of the Ten Thousand Islands" runs an alligator theme park in Florida called Swamplandia! On promotional billboards, they wear
Indian costumes on loan from our Bigtree Gift Shop: buckskin vests, cloth headbands, great blue heron feathers, great white heron feathers, chubby beads hanging off our foreheads and our hair in braids, gator "fang" necklaces.

Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccousukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were "our own Indians." Our mother had a toast-brown complexion that a tourist could maybe squint at and call Indian--and Kiwi, Grandpa Sawtooth, and I could hold our sun. But my sister, Osceola, was born snowy--not a weak chamomile blond but pure frost, with eyes that vibrated somewhere between maroon and violet. Her face was like our mother's face cast forward onto cloudy water. Before we posed for the picture on that billboard, our mother colored her in with drugstore blusher. the Chief made sure she was covered by the shadow of a tree. Kiwi liked to joke that she looked like the doomed sibling you see in those Wild West daguerreotypes, the one who makes you think, Oh God, take the picture quick; that kid is not long for this world. 
Debbie's comments:

We know right away that this is not a Native family. They play Indian for their theme park. It makes them money. They benefit by playing Indian. Will we, as I continue to read, find out that Ava is uncomfortable with playing Indian? Is someone going to challenge their playing Indian? I wish Russell had also said that the "tribal apparel" is also fake.

I don't like Kiwi's joke. Would he make a similar joke about other oppressed children in daguerreotypes? 

Ava's mother gets ovarian cancer and dies. Grandpa Sawtooth is placed in a home a month before her death. Ava starts doing her mother's act. A new theme park called The World of Darkness opens on the mainland and Swamplandia's visitors drop off dramatically. It is easier to get to (tourists have to take a 40 minute ferry to get to Swamplandia). Ava rarely thinks "dad" --- she usually thinks "the Chief" instead.

Chapter Two: The Advent of the World of Darkness
Without tourists to occupy their time, Ava and her sibs start reading more. Ossie (Ava calls Osceola "Ossie") takes interest in one called The Spiritist's Telegraph about an underworld. Kiwi spends more time studying for the SAT.

We learn that Grandpa's real name is Ernest Schedrach and that he is "the white son of a white coal miner in Ohio" who bought the land Swamplandia is on in 1932. Hilola Bigtree's maiden name was Owens and she, too, was born on the mainland. In one of the Swamplandia buildings is a display area that has family artifacts, including Schedrach's army medallions. "The Chief" works hard to make sure that nothing in the case sullies the manufactured Indian identity of the Bigtree family. He takes the medallions out, and makes sure there is no mention of the family's white roots.

Debbie's comment:

No mention, yet, of when Swamplandia was founded, or, when the family started playing Indian. 

The night Osceola turns 16, they have a birthday party for her. Partway through, she announces she's going on a walk but "the Chief" asks her to stay so they can "have a tribal meeting." Osceola leaves anyway and "the Chief" says:
"As you may have noticed," he said in his booming chieftain's voice, "we Bigtrees have a serious enemy. We have a new battle to win."

"Oh my God," said Kiwi. "Dad. This isn't a show. We are all sitting in the same room." 

Debbie's comments:

Go, Kiwi! And he called him "Dad" instead of "the chief." 

The family discuss the future of Swamplandia, with "the Chief" wanting to make improvements, and, Kiwi wanting to sell it and move to the mainland.

Chapter Three: Osceola K. Bigtree in Love 
Osceola starts leaving her bedroom at night. Ava is worried about her and her dates with ghosts. Ava tells Kiwi about it. They tell "the Chief" but he waves it off as a lovesick phase she's going through. Though they still have few if any tourists, "the Chief" continues to wear his costume. 

Debbie's comment:

Kind of pathetic, "the Chief" in his costume....

Chapter Four: Ava the Champion
Ava decides she wants to enter the same alligator wrestling competitions her mother entered. Her mother won a national championship in 1971. Ava starts sending inquiries by mail. Her dad continues to wear the headdress all the time:
The fan was blowing at the Chief's headdress, flattening every feather so that they waved in place, like a school of fishes needling into a strong current. Something lunged in me then, receded. A giggle or a sob. A noise. I thought: You look very stupid, Dad.

Debbie's comment:

In chapter 2, Kiwi pushed back on the play Indian activity of "the Chief" and now, Ava does, too. And they're both thinking "dad" when they do it. 

Ava remembers asking her mom why she didn't enter more contests, ones where she could "beat the Seminole wrestlers, to show the Miccosukee alligator handlers what we Bigtrees were made of" but her mother avoids answering the question, saying that her job is to be a mother to her children.

Debbie's comment:

According to the Timeline on their website, the Seminole's have been doing alligator wrestling for tourists since the 1920s.

Ava wonders if her mother is happy. She married "the Chief" when she was nineteen and "started her career as an alligator wrestler that same year." She also gave birth that year to Kiwi.  Ava remembers Kiwi telling her that their mother had married too young. When Ava repeated that to her mother, she says "Your father and I were sweethearts, you tell me what's too 'too' about that! Without Sam I'd still be on the mainland."

Debbie's comment:

Sam! "The Chief's" name is Sam. 

Ava watches a batch of alligators hatch. One is red in color and she starts caring for it secretly, hoping it will save Swamplandia. Towards the end of the chapter, the family goes to visit Grandpa Sawtooth who is rapidly losing his memory.  He no longer remembers, for example, "Seth of Seth", which is the alligator he first wrestled. As the family rides the ferry back home, two other passengers stare at "the Chief" with "Seth of Seth" in his lap:
These Loomis men were wealthy, or wealthy to me: they wore belts with shiny buckles, and their khakied laps held fancy red double-decker tackle boxes. They were most likely on their way to play Injun for a weekend at the Red Eagle Key Fishing Camp; they didn't know my father was a Bigtree, and you could see the sneer in their eyes.

Debbie's comments:

On their way to play "Injun"?! Geez...

Chapter Five: Prodigal Kiwi
When they get back to their island, Ava shows Kiwi what she discovered earlier in the day: their mother's wedding dress is missing. They conclude that Ossie has taken it. Ava tells Kiwi about Ossie's nighttime dreams in which Ossie seems possessed. Frustrated with their father, Kiwi takes off. A few days later, "the Chief" tells Ava he is going on one of his extended trips to the mainland. He used to do these month-long business trips while her mother was alive. This is the first one since her death. Ava imagines that he'll raise money to carry out some of his development plans--plans that will make them competitive again. Ava imagines that:
Soon the indigenous Bigtrees would be able to compete with our niche competitor, that exotic invasive species of business, the World of Darkness.

Debbie's comments:

I don't know what to say... What is Russell doing calling the playing-Indian family "indigenous"? From the perspective of those who say they are "Native American" because they were born in America, but that is a snarky thing to do. It is an attempt to discredit American Indians. Same thing here, I think. Russell is intentionally (or not) being dismissive of American Indians. Then, Russell tells us that this family is being invaded by the World of Darkness. These are interesting parallels... Where is she going with this?

See also:
Day two with SWAMPLANDIA
Day three with SWAMPLANDIA

Saturday, December 31, 2011


Last month, a friend wrote to ask if I'd read Emerita Romero-Anderson's Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot, published in 2011 by Texas Tech University Press.  I ordered it and am sharing my thoughts on the book.

Here's the preface:
This story, Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot, gives us a peek into a time and place in history that is little known, but significant in helping tell America's story. Based on historical fact, there is ample evidence of a Spanish Colonial pottery tradition from about 1790 to 1890 in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Some archeologists would argue that only Native Americans made clay pots.
Clearly, Romero-Anderson wants people to know that Spanish settlers in New Spain (in what later became known as New Mexico) made clay pots. She's created this story and its protagonist to bring that knowledge forward. Her motivation is good but in giving us that information, she affirms stereotypes of the bloodthirsty Indian, and there are other problems, too.

Some of them are relatively insignificant. In chapter nine, the protagonist, Raymundo (he's Spanish) is successful in getting an old woman to teach him how to make pots. Her name is Clay Woman (she's genizaro). I'll say more about her later. Within the span of one day:
  • Raymundo shaped three clay pots, complete with rims and handles, by midmorning
  • By noon he made three more and polished all of them with a stone
  • After polishing them, he coated the inside of each one with brown paint
  • Clay Woman then takes him out to gather plants to use as dyes
  • On their return, Raymundo gathers dung chips so they can fire the pots the next day
  • Then, Raymundo heads off to water his bean patch 
  • But! He hears a "blood-curdling war cry"
  • It is the Comanches that killed his father a year ago. Now, they kidnap Raymundo and steal horses from Raymundo's village.
  • They ride for hours, stop, and then the Comanches kill a horse by shooting an arrow into one of its eyes before eating its raw liver. They roast the rest of it before going to sleep for the night.
My sister makes pottery, and so does one of my aunts. I called home and asked if they polish the pot on the same day they shape it. The answer? No. The shaped pot has to dry first, and that takes a couple of days. That said, I suppose it is plausible that all those things could have happened in a single day (the heat and drought figure prominently throughout the story), but is it probable? I don't think so.

For the remainder of this review, I want to focus on Romero-Anderson's depiction of the peoples that are in the story: the Spanish, the Genizaros, and the Comanches.

The Spanish
The year is 1790. Raymundo lives in a small Spanish village in the northern part of what is now known as New Mexico. In 1790, it was New Spain. He lives in a village of adobe houses Raymundo and his mother live in one room. They own two hundred varas (Romero-Anderson says a vara is 2 feet) of bottom-land acquired through a Spanish land grant. Some of the land grants were made to Spanish individuals who agreed to live in less-populated and less-protected areas. Given the Comanche raids in the story, that seems to be the case with Raymundo and his family.

The bean pot in the title is the only one Raymundo's family has, but it has a crack and no longer holds water. They need a new one, but, the genizaros who make the pots have stopped trading with the local Spanish people and sending their pots south, to Mexico.

I'm guessing genizaro is a new word to most people. As such, the way they are depicted is of utmost importance. And given the stereotyped and biased ways that American Indians have been portrayed in children's books, their depiction is equally important. Genizaros, Romero-Anderson tells us in the glossary, were "Christianized (Hispanicized) Indians" (p. 110). She introduces them in chapter two when Raymundo walks past their village:
His search for firewood took him to the crest, past the small village of genizaros, a group of Indians who were ransomed from captivity to the Spaniards. They were given land here far away from the capital and Spanish society before Reymundo was born.
Their village includes three adobe houses and two made of stone, surrounded by a fence.

To better understand who the genizaros were, I've been studying two books. One is Violence Over the Land by Ned Blackhawk, and the other is Captives & Cousins by James F. Brooks. They were primarily young Plains Indians who were captured by other tribes and Spanish soldiers, sold as slaves, and subsequently became detribalized (many did not know who their tribal nation was). Those who weren't successfully sold were killed, prompting some Spanish colonists to intervene by redeeming the captives and baptizing them. In return, the redeemed captive owed allegiance and service of up to 20 years to the person who redeemed them. In northern New Mexico, Brooks writes that they became like members of families in a fictive kinship relationship, but he that in the Rio Grande Valley, they were ostracized and looked down on.

In Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot, we meet two genizaro characters. One is Clay Woman, who teaches Raymundo how to make pottery, and the other is a medicine man named Fools Crow. The  genizaros wear clothing much like the Spanish, except for Clay Woman and Fools Crow who stand out because they wear traditional clothing. The traditional clothing Clay Woman wears includes a manta, but that's an error because, as Blackhawk and Brooks noted, captivity as young children means the genizaros were detribalized. Later on, Fools Crow performs an Indian ceremony on Raymundo but, how does he know how to do that?!

From the Pablita Velarde gallery,  Bandelier Natl Monument
That article of clothing is actually worn by Pueblo women as seen in Pablita Velarde's illustration to the right. Velarde was from Santa Clara Pueblo, one of the Eight Northern Pueblos in New Mexico. Her art is known worldwide and she's the author of Old Father Storyteller, a collection of stories.

Speaking of Pueblo Indians, where are the Pueblo people in Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot?! Romero-Anderson mentions them on page 13. Raymundo is on his family's land, looking at a dry wash: "It had once belonged to the ancestors of a Tewa Indian pueblo, Papa had said, but the native people were no longer allowed on land granted to the Spaniards by the Spanish Crown in the Kingdom of New Mexico." On page 20, Raymundo plays "chueco, an ancient game of the Pueblo Indians" but other than that, Pueblo Indians are absent from Romero-Anderson's story. All through that time period, Pueblo Indians were taking Spanish people to court for encroachment and other criminal matters. 

In some ways, Romero-Anderson misrepresents the genizaros. She does, I think, accurately portray the disdain that Blackhawk and Brooks report in their respective books. Romero-Anderson writes "The old crone's hair looked like a magpie's nest" and she says that Fools Crow's hair is matted and filthy, and that his torso is caked with grime. (p. 11). 

She also accurately portrays the ways that the Spanish feared and accused the genizaros of being witches. On page 15, Raymundo's aunt calls them "evil brujos" (witches). She tells Raymundo to stay away from them:
"Remember what happened to Father Ordonez? I believe the year was 1796. I had come for a visit and that's all everyone talked about. The genizaro witches put a curse on him, Raymundo, and he died a terrible death." (p. 15). 
Juan, a Spanish man, shoots and kills Clay Woman with an arrow in a dramatic scene that takes place on the day that Raymundo and Clay Woman fire their pots (Romero-Anderson repeatedly says "bake" which to me, sounds odd). 

There was, in fact, a Franciscan father named Felix Ordonez y Machado who founded a mission at a genizaro settlement in Abiquiu. Brooks covers this on page 136 of Captives and Cousins. Ordonez died in 1756 of suspicious causes. The new missionary, Juan Jose Toledo, was sick several times in the years after 1756. Then a genizara, on her death bed, accused a Kiowa genizaro named Joaquin Trujillo, of sorcery, the area erupted in accusations and counteraccusations that led to exorcisms during which "pagan" practices of Pueblo Indians were exposed as "evil" activities. Reading that section of Captives and Cousins, leads me to believe that Romero-Anderson borrowed heavily from that series of events.  Her Juan (who killed Clay Woman) is Juan Jose Toledo, and, Fools Crow is Joaquin Trujillo. The unnamed setting for her story is Abiquiu, 34 years after the actual event took place.

In the Acknowledgements, Romero-Anderson names Charles Carillo as a source for her writing. I think I'd probably find the Ordonez/Toledo/Trujillo/Abiquiu events in one of his books.

Comanches did raid and kidnap the Spanish and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, but not at the time period the story is set (1790). The Comanches in Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot are portrayed much as they are in popular culture, as blood thirsty killers. There is a lot more to any tribe than that narrow portrayal. There were a lot of Native and non-Native nations trading and raiding and inflicting violence on each other. The title of Blackhawk's book, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West effectively captures the coalitions and conflicts of that time. If you're interested in knowing more about it, I highly recommend his book.

Romero-Anderson tried to give readers a look into a little known piece of history about Spanish potters. We do, in fact, need stories about that, and about that period during which many nations interacted with each other, but the information has to be reliable. Milagro of the Spanish Bean Pot falls short in that regard. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

"Race changes" in Tintin

In 2006 I learned about Tintin in America. I wrote about it then, but apparently failed to order it so that I could do an analysis of it for AICL. It is now on order...

Obviously, I'm thinking about Tintin because the movie is in theaters now. This morning on Slate, I read David Haglund's blog post about parent objections to Captain Haddock's love of alcohol. He provides some historical background for the American response to Haddock:
Sam Adams, who recently reviewed two Hergé biographies for Slate, pointed me to a third, Pierre Assouline’s Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, which reveals that when the Tintin books began appearing in America, Hergé’s publishers demanded that he “attenuate the text here and there” to reduce Haddock’s drinking, in an effort to satisfy “puritanical American morals.” Hergé went ahead and “eliminated all images of Haddock drinking straight from the bottle,” telling one reader, “The blacks have been whitened, and Captain Haddock has to refrain from guzzling his drink.” (A PDF of this chapter from Assouline’s book is available online.)
I clicked on the PDF and read the chapter. In addition to portrayals of Blacks and alcohol, Assouline writes about the ways that Herge depicted Jews. I think it will prove useful when my copy of Tintin in America arrives.

I'm also intrigued by what I'm reading in Paul Mountfort's "'Yellow skin, black hair... Careful, Tintin': Herge and Orientalism" published in 2012 in the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture (Volume 1 Number 1): 
The original black and white version of Tintin in America (1931-32) offers a blistering critique of capitalism, both implicitly in its depictions of down-trodden urban Black Americans and in its explicit representation of American Indians as the victims of colonial dispossession and ongoing oppression at the hands of capital, backed by the US Army at gunpoint. (p. 38)
Eighty years later, "ongoing oppression" is about right, as the US is poised to, once again, come down on the side of companies who want resources on Native lands (see, for example, the resolution by the National Congress of American Indians ). It is too bad, however, that the Indians Herge presents are stereotypes (see the cover above). But how did he show them as "abject?":
the colour French (1946) and English (Herge 1978) editions progressively bowdlerized key scenes at their publishers insistence, so that, for instance, both a black doorman and mother with wailing child are literally bleached white in the colour version (Herge 1978:29 f12, 47 f15), along with their implications of ghettoization, due to the 'unsuitability' of mixing races in a children's book destined for an American audience. Similarly, frames depicting 'Red Indians' as abject were severely toned down (1978: 16 f7-8). (p. 38)
The copy I ordered is the 1978 edition. I'll have to see if I can get the black and white version to see what needed to be toned down. (If you've got access to it, perhaps you can scan relevant pages for me.)

Update, Saturday, December 31, 8:02 AM CST
Adelaide Dupont submitted a comment that says the Indians in the original are "Lakota Isnala." Items shown include a peace pipe, a tomahawk, a monastery, and a treaty. Using "Lakota Isnala" as a search term, I found a bit more information, also from Assouline's book. He says that Herge was looking for fresh ideas:
Then in the last months of 1957 he read an article on American Indians, reviving his youthful passion. He found his thread: Tintin finds himself on a reservation trying to prevent unscrupulous businessmen from evicting the natives in order to drill for oil. He immediately wrote to his old friend Father Gall to ask for his advice on the project. The Cistercian monk was an expert on the Plains Indians, who had named him "Lakota Isnala." He sent Herge five single-spaced typewritten pages filled with details and anecdotes about the geography of Little Rock and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indians' hostility toward white people, and the despoliation of their land by big corporations. He even wrote of how Indians had been on the front line when the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy.

Like the previous project, the story opens with an incident on the road to Marlinspike Hall. An accident, or is it an attempt on the life of a Sioux? At the hospital, in his delirium, the man mentions a peace pipe, a tomahawk, and a monastery. Going to the monastery and visiting an exhibit of Indian artifacts, Tintin discovers that the peace pipe has disappeared. It contains a precious official document proving the claims of the Indians to their hunting grounds. As all the other copies have vanished it is the last thing to prevent their being forced from their land by an oil company. Herge abandoned this project instinctively. (p. 187)

I read that excerpt in Google books preview. The excerpt prompts questions! What was that youthful passion? What was the article Herge read? Why did Herge abandon the project? I've got Assouline's biography on order...

"Lakota Isnala" also turned up in my search. Paul Goble also consulted with "Lakota Isnala" in writing Red Hawk's Account of Custer's Last Battle" in 1969. Interesting, eh?! I gotta learn more about "Lakota Isnala"!

Update: Saturday, December 31, 10:30 AM CST
"Lakota Isnala" is also in Benoit Peeters Herge, Son of Tintin, published by JHU Press in 2011. The Google Books preview offers a bit more info than the preview of Assouline's book allowed. Herge met "Lakota Isnala" at "the Trappist abbey of Scourmont near Chimay" (p. 204), where Herge went to rest. At first he was bored with the religious services there. Then, he met Father Gall, a monk who was "passionately interested by American Indians" (p. 204) who had entered the monastery in 1926.:
Without ever having set foot in America, he had learned the Sioux language in order to correspond with the tribe. Herge and Father Gall struck up an immediate friendship. The monk took the cartoonist into his den, an isolated circular room at the top of a small tower.
There, you don't know if you're still in an abbey or if you're in a Sioux tent. Eagle-feather headdresses, bows and arrows, tomahawks, guns, a peace pipe, and all sorts of other objects. Since I had read Paul Coze's book Moeurs et histoire des Peaux-Rouges (Customs and history of the Indians), I didn't feel too out of place. We talked for a long time. The names of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, all the famous Indian chiefs, came up again and again, mingled with mentions of Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, all the battles in which they became famous. He showed me photos of his friends Black Elk and Little Warrior, and told me their stories. Then he told me about his own life, or rather his grandmother's; she almost married a Sioux. He is Sioux by adoption himself; that is, he is actually part of the White Butte Band, a tribe of Ogallala Sioux! [31]
Herge, passionately interested since his youth in the world of the Indians, as totally fascinated by Father Gall. Gall was an extraordinary character, and he made a deep impression on the few people who were lucky enough to meet him. "My name is Lakota Ishnala," he would tell his visitors, "which means 'the solitary Sioux.' I am solitary in two senses; not only does this allude to the solitary prayers of the Indians, since I am a man of religion, but it is also a reminder that I am all alone here, far from my people and my family." [32]

The day after their first meeting, Father Gall took Herge into the woods, to the place he called his "reservation." There, the monk dressed in Indian clothing from head to foot, complete with a feather headdress, embroidered vest, loincloth and trousers, moccasins, and blanket. In a few minutes, the Trappist monk had transformed himself into a Sioux chief. Soon he suggested that Herge smoke the peace pipe with him, according to the very strict Indian rites: the bowl had to be stuffed with tobacco and special roots; the pipe raised toward the sky and lowered toward the earth, then turned toward the four cardinal points, before it could be passed around by the participants. This was a form of religious sentiment that Herge felt extremely close to. Father Gall spoke to him about the Indian soul, the desire for communion with all the beings in the universe, and the feeling of harmony with nature of which the white man was capable. He also tried to correct the misconceptions propagated by the Scouts on the subject, before describing the current situation of Indians on reservations. Fascinated, Herge decided to suggest that Paul Cuvelier work with Father Gall on an "illustrated history of the Indians."  (pp. 204-205).
LOTS of red flags all through there... How did this monk learn to write the "Sioux language"? At best, he learned Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota. And just who was he corresponding with? I don't think there is a "White Butte Band." Was Gall friends with Black Elk? I suppose that is possible, given that Black Elk was in England as part of the Wild West show that toured there. Do I need to do research on Gall?! His persona was convincing to Herge, and as noted earlier, to Paul Goble, too. Do these two European writers (Herge and Goble) mean to tell us that this was the best they could do in terms of reliable sources for their portrayals of American Indians?!!! 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

"...they're reading Twilight!"

Add caption
We spent some of this holiday watching Friday Night Lights.

In the fourth season, a leading character exits the show. His girlfriend is desperate to fill her time and signs up for every club posted on the school bulletin board. One of my favorite characters--Landry Clark--understands how she feels and says that the school beautification committee isn't a good choice, and that the Book Club "would be fine except this week 'cause this week they're reading Twilight." It is just one of many beautifully delivered lines by Jesse Plemons, a talented actor who plays a geeky football player.

Occasionally they refer to children's literature in some way. In the first season, the back-up quarterback was called "the little engine that could." There's some great writing on this series! I'm enjoying it quite a lot. I'd love to know what the writers meant when they dissed Twilight. Was it the problematic way that Meyer presents the Native content?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Anita Silvey is a powerful person in children's literature. Among her many accomplishments are that she was the editor at the The Horn Book Magazine, and has been on NPR and television news programs. According to the information on her website, her lifelong conviction is that “only the very best of anything can be good enough for the young.”

Going through her Book-A-Day Almanac with that conviction in mind, I'm a bit puzzled. On one hand, or rather, on one day, she hails Morning Girl by Michael Dorris for helping her to see Christopher Columbus in a new way...  Indeed, she was so moved by Morning Girl that she no longer celebrates Columbus Day.  Here's what Silvey wrote:
Morning Girl provides a different lens for history. As the saying goes, history gets written by the winners. But in this slim book, Michael Dorris makes it possible to view events in 1492 from the point of view of the people already living in the Americas, sailing no oceans. Because Dorris accomplished his mission so brilliantly, I have not celebrated Columbus Day since I read this small gem.
Though I've not written (yet) about Morning Girl on AICL, I agree with her assessment. It is a gem. Reading comments from her readers, I think she influenced several people to revisit how they view Columbus Day, too. That's a good thing because U.S. history is too-often romanticized and glorified, and too-often, stereotypes are not challenged. Dorris challenged these stereotypes, as Silvey tells us:
As a child, Dorris had found only stereotypical Indians in books; so he set out to craft a story with authentic Native American characters that children would want to read about, get to know, and grow to love. 
What she does not tell her readers is that the stereotypical Indians Dorris found in books he read as a child are the ones in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series---which is that 'other hand' I alluded to above. On one hand, Silvey praises Dorris, and on the other, she praises Wilder. (For my response to Silvey's recommendation of the series, see my post on July 11, 2011.)

In his essay, "Trusting the Words," Dorris wrote about sitting down to read Little House in the Big Woods to his daughters:
Not one page into Little House in the Big Woods, I heard my voice saying, "As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them."

Say what? Excuse me, but weren't we forgetting the Chippewa branch of my daughters' immediate ancestry, not to mention the thousands of resident Menominees, Potawatomis, Sauks, Foxes, Winnebagos, and Ottawas who inhabited mid-nineteenth-century Wisconsin, as they had for many hundreds of years? Exactly upon whose indigenous land was Grandma and Grandpa's cozy house constructed? Had they paid for the bountiful property, teeming with wild game and fish? This fun-filled world of extended Ingallses was curiously empty, a pristine wilderness in which only white folks toiled and cavorted, ate and harvested, celebrated and were kind to each other.

My dilemma, as a raconteur, was clear. My little girls looked up to me with trusting eyes, eager to hear me continue with the first of these books I had promised with such anticipation. I had made "an event" out of their reading, an intergenerational gift, and now in the cold light of an adult perspective I realized that I was, in my reluctance to dilute the pleasure of a good story with the sober stuff of history, in the process of perpetuating a Eurocentric attitude that was still very much alive. One had only to peruse newspaper accounts of contemporary Wisconsin controversies over tribal fishing rights, bingo emporia, and legal and tax jurisdiction to realize that many of Grandpa and Grandma's descendants remained determined that there could be "no people" except those who were just like them. (p. 271-272)
Dorris closed Little House in the Big Woods at that point, deciding he'd set that book aside and try again the next night with Little House on the Prairie. In that one, he recalled that the family had moved west. There, he figured, there would be Indians. Things seemed to be going fine as he read it to his daughters, but then he got to page 46 where Ma tells Laura she doesn't like Indians. Dorris writes:
What was a responsible father to do? Stop the narrative, explain that Ma was a know-nothing racist? Describe the bitter injustice of unilateral treaty abridgment? Break into a chorus of "Oklahoma!" and then point out how American popular culture has long covered up the shame of the Dawes Act by glossing it over with Sooner folklore? (p 274)
What he did instead, was start editing and leaving out words and passages as he read, doing what he could to counter the racism until he couldn't do it any longer. There was too much of it. He ended up putting the books on a top shelf and telling them to read them later on, on their own. He closes that essay by imagining a moment sometime in the future when each of his daughters would come to him with the book in-hand, outraged at its contents.

With someone as influential as Anita Silvey recommending the books, she is making sure the books stay on the bedside table, not the top shelf. So you see why I am puzzled by her conviction and the books she writes about on Book-A-Day.  How are the stereotypes in the Little House books "the very best" for children? Or the ones in other books she recommends, like Danny and the Dinosaur?

"Trusting the Words" is available in Paper Trails: Essays, by Michael Dorris, published in 1994 by HarperCollins.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

THE CHRISTMAS COAT by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

On December 6, 2011, I learned about a new book called The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood, by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Earlier this week, I read it, and like it very much. Here's the cover:

The book is subtitled "Memories of my Sioux Childhood" and that's Virginia on the cover. These are her memories. Perhaps the subtitle signals that there may be other books in the works. I hope so!

In The Christmas Coat, we come to know a young Virginia and her family in South Dakota in the 1940s or thereabouts. That's "a long time ago" to any young child, but in this "long time ago" story, we have Native children who, like other children of that time period, wear things like... green sweaters rather than the popular stereotype that suggests that "real" Indians wear buckskin and feathers.  Like people of any culture or nation, we have clothing that we wear at specific times for specific purposes. Virginia wore that green sweater, but doing so did not--and does not--make her "less" Native.


The Christmas Coat won the 

On the cover, we see three children in buckskin and feathered headdresses. The reason they're dressed that way is because they are playing the part of the Wise Men at a Nativity pageant. The accompanying text says "They wore headdresses that only the wise leaders and elders of the tribe could wear."

You see, Virginia's dad is an Episcopal priest in their village. That plays a major role in the story. People from church congregations in the eastern part of the United States would send boxes of clothing to churches on reservations. The winter boxes include coats. Virginia needs, and wants, a new coat... How she gets one is the plot of the story.  With Christmas 2011 a few days away, children all over the US are filled with wants, and needs, too. As such, the story will resonate with children and their parents, too.

Beneath that plot, however, is a wealth of information that children can pick up. As I said last week, Christmas at my mom's is a mix of traditional Pueblo ways, and, mainstream things like Christmas trees and Santa Claus (I played the part of Santa last year):

The Santa in Virginia's story brings a bag of gifts. Inside that bag is a mix of traditional and mainstream items. Virginia's present from Santa is one of the dolls you see in his bag (image from illustrator, Ellen Beier's website):

Beier's illustrations are terrific. See more of them here. She did a lot of research and work that helped her create the images that beautifully capture Virginia's story.

I hope Holiday House has more of Virginia's stories in the works. If you're still looking for a gift for someone, consider getting a copy of The Christmas Coat right away. Get two! One to give this year, and another copy for next year, too, for another child.

 The Christmas Coat was featured on NPR earlier this week.

The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood
Written by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier
Published in 2011 by Holiday House
Support independent, Native-owned bookstores! Order it from Birchbark Books

The Christmas Coat won the 2011 Youth Literature Award from the American Indian Library Association. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

AICL listed on HORN BOOK "Kids, books, and blogs" page

Back before The Horn Book redesigned its website, American Indians in Children's Literature was amongst the blogs it listed on its "Kids, books, and blogs" page. I grabbed a screen shot of it from its archive and am sharing it here. As far as I can tell, they haven't recreated the page on their new site.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Native students rebut ABC's "Children of the Plains"

In October of 2011, ABC broadcast "Children of the Plains" on its 20/20 program. Watching the promos for it, I shook my head. Diane Sawyer gave her viewers a very narrow program that did little to portray Native youth in the fullness of their existence.

Today (December 13, 2011) I'm sharing a rebuttal to Sawyer.

Please watch More Than That, and share it with as many people as you can. Those of you who work with children's literature in some way, keep this video in mind when you're reviewing books. We need literature that reflects the entirety of who we are rather than an outsiders romantic or derogatory misconception.

More Than That...  
by students at Todd County High School
Mission, South Dakota

Update: 6:15 AM, Wednesday, December 14, 2011

After posting the video yesterday, I watched some of the other videos the students have on Youtube. They do a video news broadcast at their school. That's what the first part of the video below shows, but the second half is a series of outtakes. While More Than That... blew me away, 12-12-11 (below) made me smile. These students are terrific! Right now, the school features More Than That... on their homepage.

12-12-11 Falcon News
Todd County High School
Mission, South Dakota

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

MY NAME IS NOT EASY... on Kindle Fire?

This news is interesting! If I read it right, I think that Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name is Not Easy is going to be available on Kindle...

The press release says something about "the brilliant touchstone screen" of Kindle Fire. I wonder if they plan to add images to Debby's book?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

New book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve!

Just saw something I must check out! Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve has a new book out... 

Read about it at Cynsations, where Cynthia Leitich Smith has an interview with the illustrator, Ellen Beier.

What I find intriguing about the cover is the children in traditional clothing looking at the Christmas tree. If you were at my mom and dad's home at Nambe Pueblo on Christmas Eve, you'd see something like that....  Those of us who were dancing that night would be in traditional clothes, and, there'd be a Christmas tree there, too.

Definitely looking forward to reading it!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I'm taking a much needed break for a couple of weeks...  

I'll be back, though! See you then!