Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mexican American Studies Department Reading List

[Note: For a chronological and comprehensive list of links to AICL's coverage of the shut-down of the Mexican American Studies Department at Tucson Unified School District, go here. To go right to information about the National Mexican American Studies Teach-in, go here.]

Book list below; author responses to their books being banned is here:
Authors banned in Tucson respond


Cambium Learning, Inc. conducted an audit of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. The findings were published in May 2, 2011. The audit took place between March 7, 2011 and May 2, 2011. [Update, Jan 16, 7:35 PM: Cambium was hired by Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, district to do the audit. Cambium recommended the Mexican American Studies program be continued. The superintendent disagreed with the audit findings, and shut the program down.]

The following books are listed on Appendix Item Mexican American Studies Department Reading List of the audit of the Mexican American Studies program. I am presenting the lists here, replicating the lists as shown on the audit. News stories indicate that book in the Mexican American Studies classrooms were boxed up and removed from classrooms last week. At this point is is not known if all the books listed below were boxed and removed. They were placed in storage.

For critical discussion, see "Teaching Critical Thinking in Arizona: NOT ALLOWED".
The report (in pdf) is available here: Curriculum Audit of the Mexican American Studies Department, Tucson Unified School District, May 2, 2011.

High School Course Texts and Reading Lists Table 20: American Government/Social Justice Education Project 1, 2 - Texts and Reading Lists
  • Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (1998), by B. Bigelow and B. Peterson
  • The Latino Condition: A Critical Reader (1998), by R. Delgado and J. Stefancic
  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001), by R. Delgado and J. Stefancic
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000), by P. Freire
  • United States Government: Democracy in Action (2007), by R. C. Remy
  • Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History (2006), by F. A. Rosales
  • Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (1990), by H. Zinn

Table 21: American History/Mexican American Perspectives, 1, 2 - Texts and Reading Lists
  • Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (2004), by R. Acuna
  • The Anaya Reader (1995), by R. Anaya
  • The American Vision (2008), by J. Appleby et el.
  • Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (1998), by B. Bigelow and B. Peterson
  • Drink Cultura: Chicanismo (1992), by J. A. Burciaga
  • Message to Aztlan: Selected Writings (1997), by C. Jiminez
  • De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views Multi-Colored Century (1998), by E. S. Martinez
  • 500 Anos Del Pueblo Chicano/500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures (1990), by E. S. Martinez
  • Codex Tamuanchan: On Becoming Human (1998), by R. Rodriguez
  • The X in La Raza II (1996), by R. Rodriguez
  • Dictionary of Latino Civil Rights History (2006), by F. A. Rosales
  • A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (2003), by H. Zinn

Course: English/Latino Literature 7, 8
  • Ten Little Indians (2004), by S. Alexie
  • The Fire Next Time (1990), by J. Baldwin
  • Loverboys (2008), by A. Castillo
  • Women Hollering Creek (1992), by S. Cisneros
  • Mexican WhiteBoy (2008), by M. de la Pena
  • Drown (1997), by J. Diaz
  • Woodcuts of Women (2000), by D. Gilb
  • At the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria (1965), by E. Guevara
  • Color Lines: "Does Anti-War Have to Be Anti-Racist Too?" (2003), by E. Martinez
  • Culture Clash: Life, Death and Revolutionary Comedy (1998), by R. Montoya et al.
  • Let Their Spirits Dance (2003) by S. Pope Duarte
  • Two Badges: The Lives of Mona Ruiz (1997), by M. Ruiz
  • The Tempest (1994), by W. Shakespeare
  • A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993), by R. Takaki
  • The Devil's Highway (2004), by L. A. Urrea
  • Puro Teatro: A Latino Anthology (1999), by A. Sandoval-Sanchez & N. Saporta Sternbach
  • Twelve Impossible Things before Breakfast: Stories (1997), by J. Yolen
  • Voices of a People's History of the United States (2004), by H. Zinn

Course: English/Latino Literature 5, 6
  • Live from Death Row (1996), by J. Abu-Jamal
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1994), by S. Alexie
  • Zorro (2005), by I. Allende
  • Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1999), by G. Anzaldua
  • A Place to Stand (2002), by J. S. Baca
  • C-Train and Thirteen Mexicans (2002), by J. S. Baca
  • Healing Earthquakes: Poems (2001), by J. S. Baca
  • Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems (1990), by J. S. Baca
  • Black Mesa Poems (1989), by J. S. Baca
  • Martin & Mediations on the South Valley (1987), by J. S. Baca
  • The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools (19950, by D. C. Berliner and B. J. Biddle
  • Drink Cultura: Chicanismo (1992), by J. A Burciaga
  • Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young and Latino in the United States (2005), by L. Carlson & O. Hijuielos
  • Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Latino in the United States (1995), by L. Carlson & O. Hijuielos
  • So Far From God (1993), by A. Castillo
  • Address to the Commonwealth Club of California (1985), by C. E. Chavez
  • Women Hollering Creek (1992), by S. Cisneros
  • House on Mango Street (1991), by S. Cisneros
  • Drown (1997), by J. Diaz
  • Suffer Smoke (2001), by E. Diaz Bjorkquist
  • Zapata's Discipline: Essays (1998), by M. Espada
  • Like Water for Chocolate (1995), by L. Esquievel
  • When Living was a Labor Camp (2000), by D. Garcia
  • La Llorona: Our Lady of Deformities (2000), by R. Garcia
  • Cantos Al Sexto Sol: An Anthology of Aztlanahuac Writing (2003), by C. Garcia-Camarilo, et al.
  • The Magic of Blood (1994), by D. Gilb
  • Message to Aztlan: Selected Writings (2001), by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales
  • Saving Our Schools: The Case for Public Education, Saying No to "No Child Left Behind" (2004) by Goodman, et al.
  • Feminism is for Everybody (2000), by b hooks
  • The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child (1999), by F. Jimenez
  • Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (1991), by J. Kozol
  • Zigzagger (2003), by M. Munoz
  • Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature (1993), by T. D. Rebolledo & E. S. Rivero
  • ...y no se lo trago la tierra/And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1995), by T. Rivera
  • Always Running - La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (2005), by L. Rodriguez
  • Justice: A Question of Race (1997), by R. Rodriguez
  • The X in La Raza II (1996), by R. Rodriguez
  • Crisis in American Institutions (2006), by S. H. Skolnick & E. Currie
  • Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941 (1986), by T. Sheridan
  • Curandera (1993), by Carmen Tafolla
  • Mexican American Literature (1990), by C. M. Tatum
  • New Chicana/Chicano Writing (1993), by C. M. Tatum
  • Civil Disobedience (1993), by H. D. Thoreau
  • By the Lake of Sleeping Children (1996), by L. A. Urrea
  • Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life (2002), by L. A. Urrea
  • Zoot Suit and Other Plays (1992), by L. Valdez
  • Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert (1995), by O. Zepeda

UPDATE, Monday, January 16, 2012
The list above is not complete. As I learn of other titles that have been boxed, I will add them to the list.
  • Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
  • Yo Soy Joaquin/I Am Joaquin, by Rodolfo Gonzales
  • Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea
  • The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea

UPDATE, Tuesday, February 21, 2012
I'm inserting a list of items taught by Curtis Acosta in his Social Justice course.

Non-Fiction - Personal Reflections
  • My Dungeon Shook by James Baldwin
  • La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness by Gloria Anzaldua
Short Stories
  • Selections from Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
  • Eleven by Sandra Cisneros
  • Vatolandia by Ana Castillo
  • Love in L.A. by Dagoberto Gilb
  • Lindo y Querido by Manuel Munoz
  • Brisa by Dagoberto Gilb
  • Aurora by Juno Diaz
  • Lost Girls by Jane Yolen
  • Selection from Tuff by Paul Beatty
Counter Story Telling and Cultura Through Teatro 
  • And Where Was Pancho Villa When You Really Needed Him? by Silviana Wood 
  • Culture Clash in America and Culture Clash: Life, Death and Revolutionary Comedy by Culture Clash
Shakespeare, Colonization, and Critical Race Theory
  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Immigration - La Lucha Sigue
  • The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
Resistance Through Rhetoric
  • The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son by Martin Espada
  • Jesse Jackson's speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention
  • Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention
  • Speech at the Afro-Asian Conference by Ernesto "Che" Guevara
  • "Women, Power, and Revolution" by Kathleen Cleaver
  • "Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation" by Angela Davis
  • Message to Aztlan by Corky Gonzales
  • Message to the Grass Roots by Malcom X
  • "Beyond Vietnam" and Where We Go From Here by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • "Does 'Anti-War' Have to be 'Anti-Racist', too? by Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez
Resistance/Revolution in Spoken Word, Slam Poetry, and Hip Hop
  • Selections from William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Ana Castillo, Tracy Morris, Paul Beatty
Hip Hop
Selections from Olmeca, Sihuatl-De, Dead Prez, Common, Kanye West, KRS-1, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Rage Against the Machine, etc.

In the video below, teacher Yolanda Sotelo (she taught in the Mexican American Studies program that was shut down last week) discusses novels she can no longer teach. They were boxed and removed. Teachers have been told that they will be monitored to make sure they do not teach those novels. Ironically, if Sotelo was teaching at Tucson's college prep school, she'd be able to teach Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me Ultima. [Video source: ThreeSonorans channel on YouTube]

Update: Tuesday, January 17, 2012, 7:00 AM CST

Brenda Norrell of Censored News has video interviews of three students at her site. Interviews were recorded at an MLK event yesterday.

In the first one, the student describes how shelves were cleared of books during class.  In the second, the student points to a double standard. It is only the Mexican American Studies class and books in those classrooms that are being targeted. Those books include more than just ones by Latino/a authors. Amongst the curriculum are books by African American, Asian American, American Indian, feminist, and progressive writers. Other ethnic studies programs are being left alone.  In the third video, the student talks about the importance for all Americans of knowing the histories of all Americans.

Update: Tuesday, January 17, 6:40 PM CST

There are conflicting reports on how many books were removed. Cara Rene, spokesperson for the Tucson Unified School District says:
"The books... have been moved to the district storage facility because the classes have been suspended as per the ruling by Arizona Superintendent (of) Public Instruction John Huppenthal," 
The Tempest was not removed. According to the news story at Arizona Central (Update, 1/29/2012: Listen to an audio discussion between Curtis Acosta, MAS teacher, and TUSD administrators, discussing how he can and can not teach Tempest),
Rene said the seven books removed from the classrooms were: "Critical Race Theory" by Richard Delgado; "500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures" edited by Elizabeth Martinez; "Message to AZTLAN" by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales; "Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement" by Arturo Rosales; "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos" by Rodolfo Acuña; "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paulo Freire; and "Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years" by Bill Bigelow.


The Tucson Unified School District website has a statement with contradictory statements about the books they boxed up.  Below, I'm reproducing the statement in its entirety, and I am placing the contradictory statements in red. You can find the statement here. The copy below is accompanied with "Last updated: 01/17/2012 14:32:39".

Reports of TUSD book ban completely false and misleading

Posted on: January 17, 2012
Contact: Cara Rene, Communication Director, (520) 225-6101,

Tucson Unified School District has not banned any books as has been widely and incorrectly reported.

Seven books that were used as supporting materials for curriculum in Mexcian American Studies classes have been moved to the district storage facility because the classes have been suspended as per the ruling by Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction John Huppenthal. Superintendent Huppenthal upheld an Office of Adminstriation Hearings’ ruling that the classes were in violation of state law ARS 15-112.

The books are:
  • Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado
  • 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures edited by Elizabeth Martinez
  • Message to AZTLAN by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales
  • Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales
  • Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuna
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
  • Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow
NONE of the above books have been banned by TUSD. Each book has been boxed and stored as part of the process of suspending the classes. The books listed above were cited in the ruling that found the classes out of compliance with state law.

Every one of the books listed above is still available to students through several school libraries. Many of the schools where Mexican American Studies classes were taught have the books available in their libraries. Also, all students throughout the district may reserve the books through the library system.

Other books have also been falsely reported as being banned by TUSD. It has been incorrectly reported that William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is not allowed for instruction. Teachers may continue to use materials in their classrooms as appropriate for the course curriculum. “The Tempest” and other books approved for curriculum are still viable options for instructors.

The suspended Mexican American Studies classes were converted last week to standard grade-level courses with a general curriculum featuring multiple perspectives, as per the directive by the state superintendent. Students remained in classes with their teachers, who are now teaching general curriculum.

As the district has taken action to comply with the order from the state, the goal of the district has continued to be to prevent disruption to student learning. Books used as instructional materials in the former Mexican American Studies classes were collected only from classrooms in schools where the courses were taught. Again, all the books are still available to students through the TUSD library system.

In one instance, at Tucson High Magnet School, materials were collected from a filing cabinet while students were in class though teaching did not stop during the process.

Tucson High Magnet School Principal Dr. Abel Morado acknowledges that the gathering of materials could have been accomplished outside of class time in all instances.

“We had a directive to be in compliance with the law and acted quickly to meet that need,” says Morado. “Part of that directive is communicating with teachers, students and parents, and collecting materials. We regret that in one instance materials were collected during class time.”

AICL Coverage of Arizona Law that resulted in shut down of Mexican American Studies Program and Banning of Books

Teaching critical thinking in Arizona: NOT ALLOWED

 [Note: A chronological list of links to AICL's coverage of the shut-down of the Mexican American Studies Department at Tucson Unified School District is here. Information about the national Mexican American Studies Teach-in is here. The best source for daily updates out of Tucson is blogger David Abie Morales at Three Sonorans.]

Very early on Saturday, January 15, 2012, I read an article in Salon that said that Rethinking Columbus and the Tempest were being boxed up and removed from classrooms in Tucson, Arizona. They were part of the curriculum of the Mexican American Studies program in the school district. Due to the objection of some people in Arizona, that program has now been shut down.

On January 13, 2012, Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools wrote about Rethinking Columbus being removed. Within its pages are items by Native people, including
  • Suzan Shown Harjo's "We Have No Reason to Celebrate"
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie's "My Country, 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying"
  • Joseph Bruchac's "A Friend of the Indians"
  • Cornel Pewewardy's "A Barbie-Doll Pocahontas"
  • N. Scott Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee"
  • Michael Dorris's "Why I'm Not Thankful for Thanksgiving"
  • Leslie Marmon's "Ceremony"
  • Wendy Rose's "Three Thousand Dollar Death Song"
  • Winona LaDuke's "To the Women of the World: Our Future, Our Responsibility"

As the day progressed, I began asking colleagues if anyone had a complete list of the books being removed. As of now (Sunday, January 15, 2012), several people are trying to find out more about the books that are being taken away.

One colleague pointed me to an audit of the program that includes a lengthy list of books that auditors saw in the classrooms. It includes Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians and Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven; it also includes Ofelia Zepeda's Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert

One thing I noted in my quick read of the audit is that the students in the program outperformed students who were not in the program. Further research led me to a broadcast on Democracy Now. On December 29, 2011, Amy Goodman quoted from the audit:
[A] Tucson Unified School District audit found its Mexican American Studies program gives students a measurable advantage over their peers. The audit was conducted by David Scott, the district’s director of accountability and research. In it, he wrote, quote, "Juniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely than their peers to pass the [state’s standardized] reading and writing ... test if they had previously failed those tests in their sophomore year," and that "Seniors taking a Mexican American Studies course are more likely to persist to graduation than their peers."

The Mexican American Studies program was built on critical thinking. Students learned how to think critically, to question texts, to look at moments in history and portrayals of Latino Americans and American Indians from more than one perspective.

The books used in the program are terrific. Some are award winning children's literature, like Matt de la Pena's Mexican WhiteBoy

Some are by writers who are not Latino or American Indian. An example of that is Jane Yolen's Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I asked Jane yesterday morning if she knew whether or not her book was being boxed up. She hadn't heard anything. 

The list has some nonfiction on it, too. The auditors said that some of the books are not age-appropriate. According to the auditors, they belong in college, not high school classrooms. That, in my view, is bull. It is a convenient rationale for targeting those books that allows them to hide their fear of critical thinking. Nonfiction titles on the list include:
  • Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States
  • Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools
  • bell hooks' Feminism is for Everybody 

Opponents of the program argued that the classes were promoting resentment toward a race or class of people. That race or class of people is white.

In their (perhaps) unspoken words, thinking critically about America is dangerous and threatening to the existing power structure.

I'm pretty sure that Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie is not on the list. Towards the end of that story, Pa learns that the federal government wants squatters (he doesn't use that word) to get off of Indian land. They load the wagon and as they drive away, they look back and see that that "their little log house and the little stable sat lonely in the stillness." Pa says that it is a great country, "but there will be wild Indians and wolves here for many a long day."  Books like Little House teach readers to resent a race or class of people, too, but I doubt it is being removed from classrooms in Tucson. 

I'll post updates as I get them...  If you're in Tucson and saw books being boxed up, please write to me and provide me with titles. You can use my email address ( or the Contact option in the menu bar above, or, if you prefer anonymity, use the comment box below.

UPDATE, JAN 15, 2012, 12:50 PM, CST:
Due to queries, I uploaded a list of the books listed in the audit:
Mexican American Studies Department Reading List

UPDATE, JAN 15, 2012, 1:10 PM, CST:
Brenda Norrell of Censored News is covering the story and includes a response from Roberto Rodriguez.

UPDATE, JAN 15, 2012, 4:20 PM, CST:
For further reading:
  • House Bill 2281 -  "public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people." 
  • Arizona District Court document on the Mexican American Studies program.
UPDATE, JAN 16, 2012, 6:50 AM, CST:
Precious Knowledge is a documentary about the Mexican American Studies program that includes powerful footage of students and teachers in the program, and, footage of state administrators who characterize the program and people in it as anti-American.  See the trailer and information about the documentary at Precious Knowledge.

Below is a 30 minute clip about the program. Some of it is from Precious Knowledge. The young man who speaks at the 1:58 mark talks about administrators coming into his classroom last week on Friday and directing teachers to box their books. One young woman who works in the library as an aide says that library copies of books will likely remain on the shelves, but that the teachers cannot teach the books. The young woman at 22:20 said it was heartbreaking to watch their teachers box the books. It concludes in a classroom. The teacher speaks with great emotion, which leads me to think that this footage was filmed after House Bill 2281 was passed. [Video source: Three Sonorans channel on YouTube]

Below is a clip of teacher, Yolanda Sotelo, talking about books and the events of last week. Administrators will visit classes to make sure the teachers are not teaching the banned books. [Video source: Three Sonorans channel on YouTube]

The Save Ethnic Studies website has an extensive archive of court documents, statements, transcripts, student work. 

For ongoing AICL coverage, read through AICL from January 15 to the present or go directly to specific posts by clicking on links below:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

AICL Coverage of Arizona Law that resulted in shut down of Mexican American Studies Program and Banning of Books

Friday, January 13, 2012

Stereotypes of American Indians in Little Golden Books

Editors Note: Updated April 10, 2013 with annotations for My Little Golden Dictionary, Howdy Doody and the Princess, Bugs Bunny and the Indians; the addition of the Giant Golden Book, Cowboys and Indians, and The Little Trapper.


In 1942, Little Golden Books was launched. Among them are several with stereotypes of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

I don't know if this compilation is comprehensive...  If something is missing, let me know!  Below are the covers of books published from 1948 through 1974. Some observations about the 20 books:
  • Two are alphabet books.
  • Seven are television shows or movies.
  • Four show a non-Native kid (or a rabbit) playing Indian.
  • Seven show warbonnets.
  • Six show headbands. 
  • There are 18 Indians shown on these covers (two on the Bugs Bunny one; none on the Roy Rogers and Little Trapper books). Only 2 are female. One of the two females is... umm... Howdy Doody's "Princess." I wonder what words Margaret Wise Brown used in her book? It is possible the Eskimo is female, too. I've assumed it is a male. If I'm wrong, let me know! 

Do you have any of these books? Others? What are your observations?

I have Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way by Leonard Marcus. I don't think he mentions any of these in his book. 

Here we go...

Up in the Attic: A Story A B C
by Hilda K. Williams, illustrated by Corinne Malvern

Cowboys and Indians
by Kathryn Jackson and Byron Jackson
illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren

From reviews at Amazon, I see the book has 52 stories and rhymes. The Indian's is "Little Bear." There's also a Chinese cook named "No Pow Wow."

In "Lazy River Ranch" we read that "Injuns" that were "painted all up with fierce war paint" fought "your grandpa" but "a heap of red men bit the dust."

In "The Poor Wandering Cowboy" there's an Indian who comes riding along: "The Indian said 'How!'" Head over to Golden Gems and read both in their entirety, and others, too.

My Little Golden Dictionary
illustrated by Richard Scarry

I for Indian was once commonly done. So was E for Eskimo. Notice all the other items shown on the cover are objects or animals. No G for German, J for Japanese, etc.

This seemingly innocuous use of "Indian" or "Eskimo" dehumanizes and obscures who Native people are. There are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations in the US and Alaska. "I for Indian" suggests that we all wear large feathered headdresses. We don't.

The Little Trapper
by Kathryn and Byron Jackson
illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren

No Indian on the cover, but inside, Dan (shown on cover), meets an "Indian girl." To see her, go to Golden Gems. She looks just like Teggren's Little Bear on the cover of Cowboys and Indians (shown above) except that she is wearing a dress, a necklace, and a bracelet. Like Little Bear, she has blue moccasins and trousers trimmed with red triangles on a white background. Her hair and Little Bear's hair is identical, and so is the feather (white on bottom, red on tip). Her headband is red; his is multi-colored.

Bugs Bunny and the Indians
by Annie North Bedford

Bugs Bunny spends the summer on a ranch where he wears two guns. None of the other cowboys have guns, by Bugs tells Porky Pig, "You have to be prepared, my Boy... There might be wild Indians around." The cowboys laugh at Bugs and conspire to play a trick on him, in which Cowboy Slim, who is "a real Indian" and other Indians capture a very scared Bugs. One "brave" (Cowboy Slim) says "Now let us see you shoot those guns you carry for the wild Indians." Turns out Bugs is armed with water pistols. The Indians love 'em and trade with Bugs. In the end, he's wearing a feathered headdress.  

Howdy Doody and the Princess
by Edward Kean

The princess is named "Princess Summerfall Winterspring." From his airplane (the "Air-o-doodle") they see a "contraption" (wagon). Princess says "Looks like a medicine man to me." They land to check it out. The "medicine man" is a showman (not an Indian) named Doc Lemon who does magic tricks. The princess has a magic necklace and outshines Doc. He's a sly one and swaps her necklace with one of his that isn't magic. Later when she talks to hers: "Kawa goopa tinka tonka--which way?" it does nothing. They set out to get it back.

Problems? Name of princess; calling showman a medicine man trivializes medicine people who are revered within Native Nations; words princess uses are bogus; stereotype portrayal of princess--no tribe, tipi, fringed clothing.

Indian Indian
by Charlotte Zolotow

The Little Eskimo
 by Kathryn Jackson

Peter Pan and the Indians
by Annie Bedford

Walt Disney Studios

Little Indian
by Margaret Wise Brown
illustrated by Richard Scarry

Buffalo Bill, Jr.
by Gladys Wyatt
illustrated by Hamilton Green

Roy Rogers and the Indian Sign
by Gladys Wyatt
illustrated by Mel Crawford

Lone Ranger and Tonto
by Charles Verral

Brave Eagle
by Charles Verral

Broken Arrow
by Charles Verral
illustrated by Mel Crawford

Cowboys and Indians
by Willis Lindquist
illustrated by Richard Scarry

by Elizabeth Beecher

I'm An Indian Today
by Katheryn Hitte
illustrated by William Dugan

Little Crow
by Caroline McDermott

AICL in VOYA: Voices of Youth Advocates

Screenshot of VOYA website, 1/13/2012

In September 2011, Rebecca A. Hill interviewed me for an article she was writing for VOYA: Voices of Youth Advocates. The article, "The Color of Authenticity in Multicultural Children's Literature", is in the December 2011 issue of VOYA. Shown here is a screenshot of the VOYA website. I read Hills' article by clicking on the "Digital VOYA" frame shown on the right of the image.

Hill does an excellent job laying out issues that I write about here on AICL.

After posing some provocative questions, she moves into a discussion of the work of Rudine Sims Bishop in Shadow and Substance, and, key moments in the development of multicultural literature. These include Nancy Larrick's The All White World of Children's Books, published in the Saturday Review in 1965, and the vitally important work done by the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC).

Then, Hill features K.T. Horning and the work done at the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin. CCBC has been charting the number of books by and about writers of color and, K.T. notes, they've seen little change from one year to the next. A quote from K.T.:
"Back in the 1980s and into the 1990s, we used to hear that publishers wanted to publish more multicultural books, but that they didn't have authors and artists of color submitting things," Horning said. "The last ten years we have been hearing that [it is] marketing that drives the decisions. The book buyers claim that books with kids of color on the cover don't sell or, in order for the buyers to purchase these books, a kid of nondescript color needs to be on the cover."
From there, Hill's article is about the "who can write" debate. That's where she turns to her interview with me where we talked about Little House on the Prairie and the need to do more than archival research when writing a book that has Native characters.

I downloaded a pdf copy of the article from VOYA's nifty "Digital VOYA". If you go to the VOYA site while the December issue is available, you can download it, too. And other articles, as well! The option to read VOYA in digital copy is terrific. (Note: When I talked with Rebecca, I told her about Onate, the Spanish explorer who invaded Pueblo lands and issued orders to have a foot cut off of men and boys who survived a fight between the Spanish and the people of Acoma Pueblo. Columbus may have done that, too. I don't know. )

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