Saturday, November 02, 2013

Presidential Proclamation: National Native American Heritage Month, 2013

Let me preface my sharing of President Obama's proclamation by saying (again) that I don't think teachings about any particular group ought to be done in a specific month. American Indians are part of that "We the People" all year long and ought to be in the curriculum year-round. Emphasizing American Indians in November--the same month as Thanksgiving--generally means that teaching about us is done in the context of Thanksgiving, which means romantic laments about Indian of long-ago-and-far-away rather than the ones of us that are in the here-and-now-and-in-your-backyard.

So---how can you (parent, teacher, librarian) turn President Obama's proclamation into a here-and-now activity that can use anytime of the year?

In the first paragraph, President Obama says "When the Framers gathered to write the United States Constitution, they drew inspiration from the Iroquois Confederacy..." Do you know what he means by that? Take a look at House Concurrent Resolution 331, passed in October 1988. For information about one of the Native nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy, visit the website of the Onondaga Nation. If you work with middle school students, get copies of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here. He's Onondaga, and his novel is outstanding.  

In the second paragraph, President Obama says "we must not ignore the painful history Native Americans have endured..."  You probably know about wars between the U.S. and American Indian nations, but did you know universities had research studies in which they sterilized Native people? To learn about that, read Joseph Bruchac's Hidden RootsDid you know that in Alaska, Native children at boarding schools were used as guinea pigs for radioactive research? Take a look at Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name Is Not Easy

In the third paragraph, President Obama says "In March, I signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which recognizes tribal courts' power to convict and sentence certain perpetuators of domestic violence, regardless of whether they are Indian or non-Indian." To read about that, pick up a copy of Louise Erdrich's The Round House

In the fourth paragraph, President Obama invites Americans to "shape a future worthy of a bright new generation, and together, let us ensure this country's promise is fully realized for every Native American." Most books about American Indians are inaccurate and biased. As such, they shape ignorance in non-Native people. Let's set those ones aside and work towards that bright new future for all of us.


- - - - - - -
From Alaskan mountain peaks to the Argentinian pampas to the rocky shores of Newfoundland, Native Americans were the first to carve out cities, domesticate crops, and establish great civilizations. When the Framers gathered to write the United States Constitution, they drew inspiration from the Iroquois Confederacy, and in the centuries since, American Indians and Alaska Natives from hundreds of tribes have shaped our national life. During Native American Heritage Month, we honor their vibrant cultures and strengthen the government-to-government relationship between the United States and each tribal nation.
As we observe this month, we must not ignore the painful history Native Americans have endured -- a history of violence, marginalization, broken promises, and upended justice. There was a time when native languages and religions were banned as part of a forced assimilation policy that attacked the political, social, and cultural identities of Native Americans in the United States. Through generations of struggle, American Indians and Alaska Natives held fast to their traditions, and eventually the United States Government repudiated its destructive policies and began to turn the page on a troubled past.
My Administration remains committed to self-determination, the right of tribal governments to build and strengthen their own communities. Each year I host the White House Tribal Nations Conference, and our work together has translated into action. We have resolved longstanding legal disputes, prioritized placing land into trust on behalf of tribes, stepped up support for Tribal Colleges and Universities, made tribal health care more accessible, and streamlined leasing regulations to put more power in tribal hands. Earlier this year, an amendment to the Stafford Act gave tribes the option to directly request Federal emergency assistance when natural disasters strike their homelands. In March, I signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which recognizes tribal courts' power to convict and sentence certain perpetrators of domestic violence, regardless of whether they are Indian or non-Indian. And this June, I moved to strengthen our nation-to-nation relationships by establishing the White House Tribal Council on Native American Affairs. The Council is responsible for promoting and sustaining prosperous and resilient Native American communities.
As we observe Native American Heritage Month, we must build on this work. Let us shape a future worthy of a bright new generation, and together, let us ensure this country's promise is fully realized for every Native American.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 2013 as National Native American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities, and to celebrate November 29, 2013, as Native American Heritage Day.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirty-first day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Encounter in an antique store: "We pay taxes!"

Last week my mom, sister, and niece were visiting me in Illinois. They wanted to go to antique shops, so we set out to visit some. For the most part, we had a good time. But... 

At one, my mom spied a shelf of "Indian" items. She picked one up and gestured us over to see it. Quietly we agreed it was fake stuff that you get at roadside curio shops. The store owner noticed us at that shelf and came over. 

"Are you Indian?" she smiled and asked. My mom said that we are, and the woman, with great enthusiasm, said she is glad that the government gives us all the things it gives to us. Everything we "get for free" from the government, she said, was ok by her. Of course, we three Native women were not down with what she was saying... 

Then she said that she's glad that we don't have to pay taxes. 

At that point, my mom stopped her. Shaking her finger at the woman, my mom said "We pay taxes. We pay lot of taxes." The woman said "well, if you lived on a reservation, you wouldn't have to pay taxes." My mom said "We DO live on a reservation, and we DO pay taxes." 

The woman was quiet for a moment, and then talked about visiting a reservation, about how the houses and yards were run down... And my mom interrupted her again, telling her that her home is beautiful, that my dad had built it, that they have a beautiful yard, too. The woman stopped talking. We moved on to look at the antique door keys in another spot.  

My mom had checked the woman again and again, refuting the woman's narrow base of knowledge. My mom is usually very kind and generous but she lost her patience with ignorance put forth as knowledge. 

There are many times that I hesitate to disclose my identity to someone like that store owner. She meant well, but her ignorance and insistence blinded her to her actions. She was trying to be friendly, trying to prove to us just how much she knows about American Indians, but she was off the mark, and relentless, too.

It is quite an experience, being not-white at antique stores in the midwest...  Some items on the shelves are wonderful and others are horrible reminders of America's racism. Here's a few photos I snapped of "Chief Illiniwek" items. For those who don't know, "Chief Illiniwek" was once the mascot at the University of Illinois. Its supporters said over and over again how "Chief Illiniwek" was not a mascot, that it is a symbol that honors American Indians. What do you think? Are these items indicative of honor? The first three are stickers/decals that were on a lunch box. The fourth one--I don't know WHAT to call it. The last one is a seat cushion. 

In case you're wondering, the "Indian's don't pay taxes" idea has a kernel of truth. Native people who live on their reservation and work at a business located on their reservation are exempt from state income tax. Those of us who own property off the reservation pay property tax. All of us pay sales tax. And of course--the word "give" suggests a benevolent government, which it was/is not. 

I'll take this opportunity to point you to a terrific book that addresses popular misconceptions. Published by the National Museum of the American Indian, Do All Indians Live in Tipis? is a terrific resource.

Nov. 2, 2013

An online resource similar to Do All Indians Live in Tipis is the FAQ page at the Native American Rights Fund: FAQ

Vanity Fair's "Favorite" Halloween Costumes

Having my coffee this morning, my twitter feed included a link to a Vanity Fair slideshow of "favorite" costumes at an event that took place last night (Halloween). I wondered if Hamish Robertson (the photographer) and editors at Vanity Fair were aware that dressing as an "Indian" is inappropriate.

So I went to the slide show and saw this:

The caption (not shown because it has been changed) was "The Indian."*

I replied to the Robertson's tweet. Here's a screenshot of the tweets:

Reading Robertson's reply, I went back to the slideshow to see the adjustment. Here's what he did:

This time you see the caption. It says "FEATHERS" instead of "The Indian."*

That, of course, is no better.

That the photograph made its way onto a list of "favorite" costumes tells me that some people at Vanity Fair, a magazine I subscribe to, are clueless about this issue. That's a bit surprising to me, especially given the coverage of fashion designers who have been called out for appropriation of Native intellectual property. Native Appropriations has been doing an excellent job of documenting the fashion industry's appropriation (click here to get a list of posts Adrienne has done on this topic). Paul Frank responded to criticism of a fashion event by working with Native designers.

What can Vanity Fair do?

I recommend they read the report recently released by the National Congress of American Indians. While the title specifies mascots, the contents of the report have broader application. Obviously, it applies to images of American Indians in children's and young adult literature.

We (by we, I mean American society) are stuck in an ugly cycle in which this kind of stereotyping happens again and again, year after year. Unfortunately, it is a money maker for those who do it. On her Facebook page, my daughter pointed to the "Sexy Indian" costumes available from a Halloween costume company. She opened by referencing statistics about how many Native women are sexually assaulted (one in three) by non-Native men, making the point that dressing up and playing Indian are not harmless activities. These activities are indicative of an ignorant society that refuses to see American Indian people as people.

A powerhouse like Vanity Fair can help interrupt that cycle by publishing an essay that takes a hard look at playing Indian/dressing Indian. They can show their readers how much it happens. This means starting with children's books and activities in which children are shown or encouraged to play Indian. It means taking on esteemed children's book authors and illustrators, and the Boy Scouts, and, the Washington Redskins, too.

That's what Vanity Fair can do.

*In my original post, I made an error. The caption was not "An Indian." It was "The Indian." My post has been edited to correct the error.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Benny's Wigwam" by Mrs. Mary Catherine Lee

In 1883, D. Lothrop & Company published a book called Wide Awake Pleasure Book consisting of several volumes of a children's magazine called Wide Awake.  There are several items in it that I'll want to write about sometime, but today (Halloween), I've chosen to share "Benny's Wigwam" by Mrs. Mary Catherine Lee.

"Benny's Wigwam" was first published in Volume 17, No. 6 of Wide Awake, dated November 1883, but Google Books shows me that D. Lothrop & Company also published it in 1886 in The Little Gold Miners of the Sierras and Other Stories. You can read the story in its entirety by clicking on that link. Here's the illustration that goes with the story:

In "Benny's Wigwam," it is the first day of vacation. Benny Briggs sets out to "see the old Witch" (p. 334) that has moved into an abandoned woodcutter's hut near their home. His little sister goes (called Pettikins or Fanny) with him. When they get to the hut, Fanny exclaims over the broomstick and black cat they see at the hut. They're startled to hear her voice behind them, telling them there aren't any laws against her having a cat or a broomstick. She asks the children "What are you skeered of?" (p. 335).

With that question, they enter a conversation in which the children ask her why she's so queer. She tells them (p. 335):
"I'm exterminated. You don't know what that is, I s'pose?"
Benny stammers that it means to drive out, to put an end to, to destroy utterly. The woman tells Benny she learned what it meant back when she was the age of Fanny (p. 335):
"That's when the colonel said we must move west'ard,"said the witch, laying her pipe down on the log, leaning her elbows on her knees, and resting her bony jaws in the palms of her hands. "Injuns, before they're exterminated, stick to their homes like other folks."
Debbie's comments: The author/old woman are referring to removal. The use of the word "exterminated" can be traced to Thomas Jefferson's use of that word in 1807, when he said that "if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi." Would a Native woman have used the word "Injun" to describe herself? I kind of doubt it. That said, the author is sympathetic and her "like other folks" is an attempt to depict Native people as same-as-everyone-else. I'm curious, though, about the period. Is this old woman talking about Jefferson and the removal known as the Trail of Tears? What tribe is this old woman? Is she a Cherokee? What is she doing in the northeast?

Benny doesn't believe she's an "Injun" because she doesn't look like the pictures he's seen, and she doesn't look like the (p. 335-336)
"magnificent figures he had seen in front of the cigar stores in New Haven. Where were all her feathers and things--her red and yellow tunic, her gorgeous moccasins, her earrings and noserings and bracelets and armlets and beads? Why, she was just ragged and dirty!"
Debbie's comments: It is interesting to read about what he expected, and what formed those expectations. I wonder what pictures he'd seen? "Benny's Wigwam" came out in 1883.  Earlier in the book, there's this drawing:

The drawing is just there--no story goes with it. The artist is listed (in the table of contents) as George Foster Barnes. Benny may also be thinking of Indians he saw in Peter Parley's Tales about America, published in 1830.

As for cigar store Indians... well, there's plenty of examples of them! Do an image search and you'll find them.  

Benny asks the old woman if she really is an "Injun" and she says:
"Well, I was. I ain't nothing at all now. I ain't even a squaw, and they said they was going to make a Christian on me. I was a Chetonquin."
Debbie's comments: With that passage, we are given a tribe. Chetonquin. As far as I know, there is no tribe called Chetonquin. I'll keep reading Benny's Wigwam and see if I learn more about that. Regarding making her into a Christian, that was certainly going on! 

The old woman tells Benny that her people did not want to go west. They fought the colonel. She was a little girl at the time and hid behind a tree to watch the fight. She saw her father get shot and ran to him. She got shot, too, and shows Benny and Fanny the scar, saying (p. 336):
"A bullet grazed me hard and I was stunned and blinded with the blood, and couldn't run, but my people had to."
The old woman says Colonel Hammerton (this is the first time she names him)...
"took a notion to pick me up when he rode over the ground he had soaked with the blood of my people--ground that belonged to my people," shrieked the woman, straightening herself up and shaking her fists in the air. 
Debbie's comments: I'm glad to see that the woman's command of English is pretty good. The author didn't give the woman that stilted speech pattern in which almost every word ends in "-um" and I'm also glad to see the woman speak the truth about the land itself and who it belonged to. I don't know what battle the old woman saw as a child. The only "Colonel Hammerton" that I've come up with is the one in this story. 

The old woman says that Colonel Hammerton took her to Washington where she had to stay in houses, which she didn't like. She ran away several times and they finally gave up and let her go. And since then, she's been searching for her people. She was told:
they was exterminated, every one on 'em. Yes, I've been a-going ever since, but I can't go any more.
And so, she's stopped moving and hopes she can stay in this forest. She doesn't want to be in a house because the Great Spirit won't be able to find her. She wants to be found, soon, and pleads with Benny to carry her wish to his people. He tells her not to worry, because the woods they're in belong to his relations, and he'll look after her.

Debbie's comments: White people saving or rescuing Indians is a common trope. Not a good one, I should add!

The old woman is very grateful to Benny. She looks around her, saying that when she came into this wood, she felt she was in the right place, and she almost expected to see wigwams.  She wishes she could sleep in one. Benny tells her sleeping in wigwams is something he and his friends had done when playing Indian. They know how to make them. He offers to make one for her.

Debbie's comments: Hmmm... I think is may be the oldest reference I've seen to playing Indian.  

Benny goes home to gather his friends so they can build the wigwam. He tells his parents, too, about the old woman. They're very sympathetic (p. 337):
[T]heir excellent hearts were at once filled with compassion for so forlorn a creature. Mr. Briggs had very radical theories about equal mercy and justice for each member of the human race.
Debbie's comments: There were, in fact, people like Mr. and Mrs. Briggs. During the period when removal of the Cherokee's was being discussed, there were active letter-writing campaigns in which white women objected to removal. This is referenced in the Trail of Tears episode of the PBS Series, We Shall Remain. 

Mr. and Mrs. Briggs tried to get her into more comfortable quarters than the forest, but she wanted to be there, so they left her alone, making sure she had whatever she needed to be comfortable. Over the summer, she lost touch with reality. People came to "understand and respect the sorrows of the poor creature they had talked of as a witch" (p. 338).

As winter drew near, Benny was intent on making her a wigwam. He got a person named 'Bijah to help him. 'Bijah had been to Dakota and saw "life-size" wigwams. In a chest, he's got buffalo and other kids of robes. He gets to work on them and they make one. Exhausted, Benny goes to bed and (p. 338):
dreamed he was the chief of a powerful tribe, and that he found old Winneenis, not old any longer, but a little girl like Fanny, crying in the forest because she couldn't find her way to her people, and that he took her by the hand and led her home.
Debbie's comments: Here, near the end, we learn the woman's name: Winneenis. 

In the morning, he and his friends head to the wigwam and are surprised to find the old woman asleep inside. The boys peek at her but decide to let her sleep. Hours pass and she doesn't wake. 'Bijah goes inside and comes out to report that Winneenis is dead. The final paragraph is this (p. 339):
Wandering, as was her wont at night, she had come upon Benny's wigwam, standing in the clear moonlight, and to her longing, bewildered mind, it had probably seemed the wigwam of her father. Who can ever know the joy, the feeling of peace, and rest, and relief, with which she laid her tired bones down in it, and fell asleep, a care-free child once more, and thus passed from its door into the happy hunting-grounds? And Benny always felt glad the wigwam had been built.
Debbie's comments: An interesting story... I think it is much like other writings of that time period that were sentimental pleas for tolerance, equality, and reform. It also reflects, however, the author's lack of knowledge about a specific tribal nation. Mrs. Lee (the author) uses a good many stereotypical words and ideas (like happy hunting ground). As for the opening, where the old woman is thought to be a witch... I'll have to do some reading to make sense of that! For now, I'll hit the upload button and greet the trick or treater's at my door this evening. (This is going live without a close read for typos, etc. Let me know if you see some! Or bad writing! And let me know, too, what you think of the story.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Beverly Slapin's review essay of Helen Frost's SALT

Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review essay of Helen Frost's SALT, comparing it to Bruchac's ARROW OVER THE DOOR. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.

A few years ago, a colleague and I facilitated a workshop in Albuquerque. The workshop dealt with evaluating children’s books about Indian peoples. It was a small group, about 20 or so participants, mostly teachers and librarians in the area. Of these, some were Diné (Navajo) and some were white. At one point, we brought out one of the worst historical fiction books in our collection, Scott O’Dell’s SING DOWN THE MOON.[1] We asked the participants to read sections of this book and, based on a series of evaluative questions, to review it. They did, and almost all of them agreed that this was not a book they’d use in their classrooms or libraries.

Except for one, a Diné elder, who worked specifically with Diné young people—“reluctant readers” at risk for dropping out of school. This elder said that each year, she purchases a new class set of SING DOWN THE MOON because it’s the first book her students actually get excited about. My colleague and I were astonished. We just looked at each other. We weren’t about to confront an elder, especially a Diné elder, especially about a book purporting to be about Navajo people. So we waited.

What seemed like an eternity was actually just a couple of minutes. This elder told us that she brings SING DOWN THE MOON into the classroom each year, opens it up and starts reading it aloud. The reaction, she said, is immediate. “They just can’t stop laughing,” she said, in disbelief that a book about their Diné people could be this bad. We’d never leave our sheep in a storm. This isn’t how our ceremonies go. We don’t talk like this. They reach for the books. They read the story, again and again. They laugh about it. They talk about it. They critique it. They write about it. The books get marked up, some pages get folded over and others get torn out. It doesn’t matter, the elder said, because her students have gotten excited about a book. Then, she said, she introduces them to BLACK MOUNTAIN BOY: A STORY OF THE BOYHOOD OF JOHN HONIE[2] and other books published by Rough Rock Press and the Navajo Curriculum Center, traditional stories they recognize and new stories they appreciate.

SING DOWN THE MOON received the Newbery Honor Award. It received rave reviews from all of the “mainstream” reviewers, including The New York Times. Not one of the reviewers saw any of what made the Diné students fall out of their chairs.

If there’s a moral to this story, it might be this: Some really terrible books can probably be used in good ways. (But I could not bring myself to purchase a class set of them.)

Here are some questions I’ve used and taught in evaluating historical fiction: Is this book based on true events or are the details rooted in actual history? Is this book based on the lives of real people or could these people really have lived? Does the author have an understanding of and respect for the era and the characters? Are the characters believable and does the author present the characters’ ways of seeing the world respectfully? Does the author explain cultural nuances that may be misunderstood? Are the language and the dialogue believable? And finally, does the book read well?

Which brings me to one of my favorite historical novels for young readers: Joseph Bruchac’s THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR.[3] Bruchac is a gifted writer, and one of the things he does well is breathe life into historical events.

Told in alternating voices of two young men—Stands Straight, an Abenaki, and Samuel Russell, a Quaker—the story is based on an actual incident that took place between the Abenaki and the Quakers during the summer of 1777.

As British troops near Saratoga, the young Quaker wrestles with his pacifism and the taunts of his neighbors, and Stands Straight—whose mother and brothers were killed by the Bostoniak—joins his uncle in a scouting party. Surrounding the meetinghouse, the party of Abenaki encounters a group of Quakers engaged in a “silent meeting.” As Stands Straight and Samuel Russell sign their friendship to each other, they place an arrow—its head broken off—over the door. There will be no war in this place this day.

In an interesting author’s note, Bruchac recounts the research that he and his sister, Marge Bruchac, conducted, notes how several accounts of this historical event differ, and further denotes the changes he made in his telling.

While SING DOWN THE MOON would not measure up to the standards of the questions listed a few paragraphs above, THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR would shine. 

Which brings me to a young adult novel currently being discussed,[4] Helen Frost's SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR [5]. As with THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR, this story is also told in alternating voices of two young men—Anikwa, a Myaamia (Miami) living in Kekionga, and James, son of a trader family, living outside of Fort Wayne, inside the stockade. SALT takes place in 1812. “As the British and American armies prepare to meet at Fort Wayne for a crucial battle…James and Anikwa, like everyone around them, must decide where their deepest loyalties lie. Can their families—and their friendship—survive?”[6]

In reading SALT against ARROW, I don’t see Anikwa and James as believable as Stands Straight and Samuel, and I question some of the introductory description, such as

• “Kekionga is part of the Miami Nation, a Native American community made up of villages along the rivers…”  (In the year in which this story takes place, the Myaamia Nation was the seat of a huge political confederacy of nations. The terms “community” and “villages” diminishes the size and political structure—and, for young readers and their teachers, the importance—of the Myaamia. In an attempt to equalize Anikwa’s people with James’ people—who really were a small trading community—Frost diminishes one and emphasizes the other.)

• “Although there is sometimes distrust and fighting between the two communities, friendships and intermarriage are also common.” This was wartime; there was lots of killing going on. Although it’s possible that friendships between enemy peoples may have occurred, to describe the horrors of war as “sometimes distrust and fighting” minimizes the depredation of Native peoples and the wholesale theft of land. (And notice that, while the word “sometimes” is a descriptor for war, “common” is a descriptor for friendship. Here, in her “story of friendship,” she minimizes the larger and emphasizes the smaller.)

• In places, Anikwa seems to step out of the story to inform readers about how his family lives and how things are done. This is probably for the benefit of young readers and their teachers who may not be familiar with how the Myaamia people lived in 1812, but it disrupts the flow of the narrative.

• And, as Debbie Reese comments, “We don't know enough about that period of history, or about the Miami Nation and its resistance to encroachment, to be able to read the sparse text within a context that this story needs.”[7] Reading the treaty of 1803[8] might help, as well as reading the material on the Myaamia Center website.[9] But are young students and their teachers going to dig as deeply as they need to, to get the real story?

Myaamia children who may read SALT will undoubtedly have the historical and cultural knowledge they’d need to deal with the inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies present in Frost’s book. For children and their teachers who are not Myaamia, not so much. Since historical fiction is often used in classrooms to supplement the teaching of history, accuracy is especially important in these books for young readers. When it comes down to it, it's the responsibility of an author—especially a children's book author—to get the history right.

—Beverly Slapin

[1] Scott O’Dell, Sing Down the Moon (Houghton Mifflin, 1970). See a critical review of this title in Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, eds., A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children (AltaMira, 2005).

[2] Vada Carleson and Gary Witherspoon, Black Mountain Boy: A Story of the Boyhood of John Honie (Rough Rock Press, 1993).
[3] See a review of this title in Seale and Slapin, op. cit.

[4] See Debbie Reese’s discussion and comments in “American Indians in Children’s Literature” (

[5] Helen Frost, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

[6] This text is from the publisher’s copy.

[7] Debbie Reese, op. cit., October 13, 2013.

[8] This treaty is between the US and Delawares, Shawanoes, Putawatimies, Miamies, Eel River, Weeas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias nations of Indians. Article 3 can be found on Debbie Reese’s page, op. cit., and the entire treaty (entitled “Treaty with the Delawares, etc., 1803”) can be found at


Saturday, October 19, 2013

President Obama, Mascots, Children's Literature, and American Indians

Listen to President Obama's remarks regarding the Washington Redskins:

At the :43 mark, President Obama says "I think all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans... Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it, and I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things."

Let's think about attachment. How do we become attached to something? How do we become attached, specifically, to a stereotyped mascot that is meant to represent Native people? Here's a photograph of Zema Williams. He's been dressing up to personify the Redskin's mascot for many years.

Photo credit: Jonathan Newton, Washington Post

The photo is from a Washington Post article Mike Wise wrote about Williams. In the article, he says that his job is to entertain people. This started back in 1978 when he went to a costume shop and bought feathers and a spear. His costume is more elaborate now. If you do an image search on "Chief Zee" you'll find plenty of photos of him. He wears a feathered headdress.

Let's turn, now, to children's books. They tell us that kids have been playing Indian for a long time.

We'll start with Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages. Set in Canada, it was published in 1903. It is about how a boy named Yan who loved Indians and animals. By the end of the story, he is living like an Indian. Here he is in the final pages:

Seton established the scouting tradition.  Playing Indian was--and is--a big part of scouting, but scouts don't call it playing Indian. How do they, I wonder, speak of what they do? They associate it with positive feelings. They are emotionally attached to what they do.

Dressing up like an Indian/playing Indian takes place a lot in life. It is captured in children's picture books. They embody that attachment to playing Indian, and playing Indian as a form of entertainment, too.

Do you recognize these characters? Do you know the book in which they appeared? Do you know the author/illustrator that created them?








No guessing on this one! This is Leo Politi's autobiography.

The characters above are from older books, but characters dress like Indians in newer ones, too. Take a look at these ones, in books from the 90s to the present:





That's a lot of playing Indian, isn't it? Let's turn, now, to American Indians.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) put together a report titled Ending the Legacy of Racism. It includes a timeline on page 18. Here's some things to note:

In 1919, American Indians on reservations were not allowed to leave those reservations without written permission. Did you know that?

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was signed into law. It allowed American Indian citizens the right to vote, but, most were still confined to reservations. Moreover, "Civilization Regulations" criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native. I'm going to repeat and emphasize what the Civilization Requirements did: criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native.

In 1926, "Chief Illiniwek" started dancing at the University of Illinois. In case you don't know what that mascot looked like, here's a photo of a recent portrayer:

The mascot "Chief Illiniwek" began doing its half-time routine during a period when it was illegal for actual American Indians to carry on with our traditional dances.

I'm glad there's a lot of pressure on Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, but I'd like all of us to think about the role that children's books play. In past writing at AICL, I've referenced research studies that document the harm that stereotypes do to Native and non-Native children. The NCAI report references Stephanie Fryberg's study, in which she and her colleagues found that the self-efficacy of Native youth was depressed by these images, while the self-efficacy of non-Native youth was enhanced. The impact on non-Natives can be seen as proof that such mascots --- meant to inspire --- are doing what they're supposed to do, and they help us understand why Snyder and fans rise to defend the mascots, too.

Would Snyder and fans hold to that attachment if they knew what Fryberg found? Would you?

Regular readers of AICL would say no, and a good many of those readers are attentive to the kinds of books they buy, too. Children's books and children's play have a role in the attachment President Obama referenced. The problem, quite simply, is larger than just mascots.

We have a lot of work to do.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where would we be without whites who like Indians? Or, a critical look at Susan Cooper's GHOST HAWK

As expected, Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk is a contender for the Newbery Medal (2:26 PM Note: I do not have inside knowledge of the Newbery Committee's deliberations. My post is about Ghost Hawk being discussed as a contender in the mock Newbery discussion at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog).  Ghost Hawk is the topic today (October 15, 2013) at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog. The author of the post, Jonathan Hunt, thinks that the plot twist at the end of part one is "the best of the year."

The plot twist he refers to? The character, Little Hawk, is killed by a Pilgrim, but that's not the end of him. He goes from being a living person to a ghost that narrates the rest of the story, which focuses on John Wakely, a colonist who grows up and saves the life of a Native boy named Trouble. That Native boy grows up to be Metacom/King Philip. Yep--a leader of the Wampanoag, according to Cooper's story, only gets to be that leader because a white person saves him when he was a child.

Throughout part two and three, Little Hawk can reveal himself to John at a certain time and place on an island. He does so several times during the story. That's because, when Little Hawk was killed, he was unable to rest or go home because John has a stone blade that belonged to Little Hawk's ancestors.  

By the end of the story (part four in the book), we're in the present day. A woman lives on the island. With a helper, she works the land. That helper finds Little Hawk's tomahawk and gives it to the woman. The next day, she's holding the tomahawk in her hand and Little Hawk reveals himself to her (page 316):
"She sees a bare-chested American Indian, in deerskin pants and moccasins, his hair greased up into a scalp lock--but the body has no substance, and through it the trees are still faintly visible."
She is startled but they begin to talk with each other. They have what I find to be a troubling conversation about the land itself and land ownership, and she learns that he is kept from resting because of the tomahawk blade she now has in her hands. She realizes that she can free him by burying it. The tomahawk, he tells her, has been buried a long time. Strains of "bury the hatchet"--don't you think?! So, she plants a hickory tree and buries the blade with it. Then, we read (p. 320):
Time breaks open around me, and all at once there is more light than a hundred suns, more light than I have ever seen.
I am gone to my long home at last, set free, flying high, high beyond the world. High, high, into mystery.
With those passages, Cooper is imagining what a Wampanoag person experiences when they die. It is a bit ironic, I think, that it is a person named Cooper doing that imagining, because another person named Cooper did a whole lot of imagining when he wrote his stories about Indians... Course, I'm thinking of James Fenimore Cooper. Remember that guy? He wrote Last of the Mohicans. 

Key points in Susan Cooper's story? White person saves Metacom. White person frees Little Hawk. In his discussion of the book, Jonathan says that Cooper's story, written from Little Hawk's perspective,
"engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture."
Perhaps it does, but how what does that empathy mean? What does IT engender? Below is the comment I submitted to Jonathan's post. As of this moment (9:26 AM, Central Time), it is in 'moderation mode' but I expect it to appear shortly. I encourage you to follow and participate in the discussion that will take place. Here's a link to the page:

Jonathan Hunt's post about Ghost Hawk

And, my comment to Jonathan's post (awaiting approval from Jonathan or whomever moderates comments for him):

Hi Jonathan,
As some people know, I blogged Part One of Cooper’s ( story in early June. The technique I used in that post is one that is very popular with my readers. They want to know about the process I go through as I read and analyze a book about American Indians. Some people feel strongly that doing that is unfair, particularly because I haven’t yet provided answers to concerns and questions I raised in that post. I have similar notes for posts about Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four and intended to write them up and post them, too, inserting answers to my questions/concerns as I conducted research necessary to answer my questions.
When I read the Author’s Note, however, I decided to write and post my overall thoughts on the book ( because I don’t think the answers to my questions/concerns will change my primary concerns with the book. In a nutshell: we have an author using seventeenth century sources to imagine the life of a Native character, and then (presumably) using those same sources to imagine the after-life of that Native character. I see no evidence that she consulted any sources that counter the bias and misinformation in the ways that American Indians are portrayed in those seventeenth century sources. In the Author’s Note, she sends us to two websites, but the first one is sketchy and further adds to my concerns that she did not read any of the critical writing by scholars who counter bias and misinformation in materials about American Indians. As such, she’s doing a whole lot of imagining. She imagines the life of living/breathing Native people, and then she takes a huge leap and imagines how that tribe has laid out its spirituality. Given its glowing reviews, what she does works for most people, and that’s troubling. Shouldn’t we be past that kind of imagining that romanticizes American Indians?
A second concern is that in her story, her fictional main character, John Wakely, saves the life of Metacom/King Philip. According to the entry in Hoxie’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, he “personified native resistance to colonial power in southern New England in the seventeenth century” (p. 373). John is so adored by the Indians, that they hold their children up high so they can get a glimpse of him. In a way, this is the John Smith/Pocahontas story all over again. But again–shouldn’t we be past themes in which whites save the day?
Obviously, I disagree that the writing is skillful and the themes distinguished. Cooper’s story, as Jonathan says, “engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture.” His use of “disappearing indigenous people” is telling, I think, because that is exactly what I’m talking about. As a society, most Americans want to love a certain kind of indigenous person and story about indigenous people. It is a superficial love for something imagined. Unfortunately, the kind they love is the kind that was mistreated but then disappeared.
Where’s the love of modern day American Indians critical of that superficial love?
It was/is a bit unnerving to read the comments to Jonathan’s earlier post (“October Nominations”), in which commenters discourage others from reading what I said in my post about Ghost Hawk.
I’m not hoping for people to love what I or any Indigenous people say. What we all need is a different perspective of Native/White relationships, past and present. What we need is a citizenry that can see and reject stereotypes of who American Indians are, and a citizenry that wants accurate, not romantic, stories about who we are. Heralding books like GHOST HAWK or SALT will keep us stuck in that same old place of honoring Indians, and that kind of honoring is superficial and not helpful to anyone.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Initial Thoughts about Helen Frost's SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR

Helen Frost's newest book, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War is getting a lot of good press, but I'm having trouble articulating what it is that doesn't work for me as a reader.

The novel is set in 1812.

In the introductory pages, Frost tells us that there is "sometimes distrust and fighting between the two communities" but that friendships and intermarriage are common (p. xiii).

The two communities live in two places. One is in Kekionga, a village that Frost tells us is part of the Miami nation. The other community is Fort Wayne, where 80 soldiers, their wives, and children live. The fort is inside of a stockade. Outside of the fort (but inside the stockade), are a few more families, some fields, and a trading post where a trader and his family live.

Kekionga was actually more than that. It was the seat of a confederacy of Indian tribes. Frost's characterization of it as a village seems a small point, but I think my problem with her novel is that there's lot of small points like that. In isolation, they seem inconsequential. In total, they are what is--for me--the novel's undoing.

The story focuses on two twelve year old boys. It is presented in two voices, each alternating with the other (by chapter) as they view the same events from their distinct vantage points. One of the boys is Miami. His name is Anikwa. On the pages where he is speaking, Frost arranges the text in geometric patterns that were inspired by Miami ribbon work. The other boy is James. He's the trader's son. The text on the pages where he is speaking is arranged in lines that Frost says are like the lines of the American flag. If we step away from that presentation, we have Native people represented as art, and, American people represented as nation. (Sentence in italics added on March 3, 2014.)

The text is sparse, and that, I think is another reason the novel doesn't work. We don't know enough about that period of history, or about the Miami Nation and its resistance to encroachment, to be able to read the sparse text within a context that this story needs.

Anikwa lives with his extended family. His mother died of smallpox when he was two, and his father was killed a year later in "a skirmish" (p. 7).  Given that the novel is set in 1812, we can do some math and see that his father died in 1803. What skirmish, I wondered, would that have been? I wondered, too, about Frost's introductory note about how there was (emphasis mine) "sometimes distrust and fighting."

I started digging and came across a treaty in 1803. It was a treaty between the United States and Delawares, Shawanoes, Putawatimies, Miamies, Eel River, Weeas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias nations of Indians. The treaty was made at Fort Wayne. It is fairly short. You can read it in its entirety at the Digital Library at Oklahoma State. Of particular interest--given the title of Frost's book--is Article 3. It is all about salt! Here's what it says:
As a mark of their regard and attachment to the United States, whom they acknowledge for their only friends and protectors, and for the consideration herein after mentioned, the said tribes do hereby relinquish and cede to the United States the great salt spring upon the Saline creek which falls into the Ohio below the mouth of the Wabash, with a quantity of land surrounding it, not exceeding four miles square, and which may be laid off in a square or oblong as the one or the other may be found most convenient to the United States: And the said United States being desirous that the Indian tribes should participate in the benefits to be derived from the said spring, hereby engage to deliver yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine.

The treaty says that the U.S. will "delivery yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine."

We have a treaty in 1803 that says salt will be delivered. I assume that means Indians won't have to buy salt. But in Frost's novel, Anikwa's family has to buy salt from James's family. How do we go from a treaty that says the government will deliver salt to the Miami Indians, to the Miami Indians having to buy salt? See? That's one of the gaps that I struggle with in terms of the text being sparse. On page 51, Anikwa's family is planning a trip to the trading post. Mink (Anikwa's aunt, who is raising him because, remember, his mother died when he was two and his father was killed when he was three) says they need salt. Old Raccoon (he's Anikwa's uncle/Mink's husband) scowls and says:
"They take it (salt) from our land, then sell it back to us."
When they get to the trading post, Old Raccoon says "We need salt" but James's father says "No more salt" even though the salt barrel, which is visible to all, is half-full.

More digging got at my unease with Frost's characterization of relationships between the Indians and Americans. Remember, she said "sometimes" there was "distrust and fighting" between them. Throughout the first part of the book, there are discussions of an impending siege in which the Americans are afraid that British soldiers and Indians will lay siege on the fort before the American soldiers can arrive. On page 59, James's parents are talking about the siege. James tells his Pa that he thought the Indians are on the side of the Americans. Pa says that there are Indians from all over are coming and its hard to say who among them are friends of the Americans. Ma says "we'll continue to treat the Miami as the friends they've always been."

Does Ma mean that Anikwa's family has always been a friend to her own family? Or does she mean that the Miami have always been friends to the Americans? If it is the latter, she's wrong.

In the 1780s and 1790s, there was a great deal of killing going on. Americans were killing Indians and Indians were killing Americans. This was over the land and who it belonged to. It was over who had the right to enter into a treaty, and with what other nation. The Indians had formed a confederacy and were aligned with the British.

In April of 1790, Miami's attacked a flotilla of military supply boats, killing five soldiers and taking eight prisoners. In 1794, General Anthony Wayne and his troops defeated the Indian confederacy, and in 1795 the Treaty of Greenville was signed. There's more--a lot more--about the fighting that took place in those years that, I think, casts "sometimes" into question.

But let's get back to the story itself for a moment.

There's some inconsistencies, I think, in how the characters act.

One moment, Old Raccoon is talking about needing to save his bullets for something bigger than a duck. He laments treaty violations. A few days later, he's volunteering to guide American women and children in the fort to safety.

James seems to think well of Anikwa and he also seems to disapprove of his father's actions. But on page 70, he sees Anikwa carrying a rabbit from one of his snares, and he thinks that Anikwa isn't his friend after all. That seems abrupt. They struggle and James runs home with the rabbit. Anikwa thinks that "we don't need any of them" (p. 73). That seems a bit abrupt, too.

A few pages later, the trading post is burned and the soldiers and James's family have no meat. Anikwa takes some to them, hiding it in a tree. James retrieves it, and later, James and his dad put some salt into that same tree for Anikwa.

Those friendships shift from friendly to not-friendly and back again a bit too fast. Maybe, in a time of war, that sort of thing happened, but I go back to the overall history and context. The distrust and fighting that had been going on for a long long time was over the land. American settlers kept coming into land that belonged to the Indians. On page 121, James's mother is writing to her sister in Philadelphia, telling her there is good land to be had. Rupert (a person in the fort) tells her "this part of the territory isn't open for settlement yet" and that treaty details still need to be worked out. The way his remarks are presented suggests that the Americans are law-abiding people who wouldn't be squatters. But--that doesn't jibe with the history!

By the end of the story, the homes of both boys have been burned. Soldiers burn Kekionga, its cornfields, and the surrounding forest, too. Anikwa and his family are safe, having steadily moved on until the burning stopped but they decide to return to Kekionga and rebuild. Once there, James and his family bring them items that James's father took from Anikwa's home before it was burned. Anikwa and his family offer food to James and his family. They eat together and then play music together. The story ends.

What do we, the reader, come away with?

Friendships that persevere, no matter what?

Frost's book reminds me of the much-loved Thanksgiving story. Sitting together for meals in the midst of turmoil and war is possible, but I'm not sure how plausible it is. As Frost tells us, there are friendships between the Indians and the Americans. But overwhelmingly, the history is one of loss of Indian life and land. Overwhelmingly. That is the history.

Nonetheless, these two families eat together. In light of what preceded that moment, and what happened after it, the story doesn't work for me. It ends up being somewhat of a feel-good story that suggests optimism and hope for relationships between peoples in conflict, but for me, it masks the truth.

And so, I can't recommend Frost's Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. 

On the back of the book, Daryl Baldwin, Director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, says that Frost "dives below the simple narrative of natives versus settlers to give us a refreshing look at the human side of events in the War of 1812." I'd like Daryl to read it more carefully. I met him some years ago and will send my review to him. I'll share whatever I get back from him, and I'll keep thinking about Salt. 


Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War 
Author: Helen Frost
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published in July 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dear Jon Scieszka: I've got a bone to pick with you...

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July 15, 2013

Dear Jon Scieszka,

I've got a bone to pick with you. Are you following the recent news story about the names of the pilots of the Asiana flight that crashed in San Francisco? Someone made up some names for those pilots. The newscaster read those made-up names on the news cast. Did you read about it? Here's those made-up names:

Sum Ting Wong
Wi Tu Lo
Ho Lee Fuk
Bang Ding Ow

The person who created those names, no doubt, had a good time doing it and probably laughed pretty hard at the people at the TV station who put those names into the script for the newscaster. That person probably laughed pretty hard at the newscaster, too, as she read the names and didn't realize they were made-up names that mock Asian people. 

Lot of people read your books, Mr. Scieszka, and a lot of people laugh when they read the ways you use humor. You don't mean to be offensive or insensitive, right? Just in case you don't realize that some of your humor is precisely that---offensive and insensitive---let's revisit what you did with humor and names in Me Oh Maya. 

In Me Oh Maya the boys in the Time Warp Trio find themselves in a Mayan ball court. A "short brown-skinned guy in a wild feathered headdress stood on top of the wall looking down" at the boys. This guy turns out to be an "evil high priest" who is named Kakapupahed. The boys hear the high priests name and think "Cacapoopoohead." They struggle to contain their laughter. 

For those who don't know, the Time Warp Trio series is pitched to kids who are "reluctant readers." This sort of book provides readers with clever writing that functions as a hook to draw in a kid who might otherwise not read. In the Time War Trio series, the hook is puns, lots of action, and, as the reviewer at School Library Journal notes, "a little bathroom humor." 
Reviews of the book say that kids can learn a lot about Mayan culture by reading this book, but if that learning starts with the reluctant reader laughing at Mayan names, I have to wonder about your treatment, Mr. Scieszka, of the culture, too.  

Do you see the connection, Mr. Scieszka, between what you did with names in Me Oh Maya and what happened at the news station and the mockery of the names of the pilots? 

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. On the child_lit listserv, we discussed problems with names in Arlene Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo some years ago. I don't lay the blame for what happened with the Asian pilot names at your feet, Mr. Scieszka, but since your humor encourages mockery of other, I think you're part of what makes that kind of incident possible. 

Given your status within children's literature and education, I think this is a moment for you to issue a statement about humor that relies on ignorance of other. It would be a bold step, but you could even disavow what you did with names in Me Oh Maya! 

I'm sure that many of your fans will come to your defense, chastising me for this letter, telling me to "get a life" and that "it's only a book!" and similar statements, but you and I know how much children's books matter to the children who read them. They can do good, but they can do bad, too, and that's not good for any of us.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

Note: Aug 30, 2014--Here is the link to my critique of Scieszka's Trucksgiving

In a personal note to readers of AICL, I've been away from AICL for a month. During that month, my father became ill and passed away. During this month, your personal notes of condolence have meant a lot to me. Thank you for sending them. One of you said that when someone close to us passes, the ground shifts, but that we learn how to travel on that shifted ground, carrying the spirit of that loved one with us as we go forth.  I'm slowly trying to regain my footing and the balance I need to tell you a bit about my dad. He was a remarkable and special man. I miss him terribly.