Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Beverly Slapin's Review of Pomplun, Smelcer, and Bruchac's NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS

Editor's Notes: 
1) This essay may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2012 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.
2) I selected Two Wolves as the illustration to use for Slapin's essay because Joseph Bruchac and Richard Van Camp are two Native writers giving us outstanding work.  A selected set of illustrations is available at Pages from Native American Classics. 


Title page for last story in book
Pomplun, Tom, editor, and John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), associate editors, Native American Classics (Graphic Classics, Volume 24). Eureka Productions, 2013.


The “Graphic Classics” books, unlike other graphic adaptations, are anthologies, with each short story, poem, or abridged novel illustrated by a different artist. Native American Classics highlights the nascent English writing and publication by Native people, including Zitkala-Sa, Charles A. Eastman, E. Pauline Johnson, and others. It’s not the only anthology of earlier Indian writing; many others come to mind. One of my favorites is Paula Gunn Allen’s excellent Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970 (Ballantine, 1995). One of the differences between Native American Classics and the other anthologies is that its graphic format will appeal to “reluctant” readers and others who are attracted to this particular genre. But Native American Classics is not without problems.

Way back, when the earliest Indian writers published their pictographs on vertical and horizontal outcroppings, they transmitted information, history, lessons, culture, language, and more. 

Fast-forward a few centuries, to the early 1900s. Stories by Indian writers of that era had to be both carefully written and suitable for publication by, of course, non-Native publishers. As such, many of the lessons they imparted were so subtle that a casual reader, especially one from outside the culture, might not recognize their messages.

If there were pictures, they supported the story rather than obstructing it; they provided a background rather than a foreground; and they enhanced, rather than interfered with, the reader’s imagination. And, perhaps most importantly, the pictures did not reinterpret the story; did not tell readers what to think.

“Telling readers what to think” is the main problem with some of the pieces in this collection, problems inherent in transmogrifying stories by the earlier Indian writers into a genre in which graphics foreground the story—and the graphic artists don’t always understand it or their work is mismatched. Another problem is that often, details are belabored in “dialogue bubbles,” at the cost of the integrity of the story. Yet another is that stories are sometimes “edited down” to what is seen to be the reading level for this kind of anthology. And finally, the stories would have benefited greatly with prefatory material that clearly set each in a historical, geographical, political and biographical context. This last problem, again, although inherent in this genre, stands out most glaringly in what is purported to be a “multicultural” anthology.

In the third edition (1992) of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children (Slapin and Seale, eds., New Society Publishers), there’s an essay by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Ojibwe), entitled, “Not Just Entertainment.” She writes:

Stories are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture, thinks. Such wonderful offerings are seldom reproduced by outsiders.

“Native stories deal with the experiences of our humanity,” she continues, “experiences we laugh, and cry, and sweat for, experiences we learn from.”

Stories are not just for entertainment. We know that. The storyteller and writer have a responsibility—a responsibility to the people, a responsibility for the story and a responsibility to the art. The art in turn then reflects a significant and profound self-understanding. 

To Lenore’s heartfelt comments I would add that adaptors and illustrators of stories—as well as editors of anthologies, if they are honest and really care—also must own up to these responsibilities.

Some of the stories and poems in Native American Classics are incomparably beautiful—some whose texts have been left whole and some that have been adapted. Some of the art in Native American Classics is—to use a descriptor I’ve recently been known to use too often—awesome. Others, not so much.

I can’t, in good conscience, “recommend” or “not recommend” this anthology. Rather, I chose to review each entry as a separate entity. Sorry for the length of this review; it’s the best I could do for the integrity of the stories and poems therein.

Teachers who would want to use Native American Classics to introduce “reluctant readers” to Native literatures should do so with caution.


“After a Sermon at the Church of Infinite Confusion,” by John E. Smelcer / art by Bahe Whitethorne, Jr. (Diné) (p. 2)

The poem beginning this anthology defies cultural logic and exemplifies incongruence between text and art. Whitethorne’s painting is of a Diné girl on Diné land. Flying into the foreground is a huge black bird, its beak wide open. The bird is larger than the child. Could be a raven, a crow, a blackbird, or maybe even a mockingbird. The painting was originally done for the cover of a children’s book called The Mockingbird’s Manual by Seth Muller (Salina Bookshelf, 2009) and someone must have thought it would be appropriate to illustrate this poem. It isn’t.

The girl’s name, “Mary Caught-in-Between,” is apparently supposed to be ironic. It’s not. It’s insulting. The singular experience of attending “sunday school” is interpreted as turning Mary’s whole world upside down; in reality, it would’ve taken years of Indian residential school to do that. Mary’s spiritual world appears to be inhabited by “Raven and Coyote,” whom she tells they aren’t “gods anymore.” But she’d know that Raven and Coyote never were gods and that you don’t worship tricksters—and you don’t talk to them, either. Mary is dressed in traditional Diné clothing, but children don’t generally dress like that just to hang out. And if she is indeed Diné, I don’t understand why a “totem pole” (on which she thinks that “god” was nailed) would even enter her consciousness. Is that big black bird supposed to be Raven? If so, there are ravens in Diné country, but Raven? No. He’s a Northwest Coast-area trickster. The poem itself is infinitely confusing, and a casual reader will probably think it’s authentic. Not recommended.

“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” (1901) by Zitkala-Sa (Yankton Nakota), adapted by Benjamin Truman, art by Jim McMunn, Timothy Truman and Mark A. Nelson (pp. 4-21)

“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” is a heartbreaking story about what happens when a Christianized Nakota man returns from mission school to proselytize his tribal community. The young man has become a stranger who disrespects his culture and community, his elders and his spiritual leader. It’s a tragic story with a tragic ending. There can be no positive outcome; Zitkala-Sa presents the dilemma and leaves out the moral. This is as it should be.

But it’s clear that the illustrators here do not “get” the subtleties of the story. While Zitkala-Sa’s Christianized narrator describes the community’s spiritual leader—aka “medicine man”—only as “tall and large” with “long strides [that]…seemed to me then as the uncanny gait of eternal death,” the artists portray him as a charlatan, as evil incarnate. He is dark and glowering and inhuman-looking, his head and face almost totally covered with eagle feathers; even his bear-claw necklace and the burning sage bundle he holds appear menacing.

When Zitkala-Sa writes, “seemed to me then,” she means that before the young man entered mission school, he saw the spiritual leader as a person whom he and the rest of the community respected. After the missionaries had finished with the young man, he saw the spiritual leader as someone with “the uncanny gait of eternal death.” Indeed, the medicine man had not changed, the young man had. Although I love “The Soft-Hearted Sioux,” I cannot recommend it in this form.

“On Wolf Mountain” (1904) by Charles Alexander Eastman (Santee), adapted by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) / art by Robby McMurtry (p. 22-44)

Told from the perspective of a gray wolf, “On Wolf Mountain”—from Eastman’s Red Hunters and the Animal People (1904)—shows their natural respect for, and complex relationship with, the Indian peoples who hunted large game animals on the plains. As well, it describes the relationship between the wolves and the white settlers (here, sheepherders), who attempted to disrupt the ancient rhythms of life and death, feast and hunger—a dance that existed long before the wagon trains, railroads, and banks got here. “It was altogether different with that hairy-faced man who had lately come among them,” Eastman writes, “to lay waste the forests and tear up the very earth about his dwelling…while his creatures devoured the herbage of the plains.” In one section, an enraged sheepherder whose flock is decimated by the wolves sets out to destroy them. A soldier tells him: “I told you before to lay out all the strychnine you could get hold of. We’ve got to rid this region of the Injuns and gray wolves before civilization will stick!” 

Both Bruchac’s faithful adaptation and McMurtry’s art—on a palette of mostly grays and browns—are right on target. In text and illustration, the wolves are as detailed as the humans, and on every few pages, McMurtry inserts Eastman’s face as the story unfolds. On the final page, McMurtry depicts Eastman telling his story to a group of Boy Scouts, an organization that he co-founded. “On Wolf Mountain” is highly recommended.

“The Red Man’s Rebuke” (1893) by Simon Pokagon (Potawatomi), art by Murv Jacob (Cherokee/Creek) (p.45)

This poem was part of the preface of a small 16-page booklet, a series of short essays printed on birch bark and originally written in 1893 as a political argument and protest against the Columbian Exposition. I can see Pokagon, in my mind’s eye, standing at the entrance of the Exposition, giving away (or selling) his booklet to the startled white people going in to see this celebration of the “discovery of America.” FYI, what follows are a few words from Pokagon’s speech:

In behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world. No; sooner would we hold the high joy day over the graves of our departed than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America. And while you who are strangers, and you who live here, bring the offering of the handiwork of your own lands and your hearts in admiration rejoice over the beauty and grandeur of this young republic and you say, “Behold the wonders wrought by our children in this foreign land,” do not forget that this success has been at the sacrifice of our homes and a once happy race.

Jacob’s painting of the death march known as the “Trail Where the People Cried,” or more popularly known as the “Trail of Tears,” is amazing. It’s wintertime and you can feel the deathly cold winter as the people lean into the freezing snow and wind. Pokagon’s short poem might have been paired with Jacob’s painting because the Potawatomi had their own “Trail of Death,” as it is known. Yet the Pokagon band of Potawatomi were not marched—they remain in southwestern Michigan—because Pokagon, as a hereditary chief, sold a substantial part of what is now the Chicago waterfront without his people’s permission. As a beginning of a discussion of Pokagon’s life, the Potawatomi people, and/or Manifest Destiny, “The Red Man’s Rebuke” is highly recommended.

“The Cattle Thief” (1914) by E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake, art by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) (pp. 46-53)

“The Cattle Thief,” a long poem, was originally published in Johnson’s anthology, Flint and Feather, in 1914; and is reprinted here in its entirety. An enormously popular performance poet, Johnson toured her native Canada, the US and England, placing her Mohawk name alongside her English name and strongly maintaining her identity as an Aboriginal woman. The Cree woman in “The Cattle Thief” is strong and resolute as she protests the murder of her elderly, starving father, called “cattle thief” by the white riders who have relentlessly hunted him down and now raise their knives to mutilate him. Standing over her father’s body, the woman harangues his killers, daring them to touch him.

And the words outleapt from her shrunken lips in the language of the Cree,
“If you mean to touch that body, you must cut your way through me.”
And that band of cursing settlers dropped backward one by one,
For they knew that an Indian woman roused, was a woman to let alone.

On a palette of mostly browns and blacks, Alvitre’s art effectively captures the bloodthirsty riders, the old man, and most of all, the courageous woman who strikes out against white predation of her people and land. “The Cattle Thief” is highly recommended.

“The Hunter and Medicine Legend” (1881) by Elias Johnson (Tuscarora), adapted by Andrea Grant, art by Toby Cypress (pp. 54-62)

Johnson’s story, in about three pages, is a good read. Children—and adults as well—who read or listen to it will see the action in their minds’ eyes, and will take in the lessons as well. Not so with the adaptation, which is belabored and too “cartoony” for my taste. The adapted text follows the original somewhat, but then veers into extraneous and annoying and hokey “conversation bubbles,” which explain what does not need to be explained. For instance, the text (and adapted text as well) read:

There once lived a man who was a great hunter. His generosity was…praised in all the country, for he not only supplied his own family with food, but distributed game among his friends and neighbors…. He even called the birds and animals of the forest to partake of his abundance.

Then, in the adaptation, the hunter explains to the animals, including two deer, why he is sharing his kill (a deer!) with them: “We are all connected in our life cycles...and so if I take, I will always give back.” Sounds like Tonto explaining something obvious to the Lone Ranger. Read the original. It’s much better. Not recommended.

“The White Man Wants the Indians’ Home” (date unknown; pre-1885) by James Harris Guy (Chickasaw), art by David Kainetakeron Faddon (Mohawk) (p. 63)

Little is known about Guy, other than that he was a member of the police force of the Chickasaw Nation, and that he was killed in a shootout in 1885. This poem was published in Native American Writing in the Southeast: An Anthology, 1875-1935, edited by Daniel F. Littlefield. Fadden’s amazing oil painting—on a bejeweled pallet of mostly sky blues, grass greens and browns—depicts a Mohawk couple against the backdrop of the land. Here are sunbeams breaking through the clouds, a bear in the sky, a deer in the meadow. It all comes together to carry this simple poem that laments the continued depredations of Indian lands. Recommended.

“How the White Race Came to America” (1913) by Handsome Lake (Seneca), as told to Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), adapted by Tom Pomplum / art by Roy Boney, Jr. (Cherokee) (pp.64-71)

Since its founding in the 19th Century, the Code of Handsome Lake has been a source of controversy, political divisions, and pain among the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse). It is known that Handsome Lake was recovering from alcoholism when he experienced his visions. It is also known that Handsome Lake’s mother was not Seneca and so, in this matrilineal society, he may not have been recognized as Seneca. In addition, Handsome Lake’s visions, as passed down in written form by his grandson, have a distinctively Christian influence, and forbid much of what is practiced today by the traditional Longhouse People. And finally, an important part of the controversy is whether or not it was proper to have taken his visions out of the oral tradition in the first place. That part of the Code of Handsome Lake is now produced in graphic format for the amusement of non-Natives belittles the whole thing. Not recommended.

“A Prehistoric Race” (1919) by Bertrand N.O.  Walker/Hen-To (Wyandot), adapted by Tom Pomplun, art by Tara Audibert (Maliseet) (pp. 72-79)

Bertrand N.O. Walker/Hen-To was a wonderful storyteller. In the book from which this story is told, Tales of the Bark Lodges, originally published in 1919, Grandma tells old Wyandot stories to her grandson. In these stories, the Wyandot dialect that Grandma speaks is authentic, understandable, and very, very funny; and when her grandson replies, he speaks relatively “standard” English. Since Grandma’s telling the stories to her grandson, she’s also, of course, speaking the animals’ parts. In this adaptation, Grandma tells the story, yet the animals speak dialect-free English. For instance, in the original story, Ol’ Buffalo tells Ol’ Fox that he wants to challenge Ol’ Turtle to a race. So Ol’ Buffalo says:

My frien’, I got make race with Turtle. You kind a smart, an’ you got sharp eyes, you be the judge, see who beat ‘em. You tell him, Ol’ Turtle, I beat ‘im on a ground’ or in a wata’, jus’ how he like, I don’ care nothin’. You tell ‘im come tomorro’ ova’ there by lake when sun come up jus’ ‘bout high as sycamo’ tree. You tell eva-body an’ he can come see race. I be down tha’, you tell ‘im that, Ol’ Turtle. He’s always best one, eva’ time; but I don’t think he could run, it’s too short his legs. Mebbe so he’s run good in wata’, tho’. Me, too, I could run fas’ in wata’ or anyhow. I bet I could beat ‘im’.

In the adaptation, this is what Ol’ Buffalo says:

I have to race with Turtle. You’re smart, and you’ve got sharp eyes—you be judge, and decide who wins. You tell Turtle I can beat him on land or in water, whichever he choose. Tell him to come tomorrow by the lake when the sun is as high as the sycamore trees. Tell everybody to come and see the race. Ol’ Turtle always says he’s best, but I don’t think he can run fast; his legs are too short. Maybe he’s faster in water, but I’m fast in water, too. I bet I could beat him.

Adapting a story is one thing, but to change the style and language is disrespectful and boring. And it makes Grandma appear to be unintelligent. The art is boring as well. Not recommended.

“I’m Wildcat Bill from Grizzle Hill” (ca. 1894) by Alexander Posey (Muscogee Creek), art by Marty Two Bulls, Sr. (Oglala Lakota) (pp. 80-81)

Alexander Posey was a journalist, essayist, poet and humorist, whose writing tended toward sharp political commentary. “Wildcat Bill,” which Posey wrote around 1894, is a boozing, bragging settler (“a gambler, scalper, born a scout; a tough; the man ye read about”). According to scholar Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., “‘Wildcat Bill’ is Posey’s attempt to imitate the speech of the white people then streaming into Indian Territory.” In this version, Marty Two Bulls makes sure that Wildcat Bill gets his comeuppance—from, of all things, a red-painted cigar-store Indian. Hilarious, and highly recommended.

“The Thunder’s Nest” (1851) by George Copway/Kahgegagahbowh (Mississauga Ojibwe), adapted by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Anishinaabe), art by James Odjick (Anishinaabe) (pp. 82-88)

This story was first published in Copway’s The traditional history and characteristic sketches of the Ojibway nation (1851) and is the story about how the Thunders, beings who wreaked havoc on the Ojibwe people, were subdued by the bravery of a young man. Although the art takes the place of a lot of the written story, it’s a faithful adaptation of Copway’s version. There is no dialogue—for which I am grateful—and the art is spot-on perfect. The Thunders are frightening, the young man is stalwart and the heart he holds in his hands is practically pulsating. Plus—and this is indeed a “plus” in books that illustrate traditional tales—the pipe is right, the clothing is right, the dwellings are right. It’s good to have a talented Anishinaabe artist illustrating an Anishinaabe story.

My only problem with Copway’s written story is that it appears to be a Christianized version of an old story that belies Indian peoples’ traditional respect for all the elements of Creation. Not having heard an oral version, I’m kind of skeptical of this one, and don’t know if I’d recommend it.

“They May Bury the Steel” (1875) by Israel Folsom (Choctaw), art by Larry Vienneau, Jr. (p. 89)

They may bury the steel in the Indian’s breast;
They may lay him low with his sires to rest,
His scattered race from their heritage push,
But his dauntless spirit they cannot crush.

Folsom’s short, evocative poem was originally published in an essay entitled “Choctaw Traditions: Introductory Remarks,” and republished in Native American Writing in the Southeast: An Anthology, 1875-1935, by Daniel F. Littlefield and James W. Parins. I especially like the repetition of the word “they.” We all know who “they” are. Vienneau’s print of a huge raven (or Raven) on a solid blue background, black with blue shining through its outspread wings, beak open, might evoke defiance, but I think the implied equivalence between Indian and Raven is funky. Folsom’s poem is recommended; the art, not so much.

“The Story of Itsikamahidish and the Wild Potato” (1914) by Buffalo Bird Woman (Hidatsa), as told to Gilbert L. Wilson, adapted by Tom Pomplun, art by Pat N. Lewis (pp. 90-95)

This story was found in Wilson’s field notes (vol. 16, #14) and later appeared in Native American Women’s Writing: An Anthology, ca. 1800-1924, edited by Karen L. Kilcup.  According to Hidatsa cosmology, Itsikamahidish is a complex kind of guy who appears in many forms, including as a human; sometimes he appears in the form of Coyote. This is a story about how Itsikamahidish, as Coyote, discovers wild potatoes, who warn him not to eat too much of them. Of course, Coyote being who he is doesn’t listen, and the consequences of eating too many wild potatoes are not lost on the reader. This graphic version is very, well, graphic; Coyote gets his comeuppance and we all know exactly why we shouldn’t eat too many wild potatoes. In Lewis’s illustrations—on a palette of riotous colors—Itsikamahidish looks just like Wile E. Coyote, the talking potato looks like Mister Potato Head, and the circular earth lodges appear accurate. I’m confused, though, about why Itsikamahidish’s sweetheart is an Indian woman, since the Coyote stories I’ve heard take place in the time before humans were created. However, if Itsikamahidish takes many forms, maybe he also dates humans. Recommended.

“Anoska Nimiwina” (1899) by William Jones (Fox), adapted by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), art by Afua Richardson (pp. 96-113)

Written about ten years after the event, this is the story of how Anoska Nimiwina, the dance of peace, came through the territory of the Osakie, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo, and brought an alliance with their enemies, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Caddo. According to Jones, this version of the sacred story of how a young woman brought peace to the warring peoples of the area was brought to the Sauk and Fox by messengers of the Potawatomi. What has been erroneously referred to as the “Ghost Dance” swept through the Plains nations; and it was brought about by the same desperation. The People believed that if they danced and prayed together in this good way, the predatory whites would disappear, the murdered ancestors would return, and the land and game animals would come back.

Richardson’s art, on a gorgeous palette of mostly blues, purples and browns, make a spectacular complement to Bruchac’s amazing adaptation of a story that reverberates even today in the Idle No More movement and a strong, courageous Indian woman. Highly recommended.

“The Stolen White Girl” (1868) by John Rollin Ridge/Cheesquatalawny (Cherokee), art by Daryl Talbot (Choctaw), color by Kevin Atkinson (pp. 114-115)

John Rollin Ridge is a notorious figure in Cherokee history. His father, John Ridge, and grandfather, Major Ridge, as leaders of the “Treaty Party,” were leading signatories of the Treaty of New Echota (1836), which ceded Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi, and was said to have resulted in the death march known as The Trail Where the People Cried, more popularly called “The Trail of Tears.” Years after followers of John Ross—who had led the Cherokee opposition to the treaty—assassinated Ridge’s father and grandfather, Ridge himself killed David Kell, a member of Ross’s faction. Then Ridge fled to California, and went on to become—a writer. A child of mixed parentage, Ross also married a white woman, Elizabeth. “The Stolen White Girl” is probably a romanticized version of their courtship; absent any of this context, the poem and illustrations read like an early version of the “dime novels” and their successors, the “Indian Romance” novels (“Savage Heart,” “Savage Flames,” “Beloved Savage,” you get the picture). Not recommended.

“The Middle-Man” (1909) by Royal Roger Eubanks (Cherokee), adapted by Jon Proudstar (Yaqui, Maya), art by Terry Laban (pp. 116-129)

In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, also euphemistically known as the “General Allotment Act,” which broke up the vast tribal lands and allotted small portions (about 160 acres) to individual Indian families to farm. The “surplus” lands were then opened up to settlers, and within decades, whites owned the vast majority of the lands. But “most” was not “enough,” and along came the real estate speculators, who, by using the American legal system, bilked Indian individuals of their land allotments. Eubanks, who had pursued careers in teaching and art, became famous for his biting political cartoons and cartoon-illustrated stories, one of which became “The Middle-Man.” Although there is some information on the Dawes Act here (in tiny print at the bottom of three of the ten-page story), it is not enough to carry this adaptation, which will lead readers to believe that Indians were (and are) unintelligent and easily duped. Not recommended.

“Changing Is Not Vanishing” (1916) by Carlos Montezuma/Wassaja (Apache), art by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) (p. 130)

Carlos Montezuma was a nationally known political leader, writer, essayist and poet, who aimed his political arrows at the white establishment and the BIA for the devastation imposed on Native peoples, and on those who believed the stereotypical portrayal of Indians in the media. Montezuma was not, as the notes here read, “the first Native American to earn a medical degree in an American University.” Actually, Charles Eastman (Santee Dakota) earned his medical degree in the same year, 1889. (Caution: Do your own research and don’t believe everything you read in Wikipedia.)

“Changing Is Not Vanishing” is Montezuma’s answer to those who would believe that changing is vanishing. Arigon Starr’s illustration, of four contemporary traditional and modern Indian people, includes two women, of whom Montezuma’s poem left out. Highly recommended.

“Two Wolves,” by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), adapted by Richard Van Camp (Dogrib Dene) / art by John Findley (pp. 131-139)

“Two Wolves” is one of my three hands-down favorites of this collection. (The others are “Anoska Nimiwina,” which Bruchac adapted; and “The Cattle Thief by E. Pauline Johnson.) “Two Wolves” is the story of a young Abenaki, just out of his teens, back from fighting in the Civil War. Hired by the Town Board to hunt down and destroy a wolf who has killed some sheep, Ash has been traumatized by the killing he has had to do in the war. The wolf has been wounded and scarred as well, and the irony is not lost on the young man: “That’s a good one, isn’t it?” he tells the wolf, “an Indian boy getting paid to scalp a wolf?” Ash, after tossing some of his dinner to the wolf (now named “Catcher”), decides he has “done enough killing for all of us,” and tells his new companion of his plans to head north to Canada. In the north, he says, is “land where there’s woods and deer. No sheep, no bounties paid for wolves or men.”

Findley’s art is amazing, realistic and detailed (save the members of the Town Board, who are appropriately caricatured). Especially poignant is Catcher’s sniffing at Ash’s wolf skin-lined bedroll. In the last two panels, the two lie down together, Ash’s head on his bedroll, and Catcher at his side. Or is Ash’s head on Catcher? Both art and story complement each other, a perfect balance, neither competing for domination. With “Two Wolves,” an anti-war story told in an “Indian” way—no “explanation,” no stated moral, no heavy-handed polemic—the reader is left to ponder the issues and explore the possibilities. Beautiful. Highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin

Monday, January 07, 2013

Thumbs up to some titles on CBC Diversity's Goodreads Bookshelf

A few days ago, I gave a thumbs down to some titles on CBC Diversity's Goodreads Bookshelf. Today, I want to give a thumbs up to the inclusion of Native authors whose books are on CBC list:

The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich
Chickadee by Louise Erdrich
The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich
Bearwalker by Joseph Bruchac
Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac
Squanto's Journey by Joseph Bruchac (Update, 10/26/1028: I do not recommend Squanto's Journey.)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Update, 10/26/1028: I do not recommend Alexie's books.)

Update: February 4, 2013 

Returning to the post above to do a more complete observation of the CBC Diversity's "native-american-inuit" bookshelf:

Lakota author/artist S.D. Nelson is on the list. He's done several books. I really like his Greet the Dawn the Lakota Way. I'm not as keen on his Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story.

I'm glad to see Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky on the list. It is a book of poems, edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin and illustrated by S.D. Nelson. McLaughlin is not Native. He's worked extensively with students at Santa Fe Indian School, taking them to national competitions.

Thomas M. Yeahpau's book, X-Indian Chronicles: The Book of Mausape, is on the list, too. I have to read that one again. It set me back on my heels when I read it the year it came out.

The list has several books on it by Linda Little Wolf. I have never come across her name or her books before. Under "Accomplishments" at the Author's Den website, info provided says that she is of Cherokee and Lakota Sioux heritage. It doesn't say she's enrolled in either one. It says she's one of the foremost educators and speakers on Plains Indians, so her name ought to be familiar to me, either through gatherings of Native writers, or writings by Native literary critics, but I don't know who she is. I'll see what I can learn.

Moving on to writers who are not Native, I'm really pleased to see Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name Is Not Easy on the list. It wasn't there before (I made a pdf of the bookshelf back in January), and it being there now tells us the list is in development. That's terrific. Debby is married to an Inupiat man and they've got several children. I spent time with Debby and her daughter in Anchorage, in August of 2012. It is one of my cherished memories.

Friday, January 04, 2013


Recently, I was asked to read and comment on Bailey at the Museum by Harry Bliss. Here's the cover:*

Bailey is the dog shown on the cover. In the story, he tags along on a school field trip to a natural history museum.

Let's start by noting why we go to museums.

We go to them to learn something. Museum personnel work pretty hard at making their exhibits educational. They want you to leave the museum knowing more about something than you knew when you walked in. (Though there is much to say about the problems of having Indigenous peoples in natural history museums with the dinosaurs and animals, I'm focusing this post on the idea of a museum and Bliss's presentation of a museum in his picture book. If you want to give some time to my previous post on museums and Indians, see Syd Hoff's Danny and the Dinosaur.)

Do we, as readers, walk away from the museum in Bailey at the Museum knowing more than we did when we turned the first page?

Bliss is an illustrator for The New Yorker and has also done illustrations for a handful of children's books. He grew up in upper state New York. I'm wondering if the museum Bailey goes to is the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

In Bailey at the Museum, Mr. Snyder (the museum guide) takes the class through the museum.

Among the first exhibits Bailey sees are the ones of dinosaurs. On one page, Bailey climbs up on the T Rex and starts gnawing on its tail. To make sure he doesn't get in trouble after that, a museum security guard is assigned to accompany Bailey for the rest of the visit. From the dinosaur exhibit, the class has lunch and then moves to the Stone Age exhibit and a mural of evolution.

The next pages are about Indians.

On the page with the totem pole, Bailey looks at the pole and sees a likeness of himself. Totem poles generally represent history and stories. The Sealaska Heritage Institute has a page about totem poles. If you follow the link you'll see several wolves, but no dogs.

I'm uneasy about Bliss playing with someone's culture by inserting Bailey in that totem pole. Most people probably see it as amusing, but it gives me pause and it makes me wonder about the totem pole Bliss used as his model for this page. Was there a wolf on that pole? I'm guessing that the museum curator has a lot of information in that exhibit... like the name of the tribe with whom the totem poles originate. What tribe did the totem pole Bliss used as a model originate with? Bliss doesn't say. Surely the museum shared that info... but Bliss chose not to include it in his book.

Here's my scan of the next page:

Nothing on the page tells us what tribe this page is about. Notice the use of "were" instead of "are" in the information the museum guide says? I can imagine a museum guide saying "were" instead of "are." If Bliss heard a guide say that, he did not have to repeat that error. He could have used present tense instead, don't you think?

There is a teepee on the next page. All we see of Bailey is his tail sticking out the door of the teepee. As with the totem pole and the dream catcher, Bliss doesn't tell us anything about the tribe this tipi originated from.

As the field trip draws to a close, the security guard gives Bailey a gift that turns out to be a dreamcatcher and an information sheet "About your Dream Catcher" that says "The Sioux belie" (the rest of the words are hidden by Bailey's leg. Finally! Something tribally specific! Part of me wishes Bliss had included tribally specific information on each page... Would it have interrupted his story to insert just another word or two on those pages to tell his readers who these items originate with?

But even if he did include that tribally specific information, he's just using Native cultures as decorations and props for his story about Bailey. Some find the story amusing. I find it insensitive, and, it also negates what museums are trying to do with their exhibits. As such, I do not recommend Bailey at the Museum.

*Image credit: Pinterest

Thumbs down to some titles on CBC Diversity's Goodreads Bookshelf

The Children's Book Council's Diversity Committee is, perhaps, the most recent effort within the children's publishing arena to push for diversity in children's and young adult literature. The 'about' page on their website says they are "dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children's and young adult literature."

Among their activities towards that diversity of voice and experience is their Diversity Bookshelf at Goodreads that "curates front and backlist books by CBC members in order to raise awareness of the diversity-friendly content already in existence."

I'm glad they're taking this on. We most definitely need organized efforts at diversifying voice and experience.

In December, CBC member Cheryl Klein announced their Diversity 101 series and asked readers to look over Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Sexism (available at Sarah Park's blog), published in the 1970s by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. She pointed to her own growth over the last twelve years. I've written about my own growth in the last 20 years. This growth is a process, not an endpoint, and I hope that the journey of CBC members leads them to reconsider what they've pointed to on their Diversity Bookshelf.

I've not read all the 58 books on the CBC's Native American-Inuit list. Remember---their list is provided "to raise awareness of the diversity friendly content already in existence." I'm hoping that CBC members study Ten Quick Ways and then remove the following books from the list. They are not diversity-friendly. Instead, they affirm stereotypes and bias. Until we recognize and acknowledge the problems in these books and then quit using them, we're not going to make much progress in diversifying voice and experience. I believe these authors had good intentions, but good intentions are never enough, right?

Here's critiques of some of the books on the CBC Native American list. When you click on a title, you'll go to a page with several posts about that particular book, or, to a single post about it.

CBC has Ann Rinaldi's A Break with Charity: A Story about the Salem Witch Trials on its list, too. Though she is quite popular, she's among the worst offenders in terms of misrepresenting and stereotyping Native people. I haven't read A Break with Charity, but you might be interested in these critiques of two of her books.

I'll close today's post by saying that I'm concerned that the use of "diversity" and "diversity books" seems to be a new strategy within the industry itself to argue that stories can be written by anyone, and that insider perspective is not important. More thoughts on this later...

Updates, January 7, 2013
There's some books on the list that seem to be mis-labeled. Two of them are African or African American stories:

  • Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell
  • Feast for Ten by Cathryn Falwell

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Cowboys and Indians in Brandon Mull's FABLEHAVEN; RISE OF THE EVENING STAR

Thanks to Erin for letting me know about Brandon Mull's Fablehaven series...

Launched in 2007, the first book is titled Fablehaven. Subsequent ones have subtitles. I haven't read any of them, but plan to do so. The second volume is Rise of the Evening Star. Here's what Erin pointed out in her Goodreads review:

The illustration is on page 165 of the paperback. The girl in the illustration is Kendra. She's looking down at a foosball table. It doesn't look anything like any of the foosball tables I've played on...  Here's the text from page 163:
Spitted on rods were four rows of Indians and four rows of cowboys. The cowboys were all the same, as were the Indians. The cowboy had a white hat and a mustache. His hands rested on his holstered six-guns. The Indian had a feathered headdress, and his reddish-brown arms were folded across his bare chest.
Some questions... Have you seen a foosball table like that? And why was that particular scene chosen for illustration?!

When Kendra beats "the Sphinx" (he's "a black man with short, beaded dreadlocks" whose "skin was not merely a shade of brown--it was as close to truly black as Kendra had ever seen") at a game of foosball, he tells her "I feel like General Custer."

More questions... Custer? Why? What does it add to the story to have a cowboy and Indians foosball table?!  Why did Mull include any of this?

And why have no reviewers noted it?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Slapin's review of Deborah Miranda's BAD INDIANS

Editor's Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2012 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.


Miranda, Deborah A. (Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen, Chumash), Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday, 2012.

“Story is the most powerful force in the world,” Deborah writes, “in our world, maybe in all worlds. Story is culture. Story, like culture, is constantly moving. It is a river where no gallon of water is the same gallon it was one second ago. Yet it is still the same river. It exists as a truth. As a whole. Even if the whole is in constant change. In fact, because of that constant change.”

For better or for worse, young Deborah never had to endure the daily humiliations of fourth grade in California, where children are taught the dominant discourse about the California missions. Where non-Indian children (and their parents) construct “mission” dioramas with beneficent padres instructing and supervising willing Indian neophytes as they learn how to work. Where Indian children—especially California Indian children—shrink into their seats, trying to disappear.

The real story—people massacred, children violated, land and languages stolen, cultures broken beyond recognition—is rarely told.

After asking her young son’s teacher to let him pass on the project—and being refused—an Indian parent I know allowed him to construct the required model mission. “So Nick built his mission and brought it home,” she told me. “And we built a fire and we talked about it again, how Indian people were enslaved and died building missions and living in missions. Then we put it in the fire and burned it and I promised Nick that I would always stick up for him and challenge anyone who would keep opening up these scars.”

“All my life,” Deborah writes, “I have heard only one story about California Indians: godless, dirty, stupid, primitive, ugly, passive, drunken, immoral, lazy, weak-willed people who might make good workers if properly trained and motivated. What kind of story is that to grow up with?”

Bad Indians is this story—the story of the missionization of California. In constructing Bad Indians, Deborah creates “a space where voices can speak after long and often violently imposed silence.” For Deborah, the stories seeped “out of old government documents, BIA forms, field notes, the diaries of explorers and priests, the occasional writings or testimony from Indians, family stories, photographs, newspaper articles.” Together, these disparate voices belie the dominant discourse; they are stories of tenacious survival. And they are Deborah’s “mission project.”

But Bad Indians is more than these voices; it’s Deborah’s family’s story as well. In it, I’m reminded of something that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that has recently been channeled through Kelly Clarkson: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Actually, Nietzsche wrote it with more elegance: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

Deborah’s life’s twists and turns have brought her to this place, to find her ancestors’ stories, to tell her own family’s stories, to connect them—and to heal. Some childhood memories, some faded photographs, some snippets of stories written down word for word by an anthropologist, some paragraphs from old textbooks. A lesser author might have crafted a novel spanning the generations, a linear novel, maybe a chapter for each character. But Deborah didn’t and wouldn’t do that; it would have dishonored her ancestors. Rather, she looks at what is—the pieces, the shards of a broken mirror—and interprets, imagines, wonders. If she doesn’t know a thing, she says so. Throughout, she is in awe of the voices, drawings, photos, whatever she can find—all treasured gifts, entrusted to her by the elders and ancestors she never got to meet.

“Who we are is where we are from,” Deborah writes. “Where we are from is who we are.”

On a Saturday morning, Deborah and relatives slowly and mindfully circle the grounds of the Mission Soledad, picking up bone fragments: “Here is a finger joint, here a tooth. Here a shattered section of femur, here something unidentifiable except for the lacy pattern that means human being. Our children run to us with handfuls of ancestors they keep calling ‘fossils’ because youth and privilege don’t let the truth sink in yet.” As they gently bury the tiny pieces of bones, “Xu-lin, we say to our broken ancestors: xu-lin, sprinkling sage, mugwort, and tobacco over the small grave. Xu-lin, we whisper as the earth takes back. Xu-lin, a plea and a promise: return.”

Bad Indians is not easy reading. Deborah draws connections between the violence of the California missions, the violence perpetrated on the descendants of the “Mission Indians,” the violence she witnessed at home, and the rapes she endured as a child: “Imprisonment. Whippings. Betrayal. Rape.” And she doesn’t mince words: “Erasure is a bitch, isn’t it?”

At the end of Bad Indians, Deborah quotes Tom King (Cherokee), who wrote in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Toronto, Publishers Group Canada, 2003), “Take it. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”

If you’re a fourth-grade teacher who has ever taught a “mission” unit, if you’re a parent of a fourth-grader who has ever helped her child construct a “mission diorama,” if you’ve ever admired the architecture of a California mission, if you’ve ever harbored the thought that Ishi was the “last of his tribe,” you no longer have an excuse for perpetuating the horrors. Don’t say you didn’t know.

In Bad Indians, Deborah Miranda has created an achingly beautiful mosaic out of the broken shards of her people and herself, gently glued together with heartbreak and scars, memories and perseverance and hope. Her writing is crisp and clear and eminently readable, with passion in place of polemic. Deborah is a strong, brave, compassionate spirit, and I am honored to call her “friend.”

—Beverly Slapin

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Joe McKendry's One Times Square: A Century of Change at the Crossroads of the World is on the Publishers Weekly Best Books 2012 list, in the children's nonfiction category.

What, I wondered, does McKendry say about American Indians? Are we part of his narrative?

I'll have to get to the library and read the whole book, but here's what I see using Google Books:
Today's Times Square sits on land once owned by Medcef Eden, a brewer-turned-farmer whose seventy-acre farm covered much of the area in the early 1800s.
That'd be an easy place for McKendry to say who owned that land prior to Medcef Eden, wouldn't it?  A few pages later, McKendry shows us some ironworkers laying steel beams:

The text suggests these ironworkers are working on the Paramount Building, completed in 1926. He doesn't tell us anything about the workers themselves. Maybe he meant some of them to be Mohawk. Maybe he didn't. Either way, he could have included a sidebar about the Mohawk ironworkers who have been building those skyscrapers since the late 1800s. If you want to know more about the Mohawk ironworkers, the National Museum of the American Indian has a peek at an exhibit, and Time has a photoessay of Mohawk ironworkers.

I'll let you know when I get a copy and see the whole thing. I think I'm really going to like McKendry's artistry, but I also think I'll walk away from it wishing it was more comprehensive with regard to Native peoples. McKendry's attention to detail is astounding. You can see some of the art at his website. I'm guessing it isn't meant to be a social history, but he does include information about some people... Charles Thorley is one; Oscar Hammerstein is another.

More later...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jodi Lynn Anderson's TIGER LILY - Part 2

Back in June, I read part of Jodi Lynn Anderson's Tiger Lily. I didn't like what I read and posted my thoughts. The book is now on School Library Journal's "Best of 2012" list, so I got it out of the library and read it today. These are my initial thoughts.


  • The story is set in the time prior to Wendy's arrival at Neverland. 
  • The narrator is Tinker Bell. 
  • There are tribes. They live in these three villages: SkyEaters, Cliff Dwellers, and Bog Dwellers.
  • I don't think Anderson uses the word 'Indian' anywhere in the book. She uses 'tribe' and 'warrior' and 'warriors' and 'shaman.'  

What I don't like:
Here's what stands out to me right now. I've got lots and lots of notes, but as I close the book and set it down, this is what is in my mind.

First concern: the names Anderson created for the Native characters. For years and years, non-Native writers have created outlandish names for their characters. In the process, they intentionally or not, trivialize and mock something that matters to us a great deal. Russell Hoban did it in Soonchild. Jon Scieszka did it in My Oh MayaHere's the names in Tiger Lily:

Pine Sap
Moon Eye
Tik Tok
Magnolia Bud
Aunt Fire
Aunt Sticky Feet
Bat Wing
Silk Whiskers
Red Leaf
Bear Claw

Tik Tok is the name of the village shaman. We don't know what his name was to start with, but once he finds the clock and hears its tick tock, he decides to have a ceremony and change his name to Tik Tok. It makes him seem a foolish and silly person.

Tik Tok finds Tiger Lily under a tiger lily flower and names her after it. Aunt Sticky Feet was named that way because of the time she had walked through hot tar and then got her foot stuck to a chicken that ran into her path.

Some of you may have heard the crass joke about how an Indian is named after the first thing the person bestowing the name sees in the morning, or just at the moment he/she is about to give a name to someone. It is a racist joke, and as such, it isn't funny, and neither are the humorous names authors create for their characters (whether they directly call their characters Indian or not).

Second concern: Tik Tok is a transgender character. He wears purple and raspberry colored dresses. Once I got past the name, I liked him. I liked him a lot. But then, the Englander named Philip moves into the village and turns the people against him. Instead of listening to Tik Tok, they cluster around Philip and stories of his god. In Anderson's story, the villagers are simpletons. Though, by the end of the story, they've rejected Christianity and returned to their own ways, Anderson's characterization of them is troubling. This may be Neverland to her, but to me, she's playing with very painful history in which Indigenous peoples fought very hard to defend their ways of life.

It was very hard for me to read the pages about what happens to Tik Tok. Because of pressure from Philip and the villagers rejection of him in favor of Philip, he decides he cannot live his life as a man who wears dresses and long hair anymore. He lets Philip cut his hair. It was painful to read that part, and I'm not sure that Anderson knows just how that scene will impact Native readers.

Not long after that, Tik Tok commits suicide. That was painful to read, too, though it isn't spelled out as graphically as the hair cutting is. Same thing with Moon Eye's rape. It is not graphically laid out, but there is enough there that it is painful to read.

Reviewers note that Tiger Lily is very dark, but for me, its darkness is one of ignorance--not the ugly racism Anderson seeks to expose--but the exposure of her own ignorance of what certain things in history might mean to a Native reader. As for the naming, I don't know how to characterize it. When I've had time to think about Tiger Lily a bit more, I'll likely write some more, but that's what I've got for now.

Update, Thursday, December 13th, 10:12 AM

Picking up where I left off last night... I have additional concerns.

The tribal people, obviously, had their own language prior to the arrival of the Englanders. But, when the Englanders first arrive (prior to the setting of Tiger Lily), they brought their language with them and gave it as "a gift" (page 10) to the Bog Dwellers, who in turn, gave it to the other tribes. Remember, it is Tinker Bell who is narrating, and it is she who calls English a gift. Maybe Tiger Lily has a different view of English, but we don't know.

Stepping into a broader context, Native peoples in the U.S. who were sent to boarding schools were beaten when they spoke their own language. The result is that Indigenous languages are in decline. In that context, it is callous to see English called "a gift." I assume Anderson needed to insert English into the narrative because Tik Tok and Pine Sap read books written by Englanders. One is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. On page 64, Pine Sap is reading "Song of myself" aloud to Tiger Lily. Ironically, I imagine that Whitman is one of the poets Native students had to read in the boarding schools. On page 33, Anderson's reference to an old mission tells us she must have some knowledge of missionary activities. Perhaps she views missionaries as benevolent, and that's why she calls English a gift. Anderson is a gifted writer. Couldn't she have figured out a way to problematize English as "a gift"?

On page 84, when Tiger Lily first meets the Lost Boys, Tootles tells her that she has hairy arms, and that girls aren't supposed to have hairy arms. Tiger Lily is embarrassed and thinks about "photos of the English ladies she'd seen, smooth and white, and for a moment, it made her sad." We know Tiger Lily's thoughts because Tinker Bell can hear them. Was Tiger Lily sad that her skin wasn't smooth and white? Later in the book, Wendy's skin is described as "cloudlike with whiteness." Wendy showers Peter and the boys with admiration. They "can't take their eyes off her" (p. 235). In the end, Peter chooses Wendy. We know he chooses Wendy---it is, after all---Barre's story that Anderson is working with. I don't know what to make of all this. It is more complicated than a simple elevation of white over dark skin, but the messages it imparts are troubling.

A few words about the photos... We aren't told where she saw those photos. Are they in books left behind by the missionaries? Leaves of Glass was published in 1855, which is right around the time that it was beginning to be easier to reproduce photographs. I don't know about the dates at which books with photographs in them would be circulating. Course, Tiger Lily is a work of fantasy and we can't really say what time period it is set in, but the reference to Whitman and a later reference to the end of sailing and steamships (in favor of "newer and quicker machines" (p. 279) do give us a time period to work with. She probably was seeing photographs of English ladies, if not in books, then actual photographs.

Do I find anything to like about Tiger Lily? I'm reluctant to say, because I don't want my comments taken out of context to indicate that I recommend the book. I don't recommend it. I find Tiger Lily very troubling, and I find it troubling that reviewers are praising it. Didn't any of them have a niggling of any kind that might suggest it isn't deserving of all that praise? I suppose they like her writing. She is a good writer. I just wish she had not used her art in this book.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

James and Joseph Bruchac's RABBIT'S SNOW DANCE

Have you heard Joe Bruchac tell a story? He's got a terrific voice for telling stories. As I read Rabbit's Snow Dance, I was able to play that voice in my head as Rabbit says:
"I want snow," he said. "I want it, I want it, I want it right now!"
Rabbit's Snow Dance is by Joe and his son, James. And, I gotta say, it is absolutely delightful!

Rabbit's Snow Dance is absolutely delightful!

Rabbit, you see, wants the tasty leaves and buds at the top of the trees. He can't reach them, but he knows that if there was a lot of snow on the ground, he could stand on it and get those tasty treats. He knows a snow dance, too, and thinks he'll sing the song and do the dance, even though it isn't the right season to do it...

The combination of the Bruchac's storytelling and Jeff Newman's illustrations works perfectly. Here's the cover:

On the cover, Rabbit is playing a hand drum. Notice the drumstick in his left paw? Newman obviously did some research, or, maybe he knows from experience that Native peoples do not play a drum with a bare hand. So many illustrators get that wrong! Newman got it right.

Rabbit's Snow Dance, we learn on the title page inside, is a traditional Iroquois story. Back in 1993, Betsy Hearne developed a Source Note Countdown as part of her article, "Cite the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part 1." In model source notes, we'd learn just where the story came from, when and how it ought to be told (its cultural context), and, how the teller changed it from the version he or she heard/read it from. We don't have any of that in Rabbit's Snow Dance. Joe has provided it for other books. I wrote to a storyteller a couple of years ago. He told me that publisher's don't want to give authors space for that information. If that is the status of model notes right now, I think we're all losing out. There are, for example, six different tribal nations within the Iroquois: Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Tuscarora, Mohawk, and Cayuga. Do they share this story? Or, does it belong to one in particular?

That said, I do think Rabbit's Snow Dance has a lot to offer as a read-aloud and highly recommend it. I'll look around for some source info and share it when I get it. Perhaps you can print it out and insert it yourself.

Rabbit's Snow Day
As told by James and Joseph Bruchac
Illustrated by Jeff Newman
Published by Dial, in 2012.

Order it from your favorite independent bookseller right away so you'll have it for the snowtimes that are upon us---not because of Rabbit's dance, but because its Wintertime. Snowtime!

Update, December 20, 2012:

Thanks to Beverly for writing to Joe to get the background of the story...  It will appear in the subsequent printings of the story. Here it is:

"Rabbit's Snow Dance" is a story that I first heard more than 50 years ago from several different Native elders. The first of them was my friend Swift Eagle, a Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache artist and storyteller (whose own life would make an interesting story) who lived in Schroon Lake, New York and spent many years working in a tourist attraction called Frontier Town. Swifty had been in the movies, friends with Jim Thorpe, traveled all over the country and seemed to know just about everyone in Indian country, including many Iroquois folks of his generation. There are more than a dozen Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) stories that Swifty often told, including this one, the story of how Bear Lost his tail, Turtle's Race With Bear and others. I heard him tell that story when I was a little boy visiting Frontier Town in the early 50s. (Swift Eagle also was known as a Pueblo culture bearer. He is mentioned in at least one ethnologist's work as perhaps the first Pueblo person to produce artwork as a painter. In 1955, Swifty recorded THE PUEBLO INDIANS IN SONG STORY AND DANCE for Caedmon.)

I also heard a version of the story from Maurice Dennis/Mdawelasis, an Abenaki elder who lived in Old Forge, N.Y., also working in a tourist attraction called The Enchanted Forest. (By the way, a book should be written about Indians playing Indian for tourists in such locales during the middle decades of the 20th century.) Maurice also knew the Abenaki snow dance and famously performed it one snowless winter for the town of Old Forge to help the economy by providing snow for the trails to attract snowmobilers. It worked and a storm swept in that blanketed Old Forge, the only Adirondack town with deep snow that winter. It made the national news that year of 1980 and the town of Lake Placid then tried to hire Maurice to do the snow dance for the Winter Olympics. But he refused, saying he did it for his town and couldn't do it for money. (That dance, by the way, was given the people by the rabbit or snowshoe hare, who is a very important figure in other Abenaki traditional tales.)

The earliest published version of Rabbit making it snow appears to be the one in STORIES THE IROQUOIS TELL THEIR CHILDREN by Mabel Powers (American Book Company, 1917). It is titled "Why the Hare Has a Split Lip and Short Tail." The Hare sings:

Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
dah gen, dah ton
Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
Ah gon ne yah--yeh
which is translated as;
Snow, snow, snow
How I would run if I had snow
Snow, snow, snow
How I would run if I had snow

Powers was not Native herself, but cites 23 different Iroquois storytellers as sources, including their names, Indian names, tribal nation and clan. (Many of them would later be mentioned as sources by Arthur Parker in SENECA MYTHS AND FOLK TALES (Buffalo Historical Society, 1923) Her book also included a Foreword endorsing her tellings and signed by Chiefs from all Six Iroquois Nations.

The next published version can be found in the Seneca artist J.J. Cornplanter's LEGENDS OF THE LONGHOUSE (J.B. Lippincott, 1938) and titled "Rabbit and Pussy-Willow, a Seneca Just-so Story." Written in the form of a letter to a friend, it includes that same song, as well as commentary about the place of such stories in Seneca life. 

My own first published version of the story is in my book IROQUOIS STORIES, published in 1985 by the Crossing Press. There have been other published versions since, such as the one called "The Rabbit" in TYENDINAGA TALES (McGill-Queens, 1988) collected by Rona Rustige. 

The telling that James and I chose to do is both drawn from and different from those previous versions. It came to be as a result of both of us telling that story to audiences over the years. In my case, more than 40 years of telling it (first to Jim and his brother Jesse when they were children). In Jim's case, more than 20. 

Before I go further I should mention that it has become increasingly clear to me over the decades how much and how often stories travel. . .not just within a tribal nation, but beyond its traditional boundaries. It's impossible to count how many thousands, perhaps millions, of people have heard or read versions of this one story alone over the last century. It's sometimes hard to know when (and where) a traditional tale was first told unless it deals with very specific historical events or cultural practices. 

Animal stories--like those of Aesop (the Greek Ethiopian)--may travel the best. Here in the northeast, a number of our Wabanaki stories have clearly been influenced by Iroquois traditional tales. And vice versa. And the Algonquin peoples and our languages have roots rather deeper than those of the Haudenosaunee, who migrated into our region a thousand or so years ago. It means that sometimes we have new or different insights into a story. For example, one thing I have heard from Abenaki people--such as Maurice Dennis--was that the tree which holds those pieces of Rabbit's tale are not pussy willows at all. The pussy willow is a short bush, not the tallest tree in the forest that would stick up above the deep snow. Instead, it is the poplar, a tall growing tree that produces catkins that fall to the ground in early spring.

That is why in our telling we used an Abenaki language version of the song and say near the end "Since then, at the time of year when the snow goes away, you can see those little furry pieces of Rabbit's tail stuck on certain trees. Some call them pussy willows, but those who know about Rabbit's snow dance know what they really are." Honoring the tellings of those in the past and bringing our own voices and experience into this version which is not wholly traditional, but our own, unique retelling. 

There's a lot more that could be said, but this tale of a tale of a tail is already too long, so

I'll cut it short here,

Monday, December 10, 2012

Russell Hoban's SOONCHILD

Ummm... Russell Hoban, author of some terrific picture books, wrote this on page 6 of Soonchild: 
John came from a long line of shamans. His mother was Stay With It and his father was Go Anywhere. His mother's mother was Never Give Up and her father was Try Anything. His father's mother was Do It Now and his father's father was Whatever Works. His mother's grandmother was Where Is It? and his father's grandmother was Don't Miss Anything. His mother's grandmother was Everything Matters and his father's grandfather was Go All The Way. 
John's full name, by the way, is Sixteen-Face John. His wife's name is No Problem.

Want some more excerpts from this novel based on Inuit stories? Did you say 'hell no'?! That's what I'm saying.

Say 'hell no' to Hoban's Soonchild.

Calling it playful, challenging, profound, and glib, the reviewer at Booklist gave it a starred review and categorizes it as appropriate for grades 9-12.

The reviewer at VOYA says the Native names (really, Voya? You think those are "Native" names?!) give the story "unexpected depth" and recommends it for readers who are 11 to 14.

The Kirkus reviewer says it is "based on paternalistic and romanticized notions about Native peoples." Quoting from the book, the Kirkus reviewer demonstrates that Hoban is addressing non-Inuit readers:
"Maybe…there isn't any north where you are. Maybe it's warm….There aren't any Inuit or dogsleds, nothing like that."
Some (obviously) think Hoban is clever. I think he is ignorant and insensitive, and I wouldn't recommend his book for anyone at all!

Friday, December 07, 2012


On December 4, 2012, The New York Times published "Books to Match Diverse Young Readers" about books that featured characters who are "black, Latino, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native." Here's a screen capture of the article:

The first book on the second row is Louise Erdrich's Chickadee. If you click on it, you'll be able to read the first words of the book. On the third row, the last image is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Indian Shoes. I heartily recommend Chickadee and Indian Shoes and am glad to see them getting this attention in the Times. 

I am not familiar with The Year of Miss Agnes, but it was not favorably reviewed in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. In it, reviewer Marlene Atleo writes that Miss Agnes is an eccentric and dedicated white teacher of Indigenous children, but that throughout, the message is that "Native people merely survive" and that "white people think..." Atleo's review includes an excerpt:
With Miss Agnes the world got bigger and then it got smaller. We used to think we were something, but then she told us all the things that were bigger than us, the universe and all that, and then all the things that were smaller. To small to even see. So people were sort of in between, not big and small, just in between.
Reading that excerpt, I see the trope of the white teacher rescuing the Indians from their primitive and ignorant ways. It doesn't make one lick of sense to me, though, given that Native peoples view ourselves as part of the world. I'm guessing that Alaska Native children in isolated areas already know that people are "in between." Isn't it, generally speaking, non-Native people who are the ones that need to learn their place in the world as caretakers rather than exploiters of the earth's resources?

If you choose Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, avoid the other Alvin book, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties. It features Alvin playing Indian.
I'm uploading this post on December 7, 2012. For those of you looking for holiday gifts, put Chickadee and Indian Shoes on your lists. Both are available from Birchbark Books in their "young adult" link.

Buy books from Birchbark Books! Support independent bookstores!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

THIS AMERICAN LIFE: "Little War on the Prairie", THE DAKOTA 38, and resources for teaching about the US-Dakota War of 1862

On November 23, 2012, This American Life devoted an entire show to a single topic. Titled Little War on the Prairie it is a well-executed look at the ways that people tell a state's history, leaving out things they find inconvenient, or troubling in some way.

The segment opens with John Biewen, a guy who grew up in Mankato, and, who because of the liberal leanings of his parents, knew about racial injustice in the south. He had no idea, however, of the racial injustice in Mankato's history. "Why don't we talk about it?" he asks.

To the credit of Ira Glass, Little War on the Prairie gives us a chance to talk about it. The "it" is the largest mass execution in U.S. history. And like The Little House on the Prairie, a lot is left out of the way the U.S. Dakota War is presented in most histories.


"It" is the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

In the piece, Biewen talks with Gwen Westerman. Gwen is Dakota and teaches at Minnesota State University. I know Gwen personally. We were on a panel together several years ago on Representations in Art, Literature, & Cultural Production.

Biewen and Gwen drive to several sites in the area, and they critique what they read and see, and equally significant, they talk about what they do not read and see, and why.

Their dialog is stark and poignant, as it should be, given what they are discussing.

Image from the June 30, 2012 edition of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press

Towards the end of the segment, Biewen talks to some senior girls in high school to see what they know about the Dakota War. Two of them know about the execution. But he also talks to a third-grade teacher, asking her how she presents the War of 1862. Here's her response:

We just talked about, like a conflict is a disagreement. And we talked how the Dakota Indians didn't know how to solve their conflicts. And the only way they knew how to solve their disagreements was to fight, which we know we don't fight when we solve conflicts, we use our words.
But that was their only way that they knew how to solve a conflict, they fought. And so then the white settlers needed to fight back to protect themselves. And we talked about people were killed. And then we talked about how the Dakota Indians were-- [FADES OUT]

I would like to know what else she said, and I'd really like to know how she feels now, after having listened to the entire segment, which I assume she did. Some listeners may feel she was mis-used by Biewen for this program. If she was not aware of the totality of the segment, I feel bad for her, but I feel far worse for the children who--instead of being taught about Dakota people who had been engaged in diplomatic treaty negotiations with the U.S. government--are being taught that Indians were violent and don't know how to use words to solve conflicts.

I encourage teachers and librarians to listen to Little War on the Prairie, or, read the transcript. And then, apply what you learn to how you teach about the U.S. Dakota War, and how you select and deselect books about it.

I also encourage you to visit the U.S. Dakota War website of the Minnesota Historical Society, where they've put together resources you can use, including an annotated treaty. Here's their introductory video:

At their website, there's also an annotated letter, written in Dakota, by Mowis Itewakanhdiota, a Dakota man who was  imprisoned after the war. Thirty eight men were executed, while many more were sentenced to life in prison in Davenport, Iowa. In his letter, Itewakanhdiota writes that he and the other prisoners of war have heard that Lincoln was assassinated. It was Lincoln's intervention that sent some men to prison rather than execution, and they are worried that Lincoln's death may have ramifications for their own lives. (A thumbnail of the letter is on the right side of the page. Click on it to see a larger image; hovering over the red circles on the left side, a box will appear with the text in Dakota and English).

Given the resources available, there is no reason why biased history of this war should continue to be taught. 

Given the resources available, there is no reason why biased history of this war should continue to be taught. Here's a feature-length documentary about the execution:

Please share the link to this page with teachers and librarians. Let's be honest in how we tell history. Let's, as Biewan asked us to do, talk about it. All of it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Navajo film project: RAINBOW BIRD

On AICL, I encourage parents, teachers, librarians, and anyone who works with children and the books they read or the movies they watch, to seek out books and films by Native people who know their subject from the inside.

Today, I'm writing to ask you to support a project called Rainbow Bird. The energy and creative vision behind it is Brian Young. Brian is Dine (Navajo), and studied film at Yale. He is using Kickstarter to raise the funds for the project. At the Kickstarter site, Brian introduces the story of Rainbow Bird:

"A long time ago, all birds were without color. One day, however, the gods allowed all the birds to gather their own colors. Blue Bird flew in the sky and absorbed the sky for its color. Yellow Bird flew into a corn field and absorbed the color of the corn pollen. One bird went on a quest to gather all the colors of the rainbow. What ever became of that bird?" I grew up listening to this story and many others during my youth on the Navajo reservation. While listening to these stories, I often imagined a vibrant colorful world where animals had human qualities and could speak with humans."

Sounds fascinating, doesn't it? I'm excited about Brian's project and would love to see it move from idea to a film that I can review for AICL.


Can you donate $5.00? Or $10? Or maybe more?
The deadline is December 2nd.

You can read details about it at the Kickstarter site. Here's a frame from the film:

Doesn't it look absolutely gorgeous? Brian is working hard on raising the money he needs, and could use your help. Please visit Rainbow Bird at the Kickstarter site and donate what you can.