Saturday, May 04, 2013

WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block

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Years ago I started reading Weetzie Bat but put it down, in part, because of these passages in the first few pages of the first chapter (note: To write this post, I read an e-book that doesn't provide page numbers):
Sometimes she wore Levi's with white-suede fringe sewn down the legs and a feathered Indian headdress... 
'She' is Weetzie Bat. Her friend, Dirk, who has "chiseled" features compliments her outfit:
Weetzie was wearing her feathered headdress and her moccasins and a pink fringed mini dress.
Weetzie replies:
"Thanks. I made it," she said, snapping her strawberry bubble gum. "I'm into Indians," she said. "They were here first and we treated them like shit." 

"Yeah," Dirk said, touching his Mohawk.
Weetzie Bat was published in 1989 and won several awards. Reading it today, what comes to mind is the hipster culture of the last few years and its appropriation of Native culture. While writing up this review, I did an image search of "Weetzie Bat." In the grid of images I got (using Google image search), the first image in the second row I got is this one:

The source for the photo is a Weetzie Bat blog post at an art blog, A Beautiful Party. Dated September 16, 2010, the post is about a screenplay of Weetzie Bat and the photo is of someone playing the part of Weetzie Bat. If I didn't know it was from Weetzie Bat, I would have thought "dang hipsters!" because I've seen a lot of photos of hipsters in headdresses, in feathered earrings, fringed clothing, or moccasins. Reading Weetzie Bat now, I wonder if it might have played a role in the 1990s emergence of hipsters and their appropriation of Native culture.

What, I wonder, was Block thinking about when she brought Native culture into her book? What did it mean to her or Weetzie Bat to say "I'm into Indians"?!

In my read of Weetzie Bat there is nothing to suggest that Block knew she was, in effect, having her characters embrace stereotypical "knowledge" about American Indians (what she does with Jamaican's gives me pause, too, but I'll stay on topic).

In the chapter titled "Jah-Love," Weetzie meets the guy who will be her boyfriend. His name is My Secret Agent Lover Man (quirky names are everywhere in the book). He makes films of her doing things, like "having a pow-wow." We aren't told what she was doing, so we don't know "having a pow-wow" means. That chapter closes with this:
And so Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Slinkster Dog and Fifi's canaries lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.
Duck is Dirk's boyfriend. Slinkster Dog is Weetzie's dog. "Jah-Love" is, I think, short for Jamaica love but I don't know what to make of it beyond that. There are, of course, blonde Indians, but the ones in Weetzie Bat are playing Indian--and doing it in stereotypical ways.

Early in the chapter "Weetzie Wants a Baby," Weetzie, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, and Duck, have finished their third film. It is called Coyote. In it, Weetzie is
a rancher's daughter who falls in love with a young Indian named Coyote and ends up helping him defend his land against her father and the rest of the town. They had filmed Coyote on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. Weetzie grew her hair out, and she wore Levi's and snaky cowboy boots and turquoise. Dirt and Duck played her angry brothers...
It is no surprise that the film makes some money for them. In the story--as in real life--white people defending and rescuing Indians from whites is a sure-fire hit.

Weetzie, as the chapter title tells us, wants a baby. My Secret Agent Lover Man isn't at all interested in having a baby. He thinks the world is too messed up to bring a child into. While he's away for a few weeks, Weetzie, Dirk, and Duck decide they want a baby together. They climb into bed together and Weetzie ends up pregnant. My Secret Agent Lover Man returns, isn't happy with her decision to get pregnant, and leaves. When the baby is born, Weetzie, Dirt, and Duck decide to name the baby "Cherokee." There's no explanation for why they choose Cherokee. All we know is that they considered these names: Sweet, Fifi, Duckling, Hamachi, Teddi, and, Lambie.

At the end of the chapter, My Secret Agent Lover Man comes back. He gazes at Cherokee and asks who her father is. Weetzie says that she's got high cheekbones like Dirk, and blonde hair like Duck, but that her eyes and lips are like his.

Ah, yes. high cheekbones like Dirk. Remember---he's the guy with the Mohawk.

The last line in the chapter is:
Cherokee looked like a three-dad baby, like a peach, like a tiny moccasin, like a girl love-warrior who would grow up to wear feathers and run swift and silent through the L.A. canyons.
What does a tiny moccasin look like when you're talking about a baby?! I know the book was/is much loved but--the stereotypical othering aside--the style doesn't work for me.

In the chapter, "Chapter: Shangri-L.A.," My Secret Agent Lover Man is making another movie. This one is called Shangri-L.A. Weetzie stars in it. She wears strapless dresses and rhinestones. And,
She made fringed baby clothes and feathered headdresses for Cherokee...
Sheesh! Now there's headdresses for this baby girl?!

They can't figure out an ending for the movie, so My Secret Agent Lover Man suggests Weetzie visit her dad in New York to see if he has any ideas. While there, he takes them shopping and buys Cherokee a Pink Panther doll at F.A.O. Schwarz.

If you're buying a doll at F.A.O. Schwarz---well, if you're even INSIDE that store, you're of a certain income level. Even though Weetzie's source of money is never mentioned, the things they do suggests there's plenty of it.

While in NY, Weetzie thinks her dad isn't well. Soon after Weetzie goes back to L.A., he dies, and Weetzie struggles with her grief:
Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and a Duck, a Slinkster Dog, and a movie to dance in.
Wearing feathers. That's what Weetzie does. Nowhere do we get any sense that she (or Block) know much about the many distinctions amongst Native peoples. With the use of "papoose" we see more of that ignorance. Papoose is the word for baby in ONE language. It is not THE Indian word for papoose. With over 500 federally recognized Native Nations, there are hundreds of languages, too. The Cherokee word for baby, by the way, is not papoose.

Cat Yampbell, in "Judging a Book by Its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature" (The Lion and the Unicorn, 29(3) says:
The text of Weetzie Bat celebrates those who are torn from society, individuals who find each other and find happiness outside of the box that society defines as the norm.
Michael Cart, in "What a Wonderful World: Notes on the Evolution of GLBTQ Literature for Young Adults" (The ALAN Review, 31(2)), calls it a classic of gay fiction, and says:
its largehearted embrace of every aspect of the workings of the human heart, it demonstrates, with art and innovation, that love is love, regardless of what society chooses to label it.
Though I've not done an exhaustive look, I'm unable (thus far) to find any critical essays in which the stereotyping of American Indians is discussed. The book is much celebrated for its affirmation of people who are "outside the box" and/or gay, but I wouldn't hand it to a Native child who was outside the norm or gay. I can't elevate one part of who they are and slam another part of their identity at the same time.

Granted, some Native readers would breeze past it and shrug it off, but not all would do that, and I wonder, too, about the readers (like Yampbell? Cart?) who didn't comment on the stereotyping. Did they not see it because it reflects their "knowledge" of American Indians? Or, did they deem that content insignificant? And what does it mean to decide that one culture is insignificant?

Thinking about those questions is ironic, given what Weetzie said at the top of the story. "I'm into Indians. They were here first and we treated them like shit." Does Block realize that she's doing the same thing?

Honoring or being "into" anyone in a superficial way is, in my view, treating them like shit because it is lazy. It allows a feel-good moment to stand in for real learning, real understanding, and meaningful action that would make the world we all live in, a better world.

In doing the research for this post, I read that Block has a new book out--a prequel to Weetzie Bat. I'll pick it up next time I'm at the library.

Update, Monday May 6, 2013, 8:06 PM
See my take on Pink Smog, the prequel to Weetzie Bat, published in 2012.

Update, Friday May 10, 10:00 AM
See my essay on Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, published in 1993.

Friday, May 03, 2013


De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children is a new blog, just launched a few days ago. De Colores is moderated by Beverly Slapin. Several of her reviews have been published here, on AICL. I've just begun looking it over, but already see that teachers and librarians will find it useful.

Cinco de Mayo is coming up. Many schools will have some sort of event, but, what do we really know about Cinco de Mayo? I suggest you read Sudie Hofmann's essay, "Rethinking El Cinco de Mayo" and incorporate what she says into your planning for next year. 

Are you looking for books about Sonia Sotomayor? At De Colores, there's a tab for books about her. There are additional tabs for El Dia de los Muertos, La Llorona, Cesar Chavez, and Cinderella. 

Among the contributors to De Colores is Lyn-Miller Lachmann. Check out her review of  Under the Mesquite I'll be following De Colores because it and AICL overlap in terms of Indigenous peoples of the southwest. 

And welcome, contributors and collaborators at De Colores to the blogosphere! We need critical voices and reviews like yours.

Update, 9:43 AM, May 3rd 2013
I tweeted De Colores and want to share a twitter endorsement from Curtis Acosta. He was featured in several stories here on AICL in 2012 as AICL reported on the shut-down of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson Unified School District.

I'll also take a moment to suggest you take a look at the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership. There are times when I feel pessimistic about the attacks on public education and social justice. Knowing there are people like Curtis Acosta out there lifts my pessimism. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Navajo Nation's First Poet Laureate: Luci Tapahonso

Does your library have Luci Tapahonso's Blue Horses Rush In on your YA or adult fiction or poetry shelves?

Is her Songs of Shiprock Fair on your picture book shelves?

If they're not, order them next time you're buying books. By coincidence or design, the rich covers of Blue Horses Rush In and Songs of Shiprock Fair convey the depth and brilliance of Tapahonso's writing. She writes from experience. Tapahonso is Dine (Navajo). She grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico. You can bet that the poems you read in Songs of Shiprock Fair are rooted in her actually being there--not once, or twice, but many times. She went to school at the University of New Mexico. One of my favorite stories in Blue Horses Rush In is about being a student at UNM. I went to UNM, too. I completely 'get' that story.

Tapahonso's writing has received many awards, but recognition from ones immediate community is, perhaps, the most meaningful. Tapahonso has been named as the Navajo Nation's first Poet Laureate. With affirmation from her tribal nation, you know your purchase of her books is a good choice.

Monday, April 29, 2013

GOOD MORNING WORLD by Paul Windsor (Haisla, Heiltsuk)

Spring mornings! Many of us get out of bed and feel a surge of joy at hearing birds sing and seeing the sun rise on budding trees.

With the spring sunshine streaming across the yard outside my window, Paul Windsor's Good Morning World is the perfect board book to read this morning. Windsor is Haisla and Heiltsuk (First Nations, Canada). On the back cover, he tells us:
When I was younger, I would wake up and hollar "Good Morning World!" It helped to awaken my spirit and release good energy and humour. This was the spirit behind this book: a sense of humour with a free style. The painting in this book reflect my memory and experiences of time spent on our land, and a deep connection to our traditions. Each piece offers respect and love for the animals, plants and insects, with the sun as the main character. Each sun represents the ancestors of the characters depicted on the page.

Here's the page where his main character is the sun:

I can imagine reading the book aloud to a group of children and inviting them to read it aloud, too, with me. On the next page, we greet bears, who are fishing in the river. On the next, eagles, soaring high in the sky. And then salmon, swimming up the stream. There are whales playing and singing in a pod, too, and a beaver building its dam.

Each page has a bit of info about the animal and what it does, lyrically told and beautifully illustrated. Teachers and librarians will get a lot of mileage out of this book! It calls attention to the world around us, and it provides an opportunity to tell children a little bit about Windsor's art, and the Haisla and Heiltsuk people. 

Published in 2012 by Native Northwest, I recommend you order it for your classroom, if you teach young children. If you're a librarian, I recommend ordering several copies. Seems to me that early childhood teachers might all be wanting it in the springtime. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Dear Teachers: Native masks are not art

Dear Teachers and Homeschooling Parents,

Many art project books for use in classrooms include a section on making Native masks. One example is Laurie Carlson's More Than Moccasins: A Kid's Activity Guide to Traditional North American Indian Life. It has instructions for making "Hopi masks." A search of the Internet will show you a great many kid art projects in which they make what they call Native masks.

However well-intentioned mask making activities may be, we all need to understand that it is inappropriate to make them.

Masks made by Native peoples are not art. They have a purpose within a religious context. They are used in religious contexts. Creating them and viewing them as art miseducates everyone and leads to cases like the following.

As I write (April 12, 2013), masks "katsina friends" (see note at end) originating with the Hopi Tribe are being auctioned in Paris as works of art. The tribe asked that the auction be delayed or stopped completely but the request was denied by a judge there.

The person who "owns" the masks katsina friends collected them here, in the United States. Who he acquired them from is unknown, but we--teachers and librarians--can provide students with information that can interrupt the cycle of misinformation that frames sacred Native artifacts as art rather than the religious items that they are. Native peoples, our religions, our artifacts and our traditional stories should receive the same respect that Christianity or other world religions do.

Instead of making "Hopi masks," educate students about them and their significance within Native cultures. And, encourage students to put their knowledge to use. They could, for example, write to Ms. Carlson or her publisher!

If you're wondering about art projects you can do, take a look at Arlene Hirschfelder and Yvonne Wakim Dennis's A Kid's Guide to Native American History: More than 50 Activities. The activities in it are ones that aren't religious or spiritual in nature.

Please share this letter with fellow teachers and parents, and let me know if you have any questions.


Note (added at 2:21 PM on April 12, 2013): My use of the word "masks" to describe what is being auctioned in France is incorrect. "Masks" is the default word for them, but as described here, the correct English phrase for them is katsina friends. It means they are not items, but beings. Remarks by the auctioneer and New York collector during the auction are infuriating. See the news report: As protestors jeer, Hopi masks sell in Paris.

Update, Friday, April 12, 3:30 PM
Statement from Chairman Shingoitewa of the Hopi Tribe:
“We are deeply saddened and disheartened by this ruling in the French courts that allowed the auction to be held on Friday. It is sad to think that the French will allow the Hopi Tribe to suffer through the same cultural and religious thefts, denigrations and exploitations they experienced in the 1940s. Would there be outrage if Holocaust artifacts, Papal heirlooms or Quranic manuscripts were going up for sale on Friday to the highest bidder? I think so. Given the importance of these ceremonial objects to Hopi religion, you can understand why Hopis regard this – or any sale -- as sacrilege, and why we regard an auction not as homage but as a desecration to our religion. Our Tribal Council will now convene to determine the Hopi Tribe’s next steps in this shameful saga." 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

NATIVE WRITERS: VOICES OF POWER, by Kim Sigafus and Lyle Ernst

Editors note on Oct 2, 2018: This volume includes Joseph Boyden, a writer whose claim to Native identity has been challenged. When that news broke, I wrote about it at Dear Teachers: Do you teach Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD?  It also includes Sherman Alexie, who has been accused of inappropriate behaviors that led the American Indian Library Association to withdraw its award to him for his ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN. For information, see An Open Letter about Sherman Alexie


Native Writers: Voices of Power by Kim Sagafus and Lyle Ernest is part of the Native Trailblazers Series published by 7th Generation Native Voices. Here's the cover:

And here's an excerpt from the Introduction that I do not remember seeing before in a book meant for young readers:

There have been entirely too many falsehoods and myths written about the Native people of the United States and Canada. The depiction of Native people depends entirely on the writer's perspective. For example, a 1704 French and Indian raid on colonial settlers in the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts, was described as a massacre, whereas the annihilation of a village of sleeping Cheyenne Indians in 1864 was celebrated as a victory over "hostiles." Both are examples of the European American historical perspective, which has also been prevalent in movies, making Hollywood one of the biggest sources of distorted facts and stereotypes about Indians.

Teachers and librarians who use this book to do author studies... make sure you spend time with that intro! If you're into contests, challenges, or research investigations, you might ask students to look for examples of biased language.

Those of you familiar with Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie will recognize their photos on the cover. There is a chapter for both of them. I'm sure you've got their books, but you ought to have books by the other others, too. They are:

Joseph Boyden, Ojibwe (see editors note at the top of this page)

N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa and Cherokee

Marilyn Dumont, Cree and Metis

Tomson Highway, Cree

Joseph Bruchac, Abenaki

Maria Campbell, Metis

Nicola Campbell, Interior Salish of Nle7Kepmx and Msilx/Metis

Tim Tingle, Choctaw

For each author, there's several pages of biographical information, followed by a list of "Selected Works" and Awards. The works range from children's books to those for adult readers, but the audience isn't included, so you'll want to make sure you do a bit of research before ordering to make sure the book will work for your classroom or library. Though Native Writers is what is called "a slim volume" (just over 90 pages), it is packed with info. I highly recommend it, but don't assume it is complete...  To the authors it includes, I'd add Cynthia Leitich Smith and Richard Van Camp. Both are at the very top of my lists.

Order it directly from 7th Generation.

Dorothy Kunhardt and Garth Williams' ROGER MOUSE'S WISH

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Editor's Update, 6:30 PM on April 10, 2013: Mary sent me text and scans of three pages of Roger Mouse's Wish. I've inserted that material. Thanks, Mary!


Earlier today (April 10, 2013), reader Mary C. wrote to tell me about Roger Mouse's Wish. It is a Tiny Golden Book. I'm going to add these tiny books to my "find out more..." list! I'm pretty sure that I've seen them. Tiny is right... they measure 3 inches by 2 inches.

According to James Fox at the Simmons blog, all the books were written by Dorothy Kunhardt and illustrated by Garth Williams, and published around 1948. Here's the back and front cover for Roger Mouse's Wish:

Due to limits on how much of a text someone can use without getting permission of the publisher, I'm telling you what the book is about (based on what Mary sent me) and including a few excerpts. There are three characters: Roger Mouse, Mr. Mouse (his father) and Mrs. Mouse (his mother).

One day, Roger Mouse asks his mother for a blanket. He spreads it on a card table in their living room. He crawls under the card table and then hears his mother tell his father that she remembers how much fun she had playing house. Roger replies:

I'm not playing house," said Roger's voice. "I'm an Indian. This is my tepee."

The next day is Roger's birthday. There's a birthday cake for him. Mr. Mouse tells him to make a wish, and Mrs. Mouse tells him not to tell anyone what he wished for because it might not come true. Roger makes his wish and blows out the candles, and Mr. Mouse tells him there's a present for him "in front of his tepee." Here's that page:

The present, he exclaims is an "Indian suit!" He's quite happy and tries it on:

Wearing his Indian suit, he asks his father if he can tell his wish. His dad thinks it won't hurt, so he does:

As you can see, his wish was for an Indian suit.

That was a popular wish around that time...

Leo Politi, author of the flawed, award winning Song of the Swallows also wanted an Indian suit. He got one, too, as described in his 1951 book, Little Leo: 

Lot of playing Indian going around then... and years before then... and sadly, in the years since then, too!

Kunhardt is the author of Pat the Bunny and a gross book called Brave Mr. Buckingham, in which a guy dresses up like an Indian, and page by page, loses body parts until all that's left is his head. In a headdress. Williams did the illustrations for a whole slew of books including the Indians in Little House on the Prairie. 

I've looked and looked but can't find any illustrations of the inside of Roger Mouse's Wish. If you have a copy, please let me know! I'd like to know more about the story and see more of the illustrations. Thanks!

A great big thanks, Mary, for letting me know about the book, and then for taking time to type out the text and scan those pages! By the way, Mary wrote to me in response to an update to my post about the stereotypes in Little Golden Books. If you want to see them, here's the link: Stereotypes in Little Golden Books.

Joan Walsh Anglund's THE BRAVE COWBOY

Several weeks ago, Jo, (she's married to my cousin, Steve) wrote on my Facebook wall (in a comment to my post there about Peggy Parrish's Let's Be Indians) to tell me about Joan Walsh Anglund's The Brave Cowboy.

Jo wrote:
I found a few of these older books at the thrift store one day; they were about a little boy who likes to dress up like a cowboy. I thumbed through Cowboy and his Friend, all about the little boy and his friend Bear and the adventures they have together. Very cute and harmless so I thought what the heck and got them. I read it to the boys and it was great so we started to read the next one, The Brave Cowboy. I don't know why I didn't flip through it first. The second page of the book shows him ready to shoot the scary half naked Indian. I quickly closed it and told the boys we couldn't read it and put it away. A little further in the book it shows him ready to shoot a large number "wild Indians in his territory." We still have it. Steve said we should keep it and send it to you.
A few days later, Jo wrote again to tell me:

My six year old picked up the book the other day and read it. When she was finished she was shaking her head and I asked her what she thought about it. She told me she didn't really like it. I asked her why and she said she was confused about the little cowboy shooting the Indians. It was an interesting moment for me to try to find the right words to talk to her about the pictures in the book. 

Reading what Jo said, I got a copy of the book from the University of Illinois library, but it didn't have the pages Jo described. The copy I got has a publication year of 2000. The one she had, which she sent to me, is 1959. The publisher is Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Here's the first page with Indians:


In the 2000 copy I had, the third line of text is different. Instead of "not afraid of Indians," the boy is "not afraid of mountain lions." The Indian is gone from the illustration (replaced by another ornery rustler) and a mountain lion has been added:

And here's the next page on which Indians appear. The text is "Or, maybe he would hunt wild Indians that might be in the territory...":

In the 2000 version, the brave cowboy hunts bank robbers instead of "wild Indians." 

The day draws to a close and the brave cowboy "settled down to dream the dreams of all good cowboys" which includes dreaming about Indians:

As I wrote this post, my thoughts turned again and again to the current national discussion on gun control. I doubt that The Brave Cowboy would get republished again, and in my opinion, I think that's a good thing. Kids playing with guns? Even in a story, it's frightening.

The Brave Cowboy is far from the first or only book to undergo revisions like these ones. Two that have been updated (or bowdlerized) are Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. At his site, Philip Nel took a look at several others

Returning to the stereotyping in the 1959 copy of The Brave Cowboy, Jo, Steve, and their kids. First, the children in their home are lucky to have Jo and Steve. They're readers who read critically. They're teaching their children to do that, too. Second, Anglund's book is clearly one that has been updated to remove stereotyping. Third, I wish a note about that sort of updating was noted somewhere in the book. Fourth, I hope the book goes out of print and stays out of print. 

Thanks, Jo, for letting me know about this book.    

Wednesday, April 03, 2013


For those of you looking for Oyate's review of Neil Philip's The Great Circle: A History of the First Nations, it is available at the Internet Archive, also known as the Wayback Machine. To use it, you simply enter the URL for the site you're looking for in the search box and press "Take Me Back." You'll be provided with a calendar that shows what dates/years the site (in this case, Oyate) was archived. Click on an older date and you'll find older versions of the site.

I entered "" in the search box and then clicked on a 2007 date. I was then able to go into the site and find the "Books to Avoid" page and then the review of The Great Circle. Here's the link:

The Great Circle: A History of the First Nations

The Great Circle was published in 2006 by Clarion Books.

A few years ago, Oyate decided the "Books to Avoid" section of their website was not helpful. They wrote:

As longtime visitors to our site have noticed, we discontinued our popular “Books to Avoid” section. Our Mission is to educate, and for that reason we have decided not to merely post a list of “books to avoid,” but rather to expose our readers to the criteria we use to differentiate between books, so that you too can learn how to identify books to avoid.

We know it might seem more efficient for the reader to have us “tell you the answer,” but that does not feel like a liberating approach to education. Supporting others to develop the critical thinking skills needed to discern what about a book is appropriate and inappropriate better serves our mission and our supporters.

Those of you who used that page know that the "Books to Avoid" page was not just a list of books. Clicking on each title took you to an in-depth critique of the book. In my view, the reviews provided readers with examples of what the application of critical thinking skills looks like.

Deciding to--or not to--use or buy any book is always left up to the individual making the decision. The reviews in the "Books to Avoid" section enhanced critical thinking skills. Perhaps it was the title of the section that they deemed problematic. If you look at reviews at Goodreads or Amazon, those that get one star are similar to "Books to Avoid," but I can imagine that some read "Books to Avoid" as an attempt to censor.

From time to time I'll provide additional inks to the reviews at the Internet Archive. This one is here because a reader wrote to ask me for help in finding that review.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Gerald Dawavendewa's THE BUTTERFLY DANCE

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Many times on AICL and in lectures, I've said that I wish I'd had Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer back in the early 90s when my daughter danced for the first time. In Smith's book, we see a little girl getting ready to do the Jingle Dance for the first time. I have that same wish about Gerald Dawavendewa's The Butterfly Dance. 

My grandfather, Rex Calvert, was Hopi. He met my grandmother, Emilia Martinez of Ohkay Owingeh (formerly known as San Juan Pueblo), when they were students at Santa Fe Indian School. They were married in 1922. Their marriage aside, the Hopi people of Arizona and the Pueblo people of New Mexico are similar in significant spiritual and cultural ways. For both those reasons, when I look at the cover of Dawavendewa's book, several things catch my eye. I see myself and family in the characters Dawavendewa depicts, in their clothing and their actions.

On the first page of The Butterfly Dance, we read:

Today is a special day. I wake up extra early because this is the day of the Butterfly Dance.

My name is Sihumana, which means Flower Maiden. My aunt gave me that name in a special naming ceremony when I was just a baby. Now I am twelve years old, and today I will be part of the Butterfly Dance, helping to celebrate our family and bring gentle rains for the flowers and plants that will make everyone happy.

The illustration for that page shows a sleepy Sihumana. It reminds me of my daughter, Liz, waking up early on feast day, and of Hayle, my niece, too. Like Sihumana, they yawn (and yawned--Liz is no longer a child) as they'd come awake to get ready for the day of dance.

In a straightforward way, Dawavendewa tells his readers about the practical side of being Hopi. On dance day, you have to get up early. In the days prior to it, you have to go to the kiva for several nights and learn, relearn, or remember the dance and its song.

He also gives us a look at the oral tradition in action. By that, I mean the pages on which Sihumana's Kwa'a (grandfather) teaches her about the dance and its significance. He talks a bit about clans, too. And, the notes at the end of the book tell us that the Butterfly Dance is primarily a social dance. As such, it can be filmed or photographed. Here's a video of the dance:

Dawavendewa's notes provide readers with additional information about the Hopi people, and for that reason, teachers will find The Butterfly Dance especially useful in this era of the Common Core, in their efforts to add nonfiction titles to their teaching collections. An additional bit of info that makes his work intriguing is the note that one of his artworks, "Earthbundle" that was aboard the Endeavor in 1994. The gallery, South West South, has a print of it, and explanation:
This print is from an original Dawavendewa painting created on white buckskin that went aboard the Space Shuttle 'Endeavour' in 1994. In the center is the Sun - Taawa. Above the sun are the symbols of the Earth, the Fourth world to the Hopi, and below the moon. Radiating from the sun are markings representing the Milky Way. Within the stars are corn plants, a symbol of the four directions. All are encompassed by a rainbow- a symbol of life. Placed with the Earth Bundle was a Paaho, a prayer feather for the blessings and prayers for the Astronauts journey. 
Dawavendewa is enrolled at Hopi. Visit his website to learn more about him and his work, and get a copy of the book from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Willful and Unintentional Racism and Ignorance at the University of Illinois

It is no surprise to anyone that a majority of UIUC students voted yes last week "in support of Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign."

The outcome of the vote reflects the lack of leadership at the university. When the mascot ("symbol" if you prefer) was retired in 2007, the university failed to fully address the ignorance that kept it in place for so long.

Instead of calling it a race-based or racist or stereotypical mascot, they blamed the NCAA for its end, saying they were ending it due to the NCAA policy about these mascots.

Instead of instituting broad campus-based educational efforts to help students and alums learn what is wrong with such mascots, they did nothing.

Instead of making a clean break with it, they let it live on in the hearts and minds of students and alums by way of the "Three In One..."

Pre 2007, when the mascot danced, it did so to a piece of music called the "Three In One." It has Hollywood "Indian" music that people mistakenly associate with American Indians. Post-retirement, that music was/is still played at halftime of basketball and football games. Fans solemnly rise when that music starts, and they cross their arms in front of them like the mascot did,

and they imagine the mascot doing its dance on the court/field. As with the mascot, they speak of how this behavior "honors" American Indians. Someday, some of them will look back on all of this, and feel a bit embarrassed.

Students and alum ought to feel indignant that an institution of higher learning allowed/allows ignorance to go unchecked. I believe the people who created that mascot meant well. I believe they and most of those who embrace that mascot today really mean to honor American Indians, but the way they're doing it is wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the two tribal nations the pro-chief group tried to get support from, issued statements condemning it. So have local and national Native associations and organizations. The American Indian Studies program at Illinois has several pages of information about it.

Rather than revere a stereotyped romantic image, students and grads can do something meaningful, like learning about why the Violence Against Women Act is important to us, or why Native people don't want the Keystone Pipeline on our lands.

Fans could spend time studying misrepresentations of American Indians that they've seen since early childhood, too. It starts with dressing up as Indians for birthday parties and Halloween:

 and continues through the play-Indian activities done at summer camps and by young men in the Order of the Arrow.

Seeing all of it from a critical vantage point can help fans understand why they embrace the mascot. Reading research studies on stereotypes, racism and bias can help fans develop their understanding of the origins and impacts of stereotypes.

Learning to think critically can help fans become informed allies of American Indians as we are, not as fans imagine us to be. I believe people must own their own ignorance, but I'm also aware that learning can't happen in a vacuum. The university has done nothing about that vacuum. It is a shame, and it reflects poorly on an institution of higher learning.

The current chancellor, Phyllis Wise, issued a statement letting students know that their referendum will not bring the mascot back, but she must do much more to help students and grads move past their current state of ignorance.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Post: Indigenous Knowledge and Children's Literature, by Katelyn Martens

Editor's Note: A few weeks ago, I gave an online lecture (via Skype) to the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums (TLAM) class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Library and Information Science. Here's a description of TLAM from their website
In its fifth year at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), TLAM is an experimental project to bring indigenous information topics to LIS education through service-learning, networking, and resource sharing with Wisconsin’s tribal cultural institutions. The TLAM Project currently encompasses a graduate topics course; the Convening Culture Keepers mini-conference series for Wisconsin tribal librarians, archivists, and museum curators; numerous community engagement projects with our partners; and a brand new TLAM Student Group.

Today's post on AICL is by Katelyn Martens, a student in the TLAM class. Published on the TLAM blog, I'm pleased to be able to share it here, too. Thanks, Katelyn! And check out her post about Sherman Alexie, too.  


“Indigenous Knowledge & Children’s Literature”*

Think about the types of children’s books you grew up reading. Were American Indians present? What did you learn about them? Was it factual or a misrepresentation? How did you know?

On Thursday, TLAM had the pleasure of chatting with Debbie Reese, a respected educator who is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Debbie is an advocate for authentic American Indian children’s literature, which led her to launch the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog in 2006. Through AICL, she challenges the all-too-common misrepresentation of American Indians in children’s literature and helps educators, librarians, and the general public find good materials.

Debbie highly recommends JINGLE DANCER

While Debbie shared her thoughts on sovereignty, sacred spaces, and politics, it was the issue of authenticity that I connected with the most. As a future school librarian, my goal is to have a well-balanced collection with titles that give students accurate, authentic representations of American Indian communities. To do that, though, especially with limited budgets, it’s essential that we all seek out reviews from respected, knowledgeable sources. AICL is a great place to start!

It’s especially important because, as Debbie noted, many books harbor “micro aggressions,” stereotypes that the majority culture may not even acknowledge but harm others. Clifford’s Halloween by Norman Bridwell (1986) is an example. Not only does Clifford wear a large headdress of feathers, he appears to be smoking a “peace pipe” and wears a serious expression. This image conveys many stereotypes to children, including that “Indians” are something to dress up as rather than people living in contemporary societies, working at contemporary professions, and living amongst the general American public.

It’s through librarian and educators in alliance with American Indian communities that we can present contemporary images, truthful histories, and well-researched stories to our young people. I’ll make a concerted effort to align my book choices with her suggestions.

Thank you, Debbie, for taking the time to share your knowledge with us!

-Katelyn Martens

Debbie’s recommendations on what to look for in children’s literature:
  • Books giving information in contemporary society
  • Tribally specific texts
  • Books affirming American Indian cultures – these must be well researched

She suggests that librarians and educators should:
  • Know at least one nation in-depth through reading and research
  •  Visit tribal websites with children in order to learn about their everyday lives
  •  Speak up for great children’s books so they stay in print
  •  Speak out on problematic texts in order to promote better alternatives

*Disclaimer: All personal opinions are my own and do not represent all members of the TLAM class, TLAM student group, Debbie Reese, or other affiliated parties.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Inspired by Students at University of Redlands and Sherman Indian School

On Wednesday, March 6th, I spoke at Cal State Polytechnic University in Pomona. The next day (March 7th, 2013), I spent the day at Redlands University and Sherman Indian School. My hosts at Redlands were Heather Torres and Nora Pulskamp of the Native American Student Programs office. Here we are at the end of the day:

In the morning, I gave a guest lecture to a class on Native Women taught at Redlands University by Dr. Larry Gross. I talked about depictions of Native women in the media and children's books. The students were engaged and engaging. I showed them "What Makes the Red Man Red" from Disney's Peter Pan. Their response was similar to the ones I get when I ask teachers and librarians to read aloud from selected passages of Little House on the Prairie. Surprise, that is, at how racist the depictions are, and that they do not remember those depictions from when they viewed/read these two items as children. We focused on the sexualization of Tiger Lily, and talked about the Violence Against Women Act.

From there, Heather and Nora drove us out to Sherman Indian School. It is one of the boarding schools originally designed (by the federal government) to 'kill the Indian and save the man.' Like Santa Fe Indian School, it is now a different place. Native history and culture is affirmed, for example, by the murals in the hallways:

Murals at Sherman Indian School affirm Native identity

I spent an hour with Native students. I talked with them about mascots, showing them photos of "Chief Illiniwek" (the former mascot at the University of Illinois) and stereotypes in children's literature. They were very attentive. When I showed them the photo of "Chief Illiniwek" doing the splits in mid-air, they exclaimed aloud at how ridiculous it is.

I also talked about the need to have books about American Indians, written by Native authors. My favorite example is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. I love showing that book to Native students, no matter how young or old they are. I was delighted that it slowly made its way through the group of 30 or so students, as they pored over the pages. Clearly, Cynthia's book touched them in a good way. After class was over, one young woman approached me to say she wants to be a writer. Her English teacher was also there and praised her work.

I was inspired by the students on both campuses. From them, I gained a strong sense of optimism and hope for the future.

The public lecture on campus last night reminded me that certain segments of society will not welcome them or the work they wish to do. That lecture drew Native people who live in the Redlands area, and Redlands students who tutor Native youth. All took note of the woman who entered the lecture hall wearing a "Chief Illiniwek" jacket. When she took her jacket off, I noticed she had one of the newer shirts fans of "Chief Illiniwek" wear. When the mascot was retired at Illinois, private vendors designed and sold several different kinds of shirts, including the one she wore. It has the word CHIEF in large bold letters across the front of the shirt. The woman sat alone and quiet throughout the lecture, but at the end, told us she is a Fulbright scholar who studies cultural genocide, and that "Chief Illiniwek" is not a violent mascot like the one at Florida State. She was belligerent and loud and said in her 30 years of being at Illinois, she never saw anything violent about it.

Her decision to be there, to dress as she did, to proclaim her credentials, and argue as she did, was puzzling to me. What motivated her to do that? Hate? Privilege? Both?!

Though I'm certain there are administrators at the University of Illinois who wish the mascot was still there, I think they would have been embarrassed at the behavior of this woman. She is, whether she realizes it or not, the embodiment of racism.

The students at Redlands and Sherman Indian School will encounter people like her. Change--for the better--will happen. It is never easy work, but change does happen. "Chief Illiniwek" no longer dances at Illinois because Native people and our allies fought to get rid of it. I leave California with the faces of the students in my head, inspired by each one of them.

Update at 9:45 AM, 2013
Added photo of mural from Sherman Indian School and cover of Jingle Dancer. 

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Cal State Polytechnic University: Talking about Playing Indian

On Tuesday, I flew in to California to give two lectures and visit some classes.

Before the first talk, I had lunch with two groups. One group was comprised of students who tutor Native students, and the other group was Native men and women of the San Manual Band of Mission Indians. We talked about the significance of our nations and identities as Native people, and we talked about how we are misrepresented in the materials our children are given at school. Amongst us are powerful stories of parents who stand by their children.

After lunch we headed over to the student center for my lecture, Native (Mis)Representations, which was primarily about mascots.

It is always heartening to organizers when crowds of people are streaming in and they have to call for more chairs. Irvin Harrison, the Director of the Native American Student Center at Cal State Polytechnic University, organized my two-day visit.

Here's a post-lecture photo of Irvin, myself, and Dr. Joely Proudfit. She's the Director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at Cal State University, San Marcos. We had a long conversation, sitting in the warm California sunshine, talking about youth, research, sovereignty and the work we're committed to doing.

In the lecture, I showed many examples in which someone is playing Indian. I started with mascots, pointing out the stereotypical aspects of it. We watched Trail of Cheers and What Makes the Red Man Red, noting stereotypes in it, too. That Disney clip is available online in several different languages, including French, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, and German! Sheesh!

I shifted, then, to playing Indian in a historical context.

Americans have been playing Indian a long time. Primary example: colonists dressing up as Indians at the Boston Tea Party. The thing is, they didn't wear feathers or face paint... but that is how that moment in history is shown. What they did was blacken their faces with soot from the fireplace and wear blankets around their shoulders.

I showed photographs of playing Indian in Thanksgiving reenactments in elementary school, and dressing up like Indians for Halloween and summer camps. For each one, I also showed an illustration from a children's book.

Then I showed a photo of how boy scouts in Order of the Arrow play Indian. THAT, it turned out, was the image that drew the ire of one person in the audience. He came up after the talk and kept trying to get me to say that it was ok for them to do that, because they were honoring and educating others about Native people. He is the perfect example of someone unwilling to consider the research I presented, the voices of Native people, and the misinformation perpetuated by their Order of the Arrow activities.

I asked him some questions about why they do it, and he said something like "because you [Indians] really know how to take care of the earth and do things..." I interrupted him (getting impatient) and said "some of youguys [not-Indians] know how to do that, too. That's not knowledge that belongs or belonged exclusively to us. Why don't you celebrate who you are?" And he said "but more of you do it than anyone else."

He (they?!) clearly have us on a pedestal. He may think that is honoring and respectful, but it is dehumanizing to do that to an entire group of people.

I don't want that kind of honoring or respect. What I'd rather he do is stop playing Indian and seeking ways to justify it, and start lobbying Congress. We've all--Native and not--got to write and call our Senators and Representatives and stop that Keystone Pipeline.

I may add more to this post later. For now, I've got to head off to the Redlands University. Time to start day 2.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Two free public lectures in Redlands & Pomona this week!

This week, I'll be giving two free public lectures in which I'll talk about misrepresentations of American Indians (dates/times/locations listed at bottom of this post). In both lectures, I'll draw connections between the stereotypes of American Indians in children's/young adult literature and mascots.

While I'm out there doing that, the University of Illinois student body will be voting 'yes' or 'no' on this question:

Do you support Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?

For those of you who are new to AICL, here's "Chief Illiniwek" (I use quotes around that phrase because I do not want to convey any idea whatsoever that I think the mascot ought to have that title):

See the words at the bottom of the photo? The organization "Save the Chief" was active in a campaign to stop the university from getting rid of the mascot. It was/is only one of many similar organizations that, in one way or another, keep up the idea that mascots like "Chief Illiniwek" honor American Indians. They do that in spite of the fact that Native organizations, associations, and tribes have called for an end to the use of Native imagery in this way. And, thank goodness, the university chancellor said that the university will not bring it back because the university wants to go forward in being inclusive, not backward.

It is hard to chip away at the embrace of this kind of stereotyping.

American's are taught to have an affinity for this stereotype. This starts when they're young. Do you remember Clifford the Big Red Dog? Dear, dear, Clifford... I like him, too, but not when Emily Elizabeth thought he could be an Indian for Halloween:

Are you a fan of the Berenstain Bears books? Do you remember the one where Brother Bear and Sister Bear go to camp and listen to Grizzly Bob tell stories dressed this way?

I plan to incorporate research on the harm of such stereotyping in my talk. Research studies show its detrimental impact on Native students, and, its impact on non-Native students, too.

The University of Illinois finally got rid of its mascot, but it wasn't due to any concerns about it as a stereotype. It was retired because if it continued, the university would not be able to hold NCAA championships on its campus. I'm certain that some of the people responsible for actually making the decision to get rid of it understood the harm of stereotyping, but too many people did not, and too many people do not understand it.

I believe that children's books play a role in maintaining the illusion that such stereotypes are honorable.

I hope you can attend one of the talks! Please let your child's teachers know about the talks, too. And the school librarian! Displacing stereotypes with factual information about who American Indians were--and are--is going to require that more people understand stereotyping and its harm.

Wednesday, March 6, 1:00 PM
Bronco Student Center - Centaurus
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Thursday, March 7, 6:30 PM
Hall of Letters, 100
University of Redlands

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

AICL Cringes: ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS is the all-time best selling Newbery Medal winning book.

Editor's Note: On 2/24/2014, I inserted "AICL Cringes" to the initial title of this post, to clarify how I feel about ISLAND being the all-time best selling Newbery Medal book. I also added a link to a presentation I developed on the book, using Prezi. 

Over at SLJ's 100 Scope Notes, Travis Jonker posted a infographic about books that have won the Newbery Medal. I like infographics. They are way cool, and I want to learn how to make them.

Here's a blown-up chunk of the infographic:

Island of the Blue Dolphins is making a lot of money for its publisher, but should any teacher be using it as though it is a reliable story about anyone who is in the book? The Aleuts? The people of San Nicolas?  Learning, as Jonker reports, that it is the all-time bestselling Newbery Medal winning book helps me understand why its publisher wants it listed on CBC Diversity's Bookshelf of "diverse" books. Having a "diversity" stamp on it gives it some credibility it does not deserve.

Lets take a look at some of the "knowledge" the book imparts. Check out this video, titled "Massacre on the Island of the Blue Dolphins" in which one student poses as a reporter who is "reporting live from San Nicolas Island." She is interviewing Kimki, who she says may be the next leader of the Ghalas-at people.

The massacre the reporter is talking about is one in which the Aleut people kill the Ghalas-at people.  One reason the book is a best seller is that it fits with what most people "know" about Indigenous people as warring savages who killed each other as a matter of course, but that's not the case.

There's always more to the story.

More context is vital to understand any warfare or killing. In this case, the Aleut men who worked on the Russian ships were enslaved and if they didn't do as they were told, their women and children would be killed. Whether or not O'Dell knew that when he wrote his book doesn't matter. What does matter is what kids "learn" by reading it today.

In reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, kids "learn" that Aleuts killed all these Ghalas-at people.

That alone is enough reason for me to say that IF it is going to be taught, it should be taught in a critical framework wherein children question what O'Dell wrote.

My source for the info about enslaved Aleuts is Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, published in 1996 by Garland Publishing.

Update on 2/24/2014: 

Please see the Prezi presentation I made of this book: "An Island of Well-Intentioned Ignorance"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Native authors at Tucson Festival of Books

The Tucson Festival of Books is coming up next month (March). If you're going (I wish I was!!!), check out this panel:

Destiny & Identity: Girls in Native American Literature
Sunday, 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Education Building, Room 349

Joy Harjo and S.D. Nelson will be on that panel, talking about their books. Though I can't say for sure, I imagine Harjo will talk about For A Girl Becoming. 

And, Nelson will definitely be talking about his new book, Buffalo Bird Girl.