Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What I Like about Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE

America--or any nation--celebrates moments and events in its history that show that nation in a good light. Noting those moments is important, but so is noting that there is not a single story within any nation. Not everyone celebrates those same moments. Some people have a different view of those moments.

Take, for example, the celebration of United States Bicentennial. In the opening pages of his If I Ever Get Out of Here, Eric Gansworth's protagonist looks down the street at his elementary school. He imagines teachers getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, and notes that the teachers would be puzzled that the celebrations would not be a priority on the reservation.  

Knowing that Gansworth pokes at that celebration might turn you off. You might think that his book is an anti-American screed. 

Rest easy. It isn't. 

It also isn't one of those 'eat your veggies' kind of books...

It is, however, a rare but honest look at culture and how people with vastly different upbringings and identities can clash. And dance. And laugh. Gansworth informs readers about cultural difference, but he doesn't beat anyone up as he does it. 

Gansworth's novel is told in three parts. Here's my thoughts on Part 1, Chapter 1. I've got lots of notes on the rest of the book and will share them later.

Part 1 – If I Ever Get Out of Here

Do you remember the photo on the album sleeve for Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run? A group of people, clad in black, is standing and crouched in front of a brick wall. Caught in a spotlight, they are ‘on the run.’ 

That album cover is the inspiration for Gansworth’s graphic introduction to part one of his novel, but Gansworth’s group is facing the wall. What, I wondered, does that suggest to us about his novel? 

Of course, each reader will answer that question in a different way, based on what he or she brings to the reading itself. Our baggage, so to speak, impacts how we read. 

The image is provocative. So are the people we meet when we start reading part one. In the first chapter, Gansworth introduces us to key people in the story, telling us just enough about them to know how they'll figure in this story about a Native kid named Lewis and his friendship with George. He's the son of a guy in the Air Force. George is not Native. In fact, George's mother is German, which adds a lot to the story.

Meet Lewis Blake. He’s a smart kid. He lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. He’s just about to start seventh grade in one of the “brainiacs” sections set aside for the above-average kids.  As the only Native kid in the brainiac classes the year before, Lewis had been lonely.

The teasing ways he made friends at the reservation school didn’t work when he tried them out with the white kids in his class at the middle school. He thinks he might have a better year if he cuts the braid he has worn since second grade and tries harder to fit in. He enlists the help of Carson, a Native kid he’s known all his life, but Carson’s cousin, Tami—who doesn’t know tribal ways—takes the scissors and makes the cut before Lewis and Carson have tied off both ends in the way such cuts are customarily done.  Dejected, Lewis leaves Carson’s house and walks home.

On the way home, he passes the reservation’s elementary school, where the teachers are getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. Lewis thinks about how the families on the reservation aren’t impressed by the 200th birthday of the United States, with good reason!  “[W]e’d been here for a lot longer than two hundred years" (p. 5).  He thinks back to third grade, when his teacher asked him to demonstrate his fluency with the Tuscarora language at Indian Culture Night. The memory is packed with conflicting emotions. Lewis was happy at the recognition, but history made his mom cynical. She is dismissive of the event and the motivations for it, too. 

I understand her cynicism.

Lot of people think educational programming at schools can help tribes recover what was lost in the boarding school period, when the educational policy was to ‘kill the Indian,’ to ‘save the man.’ Erase their culture, that is, and replace it with ‘the man’ who happens to be the white man.  Lewis's mom is right to be cynical. Teachers in reservation schools and elsewhere have good intentions, but for those of us who have lost language and culture, it is going to take a lot more than Indian Nights at school to recover language and traditions. Too much of what is done to address treatment of American Indians in law, policy, and education--is a band-aid that just won't work. Lewis is fortunate that he knows more than most, but his mom asks, with whom is he going to speak Tuscarora? Other kids on the reservation don’t know it… Deftly and succinctly, Gansworth is hinting that we've got a long way to go in the U.S., with regard to the well-being of American Indians. 

While giving us a lot of information about American Indians, Gansworth also taps into our love of music. 

While he was at Carson’s house, Lewis spied a guitar. He longed to pick it up, but Carson won’t let him. 

That guitar echoes what the book title, and the chapter titles tell us, too: music is a significant part of Lewis’s life. When he gets home, we have another reference to music when his older brother takes one look at his shorn hair and says that Lewis looks like David Bowie on a bad night. Reading that made me laugh out loud. I love Bowie's music. The persona and images he puts forth are always mesmerizing. I'm sure you've got your favorite Bowie pic and song! 

The title for each chapter in the book is the title of a song. At the end of the book, Gansworth provides a discography, which is way cool, but even better than that is knowing he's going to have that discography online! 

Facts of life: being in the armed service, being poor 

On seeing Lewis's bad haircut, his mom gives him a buzz cut, which introduces us to another significant thread: military service. Lewis’s uncle, Albert, was in Viet Nam. He remembers getting a buzz cut, too. Albert lives with them, sharing a room with Lewis. They have a strong relationship that figures prominently several times in the novel. And remember, too, that the relationship at the heart of this novel is between a Native kid and a kid whose father is in the Air Force. 

Last thing to note about the first chapter is that after Lewis’s mom gives him the buzz cut, she says he looks like a Welfare Indian. He replies that they are, in fact, Welfare Indians. As you read, you’ll learn about how poor they are in material things, and how that poverty plays into Lewis’s thinking and experiences as he develops a friendship with the son of a serviceman from the local air force base. And, you'll learn that things like poverty itself is a relative term. People can look like they live in poverty, but there's more to life than things. 

Oh. One more thing before I hit 'upload' on this post: Lewis loves comic books.

So, what do I like about the novel? 

Within children's literature, there's a metaphor about how literature can be a mirror or a window. For some readers, the novel is a mirror of the reader's own life. For another reader, the novel is a window by which the first reader can peer in and see what someone else's life is like. Gansworth's debut novel is  more than a mirror or a window. 

Reading If I Ever Get Out of Here, I sometimes felt it was a mirror. As a Native kid meeting non-Native kids from really different communities than my own, I identified with the things Lewis went through. 

But as a Pueblo Indian woman who grew up on a reservation in northern New Mexico, the novel was more than a window onto the life of a Native family on a reservation hundreds of miles from my own. With his writing, Gansworth brought me inside Lewis's home and heart. Does that mean it was a door that I entered? I don't know. 

Certainly, the music played a part in how he managed to bring me inside. As I read his book, the songs in it played in my head, and when I hear those songs now, on the radio, I'm back in Gansworth's novel. As research studies show, music is a powerful thing. It taps into a part of us, makes us feel things, and know things... 

That's what Gansworth's novel does. I feel and know things I didn't feel or know before. That's what I like about If I Ever Get Out of Here. Thanks, Eric. Thanks, Cheryl, Thanks, Arthur. And thanks, Scholastic, for getting this book in our hands. 

Update: 12:20 PM, Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Praise for Gansworth's novel:

On the cover of the ARC (advanced reader copy), Francisco X. Stork says: "The beauty of this novel lies in the powerful friendship between two young men who are so externally different and so internally similar. Wonderful, inspiring, and real."

Online, Cynthia Leitich Smith writes that it is a "heart-healing, moccasins-on-the-ground story of music, family and friendship."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Books by Native Authors at Bus Boys and Poets

I was in Washington D.C. last week. When I'm there, I try to get over to Busboys and Poets and check out the books they have in the bookstore. Deborah Menkart of Teaching for Change was with me and snapped this photo of me holding up Richard Van Camp's Little You. His words, partnered with Julie Flett's art, make for a spectacular board book.

As I browsed the Children's book section, I saw several books I adore on their shelves. I took photos of them.

Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto and Saltypie are in the picture books section. So is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer but my photo of it was far too blurry to use here. On the shelves with books for older children, I spotted Louise Erdrich's The Game of Silence and Chickadee, and Smith's Indian Shoes. And on the shelf where the board books are, is Richard Van Camp's Little You. Here's my cropped snapshots of them:

I gotta say---I was tickled as can be to see all these books! In one place! And there were others, too. Many others. They were featuring Diverse Energies, which includes a story by Cherokee author, Daniel H. Wilson:

If you're in Washington D.C., put a trip to Busboys and Poets on your list of places to go. While there, buy some books and have something to eat. If you can't get there, visit the website and... buy some books that way.

Very soon, they'll have Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here, too.

Course, I focused on books by Native authors, but they've got a wide range of books by a wide range of authors whose books fit the theme of social justice. Stop by! Check out their website! Support independent bookstores! And always--support social justice.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE

While I'm working on my review essay about Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here, here's what Cynthia Leitich Smith had to say about it:

"[If I Ever Get Out of Here is] A heart-healing, mocs-on-the-ground story of music, family and friendship." -- Cynthia Leitich Smith

I put her comment in large print because Gansworth's novel is exceptional. I highly recommend it. And, Cynthia--who is Muscogee Creek* and an award-winning and acclaimed author herself--writes Cynsations, one of the top blogs in children's literature. Her thumbs up is significant. Pre-order your copy of If I Ever Get Out of Here today.

If you're looking for accurate, authentic, kick-ass literature by a Native author, Gansworth is Onondaga.* He is new to YA literature. If you read Native literature, you may recognize his name because he's written several terrific books and stories... His Extra Indians got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. 

*Smith, Gansworth, and myself (Debbie Reese) are all tribally enrolled with our respective tribal nations.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

THE BROKEN BLADE, by William Durbin

An individual responsible for curriculum in a Wisconsin school district wrote to ask me about The Broken Blade, by William Durbin.

Durbin's book is about a 13-year-old boy named Pierre. He lives in Montreal in 1800. His dad gets hurt and Pierre decides to join the North West fur trading company, which means he'll paddle 2400 miles to Grand Portage. The book is about his experiences going to and from Grand Portage.

There's only a few passages about American Indians in Durbin's book.

In some places, Indians are made out to be savages, but the narrative does not provide us with any context. Why, for example, would the Indians be fighting white settlers? Just because Indians are savages and that is what they do?! Or, is it because they were defending their families and land from encroachment? Without that context, and without foreknowledge about that period of time or a Native view of that time period, the reader is left with blood thirsty, less-than-human, men who murder white men. We know--right?!--that the reality was far more complex than that..

A couple of other things to note:

On page 124-125, Pierre is surprised at the attire of an Ojibwe chief (as described by Durbin, which may or may not be accurate). Pierre expected a chief to wear a headdress and buffalo robes. This chief is (for the most part) wearing Western clothing. One thing that gives me pause is that the story is set in the 1800s. Would a kid at that time period even have that stereotypical image of chiefs in his head? Maybe, but to me it sounds a bit more like something a kid of the present day would say.

More troubling, though, is the part of the story (page 130-131) where an Ojibwa family member has been killed. His family is gathered round, "drinking and crying." One woman is pouring rum into the dead man's mouth. When Pierre asks why, he is told that "Maybe they think the dead are just as fond or rum as the living." The entire scene strikes me as stereotypical drunk-Indian stuff... "firewater" and all that...

These concerns are enough for me to suggest that it not be used in a school curriculum anywhere.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

A Native Perspective on Francesca Lia Block's CHEROKEE BAT AND THE GOAT GUYS

Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat is a much acclaimed book. When published in 1989, it was hailed as groundbreaking, primarily for its inclusion of a gay teen relationship. I had not read it until a few days ago. While I agree that its LGBTQ content was something to celebrate, that content is overshadowed by Block's depiction of Weetzie as someone who is "into Indians." To demonstrate being "into Indians," Weetzie makes and wears headdresses for herself and later, for her baby.

Pink Smog, published in 2012, is set in the years prior to Weetzie Bat. Over a decade had elapsed since Weetzie Bat was published. I'd hoped that Pink Smog might give us the back story for why Weetzie was "into Indians" but what I got instead was more problematic content. In Pink Smog, Block called Cher (the singer) an "Indian American." That is problematic because, to my knowledge, Cher herself never said she was "Indian American." Perhaps Block meant "American Indian" but I don't know that Cher ever said she was Native, either. Surely Block knows there is a difference between "Indian American" and "American Indian."

Two days ago, I read Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys. I've got post-it notes sticking out all over because its got a lot more Native content than Weetzie Bat or Pink Smog. 

Characters in the book are:

  • Cherokee Bat, daughter of Weetzie Bat and My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk, and Duck (yeah, it is never clear who the father is... Weetzie slept with all three)
  • Raphael, son of Weetzie's friends. Raphael's dad is a Rastafarian named Valentine Jah-Love and Raphael's mom is a Chinese woman named Ping Chong
  • Witch Baby, daughter of My Secret Agent Lover Man is half-sister to Cherokee.
  • Angel Juan (more about him later)

In Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, high-schoolers Cherokee and her peers are living alone while their parents are out of the country, making a movie.

Cherokee Bat has five chapters: Wings, Haunches, Horns, Hooves, and Home. Each chapter is prefaced with a poem (I use that word with some trepidation because Native expressions such as these are not necessarily poems) and a personal letter by, or to, Cherokee. Each poem is credited to Native people.  On the page opposite the dedication (front of the book), Block tells us that one of the poems came from Ruth Underhill's Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona and the others came from John Bierhorst's In the Trail of the Wind. (Note: I haven't studied Underhill or Bierhorsts books and can't say that I'd recommend them.)

The Wings chapter begins with "Wind Song" credited as "Pima Indian."

The Haunches chapter begins with "Song of Encouragement" credited as "Papago Indian."

The Horns chapter begins with "Song of the Fallen Deer" credited as "Pima Indian."

The Hooves chapter begins with "Omen" credited as "Aztec Indian."

The Home chapter begins with "Dream Song" credited as "Wintu Indian."

I provide those details because Block provided them.

It seems to me that Block knew it is important to be specific.... to be tribally specific in how she presented the poems.

Seeing her attention to that detail makes me wonder where that attention went when she developed the character of Coyote, an "Indian" man who figures prominently in Cherokee Bat. A friend of Cherokee's parents, he is, more-or-less, supposed to keep an eye on Cherokee while her parents are gone. On the hill where his house is located, Coyote chants, dances, and does ceremonies. And, he's got powers.

But what tribe does Coyote belong to?!

Block doesn't tell us. Coyote does all sorts of "Indian" things---or at least the sort of "Indian" things that new-age folks do. New age practices are highly suspect and pretty soundly denounced by Native people who view new age practices as misguided appropriation of Native spiritualities.

Let's take a closer look at Coyote.

On page 16, Cherokee goes to him for help. Witch Baby (her half-sister) is burying herself in mud. It isn't clear to me why she is doing that, but clearly, she is not well. Coyote and Cherokee stand together chanting:
"Wind, bring us the feathers that birds no longer need," Coyote chanted. "Hawk and dove. Tarred feathers of the gull. Shimmer peacock plumes. Jewel green of parrots and other kept birds. Witch Baby needs help leaving the mud."
The wind picks up, full of feathers. Cherokee gathers them and Coyote tells her to make wings for Witch Baby. She makes the wings and plans to give them to Witch Baby at her birthday party. They make salsa and hang pinatas all over but Witch Baby won't come out of the shack she's hiding in, covered with mud. Suddenly, "Angel Juan" enters the party:
He was carrying a bass guitar and was dressed in baggy black pants, a white shirt buttoned to the collar and thick black shoes.
Angel Juan is an old friend they lost track of years before. Raphael asks where he's been:
"Mexico," said Angel Juan. "I've been playing music there since my family and I were sent back." 
While I'm glad that Block acknowledges the experience of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, I think her writing is very superficial. Mexicans/Mexican Americans and American Indians are superficially and stereotypically present in her books. I think I could say the same about Rastafarians and Chinese.

Using that content in that way is precisely what makes it possible for some people to think they're knowledgeable about 'other,' when they aren't. It is what makes it possible for people to embrace and honor American Indians with stereotypical mascots. It is what makes it possible for people to think it is cool to have Tacos and Tequila parties where they don sombreros, eat tortilla chips, and drink margaritas.

Block has a legion of fans, many of whom came to her through the Weetzie Bat books. They're vehement in their defense of her work. Maybe they're guilty of the same sort of ignorance about other that she displays in her work. Maybe her depictions mirror theirs, and my criticism of her depictions is taken (as it should be) as a criticism of their ignorance.

As I said before, I understand that Weetzie Bat was important because of its inclusion of a gay relationship, but I can't see myself recommending the books to anyone. They are an affront to people whose culture is stereotyped. Left unchecked, they reify and affirm those stereotypes as valid depictions of the people who they misrepresent.

Here's some other gems (not) from the book:

p. 38
At Christmas, Witch Baby and Cherokee decorated a tree:
with feathers, beads, and miniature globes; Kachina, Barbie, and Japanese baby dolls; and Mexican skeletons.
Their gifts from Coyote?
"Indian birth charts for everyone--Cherokee the deer, Witch Baby the raven, Raphael and Angel Juan the elks.
WTF is an Indian birth chart?!

p. 55
"Coyote told me about Indian women who fell in love with men because of their flute playing and got nosebleeds when they heard the music because they were so excited," Cherokee said.

p. 67
Cherokee goes running with Coyote:
She glanced over at his profile--the proud nose, the flat dreamy eyelids, the trail of blue-black hair.

p. 67-68
Here's more info about Coyote:
Coyote was tall. He never smiled. He had chosen to live alone, to work and mourn and see visions, in a nest above the smog. The animals came to him when he spoke their names. He was full of grace, wisdom and mystery. He had seen his people die, wasted on their lost lands.
Wait wait wait... is he one of those last surviving Indians? The last of his tribe? (I'm being snarky.) And what the f*** is that last bit about?

p. 69
Coyote says:
"My people are great runners, Cherokee. They go on ritual runs. Before these they abstain from eating fatty meat and from sexual relations. These things can drain us."
Another WTF moment. WHO ARE HIS PEOPLE? Without the info, there's little to do with regard to verifying the prep for "ritual runs."

And towards the end, things have gotten so bad with Cherokee and the Goat Guys that Coyote has to help them out with a "healing circle" where they say their names out loud "so that our ancestor spirits will come and join us" (p. 108). They do this by candlelight. Then, they do "sacred dances" in which Coyote jumps into the air and plays his drum. They join him, jumping and leaping as high as they can. And then! Then Coyote tells them they have to "dance our animal spirit" (p. 109). Coyote crouched, hunched his shoulders... his eyes flash and his face becomes lean and secretive. The others change, too. Ravens fly, deer prance, and "obsidian elks" dream.


Monday, May 06, 2013

"Indian American" in Francesca Lia Block's PINK SMOG

A few days ago, I wrote about Francesca Lia Block's now-classic Weetzie Bat. Although I appreciate that the gay relationship in it was groundbreaking in 1989 when it was published, I can't--and won't--move past Block's portrayal of American Indians. Or, I should say, her MISportrayal of Native culture.

I started reading Pink Smog this evening. Ping Smog is new. Published in 2012, it is billed as a prequel to Weetzie Bat. It is about Weetzie in junior high school in L.A.  It is easier to read than Weetzie Bat, which is filled with oddly named characters right away. I stumbled each time I had to read and write out the name of Weetzie's boyfriend, My Secret Agent Lover Man.


Imagine me on my couch, reading Pink Smog.

Now, imagine me reading at the top of page 27, where Weetzie is talking about Cher:
Sometimes she'd be an Indian American with feathers, straddling a horse, and sometimes she'd be a showgirl with feathers.
Now imagine me rolling my eyes.

Indian American? Really?! Surely Block knows that "Indian American" is commonly used to refer to Indians from India who live in the United States and identify as Indian and American!

Ok, well, maybe she does NOT know that... Maybe it isn't that widely known. But what about her editor? Doesn't her editor know the difference?

Based on the excerpts of Editorial Reviews on the Amazon page, people think Pink Smog is "intoxicating" and "sparkles." Obviously it does for some people, but for me--a Native reader--the "Indian American" shatters anything I might call sparkly about the story. And I'm guessing that Indian American readers might have that same feeling of being yanked out of the story by the author's ignorance.

Ah well.

Just for kicks, here's Cher in the feathers, on the horse:

Do I want to look up Cher's identity? Is she Native? I don't think so, but I'm calling it a night. Not looking up Cher.

I read Pink Smog thinking that it might shed some light on why Weetzie is "into Indians" (in Weetzie Bat), but other than the reference to Cher, the "Indian American," there's nothing about Native people or culture.

Next up? I've got copies of Baby BeBop and Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys... What will I find in them?

Saturday, May 04, 2013

WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block

Bookmark and Share

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

Bookmark and Share

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.