Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Missed Opportunity in Cynthia DeFelice's FORT

The L.A. Times  released their Summer Reading Guide earlier today. I glanced at the Kids list. I'm thrilled to see Engle's Enchanted Air on it, and Older's Shadowshaper, too. I found much to love in both of those books.

I noticed Fort by Cynthia DeFelice on the list, too. Fort? That's one of the story lines that often trades on stereotypes of American Indians. Does DeFelice do that? I don't know. I haven't read her book. From the synopsis, it doesn't sound like it has anything to do with Native peoples:
In this boys-will-be-boys summer story about friendship and revenge, eleven-year-old Wyatt and his friend Augie aren't looking for a fight. They're having the best summer of their lives hanging out in the fort they built in the woods, fishing and hunting, cooking over a campfire, and sleeping out. But when two older boys mess with the fort--and with another kid who can't fight back--the friends are forced to launch Operation Doom, with unexpected results for all concerned, in this novel about two funny and very real young heroes.


Curious, though, I ran the "look inside" search on Amazon, using "Indian" and found this on page 74:



The set up for that passage is this: the boys are hunting squirrels. They have to be very still. Flies land on one of the boys and he wants to swat at the one that lands on his nose. That's when he thinks about that movie. In the next paragraph, he sees that ants are crawling on him. The third paragraph starts out "It seemed like a long time went by." Finally a squirrel comes by and the story shifts to hunting.

Did that passage about Indians and ants need to be in the story? What does it add? When I read "a movie" in that excerpt above, I started looking for such a movie. I found lots of references to an episode in Sons of Anarchy when the "Wahewa" Indians bury a man up to his neck and let ants crawl all over him. I'm sure there's similar scenes in old western flicks.

But regardless of what movie that scene is in, what does it add to this story?

If I was editing the manuscript, I think I'd have suggested that the author cut that paragraph and the next one. She could go from being still (paragraph before that one with the Indian movie reference) to the one that started out "It seemed like a long time went by."

I titled this post "a missed opportunity" because another option to address that excerpt is that the author could have inserted stupid so that the excerpt reads "I sat as quietly as I could, remembering a stupid movie I saw..." or another sentence at the end, such as "That was a stupid movie. When are movie makers going to stop making movies like that?!"

Lest you be tempted to say "it is one line" -- please think about all the "one lines" about Indians there are in children's books, in movies, in songs, in grocery store items, in video games, on athletic team gear... It adds up! Those one lines introduce inaccurate information and reinforce inaccurate information, too.

Fort, published in 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is not recommended.

Monday, May 25, 2015

An Inclusive Summer Reading 2015 List for Kids and Young Adults

Early in 2015, Edith Campbell invited a handful of colleagues who share a passion for children, literacy, and diversity to work with her on a Summer Reading list. She invited us to suggest titles we had read and wanted to recommend. As conversations took place, the focus of the list became clear.

Books we recommend are ones written or illustrated by Native Americans or writers/illustrators of color. We want readers to become familiar with the names on the list and their creative work. As you'll see, not all the books are stories about Native Americans or People of Color, and some are ones in which characters are LGBTQIA or disabled.

Photo by Edith Campbell
As you look over the list, you'll see it is divided into three categories: picture books, middle grade, and young adult. Though we didn't compile the titles using a checklist, we ended up with a list that includes contemporary and historical fiction. There's speculative fiction and nonfiction as well. Some are new, and some are older. The list includes a graphic novel, too. Some titles are from major publishers, some are from small publishers, and some are self-published. And, some are available as audiobooks or e-books.

The Native writers and illustrators we included on the list are Wesley Ballinger, Eric Gansworth, Cheryl Minnema, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Tim Tingle.

We are Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Sujei Lugo, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Debbie Reese, and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. We aren't an organization. We are six people who read and talk about books with each other and on social media.

We are sharing the list as widely as possible across media platforms to reach as many people as possible. We hope you'll order these books if you don't already have them, and, we hope you'll feature them in your summer programming and year-round, too.

On Facebook:

At Edith Campbell's blog, Crazy QuiltEdi

At Nathalie Mvondo's blog: Multiculturalism Rocks

At Lyn-Miller Lachmann's blog: 

At Debbie Reese's Tumblr:

On Nathalie Mvondo's account at Pinterest, we divided the books into three lists:

You can download a pdf and take it with you to the store or library. If the book you want isn't on the shelf, ask for it! Your library will get a copy, and the bookstore will order it! Asking creates ripples! We have two pdfs:

In whatever way you prefer, we hope you read and share the list with family, friends, and at your local library, too! Meanwhile, we'll be reading and thinking about our 2016 list. 

Last road trip I took, I listened to the audiobook of Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here. Hearing Gansworth read it, different parts of the story jumped out at me. I was surprised to find myself tearing up at some parts. As I head out later this week on a road trip, I'll finish listening to X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon. It will probably end up on the 2016 list we put together. 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Indian-as-spirit in SMEK FOR PRESIDENT by Adam Rex

Earlier this year, I did an analysis of the Native content in Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday. I found the ways that Rex used Native characters and history to be troubling. Some see his parallels to colonization of Natives peoples as having great merit, but the story he tells has a happy ending. The colonizers (aliens called Gorgs from another solar system) do not succeed in their occupation of Earth. They are driven away.

Some people also think Rex cleverly addressed stereotypes in the way that he developed "the Chief" in that story, but I disagree, especially given many things he raised and did not address, like the drunken Indian stereotype.

And some people think that we can overlook all the problems with Native content because there are so few books with biracial protagonists. I disagree with that, too. Why throw one marginalized group under the bus for the sake of another?! That seems twisted and perverse to me.

One of the what-not-to-do cautions in the creation of characters of marginalized populations is "do not kill that character." In The True Meaning of Smekday, Rex killed "the Chief."

In Smek for President, Rex commits another what-not-to-do: use a Native character as a spiritual guide. That character? "The Chief." He died in the first book.

Smek for President opens with a series of cartoon panels that tell us what happened in The True Meaning of Smekday. Amongst the panels are these two. In the first one, we're reminded about "this guy everyone called Chief Shouting Bear."



Back in The True Meaning of Smekday, we learned that his name is actually Frank, but Tip (the protagonist in both books) just calls him "the Chief." She likes him--there's no doubt about that--but persists in using the dehumanizing "the Chief" throughout the book.

In the first book, Tip had a run-in with a Gorg. That run-in is depicted in the next panel in Smek for President:



See "the Chief" in the top panel, approaching that Gorg and Tip? He told that Gorg to leave Tip alone. As you see, the Gorg punched "the Chief" (accident is not the right word for what happened!), knocking him out. Tip and J.Lo (he's a Boov) took him to an apartment to get help. That's when Vicky (another character) asks if he'd been drinking.

Towards the end of The True Meaning of Smekday, "the Chief" dies.

But he appears again and again in Smek for President... 

On page 25, Tip and J.Lo are in their spaceship, flying to New Boovworld and looking out the window at Saturn. Tip thinks back to the time that "the Chief" took her and J.Lo to look at Saturn through a telescope. Here's that part (p. 25-26):
"My people called it Seetin," said the Chief. "Until the white man stole it from us and renamed it."
I turned away from the eyepiece and frowned at the Chief. "Until... what? How can that be true?"
The Chief was smirking. "It isn't. I'm just messing with you."
And now, as we skimmed over the planet's icy rings, I said to J.Lo, "I wish the Chief could have seen this."
He'd died over a year ago, at the age of ninety-four--just a few months after the Boov had left Earth.
That passage is another good example of the author taking one step forward and then two steps backward. By that, I mean that it is good to bring up the idea that Native lands were stolen and renamed, but the "just messing with you" (the humor) kind of nullifies the idea being raised at all. It may even cause readers to wonder what part of "the Chief's" remarks is not true. That his people had a different name for Saturn? That white people didn't really steal Indians?

Tip and J.Lo land their spaceship on New Boovworld. On page 74, Tip is inside an office. She hides by climbing into a chute that drops her in a garbage pit:
Back when the Chief was alive, he and I had all kinds of long talks. Arguments, sometimes. So I don't want you to think I'm schizophrenic or anything, but I occasionally imagine the Chief and I are having one of those talks when I need a little company. And I needed a little company.
"Hey, Stupidlegs," said the Chief.
"Hey, Chief," I answered, smiling. And I opened my eyes. He was to my left, standing lightly on the surface of the trash.

I know people will think it is nice that Tip would imagine an Indian person as the one she'd turn to when she's in need of company, but it is like that far too often!

People love Indian mascots. Indians were so brave, so courageous! Never mind that the mascot itself is a stereotype---we real Native people are told we should feel honored by mascots!

People love Indian spirits, too. Remember "Ghost Hawk" -- the character Susan Cooper created? He started out as Little Hawk but gets killed part way through the story. He stays in the story, however, as a ghost or spirit that teaches the white protagonist all kinds of things.

People love Indians that remind them of days long past, when the land was pristine. Remember Brother Eagle Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers? A white family laments deforestation and plants trees. Throughout the book, there are ghost-like Indians here and there.

People love scary Indian ghosts, too. All those stories where a house is built on an old Indian burial ground! Those angry Indian spirits do all kinds of bad things. Earlier this year I read a Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew story where Nancy was sure an angry Indian spirit was up to no good. And how about that angry Indian in the Thanksgiving episode of Buffy the Vampire Killer?

My point is that this trope is tiresome. If you see a review that notes this problematic aspect of Smek for President, do let me know!


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

AICL's Best Books of 2015

In December of 2014, I made a list of books that I'd recommended in 2014. It was a list of books that were published in that year.

This year I'm starting the Best Books of 2015 list today (May 6) and will update it as the year progresses. If you're looking over the list and want me to consider a book, do let me know!

BOOKS BY NATIVE WRITERS

Comics and Graphic Novels:
  • Three Feathers written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Krystal Mateus, published by High Water Press, Inc.
  • Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, edited by Michael Sheyahshe, published by Alternative History Comics
  • Super Indian, Volume II, written and illustrated by Arigon Starr, published by Wacky Productions, Unlimited.
  • The Blue Raven written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Steven Keewatin Sanderson, published by Pearson.
  • A Blanket of Butterflies written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, published by Highwater Press.

Board Books:

  • Celebrate My Hopi Corn and Celebrate My Hopi Toys, by Anita Poleahla, illustrated by Emmet Navakuku, published by Salina Press. 


Picture Books:
  • Kamik's First Sled by Matilda Sulurayok, illustrated by Qin Leng, published by Inhabit Media.
  • Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon, published by Abrams.
  • The Apple Tree by Sandy Tharpe-Thee, illustrated by Marlena Campbell Hodson, published by Road Runner Press.


For Middle Grades:

For High School:
  • Feral Pride written by Cynthia Leitich Smith, published by Candlewick.
  • Urban Tribes edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, published by Annick Press. 
  • Whistle by Richard Van Camp, published by Pearson. 


NON-NATIVE WRITERS

Comics and Graphic Novels:

Picture Books:

For Middle Grades:

For High School:
  • Shadowshaper written by Daniel Jose Older, published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine (imprint of Scholastic). 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE by Joseph Marshall III

Joseph Marshall III is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe. Born and raised on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, he is the author of several books about Lakota people. Last year, I read his The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. I highly recommend it. In 2011, Marshall's book was selected for the One Book South Dakota project. Over 2400 Native high school students in South Dakota were given a copy of it. How cool is that? (Answer: very cool, indeed!)

Yesterday, I finished his In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. First thing I'll say? Get it. Order it now. It won't hit the bookstores till later this year, but pre-order it for your own kids and your library. Like The Journey of Crazy Horse, it provides insights and stories that you don't get from academic historians.

To my knowledge, there is nothing like it for kids. Some of the reasons I'm keen on it?

First, it is set in the present day on the Rosebud Sioux reservation. Regular readers of AICL know that I think it is vitally important that kids read books about Native people, set in the present day. Such books provide Native kids with characters that reflect our existence as people of the present day, and they help non-Native kids know that--contrary to what they may think--we weren't "all killed off" by each other, by White people, or by disease, either.

Second, the protagonist, Jimmy McClean, is an eleven-year old Lakota boy with blue eyes and light brown hair. Blue eyes? Light brown hair?! Yes. His dad's dad was White. Those blue eyes and light brown hair mean he gets teased by Lakota kids and White ones, too.

Third, it is a road trip book! I love road trips. Don't you? In this one, his grandfather (his mom's dad) takes him, more or less, in the footsteps of Crazy Horse. Along the way, he learns a lot about Crazy Horse, who--like Jimmy--had light brown hair. When his grandfather is in storytelling mode, giving him information about Crazy Horse, the text is in italics.

Fourth, Jimmy's mom is a Head Start teacher! That is way cool. My little brother and my little sister went to Head Start! When I was in high school, I'd cut school and volunteer at the Head Start whenever I could. But you know what? I can't think of a single book I've read in which one of the characters is a head start teacher, but for goodness sake! Head Start is a big deal! It is reality for millions of people. We should have books with moms or dads who work at Head Start!

Fifth, Jimmy's grandfather imparts a lot of historical information as they drive. At one point, Grandpa Nyles asks him if he's heard of the Oregon Trail. Jimmy says yes, and his grandpa says (p. 29):
"Before it was called the Oregon Trail, it was known by the Lakota and other tribes as Shell River Road. And before that, it was a trail used by animals, like buffalo. It's an old, old trail." 
I love that information! It tells readers that Native peoples were here first, and we had names for this and that place.

Sixth, they visit a monument. His grandpa tells him that the Lakota people call it the Battle of the Hundred in the Hands, and that others call it the Fetterman Battle or the Fetterman Massacre. They read the inscription on the monument. See the last line? It reads "There were no survivors." That is not true, his grandpa tells him. Hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne survived that battle. It is a valuable lesson, for all of us, about perspective, words, who puts them on monuments, why those particular ones are chosen, etc.

Last reason I'll share for now is that Marshall doesn't soft pedal wartime atrocities. Through his grandfather, Jimmy learns about mutilations done by soldiers, and by Lakota people, too. It isn't done in a gratuitous way. It is honest and straightforward, and, his grandfather says "it's a bad thing no matter who does it."

The history learned by reading In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse and the growth Jimmy experiences as he spends time on that road trip with his grandfather make it invaluable.

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, with illustrations by Jim Yellowhawk, is coming out in November from Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams). Pitched at elementary/middle grade readers, I highly recommend it.


Saturday, May 02, 2015

Richard Van Camp's THE BLUE RAVEN

New this year (2015) is Richard Van Camp's graphic novel, The Blue Raven. Illustrated by Steven Keewatin Sanderson, the story is about a stolen bicycle, and, healing. Here's the cover:



The bike, named Blue Raven, belongs to a kid named Benji. He comes out of the library (how cool is that?) and his bike is gone (not cool!). Trevor, the older brother of a kid in his class, sees Benji and offers to help him find the bike.

This isn't just any bike (no bike is, really), but this one? Benji's dad gave it to him when he moved out of their house.

When Benji was born, his dad called him Tatso because his eyes were the same blue color as a baby raven's eyes. Tatso is a Tlicho word. It means Blue Raven.  And--it is the name his dad called the bike, too.

As you might imagine, it is very special to Benji.


We learn all that--and more--as Benji and Trevor drive around on Trevor's four-wheeler, looking for the bike. Trevor is Metis, but wasn't raised with Native traditions in the same way that Benji was. Indeed, there is a moment when Trevor mocks Benji. Confident in what he knows and bolstered by memories of time with members of the community, Benji counters Trevor, who is taken aback and a bit snarky. By the end of this short graphic novel, though, Trevor is with Benji at a gathering where Trevor is invited to dance and the two have agreed to keep looking for the Blue Raven.

Steven Keewatin Sanderson's illustrations are terrific! From anger over his bike being stolen, to the tears Benji sheds in the flashback parts of the story, to the community scenes at the drum dance, they are a perfect match for Van Camp's story. Keep an eye out for his work!

The Blue Raven, published in 2015 by Pearson, is part of its Well Aware series and sold as a package. However, it can be purchased directly from Richard Van Camp at his site. I highly recommend it.

HUNTERS OF CHAOS by Crystal Velasquez

Anytime someone writes a book--yes, even a work of fiction--that gets basic facts about Native people wrong, it is going to get a 'not recommended' from me.

It doesn't matter, to me, how well-written the story might be and it doesn't matter if the book itself has a protagonist or a cast of characters that are from a marginalized group or groups. Nobody in a marginalized group should be expected to endure the misrepresentation of their own people for the sake of another group. And, all readers who walk away with this misrepresentation as "knowledge" are not well served, either.

So, let's take a look at Hunters of Chaos. The synopsis, from Simon and Schuster:

Four girls at a southwestern boarding school discover they have amazing feline powers and must unite to stop an ancient evil in this riveting adventure.
Ana’s average, suburban life is turned upside down when she’s offered a place at the exclusive boarding school in New Mexico that both of her late parents attended. As she struggles to navigate the wealthy cliques of her new school, mysterious things begin to occur: sudden power failures, terrible storms, and even an earthquake!
Ana soon learns that she and three other girls—with Chinese, Navajo, and Egyptian heritages—harbor connections to priceless objects in the school’s museum, and the museum’s curator, Ms.Benitez, is adamant that the girls understand their ancestry. 
It turns out that the school sits on top of a mysterious temple, the ancient meeting place of the dangerous Brotherhood of Chaos. And when one of the priceless museum objects is shattered, the girls find out exactly why their heritage is so important: they have the power to turn into wild cats! Now in their powerful forms of jaguar, tiger, puma, and lion they must work together to fight the chaos spirits unleashed in the ensuing battle…and uncover the terrifying plans of those who would reconvene the Brotherhood of Chaos.

Intriguing? Yes. But... Soon after Ana arrives at the school, there's an earthquake that exposes the mysterious temple. Skipping ahead (for the moment), we learn that the school is (p. 110):
"...yards away from a thriving Native American community, descendants of the Anasazi people..."
For now, I am focusing on the word "Anasazi." For a very long time, that Navajo word was used to describe the people who lived in the cliff houses in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. The word is no longer in use. Today, "Ancestral Pueblo People" is the phrase people use, because it is the right one to use.

Mesa Verde, Bandelier, Chaco Canyon and others are part of the National Park Service. If you click on those links, you'll see they use "ancestral Pueblo/Pueblo People" rather than "Anasazi."

For a long time, literature associated with those sites said that the "Anasazi" people who lived there had vanished. They didn't. Like any people, anywhere in the world, they moved to other locations when conditions changed. In recognition of that fact, the National Park Service and other government sites stopped using Anasazi and started using Ancestral Pueblo People instead. Another good example is the Bureau of Land Management's page, Who were the Ancestral Pueblo People (Anasazi?).

The massive amounts of literature that used "Anasazi" is probably why Velasquez used it in her book. I wish she had actually looked up the sites I linked to... she'd have avoided the problems in Hunters of Chaos. 

In Hunters of Chaos, Doli is Navajo. Back on page 53 (after they've learned about the temple), Lin (she's the Chinese character) and Doli have an argument. Lin has an expensive purse. Doli makes a sarcastic remark about it, and Lin tells her she's just jealous because she's poor and therefore doesn't belong at the school. Doli says (p. 53):
"I don't belong here?" [...] "You must have been asleep during assembly today. That temple back there means I'm the only one who belongs here."
"Oh, give me a break," Lin said, then sucked her teeth and flicked her hand dismissively. "I was wide awake during Dr. Hottie's speech, and he said the temple was Anasazi, not Navajo." 
Doli, completely unfazed, sighed as if she were tired of explaining the obvious. "The Anasazi were an ancient people who lived on this land. In other words, they were my ancestors. Anasazi literally means 'ancient ones' in Navajo."
So. Doli is Navajo. Some people say Anasazi means "ancient ones" and some say it means "enemy people." Whether it meant ancient ones or enemy people, the key thing is that it definitely did not refer to Navajo people. Interestingly, there is a place in the book where we read that Anasazi means ancient pueblo peoples. At that point in the book, the kids have organized an exhibit to show people what the school's museum has--including artifacts from that temple.

Among the people who come to the exhibit is a family from Doli's reservation (the community that thrives a few yards away from the school). A woman speaks to Doli in Navajo. Ana asks her what the woman said. Here's from page 129:
"She said she was glad she could come. They heard about the temple and are excited about it. She didn't think that the ancient Pueblo peoples were active here, so they are very interested in seeing what was found."
See that "ancient Pueblo peoples"? Does the woman think it is her Navajo ancestors?

The confusion between Navajo and Pueblo is a big deal. We're talking about two distinct nations of people.

There are other problems. On page 64, the anthropologist (Dr. Logan) says that Ancient Egyptians, the Ashanti people of West Africa, and the Anasazi worshipped cats. That's the first I ever heard of that said about Pueblo people!

And when Doli starts talking about shape shifting, she doesn't sound like she really grew up there (p. 158):
"Navajo folklore is full of stories about shape-shifters, but I'm not even sure the people on the reservation would believe me."
When the girls first shape shift, Doli says (p. 169):
"I'm glad it happened that way, and not how the Navajo legends say people usually become shape-shifters." [...] "They perform all kinds of evil rites to get the power. I'm talking witchcraft and murder."
When they try to shift later on purpose, they chant Navajo words that Doli taught them. And on page 240, Doli says a few words in Navajo that, she tells us, is a saying amongst her people that means "When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, strike first." Is that a Navajo saying? I see it attributed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but I also find it on a bunch of "Indian proverbs" page, with it being attributed to Navajos. I'll keep digging on that saying. Maybe it IS a Navajo one.

Velasquez is working on a sequel to this book. I hope this confusion between two nations does not continue. Published in 2015 by Simon and Schuster, I cannot recommend Hunters of Chaos. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

emily m. danforth's THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

emily m. danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post made quite a splash when it was published in 2012. Published by Balzar + Bray (an imprint of HarperCollins), it won the 2012 Montana Book Award, was a finalist for the William C. Morris Young Adult Debut Award, and was named a winner in the young adult category of the 2013 Lamba Literary Awards. Here's the synopsis:
Set in rural Montana in the early 1990s, emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a powerful and widely acclaimed YA coming-of-age novel in the tradition of the classic Annie on My Mind. Cameron Post feels a mix of guilt and relief when her parents die in a car accident. Their deaths mean they will never learn the truth she eventually comes to—that she's gay. Orphaned, Cameron comes to live with her old-fashioned grandmother and ultraconservative aunt Ruth. There she falls in love with her best friend, a beautiful cowgirl. When she’s eventually outed, her aunt sends her to God’s Promise, a religious conversion camp that is supposed to “cure” her homosexuality. At the camp, Cameron comes face to face with the cost of denying her true identity.
I know about Adam Red Eagle, one of the characters in it, because someone wrote to tell me about him. I've read a lot of reviews of the book--professional and not--and am not finding reference to Adam. At all. Does he not matter? Or did he not stand out? If you read The Miseducation of Cameron Post, do you remember Adam?

As the synopsis says, Cameron is sent to a religious conversion camp to "cure" her homosexuality. That's where she meets Adam. This all takes pace in Part III: Gods Promise: 1992-1993. When Cameron gets to Promise, she is greeted by Jane, one of the students who she'll become friends with. Soon, a group of students return from an outing to the nearby lake. As they get out of the van, they say something to Cameron, to welcome her (p. 271):
Adam said he’d heard that I was a runner, and that he ran in the mornings and had seen tons of elk and deer and even a moose once or twice.
There's brief hugs, some pleasantries, and then (p. 272):
One final embrace from Adam shrouded me briefly in a sweet, sticky smell that I struggled for a moment to identify, but only because of my surroundings. In the embrace’s release I caught the scent again. Unmistakable. Marijuana.
Later, Cameron asks Jane if all the kids were high, and learns that Jane is the source of the pot. Jane, Adam, and Cameron will soon start hanging out together during their free time.

Part of their counseling (which they are supposed to call support sessions) includes filling out a worksheet, called an iceberg. Each student has one. This is what Adam wrote on his (p. 294):
Dad’s extreme modesty and lack of physical affection caused me to look for physical affection from other men in sinful ways. Too close with mom— wrong gender modeling. Yanktonais’ beliefs (winkte) conflict with Bible. Broken home.
If I understand the iceberg activity, this is the student's personal writing, for himself, not others. If I was Adam, I'd be more likely to say "Our ..." rather than "Yanktonais..." If Adam is writing it for the counselor's eyes, it might be ok as-is, but use of "Yanktonais" struck me as odd. I asked a Native colleague who works at the Oglala Lakota College and learned that the Yanktonais are Dakota and that, in conversation, they'll generally say where they're from rather than say "Yanktonai." That is in conversation, however, and perhaps Adam wrote Yanktonais because he was writing for an outsider (the counselor, who is not Native). My hunch? The decision to use Yanktonais, and the information shared next about the Canoe Peddler band, was based on information from the Fort Peck website.

Right after that, we learn more about Adam (p. 294-295):
His father, who had only recently converted to Christianity “for political reasons,” Adam said, was the one who’d sent him to Promise. His mother opposed the whole thing, but they were divorced, and she lived in North Dakota, and his dad had custody and that was that. His father was from the Canoe Peddler band of the Assiniboine, a voting member in the consolidated Fort Peck Tribal Council, and also a much-respected Wolf Point real estate developer with mayoral ambitions, ambitions that he felt were threatened by having a fairy for a son.
From that, we learn that his dad is Assiniboine. Based on Adam's use of Yanktonais (on his iceberg), we can infer that his mom is Yanktonais. I like that we learn his dad is political. Too many depictions of Native people put us on a pedestal that idealizes who we are, making us seem like we can do no wrong. We're human beings, which means we can have the same kinds of opportunistic people amongst us as anyone does.

And, we are dealing with centuries of persecution from colonizers whose sought to kill us, and kill off our Indigenous ways of being. That persecution includes those who did not, and do not, fit within the male/female gender binary. In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Adam is winkte. He tells us more about that later, when he and Jane and Cameron are talking about being at Promise and what being there does to their sense of self. Adam says (p. 310):
“I’m the ghost of my former gay self."
A stickler for how they use words, Jane replies (p. 310):
“I thought you were never a ‘gay self.’”
Adam replies (p. 310):
“You and word choice,” he said. “I wasn’t, technically. I’m still not. I was just using the most handy term available to make a point.”
Cameron replies, in the voice of Lydia (one of the counselors), and the conversation continues (p. 310-311):
I did my best Lydia. “You were promoting the gay image through the use of sarcastic comments and humor,” I said. “I’m probably going to have to report you.”
Then, (p. 311):
“Not the gay image,” Adam said, with more seriousness. “No gay image here. I’m winkte.” I’d seen that on his iceberg and had wanted to ask him about it. “What is that?” “Two-souls person,” he said, not looking at me, concentrating, instead, on the long pine needles he was braiding. “It’s a Lakota word— well, the shorter version of one. Winyanktehca. But it doesn’t mean gay. It’s something different.”
That passage is where things really start to get messy. The last two lines are fine. The "two souls" part? I do not recall that phrase in any of the reading I've done. Generally, the phrase "two spirit" is used. I started digging in. I searched the web, and books, and research studies. Invariably, "two souls" took me to a paper by Marjorie Anne Napewastewin Schutzer, delivered in 1994 at the European Network of Professionals in Transsexualism.

Several things in that paper, and about that paper, made me pause. None of the routes to that paper are from Native people. People within the Native LGBTQ community, and those who do research in this area, do not cite Schutzer.

Though Schutzer identifies as Lakota, the writing sounds very much like someone who speaks of their identity, not through a life lived within a Native community, but through a search done later in life, driven by a romantic disposition of what it means to be Native. The overall tone is one that fits non-Native mainstream expectations of how a Native person would speak, but it doesn't ring true.

The degree to which Schutzer's talk is circulating is worrisome. Adam says winkte is a shorter version of a longer Lakota word, "winyanktehca." Schutzer wrote that winkte is "an old Lakota word" that has been "contracted" to winkte. I found that phrasing in several non-Native sources. It is in the Study Guide for Essentials of Cultural Anthropology, in Cynthia L. Winfield's Gender Identity: The Ultimate Teen Guide, and it is listed as the source for the definition at Wikipedia.

Schutzer also wrote that winkte's are shamans and sacred. That, too, is in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, voiced through Jane, and rebutted by Adam (p. 311):
“It’s a big deal,” Jane said. “Adam’s too modest. He doesn’t want to tell you that he’s sacred and mysterious.” 
“Don’t fucking do that,” Adam said, throwing some of the nonbraided needles from his pile at her. “I don’t want to be your sacred and mysterious Injun.”
His last line is great (don't want to be your sacred and mysterious Injun), but, I'm not sure if it works, given the next exchange (p. 311):
“Well, you already are,” Jane said. “Put it in your peace pipe and smoke it.” 
“That’s outrageously offensive,” he said, but then he smiled. “It’s the Sacred Calf Pipe, anyway.”
He tells her it is not a "peace pipe" but "the Sacred Calf Pipe" which is actually quite sacred, and I'm not sure that a Dakota kid, raised with the knowledge he seems to have, would speak of it in a conversation like this one. Here's more (p. 311-312):
“So you were like named this or something?” I asked. “How do you say it again?” 
“Wink-tee,” Adam said. “It was seen in a vision on the day of my birth.” He paused. “If you believe my mother, that is. If you believe my father, then my mother concocted this nonsense as an excuse for my faggy nature, and I need to just man up already.”
“Yeah, I’ll just go with your dad’s version,” I said. “Much simpler.” 
“I told you we’d like her,” Jane said. 
Adam hadn’t laughed, though. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “My dad’s version is easier to explain to every single person in the world who doesn’t know Lakota beliefs. I’m not gay. I’m not even a tranny. I’m like pre-gender, or almost like a third gender that’s male and female combined.”
What exactly does Cameron's question (you were named this) mean? Given Adam's answer (it was seen in a vision), I think she is asking how he came to be a winkte, as if it is something one is appointed to, by someone. In this case, someone had a vision and saw that the newborn baby was a winkte. What Adam says reminds me again of Schutzer, who wrote (on that webpage) "I was called through a vision [...] from out of the womb."

Adam and Cameron continue (p. 312):
“That sounds really complicated,” I said. 
Adam snorted. “You think? Winktes are supposed to somehow bridge the divide between genders and be healers and spirit people. We’re not supposed to try to pick the sex our private parts most align with according to some Bible story about Adam and Eve.”
Again, this brings Schutzer's writing to mind. She wrote "I represent a profound healing, a reconciliation of the most fundamental rift that divides us, human from human--gender." Given the contexts in which Schutzer's writing is cited, I think it is not reliable. There may be other sources out there that danforth used to develop the winkte parts of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but I can't find them. Indeed, writings I do know of are more pragmatic and realistic in how winkte's are discussed. Schutzer cites the popular John Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, but its co-author is a non-Native man, Richard Erdoes. He's co-author on several books like this, and as Ed Valandra points out in his article about as-told-to biographies, they open with a mystical story about how the Native person had a vision in which Erdoes would appear to him and offer to help him tell his story (I highly recommend Valandra's article: "The As-Told-To Native [Auto]biography: Whose Voice is Speaking" in a well-regarded journal in Native Studies, Wicazo Sa Review. See volume 20, #2, Fall 2005).

Towards the end of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Jane, Adam, and Cameron have left Promise. They're headed to Quake Lake, where Cameron's mother died. Cameron sees dead trees, standing upright in the lake. She thinks they look like walking sticks left behind by a race of giants. She says (p. 458-459):
“Who was that Lakota giant— the one who was supposed to be like visible to man forever ago, but isn’t now, and lives on a mountain surrounded by water?” 
“Yata,” Adam said. “Why, did you see him?” He pretended to scan the forest around us, feigning anxiousness.
He asks her why she's asking him about this giant, and she gestures to the trees in the lake and how they look like walking sticks for giants. He says (p. 459):
“That actually sort of works,” Adam said. “This could be Yata territory. Yata is way into ceremonies. That’s kind of what you’re doing here, right?”
The three gaze at the lake. Jane says that it is "pretty, but it's" and Cameron says that the trees make it creepy. Adam replies (p. 460):
“It’s more than the trees,” Adam said. “There’s all kinds of powerful energy here. It’s unsettled or something.”
With his reply, I think it is fair to say that Adam he is imbued with a special ability to sense things, which again brings me to Schutzer.

I really wanted to join the chorus of voices that love and recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post. For teens that identify with Cameron or Jane, danforth's book is important. But Native teens matter, too. Those who identify as winkte (or that identity and its word in their own nation) do not, to my knowledge, have a single character that looks like them in the thousands and thousands of young adult books out there right now. I think we'll get there, but getting there will require writers who create Adams to be very careful in their sources. There are several reliable sources that are a good starting point. They include:

  • Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories by Beatrice Medicine, published in Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 3(1), in 2002. 
  • "Gender" by Joanne Barker, in The World of Indigenous North America, (Routledge, 2014), edited by Robert Warrior.  
  • Two-Spirit People, (University of Illinois Press, 1997), edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. 
  • Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature, (University of Arizona Press, 2011), edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti. 

If you're a writer, please read those items. If you're an editor, ask your writer to read them. And if you're an editor, read them yourself. Right now we don't have a lot of un-doing to do in terms of problematic representations of winktes. This time out? Please. Get it right.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Native American Representation in Children's Literature: Challenging the People of the Past Narrative, by Julie Stivers

Eds Note: Today, AICL is pleased to share a study done by Julie Stivers, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, School of Library and Information Science. Ms. Stivers shared the poster (below) with me earlier this week. I was reading Ed Valandra's article that day and sent it to her because her study confirms Vine Deloria Jr.'s observations about books published from 1968 to 1975 (Valandra's article is listed below in Additional Resources). Of those four years, Deloria wrote (p. 105-106):
...it seemed as if every book on modern Indians was promptly buried by a book on the "real" Indians of yesteryear. The public overwhelming[ly] turned to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Memories of Chief Red Fox to avoid the accusations made by modern Indians in The Tortured Americans and Custer Died for Your Sins. The Red Fox book alone sold more copies than the two modern books. 
Valandra continued:
In other words, the non-Indian literary world refused to consider Native peoples in a modern context, thus hindering the accurate depiction of contemporary Native issues.

Ms. Stivers studied children's books published since 2013. Her findings tell us that things haven't changed much. What gets published, matters. The writer's you read, and their viewpoints, matter. Please seek out Native writers! Think about their stories and what they choose to share. It matters. 

Thank you, Ms. Stivers, for giving AICL permission to share your excellent work on this project! 

___________________________



Native American Representation in Children's Literature: 
Challenging the "People of the Past" Narrative
by Julie Stivers

Are you a librarian...a teacher...or a parent?  Let’s think for a moment about the books we own that feature Native American main characters.  What are their settings?  In the past?  Modern day?  If the text does not make this clear—if, for example, there are anthropomorphic animals—what are they wearing?  Baseball caps and modern clothes or ‘leather and feathers’?

It was these questions that drove me to research the time settings of books featuring Native Americans for a Children’s Literature class assignment on content analysis.  Of the many problematic stereotypes in youth literature written about Native Americans, I chose to focus on examining the prevalence of the ‘people of the past’ narrative.  At face value, readers and librarians may think this is a harmless problem—which is, of course—what makes it so dangerous.  However, a predilection for featuring only Native American books that are set in the past puts forth a narrative that Native American people themselves are only of the past, allowing their present lives—and their sovereign rights—to be ignored.  This stereotype is damaging to the sense of self of contemporary Native youth.  A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children (Seale & Slapin, 2005) contains “living stories" which shed light on the negative impact stereotypes in literature are having on Native American youth.

This poster displays results from the content analysis of youth fiction books published since 2013 with Native American main characters.  75% of books written by non-Native authors were set before 1900, compared with only 20% written by Native authors.  Increasing the time period granularity makes the results even more striking.  No books by non-Native authors were set after 1950, whereas 75% of books by Native authors were, with 2/3 of books written by Native authors set in present day. 
Which books do we think are being put out by the Big Five publishers?  Overwhelmingly, those set in the past.  So, if we are relying on ‘mainstream’ review sources, ordering platforms, and book fairs, we will get a clearly biased view of Native Americans in our youth literature.  Only by seeking out offerings from independent publishers and learning from sites such as American Indians in Children’s Literature and Oyate can we successfully challenge the ‘people of the past’ narrative by collecting books about—and written by—Native Americans that reflect a wide range of experiences and settings.



Please note that this research makes no claims as to the quality or authenticity of the titles.  The presence of a book in a ‘pre-1900’ category does not preclude it from being an excellent example of literature featuring American Indians, such as How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle, praised by both Native reviewers and mainstream critics.  For this sample, however, there was a commonality for all well-reviewed books set in the past—they were all written by American Indian authors.

Additional Resources:

Seale, D. & Slapin, B. (Eds.). (2005).  A broken flute:  The Native experience in books for children.  Berkeley, CA:  Oyate.

Stewart, M.P. (2013).  “Counting Coup” on children’s literature about American Indians:  Louise Erdrich’s historical fiction.  Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 38(2), 215-235.

Valandra, E.C.  (2005).  The As-Told-To Native [Auto]biography:  Whose voice is speaking? Wicazo Sa Review, 29(2), 103-119.

Boccella Hartle, M. & Shebala, M. (2010).  When your hands are tied.  Documentary film.  http://www.whenyourhandsaretied.org/


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Children's Books that Mock Native Names Pave the Way for Adam Sandler's Satire

On Thursday (April 23, 2015), Vince Shilling, writing at Indian Country Today, broke a news story that was quickly picked up by social media sites (like Gawker) and then news media, too (like CNN, and in the UK, the Guardian).

Shilling's story is about Native actors walking off the set of Adam Sandler's new movie, The Ridiculous Six, because of the ways the script denigrates Native women and mocks Native culture via the names created for Native characters and in the dialogue: Never Wears Bra (in an earlier version of the script, her name was Sits on Face), Strawberry Tits, Stiff In Pants.

People are outraged. I am, too.

Though not as crude as the ones in the script, I've seen that same sort of thing in children's books. Here's some examples:

In Russell Hoban's Soonchild, a couple is expecting their first child. The man's name is "Sixteen Face John" because he has sixteen different faces, all with their own names. They are described in the first chapter. His first face is his (p. 3):
Hi face, the one he said hello with. Face Two was What? Face Three was Really? Face Four was Well, Well. Face Five was Go On! Face Six was You Don't Mean It. Face Seven was You Mean it? Face Eight was That'll Be The Day. Face Nine was What Day Will That Be? Face Ten was It Can't Be That Bad. Face Eleven was Can It Be That Bad? Face Twelve was I Don't Believe It. Face Thirteen was I Believe It. Face Fourteen was This Is Serious. Face Fifteen was What I'm Seeing Is What It Is. Face Sixteen was What It's Seeing Is What I Am.
He's a shaman from a long line of shamans (p. 6):
His mother was Stay With It and his father was Go Anywhere. His mother's mother was Never Give Up and her father was Try Anything. His father's mother was Do It Now and his father's father was Whatever Works. His mother's grandmother was Where Is It? and his father's grandmother was Don't Miss Anything. His mother's grandfather was Everything Matters and his father's grandfather was Go All The Way. 
And... his wife's name is No Problem. Her mother's name is Take It Easy. Her friend is Way To Go. Soonchild was published in 2012 by Candlewick Press.

In Me Oh Maya, Jon Scieszka makes fun of Mayan names. His much-loved Time Warp Trio travels to the midst of a Mayan ball court where an "evil high priest" named Kakapupahed stands over them. They try not to laugh aloud at his name, which they hear as Cacapoopoohead. Me Oh Maya was published in 2003 by Viking.

None of this is new to children's literature. Some of you may recall titles from your childhood like Indian Two Feet and Little Indian and Little Runner of the Longhouse.  

I find these attempts to come up with Native names troubling and problematic in so many ways. Equally troubling are the ways they are described. Hoban's book, for example, got starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly who noted his use of "slapstick" in tackling "the big questions" about life. Booklist, meanwhile, called it profound and offhandedly glib.

Sandler has, thus far, issued no response to Native people regarding his script and reaction to it. The film Sandler is making is slated to air on Netflix. A spokesperson for Netflix did reply (as reported by Vulture) by saying:
"The movie has ridiculous in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke."

In other words, they're telling the world that Native people are in on the joke. Rather than listen to Native voices, they defend what they're doing.

Sandler's satire is not "ridiculous" at all! 
It is derogatory and offensive. 

I contend that children's books are part of the problem. Things given to young people matter. Giving them books that poke fun of Native names pave the way for the creation and defense of what we see in Sandler's movie.

I'll be back with an update if Sandler or Netflix issue any statements, but carry this with you as you select--or weed--books in your library: Names matter. Nobody's names ought to be fodder for satire or humor, whether it is by Adam Sandler or Jon Sciezka.




Thursday, April 23, 2015

Daniel Jose Older's SHADOWSHAPER

Last year I read Daniel Jose Older's excellent essay in Buzzfeed Books. Titled "Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing," it was shared widely in my social media networks. I started following him on Twitter, and learned that he had a young adult book in the works. By then I'd already read Salsa Nocturna and loved it. His is the kind of writing that stays in your head and heart.

I've now read his young adult novel, Shadowshaper, and am writing about it here. Older is not Native, and his book is not one that would be categorized as a book about Native peoples. There are, however, significant overlaps in Indigenous peoples. There are parallels in our histories and our current day politics.

Here's the cover:



The girl on that cover is Sierra, the protagonist in Older's riveting story. She paints murals. Here's the synopsis:

Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of  making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears... Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.
With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one -- and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family's past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

That synopsis uses the word "magic." Older uses "spiritual magic" at his site. I understand the need to use that word (magic) but am also apprehensive about it being used in the context of Indigenous peoples and people of color. Our ways are labeled with words like superstitious or mystical--words that aren't generally used to describe, say, miracles done by those who are canonized as saints. It is the same thing, right? Whether Catholics or Latinas or Native peoples, beliefs deserve the same respect and reverence.

For anyone with beliefs in powers greater than themselves, there are things that happen that are just the norm. They're not mystical or otherworldly. They are just there, part of the fabric of life.

Anyway--that's what I feel as I read Shadowshaper. The shadowshaping? It blew me away. I love those parts of the book. We could call them magical, but for me, they are that fabric of life that is the norm for Sierra's family and community. When she starts to learn about it, she doesn't freak out. She tries to figure it out.

She does some research that takes her to an archive, which eventually leads her to a guy named Jonathan Wick who wants that shadowshaping power for his own ends.

That archive, that guy, that taking? It points to one of the overlaps I had in mind as I read Shadowshaper. 

Native peoples in the U.S. have been dealing with this sort of thing for a long time. Someone is curious about us and starts to pry into our ways, seeking to know things not meant for him, things that he does not understand but is so intoxicated by, that he has to have it for himself. It happened in the 1800s; it happens today.

But let's come back to Sierra. She's Puerto Rican. When she starts her research in the library at Columbia University, she meets a woman named Nydia who wants to start a people's library in Harlem that will be filled with people's stories. Pretty cool, don't you think? Nydia works there, learning all she can to start that people's library. Amongst the things she has is a folder on Wick. She tells Sierra (p. 50):
He was a big anthro dude, specifically the spiritual systems of different cultures, yeah? But people said he got too involved, didn't know how to draw a line between himself and his -- she crooked two fingers in the air and rolled her eyes -- "subjects. But if you ask me, that whole subject-anthropologist dividing line is pretty messed up anyway."
Sierra asks her to elaborate. Nydia says it would take hours to really explain it but in short (p. 51),
"Who gets to study and who gets studied, and why? Who makes the decisions, you know?"
I can't think of a work of fiction in which I read those questions--straight up--in the way that Older gives them to us. Those are the big questions in and out of universities. We ask those questions in children's and young adult literature, and Native Nations have been dealing with them for a very, very long time. I love seeing these questions in Older's book and wonder what teen readers will take away from them? What will teachers do with them? Those questions throw doors wide open. They invite readers to begin that crucial journey of looking critically at power.

Older doesn't shy away from other power dynamics elsewhere in the book. Sierra's brother, Juan, knew about shadowshaping before she did because their abuelo told him about it. When Sierra asks Juan why she wasn't told, too, he says (p. 110):
"I dunno." Juan shrugged. "You know Abuelo was all into his old-school machismo crap."
Power dynamics across generations and gender are tough to deal with, but Older puts it out there for his readers to wrangle with. I like that, and the way he handles Sierra's aunt, Rosa, who doesn't want Sierra to date Robbie because his skin is darker than hers. Sierra says (p. 151):
"I don't wanna hear what you're saying. I don't care about your stupid neighborhood gossip or your damn opinions about everyone around you and how dark they are or how kinky their hair is. You ever look in the mirror, Tia?"
"You ever look at those old family albums Mom keeps around?" Sierra went on. "We ain't white. And you shaming everyone and looking down your nose because you can't even look in the mirror isn't gonna change that. And neither is me marrying someone paler than me. And I'm glad. I love my hair. I love my skin."
I love Sierra's passion, her voice, her love of self, and I think that part of Shadowshaper is going to resonate a lot with teens who are dealing with family members who carry similar attitudes.

Now, I'll point to the Native content of Shadowshaper. 

As I noted earlier, Sierra is Puerto Rican. That island was home to Indigenous people long before Columbus went there, all those hundreds of years ago. At one point in the story, Sierra notices the tattoo on Robbie's arm. He asks her if she wants to see the rest of it. She does, so he pulls his shirt off (p. 125):
It was miraculous work. A sullen-faced man with a bald head and tattoos stood on a mountaintop that curved around Robbie's lower back toward his belly. The man was ripped, and various axes and cudgels dangled off his many belts and sashes.
"Why they always gotta draw Indians lookin' so serious? Don't they smile?"
Did you notice the tense of her last question? She asks, in the present, not the past. There's more (p. 126):
"That's a Taino, Sierra."
"What? But you're Haitian. I thought Tainos were my peeps."
"Nah, Haiti had 'em too. Has 'em. You know..."
"I didn't know."
That exchange is priceless. In the matter-of-fact conversation between Robbie and Sierra, Older guides readers from the broad (Indian) to the specific (Taino) and goes on to give even more information (that Taino's are in Haiti, too).

But there's more (p. 126)!
Across from the Taino, a Zulu warrior-looking guy stood at attention, surrounded by the lights of Brooklyn. He held a massive shield in one hand and a spear in the other. He looked positively ready to kill a man. "I see you got the angry African in there," Sierra said.
"I don't know what tribe my people came from, so it came out kinda generic."
It is good to see a character acknowledge lack of knowing! It invites readers to think about all that we do not know about our ancestry, and what we think we know, too... How we know it, what we do with what we know...

What I've focused on here are the bits that wrap around and through Older's wonderful story. Bits that are the warm, rich, dark, brilliant fabric of life. Mainstream review journals are giving Shadowshaper starred reviews for the story he gives us. My starred review is for those bits. They matter and they speak directly to people who don't often see our lives reflected in the books we read. I highly recommend Shadowshaper. Published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books, it is exceptional in a great many ways.


Willa Strayhorn's THE WAY WE BARED OUR SOULS

Willa Strayhorn's The Way We Bared Our Souls opens with a deeply problematic scene. The characters in the story are inside a "ceremonial kiva" (p. 1). Chronologically, this scene is from the last part of the story Strayhorn tells.

Told from the viewpoint of Consuelo (called Lo for short), an "Anglo, not Hispanic" (p. 11) character, she is in this "ceremonial kiva" with three others. Missing is Kaya, "the girl who felt no pain" (p. 1).

Kaya, we learn later, is "Pueblo on her mom's side and Navajo on her dad's" (p. 66). Of course, she's got high cheekbones. She's not in that opening scene, because by the end of the story she's dead.

These teens go to Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I'm from Nambe Pueblo, about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. It is where we went, as teens, to see a movie, eat out, etc. There's a lot of things in the novel that don't jib with the Santa Fe that I know, like the part where Consuelo sees the school mascot at a party (Santa Fe High's mascot is a demon, not a buffalo) and the part where Consuelo and Ellen are at the train depot and Ellen talks about wanting to hop a train to parts unknown (there's been no train service like that in Santa Fe for a very, very long time; the only train in recent times is the Railrunner, which is a commuter train that runs from Santa Fe to Albuquerque). There's other things, too, that yank me out of the story, but I want to focus on what Strayhorn does with Native culture.

They're in this kiva because of Consuelo. A week prior to that opening scene, she'd been to the doctor. Her likely diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. Understandably upset, she's gone for a drive. A coyote runs out in front of her car. She pulls over and is approached by a guy with "silky dark hair" named Jay. There's some chitchat and then (p. 28):
"What happened to your blood, dear?" he said.
And
"You're unwell, he said. You're... afflicted. Is it your blood, sweetheart?"
She tells him it is her brain (I cringed when I read "dear" and "sweetheart"). He can sense her pain and suffering and tells her that her (p. 29):
"...essential well-being is much deeper than the burden your body carries. You do not have to be tyrannized by your disease."
See that word, "burden"? Jay is going to suggest that Consuelo invite four friends to go through a healing ritual that will heal her energy and release her from her burden. The "powerful medicine" in this ritual "can eliminate your pain and disease and teach you to accept everything fate throws your way. With joy" (p. 33).

Of course, she agrees, and invites four kids from school to do it with her.

Along with Kaya is Thomas. He was a child soldier in Liberia and carries emotional trauma. Ellen is a drug addict and Kit is depressed over the accidental death of his girlfriend. Kit, by the way, is also the group expert on Native Americans, delivering mini-lectures here and there. His name (Kit) is a bit of a misstep. When I hear that name, I think of Kit Carson, the person responsible for removing the Navajo people from their homelands.

The ritual takes place at "Pecos Park" which is, in reality, Pecos National Historic Park. As a national park, it is protected from the very sorts of intrusion that happens in this story. People have been exploiting these sites for a long time, removing artifacts, defacing structures, and engaging in pseudo-rituals... just like the one Jay is doing in this book.

The kids don't know what this ritual involves. Some of the kids express skepticism about it and about Jay, too, but all partake, nonetheless. In it, Jay tells them his sacred name for the ceremony is "Walks with Coyotes" (p. 105). He chants, spits "sacred oil" on them, asks each one to talk about his or her burden, and then gives each one a totem that represents their struggle (p. 106). He does more chanting, and then throws some powder into the fire. The powder puts the fire out, leaving the kiva in complete darkness. Thomas gets the fire going again. Jay and Dakota are gone.

The kids go home. The next day, they realize that their respective burdens are gone, replaced by that of one of the others in the group. Consuelo now has Kaya's burden. She feels no pain.

Kaya has Thomas's emotional trauma, but she has the additional trauma of reliving the atrocities Native people experienced historically. She's in those moments several times. Those parts of Strayhorn's novel are gruesome, and the scene where Kaya dies is gratuitous.

Earlier this month, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held its annual conference. At his session,* Varian Johnson posed a question to the audience: "Are you writing to exploit or enrich?"

"Are you writing to exploit or enrich?"

The events child soldiers in Liberia, and Native peoples in the U.S. experienced were horrific. Strayhorn may have felt she was bringing important history to life by writing this story, but it doesn't work for me. She is exploiting atrocity experienced by the child soldiers of Liberia, and, Native peoples, too. Who benefits from this? What lives are enriched by this?

Not Native kids, that's for sure, and I doubt that former child soldiers would feel empowered by reading The Way We Bared Our Souls. In fact, this feels very much like another author who didn't imagine not-White readers of her book. Did she know that Native readers are out here? Does she know that killing off the Native character is just a very bad move?

In an interview at RT Book Reviews, she was asked about the Native parts of the story:
The book also includes elements of Native American culture. Do you have personal ties to the culture or did you have to research the customs and practices?
Because I don't have personal, firsthand knowledge of any indigenous tribes, I felt a little wary about putting so much Native American history in the book. I didn't want to give the impression that I was trying to appropriate what wasn't mine. But that part of the country (the Southwest) is packed with fascinating history and ultimately I couldn't ignore it. I just hope that my deep respect for these New Mexico tribes shines through more than my ignorance. I did a lot of research for the book, and have actually been reading about America's indigenous peoples since I was a teenager and discovered my dad's beautiful books about them. I also had an extraordinary teacher in high school who'd studied Native American history and was sure that his students didn't neglect it even as he pumped us full of info about the founding fathers for the AP exam. But books and museums can't compare to firsthand knowledge, which I woefully lack.  
With that last sentence, she seems to gesture at an understanding that she's erred in her use of Native culture for this story. In reviews of her book, many view the burden-sharing as unique, but see problems in its execution. 

I'm certain Strayhorn felt she was enriching, not exploiting, as she wrote this book, but that interview suggests that she may have had niggling doubts that she didn't listen to. Some of this doubt can actually be seen in some of the things that Kit says. He wonders, for example, if Jay is a wannabe or a charlatan--both of which are exploitative. 

In the acknowledgements, Strayhorn thanks her editor, Liz Tingue at Razorbill. Razorbill, by the way, is part of Penguin, which means we have yet another book by a major publisher that does a poor job with Native content. 

Coming back to Johnson's question about exploitation, what is an editor's role? Do editors ponder the exploit/enrich question Johnson posed? When Tingue took Strayhorn's manuscript to the marketing department at Razorbill/Penguin, what was that conversation like? Honestly, I find myself cringing again as I imagine what was said. 

Willa Strayhorn's The Way We Bared Our Souls, published in 2015 by Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin Random House), is not recommended. 

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*Thanks to Mindy Rhiger for her excellent report, Diversity at AWP15.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

THANKSGIVING THIEF (Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew #16)

There are many ways I could critique Thanksgiving Thief. We could start with the cover:



Nothing wrong, we might say, but chapter one is called "Cool Costumes" and introduces the three kids on the cover to a "Native American girl" named Mary who is new to the school and providing them headbands (the "cool costumes") they'll wear in the school pageant. Mary's not on the cover. Maybe she shouldn't be, though, because she's not part of the series.

Here's how Mary is introduced to readers (p. 2):
Bess twirled around in front of Nancy's mirror and looked at the beaded leather dress she was wearing. "I love being a Native American princess," she said. "This is so cool."
Mary White Cloud looked at Bess. "You look great!" she said.
Mary was a new girl in their class at school. She was Native American. The girls' teacher, Mrs. Ramirez, had asked Mary to cast three more girls in the class to play Native American princesses in the pageant part of the River Heights Thanksgiving Celebration.
So far, we don't know what tribal nation Mary is from. I'm curious about that "beaded leather dress." Such items are not playthings to the Native families who have them. They hold great significance. A lot goes into the making of them. A lot of people are involved.

And this princess theme... not good!

Nancy, Bess, and George--the girls on the cover--and Mary, are all at Nancy's house (p. 3-4):
"Now for the headbands," said Mary. She opened a box on Nancy's bed and took out four beaded strips of leather. "These were worn by real Native American princesses in a tribal ceremony in Oklahoma last year," she told the other girls. "My uncle in Lawton sent them to me."
Aha! Some geographical information! Lawton, Oklahoma. There's a lot of Native nations in Oklahoma. Lawton is the location of the Comanche Nation's tribal offices. That doesn't mean the uncle in Lawton is Comanche, though. That he'd send these beaded strips of leather--used in a ceremony--to Mary? Not likely. Especially if they're to be used for "costumes" at a Thanksgiving pageant.

Nancy, Bess, and George put the headbands on, but Nancy asks (p. 5):
"Where are the feathers? Don't we have to have feathers?"
Mary nodded. "That's the most important part, but it's also the most difficult."
"What's so hard about finding feathers?" said George. "My pillow is full of them."
"It can't be that kind of feather," Mary said. "It has to be a special feather."
"What makes a feather special?" asked Nancy.
"It has to come from a living bird," Mary explained.
"You mean we're going to have to pull a feather from a real, live bird?" Bess exclaimed? How are we going to do that? I don't think we should go around chasing birds, trying to steal their feathers."
"That wouldn't work, either," said Mary, "even if you could catch one. No, it has to be one that the bird left behind, just so it can be used in a ceremony."

Oh-oh. I'm not liking this at all!

"Birds do that?" Nancy said.
"That's what one of our legends says," Mary told them. "A bird will drop a feather somewhere, making a connection with the earth and then we'll pick it up and put it in our headbands and use it when we're celebrating something important."
Ummmm, I don't think so. Sounds "Indian" though, doesn't it? It isn't.

While they're talking, a mystery develops. The girls take off their "costumes" and leave to investigate. The next day, they all meet up again at the gymnasium. Mary's mom is making fry bread, and when she's finished, she's going to help them with their parts in the pageant. While they're waiting, Bess shows Mary a feather she found (p. 23):
"That's wonderful! You're the first person to pick up a feather, Bess," Mary said. That's special in our culture."
Again... sounds like an "Indian" bit of lore, right?!

Things are going wrong--things that threaten the pageant and celebration. There's talk of it being cancelled. Meanwhile, more feathers are turning up at sites where food for the celebration is being stored or prepared. The crew thinks there's a thief at work who is leaving these feathers as his calling card. If that's the case, Mary tells them (p. 48):
"...that means they're negative, not positive, and you always need to use positive feathers in a pageant when you're dealing with Native American culture."
Again... sounds like "Indian" lore, right?! Nancy asks Mary if she knows the specific kind of feathers they are finding.
Mary shook her head. "No, I don't. We don't always know what kind of a bird drops its feathers, but in our culture, it doesn't really matter, as long as the bird does it willingly."
Goodness! That bogus legend gets even weirder! This suggests that any feather will do, but that is not the case. For many tribal nations, eagle feathers are the ones we use, and the acquisition of them is carefully regulated. The author of this Nancy Drew story obviously doesn't know about any of this. If you're interested, spend some time on the Eagle Repository website.

By the end of the story, we learn that those feathers the crew has been finding are turkey feathers, and that it is hungry turkeys that have been stealing food. Mystery resolved and an action plan in place to take care of the turkeys, the crew and Mary get ready for the pageant.
"Let me look at you," said Mary. She adjusted their headbands. "Perfect. You really do look like Native American princesses."
"Do you have our turkey feathers?" Bess asked.
Mary nodded. "Your three and one Mr. Fulton gave me!" she said.
"Super!" Nancy said.
"I am not going to perform the feather ritual," Mary said. "I will put one feather at the back of each headband." 
Thankfully, there is no description of this ritual. Here they are, on stage (p. 80).



They were welcomed by the Pilgrims? Hmmm... And see the two girls with hands raised as if saying "how" to those Pilgrims?

Published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster, and again in 2012 as an e-book, Thanksgiving Thief is not recommended. It is just another troubling Thanksgiving story, but in some ways, worse than the standard fare because of that legend Mary tells. There's already so much misinformation out there about who Native people are... why add to it?

Before ending this review, I want to say a few things about the Indian Princess. When non-Native girls think of being an Indian Princess, they are engaging in play. It may be rooted in the Y-Indian Princess program, or it may be connected to the erroneous idea that Pocahontas was a princess. The part of Thanksgiving Thief in which Mary's uncle sends headdresses worn by Indian princesses? A lot of pow wows in Oklahoma include a competition in which Native women seek to be named as their tribal princess, or, princess of the pow wow itself.  In Tribal Fantasies: Native Americans in the European Imaginary, 1900-2010, Renae Watchman writes:
Native people have refashioned the "Indian Princess," which has evolved into a powerful title for some Indigenous communities. Young women are obligated by their titles to act as ambassadors, gaining entry into the political realm of tribal sovereignty. Native Royalty are empowered as public speakers, representing their communities, their organizations, and their Nations. Pageants have erupted in the twenty-first century, as ambassadors are sought to represent a plethora of organizations such as college and university Princesses (for instance, Miss Native American University of Arizona and Miss Indian Nations from United Tribes Technical College), national, regional, state, and provincial royalty (Miss Indian Alabama, Miss Indian Canada, Miss Indian USA, Miss Indian World, to name only a handful of titles), countless Nation-Specific Rodeo Queens, as well as an infinite number of Princesses elected to represent their distinct Native Nations. 
Watchman has a lot more information about it than I've quoted above. Do read it. She quotes Jennifer Denetdale about the competition for Miss Navajo Nation. It isn't about Western notions of beauty. It is about culture. What you see in Thanksgiving Thief is stereotypical, detribalized playing Indian, and that is not ok.