Friday, October 23, 2015

A Native Perspective of Laura Amy Schlitz's THE HIRED GIRL

Eds. note on Oct 25, 2015: Scroll down to see links to discussions of The Hired Girl that are taking place at School Library Journal, Book Riot, Reading While White, and on independent blogs.

Eds. note on Jan 12, 2016: I appended Sarah Hamburg's research on the history of Baltimore during the time period of The Hired Girl.  

On October 2, 2015, I posted a short note about one passage in Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl. Schlitz's book is one of the books the Heavy Medal blog is discussing. That blog, for those who don't know, is at the School Library Journal website, and is where Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt host discussions of books that may be in contention for the prestigious Newbery Medal. Books that win that award are purchased by school and public libraries across the country. Because books that win the Newbery carry such prestige, teachers assign them to students.

When he introduced the book on October 15, Jonathan Hunt linked to American Indians in Children's Literature and summarized my comments about The Hired Girl. 

I appreciate that Jonathan Hunt brought my concerns to readers of Heavy Medal, but he also dismissed them as minor and said that The Hired Girl is among his top three books for this year. I've been active in the discussion and have read and re-read the book as I participate. The discussion has has spread over three distinct pages at School Library Journal, and over at Book Riot, too. The Jewish aspects of the book figure prominently in those discussions.

With this blog post, I'm bringing my thoughts into a single place for anyone interested in focusing on a Native perspective on The Hired Girl. Just below this paragraph is my "For the TL/DR crowd" which means 'too long/didn't read, but here's the key points.' Beneath it is my in-depth look at the book.


The Hired Girl
from a Native Perspective
For the TL/DR crowd

Mascots and Halloween costumes are evidence that 
 adults, much less children, do not have the 
background information needed to see Joan's 
thinking is wrongheadded when she talks about 
"civilized" Indians or when she invites Oskar to play Indian.

Discussing pejorative terms used in the Author's Note, 
but not including "natives" in that discussion 
suggests Schlitz herself may not understand that her 
depictions of Native people in the book is, itself, wrongheadded.

Praising The Hired Girl and ignoring concerns over
Native content is another, in a too-long line of, instances in 
which gatekeepers throw Native people under the bus. 


The Hired Girl
from a Native Perspective
An In-Depth Look

Set in 1911, The Hired Girl is about Joan, a 14 year old Catholic girl who runs away from her father's farm in eastern Pennsylvania. Her mother died a few years prior and Joan's life with her dad and older brothers is, to say the least, devoid of joy. The only source of joy is the teacher who gives her books. Near the end of the first part of the book, the teacher visits Joan. She gives her a bouquet of flowers wrapped in newspaper. Joan takes them in the house and returns outside. The teacher tries to give her some more books but Joan's dad comes upon them and sends the teacher and the books packing.

Back inside the house, Joan reads the newspaper that the flowers were wrapped in.

She reads an article about the Amalgamated Railroad Employees (railroad workers) being on strike and thinks maybe she ought to go on strike, too, so that her dad will give her some money for the work she does. In that same paper, she reads ads looking for "white girl to cook" and "first-class white girl for cooking and housework" and wishes she could be a hired girl. Her efforts to strike fail, her dad burns her books, and she runs away to Baltimore with the idea that she'll find work as a hired girl.

When she gets to Baltimore, the day ends with a near-rape. Joan escapes that, and ends up crying and praying on a park bench. In the midst of her prayer, a man offers to help her. That man is Solomon Rosenbach. His demeanor makes him more trustworthy than the man who tried to rape her. She tells him her story and that she's looking for work. The near-rape makes her wary, but Soloman has a plan that she's ok with, so she follows him to his home. He goes inside and tells his mother about her; Joan waits outside. Mrs. Rosenbach appears, asks her a few questions, and decides Joan--who is now going by Janet--can stay with them a few days if Malka, their Jewish housekeeper, doesn't mind. Feeling safe in their home, Joan decides she'd like to work for the Rosenbach's. She tells Mrs. Rosenbach that "you'll find me very willing" to help out. Here's that part of the story (Kindle Locations 1203-1219):
“Willing to work in a Jewish household?” she said, and when I didn’t answer right away, she added, “You, I think, are not Jewish.” 
“No, ma’am,” I said. I was as taken aback as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me — I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then — as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there still are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any. 
Joan is taken aback at the idea that she might be thought of as Jewish, or, Indian because she thought the Jews are like Indians: people from long ago. Joan knows there are Indians now (remember, the story takes place in 1911) and that they are "civilized" and "wear ordinary clothes."

What does Joan think civilized means? Does it mean wearing ordinary clothes like the ones she wears? Does she think wearing those clothes make those Indians civilized?

In the paragraphs immediately following that passage, we learn from Joan that the information she has about Jews is from Ivanhoe, but we aren't told where Joan got her information about Indians.

Let's see, though, what we might find out if we dig into books for children published during Joan's childhood, which would be 1897 (the year she was born) to the year she ran away, 1911. Maybe she read Wigwam Stories Told by North American Indians, by Mary Catherine Judd, published in 1901 by Ginn & Company in Boston. Wigwam Stories is recommended in a lot of publications of that time. It was recommended, for example, in 1902 in the Journal of Education published by Oxford University Press, in 1906 in Public Libraries: A Monthly Review of Library Matters and Methods, published by the Library Bureau, in 1910 in The Model School Library, published by the California Teachers Association, in 1915 in Books for Boys and Girls: A Selected List, published by the American Library Association, and in 1922 in Graded List of Books for Children, published by the National Education Association.

The preface for Wigwam Stories ends with this note from the author:

See that last sentence in the preface? It says "Careful investigations undertaken by the largest of nonreservation schools, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, prove that 94 per cent of the 4000 students recorded there have never "returned to the blanket," but have become modern home makers."

Maybe Wigwam Stories is the source of Joan's information. Maybe she read it and asked her teacher for more information, and her teacher told her about Carlisle Indian Industrial School. That teacher is sympathetic to the conditions miners work in, so maybe she's also aware of the goings-on at Carlisle. Maybe she's even seen the before and after photographs taken of students--photographs meant to persuade people that the school was changing the children so that they would not, as the note says, "return to the blanket." Here's one of those photos:

Is that what Joan has in mind? Jonathan (at Heavy Medal) is arguing that when Joan thinks "they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes," she is telling us that other people think in stereotypical ways, but she does not. He would have us think that she's more knowledgeable than other people of that time, but later, she invites Oskar to play Indian. At that part of the book, Joan and Malka are taking care of Mrs. Rosenbach's grandchildren. One is a little boy named Oskar. Malka wants him to nap, but he doesn't want to (Kindle Locations 3888-3900):
Malka looked at me with desperation in her eyes, and I rose to the occasion. I remembered how Luke and I used to play on the days when Ma aired her quilts. “I’ll take Oskar up to my room. We’ll make a blanket tent and play Indians. He’ll like that, won’t you, Oskar?” 
Oskar looked intrigued, so I led him upstairs. I rigged a tent by draping the bedclothes over the foot of my bed and the top of the dresser. We crawled inside the tent, and I told Oskar there was a blizzard outside (we made blizzard noises) with wild wolves howling (we howled). Then I was inspired to say that we were starving to death inside our tent, and that we would die if no Indian was brave enough to go out and hunt buffalo. Oskar took the bait. “I’ll go,” he said, and squared his shoulders. “I’ll go kill the buffalo.” 
“I’ll make you a horse,” I offered. To tell the truth, I was starting to enjoy myself. I tore strips from my old sage-green dress to make a bridle, and I tied them to the back of a chair. Oskar rode up and down the prairie, rocking the chair back and forth and flapping the reins. 
Then he demanded a buffalo. I produced my cardboard suitcase, which he beat to death with his bare hands. He dragged the slain buffalo back to the tent, and we pretended to gnaw on buffalo meat. “You’re good at playing,” Oskar said earnestly. 
I felt terribly pleased. But of course, one buffalo was not enough; he had to hunt another one. Then we killed a few wolves. After the last wolf was dead, he collapsed in the tent beside me.
With that passage, we get more insight into what Joan knows about Indians. If Jonathan is correct, doesn't it seem that she would not teach that stereotypical play to Oskar? Jonathan and others who are defending this book insist that Joan's mistaken ideas are corrected along the way. Where is the correction to playing Indian? I don't see it. 

Near the end of the book, Joan and David (another of Mrs. Rosenbach's sons) kiss and she falls in love with him. He is not in love with her.  She thinks about him all the time and at this part, wonders how people can stand to be apart (Kindle Locations 4099-4101):  
I think about the conquistadors and how they left off kissing their wives and went sailing across the ocean to conquer a lot of innocent natives who would probably have preferred to stay in their hammocks and kiss their wives.
There's a lot to say about that sentence, but I want to focus on "natives." Look it up in your favorite dictionary. You'll see it is considered dated and offensive. The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary gives an example "Raleigh wanted the cooperation of the natives and treated the Indians with respect." Now--I believe that Joan would use that word. The problem is that it is not addressed in the story, and it is not addressed in the Author's Note either. In it, Laura Amy Schlitz's wrote: (Kindle Locations 4992-4999):
In The Hired Girl, I have tried to be historically accurate about language. This has led me to use terms that are considered pejorative today, such as Hebrew, Mahomet, and Mahometans. 
I used Mahomet and Mahometan for two reasons. The word Muslim, which is now preferred, was not in use until much later in the twentieth century. And, as a reader of Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, and The Picturesque World, Joan would have encountered the words Mahomet and Mahometan. These are the words that were used at that time. 
Similarly, many Jewish people today find the term Hebrew offensive, but the fact that many Jewish organizations in Baltimore used it (the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, the Hebrew Literary Society, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, etc.) suggests that at the turn of the century, the word Hebrew was used with pride.
Why didn't she address her use of "natives" in the note? 

Those who praise The Hired Girl are saying that it is clear to readers that Joan is naive and has mistaken ideas about a lot of things. They think we should trust the child reader to know that Joan is naive. 

People who say that we should trust the child reader must not interact much, if at all, with Native people. Do they not know that Native people across the country are sharing blog posts, videos, and posters, asking that people not dress up like Indians for Halloween? Do they not know that Native people are showing up, week after week, to protest the use of Native imagery for mascots, from elementary schools to professional athletic teams? Do they not know that Native parents are at schools again and again to ask teachers not to use books that dehumanize us, or to ask that schools not do things like the Land Run and Thanksgiving Dinners? 

Who is planning all those insensitive activities? Adults. Adults who ought to be able to read such activities critically. They can't. Or won't. Either way, the outcome is the same. And those who praise The Hired Girl think children are capable of reading critically when, all around us, there is evidence that adults can not, or will not read critically about things that are, on their face, problematic? 

Predictably, another defense of The Hired Girl is that the main character is Roman Catholic. "Not enough books about Roman Catholics!" they say. "We cannot let those problematic Indian parts knock this book out of contention for the Newbery!" Come January, we'll know what the Newbery Committee decides. Will The Hired Girl be yet another book in a long list of books that does something so well that the committee decides it has to overlook the problematic Native content? I hope not. 


Blogs discussing The Hired Girl are listed here. I encourage you to read through them, too. In particular, study contributions by Sarah Hamburg. Most Jewish people who are discussing the book are fine with depictions of Jews. Sarah presents a different view that aligns in interesting ways with my view of specific parts of Schlitz's story. I find the parts of the story, for example, where Joan thinks God wants her to convert the Rosenbach's to be troubling because Catholics sought to do that with Native peoples, too. A few weeks ago, the Pope was in the U.S. to canonize a priest who established and oversaw brutal missions and mission work in California. (If you see other blog posts, let me know and I'll add them.)


Update, January 12, 2016
Last week, I added Sarah Hamburg's tweets to a comment I made in the comments section of this post. Today, I'm bringing them up into the body of the post, because Sarah's historical research on Baltimore at that time is significant and I want her research to have more visibility. (Note: all the tweets are hers, but I included her name on the first one.)

Sarah Hamburg ‏@sarahrhamburg 8 Nov 2015
The Hired Girl is set in that year, and follows Joan, a Catholic girl who escapes her farm & is hired by a wealthy Baltimore Jewish family.

In the book, there are no references at all to Black Americans, aside from a newspaper article & people working as porters on the train.

And though the book focuses on religious difference, the only overt act of antisemitism = when a Jewish man is passed over for a commission.

Prejudice in the book is primarily that of individual beliefs & sentiments, which change-- and reconcile-- as people get to know each other.

But researching Baltimore in that year, this is what I found: (this book has an entire chapter devoted to 1910.)

In 1910, Baltimore passed a sweeping Jim Crow housing law.

The law came as a response to George Mechen, an African-American lawyer, moving into a white neighborhood in Baltimore in the summer of 1910.

His residence, at 1834 McCulloh St., would have been half a mile from the house where Joan lives and works in the Hired Girl.

Eutaw Place, where her employers the Rosenbachs live, would have been one of a few neighborhoods in the city where Jews could buy housing.

At a meeting in July, 1910, White residents signed a petition, and expressed fear that Black people would move to Eutaw Place as well.

Milton Dashiell then drafted a bill that would prevent Black people from moving into majority White neighborhoods, and vice versa.

Dashiell cited fear of a "Negro invasion" of Eutaw Place.

In December of 1910, City Solicitor Edgar Allan Poe wrote in favor of the segregation ordinance:

Mayor J. Barry Mahool, a prominent Progressive interested in women's suffrage and social justice, signed that first law a few days later.

This article and book describe what came next.

None of this is in The Hired Girl. Which is set in Eutaw Place, Baltimore in 1911.

I have been thinking a lot, especially this week, about how children's books present history. What is included, and how. And what's left out.

About stories of historical bigotry that focus on personal attitudes-- and their reconciliation through personal relationships.

What does this literature tell children about the past, and in consequence, about our present?

Diversity in children's literature isn't only about numbers. It is about who controls the story of our past and future.

Just wanted to add a link to this article here (with thanks to @debreese for sharing it):

HUNGRY JOHNNY is Amongst the 2015 Winners at Wordcraft Circle

Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers was founded in 1992. Yesterday, they announced the 2015 Wordcraft Circle Honors and Awards.

Among them are ones I've written about here on American Indians in Children's Literature, and ones for which reviews are still in process. Do look at the complete list for items to add to the adult shelves of your library.

I hope that librarians across the U.S. get copies of the award winning books. These books celebrate Native life and lifeways, showing the realities of who we are, but infusing those realities with love and the perseverance that characterizes us as a people.

Congratulations to the winners and their loved ones!

There are two winners in the picture book category. I'm not part of the deliberations but can imagine them reading the two books and thinking both were so strong that they couldn't select just one!

Hungry Johnny, written by Cheryl Minnema, illustrated by Wesley Ballinger, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Sweetest Kulu, written by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis, published by Inhabit Media.

In the middle grades category is Tim Tingle's No Name, published by 7th Generation.

In the Graphic Novel category is Richard Van Camp's Three Feathers, illustrated by Krystal Mateus.

In the Trade Paperback category: Volume 2 of Arigon Starr's Super Indian, published by Wacky Productions Unlimited.

In the Comic Book category: We Speak in Secret by Roy Boney Jr., published by INC Comics.

In the Editor's Category: Lisa Charleyboy, for Dreaming in Indian, published by Annick Press.

The Pathfinder Award is a new category, given to the writer who is "pushing the boundaries of Indigenous literature." Erika Wurth received that award for Crazy Horse's Girlfriend, published by

Repeating what I said earlier... Librarians and teachers! Get these books. Native kids you work with will find their lives affirmed. Non-Native kids you work with will have that much talked about window into Native life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

An Open Letter to People Who Are Not "Fans" of "Call Out Culture" on Social Media

Dear People Who Are Not "Fans of "Call Out Culture" on Social Media,

Today (October 13, 2015), The Guardian ran an article on Meg Rosoff's "row" over her remarks on Edith Campbell's Facebook page. There, Rosoff wrote that there are thousands of books out there where kids can see themselves. In The Guardian, writer James Dawson said that he disagrees with Rosoff's remark that there are thousands of books, saying there are "numerous" books and that they're hard to find. Then, he said this:  

Just in case you didn't realize it, Mr. Dawson and others who aren't fans of "call out culture," you're asking me to shut up with my critiques of the ways that Native peoples are depicted in children's and young adult books. 

Some of you are like Dawson, and think that buying books by diverse writers is enough. You think the mirrors in those books are enough.

But you forget, don't acknowledge, or maybe you don't even know, that the mirrors that Native kids get in classic, popular, and award-winning books aren't those nice shiny things you have in mind.

Far and away, what Native kids get are fun house mirrors like the ones we see at carnivals, fairs, and theme parks. The ones that take your image and distort it. That make it look funny. Or uber cool. Or scary. Or stupid.


We have to call out these distortions, and you should, too. Lift books that give kids accurate representations of Native people, but call out the ones that are not ok, too, so that your buds will know those books are not ok. So they won't be put onto those school reading lists.

I'm talking about Ghost Hawk. And Island of the Blue Dolphins. And Little House on the Prairie. And Brother Eagle Sister Sky. And The Education of Little Tree. And Walk On Earth A Stranger. And... I could go on and on and on.

Your silence affirms their existence. Your silence harms what Native kids get, and what non-Native ones "learn" from those distorted images.

Join me. Call out the bad. You're not being a "fan" of call out culture. You're being a person who cares about what kids get in books.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

Sunday, October 11, 2015

About Meg Rosoff's next book...

Eds. note: Edith Campbell's Facebook page where Meg Rosoff went off on diversity is now set to public view. At the bottom of this post, I am adding links to responses to Rosoff.

Last night, friend and colleague Edith Campbell's page on Facebook had a visit from writer, Meg Rosoff, who objected in shameful ways to calls for diversity. Rosoff said kids who are looking for representations of themselves should "read a newspaper" and that people calling for diversity should "write a pamphlet" about it. She said that books don't have agendas. She said a lot of things.

Edi wrote it up at her site. Go read it. It sparked a great deal of conversation on Twitter.

Are you wondering what Rosoff's response to all of this is? Here you go:

God, Rosoff, you are something else. Last year, I started to read her Picture Me Gone. It was on the short list for the National Book Award. I got to this part and quit reading:

"Indian squaw"? At that point in Picture Me Gone her characters are in a cafe. Items on the wall are what look very old. She didn't need that line about that painting in her book. Removing it wouldn't change the book at all. Having it there, however, is a microaggression. She's using a slur.

I wonder what words she uses to describe that "native American woman" in her next book? I have lots of questions about that plot. Why is the black kid in love with that woman? What is her nation? What is her name?

She hasn't written characters like this before. My guess is she's trying to cash in on the call for diversity. But, as her remarks on Edi's page show, she is no ally to the call for diversity.

I'm hitting the upload button on this post. I may be back with updates...

Update, Oct 11, 2015, 4:27 PM
Back to add links to blog posts in response to Rosoff.

October 12, 2015, 10:22 AM
More posts:

October 14, 2015, 3:35 PM
More posts:

October 15, 2015, 2:25 PM
More posts:

October 16, 2015, 8:45 AM

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Not recommended: Rae Carson's WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER

First, some basics.

Rae Carson's Walk On Earth A Stranger begins in 1849 in Dahlonega, Georgia. The protagonist, 15-year-old Leah Westfall and her parents are living on a plot of land her father got through a land lottery. Leah's dad, Rueben Westfall, his brother, Hiram, and the woman who would become Leah's mom are originally from Boston. The three were friends there and moved to Georgia for its gold rush in 1829.

Let's step out of the book to ask a question: what do you (reader) know about that lottery?

As a Native woman and professor who taught American Indian Studies courses at the University of Illinois, I know a lot about Native history. I know about that lottery. For decades before Georgia held that land lottery in 1832, the Cherokee Nation fought with the State of Georgia and its citizens who had been encroaching on Cherokee land.

The Cherokee Nation went before the Supreme Court where it was decided, in 1832 (yes, same year as that lottery) that the Cherokee Nation was a sovereign nation and that Georgia and its citizens had no standing or claim on that land. President Jackson, however, defied the Supreme Court and ordered the removal of the Cherokee people. At the Cherokee Nation's website, you can read some of the history. Forced removal started in 1838.

Leah would have been a little girl when that forced removal started. As a little girl, she was likely unaware of Removal and unaware of what that lottery meant to Cherokee people. For her, it is her daddy's land. Someone else in Walk On Earth A Stranger, however, knows about removal, first hand.

Leah's potential love interest is a guy named Jefferson McCauley. His father is an Irish prospector who drinks and beats Jefferson. His mother? She's Cherokee, but in 1839 (removal, remember), she fled Dahlonega with her brothers and left Jefferson behind. He remembers her and a Cherokee story she told him, too, that is significant to how Jefferson thinks about himself.

The story Jefferson tells is about eight boys who are brothers. Angry at their mother, they run away from her, and leap into the sky. She grabs one, bringing him back to earth. The seven brothers who got away become the Ani'tsutsa (Pleiades). Jefferson imagines he is the brother who was pulled down, that he stayed, and that he has something like brothers out there somewhere, and that he'll find them someday. When he leaves Dahlonga (Leah and Jefferson will soon be headed to California for the gold rush), he feels that he's done wrong, because he is supposed to stay.

The story Jefferson tells, however, isn't like the one the Cherokees actually tell.  The way they tell it, the boys that run away are not brothers, and the one that is pulled to earth strikes the earth so hard that it swallows him. He's gone, too. His mother sheds tears on that site and eventually, a tree sprouts. It becomes the pine tree. Quite different from the story Jefferson tells, isn't it! Regular readers of AICL know that I object to writers using/twisting Native stories to fit the story they want to tell.

In the Author's Note, Carson lists sources for the emigrant stories she used to create Walk On Earth A Stranger. She obviously found the Ani'tsutsa story somewhere, but doesn't tell us where.  She doesn't list any sources specific to the Cherokee Nation, at all, which makes me wonder how she created Jefferson and his voice. Could we say that she didn't need any Cherokee sources because Jefferson is sufficiently assimilated and is no longer Cherokee? Maybe, and yet, he remembers that story and thinks fondly of his mother. As the wagon train crosses the midwest, he never thinks of or expresses an interest in going to find his mother and his uncles. Maybe he's mad at them for leaving him behind.

Or maybe he is, as I suggested above, assimilated. That would explain why he is headed west to be a prospector, just like all the other people who did that. Certainly, it is plausible that a Native person would want to do that, but I find it unsettling to create a Native character--who lost his mother because of gold--wanting to head West to be a gold prospector on lands that belonged to other Native peoples.

That said, Jefferson looks Native, with black hair and sharp cheekbones. Along the trip west, he is conscious of his Native identity and concerned that people will figure out who he is. People know he's not White but don't know just what he is. Sometimes he is angry when racist men talk about Indians stealing from the wagon trains and kidnapping children, but he keeps that anger to himself. At another point, however, he speaks in a matter of fact way, saying that people are afraid of Indians. Leah is aware of all these incidents and his emotions. She commiserates with him--but sometimes she wonders about Indians, too, and hides those feelings from Jefferson.

Because Jefferson is seeking gold, and because his way of speaking/thinking about Indians is inconsistent, we might say he is conflicted about his identity.

Or... maybe something else is going on. Maybe he is just a device in the story. What he endures makes it possible for readers to view Leah as a Good White Person, worried for him and his well-being. She does this for other characters, too. "Free Jim" is one. The runaway slave, Hampton, is another. And the bachelors who are headed to San Francisco where they can live as they choose... Native people, Blacks, Gays... I think all are devices by which readers see this girl who gets across the country dressed as a boy, as a Good White Person.


Thus far, the problems I've described are familiar ones that occur in depictions of Native people, culture, and history. By that I mean stereotypical and biased storylines that omit key points in history.

Carson does something that--for me--is reprehensible. Yes, that is a strong word, but let me explain.

People hold two kinds of images of Indians in their head. The noble one (that's Jefferson) and the savage one (that's the ones who steal and kidnap kids). Both are problematic because they shape what people know about us. When writers in children's and young adult literature do it, they're shaping what kids know. They are teaching something to readers. Through their words, writers are, in effect, touching the future (wise words from Christa McAuliffe). They are creating images for their readers. What kind of images of Indians--beyond Jefferson--does Carson give her readers? What did I find reprehensible?

Carson's Grave Robbing Indians

The image that Carson adds to what people carry around in their heads is one of Indians as grave robbers. This starts in chapter twenty. By then, Leah/Lee and Jefferson are working for Mr. Joyner. On his wagon are his household goods and his family. Carson has been presenting him as a racist white man.

We see his racism again when the wagon train comes upon a grave. Men from the wagon train investigate. When Joyner returns to his family's wagon, he tells them that Indians did it. Jefferson, "tight and coiled like a thunderstorm about to let loose," asks "Indians killed him?" (p. 234). Joyner says it wasn't a him, but a her. Lee wants to say there's no way to know what she was buried in but thinks it won't do any good. Joyner says (p. 235):
"Truly, these savages have no fear of God nor love of the white man." 
Jefferson rides away at that point. Further down the page, Lee thinks (p. 235):
I don't know what to think about the Indians. Seems to me we don't really know anything about them. We don't even know what we don't know.
There is, for me, an irony to those words. They're meant to ask readers to pause and question what they know about Indians. But to get there, Carson introduces a new image: Indians who rob graves of Whites.

Did that happen?

One of Carson's sources is Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, edited by Lilian Schlissel.

In it is the diary of Catherine Haun. She writes of a woman named Martha. On the night of the 4th of July, Haun's wagon train is having a celebration. In the midst of it, Martha and a young child stumble into camp, incoherent and disheveled. The next day, Martha tells them what happened: her husband and sister got cholera. Because of that, the rest of their wagon train left them behind, in their own wagon. Martha's husband and sister died. Martha and her brother were burying her sister when Indians attacked. Martha fled with her little girl. Two days later, Haun's wagon train comes upon Martha's abandoned wagon. They find that her sister's grave is still open and Martha's husband is where they left him, dead, in the wagon. Their clothing is missing and there is no sign of Martha's brother or Martha's little boy. Later on the page, Haun writes that Indians spread smallpox among themselves by digging up bodies for their clothing, and later in Haun's diary, we learn that Martha was reunited with her son. Indians had taken him and traded him for a horse.

Hence, in Haun's account, Carson has a source for the grave-robbing Indians she depicts in Walk on Earth a Stranger. But take a look at this page from Schlissel's book. The column on the left is from Cecilia McMillen Adams's diary. On the right is an excerpt from Maria Parson's Belshaw's diary.

On the next page (not shown) is the account of Caroline Richardson. On June 1 she wrote "Graves now are often partly dug up." She doesn't say Indians did it. Might she have thought that? We don't know. Angeline Ashley noted 47 graves. Esther Hanna noted 102. Neither Angeline or Esther notes graves that have been dug up. Overwhelmingly, I think Carson's source notes a large number of graves, but ones dug up by Indians? No.

Enter, again, my own identity as a Native woman and scholar. Do you know about NAGPRA? That is a law passed in the United States Congress. It is all about graves being robbed. Native graves, that is. For literally hundreds of years, people have been digging up Native graves. Human remains and artifacts, dug up and sold on the black market, or collected and deposited in museums.

Through NAGPRA, those remains are being returned to Native Nations for reburial. That sort of thing is still happening. It was in the news just this week. Actors in the film, Maze Runner, were shooting at a Native cemetery. They took artifacts because "who doesn't?"

But let's come back to Carson's sources.

In the introduction to Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, Schlissel writes that the letters and diaries in her book are "accounts of singularities" and that only "when the patterns emerge with regularity can one believe the responses are representative" (p. 11). Is Haun's singular account one that ought to be introduced to young readers as Carson has done?

In Walk on Earth a Stranger, she introduces that image and leaves it open-ended for her readers to sort out.

Therein lies the problem. This image of grave robbing Indians fits what people think they know about Native peoples: primitive, depraved, less than human, savages. Carson doesn't come back to tell us that, in fact, it is not representative of the historical record.

What she did is quite the opposite. In the preface to Schlissel's book, Carl N. Degler writes that (p. xvi):
Whereas men usually emphasized the danger from the Indians and told of their fights with the native peoples, the women, who admittedly often started out fearful of the Indians, usually ended up finding them friendly in manner and often helpful in deed. Women, it seemed, had no need to emphasize Indian ferocity. 
Friendly Indians? Helpful Indians? That is the image of Indians women had at the end of their journey. It is not the image of Indians that readers have when Lee and her group get to California. Let's look at another episode Carson provides.

When Lee's wagon train is at Fort Hall (chapter twenty-nine), they hear this story (p. 369):
"We had a situation here a few weeks ago, where an Indian offered a man three horses in exchange for one of his daughters. The settler joked that if the Indians gave him six, it was a deal. This joke, as it were, at his daughter's expense, nearly led to bloodshed, when the Indian came back with the horses."
I found a similar story in another of Carson's sources: Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849, edited by Kenneth L. Holmes. In it, the horse trading story ends like this. The Indian (p. 33):
"followed our wagons for several days and we were glad to get rid of him without any trouble."
Quite a different image, isn't it? I assume Carson read through her sources, but why does she give us such a different image of Indian people, given what her sources told her about them?


One might argue that Carson is even-handed in depicting racism. Indians rob graves, but what about Mr. Joyner? He puts fear of Indians in his wife's mind again and again. He puts measles infected blankets in a grave so the Indians can get sick when they dig up that grave. Pretty dang racist, right?

On one hand, we have grave robbing Indians, and on the other, we have Mr. Joyner and Frank (another White man who is depicted as racist).

Notice that Carson gives us Indian people as a group who are horrible, versus specific White individuals who are horrible.

Carson effectively tells us to hate Mr. Joyner and Frank as racists, but why did she not individualize those Indians on the trail in some way, guided by her sources? Why does she have that grave robbing part in there?

It'd be terrific if she would tell us why.

As noted in the title of this post, Rae Carson's Walk On Earth A Stranger is not recommended. Published in 2015 by Greenwillow, it is currently on the long list for the National Book Award. I hope someone shares this review with members of the committee. Carson's book debuted on the New York Times best sellers list. That, I think, is based on her previous work, but I'm sure the publisher's huge marketing campaign helped get it on that best seller list.

For further reading:
Notes I took as I read Carson's book
A Tumblr post I wrote after I shared my notes

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Look at Gender Swapping of Native Characters in Meyer's LIFE AND DEATH

Today (October 6, 2015), fans of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga were ecstatic about her new book Life and Death. In it, she "gender swapped" the characters. Bella is now a guy named Beau. Edward is now a gal named Edythe, and Jacob (the Quileute character) is now a girl named Jules (Julia). 

Here's part of Meyer's interview with CNN: 
Meyer said she was motivated to make the switch because of questions she received at signings about Bella being a "damsel in distress."
"It's always bothered me a little bit, because anyone surrounded by superheroes is going to be in distress," Meyers explained. "I thought, 'What if we switched it around a bit and see how a boy does,' and, you know, it's about the same."

I looked at specific passages in Twilight, comparing them to passages in Life and Death to see if Meyer made any changes to the Native content. In the passages I have below, I start each pair with Twilight first, because it was published first. Here they are:

Chapter 6: Scary Stories

This is the chapter where we meet Jacob/Jules, the Quileute character who is going to tell Bella/Beau scary stories about the werewolves and "the cold ones" (vampires).

Twilight (Kindle Location 7353-7355):
A few minutes after Angela left with the hikers, Jacob sauntered over to take her place by my side. He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones.

Life and Death (Kindle Locations 1495-1497):
A few minutes after Allen left with the hikers, Julie came over to take his place by my side. 
She looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of her neck. Her skin was really beautiful, like coppery silk, her dark eyes were wide-set above her high cheekbones, and her lips were curved like a bow.

Debbie's thoughts: Jacob sauntering conveys attitude. Julie, on the other hand, walks without attitude. Because... why? I don't know. The descriptions of hair and skin and cheekbones are familiar ones. Not all Native people have long, glossy black hair or high cheekbones but that's generally how we're depicted in children's and young adult books. This is a problem for Native people who do not look that way. People say--without batting an eye--"you don't look Indian." 


Twilight, Jacob speaking to Bella (Kindle Locations 7408-7411):
“Well, there are lots of legends, some of them claiming to date back to the Flood— supposedly, the ancient Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees on the mountain to survive like Noah and the ark.” He smiled, to show me how little stock he put in the histories. “Another legend claims that we descended from wolves— and that the wolves are our brothers still. It’s against tribal law to kill them.

Life and Death, Jules speaking to Beau (Kindle Locations 1569-1572):
“There are lots of legends, some of them claiming to date back to the Great Flood— supposedly, the ancient Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees on the mountain to survive like Noah and the ark.” She smiled, to show me she wasn’t taking this seriously, either. “Another legend claims that we descended from wolves— and that the wolves are our sisters still. It’s against tribal law to kill them.

Debbie's thoughts: That "legend" that Jacob talks about is supposed to be a Quileute one, but it that marks "the Flood" as a touchstone event. If it said "a" great Flood, that would work, but that "the" in there ties this story to Christianity. I've not done any research to see if the Quileute people have a flood story where they tied their canoes to tall trees. Maybe they do. Or, maybe this is something that Meyer made up. Regular readers of AICL know that I find it sacrilegious to twist Native stories to make them fit a narrative that a not-Native writer is telling.  Jacob has "little stock" in the stories; Jules doesn't "take this seriously." Is this dismissiveness on Jacob/Jules' part to throw Bella/Beau off track so that Bella/Beau don't know that these stories are real? The way Meyer presents this werewolf part of her story is not like the stories the Quileute's actually tell. As noted above, I think Meyer is twisting a Native story to fit her narrative, and I find that to be deeply disrespectful. (Updating to add this next line.) And as @travelingHeidi pointed out on Twitter, Noah isn't gender swapped! 


Jacob speaking to Bella (
Kindle Locations 7412-7416):
"There are stories of the cold ones as old as the wolf legends, and some much more recent. According to legend, my own great-grandfather knew some of them. He was the one who made the treaty that kept them off our land.” He rolled his eyes. “Your great-grandfather?” I encouraged. “He was a tribal elder, like my father. You see, the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf— well, not the wolf, really, but the wolves that turn into men, like our ancestors. You would call them werewolves.”

Life and Death, Jules speaking to Beau (Kindle Locations 1574-1578):
"There are stories of the cold ones as old as the wolf legends, and some much more recent. According to legend, my own great-grandmother knew some of them. She was the one who made the treaty that kept them off our land.” She rolled her eyes. “Your great-grandmother?” I encouraged. “She was a tribal elder, like my mother. You see, the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf— well, not the wolf, really, but the wolves that turn into women, like our ancestors. You could call them werewolves, I guess.”

Debbie's thoughts: That is another part of Meyer's book that I find especially problematic because of her use of the word treaty. Readers are asked to believe that Jacob/Jules' great grandfather/mother made a treaty with a coven of vampires. Treaties are made between heads of state. Are we to think of this group of Quileute's and this coven of vampires as nations? 

Chapter 7: Nightmare

After hearing those "scary" stories, Bella/Beau has a nightmare. 

Twilight (Kindle Locations 7477-7480):
But Jacob let go of my hand and yelped, suddenly shaking, falling to the dim forest floor. He twitched on the ground as I watched in horror. “Jacob!” I screamed. But he was gone. In his place was a large red-brown wolf with black eyes. The wolf faced away from me, pointing toward the shore, the hair on the back of his shoulders bristling, low growls issuing from between his exposed fangs.

Life and Death (Kindle Locations 1641-1643):
And then Jules dropped my hand— she let out a strange yelp and, suddenly shaking, she fell twitching to the ground. I watched in horror, unable to move. “Jules!” I yelled, but she was gone. In her place was a big, red-brown wolf with black eyes. The wolf faced away from me, pointing toward the shore, the hair on the back of her shoulders bristling, low growls issuing from between her exposed fangs.

Debbie's thoughts: Here, I direct you to an excellent series of tweets by Jeanne (I don't know her personally but she is one of the people I learn a lot from by reading her tweets and blog posts). One that is especially insightful is this one: "The supernatural world of Twilight is a construct that makes an abusive white man look like a hero and Native American men look like animals."

Chapter 11: Complications 

Twilight (Kindle Locations 8589-8592):
Jacob was already climbing out, his wide grin visible even through the darkness. In the passenger seat was a much older man, a heavyset man with a memorable face— a face that overflowed, the cheeks resting against his shoulders, with creases running through the russet skin like an old leather jacket. And the surprisingly familiar eyes, black eyes that seemed at the same time both too young and too ancient for the broad face they were set in. Jacob’s father, Billy Black.

Life and Death (Kindle Locations 2926-2929)
Jules was already climbing out, her wide grin visible even through the darkness. In the passenger seat was a much older woman, an imposing woman with an unusual face— it was stern and stoic, with creases that ran through the russet skin like an old leather jacket. And the surprisingly familiar eyes, set deep under the heavy brows, black eyes that seemed at the same time both too young and too ancient to match the face. Jules’s mother, Bonnie Black.

Debbie's thoughts: More of that stereotypical descriptors, this time of elders. Note the word "ancient" in there? That's another word that gets overused.


Some overall thoughts: In Life and Death, Meyer just switched a few letters here and there to make the Native characters fit her gender swapping narrative. It is more evidence that she is clueless regarding Native peoples and cultures. In fact, her gender swapping of Native content strikes me as similar to all the people--male or female--who put on a headdress that is generally used only by men. It is superficial and adds a new layer of disrespect to what she's already done with the Twilight saga prior to today's release of Life and Death.  

I opened this post noting that people are very excited by Life and Death. Much of that excitement is because Twilight is credited with having launched young adult literature. That is something people who care about young adult literature can certainly applaud, but we must not lose sight of the problems in the series. 

There are plenty of young adult books out there that can counter the misogyny in these books. We cannot say the same thing about books to counter the misrepresentation of Native people. Indeed, Meyer's book also launched a slew of books that do precisely what she did: stereotype, misrepresent, appropriate. 

Meyer acknowledged concerns over the "damsel in distress" but the concerns over misrepresentation of Native peoples are just as important. 

Meyer, Stephenie (2015-10-06). Twilight Tenth Anniversary/Life and Death Dual Edition, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition. 

Beverly Slapin reviews SMUGGLING CHEROKEE by Kim Shuck

Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin's review of Smuggling Cherokee may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2015. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.


Shuck, Kim (Tsalagi, Sauk/Fox, Polish), Smuggling Cherokee. Greenfield Review Press, 2005; grades 7-up

Smuggling Cherokee is full of powerful insight: part autobiography, part musing, part outrageous wit, and part punch-in-the-gut startling. Kim Shuck is a visionary: she knows who she is, what she comes from, and what she’s been given to do. Her poems are honest and passionate, and, without polemic, will shatter just about every stereotype about Indians that anyone has ever espoused: 

The man asks me, 
“Do you speak Cherokee?”
But it’s all I ever speak
The end goal of several generations of a
smuggling project.
We’ve slipped the barriers,
Evaded border guards.
I smile,

Some of Kim’s poems are tenderly, achingly beautiful: 

The water I used to drink spent time
Inside a pitched basket
It adopted the internal shape
Took on the taste of pine
And changed me forever. 

And for those who didn’t know, or didn’t care to know, the many faces of depredation:

I call the slave master
Who lost track of my ancestor
A blanket for you
In gratitude.

I call the soldier
With a tired arm
Who didn’t cut deeply enough
Into my great-great grandfather’s chest to kill clean.
I return your axehead
Oiled and sharpened
Wield it against others with equal skill.

Will the boarding school officer come up?
The one who didn’t take my Gram
Because of her crippled leg.
No use as a servant – such a shame with that face…

Finally the shopkeeper’s wife
Who traded spoiled cans of fruit
For baskets that took a year each to make.
Thank you, Faith, for not poisoning
Quite all
Of my

Blankets for each of you,
And let no one say
That I am not
Grateful for your care.

Smuggling Cherokee, as with all of Kim Shuck’s poems, will resonate with Indian middle and high school readers. Students who are not Indian may not “get” some of them the first time around, but they will, eventually, if given the space to sit with them.

Kim Shuck—a poet, teacher, fine artist and parent of at least three—teaches college courses in Native Short Literature, creates phenomenal beadwork and basketry, curates museum collections, teaches origami to young children as an introduction to geometry, grows vegetables, converses with trees, takes long walks, and meditates while doing piles of laundry. She won the Native Writers of the Americas First Book Award for Smuggling Cherokee, as well as the Diane Decorah Award for Poetry, she has a fierce and gentle heart, and I’m honored to call her “friend.”

—Beverly Slapin

(Note: Smuggling Cherokee can be ordered from Discount for class sets, free shipping.)

Eds. note: Kim Shuck wrote to say that she is an enrolled with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.