Thursday, August 23, 2018

Not Recommended: STONE FOX by John Reynolds Gardiner

Stone Fox is shown on bottom row
Update, September 16, 2018: On the Facebook page for the Units of Study group, Dr. Lucy Calkins announced that they are removing Stone Fox from the Units of Study materials. The new edition (Units of Study is published by Heinemann) will have a different book. The Facebook group is a closed group but Dr. Calkins said that anybody can request to be added and that "we say yes in seconds." They approved my request a few months ago. I am not a classroom teacher (and not using the materials), but I do study literature and am glad they are open to my participation in conversations.


Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner was published in 1980 by HarperCollins. It is part of a literacy program used in classrooms across the United States: “Units of Study for Teaching Reading”.

Because of its many problems, I do not recommend the book and think that it is vital that Professor Lucy Calkins (she created the Units of Study program) revisit its use in her curriculum.

Leaving it there means she--a trusted educator--is miseducating all the children who are in schools that use her curriculum. That sounds harsh--I know--but a key reason that I'm writing about this book is because Native parents and Native educators have written to me about it.

Here’s the book description, from the HarperCollins website:

Based on a Rocky Mountain legend, Stone Fox tells the story of Little Willy, who lives with his grandfather in Wyoming. When Grandfather falls ill, he is no longer able to work the farm, which is in danger of foreclosure. Little Willy is determined to win the National Dogsled Race—the prize money would save the farm and his grandfather. But he isn't the only one who desperately wants to win. Willy and his brave dog Searchlight must face off against experienced racers, including a Native American man named Stone Fox, who has never lost a race.

The story takes place in the early 1900s, in what is currently known as the state of Wyoming. Prior to European and later, American, invasion, it was Indigenous land. A little over half of what is, today, Wyoming, was part of the Louisiana Purchase. The US bought it from France in 1803--but how and why does that narrative get told that way? Why do history books leave out the fact that it was Indigenous land before it was France or the US claimed it? These are not rhetorical questions! When teachers who teach students in those areas, today, leave out the history of Indigenous peoples, they tell Indigenous students that their history does not matter.

How the people of an Indigenous nation are depicted is also tremendously important. Rather than depicting us as peoples of distinct nations that traded with peoples of other nations, and that had diplomacy with those other nations, we are shown as generic primitive, simple minded children or animal-like savages. None of that is accurate. That is, however, what we see in Gardiner’s Stone Fox.

In that dogsled race, Searchlight (Willy’s dog) will pull a sled that his grandfather had “bought from the Indians” (p. 25). Indians is a generic term. Not naming who he bought the sled from contributes to that generic image that falls into stereotypical thinking. We see that again when Willy learns that the race will be especially exciting this year because “that mountain man, the Indian called Stone Fox” (p. 45) might be in the race, and he has never lost a race he’s entered.

The name that Gardiner created for this Indian man is “Stone Fox.” Chapter six--titled “Stone Fox”--is where readers get details about him. The chapter opens with Willy inside the bank. He’s paid the fees to sign up for the race, gotten a map of the route, and is outside with Searchlight when something catches his eye: Stone Fox’s team of Samoyeds, pulling Stone Fox (p. 50):

The man was an Indian--dressed in furs and leather, with moccasins all the way up to his knees. His skin was dark, his hair was dark, and he wore a dark-colored headband. His eyes sparkled in the sunlight, but the rest of his face was as hard as stone.

Moccasins up to his knees? Furs and leather? While that is plausible, I wonder if it was typical dress at that time. By then, Native peoples wore some of the same clothes that Americans were wearing. A face as hard as stone? Now we see why Gardiner named this character Stone (Fox). That is a common stereotype. Native people are often depicted as stoic--lacking in display of any emotion… rigid, unmoving. Stone Fox brought his sled up to Willy, who tilts his head way back to look up at “a giant” (p. 50):

“Gosh,” little Willy gasped.
The Indian looked at Little Willy. His face was solid granite, but his eyes were alive and cunning.

Cunning! Like…. A fox! Now we know why Gardiner created this name for this Indian. He wants readers to understand that this Indian is hard and cunning. And--he’s a giant! With a face of “solid granite”! All of this is negative stereotyping. Willy greets him, but “the Indian” doesn’t reply. Instead, "the Indian" looks at Searchlight. That makes Searchlight moan. Readers have come to like Searchlight by this point, and its moan tells them that Searchlight is worried or afraid of "the Indian". I'm intentionally using quotation marks for the Indian because Gardiner's repeated use of "the Indian" objectifies and others him. He's a man, for goodness sake. He could say that, instead!

This "Indian" is legendary. There are many stories about him. In Denver, he "snapped a man's back with two fingers." Willy learns a lot about him (p. 53):

Stone Fox refused to speak with the white man because of the treatment his people had received. His tribe, the Shoshone, who were peaceful seed gatherers, had been forced to leave Utah and settle on a reservation in Wyoming with another tribe called the Arapaho.

It is good to finally have some specific tribal nations named in that passage, but “peaceful seed gatherers” plays into the stereotypical idea of primitive Indians. And, there’s more than just one nation with the name Shoshone. In fact, there are several, currently located in California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming. Who, specifically is Gardiner talking about? And he tells us they had been forced to leave Utah? By… whom? And… why? And how?! Those are huge gaps in Gardiner’s story.

Biased history and storytelling being what it is, readers fill those gaps with problematic information. Most likely, readers will think about courageous pioneers. But if you think about that history from a Native perspective, the accurate word isn’t pioneer. The right words are squatters and invaders. The next passage is also biased:

Stone Fox’s dream was for his people to return to their homeland. Stone Fox was using the money he won from racing to simply buy the land back. He had already purchased four farms and over two hundred acres.

That Stone Fox was smart, all right.

In that passage, readers learn why Gardiner decided to call this character “Fox” and “cunning” and “smart”? Gardiner doesn’t say so, explicitly, but he’s telling us that Stone Fox has chosen to embrace American capitalism. He’s using money to get that land back. Sounds heroic but what would we find if we looked into the Shoshone peoples and the efforts they made to protect, retain and recover their homelands? What treaties did they make? What parts of those treaties were -- and are -- ignored?

Gardiner tells readers that the Shoshones of his story are in Wyoming, which suggests to us that he’s referring to the Eastern Shoshone, who negotiated the Ft. Bridger treaty in 1863. According to information on the Eastern Shoshone’s website, that treaty established the boundaries for what is currently known as the Wind River Reservation. In size, it was over 44 million acres and it covered parts of Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. In 1868, a second treaty was negotiated. The outcome of it was that the reservation was reduced to 2,774,400 acres in Wyoming. Today it is approximately 2.2 million acres. With that as context, Stone Fox’s purchase of 200 acres is bit silly to me, but to Gardiner and most readers, it will seem heroic in an American pull yourself-up-with-your-bootstraps kind of way.

A few pages later when Willy reaches out to pet one of Stone Fox’s dogs, he’s surprised by a movement to his right, which turns out to be Stone Fox (p. 59):

A sweeping motion, fast at first; then it appeared to slow and stop. But it didn’t stop. A hand hit little Willy right in the face, sending him over backward.
“I didn’t mean any harm, Mr. Stone Fox,” little Willy said as he picked himself up off the ground, holding a hand over his eye.
Stone Fox stood tall in the darkness and said nothing.

Willy continues talking to Stone Fox, telling him that he (Willie) is going to win the race, and that if he doesn’t, “they” (the government) are going to take their farm away from them. The next day (race day), Willie's eye is swollen shut.

There’s a lot to say about that particular passage in the book. Stone Fox is violent and clearly willing to strike a little boy in the face, knocking him down and hurting that boy’s eye. That plays into the stereotype of the cruel Indian who has no compassion or human-like feelings for others.

It is also interesting to think about why Gardiner has Willie tell Stone Fox about his reason for being in the race. Given what we already know about Stone Fox needing money to buy land for his people, I suspect we’re supposed to make a connection between Stone Fox and Willie. Missing (again) is any reference to the greater injustice that Indigenous peoples experienced at the hands of those who took their lands from them.  

Towards the end of this story, Gardiner depicts Stone Fox as a good guy. When Searchlight dies just before crossing the finish line, Stone Fox pulls his sled up beside Willie. He could easily win the race, but instead, he draws a line in the snow and takes out his rifle. When the other racers reach them, he fires his rifle into the air and speaks, for the first time in the story:

“Anyone crosses this line--I shoot.”

That sentence is the way many writers depict Native speech. Where is the word "if" at the start of that sentence, and where is the word "will" in the last part?! After uttering that sentence, Stone Fox nods to Willie, who then carries Searchlight across the finish line, winning the race. He’s gone from Willie’s threat to Willie’s savior, but his “help” is just like he has been throughout: violent. His only words of the entire book are that he will be violent. The stereotypical ways that he is depicted are a problem. They do not interrupt the existing stereotypes that children bring to their reading of Stone Fox. It is a dramatic ending. The story itself is thrilling and teachers report how well it works with reluctant readers. Those who object to the book do so based on the death of Searchlight. That, some feel, is inappropriate content for young readers.

I looked for reviews that are critical of the Native content in Stone Fox and found the following:

The Alaska Native Knowledge Network has some book reviews on its site. Richard Schmitt, a student in ED 693, reviewed it on March 6, 2006. He notes similar problems in stereotyping. In 1991, Christine Jenkins and Sally Freeman raised questions about it in Novel Experiences: Literature Units for Book Discussion Groups in Elementary Grades. So did the teacher, Paul, in McGee and Tompkin’s 1995 article, “Literature-Based Reading Instruction: What’s Guiding the Instruction?” in Language Arts. My point in listing these articles is that the analysis can be done. The problems are there. People have seen then since 1991 (and likely earlier!).

As noted above, Stone Fox ought to be removed from the Units of Study for Teaching Reading program. It will cost the publisher (Heinemann) money to do that, and Calkins will have to spend some time looking for a book to insert in its stead. I don't know that program well enough to suggest an alternative. If you do, let me know in the comments.


Some brief notes on the illustrations in Stone Fox

The original illustrations for Stone Fox were done by Marcia Sewell. This is the original cover (1980):

Here’s Sewell’s first illustration of Stone Fox:

More recent publications had a new illustrator, Greg Hargreaves. Here's his depiction of Stone Fox:

Over time, book covers can change quite a lot. These three show the last part of the race, just before Searchlight dies:

Here's an interior page that shows Stone Fox and his team. Do his dogs look mean to you? They do to me! I wondered how dogs look when they're racing. I found lot of photos. Mostly their tongues are hanging out. They don't look mean to me. These ones look kind of... sinister!

Here's the 30th anniversary edition cover.

Stone Fox was also made into a movie, which is evidence of how well this story plays to non-Native readers. And, to Lucy Calkins. And to so many others. But again--the Native content is deeply problematic! 

Published in 1980 by HarperCollins, John Reynolds Gardiner's Stone Fox is not recommended. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Review of Jameson's Zoe and the Fawn

Zoe and the Fawn (2006). By Catherine Jameson, illustrated by Julie Flett. Penticton, BC, Canada: Theytus Books.

Little Zoe and her dad are feeding their horses when Zoe is captivated by a fawn lying under an aspen tree nearby. Dad takes a picture. Zoe wonders where the fawn’s mother is, and Dad suggests they look for her. They walk through the spring landscape, spotting a series of creatures that Zoe suspects could be the fawn’s mother: a flicker, a rabbit, and a rainbow trout. No, Dad tells her each time, that is not the fawn’s mother. Finally, they turn around and head back. Again they see the flicker, the rabbit, and the trout, and this time Zoe is the one asserting, “That is not the fawn’s mother.” When they arrive back at the aspen tree, there is the fawn – with its mother. Dad snaps another picture. The horses are glad to see Zoe and her dad.

Jameson tells the story of this Okanagan father and daughter with relatively simple English vocabulary, with some repetitive phrases that invite children’s participation during read-alouds. She also incorporates the Okanagan (Syilx) animal names in parentheses.

Utter ignorance of how to pronounce those words sent me to the Okanagan Nation Web site. (There's no pronunciation guide in Jameson's book.) There I learned that the language is nsyilxcən, and that in July 2018, the Okanagan Nation general assembly adopted the Syilx Okanagan Language Declaration expressing the people’s commitment to the “protection, revitalization and advancement” of their language. There’s something both loving and powerful in that declaration. I was grateful that the info about it included comments from some of the Okanagan leaders who were present. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip: “This is an international standard of nationhood. Forty-five years ago, the majority of our people were fluent, sadly that’s not the case anymore. This Declaration is a public expression of intent to stay together. This Declaration contains our laws on how we care take our culture and everything that represents. Without the language it’s impossible to undertake these tasks. It’s at the core of our being, there’s no question.” And Chief Byron Louis stated that the Declaration was “the most significant document I have ever signed.”


So – those animal names Catherine Jameson uses in Zoe and the Fawn back in 2006 have important context. They hint at a language preservation effort that was surely underway back then, and that has lasted, as the Okanagan Nation language Web site suggests, “a long time”. I went to the Web site looking for a pronunciation guide and found a people’s commitment to their language and all that it has meant and can mean to them.

Though my wish to be able to say the words in Jameson’s book is important to my non-Okanagan self, my pronunciation/ambition is not what will preserve the language. In fact, it’s beside the point. Those words are there for the Okanagan parents, elders, teachers, and children who use the book. And I hope they do – it was a BC Book Prize Honor Book some years ago. But Zoe and the Fawn also works for anyone who wants to share or hear a story of a child and her dad encountering the natural world. You don’t have to know those nsyilxcən words to “get” the book. But just seeing them on the page is a healthy reminder that there’s a whole world – worlds, really – of knowledge and speech and understanding out there that we don’t usually think about. (And you can find out more about nsyilxcən from links on the Okanagan Nation web page.)

I like Zoe and the Fawn a lot. The English text is highly readable and engaging for kids who are still learning to read English – and for younger ones, who will enjoy chiming in on the repetitions. Julie Flett’s illustrations (which I believe are cut paper plus pen-and-ink) capture Zoe’s sense of wonder, the beauty of the awakening world of spring, and the essence of the creatures Zoe and Dad encounter. The fish are especially lively, and Flett has a knack for including cool things that aren’t in the text – like the turtle who joins Zoe on one page, or the activity in the pond where the trout resides. Being married to a photographer, I found Zoe’s dad with his camera to be a nice touch. And Zoe’s quite expressive and adorable in her green coat and orange boots.

Zoe and the Fawn: highly recommended!

-- reviewed by Jean Mendoza

Sunday, August 19, 2018


In this morning's mail is a letter from a parent in the UK who is looking for resources with basic information she can share with her children, especially about Indigenous peoples in Canada.

At some point, this parent was told that if a Native person in Canada leaves their reserve for a big city, they lose some rights on their reserve. Is that true, she wonders, and does it apply to every Indigenous nation?

My guess is that it might be true on one, but not on all--but that is a guess because I'm not in Canada. Chelsea Vowel's Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada is the first place I'd look for information.

It is concise, packed with information, and in some ways, humorous. The title of the first chapter, for example, is "Just Don't Call Us Late For Supper: Names for Indigenous Peoples." What Vowel does there is poke at the dreadful ways that non-Native writers come up with names for Native people. I can imagine a snarky White mother telling her kid who is always late for supper "Your Indian name is Late For Supper." That sort of thing happens a lot. People think it is funny--but how people name their children ought never be something that others joke about.

That said, the chapter is not about personal names. Vowel begins with a list of words that are not acceptable: savage, red Indian, redskin, primitive, half-breed, squaw/brave/buck/papoose. Then she provides a terrific overview of names broadly used for Indigenous peoples, and specifics, too.

Published in 2016 by HighWater Press, I highly recommend, Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel. Get a copy for your public or school library and let teachers and parents in your community know about it! Put it on display!

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Concerns about Roanhorse's TRAIL OF LIGHTNING

Editors note, Oct 1 2018: At the bottom of this post, I will add links to articles/videos where Native writers or scholars discuss Roanhorse and/or the concerns I raised below. Today, for example, I will add links to videos from the Institute of American Indian Art. One is titled "Cultural Stakes," it is dated Fall 2018. The other is by a student, Rose Simpson. In her lecture she talks about this issue specifically as it relates to her and people she knows. She is a Pueblo woman. Her talk is shorter than Cultural Stakes. I recommend you start with hers. AICL's post on this issue is dated August 9. Her talk was uploaded to the vimeo site on June 6, 2018. --Debbie

Editor's note, Oct 10, 2019: Sometime in 2018, Roanhorse removed Ohkay Owingeh from her website. She was adopted. Through an investigator she found her birth mother, who told her that she was from Ohkay Owingeh. I do not know why Roanhorse removed that information. On October 5, 2019, Adrian Jawort published a defense of Roanhorse. I disagree with Jawort's conclusions but am including a link to it below with the others. --Debbie


I want Native children to have books that respect who they are, as Native children. I want Native writers to experience success in the publishing world, because that translates to opportunities for more Native writers. And I want Native writers to be successful in every genre--including science fiction and fantasy!

But, there are things that don't belong in books. Let me explain.

I was raised with a deep respect for our ceremonies and our religious ways of being. Wrapped up in that respect is a commitment to protect that knowledge. I can easily see and hear elders telling us, as children, “don’t tell your teacher or your friends ...” Their instructions are based on hundreds of years of experience with exploitation and misrepresentation that were--are--harmful to us as individuals, as people of a community, and as a tribal nation.

Our elders, in essence, drew a curtain. A curtain between what can be disclosed, and what cannot be disclosed. It protects us. That instruction is a guiding principal that I bring to my study of children's and young adult literature. I lost sight of it, recently, and am addressing that failure with this blog post. And I am apologizing to friends and colleagues who are Navajo. 

Whenever I pick up a book, the first thing I do is look at the author. If the author is Native, I relax because I assume that the author is knowledgeable about their nation and that they will only disclose what can be disclosed. If the author is not Native or not of the nation the book is about, I look to see if there’s an indication that the book was looked at by someone with the expertise necessary to spot factual errors--and problems of disclosure, too.

Back in February of 2018, I read and reviewed Legends of the Lost Causes by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester (they are not Native writers). I questioned their use of religious aspects of Osage and Abenaki people. So, I did not recommend the book. I noted that the book was blurbed by someone from the Osage Nation but that I had concerns and questions, nonetheless. Then in May, 2018, Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal, published Sensitivity Readers, Cultural Considerations, and Legends of the Lost Causes. In it, she posed some of my questions to Jessilyn Hudgins of the Osage Nation's Cultural Center. Hudgins replied that McLelland was willing to change or take out anything that she wasn't comfortable with. Because Hudgins is of that nation, her feedback is important. It gives the authors and the publisher a green light to continue with the Osage content in the other books in that series. 

I still have questions, though, because I know that Indigenous people fall on a continuum of what is or is not ok to share. Where any one of us falls is based on the teachings we were given, and where we were raised. Many of us do not grow up on our reservations, and even if we do, some of us make different choices about how we will speak (or not) about our religious ways. In other words, within our nations, we don't all come out at the same place with respect to what we think can be shared. In that continuum, I'm over on the end that says 'do not talk about this at all.' 

I started talking with Rebecca Roanhorse on Twitter about three years ago. In those conversations and on her website, I learned that she is Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) and Black, and married to a Navajo man. (Update on July 19, 2019: Roanhorse no longer lists Ohkay Owingeh on her profile.) I also learned that she is a writer, working primarily in science fiction and fantasy. 

Somewhere along there I learned that she was working on a book with a Navajo protagonist. I learned the book was meant for the adult market, but because of the age of the protagonist, I wanted to see it. Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar wasn't marketed for teens. Neither was Louise Erdrich's The Round House or Marcie Rendon's Murder on the Red River. But--I'd hand those books to an older teen in an instant. So, I wanted to see Roanhorse's Trail of Lightning. I also learned that Navajo people were working with her on the Navajo content. Because of that, I assumed that she did not have anything in the book that should not be disclosed. When I got the book, I liked what I read and said so, on Facebook and on Twitter. When invited to do so, I wrote a review of it for Barnes and Noble's website.

For that review, I began with the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. I find her metaphor -- that books can be windows, mirrors, or sliding glass doors -- tremendously useful. White children have many mirrors. Native children have very few, and some of them are cracked and more like those fun house mirrors at carnivals. This graphic (credit for the infographic is to Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin, and David Hyuck) makes the point quite well:

See how many mirrors the White child has? Over seventy percent of the books received at CCBC in 2015 featured White characters, and only .9% featured Native characters. Even worse--the books included in that .9% are ones with stereotypes and otherwise bad representations! So--not only is the mirror the Native child holds small, it is one that distorts who Native people are.

In recent writings, I've begun adding a curtain to Dr. Bishop's metaphor. It is similar to the line of disclosure. For some things, we draw a curtain on our windows. There are things we do not share and do not wish to share. (See, for example, an excerpt of an article I wrote for Language Arts in 2018).

As I read Trail of Lightning, I recognized the places Roanhorse was writing about. The way she wrote about the setting struck me as a mirror. A splendid one, in fact. That's what I titled my article at Barnes and Noble: "A Splendid Mirror for Indigenous Readers." I was wrong. 

Roanhorse's book is published by Saga Press--an imprint of Simon & Schuster--which is significant. Simon & Schuster is one of the "Big Five" publishers in the United States. Most Native writers are published by smaller publishing houses. Getting published by one of the Big Five means way more visibility than is otherwise possible. 

So, I was happy on several counts. It looked like what I--as a Native woman and scholar--want to see! As evident on Twitter (update on July 19, 2019: Charlie Scott's supported it on Twitter and in October of 2018, wrote an article about it), there are Navajo readers who are taken with it, too. In some ways, the representations Roanhorse offers to readers of this genre are terrific. In most books set in the future, Indigenous people are completely missing. Roanhorse centers this story in Native spaces and features Native people. 

But, I started to hear directly from Navajo friends and colleagues. They are not at all happy with Trail of Lightning. From what I understand, Roanhorse crossed their lines of disclosure. If she had done this book using Pueblo religion, they said, she'd be called out for doing that. They're right. In fact, I'd be one of the people saying no to that book. And I'm grateful to them for, in essence, calling me out about my recommendation of Trail of Lightning.

This situation is uncomfortable for them, for me, and I am sure it will be uncomfortable for Roanhorse, too, when she reads this post. From her interviews online, she said that she knows that there are things within Ohkay Owingeh that she would not share. This is a concept she understands. It'd be easier to just ignore this whole thing and keep disagreements amongst Native scholars, critics, and readers behind that curtain, too, but that kind of silence does not help writers, editors, and readers grow in their understanding of who Indigenous people are and how some of us feel about the ways our stories are used--even if the person using our ways is Native.

There are many conversations taking place within Navajo circles. Some may write a letter (or letters) about Trail of Lightning. When those letters appear, I will add links to them (update on July 19, 2019: see the links at the bottom of this post). In the meantime, I invite you to submit comments or write to me directly with your thoughts or questions about what I've written above.

A quick note on some of the conversations I've had, that I'll summarize here as a Q&A. If they don't make sense, let me know.

Question 1: "What about other writers who have done this, like Tony Hillerman? Are people upset with him, too? And will they talk about his books?"
My answer: Yes, I've talked with Navajo people before about Hillerman's books, and yes, they object to what he did, but I don't know if there are plans to talk about his books within the context of Trail of Lightning. 

Question 2: "Are some of these people jealous of Roanhorse's success?"
My answer: That's possible, but the concerns are from a wide range of Navajo people, and I think that attributing the objections to jealousy rather than as serious concerns about the content is not fair. 

Question 3: "Are people being racist because she's Black?"
My answer: That's possible, but attributing objections to racism is also asking us to ignore the serious concerns about the content. 

Question 4: "What about the Navajo people who are really liking the book? Are they wrong for liking it?"
My answer: No, I don't think they're wrong for liking it. They may not know that traditionalists within the Navajo Nation do not think this content should be shared. They may change their minds later--or they may reject the idea of keeping some kinds of information private. 

Question 5: "What exactly is the problematic content?"
My answer: I would not point out the specific problematic content if the book had violated Pueblo lines of disclosure, because doing that would do precisely what the author has done. I do not know how Navajo people will describe their concerns with it. When I see them, I will link to them. 

Links to sites (arranged by date) where Native writers and scholars discuss or write about this issue. Also includes links to videos or articles where the topic was discussed by Roanhorse.

June 6, 2018. Video. Institute of American Indian Art, Low Rez MFA. Rose Simpson Craft Lecture. (Link added here on Oct 1, 2018.)

June 25, 2018. Video. Institute of American Indian Art, Low Rez MFA. Panel discussion, Fall 2018: Cultural Stakes with panelists Santee Frazier, Toni Jensen, James Thomas Stevens, and Kimberly Blaeser. (Link added here on Oct 1, 2018.)

July 1, 2018. Video. Q&A at the Jean-Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, NM, on June 26th, 2018. Rebecca Roanhorse Reads from Trail of Lightning and Takes Audience Questions. (Link added here on Oct 1, 2018.)

November 6, 2018. Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs, by the Saad Bee Hózhǫ́ (Diné Writers' Collective), published at Indian Country Today on Nov 4, 2018.

November 15, 2018. Does the letter from the Diné Writers Collective Mark a Turning Point? by Debbie Reese at AICL.

November 23, 2018. Guest column: New novel twists Diné teachings, spirituality by Jennifer Rose Denetdale, published in Navajo Times on November 22, 2018.

April 30, 2019: Muscogee writer, Michael Thompson, on interactions with bookseller when he shared concerns about Trail of Lightning

October 10, 2019: The Dangers of the Appropriation Critique by Adrian Jawort, in The Los Angeles Review of Books. (As noted in the editor's note at the top of this post, I disagree with Jawort.)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

A Native Perspective on the Intro to Christopher Emdin's FOR WHITE FOLKS WHO TEACH IN THE HOOD... AND THE REST OF Y'ALL TOO

Below is a twitter review of Dr. Christopher Emdin's For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood... and the Rest of Y'all Too.  Once in awhile, I'll tweet as I read something. And sometimes, I bring those tweets into a blog post, as I've done here. 

First, some background. 

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood was published in 2016 by Beacon Press. Dr. Emdin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He's been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. That is a lot of visibility for an education professor! That visibility is why I know who he is, and why I think it important to share these thoughts about the introduction to his book. It was his use of the word "neoindigenous" that caught my eye when his book came out. I didn't read it when it came out because I am not working as an Education professor. 

Here's my tweets, compiled with an app called Spooler, which puts tweets into paragraph form. To preserve their integrity as single tweets, I manually inserted paragraph returns to match what I did on Twitter. I started the thread on August 3, 2018 at 7:19 AM. To distinguish the tweet thread from what I'm writing today in this blog post, I'm indenting the tweets:

Looking at Emdin's FOR WHITE FOLKS WHO TEACH IN THE HOOD and wondering if anybody has read it and felt his use of children at Carlisle in the Intro is off base? 
Right now, it strikes me as problematic. Emdin begins with an account of having spent a day with mostly White teachers in Wyoming who teach mostly Native children who are disinterested, underperforming, not adjusting to rules of the school. 
The teachers, he writes, had questions, and in "an effort to not offend" he steered clear of the fact that these are White teachers, teaching Native children. He offered strategies that he knew, from experience elsewhere, that might help. 
Later, he reflected that the teachers might have gotten insight about the profession of teaching, but wasn't sure if they knew or cared abt divide between schools and unique culture of the students. 
Then, he remembers Luther Standing Bear's MY PEOPLE THE SIOUX and starts to make connections between "Indigenous Americans and the urban youth of color in my hometown." 
This is where Emdin tries to make connections between students at Carlisle in the 1870s--specifically drawing from the writings of Luther Standing Bear--and his own days as a youth in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and in the Bronx. 
And that's where things really start to feel... off. 
Standing Bear wrote abt a Sioux elder's actions to commemorate a death. It reminds Emdin of men in his urban neighborhood who would lift liquor in brown paper bags to the heavens, to commemorate someone. 
Rdg what Standing Bear wrote helped Emdin understand what those men were doing. It was, he writes, a powerful community practice around sorrow and healing. 
I understand how he got there but was that lifting of liquor in brown paper bags rooted in a system of religion? 
Then, Emdin shifts to Carlisle and Pratt and teachers who went there. 
The teachers, he writes, believed in Pratt's vision: "For them, it was because of Pratt's genuine concern for the Indigenous Americans that he had found it in his heart to give them a better life through education."
Emdin takes care to be critical of methods at Carlisle, like when he uses quotes around "tame the Wild Indian" where he writes that the school was an experiment to "tame the Wild Indian."
He writes that the school used a militaristic approach (it did) to help "the Indigenous Americans assimilate to white norms." This meant stripping them of their culture and traditions. He's right about that, too, but it is a VERY incomplete way to think of the schools. 
There was a lot more going on--and Emdin ignores that. Or maybe he doesn't know? Assimilation programs had the goal of undermining our status as sovereign nations. You can spin it (as he did) as mis-guided efforts to educate children, but...
I think Emdin is wrong to use Luther Standing Bear and Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a launching point for his book. Without any mention of sovereignty and treaties, he's inadvertently doing what Pratt did. 
I think Emdin must not know about our status as sovereign nations. That is a huge problem throughout the US. People generally don't know. They see us as peoples with cultures, or one of the "multicultural" populations in the US. 
I wrote about that sometime back: (……)
At the bottom of page 7 is a new section in the intro, titled "Connecting the Indigenous and Neoindigenous."
Emdin starts by talking abt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and hones in on geographic location prior to colonization/invasion. He says "unique knowledge" but nary a mention of our status as nations. 
UNDRIP references our political structures and treaties. Did Emdin see that? 
Then he focuses on "Indigenous American students" at Carlisle. I think his use of that phrase signals a lack of understand of what it means to us to be sovereign nations. Students who went to Carlisle were citizens of their nations. 
Some Native peoples--then and now--foreground their status as citizens of their Native nation. If a nation doesn't have citizens, it ceases to exist as a nation. 
On page 8, Emdin says that if you remove the geographic location from the UN Declaration, "it can be applied to marginalized populations generally." Again--I see what he's doing but this does not work! 
He says "Because of the similarities in experience between the indigenous and urban youth of color, I identify urban youth as neoindigenous." It is the way he wants to use that word -- Indigenous -- that gets very messy. 
Indigenous children are citizens of Indigenous sovereign nations. Urban youth and urban communities do not have that political status. 
It might be helpful to download/read NCAI's "Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction." (…)
It might also be helpful to think of where Indigenous Studies departments are located, within universities. Usually, they are part of ethnic studies configurations but placing them there obscures that nationhood status. 
Someone---Dr. Duane Champagne, maybe--made the point that perhaps it would help if Indigenous Studies departments were housed with International Studies, instead. 
I'd have to look for it to be sure, but I think he made that observation in "Native American Studies in Higher Education: Models for Collaboration between Universities and Indigenous Nations (Contemporary Native American Communities) published in 2002. 
Hmm.. the photo I took today of my nation's flag makes that point. Our neighbor is flying the flag of the US. I'm flying the flag of Nambé, which is a nation, too.

I'll also pause my reading of the intro to say that the word Indigenous should be in caps, not lower case, when you're referring to us. I'm really glad to see style guides about that... here's one: (…)
I'm also curious about the binary that Emdin seems to be working with. If I understand what he's saying, neoindigenous means black urban youth. 
But... I know for a fact that many of them are citizens of Indigenous nations, too. 
And within cities like Chicago, Los Angeles... you'll find sizable Indigenous communities, there because of one of those govt assimilation projects. That one is Relocation, of the 1950s. Some info here: American Indian Urban Relocation.
Back to Emdin's intro. On page 13, where he writes "the indigenous, who have been relegated to certain geographic areas" -- well, why say "relegated"? That carries a less-than connotation. Some of us are on our homelands. We didn't get "relegated" to them. 
For sure, Emdin is making good pts abt how youth are treated in schools and I understand his goal is to get teachers to think abt the cultures their students have as a plus--not a minus--but along the way, he's kind of passing along errors re Indigenous peoples. 

End of thread on August 3rd.

I picked up the thread again on August 4th, 2018 at 6:56 AM:

I understand the error on first page of chapter 1 (Emdin says that Bigger Thomas is in Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN, but Bigger Thomas is in NATIVE SON) is being corrected in subsequent publications. I think there's an error in Emdin's...
... use of Luther Standing Bear, too. On page 3, Emdin writes abt Sioux use of a pipe as marking a death... 

... but Standing Bear describes use of that pipe as the start of the day:

Now I know some people out there are reading this thread and think I am being picky. Some think that Emdin's overall message is more important than these problems with the ways he using Native people, culture, etc. BUT...
If you think I ought to be quiet about these problems, then, you're asking me to be complicit in the misrepresentations of Native peoples. I won't do that. My ancestors fought for our existence. Because of that, I am here, today. We are here, today. As nations. 
Emdin could have built his concept of reality pedagogy without using Indigenous, or neoindigenous.

At one point in the thread on August 3rd, @arcticisleteach replied to me, tagged Emdin, and suggested I include Emdin in the twitter conversation because they are sure Emdin would be open to the dialogue. Emdn replied, saying "Absolutely. Always here to discuss the work. Let's get it!!"

I figured he was reading through the thread to catch up, but after a few hours when he did not reply, I replied that I had read the intro. The day next (Aug 4), I tagged him when I added those tweets to my thread. He replied:

To my "Emdin could have built his concept of reality pedagogy without using Indigenous or neoindigenous" he said (Aug 4, 9:03 AM):
Appreciate your perspectives & thoughtfulness. I certainly could have avoided neoindigenous framing. It was intentional not to. 

And then at 9:29 AM on Aug 4, he said:
Aware & respectful of sovereignty but my focus is on connections & paying homage to the indigenous in a world/field that erases

Today, August 5 at 6:33 AM, I replied:
Paying homage? Homage and honor .... that's the sort of thing that got mascots on sports fields. And our "but my focus" sounds a lot like white folks who defend the mascots with "but you don't understand! I'm trying to honor you!"

And he responded at 8:01 AM, saying "Elders I spoke w/ for permission & blessing before moving forward with my work would disagree w/your perceptions of my intention"

I replied. Below are my tweets, started at 8:08 AM (gathered using the Spooler app):
Ah. Invoking elders. That's kind of messed up. It is a given that you have the very best of intentions. But lets be real, ok? Some elders are ok with mascots. You and I are working in Education. We know what representation is all about. 
I am pointing out problems that I see in your use of boarding schools and Luther Standing Bear and the term "neoindigenous". 
Because you're very successful with this book, it is influential and shaping the way that teachers are thinking. That they're getting wrong info about Native people from you is not good. At all. If the shoe was on the other foot, I think you would agree with me. 
You said: "Elders I spoke w/ for permission & blessing before moving forward with my work would disagree w/ your perception of my intention"
I would like to know more about what precisely you said to these elders. 
What did you need permission and blessings, to do? I'm pushing pretty hard, and I know that seems mean to some and uncomfortable to others. 
In my look-see at what you used from Standing Bear, you have it wrong. But maybe I'm wrong. Can you tell me what page to look at in his book?

Dr. Emdin has not replied. When he does, I'll be back to insert his response. And maybe it doesn't feel right to him to try to use Twitter for this conversation? If that's the case, he's welcome to say more, here. I'll let him know when I share this post on Twitter. 

Part of why I have chosen to turn that Twitter review into a blog post that incorporates his responses is that I think it is helpful to students--whether they're young children or adults in college--to see scholars talking to each other, wrestling with ideas, and maybe revising our own in the process. I don't know if what I've said above in the tweets makes sense to you. If not, let me know in a comment or on Twitter. I could turn the questions into a Q&A that I can add to this post. 

[Note at 5:33 PM on August 5: If you submit a comment and it doesn't show up, please write to me directly. I continue to have problems with the comment interface.]