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.]

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Anishinaabek Artist, Maria Hupfield, includes Debbie Reese on JINGLE DRESS

In 2015, artist and author, Julie Flett (she's Cree-Metis) created art that featured me, reading to children. That particular artwork was for Teaching Tolerance magazine. I experienced a range of emotions when she told me what she wanted to do. I was ecstatic, because, well.... Julie Flett's art and books are absolutely outstanding! That she chose to honor me--for the work that I do in children's literature--was overwhelming, in a good way.

Earlier this week, I learned that Maria Hupfield, a member of the Anishinaabek Nation from Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario, Canada, recognized my work in her art, too. Here it is:

See my name, there? On the right edge, see Marcie Rendon's name, too? If you've not read Marcie's Murder on the Red River yet, or her short story, Worry and Wonder, get on it! Marcie's writing is terrific! That photo was taken by Katherine Rose Sabo, a teacher who saw the dress recently in the National Museum of the American Indian, in New York City (Sabo reads AICL).

Here is Hupfield's statement about Jingle Dress:
The work Jingle Dress is a quiet act of cultural empowerment, modeled after the contemporary Native American woman’s healing and dance regalia of the same name, which consists of numerous metal jingles adorning its surface. Made from regular blue lined note paper, the jingles on this artwork carry the names of over 500 Indigenous authors from North America. Each jingle represents one voice; collectively they make visible the written contributions of Native Americans. The stillness and contemplation of this work comments on the dichotomy that exists between the value of objects and knowledge.

Here's a photo of the front and back of Jingle Dress, from Hupfield's website:

I gotta say--if I lived in New York City--or was within driving distance, I'd go there and study the dress. From what I see in the photos, it is exquisite! I don't know Maria Hupfield, but learning that I was included in this gorgeous work gave me a lift that I really needed. This, then, is a public thank you to her for including me in Jingle Dress!

Friday, July 27, 2018

A teacher's account of a critical read of David Arnold's MOSQUITOLAND

Editors note: Among the email I receive are ones from teachers who found a review on AICL helpful to their work with students. In this case, the teacher wrote to me about David Arnold's Mosquitoland. The email I received from "K" was interesting enough that I invited them to write it up for AICL's readers. Here's what K submitted. 


“White people!” I think to myself, about myself, channelling one of my student’s (head-shaking) refrains. I can see his friendly-mocking face and his shaking head as I read Dr. Debbie Reese’s post about her analysis of David Arnold’s Mosquitoland and her subsequent exchange with the author via Twitter. Sigh.

As a white woman from an upper-middle class upbringing, I try to be very conscious of my white and socioeconomic privilege. I spend countless hours trying to choose books that provide both reflections and windows to my diverse students. Looking back on how much of my own studies were focused on white, European male authors, I know that that impacted me as a woman and regardless of how great these great works are, I know that they are not they only examples of greatness and many include dubious content.

And yet, despite my own attempted awareness, I fell into my own trap of privilege, into a reading that I had the luxury of experiencing because I am “white people.” Having read and admittedly enjoyed Mosquitoland a few years ago, I recently found myself needing a book to start a conversation with my students about mental health struggles. I had been somewhat bothered by the protagonist’s casual dismissal of pharmacological treatments but thought that that, in and of itself (which problematic), could be a good conversation starter as non-examples often are. Many of my students have very entrenched views on certain medications and I thought that the book could give us a framework for those valuable discussions.

While I found Mim’s flippant and self-serving treatment of her heritage less than ideal, I did see it as being characteristic of a teenager. I did not initially tie the “war paint” to that heritage but rather while reading too quickly thought about it as a female putting on makeup to face the (male) world (again demonstrating the privilege of my lens). Nor did it occur to me to factcheck the various references to cultural sayings and proverbs--I thought that was why authors had editors...and Google. When the starter curriculum I purchased turned me on to Dr. Reese’s article about the book and the controversy, I was appalled at my errors in judgement. I clearly owed all of my students, Native American or otherwise, an apology, but more than that, I owed them the truth.

They got to see me make a mistake and own up to it. We discussed the importance of this in and of itself. As we continued reading, I pointed to these and other problematic points, which in turn seemed to give them permission to call out the author on other things:
“Walt seems more Autistic than Down Syndrome.”
“Is Caleb really schizophrenic or does he have multiple personalities?”
“Yeah, if you meet a white person who says they’re Native, they're probably Cherokee.” 
My Native students are primarily Paiute and Shoshone. The ones who made this last comment explained that what they meant was not white people claiming (à la Mim) to be Native American, but rather Native people who have more Caucasian features (i.e. blue eyes and/or blond hair). But none of them being Cherokee they’d had no clue about the misappropriated proverbs either. Thankfully, I was able to share Dr. Reese’s article “David Arnold’s Cherokee protagonist in MOSQUITOLAND” (March 07, 2015) with them, then we progressed to the Twitter exchange, compared Dr. Reese’s resume with that of David Arnold, discussed credibility and citing your sources, spent a period troubleshooting Arnold’s repeated fall-back to Mim’s “Cherokee” heritage and what alternatives he could have used (like, why not make her heritage Celtic?). We read an article about Elizabeth Warren’s similar claim to Cherokee heritage and the controversy it caused during her bid for Senate. We read about “Americans,” the current exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. dealing with the troubled history of the prominent use of Native American imagery in the U.S. since its inception. My students questioned and engaged with the problems of the story and the real life application but they did reflect that if they had been Cherokee, they would have felt hurt and offended by the misrepresentations in the novel. Where, we wondered, does an author’s responsibility to be accurate lie? Largely, my Native American students shrugged off the white author’s use of a character’s “Nativeness” as a plot tool. I worry that this is what they are used to seeing in literature.

Thanks to Dr. Reese, what could have been an ignorant passing on of ignorance was instead a lesson for the whole class, myself included. We all got more out of the unit for the non-example Mosquitoland provided. All of my students learned about not only the complicated struggles surrounding mental illness, but also about how the Cherokee tribes determine enrollment and why; the history of using Native American imagery to represent “America” while the government disenfranchises those same indigenous populations; the problem of using another culture in one’s writing, especially when the history between those cultures is so fraught; and to question authority, whether it be an author, a teacher, or anyone who says something wrong or problematic, especially if you know better.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Not recommended: LUMP LUMP AND THE BLANKET OF DREAMS by Gwen Jackson

Over the last year or so, I've had several emails asking me about Lump Lump and the Blanket of Dreams. Written by Gwen Jackson, the subtitle is "Inspired by Navajo Culture and Folklore." It was published in 2016 by Friesen Press.

When I see "inspired" or "based on" in a book title or in related information about the book, my critical lens kicks in pretty hard. Non-Native people are inspired to create a whole lot of not-good things! Mascots, for example. Those who created them were often "inspired" by some imagined aspect of how Indigenous people fight. In this case, we have a writer who is inspired--by a weaver and by what the writer perceives to be Native story--to create a picture book.

The author of Lump Lump and the Blanket of Dreams is not Native. This is not an #OwnVoices story. Indeed, I think some would say (me, for example) that she's appropriating something for her own purposes. A quick look at the first page of her book shows me this:
Awake in beauty!
Awake in beauty!
Today we will live in beauty!
Those of you who are Diné (or Navajo), or who know something about people of the Navajo Nation, will recognize the "in beauty" phrase as something that is significant to Navajo people. It is part of the Blessingway Ceremony. Lot of not-Navajo people are taken with "in beauty." It resonates, of course, and so people.... use it. Like Jackson did. She uses the phrase elsewhere in the book, too.

In the story, Lump Lump is a little bear who doesn't like the idea of going to sleep for the winter. Blue Bird is a blue bird who is a storyteller who, on hearing Lump Lump's resistance to the idea of hibernation, tells him a story about a blanket of dreams. It is made up of items like "the white light of morning" and "the red light of evening." Lump Lump wants a blanket like that, and so, Blue Bird sets out to make it happen. With the help of others, all the items necessary to make this "blanket of dreams" are assembled and taken to Spider Woman, who makes the blanket for Lump Lump.

Do the Navajo people have a story like that?

Or did Jackson make it up? My guess is the latter, but we don't know. For hundreds of years, non-Native writers have been "inspired" by some story they think is Native, and go on to make their own. When that story is of that author's creation, I think it is inappropriate for the writer to use "inspired by" in the title, subtitle, or anyway in the book, because... it isn't of that nation any longer!

Jackson thanks several Indigenous people in the back of the book. I ask writers to consult with Native people before doing this sort of book, but I grow increasingly wary of how they go about it--especially when the outcome is like Jackson's Lump Lump and the Blanket of Dreams. As you might imagine, Jackson's book is not recommended.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Dear Charlesbridge: It's not too late! Please do not release BEYOND THE GREEN

Editors note: On Tuesday, July 24, 2018, Charlesbridge tweeted their decision to cancel publication of this book. Thank you to all who shared this Open Letter. Speaking up makes a difference to the well-being of Native and non-Native children. 

Their tweets say:

After careful consideration, Charlesbridge has decided to cancel publication of the middle-grade novel BEYOND THE GREEN. We are grateful to those who have given us the chance to learn, grow, and apply these lessons to the future. We apologize to everyone affected by this situation. 

Below is the Open Letter I wrote on Saturday, July 18. 


Saturday, July 18, 2018

Dear Charlesbridge,

It's not too late for you to make a decision about releasing Sharlee Glenn's Beyond the Green. From what I see, it is scheduled to come out on October 2, 2018.

This is an Open Letter, which means that I hope others will read it and think hard before publishing stories about fostering or adoption of Native children. Let me explain why I think you need to take this action.

In Beyond the Green, Sharlee Glenn is telling a story about her own life. When she was a child, her family took in a Ute baby. In her author's note, Glenn tells readers that the baby (Gina) was five months old. She doesn't give us details about how social services selected Glenn's family as a placement for Gina. And she doesn't tell us how Gina left their home to rejoin her Ute mother.

What she does tell readers is that "Before 1978, children like Dori [Dori is the fictional Ute child in Beyond the Green] who were removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse..."

Here's why that sentence is a problem. Some children are removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse. In every demographic in the US, there are parents who are neglectful or abusive of their children. For their safety, those children are appropriately removed from their parents homes.


Prior to 1978, Native children were being taken from their homes at astonishing rates. Were Native parents worse than others? Of course not. A four year investigation into these removals led Congress to pass the Indian Child Welfare Act.

In her author's note, Glenn tells readers a little bit about the law. I imagine that she thinks her note is helpful...


Those readers will have read 230 pages of a White child's pain. Who causes that pain? ICWA and the Ute mother and grandmother.

The scant information in that author's note is not just thin--it is also incorrect. The most helpful action I can take right now is to ask people to read about the law from people who know what it says.

To start, take a look at the website of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. There, you will read that ICWA's intent was to protect the best interests of Native children, and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.

You can also read the section on ICWA in Matthew Fletcher's Federal Indian Law (2016). Fletcher is a lawyer, and a law professor at Michigan State University. Because his book is written in a way that I think is accessible to people who aren't trained as lawyers, I highly recommend it. Here's an extensive passage from the section about ICWA:
Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978, after more than four years of hearings, deliberation, and debate, in order to alleviate a terrible crisis of national proportions—the “wholesale separation of Indian children from their families….” Hundreds of pages of legislative testimony taken from Indian Country over the course of four years confirmed for Congress that many state and county social service agencies and workers, with the approval and backing of many state courts and some federal Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, had engaged in the systematic, automatic, and across-the-board removal of Indian children from Indian families and into non-Indian families and communities. State governmental actors following this pattern and practice removed between between 25 and 35 percent of all Indian children nationwide from their families, placing about 90 percent of those removed children in non-Indian homes. 
In a 1973 federal case involving children arising out of the Hannahville Indian Community, Wisconsin Potawatomies v. Houston, a tribal expert witness, Dr. James Clifton, “testified that the assumption of jurisdiction in forced adoption by white courts is a matter of great bitterness among the Indian community.” Michigan Indians grow up with oral traditions and stories about the day that a state or church authority figure would show up at the family’s house to take away Indian children. In 1974, a representative of the Native American Child Protection Council, based in Detroit and serving urban Indians, alleged before Congress that state officials had engaged in the “kidnapping” of urban Indian children. By the 1970s, one out of 8 Indian children in Michigan were adopted out of their families and communities, a rate 370 percent higher than with non-Indians.
A critical aspect to the legislative history of ICWA is the “wholesale” and automatic character of Indian child removal by state actors nationally. As the Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, William Byler, testified, the “[r]emoval of Indian children is so often the most casual kind of operation….” During the 1974 hearings, witness after witness would testify to the automatic removal of Indian children, often without due process. Byler testified that at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, state social workers believed that the reservation was, by definition, an unacceptable environment for children and would remove Indian children without providing services or even the barest investigation whatsoever. State actors made decisions to remove Indian children with “few standards and no systematic review of judgments” by impartial tribunals. A member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota testified that state actors had taken Indian children without even providing notice to Indian families, with state courts then placing the burden on the Indian parent to prove suitability to retain custody. The President of the National Congress of American Indians testified that a state caseworker came to an Indian woman’s house without warning or notice and took custody of an Indian child by force. Senator Abourezk, chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, stated after hearing much of this testimony: 
"[W]elfare workers and social workers who are handling child welfare caseloads use any means available, whether legal or illegal, coercive or cajoling or whatever, to get the children away from mothers they think are not fit. In many cases they were lied to, they given documents to sign and they were deceived about the contents of the documents."
More insidiously, state officials often arrived to take Indian children away from their families without any paperwork whatsoever. And then those children often were adopted by non-Indian families far from Indian Country, literally without a scrap of paperwork to conclude the deal. 
To remedy the problem, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act, a statute designed to guarantee minimum procedural safeguards for Indian tribes and Indian families in non-tribal adjudicative forums and to clarify jurisdictional gray areas between state and tribal courts. 

Because Beyond the Green is a semi-autobiographical story, Glenn and her publisher must think it is ok to put this book--with an alcoholic mother who leaves a five month old in a car while that mother gets "drunk as a skunk"--into the world, but I think it ultimately does more harm than good. It exploits a tremendous harm that was done to Native children and their parents. And, Beyond the Green foregrounds the pain of a White child and her family over the harm that was--and is--done to Native children and their families, at the hands of White people.

I have a lot more to say about this book, and may be back to do that. The parts about alcoholism and the part where Dori asks "what's a squash" are only two parts that I find very troubling. I've ordered Glenn's previous telling of this same story. In 1998, it was published as Circle Dance. 

For now, I am pleading with you, Charlesbridge, don't release Beyond the Green. 

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature


Update: Sunday, July 22, 2018

Several people have asked me to append my Twitter review of Beyond the Green to this letter. After looking into options to do that (I used to use Storify but that's gone), I've settled on "Spooler." To use it, you take the last tweet in your thread, paste its URL into the Spooler window, and wait for the app to run. Then, you've got the tweets and images or gifs, compiled like what I've pasting below (I've inserted returns to separate the tweets because they appeared as long paragraphs, and I'm removing the gif because the animation didn't work). I started this numbered twitter review thread on July 15 (Spooler removed the numbering). The last tweet in that thread was yesterday (Jul 21) after I received the 1998 version of Beyond the Green. Here you go!

Wow. I'm reading an ARC of a story for middle grade readers that has a Ute mother that is an alcoholic. She loses custody of her baby, who she has left in the car while she's in a bar "drunk as a skunk."

The baby is placed with a Mormon family. When she turns 4, the Native mother wants her back. ICWA has been passed, so, the White family has to give her up. But, they make terms. One is that it take place gradually. 

The second term is that the Native mother joins Alcoholics Anonymous so that she stays sober. Honestly--I'm furious that this author and this publisher are doing this book. It is due out later this year. 

It reminds me of Alexie telling people that if there's not a Native alcoholic in the story, then, it isn't authentic. That's such a destructive thing for him to say. It gives cover to writers who do crap like this. 

When the White family takes in this baby, they give her a new name: Dorinda, and call her Dori for short. That's another WTF moment for me. Was that a norm in the 70s? For white people to just up and rename a child they were fostering? 

The author either has no idea that there's a dark history of Native children being given White names at boarding/mission schools, or else knows but doesn't realize that her White characters doing this is not going to be well-received by Native readers who know that history. 

Another unsettling point is when the 4 year old starts to spend time with her Ute mother and grandmother (she doesn't know these two women are her family). She returns to the White family after an outing and asks what a "squash" is. 

Irene's mother, the 4 yr old says, lives with someone named "Did She Wash It Yet" who is a squash. Britt (main char) figures out that 4yr old is trying to say "squaw."

Irene's mother had told the 4 yr old that she is "an old squaw who loves you very much."

Would a Ute woman call herself a squaw? I doubt it. Why did the author of this book create that?!

Oh! Realizing I haven't identified author/book title. The author is Sharlee Glenn; the book is BEYOND THE GREEN. 

I have lot of notes on the book but am pausing for now. @charlesbridge really ought to pull it before it comes out. 

It sounds just like Sharlee Mullins Glenn's CIRCLE DANCE, published in 1998 by Deseret Book Company. 

Before I pause... The author's note says that before 1978, children like Dori (4 yr old) were removed from homes due to neglect or abuse. Some, yes, but ICWA came about because of nefarious removals. This author is misinforming the public. 

That author's note is incomplete. It mentions culture and language but not a word about sovereignty. What is the publisher's rationale for bringing it out? They expect it to sell, but, on what basis?! This is terrible. 

Back on Jul 21 to add to my Jul 15 thread on Glenn's BEYOND THE GREEN. I finished the ARC. Today, I wrote an Open Letter (and tweeted it to the publisher): (……)

In my mail this afternoon was a copy of CIRCLE DANCE, which is the 1998 version of BEYOND THE GREEN. I'm reading through it now. Some minor changes but pretty much the same story. 

In my Open Letter, I did not note all the problems I've noted in this thread, or the others that I found as I read BEYOND THE GREEN. I may do a follow up blog post, later. 

One thing I noted that is different: In the 1998 CIRCLE DANCE, the Ute mother is named Irene Uncasam. In the 2018 BEYOND THE GREEN, her name is Irene Uncarow. 

In CIRCLE DANCE on p. 64, the Ute child, Dori, meets her birth mother (Irene) but doesn't know that's her real mother. She's introduced to her as "Miss Uncasam." Dori says "Your hair is pretty, Uncle Sam."

Of course, the Mormon family corrects what Dori said. But that stands out to me because on p. 98 of BEYOND THE GREEN, Dori talks about a "squash" Irene lives with, that is named "Did She Wash It Yet". 

Glenn uses a 4 year old Ute child's spoken words to mock the Ute names that she (Glenn) gave to the Ute child's mother and grandmother. That is... messed up. 

The Mormon family corrected the 4 yr old when she said "Uncle Sam" and that happens again. Britta (main char) tells the child not to use the word squaw. I skimmed reviews on Goodreads & NetGalley. Frightening that they don't note these problems! 

In BEYOND THE GREEN, after Dori has spent a lot of time with Irene and is back with the Mormon family, Dori takes the Mormon mother's face in her hands and says "Mama, you're a white person." In CIRCLE DANCE, it is "Mama, you're a honky."

Another change from CIRCLE DANCE to BEYOND THE GREEN is name of an elderly Ute man who Britta (main char) thinks is a drunk. In CD his name is Red Ant Colorow. In BtG his name is Red Hawk Samawop. 

Some of these changes will strike some people as indicative of growth on author's part, from 1998 to 2018, but the things that are in BtG are so bad that the changes strike me as similar to what Drake did in THE CONTINENT: superficial.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Debbie--have you seen WILLA OF THE WOOD by Robert Beatty?

Editors note: Please see Jean Mendoza's review, posted to AICL on March 3, 2018. We do not recommend Willa of the Wood. 

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen Robert Beatty's Willa of the Wood. Published on July 10, 2018 by Disney Hyperion, a sneak preview of the first chapters was made available three weeks ago (mid to late June).  Willa of the Wood is set in the Great Smoky Mountains, in 1900. The book's description at Amazon does not say anything at all about Cherokees.... 

Move without a sound. Steal without a trace.
To Willa, a young night-spirit, humans are the murderers of trees. She's been taught to despise them and steal from them. She's her clan's best thief, creeping into the log cabins of the day-folk under cover of darkness and taking what they won't miss. It's dangerous work, but Willa will do anything to win the approval of the padaran, the charismatic leader of the Faeran people.
When Willa's curiosity leaves her hurt and stranded in the day-folk world, she calls upon the old powers of her beloved grandmother, and the unbreakable bonds of her forest allies, to survive. Only then does she begin to discover the shocking truth: that not all of her human enemies are the same, and that the foundations of her own Faeran society are crumbling. What do you do when you realize that the society you were born and raised in is rife with evil? Do you raise your voice? Do you stand up against it?
As forces of unfathomable destruction attack her forest home, Willa must decide who she truly is--facing deadly force with warm compassion, sinister corruption with trusted alliance, and finding a home for her longing heart.

But take a look at this excerpt of chapter 1 (source is The Laurel of Asheville): 
She came from a clan of forest people that the Cherokee called “the old ones” and told stories about around their campfires at night. The white-skinned homesteaders referred to her kind as night-thieves, or sometimes night-spirits, even though she was as flesh and blood as a deer, a fox, or any other creature of the forest. But she seldom heard the true name of her people. In the old language—which she only spoke with her grandmother now—her people were called the Faeran.
And this excerpt from the review at Kirkus tells us a bit about the Faeran:
Under the rule of the padaran, the old ways of speaking to animals and plants, foraging and caretaking, and using the old language are forbidden. Instead, Faeran children are forced to speak English and drafted into his fearsome army of trained hunter-thieves called jaetters, who must steal from the day-folk, or white homesteaders.
Those who know some Native history will see the parallel that Beatty seems to be developing. The "padaran" treat the "Faeran" a lot like the ways that Native children were treated in mission and boarding schools in the US.  Beatty's story--what I've seen so far--makes me uneasy. If I'm able to get the book, I'll be back with some thoughts on it.

Debbie--have you seen 24 HOURS IN NOWHERE by Dusti Bowling?

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen 24 Hours in Nowhere by Dusti Bowling.

It is due out on Sept 4, 2018 from Sterling Children's Books. Here's the description (from Amazon):
Welcome to Nowhere, Arizona, the least livable town in the United States. For Gus, a bright 13-year-old with dreams of getting out and going to college, life there is made even worse by Bo Taylor, Nowhere’s biggest, baddest bully. When Bo tries to force Gus to eat a dangerously spiny cactus, Rossi Scott, one of the best racers in Nowhere, comes to his rescue—but in return she has to give Bo her prized dirt bike. Determined to buy it back, Gus agrees to go searching for gold in Dead Frenchman Mine, joined by his old friends Jessie Navarro and Matthew Dufort, and Rossi herself. As they hunt for treasure, narrowly surviving everything from cave-ins to mountain lions, they bond over shared stories of how hard life in Nowhere is—and they realize this adventure just may be their way out. Author Dusti Bowling (Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus) returns to the desert to create a gripping story about friendship, hope, and finding the power we all have within ourselves.

The description doesn't say that Rossi is Tohono O'odham, but the reviews do. The reviewer at Kirkus, said this:
Although Gus is careful to point out that Rossi is Tohono O’odham, and later Rossi reveals some factoids about her heritage, his fascination with her dark ponytail and her general inscrutability reinforce stereotypes—as does the obviousness of the setup.

On the Edelweiss site, I am able to see the first pages. The main character, Gus, is being held down by the bully, Bo and his sidekicks, Jacob and Matthew (p. 3-4):
"Let him go, Bo," a voice said from behind me. Not just any voice--an unusually deep, raspy voice. A voice I would recognize anywhere.
"Go away, Rossi. This doesn't concern you," Bo said.
"Yeah, this doesn't concern you." Matthew echoed Bo. 
"Yes, it does," Rossi said. "You're angry I beat you again this morning, so you're taking it out on someone smaller and weaker than you. You're pathetic."
I pursed my lips. "Not that much small and weaker," I muttered.
"You're pathetic," Bo said. "Why don't you do us all a favor and go back to Mexico?"
I gritted my teeth. I tried to turn my head out of his grasp, but he gripped my hair tighter.
"Are you for real?" Rossie said. "You do realize not all brown people are Mexican, don't you?"
"Oh, excuse me," Bo crooned. "Then go back to the reservation."
"Yeah, go back to the Navajos," Jacob added, and I heard him and Matthew snicker together. What a couple of suck-ups.
I ground my teeth so hard, it was a wonder they hadn't already turned to dust like everything else around us. "She's Tohono O'odham, not Navajo," I grumbled.
Those opening lines... "go back to Mexico" and "go back to the reservation" are spoken by bullies. We're not supposed to like those guys. In a way, they're a modern form of Mrs. Scott, in Little House on the Prairie, saying "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

With the "go back to Mexico" line,  Bowling (the author) is clearly playing on present-day politics and the hate that the current US president has emboldened in so many people. But does it work? If you happen to be Native, or if you happen to have roots or family in Mexico, those lines may sting.

I am also curious about the mine the characters go into. How is that mine presented?

When the teens are trapped in that mine and talk about their worst day ever, what does the Native character talk about? What about Jessi, who is Mexican American?

I've requested a copy of the book. If I get it, I'll be back with my thoughts on it.