Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Recommended! nibi is water; nibi aawon nbiish, by Joanne Robertson; translated by Shirley Williams and Isadore Toulouse

nibi is water, nibi aawon nbiish
Written and illustrated by Joanne Robertson (
Translated by Shirley Williams and Isadore Toulouse
Published in 2020
Publisher: Second Story Press
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended

Last month I (Debbie) was in Toronto at the 2020 Ontario Library Association's Super Conference. There, I spoke (and ate, and laughed--a lot!) with Native women. At one of these moments, they were asking me if I'd seen Joanne Robertson's new board book yet. I had not, but as I listened to them talk about it... to the delight in their voices, I suspected it would be something I'd like, too. 

nibi is water, nibi aawan nbiish arrived at my house and sure enough, it lifted my day! The nuts and bolts, so to speak, are this: it is what some call a "concept" book. It tells us several characteristics of some thing... like an information book, but for very young readers. 

Robertson's book is about water and the many ways that a child experiences it. You can swim or bathe in it, you can drink it, you can use it to wash your clothes... But Robertson reminds us that we need to care for it, that we have to respect, love, and protect it because, as the final page tells us, water is life. 

If you got Robertson's The Water Walker you'll recognize the walkers from that book, in nibi is water, nibi aawan nbiish (note: keep your eyes open... they're in the book, more than once--this is the sort of detail that kids adore!).

I'll state the obvious: this is a bilingual book. On every page, you'll find Ojibwe words and at the end of the book, a pronunciation guide. Get a copy and come back here. Submit a comment! What do you see? What speaks to you? 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Debbie--have you seen BUFFALO DANCE: A BLACKFOOT LEGEND by Nancy Van Laan?

In today's mail is a question from a librarian. She's got a copy of Nancy Van Laan's Buffalo Dance: A Blackfoot Legend in her library and wonders if she should weed it.

I'm sharing how I go about evaluating a book.

First: is the author Native? In this case, no. Nancy Van Laan is not Native. When the book is one that looks like it might be a creation story, my impulse is to say that the book probably should be removed from the shelves, especially if it has "legend" in the title and if it is categorized as "folklore." Here's a screen cap of the entry in WorldCat (red circles are mine):

For decades, non-Native people have "retold" Native stories and called them myths, or legends, or folktales. Those books are usually shelved or categorized as "folklore" alongside Little Red Riding Hood. That's an example of institutional racism. Bible stories from the Christian bible aren't called folklore, right? So--that's one problem. Another is the integrity of the story itself. When an actual creation story is told by an outsider, chances are pretty high that there are errors in the telling, especially if their sources are outsiders, too. That likelihood means I wouldn't want Van Laan's book to be categorized as if its contents had the same integrity as this story, told by a Blackfoot writer.

Second: what is the publication year? In this case, 1993. That's old, especially when you think about how much the field has changed. In 2015, Corinne Duyvis's hashtag, #OwnVoices, took off. With respect to books by and about Native people, we've seen an increase over time, in books by Native writers. That's significant! There are many reasons #OwnVoices are important. With traditional stories that are creation stories, an insider knows the nuances of the story and how or when it can be told. If this book was by someone who is Blackfoot, I would call it #BlackfootVoice. But it isn't. It is by a white woman.

Third: what are the sources for the retelling? When I open the Amazon page I can see Van Laan names four sources. One is Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God. That book came out in 1959. I know Campbell has quite a lot of fans but I'm not among them. In his Hero with a Thousand Faces, chapter 1, he starts with "Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, [...] or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale..." Those clearly judgmental words didn't stop Campbell's book from being published in 1959, but it should stop you from thinking he's the bees knees, today. Van Laan's second source is The Blackfeet by John Ewers, published in 1958; and her third one is Blackfoot Lodge Tales by George Bird Grinnell published in 1962. I would look up those two sources to see how they are evaluated, today, by Native scholars. I wouldn't take them at face value because of the long history of outsiders going into Native spaces, and writing what they saw--from a white perspective that was supposedly objective. Her fourth source is The Buffalo by Francis Haines, published in 1970. A quick look at reviews of that book indicates it is the "tragic Indian" account that is captured by those dreadful "end of the trail" images.

Fourth: what does the book say? I don't have a copy of it at hand. I could go to the library and see one there. What I do see, online, is the introduction. It starts with "Long ago, when the Blackfoot Indians roamed the hills of the Great Plains of Montana, they depended on the meat and fur of the buffalo to survive." Speaking quite frankly, I find past tense wording like that highly problematic because it dovetails with the idea that Native peoples no longer exist. It confines our existence to the past, when we are very much part of the present day. The first and second paragraphs of the intro continue with past tense verbs. The third paragraph does have "is" but I don't think that one use of "is" is enough to displace the existing knowledge children have about Native peoples, or the extensive use of past tense in the first two paragraphs. I also object to the use of the word "roamed." I see that a lot in books about Native peoples. I view it as a biased word. It suggests they didn't have a homeland--that they just went here and there. It isn't a small problem. It contributes to the idea that Native peoples were primitive and uncivilized.

If I got a copy of the book, I would probably end up giving it a not-recommended label. If I do pick up a copy, I'll be back with more to say but based on what I see right now, I doubt that I would hand it to any child and if I was working in a library, I'd probably weed it.

Recommended: MARY AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS by Andrea L. Rogers

Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story
Written by Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee); illustrated by Matt Forsyth
Published in 2020
Publisher: Stone Arch Books (Capstone)
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended

Andrea L. Rogers is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her book, Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story came out on February 1, 2020. I've read it and I've followed conversations about it amongst citizens of the Cherokee Nation and am hoping for a review from a professor, soon. In the meantime, I want to make sure people order it for their children, or their classroom, or their library.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

An Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference

Devon Kerslake's Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture 
at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference* 
by Debbie Reese

Last year, Nancy Cooper (Ojibwe from the Chippewas of Rama First Nation) and Deanna Nebenionquit (Atikmeksheng Anishnawbek) invited me to be a featured speaker at the Ontario Library Association's 2020 Super Conference. Nancy and Deanna are planners for the Indigenous Stream. They wanted me to give the Indigenous Spotlight session. I accepted their invitation and spoke on January 29, 2020.

To prepare for it, I thought about concerns that Native peoples in my networks have been talking about in recent periods. Identity and fraudulent claims to Native identity are a primary concern. So, I settled on Politics, Ethics, and Native Identity as my topic. It was captured in real-time by Devon Kerslake, who sketched as I spoke. This is what it looks like (and isn't it the coolest?!):

To prepare for talks I give at a conference, I look to previous conferences to see what sorts of talks people have given. I saw that Tanya Talaga (Ojibwe) gave the 2019 Indigenous Spotlight talk. And, I saw that her remarks had been captured by Devon Kerslake, a graphic illustrator at Think Link Graphics:

I was psyched as I studied the visual artifact, or graphic recording of her talk (other phrases for this kind of work are story mapping and sketch notes). As I looked around the conference website, I saw that lectures given by other featured speakers had also been sketched out. In particular, I noted that there was one on intellectual freedom, given by James Turk. As I looked at it I saw the usual ideas that people put forth to discredit us when we object to something. I used content of Talaga's and Turk's lectures to frame my remarks. I don't know if I was successful or not. That was the first-time I've given a talk about that particular set of slides and that topic.

I didn't know that a similar record would be made of my talk!

As I set up my computer and tested the microphone, I saw a person come in and realized they were setting up to do one. I asked Nancy if she could take occasional photographs of it, as the illustrator worked.

My goal was to provide some personal historical context about identity, how Native identity was denigrated by state actors (federal government and its employees) in my personal family history, how identity can be monetized for personal gain, and the ethics--or lack of them--when a writer selects content for their stories.

What I'll do in the remainder of this post is tell you a bit more about the illustrations that the illustrator captured. When I have the illustrator's name, I'll be back to add it. I think it is Kerslake but will know for sure, later. [Update on Feb 3: I've heard from Devon Kerslake. It is, indeed, her work. I've added her name to the title of this post.]

The first things I said were about my tribal nation, Nambé Owingeh. I talked about growing up there, what I learned, and I showed some photos from there, including one of three-year-old me on my trike. The "best wheels" remark was about the hard rubber tires on that trike. They never got flat like the bicycle wheels would, later! I talked about liking school and getting a certificate from my teacher at the end of the year. I had the best grades that year. The "Naming Matters" part is about my name. My teacher was sure my parents did wrong in naming me Debbie. She insisted that Debbie is a nickname and not a proper name. Can you imagine that? The audacity of that woman! At the end of the year, she wrote Deborah on my certificate. I also talked about my grandfathers. My mom's father was Hopi. When he went to boarding school his name was changed, forever. My dad's father was White. His name was the same at his birth and death. The federal government ran those boarding schools and changed Native student's names. It was a political effort to turn us into white people. Obviously, it didn't work. We're still here, fighting to protect who we are: sovereign nations.

I showed the 2018 infographic that Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen imagined into being and that David Huyck drew and called attention to the data about Native people. It combines quantitative data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's metaphor that books can function as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. I call attention to the shards of glass at the feet of the Native and Children of Color, because in that 1% of books, a lot of the content is stereotypical, biased, or wrong. Here's the slide I used:

And here's how it was sketched:

I also talked at length about claims to Native identity, the ways that people speak of their Native identity (and how its shifts over time strike me as indicative of little to no connection with the people they claim to be from) and the benefits some writers receive.

For Bouchard, I talked about his 2016 video, "David Bouchard on Being Métis" and things he said. It begins with him saying "one of the nice things about being Métis is I have no plan." and that "When I was white I had a 10-year plan." I noted that his books are stereotypical and romantic or sentimental in tone, both of which I think obscure who we are as people. I referenced the letter he received in 2007 from the Metis Nation of British Columbia, stating they could not confirm his claim to being Métis.

When I spoke about Melanie Florence, I talked about the ethics of writing a story about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Back in 2017 when I read Missing Nimama I felt it was exploiting pain. I found her writings about why she wrote that book (to give voice to these women and their families) and a children's writing contest prompt she wrote (comparing missing and murdered Indigenous women to having some thing stolen from contest participants) to be insensitive. I believe firmly that some stories are best told by people with the experience necessary to share them with care.

From here on I'll use close ups of the post-talk image. The illustrator added color to what they had sketched during the talk. I continued with the "Is this your story to tell" question by referencing Rebecca Roanhorse and the stories she's chosen to tell in her adult books and her middle grade novel, Race to the Sun. These are stories taken from the Diné people. She is married into a Diné family. I recounted my initial support for her and Trail of Lightning and that I listened when Diné people objected to what she had done with their sacred stories and beings. I withdrew my support for that book because I agree with their objections. In several places, I have spoken or written about what we keep private. I've added "curtain" to Dr. Bishop's metaphor because Native peoples do, in fact, draw curtains on some of what we do (see, for example, page 390 of Critical Indigenous Literacies.)

(Note: A special thanks to Lisa Noble who was at the presentation, for suggesting I add these next two paragraphs and images.) A segment of my talk was about my personal family history and how that would shape my thinking if I was writing fiction. In my slides, I had this image. The top row is my grandparents, the second row is my parents, and the bottom is me. I said that I would feel comfortable writing about my life growing up at Nambé. I could write stories about riding my trike or bicycle, or playing in the river below our house (or any number of things we did!). Although I spent a lot of time at Ohkay Owingeh visiting my grandfather, uncles and aunts, and playing with cousins there (its about 25 minutes away from Nambé), I didn't grow up there and wouldn't feel ethical about writing a story from the point of view of a kid from Ohkay Owingeh. And though we went to Hopi a few times, I wouldn't create a character or story from a Hopi child's point of view. There's too much I don't know about the essence of what it means to grow up at Ohkay Owingeh or Hopi. My personal ethics mean that I wouldn't do it.

That personal history portion of my talk was captured in this sketch ("consider the ethics of identity"). At Nambé Owingeh I was taught what I can and cannot share. I have strong family relationships and friendships at Ohkay Owingeh but my personal ethics about respecting a tribal nations sovereignty and protocols over what they do not want shared means I would definitely not write a story about their sacred songs, dances, or stories.

I talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, which is the book that Jean Mendoza and I adapted from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz's book. I noted the mirrors for Pueblo children that I added to it (Po'Pay and the seed pot made by Nambé tribal member, Pearl Talachy) and the mirrors that Jean added for Muscogee children. I noted that in chapter ten, we wrote about activism, and I talked about how we used the book's index to decenter Whiteness.

This next illustration captures the Q&A. People wondered what to do about Bouchard's books. I asked them to think about why his books have such appeal. I used the phrase "tugging at your heart strings" to characterize the ways that we (readers) can be manipulated by text and image in ways that are not helpful to the sound education that teachers are expected to provide to children. Our responsibility as educators is to educate, not entertain. Entertainment is fine, of course, but not if the content of the entertainment is misleading or inappropriate. I suggested using such books with kids to teach them how to read critically. I issued a caution about DNA tests--well, it was more of a "don't do them!" statement, and I recommended Kim TallBear's book Native American DNA. The introduction to me and my talk was given by Feather Maracle. She referenced my work on Little House on the Prairie and the name change. In the Q&A someone asked me to talk about it, so I did. In answering that question I also talked about the backlash and security concerns when I speak at some places. In reply to a "what can we do" question, I asked people to speak up and do this work with me.

I think that's about it! As always, if something I said in this post (or in the lecture, if you were there or read/talked about it with someone) is not clear, let me know in a comment and I'll respond.

Additional thoughts about my trip to Toronto

The last event of my trip to Toronto was a visit to the First Nations House at the University of Toronto. There, we laughed, ate, and talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

Ishta Mercurio was at the First Nations House, too. She is one of the authors of a letter written to the Children's Book Guild in Washington DC over their treatment of Carole Lindstrom. Ishta, Julie Foster Hedlund, and Martha Brockenbrough's decision to write that letter embodies what I said in the Indigenous Spotlight Q&A (speak up).

A highlight: I met Joanna Robertson, author and illustrator of The Water Walker. She told me about her and Josephine Mandamin reading my review of the book as they drove together one day. I'll remember what she said, forever. I also met Samantha Martin-Bird and Robyn Medicine, who did a session on white fragility at the conference that drew fire from a conservative Toronto newspaper. Talking with them was way cool! And, the time I spent with Nancy Cooper, Deanna Nebenionquit, Jenny Kay Dupuis, and Feather Maracle was filled with affirmation and that strong sense of Native women, doing important work together.


Back to add the illustrated record of Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek's talk! I encourage you to head over to Twitter and see the tweets in the hashtag, #OLASC.

*On February 3, I heard from Devon Kerslake. She is the artist who sketched my talk. I've added her name to the title of the blog post.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Highly Recommended: Gitige - She/he Gardens

Gitige - She/he Gardens
by Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Anishinaabe consultants Tom Jack, Tara Dupuis, Marcus Ammesmaki, Jodie Locking
Photographs by Autumn Aubu't
Published in 2019
Published by Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

The first lines of Gitige - She/he Gardens are, "Here is a story about gardening and what happens with a little watering, sunshine, and children's special care." It's a story that unfolds in the photographs, as it follows young children in their garden through a growing season.

Gitige is the latest of several delightful board books Fond du Lac Band has created that incorporate  words in Anishinaabemowin (or Ojibwemowin). The others have all been reviewed or mentioned on AICL: Boozhoo/Come Play With Us, The Story of Manoomin, niimiwin/Everyone Dance, and Our Journey. Like several of them, Gitige is illustrated with photos of children from the Fond du Lac community. They show preschool-age children involved in the real work of gardening: digging, watering, working with adults, appreciating their plants, and sorting harvested food, as well as dressing up as flowers.

The photos on each page are labeled in English and Anishinaabemowin. At the end of the book is a page showing all the translations. One strength of the book is that the two languages are side-by-side on each page. There are nouns, verbs, phrases, and whole sentences for children to hear, see, and say.

Adults sharing the book can use the words in the captions to start conversations about the pictures,  encouraging children's oral literacy in either language.

An adult who wants to hear the pronunciations of many of these words can find audio by native speakers on The Ojibwe People's Dictionary web site.

Anyone expecting to see a Three Sisters garden in the book may be disappointed. These kids are growing sunflowers, carrots, and a riotous assortment of flowers as well as corn and squash. I found only one problem with the book. On the first page, it looks like the English equivalent of zhoomiingweni has been left off inadvertently. I don't know if that's true for every copy or if mine is the only one. In any case, with adult help, children can do the detective work of figuring out via the glossary which English word belongs there.

You can order Gitige - She/he Gardens and those other great board books from the Fond du Lac Head Start Web site. [Editing on 1/30/2020 to report that until Fond du Lac Head Start is able to update their books page, you can order the book by emailing jeannesmith@fdlrez.com. Thanks, Sam Bloom for letting me know about that problem!]

And ...

Are you a Native writer or artist with an idea for a story? Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing would like to hear from you! Black Bears and Blueberries is a small Native-owned independent press dedicated to developing Native-themed books by Native authors and illustrators. They published and help to market Gitige. See their page of author info, or contact Betsy Albert-Peacock directly at balbert@d.umn.edu.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Recommended: Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska

Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska
Written by Kaal.atk' Charlie Joseph (Tlingit), Hlii'ilaang Kun 'Lan-gaay
and HlGaa'xatgu 'Laanaas family members (Haida),
the Haayk Foundation, and Nancy Barnes (Tsimshian)
Illustrated by Crystal Kaakeeyaa Worl (Tlingit Athabascan)
Xaad Kil translations by Skil Jaadei (Linda Schrack), 
Kwiigaay I'waans (Phyllis Almquist), and Ilskyalas (Delores Churchill)
Sm'algyax translations by the Haayk Foundation
Published in 2019
Publisher: Sealaska Heritage
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Status: Highly recommended

Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska is part of Sealaska Heritage's Baby Raven Reads program. It's a multilingual board book -- three Tlingit songs, three Haida spoken-word poems, and three Tshimshian songs, each with English translation on the same page. Its companion CD features a bonus track: a Tlingit version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star sung by Keixwnei Nora Marks Dauenhauer.

Crystal Kaakeeyaa Worl's (Tlingit Athabascan) illustrations are quite appealing. Worl places formline figures amid washes of color and stylized natural features (such as clouds, water, flowers), and includes images of "everyday" tools such as a halibut hook and a berry basket. Some images are contemplative, and others have a lot going on. There's plenty to talk about with little ones on each page.

"Cradle songs" are not necessarily lullabyes! Don't expect to rock the baby to sleep with the book's companion CD. Some of these songs have a lively beat and are about activities like fishing for halibut and picking berries. Some are about family time -- like the Haida spoken-word piece that describes something that often happens when there's a newish baby at a family gathering. The English translation is:

Come, let us take the baby on our knees!
Come, let us take the baby on our knees!
Hand the baby to one another inside of her father's house, 
hand the baby to one another!

The sweet memories that one brings to mind! Handing babies around!

The book's back matter explains important facts about its content. "Most songs in Southeast Alaska Native culture are restricted from general public use because of clan or family ownership," the statement begins. Debbie Reese has pointed out many times that some aspects of Pueblo ceremonies and religious ways of being are not to be shared with outsiders. The metaphor she uses is that of a curtain drawn between those things and the parts of Pueblo life that can be shown to others.

The publisher goes on to say, "The songs in this book include traditional songs in the public domain and original works reprinted here with permission." As an outsider, I could be missing something, but to me it looks like Sealaska Heritage has made sure  all songs are carefully attributed. If there's a problem I haven't noticed, I hope someone will let us know!

The CD liner notes contain additional details. Two of the Tlingit songs are attributed to Kaal.atk' Charlie Joseph, and one to Clara Peratrovich. The Haida songs are "adapted from songs owned by" two families. The Tsimshian songs are contemporary, composed in English and translated into Sm'algyax by the Haayk Foundation. So it does appear that Cradle Songs shares nothing that ought to stay behind that curtain Debbie talks about.

Performers on the CD are Ed Littlefield (Tlingit), Skil Jaadei (Haida), David R. Boxley (Tsimshian), Nancy Barnes (Tsimshian), Nancy Evelyn Barnes, and Katie Price. They all enunciate the words in each of their languages so clearly that I can discern even the sounds that are unfamiliar to English speakers, such as differences in vowel length, and what language specialists call pharyngeal consonants. Most of the songs have repetitive wording, and all are short enough to be repeated in full in less than a minute. All that repetition is good for teaching beginners the sounds, syntax, and grammar of a language.

If you're a parent or grandparent concerned about Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian language preservation, Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska seems like a great addition to your family collection of books and CDs.  Even if you don't plan to learn or teach any of those languages, Worl's illustrations can spark conversations, and the English versions of the songs tell brief but interesting stories. Besides, research suggests that hearing different languages is good for infants' brains.

You can order Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska directly from Sealaska Heritage, and take a look at more of their language preservation resources, too.

Here's just one more of these cradle songs.

The English version is:

Whose little girl is that
Packing something up the hill?
What is that chubby little girl up to?
Is that my daughter?
That's her! That's her!

See what's in the arms of that "chubby little girl?" BOOKS! I love it! I hope Sealaska Heritage has more like this one in the works!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

NOT RECOMMENDED: Rebecca Roanhorse's RACE TO THE SUN. A review essay by Michael Thompson (Muscogee Creek)

With his permission, American Indians in Children's Literature is publishing Michael Thompson's essay about Rebecca Roanhorse's middle grade novel, Race to the Sun, published in 2020 by Disney Hyperion in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Thompson is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation and taught high school in Farmington, New Mexico. He does not recommend Roanhorse's book. 


NOT RECOMMENDED: Rebecca Roanhorse's Race to the Sun

What will Rebecca Roanhorse's Race to the Sun 
contribute to our understanding of the Native world it portrays?
Review essay by Michael Thompson (Muscogee Creek)

When Rebecca Roanhorse published her dystopian fantasy novel Trail of Lightning, I wrote at length about my grave concerns for her appropriation and distortions of Dine’ cultural narratives. I noted, as a Native educator and a Navajo in-law, that numerous Navajo writers were voicing similar objections, many of which are archived at Debbie Reese’s important website (AICL).

Now that Roanhorse has published a YA novel, Race to the Sun, my concerns remain unchanged, and arguably the stakes are even higher, as this book is likely to reach a much larger audience of younger readers, who are both Native and non-Native.

Although my primary conflict with RTTS is its failure to observe traditional boundaries that normally protect cultural narratives from appropriation, I will note briefly that there are some unusually problematic internal inconsistencies in the narrative and in some characterization.

For example, are we really to think that a young Navajo woman who has undergone her kinaalda is clueless at solving the riddle of what “four mountains bind you to your home”? Or that her father, a man who’d married a woman whose secret identity was supposedly a monsterslayer, would be seeking to work for a major oil and gas company that is being protested by Native people for its pipeline?

Moreover, there are some elements that are jarringly inconsistent with actual Navajo life and culture – the six stanza riddle that sets the quest seems straight out of European folklore, as does the plot structure that is clearly derived from classic stages of the hero’s journey, as well as the book and the sword that are among the monster slaying weapons provided by the Sun. And finally, I could barely believe that the climactic battle at Tse’Bit’Ai’ actually included Spider Woman dressed much like the Marvel superhero and casting a life-saving web. Clearly, the author feels free to mix and match whatever cultural/literary elements suit her fancy. This is opportunism on a grand scale.

Yet the greatest problem here is a simple one. Roanhorse must know that some traditional Navajo people consider her use of sacred figures and practices profoundly inappropriate. Those objections are well-documented.

She just doesn’t care.

Years ago I wrote an article for Tribal College Journal about the importance of the oral tradition in tribal college classrooms. I spoke with several Native scholars and instructors in researching that piece. One of the most significant personal conclusions I came to was this: as place-based, earth-based, community based cultures, tribal people honor the story of the group, its history and values and beauty, above the imagination of the solitary artist.

And I might add that the most important stories are often seen as belonging to the group, not to an individual to do with as he or she pleases. When I was first given a few traditional songs to learn to sing in ceremony, I was told this by my teachers: don’t add anything, don’t change anything, don’t take anything away.

That’s how it is possible to keep cultural knowledge intact for thousands of years.

For many traditional Native people, our origin stories, our ceremonial songs and teachings – passed down from our ancestors for centuries -- have a deeply sacred aspect, which in turn has made possible our cultural survival.

I am well aware that many people, maybe even a majority of Native people, consider the objections I am making inconsequential. So be it.

But there are at least some Native people I know who believe that we must always push back against anything that would diminish our origin stories, our worldviews. That means, among other things, protecting our stories as they were handed down to us.

As an educator, one of the most important questions I would ever ask about any work categorized as Native literature is this: what will it contribute to our understanding of the Native world it portrays?

When I consider Race to the Sun, I find almost nothing of real value to deepen one’s understanding of actual Navajo teachings but rather a mishmash of coming of age tropes from various non-Native cultures and from popular American culture, sprinkled with just enough familiar Navajo elements (hogans, Navajo tacos, geographic icons, and the like) to label it a Navajo story. No doubt there is a great deal of currency in mainstream readership for doing this. But there is little here to educate young Navajo or non-Navajo readers about the real meaning of the Dine’ narratives’ actual Holy People or the complex principles on which they are based.

The literature that Roanhorse makes uses a kind of cultural costumery and caricature. She takes characters and iconic landmarks from a rich, interconnected set of sacred Navajo stories, which have profound significance within that context, and she uses them as plastic action figures and dramatic settings to spin out whatever pop culture genre she likes, without any real regard for the actual gravity that traditional Navajo people would attach to them.

This is cultural reductionism, plain and simple.

Spider Woman, for the Dine’, does not belong in the Marvel universe, however many books that may sell. She belongs exactly where she has always been -- in the Dine’ universe – with beauty all around her.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Changes ahead at American Indians in Children's Literature

Changes Ahead at American Indians in Children's Literature
Debbie Reese

When I launched American Indians in Children's Literature in 2006, it was my effort to make my research and thinking available to people who don't have access to professional or academic journals. Among my first posts are two about Lois Duncan's Season of the Two Heart. As I look back at it, I see that I did not use "recommended" or "not recommended" in the title of the post. In recent years, we have been adding our recommendation as part of the title of a post. Sometimes, a friend or colleague wrote something for AICL. I'd publish their post and include their name in the title of the post.

In 2016, Jean Mendoza became co-owner of AICL. Late last year, I realized that the only way that readers could tell who had posted an item was by looking at the tiny auto-generated note at the bottom of a post. Because those letters are so tiny, people were crediting me for work Jean did. That is not acceptable. So, as we move into 2020, we are making some changes!

Signed Headings

As you can see at the top of this post, its title (Changes Ahead...) and its Author (Debbie Reese) are in bold and centered. We'll do that for posts that are not book reviews.

Standardized Book Review Format

We are going to begin each book review with an image of the book cover, the book title, author, publisher... and we're adding "Reviewed by: ___" so that it is clear who is doing the review. Here's how that looks:

See the four asterisks at the bottom of that screen capture? Beneath the asterisks, we'll dive into our review. We've got different styles of writing. Some days our writing is formal. Sometimes it is more conversational. And sometimes I have a brief review that summarizes a series of tweets that I did as I read a book, followed by the tweets.

Our "Best Books" Lists

Over the years, we've had two kinds of year-end lists. I've done ones that are a compilation of Recommended and Not Recommended books in a given year. That allowed me to provide readers with a comprehensive list of every book I reviewed during that year. That included books published in that year, but it also included posts about older books.

In recent years, I switched to doing "Best Of (year)" lists that only included books published in that year. That is in keeping with what book review journals do each year but I find it limiting because older books don't get visibility that I want them to have. Jean and I are going to try out a few options to revamp the annual Best Book lists.

We look forward to figuring out a way to share a page of Best Books that includes books published in 2020, and ones we reviewed during 2020 that might have come out in 2015. And--we want to give visibility to problems in books we do not recommend, and in books we recommend with caution.

One more thing! We do more than book reviews at AICL. Sometimes we do essays about a topic or event of interest to us, personally or professionally. We want to be able to include links to some that we think readers should see.

We don't know what this will look like yet, but as the year progresses, we'll be working on it, behind the scenes. As always, we invite your feedback!

Sunday, January 12, 2020


Regular readers of AICL know that Jean Mendoza and I spent the last three years adapting Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States in an edition for young readers. It came out in June of 2019, as An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

We are glad to see it on year-end "Best Of" lists. Some are:

Booklist Editors' Choice Books for Youth 2019
Kirkus Reviews Best YA Nonfiction of 2019
School Library Journal Best Nonfiction of 2019
New York Public Library Best Books for Teens
Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Kids in 4th-8th Grades
Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, Best Books for Young Readers of 2019

If you're a teacher, parent, or librarian who plans to use the book, you'll definitely want to download the terrific Teacher's Guide to the book that Dr. Natalie Martinez wrote. She created several lesson plans, too! They are:

The Unitarian Universalist Association selected it for its 2019-2020 Common Read. Folks who are participating will definitely find the guide and lesson plans helpful.

If you see other listings or uses that we could add, let us know!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Recommended: "Grace" and "Homecoming" by Darcie Little Badger in TAKE THE MIC

"Grace" and "Homecoming" 
Written by Dr. Darcie Little Badger
Published in 2019 in Take the Mic
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic)
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Status: Recommended


Dr. Darcie Little Badger has two stories in Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance. In the final pages of the book you can read a little about her. I follow her on Twitter (@ShiningComic) and it has been terrific reading her tweets as she's made her way to that PhD in Oceanography from Texas A&M. 

Edited by Bethany Morrow, Take the Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance came out in 2019 from Scholastic. Here's the description:
You might be the kind of person who stands up to online trolls.Or who marches to protest injustice. 
Perhaps you are #DisabledAndCute and dancing around your living room, alive and proud. 
Or perhaps you are the trans mentor that you wish you had when you were younger. 
Maybe you call out false allies, or stand up to loved ones. 
Maybe you speak your truth and drop the mic, or maybe you take it with you when you leave. 
This anthology features fictional stories--in poems, prose, and art--that reflect a slice of the varied and limitless ways that readers like you resist every day. Take the Mic's powerful collection of stories features work by literary luminaries and emerging talent alike, including Newbery-winner Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestseller Samira Ahmed, anthologist and contributor Bethany C. Morrow, Darcie Little Badger, Keah Brown, Laura Silverman, L.D. Lewis, Sofia Quintero, Ray Stoeve, Yamile Mendez, and Connie Sun, with cover and interior art by Richie Pope.
The first and last story in the book are Darcie's. The first one is "Grace" and the last is "Homecoming." In her introduction, Bethany wrote that the resistance in "Grace" is an Indigenous girl who doesn't stand for unwanted physical advances. That does happen in the story and I love how it is done. As an Indigenous person, I see several other acts of resistance in Darcie's stories.

"I'm Lipan Apache" is one. With those three words in the story, Grace is pushing back on the notion that Native peoples are monolithic. Another misguided notion is that Native peoples live on reservations. In fact, some of us do and some of us don't. Some are on our reservations sometime, but not all the time. And some of our nations don't have reservations. Some of us have ancestral land that isn't reservation land, that we return to periodically. That theme in "Grace" is embodied by her account of where she's lived, where she's living when the story takes place, and where she's going to live.

Turning now to "Homecoming," Grace, her mom, and her mama are home, on the ancestral lands of the Lipan Apache people. Summer is over; it is the first day of school. Grace is doing that thing that many teens do: going through her closet trying to decide what to wear. She settles on a T-shirt with Silver Synapse on it. He's an Apache superhero. Grace got the shirt at Indigenous Comic Con. At school, she's one of the few Native students.

Her mom is driving her to school. When they get there, they see that a protest is taking place in front of the high school. People are carrying signs. On one, Grace sees that it says "BRING BACK OUR BRAVE." Painted on it is a cartoonish and stereotypical image.

Inside the school, Grace heads to her first class and meets a girl named Naomi who, noticing Grace's shirt, thinks Grace is part of the protest. When Grace tells her who Silver Synapse is, Naomi asks if Grace is Native--and then--"how much are you?"

Grace's reply to Naomi is another act of resistance:
"Blood quantum isn't our thing," I said. "My mother is Lipan and I am too." 
Naomi is satisfied with that and doesn't probe further. The two go on to talk about the protesters who want the mascot reinstated. People who don't read Native news, or news stories about mascots, may not know that schools do the right thing and get rid of mascots, but then alums object and mascots get reinstated.

The Jan 11, 2020 issue of The New York Times ran a story about this: Officials Called 'Redmen' a Racist Mascot. Then Voters Weighed In; and see the Timeline in "American Indian Mascots" by Paulette Fairbanks Molin in American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children edited by Arlene Hirschfelder, Paulette F. Molin, Yvonne Wakim, and Michael A. Dorris.

As "Homecoming" draws to a close, Grace is at a protest. She's scheduled to speak but learns that the event is set up to give "both sides" equal time to respond to an issue. Grace is indignant at that idea--as anybody should be, about issues of social justice. She takes the mic and says:
“Hóóyíí, Shizhách’i’íí ashíí Shitsiłki’ii!” I boomed. “My name is Grace. Like my mama, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers, I am Lipan Apache. To my Native siblings, mínì’ níáá dààgó̱ó̱t́í!”  
I paused to look every Bring-Back-the-Braves protester in the eye.  
“My humanity,” I continued, “is not up for debate. Xásteyo.”
Those last words are so powerful (Xásteyo means thank you)!

I've read several of Darcie Little Badger's stories and each time, I'm deeply moved by what she writes. I highly recommend "Grace" and "Homecoming."

National Geographic's Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture, Not Recommended, Part 2

Encyclopedia of American Indian History & Culture: Stories, Time Lines, Maps, and More
Written by Cynthia O'Brien
Published in 2019
Publisher: National Geographic
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Status: Not Recommended

 Debbie's review (1/4/2020) of Encyclopedia of American Indian History & Culture: Stories, Time Lines, Maps, and More focused mainly on visual images used in the book. There are enough problems with a number of the photographs and other images used to warrant not recommending the book. I reached a similar conclusion after looking at selections of the Encyclopedia's written content, and here I'll talk about that process.

My focus was on terminology and concepts relevant to Indigenous/US political history. I wanted to know what the book had to say about the Doctrine of Discovery, settler-colonialism, Manifest Destiny, Native sovereignty, the taking of Indigenous homelands, and Indigenous resistance. What words writers choose, and what they leave unsaid, reveals much about their understanding of a topic and about what they want readers to understand.

Let's start with sovereignty. The term is in the glossary, but the definition says nothing about its connection to Indigenous reality. It's not in the index, but as Debbie mentioned, the publisher's note

on p. 8 devotes about 300 words to tribal sovereignty (see image below), including a bit about the concept of "domestic dependent nations" and allusion to particular legal rights of Native nations. But readers must wade through frustrating mischaracterization of Indigenous history. "As Europeans took over more territory" leaves out the fact that the US, from the moment it was established by former Europeans, also "took over" Indigenous homelands. More about that later. And in paragraph 2, the phrase "lost their sovereignty" makes it sound like the Nations, oops, dropped it somewhere, when in fact the colonizing US government refused or failed to consistently recognize or honor Indigenous sovereignty.

The Encyclopedia misses other key opportunities to deepen readers' understanding of Indigenous history. It has no glossary/index entries for "Doctrine of Discovery" or "Manifest Destiny."  Here I'll talk about those and some related terms that should be dealt with more effectively in the book. (Debbie and I learned some things about the challenges and benefits of glossaries and indexes when we adapted An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, and we have an appreciation for how they can promote or hinder readers' understanding of a book's content.)

First, the Doctrine of Discovery. This product of collaboration between European rulers and the Roman Catholic Church laid the groundwork for European invasion and colonization of Indigenous homelands in what are currently called the Americas. The Doctrine of Discovery has ongoing influence on policies and attitudes here. (For example, in Brazil, the current elected leader denies Indigenous peoples' right to exist on their homelands, and the current resident of the White House greatly admires Andrew Jackson, proponent of "Indian Removal.") Knowing about the Doctrine of Discovery is essential to understanding the history and present circumstances of every Indigenous nation. But it's not in the glossary or index, and if it's mentioned in the text, I didn't find it.

BTW, the Encyclopedia's glossary definition of Catholicism leaves out that Church's key role in the Doctrine of Discovery. Also, "the mission years" highlighted in the book's California section means the years of Catholic missions, but that's not made clear. The textbox titled Mission Indians (see below) explicitly mentions Spanish brutality toward the Indigenous people, then says that the Spanish "also baptized as many as possible into the Catholic Church." Readers deserve to be shown more clearly how Spanish soldiers and priests together actively sought to destroy multiple Nations in what is currently called California, and how baptism was part of that. And again, here's the notion that Indigenous traditional ways were "lost." Not so. Colonizers intentionally destroyed them.

Manifest Destiny. Awareness of Manifest Destiny is basic to understanding the impact of "Western expansion" on Indigenous nations. But there's no glossary definition for it, nothing in the index, and it isn't mentioned in the definition of Western expansion, below.

Notice how the glossary definition above uses passive voice ("the name given to")?  That glosses over the fact that colonizers have named it that -- not the Indigenous people on whom Western expansion was inflicted. Also, "acquired" doesn't begin to describe the bloodshed and treachery that enabled the US government to take Indigenous lands. "Settled" conjures up images of individuals and families quietly and legally building little homes and communities for themselves (Little House Anywhere Charles Ingalls Wants to Build One) -- and leaves out the central, often coordinated, roles of governments, land speculators, militias/military, missionaries, business owners, and squatters in the takeover. "Violently and intentionally took and colonized Indigenous homelands" would be more accurate.

Some terms the Encyclopedia does include are handled in ways that leave much to be desired. The glossary definition of colonization ("settling and taking control of a place and its indigenous people") is far too mild. And colonization period -- defined here as "the time between 1607 and 1783, during which the Europeans settled in what is now the United States" has two problems. First, the US itself continued to colonize the continent, taking Indigenous homelands, long after its independence from Britain. (That's what "Western expansion" was.) Second, the US is a colonizing nation in present time (e.g., Puerto Rico, Guam). A third problem is that there's no index entry for either of those glossary terms, so you can't easily look up what else the book says about them, if anything.

As Debbie noted in her review, National Geographic has said it wants to stop its long-time racist misrepresentations of Indigenous people. Debbie mentions that several Native scholars are credited as consultants on the Encyclopedia. That's a wise move on National Geographic's part, though we know there's no guarantee that Native people's contributions were actually used. Some content and wording depart from what's typical in colonizer-centered informational/reference books about Indigenous history, which suggests some use of Indigenous input. For example, the introduction, by former US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne), uses the term "European invaders". (But if "invaders" appears elsewhere in the book, I didn't find it.)  The Encyclopedia does refer frequently to Native nationhood, Native rights, acts and campaigns of resistance, and present-day existence. It defines words like encroachment, tribal status, federal recognition, and reparation, which Native consultants would likely push to have included.  Unfortunately, that's not enough, because those positives share space with problematic text like this photo caption:

It's better to refrain from commenting if one isn't sure why a Native person dresses
a certain way. Also, "more attractive" than what, and to whom, and why? 
Treating such cultural information as some kind of mystery is a form of Othering.

and this "In the Know" box:
The circled statement places traditional Salish beliefs in the past, when there 
may well be contemporary Salish people who share them. The wording
 also makes Salish beliefs sound "different", though in fact, a number of 
contemporary religions believe in guidance by spiritual guardians. For 
example, some Christians profess belief in guardian angels.

It would be wonderful to have a visually appealing reference book that provides young people with a cohesive, well-grounded, well-sourced, thoroughly Indigenous perspective on Indigenous nations and cultures, and their history with what is currently called the United States. National Geographic's Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture is not that book.

Edited on 1/12/2020: It's important to also mention that, although the Encyclopedia refers to Catholicism in the glossary and briefly in some of the text, it makes another glaring omission: there is no glossary entry or indexing for Protestantism and/or Calvinism, both of which played a considerable role in Indigenous-white relations outside of what is currently known as California. The first European colonizers in places like Plymouth and Jamestown were Protestant, as were many of those who came after. They tended to have little regard for Indigenous people's religions, and often considered them to be consorts of the devil. Much more could be said of that, and more should have been said in the NatGeo Encyclopedia.