Friday, September 22, 2006

Jean Craighead George's JULIE OF THE WOLVES

First published in 1972 by Harper & Row, Julie of the Wolves won the Newbery Medal in 1973. It is included on a wide range of recommended book lists. It is available in audio and video; there is a sequel to it. Numerous teacher's guide and activity books are available for teachers to use when teaching the book. This is the summary of the Julie of the Wolves (from the Library of Congress):
"While running away from home and an unwanted marriage, a thirteen year old Eskimo girl becomes lost on the North Slope of Alaska and is befriended by a wolf pack."
A few days ago on child_lit (an Internet listserv for discussion of children's books), a subscriber posted a link to a review of the book on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network webpage. The reviewer, Martha Stackhouse, is Inupiaq. She points out misrepresentations and misconceptions of Inupiaq culture, and says

 "I humbly would not recommend the book to be put on school shelves."

Spend some time on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network pages. Read Martha Stackhouse's review of Julie of the Wolves. There is much to learn on their site about this and many other popular children's books set in Alaska (i.e. Gerald McDermott's Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest).

To find the book reviews, go to Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature, and click on "Examining Alaska Children's Literature" and "Critiquing Indigenous Literature for Alaska's Children."

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Native Americans and Thanksgiving

Reenactments of historical events are a much loved pastime. I first came across one 12 years ago in Illinois. On a field were people dressed as knights, carrying all manner of weaponry. I thought it was a movie set, but learned it was a group that does this on a regular basis.

In school, we teach children to do reenactments, like "The First Thanksgiving." Lots of time is spent making hats and headdresses and other articles of clothing, and, talking about "The First Thanksgiving."

But is this particular reenactment best practice? Is it educationally sound? Certainly, it is fun for some of those who do it, but should teachers and children be doing it at all?

Teachers work very hard, but receive little respect for their work. And, they are underpaid, too, often spending chunks of their too-small salaries to buy things their schools cannot provide. Due to lack of time and resources, teachers often recycle activities from one year to the next. I think Thanksgiving reeactments are one of those things that gets recycled. Developing new ways of teaching about Thanksgiving will take time and money. Before that can happen, however, teachers must learn more about Pilgrims, Indians, and "The First Thanksgiving."

They can start with Deconstructing the Myths of "The First Thanksgiving," a free resource by Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin, available at Oyate. At the bottom of "Deconstructing the Myths" are two lists of recommended books. It includes three lists of books: 1) Recommended Books about Thanksgiving, Also take a look at their  "Books to Avoid" about Thanksgiving.

Not surprising, but still disheartening, is the number of books on the first two lists. Dow and Slapin's short list includes only one work of fiction: Jake Swamp's Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, published in 1995 by Lee and Low. The other five children's books on their list are non-fiction, and one is a teacher resource. In contrast, there are over 80 books on the "Books to Avoid" list, but it doesn't have to stay that way.

Teachers are a powerful group. You can effect change. Because of teachers' letters telling them that children were using "Indian Red" to color Indians red, Crayola changed the name of their "Indian Red" crayon to "chestnut." With Thanksgiving coming up, perhaps teachers can push publishers to give them better books. To find contact information for them, go to Children's Book Publishers at Kay Vandergrift's website on children's literature. (You'll have to hunt around on a publisher's website to find their "contact us" page with addresses and phone numbers.)

Obviously, we need more books on Dow and Slapin's recommended list, but they won't be written unless people ask for them.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Review of Ben Mikaelsen's TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR

Editor's Note, March 10, 2008: A lot of people come to this page from "Web English Teacher" and may be surprised to read the critical review below. I hope that you'll consider it and the other essays on this site about Touching Spirit Bear. Share what you read here with your students. How does information provided here compare to positive and favorable reviews? Does the negative review change your view of the book in any way?
__________________
SEPTEMBER 20, 2006: Beverly Slapin's review of Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear

Editor's Intro to Slapin's Review: American society loves to love Indians and things-Indian. Or rather, things they think are Indian. There’s a long history of exploiting our ways of being. Touching Spirit Bear is another example of that exploitation. You don’t have to buy or read it. There are better books available. To find them, visit the Oyate website.

[Note: This review is used here with permission of the author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]

Mikaelsen, Ben, Touching Spirit Bear. HarperCollins, 2001, 241 pages, grades 5-up; Tlingit

For centuries, restorative justice or circle justice has been practiced in one form or another by many Indian communities. The object is to restore the wellbeing of the victim or the victim’s family, rather than to punish the offender. This is done through a multi-step talking-circle approach, in which the people most affected by the crime, along with community representatives, come together to heal and to try to agree on a fair and reasonable settlement. The sentencing plan involves commitment by the community, family members, and the offender. In 1996, a pilot circle justice project, in conjunction with the criminal justice system, was initiated in Minnesota

In Touching Spirit Bear, Cole Matthews is an angry, out-of-control Minneapolis teen, the son of wealthy, abusive alcoholic parents, convicted of viciously beating a classmate. This manipulative and violent young offender is given one more chance: to take part in the circle justice program. Soon Cole finds himself on a remote Alaskan island in Tlingit territory, banished for a year, overseen by a Tlingit parole officer and a traditional elder—and watched by an enormous white “spirit bear.” Here, he resists, wrestles with, and ultimately comes to terms with this chance to take responsibility for what he’s done. 

Ben Mikaelsen’s writing, in places, is evocative and a dead-on accurate portrayal of a troubled teen. After the bear near-fatally mauls Cole, there are excruciatingly detailed descriptions of his struggles to survive by eating worms and bugs, a live mouse and even his own vomit. With broken ribs, legs and an arm, and too weak to get up, he defecates in his pants, and fights to stay alive. It is during this time that Cole begins to understand his vulnerability and his relationship to everything that surrounds him. It is here that his transformation begins. 

All of this having been said, Touching Spirit Bear is fatally flawed by Mikaelsen’s inexcusable playing around with Tlingit culture, cosmology and ritual; and his abysmal lack of understanding of traditional banishment. It is obvious that what he doesn’t know, he invents. Edwin, the Tlingit elder, instructs Cole to: jump into the icy cold water and stay there as long as possible; pick up a heavy rock (called the “ancestor rock”) and carry it to the top of a hill; push the rock (now called the “anger rock”) back down the hill; watch for animals and dance around the fire to impersonate the animal he sees (called the “bear dance,” “bird dance,” “mouse dance,” etc.); announce what he’s learned about the characteristics of that animal from his dance; and finally, carve that animal on his own personal “totem pole.”

This is all garbage. The purpose of banishment is to isolate a person so that, in solitude, he can think deeply about his life and relations, and prepare to rejoin his community. When someone is banished, he is left to learn on his own whatever is to be learned. It is not about white boys “playing Indian.” It is not about teaching white boys the rituals of another culture. And most especially, it is not about carrying rocks up a hill and performing a bunch of stupid cross-cultural animal impersonation dances.
The author’s own relationship with bears and his supposed almost-close-enough-to-touch encounter with a “three-hundred-pound male Spirit Bear” notwithstanding, Touching Spirit Bear is a terrible book.

—Beverly Slapin

[Update, 5/7/2008: Please read further information about Touching Spirit Bear here and at the TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR section in the column on the right side of this page.]

Monday, September 18, 2006

"What Works Clearinghouse"

In the last few days, more than one Internet listserv has carried a post about the U.S. Dept of Education's "What Works Clearinghouse." It prompted me to visit the pages for the clearinghouse, and then to post my thoughts on the contents of the Character Education page. Below is what I wrote. This is important to me because of the lack of content regarding American Indians.

-----------------
On Sunday, September 17, 2006, I went to the What Works Clearinghouse web page, interested specifically in the Character Education component. This was my first visit to the site, which is maintained by the US Dept of Education.

It was interesting (though not surprising, given the Bush administration's NCLB program and focus on "accountability") to see the Clearinghouse's emphasis on testable, measurable outcomes for a student's development of moral ways of thinking and acting. Morality and character, apparently, can be measured by tests.

Of equal interest to me was the topics in the "Facing Our History" portion of the Character Ed pages. In this module, students "examine historical events, in particular the events that led to WWII and the Holocaust."

There is some material on slavery, too, but as far as I am able to determine, not a single reference to moral questions regarding the treatment of American Indians. There is some material regarding the Eugenics programs, but it looks like it is limited to Hitler, when there was a very active program here (in the U.S.) as late as the 1970s.

It appears to me that the program, which "aims to promote core character education values and to help middle and high school students develop moral reasoning skills" deliberately uses events that make other countries the "bad guys" while avoiding immoral actions of the U.S. government, especially with respect to American Indians.
----------------------

I've heard back from an individual who works in the Dept of Ed. He is going to forward my remarks to people in Washington responsible for the site, and he will let me know if he receives a reply. Frankly, I won't hold my breathe. I doubt the gatekeepers in the Bush Administration cares what I think. They have an agenda that has no room for challenge to their vision of America. Under his administration, they also developed a program at the National Endowment for the Humanies that is also, from my point of view, anti-Indian. I'll blog about that another time.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

American Indian Families in Fact and Fiction

At UIUC, I am involved with the Youth Literature Interest Group, a group of faculty and doctoral students in Education, English Studies, Library and Information Science, and (me) in American Indian Studies from UIUC, Illinois State University, and Eastern Illinois University.

On October 20-22nd, we are hosting a conference called "Family, Youth, and Literature."

On the program for the conference, you can see that I will be on a panel on Saturday morning (Oct. 21st). My presentation is "American Indian Families in Fact and Fiction." A brief look at some of what I will present:

In fact, there are over 500 distinct federally recognized tribes in the United States today. Is this diversity present in popular works of fiction?

This is stating the obvious, but oftentimes the obvious is ignored... Today and in the past, we have mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts who love and care for children and other members of the community. Are they included in popular children's books?

As a Pueblo Indian whose people speak Tewa, I called my grandmother "sa?yaa" (note that I am unable to use diacritic marks in the Blogger software) or "gram." The same is true across tribal nations. We use our own language (or English) to refer to women, men, babies, etc. We did not use the words that predominate in popular children's books: "squaw" or "brave" or "papoose."

In a nutshell, I will talk about the ways American Indians and their families are (are not?) portrayed in classic and popular children's books. I will also highlight books like Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer, that do a better job of presenting us as we are.