Friday, October 13, 2006


Across the country, kids know who Clifford the Big Red Dog is. A long-time favorite in a series of picture books by Norman Bridwell, even more kids are meeting Clifford by way of his television program, broadcast on PBS.

In the book Clifford's Halloween, Emily Elizabeth is trying to figure out what Clifford will be for Halloween. One option is an Indian. That page shows him in a large multi-colored feathered headdress, with what Bridwell must have intended to be a peace pipe in his mouth.

Many books about Halloween have illustrations of kids dressed up as Indians, and due to society's embrace of things-Indian and playing Indian, most people don't give it a second thought. 

Let’s pause for a moment, though, and think about this seemingly innocent act of dressing up as an Indian for Halloween.

What else do kids dress up as at Halloween? I don’t mean animals or superheroes, but people-costumes. They can be policemen, firefighters, cowboys, doctors, nurses, pilots, astronauts, baseball players, cheerleaders... All these are occupations or positions one can, in fact, be at some point, with the proper training.

Now---what about an Indian? You can’t train to be an Indian. You can’t become one. It is something you are born into.

Does that distinction matter? A lot of people would say “No. It’s all in good fun, no harm done.” So you help your child apply his/her “war paint” and put on feathers and other items that complete the costume. Can you imagine yourself painting the child’s face so he/she could be a black person? A minstrel performer, or perhaps a slave, or even Martin Luther King? I’m guessing a parent wouldn’t do that. That parent would know it was wrong. (Doing it in another context----a school play, for example, is a different context.)

Another question to consider: What sort of Indian are we encouraging children to be when we endorse an Indian costume, and what does it teach them? Are they savage Indians, the ones who, according to history books, were murderous, bloodthirsty killers? Or are they the tragic ones, heroic, last-stand, looking into the sunset, riding away despondent over loss?

In either case, the costume they wear is stereotypical. And—savage or heroic—both place Native peoples in the past, not the present, reinforcing the idea that we are an extinct people.

If the book you select for a Halloween read-aloud in storytime has characters that dress up as Indians, turn that illustration into a teachable moment with your students. And, if you’re the parent of a child who wants to dress up as an Indian, talk with your child about that choice and what it means.

In choosing NOT to think about this, are you, unwittingly, fostering the development of stereotypes?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Children's Books about Columbus Day

In comments to the poem about Columbus Day (posted on Oct 9th), anonymous said "There are fewer and fewer students these days who aren't aware of the varied opinions which arise in discussion of Columbus' voyages to the Western Hemisphere."

Do others have similar observations? I think anon's comment may be true with older children, but what about younger ones, in elementary school? Do high school students have to unlearn what they were taught in earlier grades? Or are teachers problematizing the teaching they do with young children?

If you're a teacher of young children, I'd really like to know what you're teaching.

I'm also interested in the children's books you have in your classroom (or library) that are about Columbus. And history texts, too, used in elementary school. Do they glorify Columbus? Is he a heroic figure? Do they say that he "discovered" America?

To get a sense of how to look critically at them, read James Loewen's book THE TRUTH ABOUT COLUMBUS. Published in 1992 by The New Press, it is an analysis of history textbooks used with high school students.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Review of Joseph Bruchac's Geronimo

[This review posted here with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission from the author.]


Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Geronimo. Scholastic Press, 2006; 360 pages, grades 5-up; Ndee (Apache)

It is 1908, more than twenty years after Geronimo’s final surrender to the White Eyes, and the grouchy, once-fearsome old man is looking for his hat. When his adopted grandson, whom he once called “Little Foot,” flicks his eyes up and then respectfully looks away, the old man discovers his hat—on his head.

As narrated by a younger Little Foot coming of age during the captivity years, the life of the man history has come to call “Geronimo” and the lives of the Ndee people who have come to be called “Apache” are rich with cultural and historical markers and a litany of broken promises. As Little Foot observes, “Lies from the mouths of the White Eyes seemed as certain as the sunrise each morning in the east. Even when they wrote their promises down on paper, they still did not keep them. Paper lies are even easier to burn.”

There is great good humor here too, as when Little Foot attempts to describe the thing called “cement” and as Nana opines in the humid Alabama weather, “Perhaps it would be better of us to sign a treaty with the mosquitoes. If they become our allies, together we can defeat all the White Eyes.”

Chronicling the years from 1886 to 1894, each short chapter begins with a historical third-person record that offers a counterpoint to Little Foot’s narrative and grounds it in the history of the times. Through Little Foot’s interpretation, middle readers will come to know the great spiritual leader as a man who loved his wives and many children, had an infectious sense of humor, and was an astute businessman besides.

Geronimo is a story of resistance and survival, courage and sacrifice, and, above all, the fight to maintain land, culture and community. Told from the perspective of the people themselves—with a refreshing absence of words such as “renegades” and “raiders”—Bruchac’s work is an antidote to the many toxic volumes, fiction and so-called non-fiction, that portray Geronimo and his people as savages.—Beverly Slapin

Monday, October 09, 2006

Jimmy Durham's "Columbus Day" poem

[Note: this is an edited version of the post I made earlier today. In that earlier version, I linked to two different websites that have this poem available, but both had spelling errors and both failed to cite the source for the poem. I am posting the entire poem below, along with two print sources for it.]

Below is a poem about Columbus Day, by Cherokee poet, Jimmy Durham. The poem was originally printed in Durham's book Columbus Day, published in 1983 by West End Press, and it was reprinted in Slapin and Seale's Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children from Oyate.
You may want to print the poem and put it in your files for use next year. 

I know some will object to the third line “A dozen other filthy murderers” but each year, students in my undergraduate classes talk about what they were not taught in high school, how things like the impact of Columbus were glossed over or presented in a mythical, heroic way.
Columbus Day 
by Jimmy Durham

In school I was taught the names
Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro and
A dozen other filthy murderers.
A bloodline all the way to General Miles,
Daniel Boone and General Eisenhower.

No one mentioned the names
Of even a few of the victims.
But don't you remember Chaske, whose spine
Was crushed so quickly by Mr. Pizarro's boot?
What words did he cry into the dust?
What was the familiar name
Of that young girl who danced so gracefully
That everyone in the village sang with her--
Before Cortez' sword hacked off her arms
As she protested the burning of her sweetheart?
That young man's name was Many Deeds,
And he had been a leader of a band of fighters
Called the Redstick Hummingbirds, who slowed
The march of Cortez' army with only a few
Spears and stones which now lay still
In the mountains and remember.
Greenrock Woman was the name
Of that old lady who walked right up
And spat in Columbus' face. We
Must remember that, and remember
Laughing Otter the Taino who tried to stop
Columbus and was taken away as a slave.
We never saw him again.
In school I learned of heroic discoveries
Made by liars and crooks. The courage
Of millions of sweet and true people
Was not commemorated.
Let us then declare a holiday
For ourselves, and make a parade that begins
With Columbus' victims and continues
Even to our grandchildren who will be named
In their honor.
Because isn't it true that even the summer
Grass here in this land whispers those names,
And every creek has accepted the responsibility
Of singing those names? And nothing can stop
The wind from howling those names around
The corners of the school.
Why else would the birds sing
So much sweeter here than in other lands?
--Copyright 1993 by Jimmie Durham. Published in "Columbus Day," West End Press, 1993. Used by permission. (West End Press, P.O. Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Anskohk Aboriginal Literature Festival

Nicola Campbell’s book, Shi-shi-etko, was awarded Aboriginal Children’s Book of the Year at the Anskohk Aboriginal Literature Festival on September 30th. You can read Beverly Slapin’s review of Shi-shi-etko here. Campbell is currently working on a sequel to Shi-shi-etko.

Also receiving the award is Dale Auger’s Mwakwa-Talks to the Loon: A Cree Story for Children, which I have not read yet.