Thursday, November 20, 2008

Poetry by Native Teens featured on PBS NewsHour

On November 19th, the PBS program "NewsHour" featured Native teens reading their poetry. The students attend school at Santa Fe Indian School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. SFIS is a boarding school run by the All Indian Pueblo Council. A beautiful place, my parents met there in the 50s. My sister works there now, and, in the late 80s, I taught there and met my husband. Fondly, I remember our students walking our daughter, Liz, down the halls in 1992 when she learned to walk. One of my nephews is a student there now.

The students are in the Spoken Word Club. You can listen to the segment here. It is an audio file, that includes clips of the students reading their poems and interviews with the students.

You can watch the students reading their poems here. The students are preparing for the 2009 Brave New Voices Poetry Slam. You can listen to the news segment here. It is an audio file that includes clips of the students reading their poems and interviews with the students.

(Reminder: If you wish to enter a giveaway to receive a copy of Cynthia Leitich Smith's picture book, Jingle Dancer, send me an email with your mailing address. The drawing will be held on Nov 30th, 2008. Click here for details.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A giveaway!

I am giving away a copy of one of my favorite children's books.... Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. It is a picture book about a little girl getting ready to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow. Jenna (the little girl) is Creek. The story is set in a suburb (if I recall correctly, about half of Native people live in places other than reservations). With help of her family and Native community, the story culminates with Jenna doing the dance at the powwow.

I haven't done an on-line giveaway before (I do them in person at workshops), so will likely learn a lot this first time! Please send me an email with your name, mailing address, and email address. On November 30th, I'll put all the emails in a box and draw the winner from the box. And then, of course, I'll send the book to you. Send this info along to fellow parents, teachers, librarians, or students!

My email is debreese at

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Slapin's review of Berk and Dunn's COYOTE SPEAKS

[Note: This review may not be used elsewhere without written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Note from Debbie: I haven't read this book yet. In her review, Beverly references Berk and Dunn's source notes. It sounds like they used the same archived collections that Pollock used for her (deeply flawed) story about Turkey Girl. I wrote about that book in the January 2007 issue of Language Arts. When my copy of Coyote Speaks arrives, I'll post my thoughts.


Berk, Ari, and Carolyn Dunn (Cherokee/Muskogee/Seminole), Coyote Speaks: Wonders of the Native American World. Abrams, 2008, grades 5-up

An Ojibwe friend and colleague who is a storyteller and linguist has said that it takes a roomful of people several generations to know a story. By this, she means that to know a story, you have to know the language and lifeways and history and cosmology from which it originates, you have to know its purpose, you have to know when, where, why and how to tell it, you have to know that it’s alive and may contain spiritual power that has to be respected. And you have to know that, if someone tells you a story or you see a printed version of it, that doesn’t mean it’s yours to retell. As Cree-Métis elder and storyteller Maria Campbell has said (and I paraphrase here), just because we offer you a cup of tea doesn’t mean we’re giving you the teapot.

Traditional stories and spiritual power are not something to play around with. I cannot say this strongly enough: Many aspects of the world of the spirits are frightening and dangerous; those who work with spiritual power don’t talk about it in public. Moreover, there are powerful stories—including some now in print—that were never meant to be shared with the public. They’re dangerous. Because they’ve been previously published doesn’t make them safe to “retell” publicly. If you misuse this power, if you tell certain stories at the wrong time or in the wrong context, you’re inviting illness or imbalance in yourself and/or the world.

According to Berk and Dunn’s source notes, they gathered and rewrote stories, mostly from material published in the early 1900s, that would “greatly benefit from sensitive retellings.” In doing so, their stated goal was to “return some sense of poetry and orality to these stories.” This is an oxymoron: you can’t restore orality to something that’s in print by publishing a more “sensitive” version.

Beyond this, Coyote Speaks is an odd mixture of travelogue (“imagine…ancient objects, amazing journeys, mysterious symbols, and magical stories”), sweeping generalizations (“[M]any Native American tribes note the passing of years not numerically, but by recording and remembering important events and ideas symbolically.”), trivialization (“Crows and ravens frequently appear in many Native stories as tricksters and shapeshifters.”), speculation (“Representations of birds take many forms in art and artifacts and can sometimes hold similar meanings in tribes of the various regions.”), conjecture (“The soul catcher was the most important item used by shamans during curing ceremonies.”), illogical comparisons (“Hunger and power were the same.”), and weak analogies (“Unlike grocery shopping, hunting was a dangerous business!”).

Accompanying Berk’s and Dunn’s retellings and other textual matter are reproductions of centuries-old objects, mostly from the Werner Forman photographic archives. Many of these objects are sacred and need to be returned to their rightful owners. One of them, in full color, is a medicine mask, accompanied by a full-page description and interpretation of its use, all in the past tense. In 1995, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy publicly issued a policy on False Face medicine masks. It states in part, that “there is no proper way to explain, interpret, or present the significance of the medicine mask,” and that to reproduce, photograph or illustrate a medicine mask contributes to the desecration of its sacred image and violates its sacred function. To see the medicine mask and the other sacred objects represented here gives me the creeps.

Carolyn Dunn is an accomplished poet and writer, and her poems in this book are beautiful. And there is luminous art in a variety of media by contemporary Native artists: L. Frank (Tongva/Ajachmem), Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara), Tom Dorsey (Onondaga), S.D. Nelson (Lakota), Tony Abeyta (Diné), W. Richard West, Sr. (Cheyenne), Fred Kabotie (Hopi), Linda Lomahaftewa (Hopi/Choctaw), and Hazel Merritt (Diné). But the good material is not enough to save this poorly conceptualized, poorly implemented, and fatally flawed book. Coyote Speaks exploits the peoples on whose lands and in whose cultures and communities the stories reside, and exploits the children—including Indian children—who will read it and think they’re learning about Indians.

—Beverly Slapin