Thursday, December 11, 2014

CRAZY HORSE'S GIRLFRIEND, by Erika Wurth

The setting for Erika Wurth's Crazy Horse's Girlfriend is Idaho Springs, Colorado. The characters in her story all feel real. Their stories, their lives? Real. Something seemingly simple, like this line, for example, is like an echo:
He came in for some coffee and asked me what tribe I was and we got to talking.
By echo, I mean that reading Wurth's writing sounds like listening to a Native person. The main character of Crazy Horse's Girlfriend is a 16 year old girl named Margaritte. As the story opens, Margaritte and her cousin, Jake, are at a party. Two guys laugh when Jake says he and Margaritte are cousins. Jake asks them what they're laughing at (p. 9):
...but he knew. We both knew. My family is Apache, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and white, but my auntie and her husband adopted Jake when he was a baby. He's Nez Perce, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and black.
That moment leads to a fight. And a visit to a hospital. Wurth opens the story with grit and gripping characters that fly in the face of mainstream expectations. These aren't mystical Indians. With the range of her character's identities, she gives readers a look at who we are: mixed and not, experiencing good and bad of life lived in cities, towns, and reservations, with Native life affirmed, celebrated, and denigrated, too.  

As Wurth's story unfolds, Margaritte meets a guy named Mike who, like her, is a reader. His parents are white. He is adopted, and is from an Indigenous tribe in Columbia. Their relationship is a roller coaster of hope and pain. There's a gay character in here, too, from Pine Ridge. His name is Will. Reading about Will, there are times when I want to cheer, but the way he's treated breaks my heart.

It is easy to see why it garnered praise from leading writers like Sandra Cisneros, who said:
"I found myself wanting to cover my eyes and shout, 'Girl, don't go there' while reading."
And Susan Power said:
"Wurth made me care for everyone in these pages, singing a powerful honor song on behalf of our young people who are fighting their way through difficult times in order to survive."
In many places, Crazy Horse's Girlfriend is unsettling, but the story Wurth tells is ultimately about the perseverance of Native people in the face of great obstacles. Published by Curbside Splendor in 2014, I highly recommend it.

AICL's Best Books of 2014

Lists! People love lists. I do, too. For those of you looking for a list of Best Books published in 2014, by American Indians/First Nations writers, and by writers who aren't Native but got-it-right, here's AICL's incomplete list. A few reviews are still in-process. Links to those reviews will be added as reviews are completed and posted. If you think I've missed something, please let me know!

Age levels are always slippery. I'm using rough categories, with the understanding that older readers can get a lot out of picture books, and because what you/I deem appropriate for any given reader depends on the reader, younger kids can read books intended for middle or high school students.

BOOKS BY NATIVE WRITERS

Comics:


Picture Books


For Middle Grade



For High School



FICTION BY NON-NATIVE WRITERS 

During 2014 I read a few books that have a fleeting reference to Native culture, or, a more in-depth one, that I want to include on this post about Best Books. They are:


NONFICTION BY NON-NATIVE WRITERS 




Yes, just three. I'm sure there are others out there. If you know of one, let me know!

And if you want to add more than just 2014 titles, see the lists in Best Books.

Tim Tingle's HOUSE OF PURPLE CEDAR

Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar is one of the best books I've ever read. Here's the cover:



As is the case with Tingle's other books, his storytelling voice radiates from the printed words in his books. Here's the first and last lines in the first paragraph of House of Purple Cedar:
The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville.
The character saying those words is a Choctaw woman named Rose Goode. She's speaking in 1967. The troubled time she speaks of is the late 1800s when she was a young girl. The troubled times themselves? There are many. A boarding school for Choctaw girls burns down, killing 20 girls inside. At the train station, a racist town marshall attacks an elderly Choctaw man in front of his grandchildren, striking him with a plank, for no reason. There's domestic abuse in the story, too.

Lot of troubling things happen, but the ugliness that births such horrors does not suck the air or life from the story Tingle tells. Instead, his story is peopled with goodness like the traveler at the train station who helps that elderly man to his feet, and Maggie, a shopkeeper in town who will play a big part in the story.

There's goodness in endearing characters like Rose's grandparents, Amafo and Pokoni. Amafo is the elderly man at the train station. News of what happened to him at the train station ripples out to Choctaws for miles around. Rose and her brother get him home. People gather there. What will they do? The school is not the only thing that was set afire. Many homes were also burned down. People are angry. Others are afraid.

There's lot of talk as the night wears on. Amafo listens quietly. Rose and Pokoni have been busy all evening cooking and feeding the people who have come to help them, to be with them. After midnight, Pokoni sits to rest. Amafo gets up and makes her some cocoa. It is one of the many moments in this book, of kindness and caring, that warms my heart. Then, Amafo talks to the Choctaws gathered there in his home. He says:
"Marshall Hardwicke expects me to stay far away from town. And if I did, this would all be forgotten. But I will never forget this day and my grandchildren will never forget this day."
Amafo has a plan. He will not show fear. He will go back to town.

Tingle's story is engrossing and inspiring. His characters will linger in your mind when you set his book down and move about your day. There's Choctaw spirituality and Christian hymns, too. There's Choctaw words, and English words. Throughout, there is a confidence in humanity.

I highly recommend House of Purple Cedar. Published in 2014 by Cinco Puntos Press, it received the kind of praise that writers hold especially dear. Gary Hobson, an esteemed scholar of Native literature, called Tingle's book a "crowning achievement" of excellence amongst Choctaw writings of the last fifteen years. Saying again: I highly recommend House of Purple Cedar.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Open Letter to VoWac Publishing Company

December 10, 2014

VoWac Publishing Company
P.O. Box 75
Faulkton, SD 57438-0075
info@vowac.com

Dear VoWac,

From your website, I see that you've been developing and providing curriculum materials for schools for 32 years. I read that you take pride in providing teachers with effective teaching tools.

Katelyn Martens, a Literacy Media Specialist, shared a page from one of your workbooks that I'd like you to reconsider. Martens received her Masters of Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. She was part of the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums Project there, where she, along with a great many people, received training in the accurate depiction of Native peoples. Such programs are vitally important because they prepare young people to work with an increasingly diverse US population. This is the page she shared with me:



The bottom half of that worksheet (and the first line, too, "The Indian___...") reflect a monolithic view of Native peoples. By that, I mean that children who use this page come away associating "Indian" with a feathered headdress, a tipi, a drum, moccasins, and a peace pipe. In fact, there are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations in the US, and there is tremendous variety in language, stories, and material culture. The headdress you use, for example, is crudely rendered but similar to what Plains Indians wear, but nothing like the headdresses worn by other men of Native Nations in other parts of the country.

The other problem is that Plains men who wear such headdresses are esteemed amongst their people for their diplomatic and spiritual leadership, and peace pipes are items of diplomacy. The way that you've shown this "Indian" not only misinforms the children completing the worksheet, it demeans Native people overall by showing that Indian in this maze activity. It may be helpful to think of other esteemed leaders in a similar maze activity. Like, perhaps, the Catholic Pope, looking for his sceptre.

With this in mind, I encourage you to remove that page and look throughout your materials for ones similar to it. These are the sorts of things that a Native child may have trouble with because it throws that child into cognitive dissonance. That dissonance may cause the child to perform poorly on that page--not because he doesn't know the rule being taught--but because Native heritage is being misrepresented and demeaned. Because there is such a high drop out rate amongst Native children, I'm sure you want to do everything you can to help, rather than hinder, their success in school.

With this worksheet, you are not providing teachers with an effective teaching tool.

Sincerely,
Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature
cc: Facebook, Twitter

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Concerns with McGraw Hill's "Reading Wonders" Curriculum

Do you remember the books you used in elementary school? The ones you used for Reading? Maybe your kids are in elementary school and their Reading books are in your home, right now. I certainly remember mine!

During November, I began to hear about the McGraw Hill "Reading Wonders" series. Or rather, I began to hear about four books in that series that people in Juneau had concerns about. The four are supplemental materials in the Reading Wonders series for 4th graders. In response to concerns, the district asked Paul Berg, a cross-cultural specialist to analyze the books. He found problems in them, as indicated in his report: Assessment of Reading Wonders Publications. The book about the Trail of Tears was evaluated by education specialists, Gloria Sly and Joseph Erb, with the Cherokee Nation. In their analysis, they stated that none of the historical information is correct.

There were meetings at the school about the books, the outcome of which is that the superintendent has set the four books aside and written to McGraw Hill about them. The four books are:

  • The Visit, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Joanne Renaud. Historical fiction. Parents visit their daughter in a boarding school.
  • Continuing On, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Dan Bridy. Historical fiction. Young Cherokee boy recounts the Trail of Tears.
  • Our Teacher the Hero, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Historical fiction. Biography of Sarah Winnemucca, Paiute woman who founded a school.
  • History Detectives, written by Sandy McKay. Nonfiction. Students learn about the work of archaeologists at digs of Native sites. 

I've read the analysis Mr. Berg did, and, having read the books, concur with his findings.

No doubt that McGraw Hill meant well. No doubt, Terry Miller Shannon did some research and meant to provide children with information they may not otherwise have seen. To an outsider to Native culture or to someone who doesn't study it for a living (example would be a non-Native professor in American Indian Studies), the information that Shannon provides seems good. But to a Native person for whom the content of the stories is part of family life, past and present? The books rub salt in wounds that are still raw.

In their January 2010 report for the UCLA Civil Rights Project, Education professors Faircloth and Tippeconnic studied data from the National Center for Education Statistics and called the drop out rates of Native students a crisis. This, they wrote, is not new. Native students didn't do well in the 20th century either. Here's a chilling line from their report (p. 27):
As Reyhner and others (e.g. Rumberger, 2004; Brandt, 1992) have argued, the process of dropping out or being pushed out of school is a cumulative process often precipitated by academic and personal difficulties causing students to detach from school."
Pushed out. Detached from school. Those thoughts stand out for me as I think about the McGraw Hill books. These four books are supposed to be used in the 4th grade classroom. That's one year out of a 12 year education. I wonder what is in the books for children in the grades K-3?

Most people like reading something set in their home town, or that is in some way, about them, personally or culturally. If it is well done, it feels good! Makes you smile and want to share it with others. But! If it isn't done right, it is infuriating. Some will write to the publisher or author. Some people will set that material aside and move on.

For the non-Native kids across the country who are being assigned these books, they're getting biased and incorrect information. You and I might argue about bias but I think we'd agree: incorrect information is not good. Period. In a school, there is no room for incorrect information.

Let's think now about the Native kids across the country who are reading those books and asked to respond to the questions in them. In The Visit, one question students must answer is this:
What does chatter on page 13 mean? What other word could the author use instead of chatter
A Native kid who has heard stories from his parents or grandparents who went to boarding school is likely going to be working pretty hard to set aside the whitewashing in the story so that he/she can focus on the word chatter. The "paired text" for The Visit is several pages of expository text about boarding schools. Here's a line from there:
During the 1800s, the government wanted Native Americans to learn the ways of white people.
A more accurate way to say that is this:
In the 1800s, the government wanted Native Americans to stop being Indians and be like White people. 
An even more accurate way to say it is this:
In the 1800s, the government established an educational policy for Native Americans designed around an intent to "Kill the Indian and save the man."
See the difference? All three are accurate but what they convey is different. Later, the expository text reads (p. 18):
Girls learned how to cook, sew, and do laundry.
Are McGraw-Hill and Ms. Shannon telling us that Native girls didn't know how cook, sew, and do laundry?! Think about that for a moment... Does it fit with your ideas that Indians were primitive people who lived primitive lifestyles? If so, it isn't true! You were miseducated, and kids who are reading this text are learning the same thing you did.

All four of those books cast Native people in a past tense framework. As such, the four echo and confirm misconceptions that we are not part of the present day. McGraw Hill would be taking a huge step in the right direction by including realistic fiction that shows us in the here-and-now.

Is your district using the McGraw Hill series? Should it be using these four books?

The superintendent for Juneau School District indicated that new materials will be developed to replace these. I'd love to see them. I hope they are sent to McGraw Hill, too, and that McGraw Hill steps away from well-meaning writers and turns to those with expertise on the subject. We'd all be better off.

The McGraw Hill response (quoted in Alaska Dispatch News), however, to the superintendent doesn't make me optimistic. Brian Belardi, director of media relations said that McGraw Hill is:
"respectful of the feelings of the Native communities and mindful of sensitive issues raised in these books. We are confident they are appropriate at a fourth-grade level as starting points for discussion around the experience of Native Americans."
Mr. Belardi? You are wrong. The books are not good starting points. The Native community said as much. The superintendent said so, too. You really don't sound "respectful" at all.

_____________________________________

A sampling of news stories on the meetings:
November 2, 2014: Emotions high over school curriculum, Juneau Empire.
November 11, 2014: Questioned books came as a surprise, Juneau Empire.
November 26, 2014: Decision due soon on 'distorted' school texts depicting Native tragedies, Alaska Public Media.
December 4, 2014: Juneau superintendent removes 4 Native history books from 4th-grade curriculum, Alaska Dispatch News (Note: the books are historical fiction, not history books.)

Oliver Herford's THE PETER PAN ALPHABET

A colleague in children's literature, Perry Nodelman, has been sharing his collection of images of Indians in Peter Pan books illustrated by various authors over the last 100 years. If you want to see them, search twitter using #EthnographicInaccuracy.

Among them is Oliver Herford's The Peter Pan Alphabet, published in 1907. Here's the cover:



Here's the title page:



You can read the whole thing if you want to: The Peter Pan Alphabet.  I'm interested in two pages. Here's the page for the letter I:



And here's the page for the letter R:



Some of you might be sighing with relief, thinking that the 1907 publication year of this book means that such things are of-the-past. They aren't.

In the ever-popular Caddie Woodlawn a "scalp belt" figures prominently. The townspeople fear being scalped. And I trust readers of AICL are well aware of a professional football team in Washington DC that is named "Redskins." Setting aside that word, note Herbert's "What a Treat to see "Injuns" sit up and Behave!" Why did he put Injuns in quotation marks? The "sit up and behave" indicates he thought that Native people were... Lazy? Wild? Out of control? Naughty?!

Interestingly, that "wild Indian" appears in Caddie Woodlawn! Caddie is a tomboy. People ask her mom when she's going to make a "young lady" out of this "wild Indian."

My point in sharing these two pages from Herford's 1907 book? To note that those sentiments are still very much a part of today's society. 

Monday, December 08, 2014

Rebecca Heller's FALLING ROCK

Sometime in November I received an email from Rebecca Heller asking if I'd review her book, Falling Rock. What little I saw of it suggested it was stereotypical. Because it was a self-published book, I chose not to review it. But I'm hearing from others who have been asked to review it, so decided to take a look.

The main character is a boy named Falling Rock. Because there are tipis in the illustrations, I think the author and illustrator (Joyce Robertson, the author's mother) would like us to think the story is about Plains Indians. The boy loves his horse, Runs Like Thunder. But one day, the horse is stolen by men from another tribe. The boy, distraught, is told by his grandmother that his ancestors will give him a sign when it is time for him to go find his horse.

He has a dream about a coyote and takes that as the sign to go off in search of his horse. His grandma gives him a feather before he goes, that will "help guide you." So off he goes in search of his horse. As Heller's story continues, there's an eagle, and a canoe and a turtle--all of which come to mind when a lot of people think about Native people.

As he travels, more and more people hear about his search and want to help him. Here's what they do:
They wanted to help Falling Rock know where he had already looked, so they placed large yellow signs with his name in big black letters at the bends in the roads, high in the mountains, and down in the valleys--anywhere that the boy searched for his horse.
The art for that page is this (it is also the cover of the book):


Yes--that's a road sign. You've seen it before. I've seen it before. This story was in trouble before I got to that page.

As the boy continues his search he comes across a group of people (unstated, but they are Native people) traveling. Falling Rock asks them why they're sad. One of the men says:
"We are being taken to a reservation."
Suffice it to say that I'd been growing more and more frustrated with this story, and on reading "being taken to a reservation" -- well, I was appalled.

In the end, the boy finds his horse. Here's what the author says at the very end of her story:
There are many written and oral versions of the story of Falling Rock, which are often told when a sign is passed on a long and windy mountain road. This tale is told with respect and honor to all of them. 
In interviews, Heller says that she heard this story as a child, at camp, and that it stayed with her:
The concept of the story of Falling Rock is not a new one, it has been told around the campfire hundreds of times in many different forms. It was first told to me as a camper by my camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place. I don't remember if he told me any other details, but that idea always stayed with me. I love the magic of something so ordinary meaning something extraordinary. I think even at eight years old, I knew it wasn't true, but I loved the idea just the same. Even as an adult when I pass one of the signs, I still think, "Falling Rock was here." - See more at: http://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/stories/falling-rock.html#sthash.aojlceNf.dpuf
The concept of the story of Falling Rock is not a new one, it has been told around the campfire hundreds of times in many different forms. It was first told to me as a camper by my camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place. I don't remember if he told me any other details, but that idea always stayed with me. I love the magic of something so ordinary meaning something extraordinary. I think even at eight years old, I knew it wasn't true, but I loved the idea just the same. Even as an adult when I pass one of the signs, I still think, "Falling Rock was here." - See more at: http://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/stories/falling-rock.html#sthash.aojlceNf.dpuf
The concept of the story of Falling Rock is not a new one, it has been told around the campfire hundreds of times in many different forms. It was first told to me as a camper by my camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place. I don't remember if he told me any other details, but that idea always stayed with me. I love the magic of something so ordinary meaning something extraordinary. I think even at eight years old, I knew it wasn't true, but I loved the idea just the same. Even as an adult when I pass one of the signs, I still think, "Falling Rock was here." - See more at: http://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/stories/falling-rock.html#sthash.aojlceNf.dpuf
It was first told to me as a camper by a camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place.
I want to be kind to Ms. Heller, but again, I'm appalled. That she turned a camp story into this story, and that she's contacting Native people, asking us to read her story leaves me staring at my screen, fingers hovering over my keyboard, wondering what to say!

For now I'll say this: camp stories are often campy. And they're often stereotypical with regards to Native peoples. This one about "Falling Rock" is not campy. It is a mockery of names, and with the "taken to a reservation" page, Heller weaves horrific history into this mockery. (I found one similar to it here at a scout page, with a character named Falling Rock in a story called "The Story of Running Deer.")

How did she not know this would be problematic?

My thought? Her story, well-meaning and well-intentioned, shows just how ignorant the American public can be about Native peoples. The one good thing? She couldn't get it published. I'd like to say that editors were turning it down because they saw its many flaws, but similarly bad things have been published--and have done very well, too.

Need I say: Rebecca Heller's Falling Rock is not recommended.