Friday, August 17, 2012

Debby Dahl Edwardson's WHALE SNOW

We (Indigenous peoples) are diverse in a great many ways based on things like our location and history, but there are some commonalities amongst us. These commonalities shine in books like Debby Dahl Edwardson's Whale Snow. Like the Inupiaq, we (Pueblo Indians) hunt. Our coexistence with the animals we hunt and our dependence on them is part of our spirituality.

As Whale Snow opens, Amiqqaq, a young Inupiat boy, is with his grandma. She's making donuts. I love that donuts is part of this story! It is like us having jello and chocolate cake on our tables at traditional feasts. Some of our non-Pueblo guests are surprised to see them amidst all our traditional stews. Because they didn't originate with us, some people think our use of things like that means we're "less authentic." Are Americans less-American because they don't eat the exact foods (and nothing else) that the Founding Fathers ate?! Of course not! Back to Whale Snow...    

Amiqqaq looks out the window at the "fat snow" that falls, wishing he was out on the ocean ice with his dad and the other whalers. His grandma tells him it is "whale snow" that "comes when a whale has given itself to the People" (no page numbers). By the end of the story, we know why Amiqqaq is named Amiqqaq, we know a little about how his family prepares whale meat, and Amiqqaq's mom has taught him about the "spirit of the whale." That page (shown below) is one of my favorites:

The page shows Amiqqaq and his mom. The text in the page I loaded is from the Inupiaq version of the book (download it from Edwardson's website). Amiqqaq tells his mom he's happy inside. He says "Inside is like a giant smile. Bigger than a house. Wider than a whole village." I remember that feeling! I experienced it, too, when my dad or uncle or cousins went hunting and came home with a deer (that was in the 60s). We'd all gather at my grandmother's house. As someone arrived, they'd bless the deer in the way that we do, and then we'd revel in just being together in her kitchen, some of us warming our backsides on the wood stove that heated her house.

In some ways, this review says more about me than it does about Whale Snow. But that is precisely why it is an important book. I connect with it! It reflects my experience as a Pueblo Indian girl who grew up in a village where we hunted and co-existed with the animals in the mountains around us, and in fact, it reflects the experience of my great niece, Hayle, who is having a childhood much like mine was, over 40 years ago.

Whale Snow is an outstanding book. If you can't tell, I highly recommend it.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Louise Erdrich's CHICKADEE

With immense satisfaction and a deep sigh, I read the last words in Louise Erdrich's Chickadee and then gazed at the cover. Chickadee is the fourth book in her Birchbark House series, launched in 1999.

My copy arrived yesterday afternoon and I immediately began reading--but not racing--through Chickadee, because it is written with such beauty, power, and elegance that I knew I'd reach the end and wish I could go on, reading about Omakayas and her eight-year-old twin boys, Chickadee and Makoons.

There was delight as Erdrich reintroduced Omakayas and Old Tallow, and when she introduced a man in a black robe, I felt a knot in my belly as I wondered how Erdrich would tell her young readers about missionaries.

The sadness I felt reading about smallpox in Birchbark House gripped me, too, as did the anger at those who called us savage and pagan.

Resilience, though, and the strength of family and community is woven throughout Chickadee.  I'll provide a more in-depth analysis later. For now, I want to bask in the words and stories that Louise Erdrich gives to us Chickadee and throughout the Birchbark House series.

You can order a signed copy of Chickadee from Birchbark Books. And if you don't have the first three books in the series, order them, too.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


If you've got Peter Lourie's The Lost World of the Anasazi: Exploring the Mysteries of Chaco Canyon on your shelf, you can deselect it based on outdated information in a work of nonfiction.

The prologue says:
Around A.D. 1300, the semiarid Four Corners region of the American Southwest, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico join, the ancient culture of the Anasazi simply vanished. The Anasazi people, who had flourished in the region for hundreds of years, abandoned their communities and centers of commerce and ceremony.

Why did they leave? Where did they go? [...] The mysteries remain, and sciences are unsure what happened.
That idea that the people who lived there 'vanished' permeates the book. We did not, however, 'vanish.'

We (remember--I'm Pueblo) have always known that our history extends to Bandelier, Chaco Canyon, and similar sites, and today, the National Park Service uses Ancestral Pueblos rather than "Anasazi."

One thing that puzzles me...

In the Author's Note, Lourie writes "The term Anasazi refers to the ancient Puebloan people" and that archaeologists now use the phrase "Ancient Puebloan People, which more accurately describes the vanished culture and connects these ancients to their living descendants" (p. 4).

So--he knew about the connection! Why did he stick with the vanishing theme?


If Alex Bealer's Only the Names Remain: The Cherokees and the Trail of Tears is still in your library, it ought to be deselected post-haste. Published in 1972, its title tell readers that there are no Cherokees anymore! Its closing paragraph and text elsewhere in the book specify that there are no Cherokees anymore in Georgia, and that only their names remain (p. 84):
Now, in all of Georgia and Alabama, there is nothing left of the nation that had lived there for a thousand years before the white man came. The Cherokees are gone, pulled up by the roots and cast to the westward wind.

They are gone like the buffalo and the elk which once roamed the mountain valleys. They have disappeared like the passenger pigeons which once darkened the sky as great flocks flew over the river routes from north to south and back again. Live wayah, the wolf, and like the chestnut trees, the Cherokees are no longer found in the mountains of Georgia.

Now only the names remain: Dahlonega, Chattahoochee,Oostenaula, Etowah, Nantahala, Tennessee, Ellijay, Tallulah, Chatooga, Nacoochee, Hiawassee, Chickamauga, Tugaloo, Chattanooga...

Crocodile tears, anyone? While there are no federally recognized Cherokee Nations in Alabama or Georgia, there are a lot of Cherokees around, including Jace Weaver, director of the Institute of Native American Studies at (wait for it...) the University of Georgia, but that is beside the point. The book is old and misleading. "Misleading" is among the criteria for deselecting (weeding) books.

Bealer's book might have been redeemed if he'd included information about the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, but I doubt it. There's too much wrong with it.


1984: Alwyn Morris holds eagle feather
Librarians looking to add books about the Olympics and athleticism in general will want to order Native Athletes in Action by Vincent Schilling.

One chapter in the book is about kayaker, Alwyn Morris (shown in the photo to the right). Morris is Mohawk. He and his teammate, Hugh Fisher, won a gold medal for Canada in the 1984 Summer Olympics. Standing on the platform to receive his gold medal, Morris honored his ancestors and those who helped him get to the Olympics by holding an eagle feather in his left hand.

Each chapter in Schilling's Native Athletes in Action is rich with detail about each athletes life. You learn, for example, that when Morris's grandfather was sick, he moved in with his grandparents to help his grandmother take care of him. That is a familiar story to me. I've seen it a lot. Last summer, my daughter moved in with my parents to take care of my mom.

Schilling's book has thirteen chapters. In addition to details about each athletes life, he takes care to provide a sidebar with information about each athlete's sport, and, a box about his or her tribe. As you can see by scanning the names of athletes featured in each chapter, the athletes are from tribal nations in the United States or Canada, and their sport of choice is wide-ranging.

  • Richard Dionne (Sioux), Canadian Basketball Association, Basketball Champion
  • Cheri Becerra-Madsen (Omaha), Wheelchair Racing Olympian, World Record Holder
  • Cory Witherill (Navajo), Indy Race Car Driver
  • Alwyn Morris (Mohawk), Olympic Gold Medalist in Kayaking
  • Naomi Lang (Karuk), Ice Dancer, Olympian, Figure Skater
  • Beau Kemp (Choctaw and Chickasaw), Baseball Player
  • Shelly Hruska (Metis), Ringette Team, Canada
  • Jordin Tootoo (Inuit), National Hockey League
  • Mike Edwards (Cherokee), Bowler, Professional Bowler's Association Champion
  • Ross Anderson (Cheyenne/Arapaho, Mescalero Apache), Downhill Speed Skier
  • Stephanie Murata (Osage), National Wrestling Champion
  • Delby Powless (Mohawk), Lacrosse Champion

With the Common Core's emphasis on nonfiction, librarians will do well by adding copies of Native Athletes in Action to their collection of materials for children in third grade and up. Native Athletes in Action is part of the Native Trailblazers series published by 7th Generation.

Monday, August 13, 2012

"In any war between the civilized man and the savage..."

Have you seen this ad? It is, or has been, on buses in New York City and San Francisco. (See an ABC San Francisco news story on the ad: "Pro-Israel ads on Muni buses spark criticism.")

The ad uses "civilized man" and "savage." It doesn't say "savage man"--it simply says "savage."

I'm wondering if the roots of the "savage" idea used by the American Freedom Defense Initiative go back to children's books? One children's book after another uses "savage" or "savages" to describe Indigenous peoples.

Want some examples?

In Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, published in 1935, Mrs. Woodlawn says "those frightful savages will eat us out of house and home" (p. 7). 

In Lois Lenski's Indian Captive, published in 1941, Captain Morgan says "An untamed savage, growing up like a wild beast in the forest" (p. 264).

In Elizabeth George Speare's Calico Captive, published in 1957, the narrative reads "Two of the savages came from the bedroom, dragging a shrinking and almost naked Susana between them" (p. 16). 

In Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond, published in 1958, John says to Kit "How did you learn to read when you say you just ran wild like a savage and never did any work? (p. 27).

In her Sign of the Beaver, published in 1983, Matt thinks "How could he possibly teach a savage to read?" (p. 32).
These books are miseducating the young people who read them.

Words are powerful weapons that are used to socialize---to teach---that certain peoples are "other" to be feared, defeated, killed, colonized. Not using nouns that make it clear that Indigenous peoples are human beings, or men, women, children, and babies, helped, and helps, to justify wars and aggression by the "civilized man" on American Indians and anyone else deemed as "enemy." With 'savage' ideology firmly embedded in that "civilized man," all manner of aggression and war are possible. 

I think children's books are part of the socialization that creates an attitude like the one on display in the ad, and I will continue to use American Indians in Children's Literature to point out destructive biases that hurt all of us. I hope you will, too.