Friday, April 29, 2016

Why the question "Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation" is the wrong one

This morning I read Monica Edinger's post, titled Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation? about the "Hindu festival of Holi being taken and reconfigured by a company of white Germans into a hipster event in Brooklyn and abroad." 

Reading the links she provided, and thinking about all the examples in which people or characters in books or movies dress up in feathers and fringe, I realized that the question she and many others ask ("is it Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation") can lead us down the wrong path. Here's why.

Dance, for example, as defined by the mainstream (white European or European American) is seen as a cultural expression. The image to the right reflects several different kinds of dance. (The image is from Gender Roles in the Art of Dance.)

For some peoples, dance is religious, not cultural. Some of their festivals are religious in nature. 

If we step away from the phrase "Cultural" and ask if what we're viewing or thinking about doing is religious, might that help people step away from doing things that are, in fact, sacrilegious

Thursday, April 28, 2016

TARGET by Patrick Jones

Two years ago, I was asked about Target, by Patrick Jones. Published in 2014 by Lerner, I read part of it then, and am returning to it now. 

Target is in the "Alternative" series of books Jones writes. Here's the description, from the publisher's website:
Urban, accessible books spotlight diverse characters struggling with mental and emotional health issues and family hardships in an alternative high school environment in St. Paul, MN.
"Accessible" means high interest, low reading level. Edith Campbell has an overview of the series at her site: The Alternative Series. And, FangirlJeanne has an in-depth review of Bridge at her site (link to review of Bridge added on April 30, 2016). 

A summary of Target

In Target, the "diverse" character is Frankie, a Dakota teen from the "Riverwood Reservation." My guess is it is a pseudonym for the Prairie Island Indian Community, which is Dakota, and has a reservation but it could be one of the other three Dakota communities in Minnesota: Shakopee, Upper Sioux, or Lower Sioux. 

Frankie and his mom have moved from the reservation to St. Paul because Frankie was getting into a lot of trouble.

As Frankie unpacks, one of his prized possessions is a letter, handwritten by "Chief Yellow Lark" that his grandfather framed and gave to him. Another prized possession is his dad's pearl handled revolver. Frankie had been getting into trouble with the "First Nation Mafia" gang on the reservation. The solution was to move to St. Paul to be closer to his dad, Franklin Brave Eagle Smith, who is in prison for things he has done as "one of the First Nation Mafia chiefs." 

In St. Paul, Frankie takes up with two cousins, Jay and Billy Creech. They're in that First Nation Mafia and taking over, because a bunch of the older guys (like Frankie's dad) are in prison. Jay has a First Nation Mafia tattoo. Frankie had one, too, but his mom had it removed before they moved to St. Paul. 

Egged on by Jay and Billy, Frankie hits a Latino kid from another gang, the Twenty-sixers, on the first day of school and gets suspended. To get Frankie away from Jay and Billy, his mom decides to enroll him in Rondo Alternative High School. Hanging out with them anyway, he robs a convenience store and starts selling cigarettes at school.  

At school, he does a report on Paul Newman, and when asked by the teacher what he likes least about Newman, says that it is messed up that Newman played the part of an Indian in Hombre. He and his dad, at various points in the story, talk about what the white man has done to the Indians.

Whenever he visits his dad, he also has to visit Jay and Billy's dad (Frankie's uncle), who is also there in prison, along with three other relatives that Frankie has to visit, too. Jay and Billy live with their mom, who is usually drunk and doesn't supervise the boys. 

At one visit to the prison, Frankie is stunned to see that his dad is missing an eye. It was taken by a member of the Twenty-sixers gang, and his dad wants Frankie to do the same to someone in the gang.

Later he visits his grandfather on the reservation and when he returns, his mom tells him to meet at her office, where a woman says a prayer in Ojibwe to a crowd there. There's a smudging, but Frankie's heart isn't in it.

Frankie is sweet on Sofia, a Latina at school who used to be in the Twenty-sixers. She's out now and doesn't approve of Frankie's involvement with his cousins. Her interest in him encourages him to stay away from them and not join the gang. 

He's especially uncomfortable with his dad's request to revenge him and on a subsequent visit, his dad tells him his failure to act has made all the First Nation Mafia members targets. Later, Frankie learns that the person he's got to kill is Luis, who he's also started hanging out with, along with Sofia. 

Frankie and his mom drive to the reservation because Frankie wants to talk with his grandfather. While there, they talk about the first time Frankie got into trouble and his grandfather had him do a vision quest that didn't work because it wasn't Frankie's choice. 

Back at school, Frankie grows increasingly afraid of the gang fighting. He goes back to the reservation and goes through a purification ceremony and when he gets back to St. Paul, tries to stay away from his cousins, but they won't leave him alone. Leading them to believe he's going to kill Luis, he goes with them to the part of town where the Twenty-sixers hang out, and leaves them there to fend for themselves.

Returning home, Frankie grabs the framed prayer and his father's pearl handled revolver, picks up Luis and Sofia and returns to the reservation where he asks his grandfather to say the prayer aloud. The reading happens as Frankie, his grandfather, Luis, and Sofia stand by a "small, empty grave." Then Frankie drops the revolver and "everything it represented in his family's life" into the hole and kicks dirt over it. 

Returning to St. Paul, he and his mom move to a different apartment. It is farther away from the prison. Puzzled by that distance, his mom tells him (Kindle Location 697):
“A true brave eagle wouldn’t live in a cage. You needed to see his cage,” his mom said.
“You just wanted me to see the prison?” Frankie mumbled, confused.
She was clear-eyed now. “The path you were on, the friends you had, the choices you made,” she said. “We didn’t move here so you could see your father. We moved here so you could see your future, Frankie. And change it.”
That conversation is the end of the story. 

In the author's note, Jones writes that the source of the prayer is Kenneth Cohen's Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, published in 2003 by Ballantine Books. He thanks Brent Chartier for his expertise on ceremonies, like smudging, that he learned about while working at an American Indian health clinic in Michigan. 

Analysis of the Native content of Target

In the author's note, Jones names Cohen's Honoring the Medicine as the source for the prayer that figures prominently in Frankie's heart. In the story, Jones doesn't tell us anything about "Chief Yellow Lark" or his tribal nation. I looked at Honoring the Medicine and see that Cohen says it was written by a "Leni-Lenape medicine man." Looking around elsewhere, I see "Chief Yellow Lark" identified as Lakota. Or Blackfoot. "Chief Yellow Lark" appears in a lot of new age and holistic healing books and web sites. 

I'll keep looking, but I've yet to find "Chief Yellow Lark" in a reliable Native source. I'm curious why Jones chose Honoring the Medicine as his source for a key plot point in Target. I'm also curious why he chose Brent Chartier as a source on smudging. 

If an outsider to Native peoples is going to write a story with Native characters and content, it is vitally important that the sources be reliable, and that they be Native. I think Jones should have spoken with Dakota people and read materials written by Dakota people. Doing that, he'd know how much he should--or should not say--about ceremonies.

Jones tells us that Frankie's grandfather does ceremonies and wants Frankie to do them, too. I'm pretty sure that a Dakota man wouldn't have framed a prayer written by a Leni-Lenape, or Lakota, or Blackfoot man and give it to his grandson. He'd give him other things, specific to Dakota ways.

In real life, gang activity is a major issue on reservations and in urban areas, as well. 

I understand why Patrick Jones would want to write a high interest/low reading level book for youths caught up in gang activity, but I think Dakota kids, and those from other nations, too, would roll their eyes at Target. 

Non-Native kids might be moved by the "wisdom" of that prayer. Cohen (author of Honoring the Medicine) was, and presumably, so was Jones--but the places I find the prayer itself cast it in a troubling space of romanticization and misrepresentation. 

I cannot recommend Target by Patrick Jones. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


My copy of Lois Lenski's Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison includes an excerpt from Lenski's autobiography. In it, she writes that she was surprised to win the Newbery Medal for Strawberry Girl in 1946, because she thinks Indian Captive is her "major and most scholarly work."

Indian Captive came out in 1941, with this cover (Lenski did the illustrations, too):

Most people are likely familiar with the more recent cover:

As I write, Indian Captive is ranked at #31 on Amazon's list of paperback biographies for children--and it is ranked at #2 on Kindle biographies for children. Here's the summary, from WorldCat:
Fictionalized account of Mary Jemison. She was captured by the Seneca Indians when she was a child and lived with them all her life.
The chances that you read Indian Captive in school are pretty high. These captivity stories--of white girls/women captured by Indians--are very popular. The Newbery Honor adds to its allure. 

There was, in fact, a woman named Mary Jemison. She was born in 1742 or 1743 and died in 1833. Before she died, she worked with James E. Seaver on A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, which was published in 1824. 

One thing that struck me right away is Lenski's depiction of Jemison's hair. In the original edition, you see that Lenski depicts Jemison as having blonde hair. That is inaccurate. Jemison's hair was, according to Seaver, "a light chestnut brown." My guess is that Lenski changed it to fit the story she was telling.

Part of that story involved the names she uses for Jemison. In chapter one, there's great fear of an "Injun" attack. Pa doesn't seem afraid. Molly (Lenski used that nickname rather than her given name, Mary) asked Pa why he isn't afraid. He says (p. 8):
“Why should I be afeard?” laughed her father. “There’s nothin’ to be scared of. The Injuns’ll never hurt you, Molly-child! Why, if they ever saw your pretty yaller hair, a-shinin’ in the sun, they’d think ’twas only a corn-stalk in tassel and they’d pass you by for certain!”
Many works depict Native characters who are fascinated by the hair of white characters. Were they? Maybe. I need to look for evidence of Native fascination with the hair and skin of white people. Certainly we find a lot of that sort of thing in writings of White people who describe skin color in derogatory or exotic ways. 

Here's how Lenski depicted the Native women fawning over Molly's hair:

It reminds me of a scene from Game of Thrones (source of photo:

Is it fair to compare those two images? Maybe, maybe not. I do think they capture that idea that Whiteness is special. 

After Molly is captured, her captors get her ready to be sold. Lenski describes the Indians looking at her teeth, but... (p. 49-50)
...the thing that pleased them most was Molly’s hair— her pale yellow, shining hair, the color of ripened corn. They took it in their hands; they blew upon it and tried to braid it; they let it rest like corn-silk soft upon their palms. They looked at it as if they had never seen such hair before.
It is possible that Jemison's hair was blonde during her teens and became darker (the light chestnut brown that Seaver described) as she got older, but I think Lenski's choice was deliberate. She needed Molly to have blonde hair because the name Lenski has the Seneca Indians give her, is Corn Tassel. This happens on page 60 when Molly is adopted to fill the place of a Seneca man who was killed the year before:
They touched her white skin, they stared into her blue eyes, they caressed her soft, silky hair. It was her hair that pleased them most. It made them think of blooming corn-stalks, of soft, fresh corn-silk, of pale yellow ripened corn— the dearest things in life. So when they gave her a name, there was only one that they could think of. They called her Corn Tassel that day and for many a long day thereafter.
In fact, the Seneca people who took her in did give her a name, as reported by Seaver, but there's no mention in his book of her hair color or the name, "Corn Tassel." Instead, this is what we read (Seaver, Kindle Locations 394-395):
I was made welcome amongst them as a sister to the two Squaws before mentioned, and was called Dickewamis; which being interpreted, signifies a pretty girl, a handsome girl, or a pleasant, good thing. That is the name by which I have ever since been called by the Indians.
I think Lenski didn't want to call her Dickewamis, or an English translation, either. She chose Corn Tassel instead. I want to think about that choice a bit more. We could say that, by changing the name, she was being dismissive of the Seneca's.   

To her credit, Lenski didn't use "squaw" anywhere in her book. Simply avoiding that derogatory term is not enough, however. As I read Indian Captive, I found that biased, outsider depictions remain intact.

The Seneca man who was killed, Lenski tells us, went to "the Happy Hunting Ground." In a lot of writings by outsiders, that phrase is used to depict a Native heaven. It is used as if all of us, regardless of our very diverse and distinct spiritual or religious practices, go to the "Happy Hunting Ground." As far as I can tell, that phrase came from James Fenimore Cooper. My research into his use of it is ongoing.

In Seaver, there is no mention of being mistreated by the Seneca women who adopted her. Lenski, however, does have her mistreated (hit and kicked) by "Squirrel Woman" who is not only mean, but unattractive. Eventually Molly doesn't cry when Squirrel Woman strikes her. At one point, Molly thinks that, "like an Indian," she is learning to bear pain. That is another stereotype: the stoic, unflinching, noble Indian.   

Another problematic idea that emerges as the story progresses, is that the Seneca's have something to learn from Molly: compassion. Molly and a boy become friends. When he kills a turkey, Molly is unhappy. A Seneca elder tells her (p. 174):
“The Senecas are the richer for having a daughter like you, Corn Tassel,” said the old man. “They have much to learn from the pale-face. Sympathy, love for our brother, is what we all most need. That you can teach us as no one else can, little one. Perhaps that is why the Great Spirit led you to come to us. Perhaps only you, in all the world, could do this for us and that is the reason that you became a captive!”
That passage is deeply unsettling. It lets stand the idea that Native peoples were cruel, aggressive, and warlike, and that the White people who attacked them and encroached on their homelands were the ones who can teach love and sympathy.

There is much more to know about Jemison and her role in Seneca history. As I did the background research to write this review, I began reading Mark Rifkin's study of her/depictions of her in When Did Indians Become Straight?: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty. He writes that in white writings of her, the focus is on her Whiteness and the incredible aspects of her capture and life as a White person living with Indians. It is, he writes, a racialized discussion. Far more important, he argues, is her adoption and what it meant to Native Nations and their sovereignty. Through her adoption, she became Seneca. Through her adoption, she owned Seneca land. I'll be studying Rifkin's chapter on her, and looking for others, too.

For certain, Lenski's Indian Captive is flawed. It relies and draws on stereotypes.

Indian Captive was written 75 years ago. It need not be read today by schoolchildren. Doing so, I think, keeps stereotypical ideas of Native people and history intact. Teachers ought to be challenging those stereotypes and bias, rather than affirming them. If you know of a teacher who is using it to teach children about stereotyping and bias, let me know.


Lenski, Lois (2011-12-27). Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. Open Road Media Teen & Tween. Kindle Edition.

Rifkin, Mark. (2011) When Did Indians Become Straight: Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty. Oxford University Press. 

Seaver, James E. (2013-08-08). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison: Complete With Original Illustration. James E. Seaver. Kindle Edition. (also available online:

Monday, April 25, 2016


Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review of Susan L. Roth's Prairie Dog Songs. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.


Roth, Susan L., and Cindy Trumbore, Prairie Dog Song: The Key to Saving North America’s Grasslands, illustrated by Susan L. Roth. Lee & Low, 2016; grades 1-6

Based on the cumulative song, “Green Grass Grows All Around,” each double-page spread in Roth's book includes a verse from the song, a collage, and information that focuses on prairie dogs, environmental destruction of the grassland ecosystem and the return to biodiversity. Younger readers are encouraged to engage with the art and sing along with the lyrics on each page (and music and separate lyrics in the back matter). The text for older readers is more informative.

Roth’s signature illustrations, rendered in paper and fabric collage, will especially appeal to young children. Each page-and-a-half spread reflects the daytime and nighttime skies and clouds in mostly blues and greens, and the earth in mostly browns and greens. As well, the animals—from the littlest prairie dogs to the huge buffalo—hold their places in this delicate ecosystem, and it appears that Roth has carefully placed each blade of grass as well.

According to the publicity sheet:

Prairie Dog Song traces the history of the grasslands from the first settlers who arrived in the 1800s to the scientists working to preserve them. For thousands of years, grasses covered the area of North America, stretching from the south of Canada to the north of Mexico and creating what is still one of our most important and wide-reaching ecosystems. The tiny prairie dog was its caretaker, burrowing into the ground and keeping the soil rich enough to sustain many other species. But what happens when we humans chase away those tiny caretakers?

Unfortunately, this otherwise engaging picture book is fatally flawed, in that there are only four short references—dismissive ones at that—to the Indigenous peoples who, despite the many attempts of the settlers and government forces to dislodge them, continue to return and maintain the land. All of these references appear in the text for older readers; there is nothing in the lyrics or illustrations that refers to Native peoples.

This text is towards the middle of the book (unpaginated):

For thousands of years, prairie dogs lived alongside the Native peoples of the grasslands. Some Native groups survived by gathering plants and hunting the big animals, including bison, that ate the rich grass near prairie dogs’ burrows. Other groups were both hunters and farmers, growing crops such as corn, beans, and squash.

Then, in the 1800s, the United States government began forcing Native peoples from the grasslands so the land could be offered to settlers. The settlers saw fine, fertile areas where they could graze their cattle and horses and grow crops. The covered the land with fields, ranches, houses, and roads that destroyed the prairie dogs’ territory.

Within sixty years of the arrival of farmers and ranchers, most of the prairie dogs were dead. The settlers did not understand the role prairie dogs played in keeping the grasses healthy.... Prairie dogs, the animals that ate them, and the animals that lived with them began to disappear. So did the bison, which were hunted for their skins. (emphasis mine)

There are also two short and strange references in the back matter timeline:
(1) Prehistory: In what is now Janos Biosphere Reserve, in Chihuahua, Mexico, live hunter-gatherers who leave behind petroglyphs and arrowheads. (2) 1689: Military outpost established to protect Janos from Apache raids, although Apache still venture frequently into area. 
This “disappearance” or dismissal of Native peoples in a discussion of the history of the land and a particular ecosystem is nothing less than a justification of colonialism and genocide. None of the major reviewers—Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journa1 gave this book starred reviews—seems to have noticed this, and children will not, either. Unless they are Native children.

So it seems to be fitting to end this review with Indigenous peoples have the last word. The following is part of a statement released by the Assembly of First Nations in Canada:

Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. First Nations peoples have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity. It is also based on the subsistence needs and values extending back thousands of years. Hunting, gathering, and fishing to secure food includes harvesting food for self, family, the elderly, widows, the community, and for ceremonial purposes. Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril.

For the earlier grade levels noted, Prairie Dog Song is not recommended; for older students who may be learning how to read critically or for college students taking courses on deconstructing texts in children’s literature, maybe.

—Beverly Slapin