Sunday, June 04, 2017

Some thoughts on Chelsea Clinton's SHE PERSISTED

Chelsea Clinton's picture book, She Persisted, was released on May 30, 2017. Parents and teachers will buy it. So will activists. Published by Philomel Books (an imprint of Penguin), it is already marked as a best seller at Amazon.

The title, as many AICL readers will likely know, is based on Mitch McConnell's remark about Elizabeth Warren, who persisted in trying to read Coretta Scott King's words on the Senate floor in February of 2017. Some of you may recall that I've written about Warren before, when she persisted in making a claim to Cherokee identity. That persistence showed a lot of willful ignorance. I don't want to get sidetracked, though, in this post that focuses on one page in Clinton's She Persisted. 

I like the concept: a picture book about women who push back on those who want them to be quiet, to sit down, to go away... that's a great idea. But the execution--with respect to the page about Maria Tallchief--fails to push back on the ways that most people think about Native peoples.

Here's a screen capture of the text about Maria Tallchief. It says:

"After MARIA TALLCHIEF's family moved to California, partly to support Maria's dreams of becoming a dancer, she was teased by students in school for her Native American heritage and later was encouraged to change her last name to something that sounded Russian (since many professional dancers at the time were from Russia). She persisted, ignoring all the taunting and poor advice, to become to first great American prima ballerina."

At first glance, that info about her sounds great, doesn't it? It is based in fact. An Entertainment Weekly interview points to the autobiography Clinton read (Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina). Here's that part from Tallchief's book. This took place in 1933:
Some of the students made fun of my last name, pretending they didn’t understand if it was Tall or Chief. A few made war whoops whenever they saw me, and asked why I didn’t wear feathers or if my father took scalps.
When you hear "Native American" or "American Indian," what image comes to mind? For a lot of people, it will be a large feathered headdress, some war whoops, a tomahawk, a tipi, and maybe a herd of buffalo. In other words, the same things that Tallchief had to deal with in 1933.

It is way cool that Clinton is showing us a Native person as a ballerina. That image counters the other imagery that comes to mind, but calling her a Native American leaves the generic or monolithic "Native American" term itself, intact.

In other words--I wish Clinton had written in there, somewhere in those 60 words, that Maria Tallchief was Osage. It is a missed opportunity for Osage kids to see the name of their nation, in print, in a picture book that millions of children are going to read.

That bit about her name is interesting, all on its own.

Clinton tells us the ballet company wanted Tallchief to change her last name to something so that it sounded Russian. In her autobiography, Tallchief wrote that they wanted her to add an 'a' to Tallchief and swap that 'f' for a 'v' so it would be "Tallchieva." Sheesh! She didn't want to do that, but did agree to use "Maria" rather than her given name, Betty Marie. 

If I was teaching She Persisted, I'd substitute "Osage" for "Native American." And of course, I'd talk about the Osage Nation. I've not studied how Clinton writes about the other women in the book. If you have, let me know in the comments.

Book cited:
Tallchief, Maria. Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina. Henry Holt and Co.

1 comment:

SBange said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Debbie. I will be talking about this book with school librarians and teachers this summer and will be sure to add your thoughts about including Maria's tribal name and more specifics about her name change. Very interesting!