Thursday, November 06, 2014

Some thoughts about Native American Month and Thanksgiving

In the opening chapter of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Our Of Here (2013, Arthur A. Levine Books), the main character, Lewis, is walking home. The time of year is August.  Lewis lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. Here's what Lewis is thinking:
As I turned the corner at Dog Street, where I lived, I could see my old elementary school. The teachers would be in their classrooms now, decorating bulletin boards with WELCOME TO THE 1975-1976 SCHOOL YEAR! in big construction-paper letters. They were going to be puzzled by the fact that the United States Bicentennial Celebration wasn't exactly a reservation priority, since we'd been here for a lot longer than two hundred years.
That puzzlement is what today's post is about. Lewis's people identify with a tribal nation that has been here far longer than the nation we know as the United States of America. I think it fair to say that the US marks two moments of historical significance. One is its independence on July 4, 1776. But Independence Day is preceded by "the first Thanksgiving" in 1621. (Set aside time to read and study What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving: The Wampanoag Side of the Tale.)

In schools across the country, Native peoples appear in the curriculum at specific times of the year. Like this month. November. Thanksgiving.

Coincidentally (?), November is Native American Month. I suspect November may have been chosen because that is the month when the US celebrates Thanksgiving. As such, I think it seemed (to someone) to be the ideal month for Americans to "reflect on the profound ways the First Americans have shaped our country's character and culture." That phrase is in the opening line of President Obama's 2014 Presidential Proclamation designating this as National Native American Heritage Month. The first president to proclaim November as Native American Month was George H. W. Bush, in 1990 (see the full list of proclamations here).

People mean well. They have good intentions. But even President Obama's opening remark indicates a framework that doesn't work. Are Native peoples "the First Americans?" I know a good many Native people who would say they're citizens of their tribal nation first and foremost, and I've read that Native leaders who fought the U.S. in the 1800s wouldn't call themselves Americans at all.

A fact: 
Native Nations pre-date the 
United States and all its holidays. 

Our timelines, in other words, don't start at 1621 or 1776, or the year at which any given state in the US celebrates its statehood.

President Obama is right. Native peoples did shape the country's character and culture. Watch this video from Vision Maker Media. It has terrific information about how the Founding Fathers were guided by, and turned to, the Haudenosaunee.

So here we are, a few weeks away from Thanksgiving, in a month designated as one in which US citizens are invited to "work to build a world where all people are valued and no child ever has to wonder if he or she has a place in our society." That is another phrase in President Obama's proclamation. In it, he also talks about sovereignty.

I want librarians, teachers, parents, writers... everyone, really, to move away from talking about Native peoples in the past tense context of Thanksgiving. I want everyone to move away from talking about us only in November.

Buy and share the books I recommend below year-round. Doing that conveys the respect and inclusion that everyone in the U.S. should have as a given. Not an exception, but as a given. Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here and the ones I discuss below are among my favorite books.

Every people has a creation story. Not every person within a group believes in those creation stories, but I think most people respect those stories and the people who hold them as truths.

Simon J. Ortiz's The People Shall Continue starts with Native creation stories (plural because there are over 500 federally recognized Native Nations in the U.S., with tremendous difference in language, location, spirituality, and material culture) and moves through contact with Europeans, wars, treaties, capitalism, and the need for peoples to unite against forces that can destroy the humanity in all of us. Published in 1977, 1988 and again in 1994 by Children's Book Press, this picture book is no longer in print. Used copies, however, are available online, and I highly recommend it for children and adults, too. It offers a lot to think about. Ortiz is a member of Acoma Pueblo, in New Mexico.

Believe it or not, a lot of people express surprise to learn that we are still here. People think we were all killed or died of disease... gone from the face of the earth. Some people think we are still here, but that to be "real" Indians, we have to live like we did hundreds of years ago.

Picture books like Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer (2000, Morrow Junior Books) push against those ideas. The protagonist is Jenna, a Muscogee Creek girl who is going to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow. The story of Jenna getting ready reflects what happens in Native communities when a young child is going to dance for the first time. Everyone helps. The cover shows Jenna at the powwow. Inside you'll find her walking down a tree-lined street as she visits friends and family members. At one point she feels a bit overwhelmed at all the work she needs to do to be ready, but her Great Aunt Sis tells her a traditional story about not giving up. Smith is enrolled with the Muscogee Creek Nation.

Native spiritualities are misrepresented as pagan and mystic, and rather than seen as religions with their own integrity, are cast as superstitions of primitive people.

Tim Tingle's How I Became A Ghost (2013, RoadRunner Press) bats down those two ideas beautifully. His middle-grade novel opens with these words on the first page: "Chapter 1: Talking Ghost, Choctaw Nation, Mississippi, 1830." Bam! Spirituality is there from the start. Not in a mystic way. It is an IS. A matter of fact. And nationhood, too! Right from the start.

This is a story about the Choctaw Trail of Tears, told from the vantage point of Isaac, a ten year old boy. Given its topic, it could be a very raw story, but Tingle's storytelling voice and humor (yes, humor) keep the focus of the story on the humanity of all the people involved. Tingle is enrolled with the Choctaw Nation and is working on a sequel to How I Became A Ghost. 

I'll close with a board book that features a Native language. In the U.S. and Canada, government policy was to 'kill the Indian and save the man' in boarding schools run by churches or by the government. Kids were forced to attend those boarding schools (starting in the 1800s) and were punished and beaten for speaking their own languages. The direct result was that many Native languages were lost. Today there are language revitalization programs in which elders who still speak their language are teaching it. In some places, language remained strong.

We All Count (2014, Native Northwest) is a board book for toddlers who are learning to count in English, but in Cree, too. Written and illustrated by Julie Flett, who is Cree Metis (First Nations in Canada), each page is beautifully illustrated, with the Cree word for each numeral written in a large font that complements the page itself.

Get those books! Order them from your local bookstore, and ask your librarian to get them, too. There are a great many that I could write about here, but instead, I'll direct you to my page of links to Best Books lists. Check out my gallery of Native Artists and Illustrators, too. Learn their names. Look for their books. And if you want to learn a bit more about sovereignty, read We Are Not People of Color.


Will we ever get to the point in time where creators of children's books stop showing kids playing Indian at Thanksgiving?!

Here's the cover of Pinkalicious: Thanksgiving Helper. In the story, Pinkalicious invites her brother to "pretend it's the first Thanksgiving." She puts on a pink feather and will be Princess Pink Feather (cue moans, groans, and lots of eye rolling). I guess Kann and her publisher and all the people who buy and read/review the book do not know that playing Indian--or Indian princess--is stereotyping of the worst kind, because it seems harmless and innocent and, to quote some of the reviews "cute!". It isn't harmless or innocent or cute. It is stereotyping and ought not be happening in a book published in 2014 by HarperFestival.

Pinkalicious: Thanksgiving Helper is not recommended.

Beverly Slapin's review of RABBIT STORIES by Kim Shuck

Shuck, Kim (Tsalagi, Sauk/Fox, Polish), Rabbit Stories. Poetic Matrix Press, 2013, high school-up

Rabbit (the Being) has awesome responsibilities. He weighs and measures leaves so they can exist. He sings to bring the flowers into bloom. He dances to turn the seasons. He cradles subatomic particles and powwow dancers in his sight—whispers, “beautiful, happy”—and they dance, dance, dance, dance. All these things (and more) he has been given to do, else the world—or at least this corner of the cosmos—will get bent. No small feats and no small responsibilities, those. Rabbit is also a mentor (in his magical way) to Rabbit Food, the human girl he’s named for a wild rose, the human girl he brings to maturity as a smart, loving, responsible, talented Indian woman; a quantum physicist who knows who she is and what she comes from. Under Rabbit’s auspices (and, of course, those of her Aunties and Grandmas), Rabbit Food is a “child of multiple cultures, of Tsalagi and Polish and fantasy and sci-fi, she knows that around any corner there may be a paradigm shift… (And) she will be prepared if stuck in an alternate reality.”

The two—(or three if you count the polyvalent reality of Robin and Fox)—trickster-mentor and quantum physicist, naturally acknowledge each other without actually speaking or touching. Since Rabbit Food was a child, it has never occurred to her to mention him to anyone. Rather, she tosses him a cookie now and then, or lets the cilantro stolen from the fridge go unnoticed, or hides a cashew where he will find it, and she “keeps learning the things she needs.” And Rabbit “loves Rabbit Food, loves her…with the completeness that only someone thoroughly self-absorbed can achieve, and only then for small moments.” 

The stories—of Rabbit Food’s lifetime as girl, young woman, new mother and mature artist, and, of course, ever the student of trickster-cum-life coach Rabbit—weave up, down, around and through. They’re brilliantly crafted and lovingly told, semi-autobiographical stories that take place in parallel worlds full of spirit and magic and wonder and grace; intertwined like the tight stitches of a Tsalagi double-woven basket.

Indian students will appreciate these stories for their many cultural and historical references, their nuances and word plays, their multiple layers of dream and memory, and their fast-paced, wise cracking humor—everything that makes Rabbit Stories Indian. They will also probably appreciate that the author did not, as non-Native authors often do with “Indian” material, turn the stories into mind-numbing ethnographic expositions. Students who are from outside the community may not “get” everything, but will appreciate the stories as well. I encourage teachers to allow these appealing stories to resonate with their students and not to ruin the experience by attempting to analyze or interpret them.

Rabbit Stories, as is Kim’s first book of poetry, Smuggling Cherokee, is amazing; and Kim—an accomplished artist and master storyteller, poet, and educator—is an international treasure. Not one eagle feather dropped here, no pickup dance necessary.

—Beverly Slapin


Editor's Note: Kim Shuck and Beverly Slapin submitted this satirical "how to" piece in response to my review of Neal Shusterman and Michelle Knowlden's short story, Unstrung. Shusterman responded to that review (see point 13 below). I am currently working on a review of the first three books in Shusterman's series. 

by Kim Shuck and Beverly Slapin
  1. Strive to know nothing about the real lives and histories of Native peoples. Knowing is counterproductive and can be used against you if you accidentally let something real slip in. Do not do any research at all. That way, your tribe will be a genuine object of your invention, and no one will be able to accuse you of cultural appropriation. 
  2. Invent a tribe. Give it a name that sounds kind of sort of like an Indian word. Or forget it—don’t give your tribe an actual name. Rather, refer to your tribe in a way that relates to a well-known stereotype. “People of Chance,” as an example, works well, because it will remind readers of casinos and how wealthy Indian people are. If you’re a little unsure, feel free to work in a backstory about gaming and skilled tribal lawyers.
  3. Write as though your invented tribe is just like any other transplanted culture with the exception of periodic decorative localized mythology. There should be no long memory stories of things that have happened where your tribe lives. Rather, for instance, you might go on and on about your tribe’s ostentatious show of material wealth—curbs that “gleam with gold,” an abundance of luxury cars, “gold plaques embedded in the adobe walls” and everyone wearing business suits “finer than the best designer fashions.”
  4. Assign at least some of your tribal characters names that sound vaguely “Indian.” To do that, make sure that the names contain lots of vowels; something like “Chowilawu” might be a good example. Don’t worry that someone might think the names of your Indian characters mean something. They don’t have to—they’re Indian.
  5. Describe your tribal characters as having small but important Indian mannerisms. For example, make sure that at least one of your Indian characters sits cross-legged on an animal skin. That will remind readers of the good times in kindergarten when they were instructed to sit “Indian style” for long periods of time.
  6. Make sure that the main character (preferably white and male) bonds with a member of your invented culture. Your Indian character need not be developed in any sense, because his only purpose is to teach your main character a major life lesson, after which he expires or goes back to whatever mystical land he comes from. Feel free to use this Native mentor in the style of any of the old tropes: Black nanny, Asian martial arts master, or supernaturally animated Indian doll who lives in a cupboard.
  7. Create new racial slurs to take the place of discredited old ones. “Redskins,” for instance, would be totally last century for a dystopian story. Try something like “slot monger,” or something else that you can make sound vaguely sexual, yet have a backstory that creates deniability.
  8. Put the power in the hands of your invented culture. Make sure that some of the members of your tribe express xenophobic opinions, such as referring to other tribes as “Low-Rez.” This will make the point that xenophobia is logical when it exists in empowered communities.
  9. Because there is no cultural attribution, feel free to use whatever stereotype or debunked expectation you may envision. It’s totally appropriate in this case to evoke offensively weird stories as long as you don’t name your tribe. For instance, you can have characters in your tribe hunting for a male mountain lion in order to transplant his heart into a dying Native elder for whom this animal is his “spirit guide.”
  10. Make sure to work in tropes that are pseudo-spiritual-cultural givens for your tribe: spirit animals and vision quests, for instance. And, above all, make sure that your main Native character, despite—or because of—his otherworldly psychic gifts, gets killed off.
  11. Now, take out your checklist. Invented tribe—check. No real reference to land, language, culture, community–check. No history or memory stories—check. No Indigenous meaning to names or anything else—check. Stereotypical mannerisms—check. Trope-type mentor—check. New racial slur to replace old ones—check. Xenophobic power—check. Offensively weird rituals—check. More tropes—check. Main Native character gets killed off—check.
  12. Done! Now sit back and collect your starred reviews for creating a multicultural dystopian novel with mystical Indian characters whose only raison d’etre is to interact with a white hero in a mentor role worthy of inclusion in a 1950s flick.
  13. On the off chance that you are criticized for inaccuracy, cultural appropriation, racism, or just plain abysmal writing, make sure to respond immediately—preferably with a vague reference to political correctness, reverse racism and/or the humorless nature of the critic. Mention how sensitive you tried to be. Use the phrase “considered carefully” to insure that everyone understands how hard you worked at appropriate representation. You can always fall back on the fact that you invented your tribe and therefore are immune to criticism, but it is worth trying to put the reviewer on the defensive—especially if the reviewer happens to be Native and has worked in the area of American Indians in children’s literature for many years.

—Kim Shuck and Beverly Slapin

(We would like to acknowledge Neal Shusterman and Michelle Knowlden—and the many other authors of “children’s books about Indians” [you know who you are]—without whose important research and writing these helpful hints would not have been possible. Wado, y’all!)