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

Saturday, April 16, 2016

SWEET HOME ALASKA by Carole Estby Dagg

Earlier this year, several people wrote to ask me about Carole Estby Dagg's Sweet Home Alaska, a story set in Alaska, in 1934, about the Matanuska Colony (also called the Palmer Colony). The map to the right shows you where the colony was.

Published by Penguin Random House (one of the Big Five publishers in the U.S.), Dagg's book came out in February of 2016. It is pitched at middle grade children.

Here's the synopsis for Sweet Home Alaska:
This exciting pioneering story, based on actual events, introduces readers to a fascinating chapter in American history, when FDR set up a New Deal colony in Alaska to give loans and land to families struggling during the Great Depression.
Terpsichore can’t wait to follow in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s footsteps . . . now she just has to convince her mom. It’s 1934, and times are tough for their family. To make a fresh start, Terpsichore’s father signs up for President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project, uprooting them from Wisconsin to become pioneers in Alaska. Their new home is a bit of a shock—it’s a town still under construction in the middle of the wilderness, where the residents live in tents and share a community outhouse. But Terpsichore’s not about to let first impressions get in the way of this grand adventure. Tackling its many unique challenges with her can-do attitude, she starts making things happen to make Alaska seem more like home. Soon, she and her family are able to start settling in and enjoying their new surroundings—everyone except her mother, that is. So, in order to stay, Terpsichore hatches a plan to convince her that it’s a wonderful—and civilized—place to live . . . a plan that’s going to take all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise Terpsichore can muster.
As the synopsis indicates, the story is based on fact. President Roosevelt did create the Palmer Colony project for people to make a fresh start. The synopsis tells us that Dagg's story an "exciting pioneering" one, but anytime I see "pioneering" in the context of stories like this, I wonder about the people whose lands were being made available to those "pioneers."

In her author's note, Dagg writes (p. 290):
A notable omission in accounts I read of the Palmer Colony was reference to the people who were in Alaska for thousands of years before the colonists: the various Eskimo, Aleut, Athabaskan, and other Indian tribes. Since I married into a part-Native family, I was concerned about this omission, but finally decided not to create contacts with Native peoples if the colonists themselves did not mention them. However, I hope as many readers as possible will visit the Anchorage Museum to learn more about the original colonists of Alaska.
I'm curious about the "part-Native family." Are the people she's referring to as "part-Native" citizens of their tribal nation? Generally used, "part Native" means that someone in your ancestry was, or is, a Native person from a specific tribal nation. Quite often, though, people who use "part-Native" aren't aware that stating a Native identity goes hand-in-hand with being a citizen of that nation. This citizenship is not about being "part" Native. If you're a tribal citizen, you're a tribal citizen, period.

I'm uneasy with the phrase "the original colonists of Alaska." Alaska Natives were not "original colonists." They are the first peoples of that land. Their homelands were colonized--in this case--by the families who were part of this federal project. I anticipate some people will think that I'm being hypercritical in pointing to "original colonists" as problematic, but it is important that we pay attention to words and what they convey. If we were to accept Dagg's description of Aleut, Athabaskan, and other Indian tribes as "original colonists" we start down a slope that says it wasn't their homeland from the start. That it belonged to... nobody, and therefore, any rights they have to that land can be dismissed.

And, Dagg's suggestion that readers visit the Anchorage Museum... It makes me wonder if she had Native readers in mind. She was probably thinking of white kids.

An appropriate aside: Not long ago I read a spot-on comic by Ricardo Caté of Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo. He has been doing Without Reservations for several years. The one I'm thinking of is of a Native kid in a museum asking something like "what kind of a field trip is this?! We have all this stuff at home." Biting, and brilliant, too.

Back to Dagg's book...

Who were the "pioneers" involved with the Palmer Project? People who were living in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in 1934. The Palmer Museum has this info:
To be chosen from the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, only "honest-to-God" farmers, couples between the ages of 25 and 40 with Scandinavian backgrounds would be considered. In exchange for a $3,000, 30-year loan, each family would be given a 40-acre tract of land, a house, a barn, a well, and an out-building. Those families that chose tracts with poor soil conditions and hilly landscape were given 80 acres. In all 203 families were chosen for the colony.
Dagg's character, Trip (short for Terpsichore), and her family are one of those families. When Dagg and her sisters learn about the plan to move there, here's what they say (p. 5)
“I'm not living in an igloo!" That was Cally, shaking her head in horror, which made her ringlets bob. “I’m not eating whale blubber!” That was Polly. Her ringlets bobbed too.
They are, in short, putting forth information they hold about Alaska Native homes and foods, and, they're rejecting it. That passage tells us that, although Dagg chose not to create Native people for her characters to interact with, she didn't leave Native peoples out altogether. She introduced stereotypes, but left them intact. That was an opportunity for her to push back on them, but she didn't. Indeed, if she'd had Native peoples in mind as she developed this book, she could have created Native characters who could, in fact, push back on the information that Cally and Polly have in their heads. What she did do, is have Trip's dad say that they're not going to the Arctic Circle, and that the Matanuska Valley is much like northern Wisconsin. This, I assume, is sufficient to tell the girls that they won't be living in an igloo or eating whale blubber, but it leaves exotic ideas about Alaska Natives intact.

Actually getting to Alaska means getting there by ship. As they're boarding, someone sings a song Trip recognizes, but they change the lyrics (p. 44):
Terpsichore recognized the tune. It was Gene Autry’s version of “Springtime in the Rockies,” but they had changed the words. Terpsichore laughed along with the crowd at the new words: “When it’s springtime in Alaska and it’s ninety-nine below . . . Where the berries grow like pumpkins and a cabbage fills a truck . . . We want to make a new start somewhere without delay. So, here we are, Alaska, AND WE HAVE COME TO STAY!”
Curious about the song, I looked it up and so far didn't find those lyrics. The first line is easy to find but the rest, I think, is Dagg's own writing. Reading the words "we have come to stay" may seem jovial and innocuous to some, but to me, they're pretty aggressive. Music is a big part of Sweet Home Alaska. The family has a tough go of it once they're there, but at the end, they sing "Home Sweet Home." They're there to stay. Again, this may seem innocuous, but ending with that song tells readers that, indeed, they were there "TO STAY."

Though a lot of people are going to love Dagg's book and its echoes of Little House, I think it is worse than Little House because it was written in the last few years. Dagg's editor is Nancy Paulsen. The creation, publication, and marketing of Sweet Home Alaska tells us that writers like Dagg, and editors like Nancy Paulsen, have a long way to go.

I do not recommend Sweet Home Alaska. 

And, I do not recommend The Smell of Other People's Houses, either.

Note (April 18, 2016): Thank you, anon, for letting me know that, partway thru the review, I had spelled the author's name incorrectly (as Dabb instead of Dagg). I've corrected those errors.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"Native Americans" category on Jeopardy

In 2011, one of the clues on Jeopardy was "The National Museum of the American Indian." None of the contestants selected a clue in that category until they had no choice:

NMAI (the National Museum of the American Indian) made a video of that episode. The image (above) is from their video.

On April 12, 2016, "Native Americans" was the category. Just like in 2011, contestants avoided it. Martie Simmons, snapped a photograph of it and put the photograph on Twitter and on Facebook. It is circulating widely in Native social media (a shout out to Martie for letting me use her photo):

One of the contestants responded to her:

What does this avoidance point to?  Fear of saying the wrong thing? Or, fear of their ignorance being on national TV? Or, fear of answering the question wrong and hurting their chance of winning?

The same thing happened in February of 2014, too. The category then was African American History:

This avoidance is, to say the least, disappointing. Frank Waln, a hip hop artist from the Rosebud Reservation responded to it, too, on Twitter. He said:
"This [is] what 100s [of] years of erasure and colonial propaganda masquerading as history does."
If you missed his interview on NPR's here & now on April 6, 2016, listen to it and his music, too.

Teachers and librarians: this points to a huge gap. Our job is clear. Start with getting books written by Native writers.


Thanks to Todd, a librarian on YALSA, for pointing me to an archive of the clues for the Jeopardy episodes. Here's screen caps from yesterday's show:

If you roll over the dollar figure, the answer appears:
$200 - Cherokee
$400 - steamboat
$600 - lacrosse
$800 - Little Big Horn
$1000 - Navajo

Though some of the comments below are defensive or critical of my post, what I've seen on YALSA's listserv has been positive and helpful (like the link for the archive). It'd be interesting, next, to analyze the clues, but I'll leave that be, maybe, for another day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


In the last couple of months, I've been reading a lot about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Prior to this study, I knew about it because ICWA is something most Native people know about. 

Right now, though, I'm doing a scholarly study of it because ICWA is in Emily Henry's The Love that Split the World. Her depiction of ICWA is troubling. 

Of late, I've asked friends and colleagues to send me titles of works in which a character is adopted or fostered out of their Native community. I'm compiling a list and have read several of the items. The majority are by Native writers, some of whom are writing of their own experience as children. The majority of items on my list are meant for adult readers.

Amongst the suggestions are a few books that aren't by Native writers. Tim Green's Unstoppable is one. Green is a former NFL defensive end. I read his book over the weekend and, for several reasons, I am marking it as not recommended. For one, the main character is Native, but we aren't told anything about his tribal nation or heritage. As the synopsis below indicates, he is adopted (twice, actually) but ICWA is not mentioned in the reviews or in Green's novel. I'll say more about that later. My guess is that Green and his editor and the people who reviewed Unstoppable had no idea there is a federal law about adoption of Native children. 

Published by Harper as a middle grade novel, Unstoppable came out in 2012. Here's the synopsis:

If anyone understands the phrase "tough luck," it's Harrison. As a foster kid in a cruel home, he knows his dream of one day playing in the NFL is a longshot. Then Harrison is brought into a new home with kind, loving parents—his new dad is even a football coach. Harrison's big build and his incredible determination quickly make him a star running back on the junior high school team. On the field, he's practically unstoppable. But Harrison's good luck can't last forever. When a routine sports injury leads to a devastating diagnosis, it will take every ounce of Harrison's determination not to give up for good. 
When Unstoppable opens, thirteen-year-old Harrison is living with Mr. and Mrs. Constable, as a foster child. Mr. Constable is a farmer who uses foster kids as laborers. He often whips them with his belt. 

I begin with summary...

This foster home is the 4th one Harrison has been in. In his previous placements, he got in a lot of fights and was characterized as "an untamed and untamable beast" (p. 7). The fights he got into, though, were ones where he was defending himself or other vulnerable kids from bullies. That didn't matter, however, and he ended up with Mr. Constable, a man who was known as able to "cure even the hardest of bargains" (p. 7). When the story opens, Harrison has made Mr. Constable angry but he doesn't beat him as badly this time, because the next day, they are going to see the judge (p. 8):
“Just got a call from the lawyer. Seems your momma’s got some funny notions again. Raised a ruckus at the county offices on Friday."
Constable's employee, Cyrus, tells Harrison (p. 9):
"Your momma’s a tramp and a druggie. She cast you off like garbage, and once a woman does that there ain’t a judge in creation hands her back her kids, so don’t you get so smart.”
Harrison realizes that he's stronger than Cyrus now, and that he would win if he fought Cyrus next time he tried to beat him. While bathing that evening, he takes care to scrub his nails, behind his ears, and between his toes because he didn't want to look like, or smell like a farm boy when he sees the judge, and (p. 10):
He might even see his own mother. Cyrus’s cruel words about her came back to him and his ears burned with shame and hate. Maybe that was why he had been ready to fight.
He goes to bed, feeling hopeful about the upcoming meeting with the judge. In the pages that follow, we are given a description of the town and the courthouse. This is farm country but we don't know what state. When they get to the courtroom, Harrison looks around for his mother. His case is called and we learn his last name is Johnson and that his mom's name is Melinda Johnson. She's not there, though. Mr. Constable mutters (p. 15):
“All this fuss and she’s too drunk to show up.”
Realizing she's not there, Harrison's heart sinks. The judge asks Mr. Constable's lawyer for the adoption papers, reads them, and then says (p. 16):
“Then,” the judge said, examining the papers, “given the trouble Ms. Johnson has caused in all this and her apparent lack of responsibility— as well as respect for this court, I might add— all leads me to believe that the best course of action for this young . . . boy is to make him the legal and permanent son of Mr. and Mrs. Brad Constable.”
Looking at Mr. Constable and his lawyer, Harrison has a sense of foreboding. The papers are signed, and then, there's a ruckus as someone forces open the courtroom doors. It is Harrison's mother. He feels his insides (p. 19-20):
melt like butter in a hot pan.
His mother’s dark frizzy hair shot out from her head in all directions. She wore a long raincoat and Harrison didn’t know what else besides a dirty pair of fluffy pink slippers. He could see the red in her eyes from across the room and the heavy bags of exhaustion they carried beneath them.
Liquid pain pumped through his heart.
“That’s my baby!” Harrison’s mother screeched as the bailiff and a guard held her arms. “You can’t do that to my baby!”
“Order in this court!” The judge pounded and glared, but it had no effect. “Order, I said, or you’ll be in contempt!”
Tears welled up in Harrison’s eyes. He felt like a split stick of firewood, half shamed, half aching to hold her. He started toward his mother, but Mr. Constable’s big hand clamped down on the back of his neck so that the nerves tingled in his head.
The judge orders the bailiff to take her into custody for contempt. Mr. Constable and Harrison leave the courtroom. Outside, Harrison asks where his mother is, but Mr. Constable tells him that Mrs. Constable is his new mother. They return to the farm. Harrison thinks about all the other kids there, who have also been adopted by Mr. Constable (p. 22):
While they didn’t seem to mind, Harrison had never—and would never—stop thinking of Melinda Johnson as his one and only true mother. 
Later that day, Mr. Constable and Harrison get in an argument and then a fight. The outcome of the fight: Mr. Constable falls into a stall where a cow giving birth kicks, and kills him. Harrison runs away and is found by a kind woman named Mrs. Godfrey. She knows all about the brutal Constables. She takes him to a doctor, and then to a juvenile center. A few weeks pass. One day, Mrs. Godfrey tells him that his mother is gone. He thinks she's moved away, but Mrs. Godfrey tells him she passed (p. 28-29):
Harrison didn’t cry. He just blinked at her and watched a tear roll down her nose and drop off the end of it, spattering onto the table where they sat.
“Was she sick?” he whispered, his eyes on the spattered drop.
“I think she was very sick, and very tired, and I think she’s in a place now where she’s at peace and watching you and loving you just like she always did.”
Harrison stared at the broken tear for a long time before he spoke. “Mr. Constable said she didn’t.”
“Harrison, most people in this world are good, but some are bad. Mr. Constable was a very bad man, and he was a liar. That’s all I can say about it.”
Then she tells him she has some good news. She has found him a new foster home, with her daughter Jennifer (who is a lawyer) and Coach (Jennifer's husband, who is an English teacher and a football coach). Harrison will call him Coach, like everyone else does (later, both ask him to call them dad and mom). 

When Jennifer shows Harrison his bedroom, he sees a bookcase full of books. She pulls one out, by Louis L'Amour, and hands it to him (p. 33-34):
“I think you’ll like this.” She handed him the book. “My brothers loved The Sacketts. It’s a family that comes to America when it was a new land.”
Coach is excited about Harrison's size and interest in playing football. His first day at his new school is difficult. Football practice is mixed, too, but Harrison is excited, nonetheless. The second day starts off badly, too. When a teacher threatens him with a ruler, he takes it from her and breaks it in half. She calls security and he ends up in the principals office. When the principal suggests that they should find a different school for Harrison, his foster mom says the teacher's threat may be a hate crime (p. 121):
“Hate crime?” Mr. Fisk’s rosy cheeks turned pale green. “This boy isn’t a minority.”
Jennifer raised a single eyebrow. “Obviously you haven’t looked closely at his records. His maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Native American.
I finished the book but am not going further with summary. Harrison's identity as a Native person is not the emphasis of Green's book. Harrison is going to be diagnosed with cancer. That, essentially, is what Unstoppable is about. The diagnosis occurs on page 199 of the novel, which is 342 pages long.

And now, some interpretation...

Other than reading that he is big (strong), we don't get a physical description of Harrison. Because Mr. Fisk says "this boy isn't a minority" we can assume that he looks white. 

But he's not white, as Jennifer said. When his mom comes into the courtroom, he describes her "dark frizzy hair." When Jennifer says his maternal grandmother is "full blooded Native American," he isn't surprised. That tells me he knows he is Native...

But what nation? Does Jennifer not know? She knows enough about racial justice to characterize the situation as a hate crime, but she--and her mother (Mrs. Godfrey, the social worker)--apparently don't know about ICWA, which, in real life, has bearing on placements of Native children. 

In real life, someone like Mrs. Godfrey is required, by ICWA, to notify his nation. I'm assuming that the author (Tim Green) knew nothing about ICWA. I'm assuming most of you also know nothing about it. It doesn't matter one bit that his grandmother was "full blooded." His identity, described in fractions, is irrelevant. Each nation determines its citizenship. And when someone is a citizen of a nation, they're a citizen, period. If a woman is a US citizen, has a relationship with a citizen of France that results in pregnancy, and the baby is born in the US, that child is a citizen of the US. The woman might be White, or she might be African American, or Asian American... you get the picture. Skin color, or race, or ethnicity, or religion... none of that matters. She is a citizen of the United States, and her baby, born in the US is also a citizen of the US.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978. The Native American Rights Fund has a very useful document on its website, intended for educational and informational purposes. There, they write that ICWA:
established minimum federal jurisdictional, procedural, and substantive standards aimed to achieve the dual purpose of protecting the right of an Indian child to live with an Indian family and to stabilize and foster continued tribal existence.  
In Federal Indian Law, Matthew Fletcher (he's a Professor of Law at Michigan State University, and director of its Indigenous Law and Policy Center) provides a history of ICWA. In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act. 

In the years prior to that, testimony from Native people was gathered. The conclusion based on that testimony: between 25 and 35 percent of all Native children, nationwide, had been removed from their families, and 90 percent of them had been placed in non-Native homes. It was characterized as a systematic, automatic, and across-the-board removal of Indian children from Indian families. 

In the hearings, Fletcher writes (Kindle location 18416-18418):
[W]itness after witness would testify to the automatic removal of Indian children, often without due process. Byler [Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs] testified that at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, state social workers believed that the reservation was, by definition, an unacceptable environment for children and would remove Indian children without providing services or even the barest investigation whatsoever.
Others testified that rather than step in and offer assistance to families that were struggling, state agencies would wait for the families to reach a crisis point and then step in, only to take the children from their homes. 

That's exactly what I see happening in Unstoppable. Clearly, Harrison's mom was struggling. Was she receiving assistance she should have received? Given the characterization of Cyrus and Mr. Constable, we know they're racist and what they say about his mother is racist, but nowhere is any of that racist depiction of her challenged. With nobody countering it, are stereotypical ideas of Native people as dysfunctional affirmed? I think so, and, that is unacceptable.

If this was a real-life case, would her case be an example of a state agency stepping in and taking her child without due process? Certainly, Harrison did not receive due process in the courtroom when the evil Mr. Constable adopted him, but he didn't receive it when the kindly Coach and Jennifer adopted him, either. Again--I assume that Tim Green didn't know about ICWA when he wrote the book, and neither did his editor.

Is ignorance an excuse?

Some will say yes. Others will say it doesn't matter, because, after all, "its fiction." 

I disagree. Ignorance is not an excuse, because ignorance about Native people is the norm. That norm is not acceptable. Writers, editors, reviewers... most are ignorant about who we are. Fiction has tremendous power to shape what we think and know. It need not feed ignorance. Indeed, when the audience is children or teens, it ought to be called out when it feeds ignorance. 

Green's Unstoppable feeds ignorance. As such, I do not recommend it.  

Indeed, Unstoppable does precisely what ICWA was meant to stop from happening. Harrison was adopted by a kind white family. But what book was he given to read, right away, in that white home? Louis L'Amour's Sackett's Land: A Novel. I excerpted that passage above. Remember what Jennifer said about the Sackett family as she handed it to him? "It’s a family that comes to America when it was a new land." Quite honestly, I find that passage grotesque. Books like that dismiss and undermine who we are as Native peoples. This wasn't "new land" to us. It was, and is, our homeland. Jennifer is, in my view, doing a version of "kill the Indian and save the man" and so is Tim Green.

Unstoppable and what happens in it are why ICWA matters.  Why, I wonder, did Green make his main character Native? I'll be thinking about this book for awhile as I continue to develop my review of Emily Henry's book. Are there others out there, for children or young adults, that I should add to my list?