Sunday, September 21, 2014

Heather Sappenfield's THE VIEW FROM WHO I WAS

A colleague, Trish, wrote to ask me if I'd seen Heather Sappenfield's The View From Who I Was. She said it is set at a place called American Indian Preparatory School, modeled on the Native American Preparatory School. Trish didn't know it, but that school means a lot to Native people.

I had not heard of the book, so looked it up and saw that an ARC (advance reading copy) was available at Net Galley (anyone can sign up to read ARC's via Net Galley). The View From Who I Was is due out in January. The description of the book is unsettling. Here's the first paragraph:
Sometimes the end is just the beginning At Crystal High's Winter Formal, Oona Antunes splits in two. Her disembodied spirit watches as her body leaves the dance and tries to freeze to death. Three days later, she wakes in the hospital missing fingers and toes, burdened with the realization of what she's done to her mother and father.

But it was the second paragraph that got my attention:

When her school counselor invites Oona to join him at a Native American school, she becomes immersed in a foreign world where witches, talking rocks, and minor deities are reality. Oona discovers that if she is to heal, her father must also heal. But are his problems more than they can handle?

NAPS was, and is, a special place to us. Located near Santa Fe (remember--I'm from Nambe Pueblo, which is near Santa Fe), it was designed to provide gifted Native high school students with a culturally supportive education from which they would go on to college. I know people who worked there, and I know students who went there, too. I started reading, making notes as I went.

Far too often, Native people--or some semblance of Native people--are used by people who care only for their romantic notions of who we are. Mascots, of course, are one example.

In the Acknowledgements, Sappenfield says she went to NAPS twice. Those visits weren't enough to give her a meaningful or grounded respect of who we are... In The View From Who I Was, there are a lot of romantic notions that ultimately serve as the turning point in the protagonist's life.

I hate that NAPS and kids there were used 
by Sappenfield for this book. 
It feels like a violation. The school and 
kids are only a magical device that 
serves the white protagonist. 

Soon after learning about the book, I learned that the description at Net Galley is an old one that no longer describes the book. Frankly, I was relieved. But when I read the book, the description at Net Galley (also at Amazon and GoodReads) struck me as accurate. There is stuff about witches, and there's a talking rock...

As indicated, I read an ARC (advanced reading copy), which--in theory--means that there is still time for the author to revise. However, I think the errors indicate a fundamental lack of understanding, knowledge, and respect that would prevent the book from being revised in such a way that it would be ok.

After reading the ARC, I talked with a former NAPS teacher and student. The student, in particular, was troubled by how the school and teachers are misrepresented. It was special to her. Since her time there, she said, there's been nothing written about it. She hates that this book, with these errors, might be the first thing about the school that people read.

Here's my notes on the parts of the books that are about Native people/culture, with my thoughts in italics. I've included comments from the student (C) and the teacher (A).

You'll see places where I use "Oona/Corpse" and "Hovering Oona" when I'm talking about the protagonist. It is a bit confusing overall. The protagonist's name is Oona. As the book opens, Oona's spirit splits in two. The part that stays in her body is called "Corpse" by the part that left her body and hovers nearby. The story is told to us by the part of her spirit that hovers. Hovering Oona has control over whether or not Oona/Corpse is going to express or act on emotions. Oona/Corpse isn't aware of the Hovering Oona.

p. 14
Murial (Oona's mom) likes to decorate their swanky home in Colorado using Native artifacts. There's a peace pipe, kachinas, moccasins. 

Wondering about the back story for these items. I wonder where Oona's mom got them? She could have gotten them online, but those would be fakes. I wonder if Oona's mom knows about the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act? (Note to readers: Do go read that act. It is important and protects consumers from fraud, and, it also protects Native artists for whom their art is their livelihood.) 

p. 16
Prior to the suicide attempt, Oona is with Mr. Handler (her school counselor) at a school leadership conference. They're at a session put on by Native students from the American Indian Preparatory School. The school counselor has spent time at the school prior to this. In the session, a Native guy with a crew cut introduces Dr. Benson, who is the school's "flute master." He plays the flute to open their session. 

It is plausible that there would be someone on flute opening a session, but not probable that the school would have a "flute master." Pop-culture tells us that when you have Indians, you gotta have flute music. They kind of go together in white peoples minds. Though many Native nations use flutes, they're over-used by outsiders who want to signal "Indian" to an audience. Invariably, it gives people goosebumps (as it does to Oona). Flutes used that way are even the butt of jokes amongst us. Having it open this conference presentation made me shake my head. It appears later, too, in a gathering at the school. I asked C (student) about it. She said they'd have morning openings each day where announcements were made. Someone would pray in their Native way, but no music. 

The row of Native students sits with bowed heads. 

Not clear if they were sitting that way when the flutist was playing (as though it is a prayer), or, if they are sitting that way as the Navajo girl is introduced and speaking. Bowed heads suggests a prayerful moment, but overall it doesn't sound right to me.  

p. 17
The Native guy with the crewcut introduces a Navajo student, Angel Davis, who is "of the Fort Defiance Navajo" and then Angel takes the stage and starts talking. 

Generally speaking, a Navajo person takes care (in presentations) to introduce themselves according to fairly standard protocols. See the first few minutes of this video for an example. At conferences, those first few minutes would be followed by a translation (into English) of what was just said. Angel doesn't use the protocol before moving into her very-Indian presentation. 

Angel's presentation is about five feathers she has with her on stage. She talks about how she got each one:
Angel's speech was slow, yet soft, lilting: "I hold in my hand five feathers." She held up her hand and out the sides of her fist were the ends of long feathers. "Gifts from my grandfather. From his headdress. An eagle feather for each good thing I've done." Angel read about each of those good things: graduating middle school, helping her brother when he had mono, attending the American Indian Preparatory School, far from home, completing a summer writing program, even farther away. She ended with reading at this conference. She didn't candy-coat things, she just described how each challenge she didn't want to do at first, and after, her grandfather would call her out behind their house, place his hand on her shoulder, tug a feather from his headdress, and give it to her.
There's a lot wrong with that passage. First, headdresses are not part of traditional Navajo attire. They are worn primarily by Plains tribes. As written, it sounds like Angel's grandfather wears it all the time, or, that he put it on to do this feather-giving-ceremony where he takes a feather out of his headdress. It doesn't work at all. When a Native person is given a feather to mark an accomplishment, it isn't taken from an existing headdress. And, when feathers are given, it (or how it is done) generally isn't something they talk about to outsiders in the way Angel does. It is possible, but not plausible. 

p. 18/19
Oona listens to the next speaker who talks about his "costume" with its "fringe, beads, and feathers" and how he goes to powwows, where he dances for his grandma and his ancestors. Oona thinks "Was he kidding? The guy wore a white Oxford shirt with short sleeves and a tie." 

It isn't likely that he would have said "costume" or "fringe, beads, and feathers." He would more likely have said "regalia." He does the powwow circuit, it sounds like. He dances for his grandma and ancestors. Dancing for his grandma and ancestors sounds right to me. Does Oona think he can't be legit because he's wearing a shirt and tie? Or, is she being snarky about who he dances for? Either way, there's also a feeling that these kids are richer than Oona, with all her material wealth, is.    

p. 93
Mr. Handler invites Oona/Corpse to go with him to the Native American school, where she can help juniors fill out college applications. (Later, we'll learn that her help is specific to navigating websites.) 

That sounded ok to me, but when I was talking with C about the book, she asked me what Oona was going to do at the school. I told her, and she laughed, saying they were tech savvy and didn't need help like that. 

p. 99
Murial says that she wanted to be anthropologist because she loves Indians. 

That love-of-Indians is pretty widespread and as such, is the subject of much writing amongst Native people. Three resources to read/listen to are Kate Shanley's article, "The Indians Americans Love to Love and Read" , Vine Deloria Jr.'s Custer Died For Your Sins--especially the chapter on anthropologists, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman's Here Come the Anthros, based on Deloria's chapter. 

p. 103/104
More flute music. It appears several times throughout the story. 

See comments about page 16.

p. 108
Oona/Corpse is with Mr. Handler. They're approaching the grounds at the Native school. Before they get there, she sees faded house trailers (one with plywood covering window) and rusted out cars.
Two Indian kids scampered around out front, one in just a diaper, the white of it against this world, against his skin, seemed unreal.
How does protag know those are Indian kids? The school is not on a reservation. The community by it is not Native either. That the two kids "scampered" also stands out. Animals scamper. Little kids, too, the dictionary says, but given the overwhelming associations of Indians-as-animal-like, seeing it here gives me pause.

p. 111
At the school, Oona/Corpse is greeted by Louise, who is "a stout, toffee-tinted woman in a purple broom skirt and a white blouse." She has ebony hair that she wears in a bun that is clasped with a beaded barrette. 

I didn't note what words Sappenfield used to describe skin tones of Oona's mother or Mr. Benson, or Ashley (her friend at school).  Later on, Angel is going to ask Oona if she is part Native (Angel says "an urban Indian") because Oona's skin tone is olive. Of late, there have been several discussions online about words used for skin tones, when and how they're used, and who is using them.

p. 112
Back in the car, Mr. Handler and Oona/Corpse drive to the part of campus where their rooms are. As they drive, she sees "a white woman in a blouse and jeans and an Indian man with a long braid...". 

How does she know the woman is white? Oona's assumption is that all Indians have darker skin and hair, so this woman must be white. That is an incorrect assumption. Later, Angel and Oona have a conversation about skin tones. 

p. 113
Mr. Handler tells Oona/Corpse he's there to help counsel the kids at the school:
They're the kids who want to go on to college. These are not your average Native American kids." 
He backs off from that statement, saying
"Scratch that. They're just kids. Trying to figure things out. Like you."
I'm glad he backed off but what did he back off from? Did he mean that an average Native kid doesn't want to go to college? I really don't know what to make of that exchange.  

They park the car and get out. A "flock" of Indian students approach. 

I can't recall what words author used to describe groups of kids at Oona's school in Colorado. Was flock used there, too? Problem with flock is similar to scamper.

p. 114
A boy greets Mr. Handler by calling him "Lone Ranger." And then:
"He no sabe," another one said, and they all laughed. 'No know,' I realized; Tonto had been disrespecting that white-masked man, and I'd never had a clue.
That doesn't make sense to me. The line Tonto uses is "kemo sabe" -- not 'he' or 'no'. Sappenfield wants us to think that Tonto was saying "he no sabe" and as such, was dissing the Lone Ranger. Does Sappenfield now know what Tonto said? Am I missing something myself?! 

That part aside, the banter between the kids and Mr. Handler is easy going and reflects relationships I've seen between Native kids and white teachers and staff who have established a warm relationship.

p. 119
Oona/Corpse and Mr. Handler go to dinner and sit with the staff and teachers. Oona/Corpse is introduced to Dr. Yazzie, the headmaster. He is the guy Oona/Corpse saw earlier--the one with the braid:
Now Corpse saw the symmetry of his forehead, cheeks, and chin, a honey-tinted movie-star face, smooth but for creases at his eyes.
Ok. A super handsome dude. Yazzie, by the way, is a Navajo name. 

As they eat, Dr. Yazzie tells Mr. Handler:
"You know the statistics, Perry. Half of them can't handle the college world and drop out."
Mr. Handler asks about students. Davina has done ok. Louise posits that Davina's aunt has been a good role model for her. That aunt is a sergeant on the Navajo police force. When Mr. Handler asks about Cindy, Louise replies:
"Her father died." Louise's mouth, which arced down naturally, stretched down in a real frown. "Her mother had to get a job, so Cindy went home to help out with the kids."
"Poor girl," Mr. Handler said. "She was so smart."
Louise nodded. "Yes, a waste. Her father's death was a waste too. Put his truck in the ditch. Drunk. Tried to walk home on a frigid night. They found him sitting, frozen, at the entrance to their driveway. Apparently neighbors were driving past, waving."
A laugh burst from Ms. Cole. "Sorry. I hadn't heard that last part."
I found that conversation troubling. It is plausible that Louise would think "waste" but it isn't plausible. The teachers and staff at NAPS were especially supportive of Native culture and values. That a Native kid would step up to help her family would not be characterized as a waste. That neighbors drove past and waved at the body of Cindy's dad... Is that plausible?! It strikes me as incredibly offensive to imagine, let alone share, or laugh at. Louise and Ms. Cole strike me as horrible people. When I told C (student) and teacher (A) about this, they both felt that this was a misrepresentation of the teachers and staff. It strikes me as a 'fit' with government boarding schools were the framework for them was "kill the Indian and save the man" but definitely does not fit with NAPS. A quick note about Louise's mouth, which "arced down naturally" -- Angel's does, too. Weird. 

Mr. Handler then asks about Roberta:
Louise laughed. "She skipped that summer internship you arranged at the hospital. Didn't even call to let them know."
Louise goes on to say that Roberta is 18 years old now, and
"She took a job as a stripper instead. Still goes back and works weekends. Calls herself Destiny."
Mr. Handler scans the cafeteria and sees Roberta. Oona/Corpse sees her "shapely back". The next line is Hovering Oona's voice:
I had an image of Roberta in a string bikini, slithering along a pole over an audience of salivating men, some hungrily waving dollar bills.
That is another very troubling part of the book. Why did Sappenfield create this particular characterization for Roberta?! 

Hovering Oona looks at the kids in the cafeteria and thinks
these weren't the people we'd imagined inhabiting that flute music. The ones who'd made us feel poor. Maybe the bullshit had been those conference readings.
Ok... so Roberta is meant to humanize Native people?! 

p. 122 
Closing out this scene in the story, Mr. Handler says that he's read statistics (about Native people), but that "the reality is a lot harder to swallow." 

So--the reality is one girl who has done well, one who has gone home, and one who is a stripper? 

Dr. Yazzie, studying Oona/Corpse, puts his hand in his pocket.

It seemed an odd detail at that moment. Later, we learn that he keeps a rock in that pocket. It talks to him. 

After dinner, Oona/Corpse and Mr. Handler head to their rooms. As he says goodnight to Oona, she sees him swallow and his Adam's apple goes up and down. Oona/Corpse wants to say she's sorry about those kids, but she doesn't, because Hovering Oona stops her. 

p. 124-129
Early morning, Oona/Corpse goes out on a trail where she'll get cell phone reception. She calls her boyfriend. After the call, Angel comes along the same trail. She tells Oona that she's "greeting the sun." As she goes on her way, she calls back "I dreamed of you three nights ago." 

p. 130
Angel asks Oona if she's "an urban Indian" who is "from the city" and that "maybe doesn't know traditions, Indian ways." Surprised, Oona asks Angel how she could be Indian (appearance-wise). Angel tells her there's "a lot of mixed-blood or northern Indians here that don't look Indian." 

That is an interesting passage. I'm glad to see appearance being addressed. 

p. 131 
Angel tells Oona/Corpse about photographers that want photos of kids who look Indian. She also talks about how people like to visit Indians to "feel like they've done a good deed or something."

Another interesting passage, and accurate. It is ironic, too. It demonstrates that Sappenfield is able to have her characters speak to outsider use of Native people for their own benefit, but, with the way she uses Native culture in her book, doesn't understand that she's doing precisely that with this book.

p. 132
As they talk, Angel looks at Hovering Oona on Corpse's shoulder. 

As the book progresses, we learn that Angel and Dr. Yazzie can see Hovering Oona. And, in a passage that returns to imagery of Roberta as a pole dancer, Roberta walks through Hovering Oona's spirit and has a reaction that tells us that she, too, has ability to sense Hovering Oona. That makes them mystical or magical. It might seem cool a lot of people, but it plays on stereotypes! Not ok. 

p. 137
Oona/Corpse goes up the trail behind the school and comes upon Angel, kneeling in a clearing. Oona gets behind a branch and watches Angel, who is chanting. She turns north, west, south, and east. She rises and calls out to Oona that she doesn't have to hide, and asks her if she's spying on her. Oona says that, in addition to wanting to know more about the dream, she wanted to see what greeting the sun was. Oona asks Angel why she does it, and Angel says it is "showing him I'm ready for the day. And worthy."

That is unsettling. I understand that curiosity, but honestly, it is creepy and voyeuristic. I'm curious about the back story for it. What is Sappenfield's source? Is that something a Navajo girl or person actually does? Is it accurate? Is her source the Navajo girl she named in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book? Did she see that girl praying? Did she ask that girl if she could join her? 

If yes, there's a huge power dynamic in that request, and it is entirely inappropriate. In universities, there are research protocols that do not allow vulnerable populations (youth) to give permissions like that because they don't have the experience/knowledge/wherewithal to say no. Increasingly, tribes are asking writers to go through similar tribally-based protocols when they are there for research purposes for stories. I'm pretty sure NAPS administrators would not have given the author permission to do this. 

p. 139
Angel and Oona talk for a while. Oona tells Angel that she had tried to kill herself. Angel nods, saying
"I thought you looked like you'd been dead."
This is another manifestation of the stereotypical mystical Indian who sees and knows things...  

p. 142
At breakfast Oona/Corpse asks Angel what she saw that made her think that Oona had been dead. Angel shrugs her shoulders and looks at Hovering Oona. Oona/Corpse says 
"If I'd said I was an urban Indian, would you tell me?"
Angel's face hardens and she gets ready to leave. Oona presses her, asking if she can join her to greet the sun. Angel sighs and asks "Do I have a choice?" Oona/Corpse seems to be developing an awareness of Hovering Oona.

With Oona's question, it seems to me that Sappenfield knows that there are things that are guarded. The way she handles all the spirituality in the story tells me that she doesn't care about anything that Angel or Native people might be guarded about. 

After Angel leaves, Oona overhears two white teachers talking. One says that teaching there has 
"been a wild ride, and I've never been able to forget, even for a minute, that I'm an outsider."
She goes on to talk about her first week at the school, when a girl went to her room (teachers live on campus): 
"...whimpering about witches in her room. It was the middle of the night, for God's sake, and I tried to calm her. I mean, witches? I eventually got her to sleep, she spent the night in my room, and in the morning she seemed fine. At lunch Yazzie took me aside. Apparently I'd handled it all wrong. Made a fool of myself. When a student has witches in her dorm room, you inform Yazzie immediately, and they call a medicine man to come purify it."
 Ah! There's the part about witches that the blurb on Net Galley refers to! 

The two teachers commiserate about feeling like outsiders.  

Similar to the question about Angel's prayer, I'm curious about the source for this part about witches and medicine men.

p. 145/146
The next morning, Oona/Corpse joins Angel in her greeting of the sun. Though she moves in the same ways that Angel does, she isn't listening to Angel. Her thoughts are about her parents, her suicide, and her dad, in particular. She whispers to Hovering Oona and seems to be gaining insights into her family dynamics and her own well-being.

Again: what is the author's source for the way that Angel is shown in her movements? Turning to N/S/W doesn't jibe with what I know of the greeting that Navajos do at dawn. Some nations do have a directional greeting. In this part of the story, readers assume the voyeuristic gaze that Corpse had earlier. As a Native woman, this part makes me uncomfortable. I don't think author imagined a Native reader, or Native views on exploitation of Native spirituality.

p. 150
Dr. Yazzie talks with Oona/Corpse, telling her that it looks like she's had a hard time. She says "Don't tell me you can see I've died."  He says that it isn't hard to see, and then nods towards her shoulder where Hovering Oona is perched. He tells her:
"I have a rock in my pocket. It speaks to me." 
And,
"It tells me you're a good person. That you're going to be ok." 
Clearly, Dr. Yazzie is a mystical Indian, too. This is the talking rock of the Net Galley blurb.

p. 154
Corpse goes to "Circle" which is a gathering that happens once a week. Mr. Handler sits beside her. She tells him about Dr. Yazzie's rock. They're seated in chairs arranged in a circle. Dr. Yazzie comes in and sits on the floor in the center of the circle. Dr. Benson (the flute master) rises from his chair and plays. All heads are bowed. Corpse gets goosebumps and then comes fully aware of Hovering Oona's view, and how Hovering Oona "constantly reasoned, doubted, judged" Oona. Oona/Corpse whispers to Hovering Oona that she has to stop. Oona/Corpse reaches to her chest, to the "slice" through which Hovering Oona had left at the start of the story. Hovering Oona darts down and enters but doesn't like it in there and takes off again. When the lights come back up, everyone is staring at Oona. 

Oona is definitely healing, and it is due in large part to these mystical Indians and their flute music. My guess it that people will dismiss my concerns. Overall, I can hear them say, this is a book about healing from suicide. How that happens, to them, doesn't matter. It reminds me of so many books. Cole in Touching Spirit Bear is healed thru similar Indian ways. In that story, he comes to terms with his bullying behavior. It is top of many lists about bullying. The stereotyping of Native people doesn't matter to people who are intent on using the book with bullies.  People are staring at Oona, we'll learn later, because they saw Hovering Oona.

p. 164
Another mealtime. Oona/Corpse is sitting with the kids, where they are talking about William's time at a summer camp at Harvard. People said to him "I didn't know Indians wore normal clothes." Oona says "Seriously? You believe they knew that little about Indians? That's impossible."

It is odd that Oona is incredulous. Recall she was wondering about the kid at the conference who was in a shirt and tie? That aside, her remark is interesting given what she says next about mascots.

The conversation moves to a discussion of the Washington DC pro football team mascot, the Cleveland Indians logo, and, the Chiefs. William says "Headdresses? Just feathers are religious for us." They laugh, and Corpse laughs with them but thinks to herself that it isn't funny at all, and wonders why she never noticed these things before. 

Not having noticed problems with mascots before sounds a lot like the person at Harvard who wondered about Indians wearing normal clothes. It is hard to know just what to make of the things that Oona thinks and says.   

p. 178
Oona/Corpse tells Angel there's no water there, but Oona tells her there is, under their feet. She goes on:
"In Navajo tradition, we have Tonenili. He's responsible for rain, sleet, and snow. He also causes thunder and lightning. Often at ceremonies he's there in a costume of spruce branches, playing the part of a clown. He sprinkles water around. Especially during night chants. Maybe he's been speaking to  you, trying to heal you."

This, I think is the "minor deity" of the Net Galley blurb.  I'm doubtful that Angel would have told Corpse that much detail about Tonenili, but as before, what is the source for this? That the word "costume" is used makes me think that the source might be an anthropology text written by an outsider. 

p. 183
At breakfast, Oona/Corpse is with Angel. Oona sees Dr. Yazzie with his hand in his pocket and starts wondering to herself about the rock. Angel says "What?" Oona says "nothing."

Does Angel's "what" to Corpse suggest that Angel can hear her thoughts? Maybe Oona was not wondering to herself. Maybe she was actually speaking her thoughts aloud. 

p. 185
Angel and Oona/Corpse go for a hike. Oona asks Angel about the girl who had a witch in her room and learns that the room she is in was that girl's room. Oona asks Angel:
"A medicine man cleansed my room?"
Angel nodded.
"Does that stuff linger? Like could his power cleanse me?"
Angel seemed to sort out her thoughts in the road ahead of them. "When you first came here, you scared me," She looked over her shoulder, right at me [Hovering Oona]. "I worried you might have the ghost sickness and you might take me with you."
"Me? Is a ghost like a witch? Is that what that girl saw? Is that why everyone was staring at me?
"It's complicated. It's not good to talk about these things. They have power."
"Do you think a medicine man could cure me? My hands and feet have been tingling since Circle."
Angel tells her that she doesn't think Oona needs a medicine man anymore because she's healing herself. 

I don't know where to start in analyzing that conversation. Angel shares information but also says it isn't good to talk about these things. She's right--Native peoples guard some things very carefully, but she chose to share some of it with Oona. Lucky for Oona! As before, I wonder about Sappenfield's source for this material. 

p. 185 
On their hike, Angel holds out an eagle feather to Oona and says:
"This is for all the things you've survived."
No! Angel can't legally give Oona an eagle feather. It is illegal for people who are not Native to have eagle feathers. Info here: http://www.fws.gov/eaglerepository/  This law is info 101 to Native people, and especially those who would be at NAPS.


-----

At that point, I stopped taking notes. I did read it, all the way to the end. Though the book goes on for another hundred-plus pages, the story location shifts when Mr. Handler and Oona leave the school. They were there for one week. Angel and William return at the very end, at Oona's graduation. 

There's more analysis to do--the depictions of Gabe (Oona's boyfriend) and the family maid (she's Mexican), and the use of Spanish in various places. Some of it doesn't sound quite right to me. I'll close this post with something I said earlier:

I hate that NAPS and kids there were used 
by Sappenfield for this book. 
It feels like a violation. The school and 
kids are only a magical device that 
serves the white protagonist. 


It isn't "just fiction" that Sappenfield, or any writer is doing, when they write a story. Some fictions affirm existing stereotypes. Some create new problems for Native people to deal with. It doesn't have to be that way. Writers---you can do better. Editors---so can you! 

Last: If something I've said is unclear (or if there are typos!), do let me know. I welcome your question, corrections, and comments.  

Editor's Note: The original post for this review had an error in the title. This is a reposting of the review with the correct title (the word 'where' was replaced with 'who'). 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Heather Sappenfield's THE VIEW FROM WHO I WAS

A colleague, Trish, wrote to ask me if I'd seen Heather Sappenfield's The View From Who I Was. She said it is set at a place called American Indian Preparatory School, modeled on the Native American Preparatory School. Trish didn't know it, but that school means a lot to Native people.

I had not heard of the book, so looked it up and saw that an ARC (advance reading copy) was available at Net Galley (anyone can sign up to read ARC's via Net Galley). The View From Who I Was is due out in January. The description of the book is unsettling. Here's the first paragraph:
Sometimes the end is just the beginning At Crystal High's Winter Formal, Oona Antunes splits in two. Her disembodied spirit watches as her body leaves the dance and tries to freeze to death. Three days later, she wakes in the hospital missing fingers and toes, burdened with the realization of what she's done to her mother and father.

But it was the second paragraph that got my attention:

When her school counselor invites Oona to join him at a Native American school, she becomes immersed in a foreign world where witches, talking rocks, and minor deities are reality. Oona discovers that if she is to heal, her father must also heal. But are his problems more than they can handle?

NAPS was, and is, a special place to us. Located near Santa Fe (remember--I'm from Nambe Pueblo, which is near Santa Fe), it was designed to provide gifted Native high school students with a culturally supportive education from which they would go on to college. I know people who worked there, and I know students who went there, too. I started reading, making notes as I went.

Far too often, Native people--or some semblance of Native people--are used by people who care only for their romantic notions of who we are. Mascots, of course, are one example.

In the Acknowledgements, Sappenfield says she went to NAPS twice. Those visits weren't enough to give her a meaningful or grounded respect of who we are... In The View From Who I Was, there are a lot of romantic notions that ultimately serve as the turning point in the protagonist's life.

I hate that NAPS and kids there were used 
by Sappenfield for this book. 
It feels like a violation. The school and 
kids are only a magical device that 
serves the white protagonist. 

Soon after learning about the book, I learned that the description at Net Galley is an old one that no longer describes the book. Frankly, I was relieved. But when I read the book, the description at Net Galley (also at Amazon and GoodReads) struck me as accurate. There is stuff about witches, and there's a talking rock...

As indicated, I read an ARC (advanced reading copy), which--in theory--means that there is still time for the author to revise. However, I think the errors indicate a fundamental lack of understanding, knowledge, and respect that would prevent the book from being revised in such a way that it would be ok.

After reading the ARC, I talked with a former NAPS teacher and student. The student, in particular, was troubled by how the school and teachers are misrepresented. It was special to her. Since her time there, she said, there's been nothing written about it. She hates that this book, with these errors, might be the first thing about the school that people read.

Here's my notes on the parts of the books that are about Native people/culture, with my thoughts in italics. I've included comments from the student (C) and the teacher (A).

You'll see places where I use "Oona/Corpse" and "Hovering Oona" when I'm talking about the protagonist. It is a bit confusing overall. The protagonist's name is Oona. As the book opens, Oona's spirit splits in two. The part that stays in her body is called "Corpse" by the part that left her body and hovers nearby. The story is told to us by the part of her spirit that hovers. Hovering Oona has control over whether or not Oona/Corpse is going to express or act on emotions. Oona/Corpse isn't aware of the Hovering Oona.

p. 14
Murial (Oona's mom) likes to decorate their swanky home in Colorado using Native artifacts. There's a peace pipe, kachinas, moccasins. 

Wondering about the back story for these items. I wonder where Oona's mom got them? She could have gotten them online, but those would be fakes. I wonder if Oona's mom knows about the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act? (Note to readers: Do go read that act. It is important and protects consumers from fraud, and, it also protects Native artists for whom their art is their livelihood.) 

p. 16
Prior to the suicide attempt, Oona is with Mr. Handler (her school counselor) at a school leadership conference. They're at a session put on by Native students from the American Indian Preparatory School. The school counselor has spent time at the school prior to this. In the session, a Native guy with a crew cut introduces Dr. Benson, who is the school's "flute master." He plays the flute to open their session. 

It is plausible that there would be someone on flute opening a session, but not probable that the school would have a "flute master." Pop-culture tells us that when you have Indians, you gotta have flute music. They kind of go together in white peoples minds. Though many Native nations use flutes, they're over-used by outsiders who want to signal "Indian" to an audience. Invariably, it gives people goosebumps (as it does to Oona). Flutes used that way are even the butt of jokes amongst us. Having it open this conference presentation made me shake my head. It appears later, too, in a gathering at the school. I asked C (student) about it. She said they'd have morning openings each day where announcements were made. Someone would pray in their Native way, but no music. 

The row of Native students sits with bowed heads. 

Not clear if they were sitting that way when the flutist was playing (as though it is a prayer), or, if they are sitting that way as the Navajo girl is introduced and speaking. Bowed heads suggests a prayerful moment, but overall it doesn't sound right to me.  

p. 17
The Native guy with the crewcut introduces a Navajo student, Angel Davis, who is "of the Fort Defiance Navajo" and then Angel takes the stage and starts talking. 

Generally speaking, a Navajo person takes care (in presentations) to introduce themselves according to fairly standard protocols. See the first few minutes of this video for an example. At conferences, those first few minutes would be followed by a translation (into English) of what was just said. Angel doesn't use the protocol before moving into her very-Indian presentation. 

Angel's presentation is about five feathers she has with her on stage. She talks about how she got each one:
Angel's speech was slow, yet soft, lilting: "I hold in my hand five feathers." She held up her hand and out the sides of her fist were the ends of long feathers. "Gifts from my grandfather. From his headdress. An eagle feather for each good thing I've done." Angel read about each of those good things: graduating middle school, helping her brother when he had mono, attending the American Indian Preparatory School, far from home, completing a summer writing program, even farther away. She ended with reading at this conference. She didn't candy-coat things, she just described how each challenge she didn't want to do at first, and after, her grandfather would call her out behind their house, place his hand on her shoulder, tug a feather from his headdress, and give it to her.
There's a lot wrong with that passage. First, headdresses are not part of traditional Navajo attire. They are worn primarily by Plains tribes. As written, it sounds like Angel's grandfather wears it all the time, or, that he put it on to do this feather-giving-ceremony where he takes a feather out of his headdress. It doesn't work at all. When a Native person is given a feather to mark an accomplishment, it isn't taken from an existing headdress. And, when feathers are given, it (or how it is done) generally isn't something they talk about to outsiders in the way Angel does. It is possible, but not plausible. 

p. 18/19
Oona listens to the next speaker who talks about his "costume" with its "fringe, beads, and feathers" and how he goes to powwows, where he dances for his grandma and his ancestors. Oona thinks "Was he kidding? The guy wore a white Oxford shirt with short sleeves and a tie." 

It isn't likely that he would have said "costume" or "fringe, beads, and feathers." He would more likely have said "regalia." He does the powwow circuit, it sounds like. He dances for his grandma and ancestors. Dancing for his grandma and ancestors sounds right to me. Does Oona think he can't be legit because he's wearing a shirt and tie? Or, is she being snarky about who he dances for? Either way, there's also a feeling that these kids are richer than Oona, with all her material wealth, is.    

p. 93
Mr. Handler invites Oona/Corpse to go with him to the Native American school, where she can help juniors fill out college applications. (Later, we'll learn that her help is specific to navigating websites.) 

That sounded ok to me, but when I was talking with C about the book, she asked me what Oona was going to do at the school. I told her, and she laughed, saying they were tech savvy and didn't need help like that. 

p. 99
Murial says that she wanted to be anthropologist because she loves Indians. 

That love-of-Indians is pretty widespread and as such, is the subject of much writing amongst Native people. Three resources to read/listen to are Kate Shanley's article, "The Indians Americans Love to Love and Read" , Vine Deloria Jr.'s Custer Died For Your Sins--especially the chapter on anthropologists, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman's Here Come the Anthros, based on Deloria's chapter. 

p. 103/104
More flute music. It appears several times throughout the story. 

See comments about page 16.

p. 108
Oona/Corpse is with Mr. Handler. They're approaching the grounds at the Native school. Before they get there, she sees faded house trailers (one with plywood covering window) and rusted out cars.
Two Indian kids scampered around out front, one in just a diaper, the white of it against this world, against his skin, seemed unreal.
How does protag know those are Indian kids? The school is not on a reservation. The community by it is not Native either. That the two kids "scampered" also stands out. Animals scamper. Little kids, too, the dictionary says, but given the overwhelming associations of Indians-as-animal-like, seeing it here gives me pause.

p. 111
At the school, Oona/Corpse is greeted by Louise, who is "a stout, toffee-tinted woman in a purple broom skirt and a white blouse." She has ebony hair that she wears in a bun that is clasped with a beaded barrette. 

I didn't note what words Sappenfield used to describe skin tones of Oona's mother or Mr. Benson, or Ashley (her friend at school).  Later on, Angel is going to ask Oona if she is part Native (Angel says "an urban Indian") because Oona's skin tone is olive. Of late, there have been several discussions online about words used for skin tones, when and how they're used, and who is using them.

p. 112
Back in the car, Mr. Handler and Oona/Corpse drive to the part of campus where their rooms are. As they drive, she sees "a white woman in a blouse and jeans and an Indian man with a long braid...". 

How does she know the woman is white? Oona's assumption is that all Indians have darker skin and hair, so this woman must be white. That is an incorrect assumption. Later, Angel and Oona have a conversation about skin tones. 

p. 113
Mr. Handler tells Oona/Corpse he's there to help counsel the kids at the school:
They're the kids who want to go on to college. These are not your average Native American kids." 
He backs off from that statement, saying
"Scratch that. They're just kids. Trying to figure things out. Like you."
I'm glad he backed off but what did he back off from? Did he mean that an average Native kid doesn't want to go to college? I really don't know what to make of that exchange.  

They park the car and get out. A "flock" of Indian students approach. 

I can't recall what words author used to describe groups of kids at Oona's school in Colorado. Was flock used there, too? Problem with flock is similar to scamper.

p. 114
A boy greets Mr. Handler by calling him "Lone Ranger." And then:
"He no sabe," another one said, and they all laughed. 'No know,' I realized; Tonto had been disrespecting that white-masked man, and I'd never had a clue.
That doesn't make sense to me. The line Tonto uses is "kemo sabe" -- not 'he' or 'no'. Sappenfield wants us to think that Tonto was saying "he no sabe" and as such, was dissing the Lone Ranger. Does Sappenfield now know what Tonto said? Am I missing something myself?! 

That part aside, the banter between the kids and Mr. Handler is easy going and reflects relationships I've seen between Native kids and white teachers and staff who have established a warm relationship.

p. 119
Oona/Corpse and Mr. Handler go to dinner and sit with the staff and teachers. Oona/Corpse is introduced to Dr. Yazzie, the headmaster. He is the guy Oona/Corpse saw earlier--the one with the braid:
Now Corpse saw the symmetry of his forehead, cheeks, and chin, a honey-tinted movie-star face, smooth but for creases at his eyes.
Ok. A super handsome dude. Yazzie, by the way, is a Navajo name. 

As they eat, Dr. Yazzie tells Mr. Handler:
"You know the statistics, Perry. Half of them can't handle the college world and drop out."
Mr. Handler asks about students. Davina has done ok. Louise posits that Davina's aunt has been a good role model for her. That aunt is a sergeant on the Navajo police force. When Mr. Handler asks about Cindy, Louise replies:
"Her father died." Louise's mouth, which arced down naturally, stretched down in a real frown. "Her mother had to get a job, so Cindy went home to help out with the kids."
"Poor girl," Mr. Handler said. "She was so smart."
Louise nodded. "Yes, a waste. Her father's death was a waste too. Put his truck in the ditch. Drunk. Tried to walk home on a frigid night. They found him sitting, frozen, at the entrance to their driveway. Apparently neighbors were driving past, waving."
A laugh burst from Ms. Cole. "Sorry. I hadn't heard that last part."
I found that conversation troubling. It is plausible that Louise would think "waste" but it isn't plausible. The teachers and staff at NAPS were especially supportive of Native culture and values. That a Native kid would step up to help her family would not be characterized as a waste. That neighbors drove past and waved at the body of Cindy's dad... Is that plausible?! It strikes me as incredibly offensive to imagine, let alone share, or laugh at. Louise and Ms. Cole strike me as horrible people. When I told C (student) and teacher (A) about this, they both felt that this was a misrepresentation of the teachers and staff. It strikes me as a 'fit' with government boarding schools were the framework for them was "kill the Indian and save the man" but definitely does not fit with NAPS. A quick note about Louise's mouth, which "arced down naturally" -- Angel's does, too. Weird. 

Mr. Handler then asks about Roberta:
Louise laughed. "She skipped that summer internship you arranged at the hospital. Didn't even call to let them know."
Louise goes on to say that Roberta is 18 years old now, and
"She took a job as a stripper instead. Still goes back and works weekends. Calls herself Destiny."
Mr. Handler scans the cafeteria and sees Roberta. Oona/Corpse sees her "shapely back". The next line is Hovering Oona's voice:
I had an image of Roberta in a string bikini, slithering along a pole over an audience of salivating men, some hungrily waving dollar bills.
That is another very troubling part of the book. Why did Sappenfield create this particular characterization for Roberta?! 

Hovering Oona looks at the kids in the cafeteria and thinks
these weren't the people we'd imagined inhabiting that flute music. The ones who'd made us feel poor. Maybe the bullshit had been those conference readings.
Ok... so Roberta is meant to humanize Native people?! 

p. 122 
Closing out this scene in the story, Mr. Handler says that he's read statistics (about Native people), but that "the reality is a lot harder to swallow." 

So--the reality is one girl who has done well, one who has gone home, and one who is a stripper? 

Dr. Yazzie, studying Oona/Corpse, puts his hand in his pocket.

It seemed an odd detail at that moment. Later, we learn that he keeps a rock in that pocket. It talks to him. 

After dinner, Oona/Corpse and Mr. Handler head to their rooms. As he says goodnight to Oona, she sees him swallow and his Adam's apple goes up and down. Oona/Corpse wants to say she's sorry about those kids, but she doesn't, because Hovering Oona stops her. 

p. 124-129
Early morning, Oona/Corpse goes out on a trail where she'll get cell phone reception. She calls her boyfriend. After the call, Angel comes along the same trail. She tells Oona that she's "greeting the sun." As she goes on her way, she calls back "I dreamed of you three nights ago." 

p. 130
Angel asks Oona if she's "an urban Indian" who is "from the city" and that "maybe doesn't know traditions, Indian ways." Surprised, Oona asks Angel how she could be Indian (appearance-wise). Angel tells her there's "a lot of mixed-blood or northern Indians here that don't look Indian." 

That is an interesting passage. I'm glad to see appearance being addressed. 

p. 131 
Angel tells Oona/Corpse about photographers that want photos of kids who look Indian. She also talks about how people like to visit Indians to "feel like they've done a good deed or something."

Another interesting passage, and accurate. It is ironic, too. It demonstrates that Sappenfield is able to have her characters speak to outsider use of Native people for their own benefit, but, with the way she uses Native culture in her book, doesn't understand that she's doing precisely that with this book.

p. 132
As they talk, Angel looks at Hovering Oona on Corpse's shoulder. 

As the book progresses, we learn that Angel and Dr. Yazzie can see Hovering Oona. And, in a passage that returns to imagery of Roberta as a pole dancer, Roberta walks through Hovering Oona's spirit and has a reaction that tells us that she, too, has ability to sense Hovering Oona. That makes them mystical or magical. It might seem cool a lot of people, but it plays on stereotypes! Not ok. 

p. 137
Oona/Corpse goes up the trail behind the school and comes upon Angel, kneeling in a clearing. Oona gets behind a branch and watches Angel, who is chanting. She turns north, west, south, and east. She rises and calls out to Oona that she doesn't have to hide, and asks her if she's spying on her. Oona says that, in addition to wanting to know more about the dream, she wanted to see what greeting the sun was. Oona asks Angel why she does it, and Angel says it is "showing him I'm ready for the day. And worthy."

That is unsettling. I understand that curiosity, but honestly, it is creepy and voyeuristic. I'm curious about the back story for it. What is Sappenfield's source? Is that something a Navajo girl or person actually does? Is it accurate? Is her source the Navajo girl she named in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book? Did she see that girl praying? Did she ask that girl if she could join her? 

If yes, there's a huge power dynamic in that request, and it is entirely inappropriate. In universities, there are research protocols that do not allow vulnerable populations (youth) to give permissions like that because they don't have the experience/knowledge/wherewithal to say no. Increasingly, tribes are asking writers to go through similar tribally-based protocols when they are there for research purposes for stories. I'm pretty sure NAPS administrators would not have given the author permission to do this. 

p. 139
Angel and Oona talk for a while. Oona tells Angel that she had tried to kill herself. Angel nods, saying
"I thought you looked like you'd been dead."
This is another manifestation of the stereotypical mystical Indian who sees and knows things...  

p. 142
At breakfast Oona/Corpse asks Angel what she saw that made her think that Oona had been dead. Angel shrugs her shoulders and looks at Hovering Oona. Oona/Corpse says 
"If I'd said I was an urban Indian, would you tell me?"
Angel's face hardens and she gets ready to leave. Oona presses her, asking if she can join her to greet the sun. Angel sighs and asks "Do I have a choice?" Oona/Corpse seems to be developing an awareness of Hovering Oona.

With Oona's question, it seems to me that Sappenfield knows that there are things that are guarded. The way she handles all the spirituality in the story tells me that she doesn't care about anything that Angel or Native people might be guarded about. 

After Angel leaves, Oona overhears two white teachers talking. One says that teaching there has 
"been a wild ride, and I've never been able to forget, even for a minute, that I'm an outsider."
She goes on to talk about her first week at the school, when a girl went to her room (teachers live on campus): 
"...whimpering about witches in her room. It was the middle of the night, for God's sake, and I tried to calm her. I mean, witches? I eventually got her to sleep, she spent the night in my room, and in the morning she seemed fine. At lunch Yazzie took me aside. Apparently I'd handled it all wrong. Made a fool of myself. When a student has witches in her dorm room, you inform Yazzie immediately, and they call a medicine man to come purify it."
 Ah! There's the part about witches that the blurb on Net Galley refers to! 

The two teachers commiserate about feeling like outsiders.  

Similar to the question about Angel's prayer, I'm curious about the source for this part about witches and medicine men.

p. 145/146
The next morning, Oona/Corpse joins Angel in her greeting of the sun. Though she moves in the same ways that Angel does, she isn't listening to Angel. Her thoughts are about her parents, her suicide, and her dad, in particular. She whispers to Hovering Oona and seems to be gaining insights into her family dynamics and her own well-being.

Again: what is the author's source for the way that Angel is shown in her movements? Turning to N/S/W doesn't jibe with what I know of the greeting that Navajos do at dawn. Some nations do have a directional greeting. In this part of the story, readers assume the voyeuristic gaze that Corpse had earlier. As a Native woman, this part makes me uncomfortable. I don't think author imagined a Native reader, or Native views on exploitation of Native spirituality.

p. 150
Dr. Yazzie talks with Oona/Corpse, telling her that it looks like she's had a hard time. She says "Don't tell me you can see I've died."  He says that it isn't hard to see, and then nods towards her shoulder where Hovering Oona is perched. He tells her:
"I have a rock in my pocket. It speaks to me." 
And,
"It tells me you're a good person. That you're going to be ok." 
Clearly, Dr. Yazzie is a mystical Indian, too. This is the talking rock of the Net Galley blurb.

p. 154
Corpse goes to "Circle" which is a gathering that happens once a week. Mr. Handler sits beside her. She tells him about Dr. Yazzie's rock. They're seated in chairs arranged in a circle. Dr. Yazzie comes in and sits on the floor in the center of the circle. Dr. Benson (the flute master) rises from his chair and plays. All heads are bowed. Corpse gets goosebumps and then comes fully aware of Hovering Oona's view, and how Hovering Oona "constantly reasoned, doubted, judged" Oona. Oona/Corpse whispers to Hovering Oona that she has to stop. Oona/Corpse reaches to her chest, to the "slice" through which Hovering Oona had left at the start of the story. Hovering Oona darts down and enters but doesn't like it in there and takes off again. When the lights come back up, everyone is staring at Oona. 

Oona is definitely healing, and it is due in large part to these mystical Indians and their flute music. My guess it that people will dismiss my concerns. Overall, I can hear them say, this is a book about healing from suicide. How that happens, to them, doesn't matter. It reminds me of so many books. Cole in Touching Spirit Bear is healed thru similar Indian ways. In that story, he comes to terms with his bullying behavior. It is top of many lists about bullying. The stereotyping of Native people doesn't matter to people who are intent on using the book with bullies.  People are staring at Oona, we'll learn later, because they saw Hovering Oona.

p. 164
Another mealtime. Oona/Corpse is sitting with the kids, where they are talking about William's time at a summer camp at Harvard. People said to him "I didn't know Indians wore normal clothes." Oona says "Seriously? You believe they knew that little about Indians? That's impossible."

It is odd that Oona is incredulous. Recall she was wondering about the kid at the conference who was in a shirt and tie? That aside, her remark is interesting given what she says next about mascots.

The conversation moves to a discussion of the Washington DC pro football team mascot, the Cleveland Indians logo, and, the Chiefs. William says "Headdresses? Just feathers are religious for us." They laugh, and Corpse laughs with them but thinks to herself that it isn't funny at all, and wonders why she never noticed these things before. 

Not having noticed problems with mascots before sounds a lot like the person at Harvard who wondered about Indians wearing normal clothes. It is hard to know just what to make of the things that Oona thinks and says.   

p. 178
Oona/Corpse tells Angel there's no water there, but Oona tells her there is, under their feet. She goes on:
"In Navajo tradition, we have Tonenili. He's responsible for rain, sleet, and snow. He also causes thunder and lightning. Often at ceremonies he's there in a costume of spruce branches, playing the part of a clown. He sprinkles water around. Especially during night chants. Maybe he's been speaking to  you, trying to heal you."

This, I think is the "minor deity" of the Net Galley blurb.  I'm doubtful that Angel would have told Corpse that much detail about Tonenili, but as before, what is the source for this? That the word "costume" is used makes me think that the source might be an anthropology text written by an outsider. 

p. 183
At breakfast, Oona/Corpse is with Angel. Oona sees Dr. Yazzie with his hand in his pocket and starts wondering to herself about the rock. Angel says "What?" Oona says "nothing."

Does Angel's "what" to Corpse suggest that Angel can hear her thoughts? Maybe Oona was not wondering to herself. Maybe she was actually speaking her thoughts aloud. 

p. 185
Angel and Oona/Corpse go for a hike. Oona asks Angel about the girl who had a witch in her room and learns that the room she is in was that girl's room. Oona asks Angel:
"A medicine man cleansed my room?"
Angel nodded.
"Does that stuff linger? Like could his power cleanse me?"
Angel seemed to sort out her thoughts in the road ahead of them. "When you first came here, you scared me," She looked over her shoulder, right at me [Hovering Oona]. "I worried you might have the ghost sickness and you might take me with you."
"Me? Is a ghost like a witch? Is that what that girl saw? Is that why everyone was staring at me?
"It's complicated. It's not good to talk about these things. They have power."
"Do you think a medicine man could cure me? My hands and feet have been tingling since Circle."
Angel tells her that she doesn't think Oona needs a medicine man anymore because she's healing herself. 

I don't know where to start in analyzing that conversation. Angel shares information but also says it isn't good to talk about these things. She's right--Native peoples guard some things very carefully, but she chose to share some of it with Oona. Lucky for Oona! As before, I wonder about Sappenfield's source for this material. 

p. 185 
On their hike, Angel holds out an eagle feather to Oona and says:
"This is for all the things you've survived."
No! Angel can't legally give Oona an eagle feather. It is illegal for people who are not Native to have eagle feathers. Info here: http://www.fws.gov/eaglerepository/  This law is info 101 to Native people, and especially those who would be at NAPS.


-----

At that point, I stopped taking notes. I did read it, all the way to the end. Though the book goes on for another hundred-plus pages, the story location shifts when Mr. Handler and Oona leave the school. They were there for one week. Angel and William return at the very end, at Oona's graduation. 

There's more analysis to do--the depictions of Gabe (Oona's boyfriend) and the family maid (she's Mexican), and the use of Spanish in various places. Some of it doesn't sound quite right to me. I'll close this post with something I said earlier:

I hate that NAPS and kids there were used 
by Sappenfield for this book. 
It feels like a violation. The school and 
kids are only a magical device that 
serves the white protagonist. 


It isn't "just fiction" that Sappenfield, or any writer is doing, when they write a story. Some fictions affirm existing stereotypes. Some create new problems for Native people to deal with. It doesn't have to be that way. Writers---you can do better. Editors---so can you! 

Last: If something I've said is unclear (or if there are typos!), do let me know. I welcome your question, corrections, and comments.   

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tim Tingle's NO NAME

In Removing the Word "Reluctant" from Reluctant Reader, Stringer and Mollineaux write that there are many reasons why teen readers choose not to read (p. 71):
For some youth, reading difficulties may be intertwined with factors such as cultural background, language barriers, learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, family disruptions, teenage pregnancy, fear of failure, and peer pressure. These problems may occur with other stressors such as school transitions, low self-esteem, poor time management, and depression.
In their work on the experience of Native youth in school, Tippeconnic and Fairchild write that over time, Native youth disengage from school. Among the reasons, Tippeconnic and Fairchild put forth is that Native youth don't see themselves in the materials they're asked to read.

Enter Tim Tingle's No Name. It is one of the new titles in the PathFinders series published by 7th Generation. Pitched for kids aged 12-16, it is about Bobby, a present-day Choctaw teen. His dad drinks. When drunk, he becomes abusive to his wife and Bobby. She leaves, and Bobby decides to run away. He doesn't go far, though, choosing to dig a hideout in his backyard.

People who are aware of the dysfunction of his home life help him and his dad find their way. One strength of No Name is that the way is real. Things don't get better overnight. That is a truth that children in similar homes know.

There are aspects of Choctaw life in the book, too. Tingle's story draws from a Choctaw story about No Name, a boy who also has a difficult relationship with his father. I especially like the parts of the story where Danny and his friend, Johnny, talk about the Choctaw Nation and water rights.

Danny and Johnny (who is Cherokee) play basketball. I think No Name has appeal to a wide range of readers. Those we might call reluctant, and those who are Native, especially Choctaw or Cherokee, and those who live in homes disrupted by alcoholism will be drawn to No Name.   

Earlier today I posted a bit of a rant over recent works of fantasy in which non-Native writers use Native culture as inspiration for a story that has little if anything to do with the lives of Native people today. Today's society knows so little about who we are! Works of fantasy just feed that lack of knowledge. Society embraces an abstract, disembodied notion of who we are, rather than us as people with a desire to be known and appreciated for who we are.

Gritty, real stories, of our daily lives in 2014 are too few and far between. We need more books like Tingle's No Name. Get a copy for your library. Choose your framework for sharing it: it is a basketball story; it is a realistic story of alcoholism; it is a story about the Choctaw people.   

What is wrong with THE REMARKABLE AND VERY TRUE STORY OF LUCY AND SNOWCAP; SORROW'S KNOT; GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD

A colleague asked me about H. M. Bouwman's The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap. Published in 2008 by Marshall Cavendish, it got a starred review from Kirkus, and was tagged as "serviceable" by School Library Journal. 

Right off the bat, I'm giving it a thumbs down.

The setting is 1787. One character, Lucy, is "Colay" which is a fictional Native tribe the author made up for this fantasy. Because it is fantasy, people will defend what Bouwman does with characterizations of that made-up tribe.

But because Americans know so little about Native peoples, I object to works of fantasy like The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap.  And Bow's Sorrow's Knot. And Healy's Guardian of the Dead. 

One of our most esteemed Native writers, Simon J. Ortiz, wrote some time back that people love to retell and read traditional Native stories. A great deal of those stories are "retold" by writers who are outsiders to the people whose story they are "retelling" according to their own needs and creativity. They profess being inspired by Native peoples.

Ortiz quite rightly points out that Native people have very real lives and very real issues that need attention. It might make writers feel good to "retell" our stories, or to use our stories to create fantasies like Bouwman and Bow and Healy have done, but in so doing, they're doing further harm to Native peoples.

Bouwman, Bow, and Healy (and they aren't the only ones!) are feeding a monster of stereotypical expectations of who we are. That is not ok. How can they--on one hand, profess admiration for us--and on the other hand, take/use/misappropriate Native stories and culture when what they do hurts Native people?


Friday, September 12, 2014

I read THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE

So! Scott (a colleague) wrote to ask me if I'd read The Education of Little Tree. I've written about that book here on AICL several times because it is not really a memoir. It was published as the memoir of a Cherokee named Forrest Carter, but that author's brother outed him as Asa Carter. Yeah, that guy. Of the KKK.

Scott said that a friend's daughter is reading it as a class assignment. She is telling the teacher that there are problems with it, but the teacher things there are valuable lessons in it, so I guess that means the teacher thinks they can ignore the problems. I don't know what the daughter is pointing out. Scott owes me big time for having to read this book...

This afternoon, I read The Education of Little Tree. It is set in the 1930s. Little Tree and his grandparents are amongst the Cherokee people who did not go to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears.

As I read, I was shaking my head, sighing deeply, again and again as I read. I just can NOT see what ANYONE would see of value in this book.

There are several words in the first chapter that we are meant to understand as Cherokee words. Using the Cherokee Nation's translator, I found that one or two of Carter's words are close to what I found as being good translations but most of them don't work at all. So--if you think you're learning Cherokee words by reading this book, you're not.

That first chapter is called Little Tree. It sets the stage for why this five-year-old is now living with his grandparents. His mother has died. He gets on a bus with his grandparents who've come to his mom's funeral. As his grandfather is paying the bus driver, that bus driver turns to the passengers, holds up his right hand, and says "How!" They all laugh, and Little Tree thinks they are friendly people. There's another part there, where a passenger calls out "Wa...hooo" as they walk past her seat.  We, the reader, know what's going on, and we go along with Carter, thinking that the driver and the passengers are racist. Maybe that is what draws people into the book. The thing is, with Carter being a fraud, I think readers are the ones who are the butt of his joke.

Once they've gotten off the bus and are walking into the mountains where his grandparents live, he hears his grandma singing an Indian song and that makes him feel safe. I guess that means his mom sang those songs to him? Nonetheless, he's about to learn a lot of what it means to be an Indian by living with these grandparents.

Like in "The Way" --- which is chapter 2. Here we learn of "Mon-o-lah" or "earth mother." If you search on "Mon-o-lah" you're going to get a lot of hits about this book. You're also going to get some hits to New Age sites and some odd stuff, too.

In "The Way" Little Tree and his grandfather see a hawk hunting quail. It gets one, and Little Tree is sad. His grandfather says:
"Don't feel sad, Little Tree. It is The Way. Tal-con [I think we're supposed to think that is the Cherokee word for hawk] caught the slow and so the slow will raise no children who are also slow." 
That was one of the shake-my-head moments. That struck me as a twisted eugenics philosophy. Grandpa continued:
"Tal-con eats a thousand ground rats who eat the eggs of the quail--both the quick and the slow eggs--and so Tal-con lives by The Way. He helps the quail."
Not only does Tal-con kill slow quail, he kills the rats who eat the quick and slow ones before they're hatched, too. I know Carter's trying to get us to buy into some Circle of Life thing but, this hawk/quail/rat cycle is kind of messed up.  And then, he says:
"It is The Way. Take only what ye need. When ye take the deer, do not take the best. Take the smaller and the slower and then the deer will grow stronger and always give you meat. Pa-koh, the panther, knows and so must ye." 
That's just baloney. Animals do that "smaller and slower" hunting, but human beings do not do that. Human beings leave the female deer alone. That is the way it is done. A doe is smaller than a buck. If you kill the smaller, you kill the females and then guess what? No more deer! This seems silly to even say, but my guess is that a pregnant doe would be a bit slower than the rest of the deer, too. According to Carter's "The Way" she's the one to kill! This is just a bunch of nonsense.

But it must work! For millions of people who love this book, it works. WHY?! Because the portrayal of Native people as animals rather than humans has been done so well, that readers don't notice this nonsense!

More animal-like framing happens in chapter six, "To Know the Past." Little Tree's grandparents tell him it is important to know the past, so, they tell him about the Cherokee removal. According to Carter, the soldiers came after harvest time. That harvest time, though had been preceded by springtime, when
"...the Cherokee had farmed the rich valleys and held their mating dances in the spring when life was planted in the ground; when the buck and doe, the cock and peahen exulted in the creation parts they played."
Mating dances?! EVERYONE should stop reading at that point. Why bother reading this book? How 'bout we just all agree not to assign it any longer?

(Note: There's a lot more sillyness in the rest of the book. You'll find the stoic Indian who feels no pain. Carter's going to give you a bogus explanation for the word "How." In "To Know the Past" Carter tells us that the Cherokees refused to ride in the wagons on the Trail of Tears. He goes on and on about the empty wagons behind them. That doesn't reflect anything I've read about removal, including the accounts on the website of the Cherokee Nation.)

Update, Saturday September 13

In an earlier post (Where is Your Copy of The Education of Little Tree), I quoted from Daniel Heath Justice's article. In a comment to this post last night, Daniel pointed me to a documentary on Carter.

There's also a short film about the words Carter uses in the film. The people in it are Cherokee speakers. The words Carter uses are not Cherokee.

IT'S THANKSGIVING by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Marilyn Hafner

Earlier this summer I started doing some research on easy readers to see what sorts of images of Native people I'd find in them. I've written about some in the past (like Danny and the Dinosaur) but haven't done a systematic study.

This morning I put out a call asking librarians for titles in their collections. Michelle replied, sending me scans from Jack Prelutsky's It's Thanksgiving! That book was first published in 1982. Michelle sent me illustrations from the 1982 edition, and, from a newly illustrated edition in 2007. The text did not change. Just the illustrations. (A shout out to Michelle for sending them to me!)

I don't know what prompted the new illustrations, but certainly, it wasn't a concern for accuracy. The Wampanoag's didn't use tipis as shown in the old and new editions:



The one on the left is from 1982; the one on the right is from 2007. The illustrations are from "The First Thanksgiving" chapter of the book. If you're a regular reader of American Indians in Children's Literature, you know I find the telling of that Thanksgiving story deeply problematic.

But let's spend a few minutes with those two illustrations. In the old one, the Pilgrim and the Indian have their hands up. Are they saying "how" to each other? Maybe the publisher and illustrator knew "how" was a problem but were clueless about the tipis and clothing? It also looks like they made the Indian noses less prominent, but just barely. The Pilgrims, though, their noses look a lot better.

If you are weeding books and want to weed this one but aren't sure how to justify it? Accuracy. Check out page 47 of CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries published in 2008. Crew has an acronym, MUSTIE, to help with weeding. Here's what the M stands for:
Misleading refers to information that is factually inaccurate due to new discoveries, revisions in thought, or new information that is now accepted by professionals in the field covered by the subject. Even in fields like physics, that were once thought to be pretty settled, changes occur that radically impact the accuracy and validity of information. 
So how 'bout it? Will you weed it? So kids don't keep growing up thinking that All Indians Lived in Tipis? There's a lot more to say about the "First Thanksgiving" story. I've reviewed a lot of books about it, but for now, check out this post. It features the thinking of a 5th grader: Do you mean all those Thanksgiving worksheets we had to color every year with smiling Indians were wrong?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Was Paul Goble adopted into the Yakima and Sioux tribes?

Within the framework of children's books, one thought that comes to mind when I hear the word "adopted" is Paul Goble. Let me preface this post by saying that I find his children's books highly problematic. See Paul Goble's The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses for background.

For years, I've read that he was adopted by Chief Edgar Red Cloud. Here's an example from the World Wisdom website:
Paul Goble was adopted into the Yakima and Sioux tribes (with the name "Wakinyan Chikala," Little Thunder) by Chief Edgar Red Cloud.
I've been skeptical of such statements and have started some research into that statement. I kind of doubt he was adopted into either one. Maybe Chief Edgar Red Cloud adopted him into his own Lakota family, but I doubt it was an adoption into the nation itself, wherein Goble's name was put down on the tribal census. The Oglala Lakota tribal constitution says members are those who are born to a member of the tribe.

The Yakima and Sioux are two distinct nations, by the way, and using both in that sentence tells us that the person who wrote it doesn't understand that they are two different nations.

I did some searching using "Paul Goble" and "Little Thunder" and found this at the website of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library:
His interest in Native Americans was so deep and genuine that he was adopted into the Yakama (Yakima) tribe by Chief Alba Shawaway and into the Sioux tribe by Chief Edgar Red Cloud.
Alba Shawaway was Yakama and maybe he did adopt Goble into his immediate family, but again, I doubt he would have been adopted into the tribe itself. 

Doing some research on Edgar Red Cloud, I came across Phil Jackson's book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. Jackson is a big name in the National Basketball Association. Edgar Red Cloud gave him a name, too in 1973: Swift Eagle.  Jackson writes:
Call me Swift Eagle. That's the name Edgar Red Cloud gave me during the 1973 basketball clinic that Bill Bradley and I conducted at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Edgar, the grandson of the famous chief Red Cloud, said I resembled an eagle as I swooped around the court with my arms outstretched, always looking to steal the ball. Swift Eagle. Oknahkoh Wamblee. the name sounded like wings beating the air. 
In the next paragraph, Jackson writes that Edgar Red Cloud gave Bill Bradley a name, too: Tall Elk.

But let's get back to Goble. I haven't found anything he's written himself that says he was adopted. Here's the dedication in his Adopted by the Eagles: 




See that? He says he was given a Lakota name and called son by Chief Edgar Red Cloud, but Goble doesn't say he was adopted. He doesn't say anything about it in an interview at the Wisdom Tales website.* And he doesn't say anything about it in his autobiography, Hau Kola-Hello Friend published by Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc. in 1994.  

So... what is the source of information that says he was adopted? I'll keep looking. If you find something, do let me know.

Why it matters: Having his work cloaked with an adoption story suggests that he's got an insider perspective. As my post on The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses indicates, I find his work problematic, and so do Doris Seale, a librarian who is Santee, Cree, and Abenaki, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, an American Indian Studies professor who is Crow Creek Sioux. At the bottom of that post, you'll see a link to a post where I quote them. That post is About Paul Goble.


Monday, September 08, 2014

DREAMING IN INDIAN: CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN VOICES

For some time now, I've been waiting for Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices. Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Leatherdale, it was getting buzz in Native networks on social media.

Given my commitment to bringing the work of Native writers to the fore--especially those set in the present day--the title alone caught my interest. Seeing names of writers who would have work in Dreaming in Indian intrigued me, too.

I've read it, now, and highly recommend it.

The publisher, Annick Press, tags it as being for young adults. Dreaming in Indian has a vibrancy I've not seen in anything else. A vibrancy that, perhaps, is characteristic of a generation at ease with technology and its tools... Native writers, that is at ease with technology and its use. Here's a set of pages from inside (image from publisher website):


I want to pore over the art, studying it, thinking about it, marveling at it. Isn't it stunning? I can imagine a lot of people dismissing this work because it doesn't conform to their stereotypical ideas of dead or stoic Indians. But I can also imagine a lot of others holding it dear because it reflects who we are...

The Foreword is by Lee Maracle (Salish and Cree Sto:lo Nation). She writes:
All the works in the following pages are part of that amazing struggle to go forward, into modernity, onto the global stage, without leaving our ancient selves behind.
And:
They sing out loud in verses, plain and compelling. They cry freedom in words commanding and unapologetic. They do with with tender insistence, bravery, and beauty.
Within Native literatures, Maracle's name is up there with our most acclaimed writers. As such, her words mean a lot. One of her most compelling books is I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism. 

The first items in Dreaming in Indian are by a younger, equally compelling writer: Nicola Campbell (Interior Salish of Nik7kepmx [Thompson], Nxilx [Okanagan], Metis). I've written about her children's books several times. She has two poems in this book: "I Remember Lullabies" and "I Remember Fried Bologna and Rice." From the red and white checked tablecloth to the smoked hide Auntie works on, Campbell's poems reflect what Maracle noted: modernity and ancient selves that are part of our lives as we go forward.

Campbell's poems are in Part 1: Roots. The theme for Part 2 is Battles; for Part 3 it is Medicine, and Part 4 is titled Dreamcatchers. In each one, you'll find poetry, prose, and all manner of art. For most, you'll also have a solid introduction to the artists and writers, their lives, what drives them... Gritty and real, their live stories are inspiring.

Annick categorizes Dreaming In Indian as nonfiction, but I honestly don't know what to call it. The mix of media, writing, topics... It makes me think of Eliza Dresang and her writing about radical change. There's a lot to ponder in Dreaming In Indian. It'll challenge readers, in good ways, and that is a good thing. Check it out.

Update: Tuesday, September 9, 2:38 PM

I had a query about the image at top of the set of four. It features the work of Louie Gong. He is Nooksack. His contribution to Dreaming In Indian is a panel that has shoes and a phone case on the left:




 And, shoes on the right:




The accompanying page says that Gong wanted a pair of Vans but didn't see any patterned ones that he liked. So, he bought some gray ones, went home, and drew traditional Northwest Salish images on them. His art, his expression, his identity. Pretty cool.