Monday, August 14, 2017

John Smelcer's STEALING INDIANS a finalist for the PEN Center USA 2017?

To start, a brief Timeline that I'll add to as additional news articles are published. Several are in-process. 


TIMELINE

August 10, 2017

PEN Center USA announced finalists for its 2017 Literary Awards. John Smelcer's Stealing Indians is among the finalists in the young adult category. 

August 11, 11:18 AM, 2017

On social media, people began to talk about his nomination when Marlon James posted the following on Facebook:
If you were at the Wilkes MFA, when I was, then you know full well the living con job that is John Smelcer. This is the man who at our class reading invented a language, claiming that it was an ancient Native American tongue, and he was its last speaker. So a few days ago PEN Center USA (PEN America) nominated his novel "Stealing Indians" in the category of Young Adult. Let's leave the title for another day. This 2016 book has a blurb from Chinua Achebe. Achebe died in 2013. This is the motherfucking fuckery we keep talking about. Why does this alway happen? Why do these people keep making the same stupid mistakes? You werent conned, you were fucking lazy. Seriously, the quotes all over his site from dead people didn't tip you off? The shadiness of his name? You couldn't have done one stinking google search? Nothing? Nothing at all? How can you claim to listen to us, when you keep making the SAME MISTAKES all the time, like the one you made the last 15 times we spoke to you. If this isn't rescinded, I'm done with PEN. Consider my membership over. Real talk.
Kaylie Jones participated in that conversation (more on that below). 

August 11, 12:40 PM, 2017

At its Facebook page, PEN Center USA posted this announcement:
PEN Center USA has become aware of concerns expressed by some within the literary community regarding the nomination of John Smelcer's STEALING INDIANS for the 2017 PEN Center USA Literary Award for YA. Our staff takes these concerns seriously and is investigating them further to determine an appropriate path forward in accordance with our mission to both celebrate literary merit and defend free expression for all.

August 11, 6:25 PM, 2017

Laurie Hertzel of the Star Tribune, published a brief article about the developing story: Marlon James, others join growing backlash against writer claiming American Indian heritage.

August 13, 2:37 PM, 2017

Rosebud Magazine's twitter account posted "Marlon James is wrong. Ahtna is a real language and a real culture. John Smelcer speaks Ahtna, has papers. ANYONE can easily check this out"







Smelcer is an editor at Rosebud Magazine. In his post to Facebook, Marlon did not deny the existence of Ahtna as a language or a culture. His post (see it above) was with respect to Smelcer's claims that he was the last speaker of a language he was presenting at Wilkes. The screen capture below was posted to Smelcer's FB wall at 3:06 PM on August 13:





There was also a second post with a link to an Ahtna 101 video channel, run by "Johnny Savage." Both of those Facebook posts have since been deleted and replaced with this:







August 16, 2017
On her Facebook page, Kaylie Jones posted a statement she provided to PEN USA. It says, in part, 
The James Jones Fellowship submissions are read blind; the judges do not know the identities of the authors who submit. We learned from Smelcer's bio, once the announcement of his win was made, that he was a member of the Alaskan Ahtna Native American tribe. We were, of course, delighted to hear this.
It was not until 2005, when Smelcer was invited to give a reading and participate in the Wilkes University MFA Residency week, that our suspicions about his integrity were brought to the fore. He stated in his bio that he held a PhD from Oxford University. One of our faculty, herself a PhD who had access to an international database of all PhDs granted by universities worldwide, researched his claim and found that Smelcer did not hold a PhD from Oxford. He was immediately dismissed from the Wilkes faculty.
and
In 2015 the James Jones First Novel Fellowship committee voted unanimously to rescind his 2004 Award. We chose not to pursue legal action, as we simply do not possess the funds to do so.
This entire fiasco is a terrible stain on the reputation and integrity of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and regardless of the outcome of the PEN Awards controversy, I felt absolutely compelled to take a stand.



****



And below, some background:

January 27, 2008

I posted a brief note about Smelcer's The Trap. Within a few hours I heard from several people that Smelcer is not Native. I had taken him at his word (that he is Native) and was taken aback to learn that his claims of being Ahtna were not accurate. (Since then, I've written about him several times at my site. I've tried to be as clear as possible but the sheer depth and breadth of Smelcer's claims are, indeed, a rabbit hole. I've spent many hours trying to verify what he says about his collaborations with other writers. Here, you'll find a list of the posts that are the product of that research. 

Feb 1, 2008

Roger Sutton, of Horn Book, posted White man speaks about Smelcer. On Oct 2, 2011, "Larry Vienneau" posted a comment, saying "If you are interested in the truth please visit ___ (the link no longer works). Vienneau is an illustrator who has illustrated for Smelcer's books. On October 11, 2011, "blackfeet 1954" submitted a comment about adoption rights. On October 16, 2011, "blackfeet1954" submitted another comment.  

October 17-18, 2008

I was an invited speaker at the "American Indian Identity in Higher Education" Conference held at Michigan State University. Upon arriving and talking with Native professors there, I asked if anyone knew Smelcer. I learned he was already well-known in Native writer networks as making questionable claims about his identity. Some of the talks were taped and are online. In the video of my talk, I recount that 2007 encounter with the book, my calls to the Ahtna tribal office, a phone call from his father, and Smelcer's emails to me. 

July 24, 2009

Diane Chen reviewed Smelcer's The Great Death. In her post, she recounts the background research she did on Smelcer. On October 17 at 1:03 AM and 1:11 PM, "blackfeet 1954" and "Edward Crowchild" submitted nearly identical comments. 




December 4, 2010

Amy Bowlan posted to her blog at School Library Journal, pointing her readers to the American Indian Identity paper I delivered in 2008. Comments submitted on October 7, 2011 by "Crowfeather" (I am fascinated by your ability to self promote, your seeming endless options, and your belief that you speaks for all native peoples and cultures.)and October 21, 2011 by "E. Crowchild" (Ms Reese likes to think she speaks for many natives, but she really speaks for herself.) sound very much like Smelcer's writings on his Ethnicity page at his website ("In no way does Debbie Reese represent or speak for all Native Americans. She’s not even a spokesperson for her own tribe.")

January 8, 2015

I received an email from Kaylie Jones, daughter of James Jones, for whom a literary award is named. Smelcer had won the James Jones award in 2004 for Trapped. In subsequent phone calls with her, I learned that she wanted to rescind the award and had taken steps to remove his name from the list of people who received the award. Note there is a winner for 2003 and one for 2005. 

Spring, 2016

Native colleagues began talking online about some of Smelcer's poems that were on the Kenyon Review's website. Soon after, the poems were removed. Here's a note from David Lynn, the editor:




June 18, 2016
Therese Mailhot, writing for Indian Country Today, published John Smelcer: Indian by Proxy.

August 14, 2017

  • For some time now I have been periodically checking to see if Smelcer has removed or acknowledged errors he's made in "Setting the Record Straight" -- a document he maintains at his website. Towards the end of it, he says many things about me that are not true

________________________________

Note: Because of the nature of this discussion, AICL will not publish unsigned or anonymous comments. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Tim Tingle's WHEN TURTLE GREW FEATHERS -- as a mural!

On July 12, 2017, Tim Tingle (Choctaw Nation) was visiting a library and came upon a delightful mural! Here's a photo of Tim, standing in front of it: 



The child depicted in the mural is reading When Tail Grew Feathers, which is one of Tim's picture books! I was thrilled to see it and asked Tim to share details as soon as he could. 

The mural is in the Tye Preston Memorial Library in Canyon Lake, Texas. The original bank in Canyon Lake was owned by Harry Preston, who donated the land and money for what came to be called the Tye Preston Library. That building was eventually sold. Funds from its sale were used to help finance the new library. 

A local artist, Linda Jacobson, came up with the idea for the "Wall of Honor" mural in the new library. She sketched out the design, and a local muralist, Brent McCarthy, got to work. He was given access to the library, and would come in often late at night, to sketch and paint. They kept a sheet over the mural until it was complete. Take a look at photographs of the work-in-progress, at the "Making of a Mural" page!

Brent likes to work from photographs. Harry Preston was alive when the mural was painted, and he offered pictures of his mother. As you flip through the photographs, you will her, as well as the little girl. 

Brent wanted to put children in the mural. The little girl reading Tim's book is someone who attends Brent's church. He took her photo. He also wanted local authors to be depicted on the mural. When he asked about a local children's author, Tim's name came up. He and his dear friend, Doc Moore, had done many storytelling performances at the old library. Tim had donated copies of When Turtle Grew Feathers. Brent was shown that book, and, that's how it became part of the mural. 

The little girl and her mother were there when the mural was unveiled on October 20, 2010. 

I love the story of this mural! I love the mural! It is heartwarming in so many ways! 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Beverly Slapin's review of JUAN PABLO AND THE BUTTERFLIES

Back in June, a reader wrote to ask me about Juan Pablo and the Butterflies by J. J. Flowers. I did a "have you seen" post about it and am glad to see that Beverly Slapin, of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children, has a review up now. Here's some excerpts:
Abuela appears to be a shaman as well. She’s an all-in-one spiritual phenom, singularly embodying not only a whole culture’s metaphysics but also bits of other cultures—a mishmash of mythology and mysticism that the author invents. 
Still, it was the old woman’s shamanic powers that were a good deal more popular than her famous doctoring skill. Nothing made his abuela happier than taking away people’s aches and pains, their troubles and struggles. She took away the pain of childbirth as well as the opposite, the struggle of transitioning. She cured little Jose’s [sic / the nickname for “José” would be “Pepe,” not “little José”] poor hearing, but also his mother’s gambling problem, Ms. Sanchez’s strange rash, but also her husband’s infidelity, Mr. Hernandez’s high blood pressure, but also his depression. Occasionally she worked miracles, curing dementia, diabetes, and even many different cancers. People sought her out from hundreds of miles away. (p. 11)

And there's a subsection about playing Indian:


NOTE ABOUT “PLAYING INDIAN”
When Juan Pablo and Rocio were children: 
Following his abuela’s suggestion, he and Rocio had built an Indian tepee [sic] in the forest just beyond the meadow. No one else but his abuela knew about it. The tepee [sic] became their secret, a private tent where they passed the endless hours of childhood playing imaginary games: Indians—Rocio was the chief and he was the brave; hospital—Rocio was the doctor and he the patient; school—Rocio was the teacher and he the student; and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—finally, he was Harry Potter and Rocio was Hermione. But lately, as they began outgrowing imaginary games, they hiked up to the tepee [sic] just to read good books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Old Man and the Sea, but also The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games. (p.21)
Since most Mexicans are of Mestizo heritage, they’re “Indians.” That Juan Pablo’s Indian abuela would encourage the Indian children to “play Indian” doesn’t make any internal cultural sense. And, as Indian children, why would they want to enact stereotypical Plains Indians? This is all the author’s cultural assumptions and does not apply to Mexican children who probably did not grow up watching “cowboys and Indians” on 1950s TV shoot-‘em-ups. (JP and Rocio’s “tepee” shows up in a later chapter, when Juan Pablo and Rocio are on the run and hide in this “wooden structure,” which a tipi is not.)
The author also inserts some miscellaneous stuff that misrepresents Indians and Mestizos:
If [JP] squinted against the light just so, he could see the narrowest of paths reaching around the cliff. Probably an old Indian path. Indians used to live here hundreds of years ago, after the Aztecs and before the Spaniards. (p. 81)

Go read the full review! There's a lot of detail there that you'll find helpful. 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Recommended: Daniel W. Vandever's FALL IN LINE, HOLDEN

I love Daniel W. Vandever's Fall In Line, Holden



Published this year (2017) by Salina Bookshelf, it is a terrific picture book about a Navajo boy. Here's the description from the publisher's website:
Fall in Line, Holden! follows Holden, a young Navajo boy, through his day at boarding school. Although Holden is required to conform to a rigid schedule and strict standards of behavior, his internal life is led with imagination and wonder. Whether he is in art class, the computer lab, or walking the hall to lunch, Holden’s vivid imagination transforms his commonplace surroundings into a world of discovery and delight.
Explore the world through Holden’s eyes. Join him for the day, and celebrate the strong spirit of a boy who rises above the rules surrounding him.
In an interview at the Salina Bookshelf Youtube channel, you can hear directly from Vandever about the book and how it came to be. He cites statistics, too, about the lack of books that can function as mirrors for Native kids. My hunch is he saw CCBC's data



Holden--the little boy in the story--is a combination of the author, his dad, and his nephew. Three things that especially appeal to me are...

First, that the little boy's imagination is the heart of the story. Turning the pages, you'll see what Holden sees--and what the rest of us miss--when we stand in rigid spaces. I could easily see teachers using it and alongside John Herrington's Mission to Space 

Second, the art! When people think "American Indian" (or "Native American") a certain imagery or style comes to mind. Vandever blows that expectation away with his own graphic style. Studying it, I'm reminded of Phil Deloria's book Indians in Unexpected Places. We are, and do, so much more than mainstream society knows. In that regard, Vandever's book is outstanding. 

Third, Vandever's notes provide teachers with important context about Native peoples and education. 

I hope he writes another book, and of course, I highly recommend that you get a copy of Fall in Line, Holden! for your classroom or library!  

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Bob White, Colleen Murphy, and Appropriation at the 2017 Stratford Festival

The Place: a church meeting room in Stratford, Ontario

The People: adults in a week-long seminar for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Event: the guest lecturer, Bob White, a dramaturg for the festival
[D]ramaturgs contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities (source of definition is the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas page.
****

Dare I tell my story the way the dramaturg told his, the day he was the guest at the seminar? Nah. I'll just tell it like it was. 

Bob White told us that he asked Colleen Murphy to submit three one-page ideas for plays that the Stratford Festival could do this year (2017). Of the three, he really liked one that would become the play the festival is doing this year: The Breathing Hole

What, you wonder, is it about? Here's the description from the festival page
Intersecting with Canada’s history from the moment of First Contact to a future ravaged by climate change, this saga follows the mythic adventures of a polar bear to a profoundly moving conclusion.
Specially commissioned by the Festival to mark Canada 150.
Nothing in there that says Inuit... but if you go to the festival page you'll see an Indigenous woman. A polar bear is behind her. Bob White, at one point, said it is an Inuit story and at another, said it isn't. He also said that they were aware of discussions about appropriation of Aboriginal stories and that they wanted to be careful with The Breathing Hole. Like Bob White, Colleen Murphy, is White. 

Aware of the appropriation conversation, Bob White said he set up a meeting with someone who could look over the play and make sure it was ok. That someone, he said, is Indigenous. He may have said that person's name but I don't remember. That person said it was ok. 

The next thing he had to do was to find some actors who would do the Inuit parts. Bob White said he set up a meeting with some Indigenous actors. Here's where his story got kind of interesting as he recounted how he felt as a White guy going into a room of Indigenous people. He could feel the tension. He'd never felt anything like that before. The actors were not at all pleased or happy about the Breathing Hole project. Oh how I wish there was a recording of that meeting, and of what Bob White said to us that day! 

Bob White said that, in the meeting with the actors, there was a lot of back and forth. On the second day of the meeting, all talk stopped. Nobody said anything. They were at an impasse. A few minutes passed. He wondered if it was all over, if the project was going to fail. 

But, he said, he spoke up, stepping into that silence. He told them their voices were being heard and that their voices would be in the program materials. That seemed to make a difference. This--again--is his telling and my remembering of what he said. One way to think of it: he saved the day and the play went on to open as part of the 2017 festival.

I stood to ask Bob White some questions. I'm paraphrasing as best I remember. If anyone reading this was in that room, please share what you heard. 

I said "If I understand what you've said, the Native actors did not want to do this play because it was written by Colleen Murphy, who is not Native. Do you think, if you were to ask the actors if they would prefer a play written by a Native playwright, they would prefer that?"

Without missing a beat, Bob White said that yes, he was sure they would prefer a play written by a Native playwright. Kudos for his honesty.

And I said "But you did this one, anyway?" 

Again, without missing a beat, Bob White said yes. Again, he was being honest, but this reeks of his privilege and power. 

He also said that they agreed to do it. And then he tried to say something about how it isn't really about Indigenous people, anyway. It is about climate, he said. I was pretty irate by then and said something like "Oh, right. It isn't about us, but you're using us because we're so handy for things like this." There was a bit more. Again, I wish I had been recording that seminar!

A day or so later, I started looking up information about Murphy. 

Prior to The Breathing Hole she did a play called Pig Girl that was controversial. The main character is an aboriginal woman working as a sex trade worker, who is captured by a White man and taken to a pig barn where he rapes, tortures, and kills her. In essence, the play is about MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women). Its premier in Edmonton was followed by a discussion. None of the people in the play, or on that panel, were Indigenous. After hearing from Murphy and the actors, Simons (the moderator) invited the audience to participate in the discussion. 

"A very different debate unfolded." she said, because Tanya Kappo, a founder of Idle No More was in the audience. Among her questions was why there weren't any Native people involved in the play or the panel. An Indigenous playwright spoke next. He said the play was exploiting Indigenous women, using what was happening to them as entertainment and that when a play about that is done, it ought to be done by Indigenous people. Another Indigenous actor stood to say that, too. 

In response, Murphy asserted her right to tell stories she wanted to tell. 

See? Colleen Murphy and Bob White knew a lot about appropriation before embarking on their effort to stage The Breathing Hole because she had been critiqued for it--by Native people. But, she and White--in choosing The Breathing Hole essentially said they don't care about what Native people say--they were gonna do it anyway. And they did. 

I got a copy of the program for The Breathing Hole so I could see what space Bob White provided for the Indigenous actors voices.... but found nothing other than the usual acknowledgements. I imagined a page or portion of a page where the Indigenous actors could say... something! Not sure what they'd say, though! They're in a bind. If you're in theater, working/performing at Stratford is an extraordinary opportunity. If they are perceived as too critical, they could be putting their careers at risk. Bob White said they're in other plays, too, and I am sure they are gaining a lot by being in The Breathing Hole and in whatever other plays they're cast in. What I hope for them and the Inuit director--Reneltta Arluk--is that Stratford brings them back again and again--and that the festival commissions a Native playwright for them to perform and work in.

****

News articles about The Breathing Hole call it an Indigenous story. But Colleen Murphy is not Indigenous. You cannot call her play Indigenous story. It is a White woman's story and it has some Indigenous parts to it--but still--it is a White woman's story. In theme, it is like Brother Eagle Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers, or any of a long list of books by White people who use Native people to make a point. Climate is definitely of primary concern to Indigenous people but I can't help but wonder what a Native playwright would have chosen to bring to the Stratford stage. 

And, I can't help but wonder what impact it would have in other ways. Right now in shops in Stratford, there's a lot of Inuit art. That's been the case for decades (I first went there in 1989), but you'd be hard pressed to find anything by anyone from the First Nations for whom Ontario is their homelands. 

On September 16th, the festival will live stream a forum with First Nations panelists. Here's the info:
Canadians assume that the First Nations have some special place, that they shape our society in some significant way, but history – as well as contemporary actions and attitudes – might suggest otherwise. In a country where the rest of us are immigrants, what do the First Nations represent, what do we owe them, and what of the future? CBC Ideas host Paul Kennedy moderates a discussion featuring Anishinaabe writer Niigaan Sinclair; Dr. Alexandria Wilson, one of the early members of Idle No More; Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson; and indigenous scholar and artist Jarrett Martineau.
This Forum event will be streaming live on our Facebook page on Saturday, September 16 at 10:30 am.

I'll tune in and be back here to add what they say to this post. 


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Round Up: Letters About the "Indigenous Experience" Panel at USBBY's October 2017 Conference

For the convenience of activists, scholars, parents, teachers, caregivers, and others who study issues specific to Native peoples in children's literature, AICL offers this timeline about USBBY's October 2017 "Indigenous Experience in Children's Books" panel. For each item, an excerpt is provided. Click on the link to see the full post/conversation. Additional items will be added when they are available. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Debbie Reese's post to USBBY's Facebook page
"I looked at the schedule for the conference in Seattle, and saw that there will be an Indigenous Experience in Children's Books panel. In the midst of such a visible effort to promote Native and Writers of Color, I am stunned that not all people on the panel are Native. Can anyone here share some background on the rationale for the panel's composition?(One of the White women is married to a Native man and is a co-author with his mother who was in boarding school, which makes her presence understandable.)"


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Naomi Bishop's Open Letter
"One of the general sessions (that everyone attends) is titled: The Indigenous Experience in Children’s Books. The presenters on this panel include four Canadians (Lisa Charleyboy, Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, Sarah Ellis -moderator) and one American, Nancy Bo Flood. In an email to me, the USBBY President stated that Nancy Bo Flood is not Native. 
“Nancy Bo Flood is the fourth speaker. She has written a number of children’s books several of which have Native American themes.  She is not Native American.”  

The problem with Nancy Bo Flood is not just that she is non-native, but that she appropriates Navajo culture. She states that she lived on the Navajo reservation, taught college students there, and writes books about Navajo’s, but she is not Navajo. It is disappointing to see Nancy on this panel because there are so many wonderful Native American authors and illustrators publishing awesome books here in the US. I am pleased to see First Nations writers on the panel, but wonder why the organizers did not select any writers from U.S. Tribal Nations?"

Debbie Reese's Open Letter
"I was--quite frankly--furious to see Nancy Bo Flood's name on the "Indigenous Experience in Children's Literature" panel. As regular readers of AICL know, I've been studying the ways Native peoples are depicted in children's literature for decades. In that time, I've come to know the work of many people who--like Flood--are not Native, but write books about Native peoples. Amongst that body of White writers, there are many instances in which the writer has done particularly egregious things."


Wednesday, July 27, 2017

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Conversations
"It is not my mother-in-law’s job to defend her people’s right to control how their stories are told. Her voice is for sharing her experiences. It was under an invitation for her to do so that we agreed to participate. If the panel is now openly forcing her into a position of defence, we will have to decline the invitation. However, if we can all work together to realize our learning opportunity from this, and use it as a catalyst to find a better way together, we would be honoured to participate."


Thursday, July 27, 2017 

USBBY President Therese Bigelow's Announcement 
"We are changing the program on Indigenous Voices in Children’s Literature. Nancy Bo Flood will no longer participate. Panel presenters are all from Canada which reflects the international scope of the conference theme. The panel had already begun working on their program together and the Fenton's, through Christy Jordan-Fenton, have requested that Sarah Ellis continue In her role as moderator. This change will be reflected on the program schedule as soon as I return to my home computer next week."

Naomi Caldwell's Letter to Therese Bigelow 
"Notwithstanding, I am compelled to share my thoughts and a suggestion as past president of the American Indian Library Association, founding chair of the American Indian Youth Literature Award, and advocate for the accurate portrayal of Indigenous books for youth. One would think that in 2017 that organizations such as USBBY would be practiced and astute about planning programs to highlight diversity. After all, the membership is comprised of diverse, devoted well-educated and well-read children’s literature professionals who genuinely care about the quality of literature for youth from a national and international perspective."

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Therese Bigelow
"I understand that to many in the non-indigenous literary world, the issue of appropriation feels like navigating a mine field. However, the ultimate goal is not conflict, but rather finding a better way together. When Indigenous perspectives are considered and dialogue is opened, everyone benefits. As I said previously, the act of appropriation or taking up Indigenous spaces is ingrained in our society, and in the mythologies that society is raised on and maintained by. Issues such as the one with the “Indigenous Experiences” panel will come up. And when that happens, they need to be validated and addressed so that we can all work toward a better way. The change in the make up of the panel shows that we can find that better way together. I hope that in the future other organizations will be open to such dialogues and to listening and acting on ways to facilitate and maintain Indigenous space."

Christy Jordan-Fenton's Response to Therese Bigelow's Announcement Regarding Change to "Indigenous Experience in Children's Books" Panelists at USBBY's October 2017 Conference

27 July 2017

Often when issues are raised in the literary world, over appropriation, representation, and making space for Indigenous voices, they are met with justifications, or are ignored all together. The very nature of the mythology upon which the colonial societies of this continent rest, are at the core, stories of taking up Indigenous spaces…quite literally. It is such a rooted part of our collective consciousness that Indigenous voices remain marginalized, even when it comes to talking about Indigenous traditional cultures and contemporary perspectives. And while the appropriation debate has only recently been engaged in by the gate keepers of mainstream institutions, actual understanding and protocols have yet to become a mainstream part of the literary world. Indigenous voices often remain unvalidated and unanswered, while non-indigenous voices are brought in to fill the void created by the marginalization of Indigenous perspectives.

I was very concerned that this would be happening at the 2017 IBBY Conference in Seattle, on the “Indigenous Experiences in Children’s Literature” panel, where space was given to a non-indigenous author, who is largely considered by the Indigenous community to have violated numerous general protocols on appropriation. A large part of my concern with this panel was that the addition of this author would co-opt the topic of Indigenous experiences, making it about appropriation, thus centring around non-indigenous authors, instead of being focussed on Indigenous voices. If you would like to read more about my concerns, you can find them here:  https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.ca/2017/07/christy-jordan-fentons-response-to.html?m=1

I brought my concerns to the attention of Ed Sullivan and the IBBY committee. And as any of you out there who have been fighting to maintain space for authentic Indigeneity know, it can be a very cynical process where all too often, nothing is done. However, in this case, I am very pleased to say that the outcome of this week’s dialogue is IBBY’s announcement that the panel’s original arrangement has been restored. It is back to being a space intended for Indigenous voices. We greatly appreciate the consideration of the IBBY Committee over the concerns raised, and appreciate that the space will be held in a good way, allowing for Margaret/Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and Lisa Charleyboy their space to have the floor, with Nancy Bo Flood stepping aside.

I understand that to many in the non-indigenous literary world, the issue of appropriation feels like navigating a mine field. However, the ultimate goal is not conflict, but rather finding a better way together. When Indigenous perspectives are considered and dialogue is opened, everyone benefits. As I said previously, the act of appropriation or taking up Indigenous spaces is ingrained in our society, and in the mythologies that society is raised on and maintained by. Issues such as the one with the “Indigenous Experiences” panel will come up. And when that happens, they need to be validated and addressed so that we can all work toward a better way. The change in the make up of the panel shows that we can find that better way together. I hope that in the future other organizations will be open to such dialogues and to listening and acting on ways to facilitate and maintain Indigenous space.

I further hope that when respected Indigenous scholars and artist raise these issues, their wisdom and experience will be heeded, even when they are outside of the organization involved, as they often will be, so that uncomfortable situations between panelists and artists involved are not necessary.

We look forward to participating in this panel. I am encouraged by the IBBY’s actions, and that the matter was used as an opportunity for learning how to better allow such platforms to be about the amplification of Indigenous experiences. The willingness of the IBBY Committee to address the issue shows that we can navigate a better way together. By keeping the matter transparent, and committing to a continued dialogue in the future, everyone who must navigate such situations can advance toward evolving past the ways things have been done in the past.

While I would still like to have seen Indigenous voices from within the colonial borders of the US represented on the panel, space has been made for the current participants, which was the biggest concern. Though I will add, with having a keynote speaker who makes repeated claims to be the only strong Indigenous literary voice out there, I am concerned that a lack of American Indian writers on the panel confirms what that keynote speaker says. There many strong Indigenous voices that could have been included.

For those who will be attending the panel, I don’t want anyone to be scared that the topic of appropriation is entirely taboo. It isn’t, but I ask respect be given to the participants to share their truths and experiences on their terms, and that you reflect on how it is for Indigenous artists to constantly have to contend with the “white permission” question at the expense of being able to speak about their own art.

That said, I would encourage everyone to further engage in conversations concerning appropriation, and to seek opportunities to listen to what Indigenous artists themselves have to say. It is unfortunate that within the scope of the conference as it stands, space could not be found to have this conversation as a separate topic, but that should not dissuade anyone from continuing to learn more. It cannot be assumed that Indigenous artists have the responsibility to educate anyone, but I can guarantee there are many out there who do want to be heard.

To address the question of a non-indigenous moderator conducting the panel, I have no issue with Sarah Ellis as moderator, now that the panel has been restored to its original composition. There are a few issues that can happen with a non-indigenous moderator. One is that when there are diverse voices on the panel, and the moderator belongs to the non-marginalized group, those voices can be drowned out. Even when moderators have the best intentions, ultimately their perspectives and experiences will, in most cases, resonate closer with the panelists who share similar perspectives and experiences. This becomes problematic where the panelists view the issues from very different perspectives. That will no longer be a concern for this panel. Also, there can be times when audience members ask disrespectful questions or ask questions in inappropriate ways, and in my experience, non-indigenous moderators do not always catch what is actually being said, or they do not intervene where they should and give too much space to those voices. However, in the communications we have had with Sarah, she has demonstrated that she is sensitive to the fact these things do happen, especially on indigenous panels, and she has actively sought input from the panelists. I have been very pleased with her approach. This has not been a race issue, but rather one of shifting the balance to maintain the voices of the Indigenous panelists, and I feel confident in Sarah’s desire to give those voices their due platform.

Thank you to the IBBY committee for hearing us. This is a meaningful step in the right direction, and we hope that others take this as an example of how we can all work together toward restoring Indigenous space. I look forward to seeing how the committee carries this experience into the future planning of its events, and how this dialogue can move from being a discussion into meaningful practice for the entire literary community.

Christy Jordan-Fenton
Coauthor of Fatty Legs, A Stranger at Home, When I Was Eight, and Not My Girl



Naomi Caldwell's Letter to Therese Bigelow Regarding USBBY's Oct 2017 "Indigenous Experience in Children's Books" Panel

Alabama State University
College of Education
311 Abernathy Hall
Montgomery, AL 36106

July 27, 2017

USBBY United States Board on Books for Young People
The U.S. National Section of International Board on Books for Young People
Building Bridges Through Children´s and Young Adult Books

USBBY Secretariat, Center for Teaching through Children´s Books
National Louis University
5202 Old Orchard Road, Suite 300, Skokie, IL 60077, USA

Dear President Bigelow:
I read several posts on the American Indian Library Association list serv and the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog (Debbie Reese) about the USSBY Indigenous Experience in Children’s Books session panelists. Most notable was your announcement that Nancy Bo Flood will no longer be a panelist. Your announcement was swift and welcomed news.  Please accept my congratulations for this act of courageous leadership.
            Notwithstanding, I am compelled to share my thoughts and a suggestion as past president of the American Indian Library Association, founding chair of the American Indian Youth Literature Award, and advocate for the accurate portrayal of Indigenous books for youth. One would think that in 2017 that organizations such as USBBY would be practiced and astute about planning programs to highlight diversity. After all, the membership is comprised of diverse, devoted well-educated and well-read children’s literature professionals who genuinely care about the quality of literature for youth from a national and international perspective.
Yet, there is a strange dichotomy that exists in the world of children’s literature about quality (accurate and truthful) materials about Indigenous peoples. Most children’s literature about Indigenous cultures that are ready available in the United States are written by individuals who are not Indigenous (CCBC Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Multicultural Publishing Statistics 2016). Most of these authors are not skilled in the nuances of indigenous culture and their writing is of inferior quality in terms of realistic and accurate portrayals.
My research on the global image of indigenous people books for youth supports the notion that this trend is not exclusive to North America. It is widespread among nations that were and are under the influence of a colonial ideology. Unfortunately, global educational material accessible in literate nations is steeped in the omission of the Indigenous way of being and voice.  However, there are Indigenous scholars, librarians, educators and associations with the mission to share information from the Indigenous perspective. They are only a click away on the internet.  Dr. Reese's blog American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) is recognized as an excellent award winning resource.
USBBY is in a unique situation to help advocate for quality Indigenous literature for youth by work by cooperating with the American Indian Library Association (AILA). A collaborative relationship with AILA has the potential to bring together professionals who are knowledgeable of Indigenous authors and publishers with USBBY program planners. Please consider this suggestion for future reference.
My letter is motivated by the idea that something brilliant can result from the unfortunate faux pas in the planning process of the Indigenous Experience in Children's Books panel.  We can begin working together and follow your courageous example by listening and honoring the voice of the indigenous people. We can always make better choices for the sake of our collective future and I hope we will.


Collegially yours,
Naomi Caldwell
Naomi R. Caldwell, (Ramapough Lenape), PhD, MSLS
Associate Professor and Coordinator Library Education Media Online
American Indian Library Association (AILA), past president
AILA Youth Literature Award, Chair Founding Member