A post to LM_NET prompted my search to see what I could find out about Mary Whitebird and a story called "Ta-Na-E-Ka." The person using that name (Mary Whitebird) wrote the story. From what I am able to determine, the story was first published in 1972 in Scholastic Voices. Since then, the short story has been published in reading textbooks for use in schools. I've found many references to the story.
For example, Carl A. Grant and Christine E. Sleeter reference it in their Turning on Learning: Five Approaches for Multicultural Teaching Plans for Race, Class, Gender and Disability, published in 2006. At the end of chapter six, "Multicultural and Social Justice Education" is a list of suggested procedures. The first item reads "Choose multicultural selections from the literature text Elements of Literature (Anderson, 2005) that highlight issues of social class and power in the United States--for example, Ta-Na-E-Ka, by Mary Whitebird" (p. 280). Later in the paragraph, they write "Each week throughout the quarter, the students will read, discuss, and explore these stories using the textbook's critical reading questions and exercises that highlight marginalized peoples' experiences with injustice. For possible extension, students could research a marginalized culture's history such as the Kaw Indians, introduced in the story Ta-Na-E-Ka, by Mary Whitebird." (p. 280).
I found the story itself on a worksheet published (and copyrighted) by the International Baccalaureate Organization in 2006.
Set in the present day, the story is about a soon-to-be eleven year old Kaw girl named Mary and her eleven year old cousin, Roger. Eleven is "a magic word" among the Kaws, because that is the year when children go through a test of endurance and survival called Ta-Na-E-Ka by which they become adults. Mary does not want to go through this ritual. She complains to her mom and her schoolteacher. Her mother tells her she'll be proud she did it, and her teacher tells her not to look down on her heritage.
According to Mary's grandfather, they should spend five days in the wilderness, naked and barefoot, living off the land. Mary's grandfather puts them through one month of training that includes how to eat grasshoppers. Mary and Roger's parents object to the naked part, so, the children get to wear bathing suits. This all takes place somewhere along the Missouri River, in the springtime.
As I read the story, I had a lot of questions, and, like the post on LM_NET, I wondered about the author. One individual emailed me, saying that there is no biographical information in the textbook for this author. That sort of information is provided for all the other authors in the textbook. I'm hoping to get a copy of the textbook so I can see how the story is presented.
So far, all roads-of-research on 'who is Mary Whitebird' lead to the Wikipedia site that says Mary Whitebird is a pseudonym for "a writer who has long had an interest in the life of the American Indian in the late 20th century." This writer is "In reality, [...]
Ever since I could remember, I've been interested in the American Indian. I went to high school with a number of Seneca and Onondaga Indians, who lived in Rochester, New York. While I was in the army, I was stationed in west Texas. I was the editor of the post newspaper, and had more free time than most soldiers and more access on and off the military base. One of my friends was a Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma. With him, we drove to all the neighboring reservations (mostly Apache) and I saw firsthand some of the injustices (this was in the early 50s) accorded he Indians. I wrote some letters about it to the local newspaper. Since the army did not look kindly toward soldiers getting involved in controversial public issues, I signed my letters M. Whitebird. It was just a name that sounded generally Indian to me.
I met a teenage Navajo girl who was having a hard time balancing her desire to explore the greater world and her allegiance to Navajo customs. From Jenny (whose Navajo name was Granddaughter-of-he-who-Sings) I got the character of Mary Whitebird.
Of the story, he says:
Ta-Na-E-Ka is based on a ceremony of the Kaw Indians. My wife comes from Nebraska. My father-in-law visits the Omaha and Winnebago reservations in Nebraska regularly, and there are few Indians there of Kaw ancestry. Almost no full-blooded Kaw exist; they were a subtribe of the Kansas. Tuburculosis and cholera wiped them out about 70 years ago. But I learned of the ceremony from my father-in-law. And, I wrote the story.
The Wikipedia page on "Mary Whitebird" ends with two quotes from letters the author of Ta-Na-E-Ka has received. The first is from a Cherokee girl in Oklahoma (no name is provided) who writes "Only an Indian could have written this." The last line is "Of course, the author was pleased" with the letter because he is not Indian.
Though this is not a folktale, we can pose Betsy Hearne's source note questions to "Mary Whitebird's" notes about this story.
- He went to high school with Seneca and Onondaga students.
- One of his friends (while in the army) was Sac and Fox.
- He and his Sac and Fox friend visited Apache reservations.
- He met a Navajo girl.
- His wife is from Nebraska.
- His father-in-law visits Omaha and Winnebago reservations, where there are a few Kaw Indians.
- His father in law told him about the Ta-Na-E-Ka ceremony.
Apparently, that set of facts are meant to tell his readers that he knows what he is talking about. But does he?
When he does talk about the Kaw people, he speaks of them in the past tense because, he says, they were wiped out 70 years ago. But...
When did he say all that? In 1972? Is it with the story, somewhere, maybe in Scholastic Voice?
You can go to the Kaw Nation's website. Their site says they have 3,039 tribal members "scattered across the United States." It is possible, then, that "Mary Whitebird's" father-in-law came across some in Nebraska... The website also includes a lot of Kaw language materials. I can't find any of the words "Mary Whitebird" uses on their site.
All in all, "Mary Whitebird's" background info (source note) sounds odd. Unreliable. Stereotypical. Exotic.
And, WHY, is that story STILL being printed in the textbook? WHY has the publisher not looked for a story by a KNOWN NATIVE AUTHOR? And WHY are Grant and Sleeter referencing it so uncritically?
It is disheartening, how much we (Americans, generally speaking) STILL DO NOT KNOW about American Indians.
I'm still thinking about this story, and will continue to research it and its author...