Friday, January 11, 2013

Catherine Knutsson's SHADOWS CAST BY STARS


Catherine Knutsson's Shadows Cast by Stars came to my attention in November 2012 when I was looking for young adult paranormal romance novels that have Native themes or characters. Published in June, here's Amazon's description for Shadows Cast by Stars:
Old ways are pitted against new horrors in this compellingly crafted dystopian tale about a girl who is both healer and seer.
     Two hundred years from now, blood has become the most valuable commodity on the planet—especially the blood of aboriginal peoples, for it contains antibodies that protect them from the Plague ravaging the rest of the world.
     Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi might be immune to Plague, but that doesn’t mean she’s safe—government forces are searching for those of aboriginal heritage to harvest their blood. When a search threatens Cassandra and her family, they flee to the Island: a mysterious and idyllic territory protected by the Band, a group of guerilla warriors—and by an enigmatic energy barrier that keeps outsiders out and the spirit world in. And though the village healer has taken her under her wing, and the tribal leader’s son into his heart, the creatures of the spirit world are angry, and they have chosen Cassandra to be their voice and instrument....
     Incorporating the traditions of the First Peoples as well as the more familiar stories of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, Shadows Cast by Stars is a haunting, beautifully written story that breathes new life into ancient customs.
Intrigued? I sure was! A story about aboriginal blood being a commodity because it has antibodies against a Plague that is killing those who aren't aboriginal... And being hunted for blood...

So I started reading, but kept stumbling over the narrative. Below, my summary of the novel is in plain text, and my comments are in italics.

__________

Shadows Cast by Stars is set 200 years in the future. The earth is slowly getting colder, and fertility rates are down.

Debbie's comments: That would be approximately the year 2212. In my analysis, I use that date to set dates for other bits of chronological information provided in the story.

On page one, we are introduced to Cassandra Mercredi, the protagonist. She is Metis, 16 years old, and with her dad and brother (Paul), lives "the Old Way" in a house on farm land that once belonged to her great grandfather. The house is located near the "Western Population Corridor." In their home, they are safe from the government (the "UA"), the people in the Corridor, and "the Band." Living in "the Old Way" means they live without electricity, running water, garbage collection. Living that way keeps them connected to the earth.

The farm land was treaty land, but on page 28, we learn that in 2210, the Band signed it "back to the UA" and left for the Island. Cass and her family still live in it but the author doesn't tell us how that happens. The Band still feels some ownership, though, and show up at Cass's home whenever they want. They enter without knocking and drink with her father and brother. They all talk about how they will, one day, overthrow the UA and take back the land.

Debbie's comments: This is confusing... The Band signed it BACK? Using the word 'back' suggests it was the governments land to begin with. It also seems to me that if the Band gave up the land, Cass and her family would have had to leave, or, buy or lease it from the government. How is it they live in it?

Each morning, Cass and Paul head to the Corridor, where their school is located. At school, they "plug into the etherstream" (p. 1) via computer chips embedded in their forearms. By law, the chips cannot display information about race, religion, or sexual orientation. All their schoolmates know that they are "Others, of aboriginal descent, marked by the precious Plague antibodies" (p. 1) in their blood.

Debbie's comments: That confuses me... She doesn't say the government doesn't have the info. She says the chips can't display the info. So... does the government have the info?! If so, why doesn't the government just go after them for their blood right off? Why are they allowed to go to school?! It seems they would be protected by the government, due to the value of that blood. It also seems that the not-Others would kidnap them FOR that value.  

At school, Cassandra gathers things like twine, old pencils, elastic bands, and paper clips to make dreamcatchers.

Debbie's comments: Dreamcatchers? Seeing them as part of this story is, for me, a red flag. They signal "Indian" in the same way that a totem pole or 'totem' or 'spirit animal' does. 

Cassandra and Paul have powers. They both have visions. She has special powers that enable her to see a person's "shade" or "totem." Sometimes she has seizures and sees sparks that symbolize a spirit world. The spirits of that world figure prominently throughout the book, ever-there, wanting to take her into the spirit world. She guards against that happening, though, because it is not a good thing.

Debbie's comments: Hmm... She sees things others don't.... Totems...  These signal 'new age' to me... 

When Cass is making lunch for herself and Paul to take to school, she uses paper, not plastic bags, because her dad doesn't allow plastic in the house. Later, their father hurries them into his truck because the searchers are coming for them.

Debbie's comments: I guess the truck is an exception to the "Old Way." Her dad doesn't like that she gathers those things she uses to make dreamcatchers either, but his objection is because the things don't belong to her. His objection has nothing to do with them not being part of the "Old Way." Are some things ok and others aren't? Or is this an inconsistency in the development of the story?

With her dad in his truck is a woman named Madda who goes into the kitchen and sets up a tray of scalpels and needles.  Her father has heard that there aren't enough full blood aboriginals in the Corridor anymore, and the government is rounding up the half-bloods. That means Cassandra and Paul aren't safe, and it explains why Madda is with her dad...

Debbie's comments: Ok... so, being half-bloods, they weren't under threat until now. I'm curious about the author's constant use of "half blood" and "half breed." Today, those are derogatory terms rejected by Metis people. In 200 years, are we to believe there was a change such that the Metis people stopped using Metis and started using half blood or half-breed again?! It doesn't seem likely to me, and, given the family's desire to live in "the Old Way" it seems that using "Metis" would be part of that Old Way.  

Madda cuts the chips out of Cass and Paul's arms and they all leave the farm, headed to "The Island" which is "treaty lands" where "the Band" lives. Cass worries that the incisions will leave scars and mark them as outsiders to the Band. She thinks (p. 22):
[W]e'll both have scars. This is how they'll know where we came from when we get to the Island, that we weren't born there, that we weren't raised native. The Band might open its arms wide to us now, but they'll never, ever let us forget that we came from the Corridor first.
Debbie's comments: That is a very intriguing excerpt, and I wonder what it says about the author. On her website, she says that she recently learned that she is Metis. (Update: July 5 2016--the bio page has been edited and replaced with this one.) She was not raised Metis. Is she saying to us, by way of her protagonist, that First Nations people might open their arms to her but will never let her forget she was not raised Native? 

Debbie's comments: Learning that she wasn't raised Native and that she's recently been learning about her Metis heritage explains a great deal of what I find troublesome in the novel. It is sprinkled with things like dreamcatchers and totems (things embraced by people with scant knowledge of indigenous cultures) but the novel is also deeply laden with words and ideas that sound more like outsider perspective than insider perspective. One example is the half-blood/half-breed term used throughout. As the novel progresses, Cass is pitted against "supernaturals" who wish to harm her. Calling spirits---good or bad---"supernaturals" is outsider perspective. And, it isn't just Cass who uses that sort of language. The "full bloods" on the Island use it, too. 

To get to the Island, they have to pass through a boundary, or "the boundary." At one point in time, only Others could pass through it, bringing non-Others with them if they wanted to. Without an Other, the non-Others would be pushed away from the boundary. They'd never actually know about the boundary, though, because they'd attribute their movement to wind or water currents.

On the Island, Cass sees "full bloods" and whites, too.

Debbie's comments: On the Island, the men are depicted in derogatory ways. They drink. And there was a line that bothered me, too. On page 251, the text reads "Grace Eagleson is a drunk." Throughout, Grace (she's white) is depicted as being over-the-edge. She's obviously got problems, and while we are given some context for those problems, there's no compassion for her in the narrative. I know many people who struggle with alcohol, and while their family and friends grow frustrated in caring for them and lash out at times, there is compassion for them, or, at least a sadness, or, if someone does say "so and so is a drunk" there is a quality of shame or regret in having uttered that heartless statement. In one of the major review journals, the reviewer said that Alexie fans would recognize the characters in Shadows Cast By Stars, but I don't agree. When Alexie's Junior talks of his dad being "a drunk," he immediately follows that remark with how his dad never missed his games or concerts. Earlier, he says that his dad is a drunk and his mom is an ex-drunk but that they don't want their kids to be drunks. None of that sort of nuance or context occurs in SHADOWS around the alcoholism or other negative qualities of the Band. 

On the Island, there is a Longhouse at the heart of the community. When Cass, her brother, and her dad move into a house on the Island, Cass thinks about her mother (deceased):
...I can't help wondering what my mother would think of all this. She worked so hard to make sure we had a home at the Corridor. She didn't want me here. She wanted me in a place where I would have a future that didn't involve marrying a warrior and bearing him babies, a future that didn't condemn me to working my fingers to the bone and aging far before my time.
Debbie's comments: Her mom was white. She married a Metis. From what I read, she didn't work her fingers to the bone. Why did she think that she had to raise her children away from the Island? Was it due to the alcohol? Is this 'away from the Island/band' also part of the author's identity? 

At one point, one of the Native guys on the island says to Paul (p. 84):
"Whatever you say, apple."
Paul freezes. I can see he's fighting himself, that he wants to walk away, but he can't. Apple. Red on the outside, white on the inside. One of the worst insults an Other can throw.
Debbie's comments: I was pretty surprised to see Knutsson use 'apple' in her story. Alexie used it, too, in DIARY. Junior tells his white friend, Gordy, that people on the reservation called him an apple when he left the reservation school to attend the public school with the goal of becoming successful.  Her use of it signals to me that she's done some research on the tensions within Native communities.

As I read through the book, I kept waiting for the blood theme to develop, but it just went away as the story shifted to Cass struggling with the "supernaturals." I also waited for the Native peoples of the "five treaty territories" to enter the story. They're introduced on page 32. One is the Pueblos! So, obviously, being Pueblo, I wanted to see how Knutsson would present Pueblo people! But, she never does. 

As the story progresses from our introduction to Madda, we read that she is "a witching woman--a medicine woman..." (p. 113)

Debbie's comments: A witching woman?! So, Madda is speaking to Cass as though Cass has no knowledge of "the band's" ways? Again, I'm confused. All of the talk earlier of "the Old Way" and "traditions" doesn't quite match up with Cass's ignorance. And, I'm not convinced that Madda would call herself a witching woman anyway! Knuttson could have put a few more words into Madda's remark, saying something like "people who don't know our ways would call me a witching woman..."

In a dream, Cass sees Bran (her love interest) and Paul (her brother) talking. Bran takes out a hunting knife, "makes an incision in his forearm, right in the spot where a chip scar would be if he had one, and as blood wells up and drips onto the rock, he hands the blade to Paul, who embeds the point right into his chip scar. They press their forearms together, melding their blood, the water of their body" (p. 150).

Debbie's comments: Oh dear! Blood brothers?!

There's to be a gathering of the Band. Madda "wants to make a tea for the hangovers she'll have to treat tomorrow." Madda says: "Make sure you don't drink any of that firewater the Band brings tonight--horrible stuff" (p. 168).

Again---presentation of Indigenous people as being drunk... 

How to sum up?! Knutsson's book does not feel like a story written by an insider. It isn't the honest and contextualized portrayal of dysfunction that we saw in Alexie's book. Combined with the new age stereotypes, the superficial and derogatory ways in which Knuttson presents Indigenous people leaves me both outraged and sad. I'll be thinking about this book for some time... We need Native writers. Ones like Knutsson, who learn of their Native heritage as adults, could give us some much-needed stories, but dressed up in this sort of framework... it isn't working. 


Update: This blog post on Metis identity by Chelsea Vowel is very helpful (for those of you who want to know more about the Metis people).


Update, July 5, 2016

After Rowling's Magic in North America stories appeared, one of the conversations on social media was regarding speculative fiction by Native writers. Daniel Heath Justice (he's a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and is a professor in First Nations and Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia) has a list: A Sampling of Speculative Fiction by Indigenous Writers. It includes a few books I've reviewed as ones that can be read by, or are marketed to, young adults, like Shadows Cast by Stars. Specific to my questions about the term "half breed" Daniel wrote to me about it and suggested I take a look at Adam Gaudry's work. I've read some of his work before and look forward to spending more time with it. You can follow him on Twitter: @adamgaudry.

K. D. McEntire's LIGHTBRINGER

I started reading K. D. McEntire's Lightbringer... 

What to say about a book in which a character (Lily) wears braids, refers to her "shaman," is derisively called "Pocahontas" by another character and says things like "A brave needs..." (p. 47)?

I don't want to finish it, that's what to say...

No matter how much people like the author, the story, or the writing, it is still just another book in which an author inserts some half-baked new age baloney into an urban fantasy and offers it up, perhaps, as a 'multicultural' read because its got what the authors wants us to see as Native characters.

Lily (yeah, her name is Lily, like Tiger Lily and the protagonist is named Wendy and there's a guy in "the Never" named Piotr) sees "Awonawilona" or, "the bringer of light" who is, according to Lily's people and her shaman (ick... I really don't know any tribal person who refers to their medicine person as a shaman), able to send souls into another world, freeing them and giving them peace.

I'll stop reading now.

------------------------------------------------------------------

Update: Friday, January 25, 2013

I am pasting a comment directly into the post because the commenter states that she is the author. I have no way of verifying her statement, but given what is said in the comment, I believe it is, in fact, K. D. McEntire. Below is the comment. Frankly, I'm blown away by what she says. She's forthcoming in what occurred as the novel was being published. Her words give me hope. Here they are (I corrected one typo):

Hi. I don't normally do this - I believe in letting a work stand on its own in the face of all criticism - but I am the author and I'd like to apologize for how Lily was handled in my series. During the early drafts I had a lot more information regarding Lily's past and her tribe. I worked very hard to keep the idea of the Zuni both vague enough that any mistakes that I (as the author and not a layperson in the culture) made might be covered by the general smoothing of time (since Lily has been dead nearly two thousand years) but I was told while shopping the book around that all the extraneous detail I put into secondary characters "bogged down" the story. It wasn't just Lily but Elle, Piotr, and Eddie as well. Poor James' backstory was cut out entirely, diminishing the impact of being a slave down to two throwaway lines. It's a balancing act that, looking back, I know that I lost. I had a certain number of words to hit, a certain number of chapters to reach, and not everyone could get an equal say. Which is a shame, because I LOVE Lily as a character. I *was* trying to emulate the cool confidence of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan and I really hoped I was able to get that aspect of her character across at least.


It wasn't my intention to upset anyone or be disrespectful of ANY culture depicted in any of my books. I quite understand why you put it down and I hope you recognize that this was my debut novel. Every person grows in their field and I am doing my best to grow in mine

Update: Saturday, February 9, 2013

Upon reading McEntire's response, Jeffrey Canton (he teaches in the Children's Studies Program at York University in Toronto, Canada) posed some questions to her. She replied yesterday, and I'm pasting his questions and her comment below. She also wrote to me privately, verifying that it was her who submitted the comment on Jan 25th. Here's Canton's post, dated Friday, January 25th, 2013:

Jeffrey Canton said...

I certainly appreciate McEntire coming forward and explaining the issue BUT what I am curious about is who we're talking about here in terms of her decision to remove what she calls the "extraneous detail" - being respectful of cultural difference isn't extraneous so are we talking about agents or editors or other publishing types? Because debut novelist or not, who you listen to is pretty important and certainly no publisher that I know here in Canada would have recommended cutting cultural specific essentials!

Jeffrey Canton
Toronto



And here's McEntire's reply to me and Jeffrey, dated Friday, February 8, 2013:


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey,

"Extraneous detail" was a catch-all term used to explain that I was spending too much time on the secondary characters - Elle, Lily, James, "Specs", etc - and not on Wendy and Piotr. This came from two different agents who I know in real life, not just my own agent, and several of the publishers the book was shopped to before finding a home with Pyr and the amazing editorial team there.

Yes, it is important who you listen to but, again, this was my first trip into this world. You listen to people who might be willing to pay you for the book you poured your heart into and at the time I thought that I HAD to listen to every suggestion offered. I would have done ANYTHING to get my book published. Now, with the entire series complete - "NEVER" is coming out in May - I now have a better idea what editorial comments that I must take to heart and what I can take with a grain of salt.
You say, "certainly no publisher that I know here in Canada would have recommended cutting cultural specific essentials!"

The crux of the matter lies in a very important word: essentials.


Lily is a secondary character. She's a great character. I LOVE her. I loved writing her. She's wise and subtle and a perfect foil for Elle's over-the-top 1920's racist-sexist-bitchy-as-hell flapper character. But she's secondary. She is not either of the two main characters and as such all the amazing and complex details I found are, simply put, flavor text and thus are up for the editorial slice-and-dice when the word count drifts too high. It sucks. It's not a fun part of writing, but there you go.

Ultimately I really did try to be respectful of cultural differences. Eddie is Jewish, something you catch only via references. I hope this better explains where I was coming from. You can't please everyone but it was never, ever my intention to make anyone feel disrespected.


Oh! Debbie,

One last thing that I forgot to mention before in my prior comment -- "Pocahontas" from Elle is a backhanded compliment. I know you don't intend to finish the book or the series, but if you read on you eventually realize that she is poking fun of Lily because Elle loves and respects her a lot. She's from the 20's. She's racist. She makes off-color jokes and she never regrets them... but Lily and Piotr are her best friends. Lily is the only other person who can go toe-to-toe with Elle and come out on top. It's one of those "I can pick on my brother but don't you DARE" situations.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Beverly Slapin's Review of Pomplun, Smelcer, and Bruchac's NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS


Editor's Notes: 
1) This essay may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2012 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.
2) I selected Two Wolves as the illustration to use for Slapin's essay because Joseph Bruchac and Richard Van Camp are two Native writers giving us outstanding work.  A selected set of illustrations is available at Pages from Native American Classics. 

____________________________________________

Title page for last story in book
Pomplun, Tom, editor, and John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), associate editors, Native American Classics (Graphic Classics, Volume 24). Eureka Productions, 2013.

INTRODUCTION

The “Graphic Classics” books, unlike other graphic adaptations, are anthologies, with each short story, poem, or abridged novel illustrated by a different artist. Native American Classics highlights the nascent English writing and publication by Native people, including Zitkala-Sa, Charles A. Eastman, E. Pauline Johnson, and others. It’s not the only anthology of earlier Indian writing; many others come to mind. One of my favorites is Paula Gunn Allen’s excellent Voice of the Turtle: American Indian Literature, 1900-1970 (Ballantine, 1995). One of the differences between Native American Classics and the other anthologies is that its graphic format will appeal to “reluctant” readers and others who are attracted to this particular genre. But Native American Classics is not without problems.

Way back, when the earliest Indian writers published their pictographs on vertical and horizontal outcroppings, they transmitted information, history, lessons, culture, language, and more. 

Fast-forward a few centuries, to the early 1900s. Stories by Indian writers of that era had to be both carefully written and suitable for publication by, of course, non-Native publishers. As such, many of the lessons they imparted were so subtle that a casual reader, especially one from outside the culture, might not recognize their messages.

If there were pictures, they supported the story rather than obstructing it; they provided a background rather than a foreground; and they enhanced, rather than interfered with, the reader’s imagination. And, perhaps most importantly, the pictures did not reinterpret the story; did not tell readers what to think.

“Telling readers what to think” is the main problem with some of the pieces in this collection, problems inherent in transmogrifying stories by the earlier Indian writers into a genre in which graphics foreground the story—and the graphic artists don’t always understand it or their work is mismatched. Another problem is that often, details are belabored in “dialogue bubbles,” at the cost of the integrity of the story. Yet another is that stories are sometimes “edited down” to what is seen to be the reading level for this kind of anthology. And finally, the stories would have benefited greatly with prefatory material that clearly set each in a historical, geographical, political and biographical context. This last problem, again, although inherent in this genre, stands out most glaringly in what is purported to be a “multicultural” anthology.

In the third edition (1992) of Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children (Slapin and Seale, eds., New Society Publishers), there’s an essay by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias (Ojibwe), entitled, “Not Just Entertainment.” She writes:

Stories are not just entertainment. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture, thinks. Such wonderful offerings are seldom reproduced by outsiders.

“Native stories deal with the experiences of our humanity,” she continues, “experiences we laugh, and cry, and sweat for, experiences we learn from.”

Stories are not just for entertainment. We know that. The storyteller and writer have a responsibility—a responsibility to the people, a responsibility for the story and a responsibility to the art. The art in turn then reflects a significant and profound self-understanding. 

To Lenore’s heartfelt comments I would add that adaptors and illustrators of stories—as well as editors of anthologies, if they are honest and really care—also must own up to these responsibilities.

Some of the stories and poems in Native American Classics are incomparably beautiful—some whose texts have been left whole and some that have been adapted. Some of the art in Native American Classics is—to use a descriptor I’ve recently been known to use too often—awesome. Others, not so much.

I can’t, in good conscience, “recommend” or “not recommend” this anthology. Rather, I chose to review each entry as a separate entity. Sorry for the length of this review; it’s the best I could do for the integrity of the stories and poems therein.

Teachers who would want to use Native American Classics to introduce “reluctant readers” to Native literatures should do so with caution.


REVIEWS

“After a Sermon at the Church of Infinite Confusion,” by John E. Smelcer / art by Bahe Whitethorne, Jr. (Diné) (p. 2)

The poem beginning this anthology defies cultural logic and exemplifies incongruence between text and art. Whitethorne’s painting is of a Diné girl on Diné land. Flying into the foreground is a huge black bird, its beak wide open. The bird is larger than the child. Could be a raven, a crow, a blackbird, or maybe even a mockingbird. The painting was originally done for the cover of a children’s book called The Mockingbird’s Manual by Seth Muller (Salina Bookshelf, 2009) and someone must have thought it would be appropriate to illustrate this poem. It isn’t.

The girl’s name, “Mary Caught-in-Between,” is apparently supposed to be ironic. It’s not. It’s insulting. The singular experience of attending “sunday school” is interpreted as turning Mary’s whole world upside down; in reality, it would’ve taken years of Indian residential school to do that. Mary’s spiritual world appears to be inhabited by “Raven and Coyote,” whom she tells they aren’t “gods anymore.” But she’d know that Raven and Coyote never were gods and that you don’t worship tricksters—and you don’t talk to them, either. Mary is dressed in traditional Diné clothing, but children don’t generally dress like that just to hang out. And if she is indeed Diné, I don’t understand why a “totem pole” (on which she thinks that “god” was nailed) would even enter her consciousness. Is that big black bird supposed to be Raven? If so, there are ravens in Diné country, but Raven? No. He’s a Northwest Coast-area trickster. The poem itself is infinitely confusing, and a casual reader will probably think it’s authentic. Not recommended.


“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” (1901) by Zitkala-Sa (Yankton Nakota), adapted by Benjamin Truman, art by Jim McMunn, Timothy Truman and Mark A. Nelson (pp. 4-21)

“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” is a heartbreaking story about what happens when a Christianized Nakota man returns from mission school to proselytize his tribal community. The young man has become a stranger who disrespects his culture and community, his elders and his spiritual leader. It’s a tragic story with a tragic ending. There can be no positive outcome; Zitkala-Sa presents the dilemma and leaves out the moral. This is as it should be.

But it’s clear that the illustrators here do not “get” the subtleties of the story. While Zitkala-Sa’s Christianized narrator describes the community’s spiritual leader—aka “medicine man”—only as “tall and large” with “long strides [that]…seemed to me then as the uncanny gait of eternal death,” the artists portray him as a charlatan, as evil incarnate. He is dark and glowering and inhuman-looking, his head and face almost totally covered with eagle feathers; even his bear-claw necklace and the burning sage bundle he holds appear menacing.

When Zitkala-Sa writes, “seemed to me then,” she means that before the young man entered mission school, he saw the spiritual leader as a person whom he and the rest of the community respected. After the missionaries had finished with the young man, he saw the spiritual leader as someone with “the uncanny gait of eternal death.” Indeed, the medicine man had not changed, the young man had. Although I love “The Soft-Hearted Sioux,” I cannot recommend it in this form.


“On Wolf Mountain” (1904) by Charles Alexander Eastman (Santee), adapted by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) / art by Robby McMurtry (p. 22-44)

Told from the perspective of a gray wolf, “On Wolf Mountain”—from Eastman’s Red Hunters and the Animal People (1904)—shows their natural respect for, and complex relationship with, the Indian peoples who hunted large game animals on the plains. As well, it describes the relationship between the wolves and the white settlers (here, sheepherders), who attempted to disrupt the ancient rhythms of life and death, feast and hunger—a dance that existed long before the wagon trains, railroads, and banks got here. “It was altogether different with that hairy-faced man who had lately come among them,” Eastman writes, “to lay waste the forests and tear up the very earth about his dwelling…while his creatures devoured the herbage of the plains.” In one section, an enraged sheepherder whose flock is decimated by the wolves sets out to destroy them. A soldier tells him: “I told you before to lay out all the strychnine you could get hold of. We’ve got to rid this region of the Injuns and gray wolves before civilization will stick!” 

Both Bruchac’s faithful adaptation and McMurtry’s art—on a palette of mostly grays and browns—are right on target. In text and illustration, the wolves are as detailed as the humans, and on every few pages, McMurtry inserts Eastman’s face as the story unfolds. On the final page, McMurtry depicts Eastman telling his story to a group of Boy Scouts, an organization that he co-founded. “On Wolf Mountain” is highly recommended.


“The Red Man’s Rebuke” (1893) by Simon Pokagon (Potawatomi), art by Murv Jacob (Cherokee/Creek) (p.45)

This poem was part of the preface of a small 16-page booklet, a series of short essays printed on birch bark and originally written in 1893 as a political argument and protest against the Columbian Exposition. I can see Pokagon, in my mind’s eye, standing at the entrance of the Exposition, giving away (or selling) his booklet to the startled white people going in to see this celebration of the “discovery of America.” FYI, what follows are a few words from Pokagon’s speech:

In behalf of my people, the American Indians, I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world. No; sooner would we hold the high joy day over the graves of our departed than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America. And while you who are strangers, and you who live here, bring the offering of the handiwork of your own lands and your hearts in admiration rejoice over the beauty and grandeur of this young republic and you say, “Behold the wonders wrought by our children in this foreign land,” do not forget that this success has been at the sacrifice of our homes and a once happy race.

Jacob’s painting of the death march known as the “Trail Where the People Cried,” or more popularly known as the “Trail of Tears,” is amazing. It’s wintertime and you can feel the deathly cold winter as the people lean into the freezing snow and wind. Pokagon’s short poem might have been paired with Jacob’s painting because the Potawatomi had their own “Trail of Death,” as it is known. Yet the Pokagon band of Potawatomi were not marched—they remain in southwestern Michigan—because Pokagon, as a hereditary chief, sold a substantial part of what is now the Chicago waterfront without his people’s permission. As a beginning of a discussion of Pokagon’s life, the Potawatomi people, and/or Manifest Destiny, “The Red Man’s Rebuke” is highly recommended.


“The Cattle Thief” (1914) by E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake, art by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) (pp. 46-53)

“The Cattle Thief,” a long poem, was originally published in Johnson’s anthology, Flint and Feather, in 1914; and is reprinted here in its entirety. An enormously popular performance poet, Johnson toured her native Canada, the US and England, placing her Mohawk name alongside her English name and strongly maintaining her identity as an Aboriginal woman. The Cree woman in “The Cattle Thief” is strong and resolute as she protests the murder of her elderly, starving father, called “cattle thief” by the white riders who have relentlessly hunted him down and now raise their knives to mutilate him. Standing over her father’s body, the woman harangues his killers, daring them to touch him.

And the words outleapt from her shrunken lips in the language of the Cree,
“If you mean to touch that body, you must cut your way through me.”
And that band of cursing settlers dropped backward one by one,
For they knew that an Indian woman roused, was a woman to let alone.

On a palette of mostly browns and blacks, Alvitre’s art effectively captures the bloodthirsty riders, the old man, and most of all, the courageous woman who strikes out against white predation of her people and land. “The Cattle Thief” is highly recommended.


“The Hunter and Medicine Legend” (1881) by Elias Johnson (Tuscarora), adapted by Andrea Grant, art by Toby Cypress (pp. 54-62)

Johnson’s story, in about three pages, is a good read. Children—and adults as well—who read or listen to it will see the action in their minds’ eyes, and will take in the lessons as well. Not so with the adaptation, which is belabored and too “cartoony” for my taste. The adapted text follows the original somewhat, but then veers into extraneous and annoying and hokey “conversation bubbles,” which explain what does not need to be explained. For instance, the text (and adapted text as well) read:

There once lived a man who was a great hunter. His generosity was…praised in all the country, for he not only supplied his own family with food, but distributed game among his friends and neighbors…. He even called the birds and animals of the forest to partake of his abundance.

Then, in the adaptation, the hunter explains to the animals, including two deer, why he is sharing his kill (a deer!) with them: “We are all connected in our life cycles...and so if I take, I will always give back.” Sounds like Tonto explaining something obvious to the Lone Ranger. Read the original. It’s much better. Not recommended.


“The White Man Wants the Indians’ Home” (date unknown; pre-1885) by James Harris Guy (Chickasaw), art by David Kainetakeron Faddon (Mohawk) (p. 63)

Little is known about Guy, other than that he was a member of the police force of the Chickasaw Nation, and that he was killed in a shootout in 1885. This poem was published in Native American Writing in the Southeast: An Anthology, 1875-1935, edited by Daniel F. Littlefield. Fadden’s amazing oil painting—on a bejeweled pallet of mostly sky blues, grass greens and browns—depicts a Mohawk couple against the backdrop of the land. Here are sunbeams breaking through the clouds, a bear in the sky, a deer in the meadow. It all comes together to carry this simple poem that laments the continued depredations of Indian lands. Recommended.


“How the White Race Came to America” (1913) by Handsome Lake (Seneca), as told to Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), adapted by Tom Pomplum / art by Roy Boney, Jr. (Cherokee) (pp.64-71)

Since its founding in the 19th Century, the Code of Handsome Lake has been a source of controversy, political divisions, and pain among the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse). It is known that Handsome Lake was recovering from alcoholism when he experienced his visions. It is also known that Handsome Lake’s mother was not Seneca and so, in this matrilineal society, he may not have been recognized as Seneca. In addition, Handsome Lake’s visions, as passed down in written form by his grandson, have a distinctively Christian influence, and forbid much of what is practiced today by the traditional Longhouse People. And finally, an important part of the controversy is whether or not it was proper to have taken his visions out of the oral tradition in the first place. That part of the Code of Handsome Lake is now produced in graphic format for the amusement of non-Natives belittles the whole thing. Not recommended.


“A Prehistoric Race” (1919) by Bertrand N.O.  Walker/Hen-To (Wyandot), adapted by Tom Pomplun, art by Tara Audibert (Maliseet) (pp. 72-79)

Bertrand N.O. Walker/Hen-To was a wonderful storyteller. In the book from which this story is told, Tales of the Bark Lodges, originally published in 1919, Grandma tells old Wyandot stories to her grandson. In these stories, the Wyandot dialect that Grandma speaks is authentic, understandable, and very, very funny; and when her grandson replies, he speaks relatively “standard” English. Since Grandma’s telling the stories to her grandson, she’s also, of course, speaking the animals’ parts. In this adaptation, Grandma tells the story, yet the animals speak dialect-free English. For instance, in the original story, Ol’ Buffalo tells Ol’ Fox that he wants to challenge Ol’ Turtle to a race. So Ol’ Buffalo says:

My frien’, I got make race with Turtle. You kind a smart, an’ you got sharp eyes, you be the judge, see who beat ‘em. You tell him, Ol’ Turtle, I beat ‘im on a ground’ or in a wata’, jus’ how he like, I don’ care nothin’. You tell ‘im come tomorro’ ova’ there by lake when sun come up jus’ ‘bout high as sycamo’ tree. You tell eva-body an’ he can come see race. I be down tha’, you tell ‘im that, Ol’ Turtle. He’s always best one, eva’ time; but I don’t think he could run, it’s too short his legs. Mebbe so he’s run good in wata’, tho’. Me, too, I could run fas’ in wata’ or anyhow. I bet I could beat ‘im’.

In the adaptation, this is what Ol’ Buffalo says:

I have to race with Turtle. You’re smart, and you’ve got sharp eyes—you be judge, and decide who wins. You tell Turtle I can beat him on land or in water, whichever he choose. Tell him to come tomorrow by the lake when the sun is as high as the sycamore trees. Tell everybody to come and see the race. Ol’ Turtle always says he’s best, but I don’t think he can run fast; his legs are too short. Maybe he’s faster in water, but I’m fast in water, too. I bet I could beat him.

Adapting a story is one thing, but to change the style and language is disrespectful and boring. And it makes Grandma appear to be unintelligent. The art is boring as well. Not recommended.


“I’m Wildcat Bill from Grizzle Hill” (ca. 1894) by Alexander Posey (Muscogee Creek), art by Marty Two Bulls, Sr. (Oglala Lakota) (pp. 80-81)

Alexander Posey was a journalist, essayist, poet and humorist, whose writing tended toward sharp political commentary. “Wildcat Bill,” which Posey wrote around 1894, is a boozing, bragging settler (“a gambler, scalper, born a scout; a tough; the man ye read about”). According to scholar Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., “‘Wildcat Bill’ is Posey’s attempt to imitate the speech of the white people then streaming into Indian Territory.” In this version, Marty Two Bulls makes sure that Wildcat Bill gets his comeuppance—from, of all things, a red-painted cigar-store Indian. Hilarious, and highly recommended.


“The Thunder’s Nest” (1851) by George Copway/Kahgegagahbowh (Mississauga Ojibwe), adapted by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Anishinaabe), art by James Odjick (Anishinaabe) (pp. 82-88)

This story was first published in Copway’s The traditional history and characteristic sketches of the Ojibway nation (1851) and is the story about how the Thunders, beings who wreaked havoc on the Ojibwe people, were subdued by the bravery of a young man. Although the art takes the place of a lot of the written story, it’s a faithful adaptation of Copway’s version. There is no dialogue—for which I am grateful—and the art is spot-on perfect. The Thunders are frightening, the young man is stalwart and the heart he holds in his hands is practically pulsating. Plus—and this is indeed a “plus” in books that illustrate traditional tales—the pipe is right, the clothing is right, the dwellings are right. It’s good to have a talented Anishinaabe artist illustrating an Anishinaabe story.

My only problem with Copway’s written story is that it appears to be a Christianized version of an old story that belies Indian peoples’ traditional respect for all the elements of Creation. Not having heard an oral version, I’m kind of skeptical of this one, and don’t know if I’d recommend it.


“They May Bury the Steel” (1875) by Israel Folsom (Choctaw), art by Larry Vienneau, Jr. (p. 89)

They may bury the steel in the Indian’s breast;
They may lay him low with his sires to rest,
His scattered race from their heritage push,
But his dauntless spirit they cannot crush.

Folsom’s short, evocative poem was originally published in an essay entitled “Choctaw Traditions: Introductory Remarks,” and republished in Native American Writing in the Southeast: An Anthology, 1875-1935, by Daniel F. Littlefield and James W. Parins. I especially like the repetition of the word “they.” We all know who “they” are. Vienneau’s print of a huge raven (or Raven) on a solid blue background, black with blue shining through its outspread wings, beak open, might evoke defiance, but I think the implied equivalence between Indian and Raven is funky. Folsom’s poem is recommended; the art, not so much.


“The Story of Itsikamahidish and the Wild Potato” (1914) by Buffalo Bird Woman (Hidatsa), as told to Gilbert L. Wilson, adapted by Tom Pomplun, art by Pat N. Lewis (pp. 90-95)

This story was found in Wilson’s field notes (vol. 16, #14) and later appeared in Native American Women’s Writing: An Anthology, ca. 1800-1924, edited by Karen L. Kilcup.  According to Hidatsa cosmology, Itsikamahidish is a complex kind of guy who appears in many forms, including as a human; sometimes he appears in the form of Coyote. This is a story about how Itsikamahidish, as Coyote, discovers wild potatoes, who warn him not to eat too much of them. Of course, Coyote being who he is doesn’t listen, and the consequences of eating too many wild potatoes are not lost on the reader. This graphic version is very, well, graphic; Coyote gets his comeuppance and we all know exactly why we shouldn’t eat too many wild potatoes. In Lewis’s illustrations—on a palette of riotous colors—Itsikamahidish looks just like Wile E. Coyote, the talking potato looks like Mister Potato Head, and the circular earth lodges appear accurate. I’m confused, though, about why Itsikamahidish’s sweetheart is an Indian woman, since the Coyote stories I’ve heard take place in the time before humans were created. However, if Itsikamahidish takes many forms, maybe he also dates humans. Recommended.


“Anoska Nimiwina” (1899) by William Jones (Fox), adapted by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), art by Afua Richardson (pp. 96-113)

Written about ten years after the event, this is the story of how Anoska Nimiwina, the dance of peace, came through the territory of the Osakie, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo, and brought an alliance with their enemies, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Caddo. According to Jones, this version of the sacred story of how a young woman brought peace to the warring peoples of the area was brought to the Sauk and Fox by messengers of the Potawatomi. What has been erroneously referred to as the “Ghost Dance” swept through the Plains nations; and it was brought about by the same desperation. The People believed that if they danced and prayed together in this good way, the predatory whites would disappear, the murdered ancestors would return, and the land and game animals would come back.

Richardson’s art, on a gorgeous palette of mostly blues, purples and browns, make a spectacular complement to Bruchac’s amazing adaptation of a story that reverberates even today in the Idle No More movement and a strong, courageous Indian woman. Highly recommended.


“The Stolen White Girl” (1868) by John Rollin Ridge/Cheesquatalawny (Cherokee), art by Daryl Talbot (Choctaw), color by Kevin Atkinson (pp. 114-115)

John Rollin Ridge is a notorious figure in Cherokee history. His father, John Ridge, and grandfather, Major Ridge, as leaders of the “Treaty Party,” were leading signatories of the Treaty of New Echota (1836), which ceded Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi, and was said to have resulted in the death march known as The Trail Where the People Cried, more popularly called “The Trail of Tears.” Years after followers of John Ross—who had led the Cherokee opposition to the treaty—assassinated Ridge’s father and grandfather, Ridge himself killed David Kell, a member of Ross’s faction. Then Ridge fled to California, and went on to become—a writer. A child of mixed parentage, Ross also married a white woman, Elizabeth. “The Stolen White Girl” is probably a romanticized version of their courtship; absent any of this context, the poem and illustrations read like an early version of the “dime novels” and their successors, the “Indian Romance” novels (“Savage Heart,” “Savage Flames,” “Beloved Savage,” you get the picture). Not recommended.


“The Middle-Man” (1909) by Royal Roger Eubanks (Cherokee), adapted by Jon Proudstar (Yaqui, Maya), art by Terry Laban (pp. 116-129)

In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, also euphemistically known as the “General Allotment Act,” which broke up the vast tribal lands and allotted small portions (about 160 acres) to individual Indian families to farm. The “surplus” lands were then opened up to settlers, and within decades, whites owned the vast majority of the lands. But “most” was not “enough,” and along came the real estate speculators, who, by using the American legal system, bilked Indian individuals of their land allotments. Eubanks, who had pursued careers in teaching and art, became famous for his biting political cartoons and cartoon-illustrated stories, one of which became “The Middle-Man.” Although there is some information on the Dawes Act here (in tiny print at the bottom of three of the ten-page story), it is not enough to carry this adaptation, which will lead readers to believe that Indians were (and are) unintelligent and easily duped. Not recommended.


“Changing Is Not Vanishing” (1916) by Carlos Montezuma/Wassaja (Apache), art by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) (p. 130)

Carlos Montezuma was a nationally known political leader, writer, essayist and poet, who aimed his political arrows at the white establishment and the BIA for the devastation imposed on Native peoples, and on those who believed the stereotypical portrayal of Indians in the media. Montezuma was not, as the notes here read, “the first Native American to earn a medical degree in an American University.” Actually, Charles Eastman (Santee Dakota) earned his medical degree in the same year, 1889. (Caution: Do your own research and don’t believe everything you read in Wikipedia.)

“Changing Is Not Vanishing” is Montezuma’s answer to those who would believe that changing is vanishing. Arigon Starr’s illustration, of four contemporary traditional and modern Indian people, includes two women, of whom Montezuma’s poem left out. Highly recommended.


“Two Wolves,” by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), adapted by Richard Van Camp (Dogrib Dene) / art by John Findley (pp. 131-139)

“Two Wolves” is one of my three hands-down favorites of this collection. (The others are “Anoska Nimiwina,” which Bruchac adapted; and “The Cattle Thief by E. Pauline Johnson.) “Two Wolves” is the story of a young Abenaki, just out of his teens, back from fighting in the Civil War. Hired by the Town Board to hunt down and destroy a wolf who has killed some sheep, Ash has been traumatized by the killing he has had to do in the war. The wolf has been wounded and scarred as well, and the irony is not lost on the young man: “That’s a good one, isn’t it?” he tells the wolf, “an Indian boy getting paid to scalp a wolf?” Ash, after tossing some of his dinner to the wolf (now named “Catcher”), decides he has “done enough killing for all of us,” and tells his new companion of his plans to head north to Canada. In the north, he says, is “land where there’s woods and deer. No sheep, no bounties paid for wolves or men.”

Findley’s art is amazing, realistic and detailed (save the members of the Town Board, who are appropriately caricatured). Especially poignant is Catcher’s sniffing at Ash’s wolf skin-lined bedroll. In the last two panels, the two lie down together, Ash’s head on his bedroll, and Catcher at his side. Or is Ash’s head on Catcher? Both art and story complement each other, a perfect balance, neither competing for domination. With “Two Wolves,” an anti-war story told in an “Indian” way—no “explanation,” no stated moral, no heavy-handed polemic—the reader is left to ponder the issues and explore the possibilities. Beautiful. Highly recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin




Monday, January 07, 2013

Thumbs up to some titles on CBC Diversity's Goodreads Bookshelf

A few days ago, I gave a thumbs down to some titles on CBC Diversity's Goodreads Bookshelf. Today, I want to give a thumbs up to the inclusion of Native authors whose books are on CBC list:

The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich
Chickadee by Louise Erdrich
The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich
Bearwalker by Joseph Bruchac
Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac
Squanto's Journey by Joseph Bruchac
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Update: February 4, 2013 

Returning to the post above to do a more complete observation of the CBC Diversity's "native-american-inuit" bookshelf:

Lakota author/artist S.D. Nelson is on the list. He's done several books. I really like his Greet the Dawn the Lakota Way. I'm not as keen on his Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story.

I'm glad to see Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky on the list. It is a book of poems, edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin and illustrated by S.D. Nelson. McLaughlin is not Native. He's worked extensively with students at Santa Fe Indian School, taking them to national competitions.

Thomas M. Yeahpau's book, X-Indian Chronicles: The Book of Mausape, is on the list, too. I have to read that one again. It set me back on my heels when I read it the year it came out.

The list has several books on it by Linda Little Wolf. I have never come across her name or her books before. Under "Accomplishments" at the Author's Den website, info provided says that she is of Cherokee and Lakota Sioux heritage. It doesn't say she's enrolled in either one. It says she's one of the foremost educators and speakers on Plains Indians, so her name ought to be familiar to me, either through gatherings of Native writers, or writings by Native literary critics, but I don't know who she is. I'll see what I can learn.

Moving on to writers who are not Native, I'm really pleased to see Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name Is Not Easy on the list. It wasn't there before (I made a pdf of the bookshelf back in January), and it being there now tells us the list is in development. That's terrific. Debby is married to an Inupiat man and they've got several children. I spent time with Debby and her daughter in Anchorage, in August of 2012. It is one of my cherished memories.