Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Remembrance of Choctaw Writer, Greg Rodgers

Choctaw writer and storyteller, Greg Rodgers, passed away last night.

Greg Rodgers
1968-2014


Several years ago at a conference, Tim Tingle introduced me to Greg. Like Tim, Greg was a Choctaw storyteller. Tim was excited by the work Greg was doing. Back in April of this year, I celebrated the publication of Greg's Chukfi Rabbit's Big Bad Bellyache: A Trickster Tale. It is a great story. Here's the cover:



Reading it was a delight. I wanted others to read it, too. When the We Need Diverse Books team was preparing for its summer reading series, I made sure Greg's book was part of it. Here's the image they used:




Just a few days ago, I listed Chukfi as one of AICL's Best Books of 2014. Greg was a new voice in children's literature. I looked forward to what else he'd be giving us.

Earlier today, I was shocked to learn that Greg passed away last night. Below are Tim Tingle's thoughts, used with his permission:

Here are some thoughts beginning that strange piece of writing we call “obituary.” 


As a writer Greg Rodgers authored three books, “The Ghost of Mingo Creek and Other Spooky Oklahoma Legends,” “One Dark Night in Oklahoma,” and the highly popular children’s book, “Chukfi Rabbit’s Big, Bad Bellyache,” plus dozens of yet-to-be-published stories. Over the holidays Greg intended to focus on his upcoming novel, a powerful and difficult piece of Choctaw historical fiction, the story of Hotema, a protestant preacher who died in prison. 


As an oral performer Greg was a quiet genius, ushering the audience down a path of faith and fear and always ending in triumph of the good. Those fortunate enough to have seen him perform his Trail of Tears story, “Harriet’s Burden,” will never forget the experience. A tragic tale of heinous cruelty concludes with a depth of Choctaw spirituality rarely seen onstage.


With a mark of Choctaw humility, Greg was much more proud of his teachers than his own accomplishments. Among his favorite instructors were Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, Geary and Barbara Hobson, LeAnne Howe, Clara Sue Kidwell, and Rilla Askew, a Who’s Who of American Indian authors.


Greg recently created a term, a “brand” which he hoped to promote: The Choctaw Literary Renaissance. He planned to discuss the emergence of contemporary Choctaw writers at a series of conference panels and discussions in the Spring of 2015.


I know in my heart that Greg will be with us for many years, as a Rabbit Trickster, a protective Panther, and a spirit Canine, with a friendly and supportive look for those who need one. He will arrive and be with us when we least expect him, at times described in the preface to his first and yet unpublished novel:

“Our Choctaw homelands speak to us in many voices. They are mostly soft and caring––summer rain dripping through a forest of tall pines, wind whistling across a mountain lake, rippling the waters––but on the worst of nights the land emits a terrible scream. Our places can feel pain, deep and connected to all. They know of death, and life, and death again.” 

We already miss you more than you will ever know, Brother Greg. Too soon, you left us staggering far too soon. But we forgive you, on the sole condition that you work your magic through the fingers of young Choctaw writers, doing their best to continue your work. You are family to thousands of Choctaws, and Nahullos, too.


My thoughts are with those who knew Greg personally, who worked with, and cared for him.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Neal Shusterman's UNWHOLLY and UNSOULED

On September 25, 2014, I uploaded my review of Shusterman's short story, UnStrung. It is part of his UnWind Dystology, set in the future, after a civil war.

In UnStrung (published in 2012), most of the action takes place on an unnamed "Hi Rez" reservation. "ChanceFolk" live there. They are rich, as opposed to "Low Rez" tribes that didn't spend/invest their money well. We learn that Indigenous peoples are called ChanceFolk instead of Indians and that some people call them SlotMongers (yes, that is seen as a slur).

The civil war was fought over abortion. The outcome was that abortion was replaced by "unwinding" -- a process by which parents can, at age 13, send their unwanted kids away to be unwound. That means that 99.44 percent of their body parts will be used as transplants. They will, of course, cease to exist, but somehow, they are said to be alive in a "divided state" due to that transplanting of their body parts. In addition to unwanted 13-year-olds being unwound, some couples choose to conceive and birth a child that is a tithe. At age 13, they, too, will sent to be unwound, but everyone see their lives and unwinding as a blessing and sacrifice for their specific religious group. This unwinding takes place at Harvest Camps (pretty disgusting premise, eh?).

In addition to this government sanctioned unwinding, there are "parts pirates" who sell body parts on a black market.

Below is my brief synopsis of UnWind, key points in UnStrung, and a more detailed review of UnWholly and UnSouled. The fourth book, UnDivided, is not part of this blog post.

Unwind (Book 1, published in 2007)

We're introduced to Lev in UnWind, the first book of this series. He was conceived by his parents on purpose as a tithe who will be unwound when he is 13. On the way to the harvest camp, he is kidnapped by an older kid named Connor who is determined to un-do all this unwinding stuff, but things don't go as planned and Lev ends up becoming a clapper. Clappers are kids whose blood is infused with chemicals so that loud clapping will cause them to explode. As UnWind draws to a close, Lev is supposed to clap, thereby detonating himself at a harvest camp, but he chooses not to do that. Instead, he pulls people to safety and will, later, need to have his blood cleansed.

UnStrung (a short story published in 2012 that fills in gaps between UnWind and UnWholly)

When UnStrung opens, we find Lev at a reservation. He sought refuge at this reservation because he'd heard that ChanceFolk didn't sign the Unwind Accord. Rather than use human body parts, their scientists have perfected a way to use animal parts instead, but the parts have to be from their particular spirit animal. They find out their spirit animal on a vision quest. At this unamed rez, Lev is nursed back to health by a Native doctor. She and her lawyer-husband have a son named Wil (he's older than Lev) who has a special musical gift. They call Lev "Mahpee" which means "sky faller" and is the name they use for people who climb the rez wall and drop down, into the reservation.

When Lev is feeling better, he and Wil are out with a group of kids on a vision quests to learn what their spirit animals are. But, they are attacked by some parts pirates, who want Native people because their parts are much desired. Wil sacrifices himself for the group. The story ends with his family and the tribe making Lev leave (Wil's family had tried to get sanctuary for Lev, but the tribal council said no to their request), and, they don't know what has happened to Wil. They know he was taken by parts pirates, but they don't know if he was unwound.

There's lot of stereotyping of Native peoples in UnStrung. Read my review for details on that, and see what Shusterman said in response.


UnWholly (Book 2)


Shusterman's second book in the series is titled UnWholly, published in 2012. An important character (in addition to Lev and Connor) is Cam (short for Camus). He is a "Rewind" -- a creature that is put together from the parts of others. His hands were once Wil's hands. That's Cam to the right. See the patterns on his face? It, too, is put together from several different people. Here's the part in the book where he looks at his face for the first time in a mirror (p. 58-59):
That face is a nightmare.
Strips of flesh, all different shades, like a living quilt stretched across the bone, muscle and cartilage beneath. Even his head--clean-shaven when he awoke, but no filling in with peach-fuzz hair--has different colors and textures sprouting like uneven fields of clashing crops.
The doctor who is helping Cam learn who he is, is a woman named Roberta. She's got a faint British accent. Cam is her creation. She found specific people to unwind and use to create him. His body is made of the best runner, swimmer, etc. that could be found. The left frontal lobe of his brain is from seven kids who were geniuses in math and science; the right frontal lobe is from almost a dozen poets, artists, musicians. His language center is a hub of nine languages. Studying the scars on his face, Cam realizes that (p. 61):
They are not as random as he had thought. They are symmetrical, the different skin tones forming a pattern. A design.
Roberta says (p. 61-62):
"It was a choice we made to give you a piece of every ethnicity. From the palest sienna-Caucasian, to the darkest umber tones of unspoiled Africa, and everything in between. Hispanic, Asian, Islander, Native, Australoid, Indian, Semitic--a glorious mosaic of humanity! You are everyman, Cam, and the truth of it is evident in your face."
Roberta goes on about how the scars will heal and he'll be "the new definition of handsome" and "a shining beacon" that will be "the greatest hope for the human race."

Frankly, I find this very unsettling. It means, of course, that faces were cut up to make his. And goodness! The stereotyping in it: "unspoiled Africa"?! As opposed to what? Spoiled Africa? Spoiled, how?!

Cam is unsettled by it all, too. At an event designed to show him off to VIPs, he malfunctions, calling out "I am more than the parts I'm made of!" (p. 144) He tries, unsuccessfully, to call that line out again and again but the words don't come. The big moment is ruined and Roberta whisks him off stage.

Lev, meanwhile, is serving as a counselor at a harvest camp after he's had the chemicals that made him into a clapper cleansed from his body. Those chemicals have damaged his body. He'll forever have the body of 13-year-old, and the only thing that will grow is his hair. He's staying with his adult brother, Marcus, but a clapper finds them and explodes herself. Marcus is badly hurt. Lev goes to the hospital with him and hopes his parents will see him (they kind of disowned him when he didn't go through with being tithed in the first book). They don't want anything to do with him. He's hurt by their rejection and goes back to his own hospital room (he was injured, too, in the blast). He curls up in bed, thinking back on his life (p. 191):
He thinks back to the days after he left CyFi, and before he arrived at the Graveyard. Dark days, to be sure, but punctuated by a bit of light when he found himself on a reservation, taken in by People of Chance. The Chance folk had taught him that when you have nothing to lose, there's no such thing as a bad roll of the dice."
I rolled my eyes as I read that! Come on, Shusterman (and your editors)! Didn't those Chance folk teachings throw up any red flags?! You create a tribe of Native people in the future whose teachings are related to their identity as casino Indians, as though casinos are a part of their value system?! (Shaking my head.) Since Lev can't stay with his brother anymore, he accepts an offer to go to the Cavanaugh mansion in Detroit which turns out to be a refuge for tithes. When he gets there, Mr. Cavanaugh greets him and tells him about the place. A woman calls out (p. 195):
"Mr. Cavenaugh, the natives are getting restless. Can I let them in?" 
Now see... I bet most people (like Shusterman and his editor) didn't give that phrase a thought! But if you're reading (as I am) through the lens of people who are dehumanized by white writers, well, FACEPALM.

Lev stays at that mansion for awhile but by the end of the book, he's reunited with Connor.

Roberta--who created Cam--looks for and finds a companion for Cam (p. 290):
...the young man with multiple skin tones that are exotic yet pleasing to the eye. 
Exotic and pleasing to... whose eye? This is the white fascination with 'other' taken to an extreme. I don't like it. As readers, I think Shusterman doesn't want us to like it either, but I'm not sure it works. Is there enough in the narrative that tells the reader that this gaze is problematic? If you see this taken up in a review, please let me know in the comments.

The companion that Cam ends up with is Risa. She's been a major character ever since Book 1. She was/is in love with Connor (also from Book 1) and doesn't like being manipulated into being Cam's companion for a public relations tour. Previously, she was in a wheelchair but Roberta gets her a new spine so she can walk. Then, there's a creepy thing that happens, and it appears later, too: the part of Cam that knows algebra is from a kid who had a crush on Risa. Cam has that memory--of the kid having a crush on her. When he tells her, she is horrified. Eventually the two slip into a friendly relationship and Roberta is thrilled with their interviews. But! At the end of the book at the last interview, Risa says its all been a farce. She takes off; Lev and Connor are headed east to Akron, on Route 66, to find a woman named Sonia.  


UnSouled (Book 3, published in 2014)

Picking right up, Lev and Connor are on the highway headed to Akron. They have an accident, get split up, captured, and then reunited when Connor (who has escaped in a sheriff's car) runs into Lev, who has leapt in front of the car. Of course, Connor recognizes him, and puts him in the car. He's bleeding internally and tells Connor and Grace, who is tagging along with Connor, to (p. 72):
"Get me to the Arapache Rez. West of Pueblo, Colorado."
Connor knows Lev must be delirious. "A ChanceFolk reservation? Why would ChanceFolk have anything to do with us?"
"Sanctuary," Lev hisses. "ChanceFolk never signed the Unwind Accord. The Arapache don't have an extradition treaty. They give asylum to AWOL Unwinds. Sometimes."
"Asylum is right!" says Grace. "No way I'm going to a Slot-Monger rez!"
Ok--so now that unnamed tribe from UnStrung has a name! For those who don't know, there is no "Arapache" tribe. My guess? Shusterman made it up by combining Arapahoe and Apache.  Connor does as Lev asks. They get to the Arapache rez, which is gated and has a sentry (p. 73):
In spite of all the literature and spin put forth by the Tribal Council, there is nothing noble about being a sentry at an Arapache Reservation gate. Once upon a time, when the United States was just a band of misfit colonies, and long before there were fences and walls marking off Arapache land, things were different. Back then, to be a perimeter scout was to be a warrior. Now all it means is standing in a booth in a blue uniform, checking passports and papers and saying hiisi' honobe, which roughly translates to "Have a beautiful day," proving that the Arapache are not immune to the banality of modern society.
Ah, shucks. This poor sentry. He isn't liking his job. He's rather be a noble warrior, scouting the perimeter of their land (Stereotype! Noble stereotype!). And here we go with some more made up language! I saw that in the short story, too. And remember that Mel Gibson did it, too, for Apocalypto? Here's more from the rez gate (p. 73).
At thirty-eight, the rez sentry is the oldest of the three on duty today at the east gate, and so, by his seniority, he's the only one allowed to carry a weapon. However, his pistol is nowhere near as elegant and meaningful as the weapons of old, in those times when they were called Indians rather than ChanceFolk... or "Slot Mongers," that hideous slur put upon them by the very people who made casino gaming the only way tribes could earn back their self-reliance, self-respect, and the fortunes leeched from them over the centuries. Although the casinos are long gone, the names remain. "ChanceFolk" is their badge of honor. "SlotMongers" is their scar. 
I get that Shusterman is trying to tell readers that colonization was a bad thing for Native peoples, but that message goes hand in hand with stereotyping... That poor sentry, wistful for being able to carry a "weapon of old" ---what might that be?! A bow and arrow? Or... a spear?! Those weapons of old have more "meaning." But why?! What gives a weapon meaning? I don't get it.

Well. When Connor and Lev and Grace get to the gate, there are lots of carloads of parents who want to take photos and buy ChanceFolk crafts. Crafts! Because that's what Indians do. Indians! Crafts! In the American imagination, they go together. Anyway, the tribe is very careful about who gets in (p. 73-74):
Not every tribe has taken such an isolationist approach, of course, but then, not many tribes have been as successful as the Arapache when it came to creating a thriving, self-sustaining, and admittedly affluent community. Theirs is a "Hi-Rez," both admired and resented by certain "Low-Rez" tribes who squandered those casino earnings rather than investing in their own future.
Interesting that Shusterman is creating this binary, of Hi/Low rez tribes. Why? Will it matter later? And... about those reservation gates (p. 74):
As for the gates, they didn't go up until after the Unwind Accord. Like other tribes, the Arapache refused to accept the legality of unwinding--just as they had refused to be a part of the Heartland War. "Swiss Cheese Natives," detractors of the time had called them, for the ChanceFolk lands were holes of neutrality in the midst of a battling nation.
Yes! You read that right. "Swiss Cheese Natives." I'm trying to recall swiss cheese being used to represent pockets of resistance in other books. Doesn't it strike you as, well, silly? There's more info about that (p. 74):
So the rest of the country, and much of the world, took to recycling the kids it didn't want or need, and the Arapache Nation, along with all the rest of the American Tribal Congress, proclaimed, if not their independence, then their recalcitrance. They would not follow the law of the land as it stood, and if pressed, the entire Tribal Congress would secede from the union, truly making Swiss cheese of the United States. With one costly civil war just ending, Washington was wise to just let it be.
Shusterman's "American Tribal Congress" must be his reworking of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). It is a membership organization, not a union of sorts that would "secede from the union" if it wanted to do so. I wonder what Shusterman knows about NCAI? And he used "swiss cheese" again! But there's more (p. 74):
Of course, court battles have been raging for years as to whether or not the Arapache Nation has the right to demand passports to enter their territory, but the tribe as become very adept at doing the legal dance. The sentry doubts the issue will ever be resolved. At least not in his lifetime.
This passport stuff is, for some current tribal nations, real. The Onondaga Nation issues passports. Prior to 9/11, they were accepted at international borders, but heightened security put a stop to that, preventing the Iroquois national lacrosse team from an international competition. I guess Shusterman read up on that, a bit.

Back to the story. The sentry suggests that Connor take Lev to a hospital in Canon City because it is closer than "the reservation's medical lodge." He doesn't want to let them in, but then he hears Lev say "Friend of Elina Tashi'ne," which surprises him (p. 75-76):
"The medicine woman?" There are many thousands on the rez, but there are those whose reputation is well known. The Tashi'ne family is very highly regarded--and everyone knows about the terrible tragedy they endured.
The tragedy is what happened to them in UnStrung (when Wil sacrificed himself to parts pirates; some blame Lev for what happened)Lev asks the sentry to call Elina. She wants a name, and when Connor tells him Lev's name, the sentry recognizes both Connor and Lev:
As for Lev, he was infamous on the rez before he became "the clapper who wouldn't clap." You can't speak the name of poor Wil Tashi'ne without also thinking of Lev Calder and his involvement in that tragedy. And his friends here probably don't even know. 
The sentry is right. Connor doesn't know. Skipping ahead, Lev recalls being at the Arapache reservation the first time, watching kids climb up and down rope ladders, worried that they'd fall. Wil told him (p. 150):
"We built America's great bridges and skyscrapers," Wil had told him proudly. "For us, balance is a matter of pride."
With that, Shusterman is referencing a fact, but giving that identity to his made-up tribe. Shusterman's tribe is in Colorado. The real ironworkers? Mohawks. As I said in my review of UnStrung, I think Shusterman had Pueblo Indians in his head as he created this tribe. Pueblo peoples used ladders at Mesa Verde and similar places, but in the modern day, we didn't do the ironwork that Mohawk's did. This cut/paste of identity is what makes the fictitious tribe move Shusterman did problematic.

Recall from UnStrung, the ChanceFolk have spirit animals that they use for their replacement body parts when they need parts? Well... guess what? Lev is able to get a spirit animal, too. On page 158, he figures out that his spirit animal is a kinajou. They live in the tropical rain forests of Southern Mexico and Brazil. The "spirit animal" stuff... that's not real either. It is another thing that outsiders to Native tribes use all the time.

Connor, Lev, and Grace have been on the reservation at this point for two weeks. Connor is tired of being there, and notes contradictions in Arapache lifestyle, austere but pointedly opulent. He thinks (p. 187):
With one hand they rebuke creature comforts, but with the other they embrace it--as if they are in a never-ending battle between spiritualism and materialism. It must have been going on so long, they seem blind to their own ambivalence, as if it's just become a part of their culture.
I want to think through this for awhile, but for now, I'll say this: this kind of judgement of Native nations that have casinos is common. A good bit of it is from people who think that Native peoples are "better" than other human beings and disappointed with casinos and what tribes do/do not do with profits from those casinos. It is the "noble savage" who is akin to the "model minority"--- but who disappoints the gaze because... we're human!

There's some strategizing happening, over Connor and Lev and what they'll do next. They want to leave but they'll need to throw the media off their tracks in some way. The plan? Bring in another tribe. But this time, it is a real one: the Hopi. Elina's husband, Chal, is a lawyer and he'll put the word out that he's going to represent the Hopi in a land dispute case, and that in return, they will give Connor and Lev asylum.

Up to this point in the book, I've read (re-read, actually)--but not commented on--the chapters told from Cam's point of view because they've not been specific to Native aspects of who he is, or about the Chance Folk either, but that returns on page 214. Cam signs his name on a document Roberta gives him. But then she asks him to flip the paper over, look at her, and sign his name again as he looks at her. He does, and when he looks back at the paper, he sees Wil Tashi'ne's name rather than Camus Comprix. Why?

Because, Roberta tells him, he has Wil's hands (p. 214):
"It's his neural connections and muscle memory that allow you to play guitar and accomplish a whole host of fine-motor skills."
As you might suspect, Cam is taken aback by this development, making him wonder who he is. This muscular memory is going to appear later, again.

At this point, Cam is definitely in love with Risa, misses her, wants to find her, and thinks he can impress her by bringing down Roberta and her company. She was/is in love with Connor, and of course, Cam is jealous but thinks that Connor is dead. He's feeling conflicted over a lot of things (like being treated as property) and starts wandering around alone. Roberta doesn't like him doing that.

After one outing, Cam goes to his room and starts playing the guitar. Remember--it is Wil's hands and muscle memory that drives his playing. Earlier, he'd learned that Connor wasn't, in fact, dead. As he plays the guitar, fragments of memory come together and he recognizes Lev, via Wil's memories, as someone who he (Wil) had healed with his music. He plays more and pulls together a much more complete memory of Lev. He figures he's got to get to the  When he'd been out earlier that evening and saw that Connor was in the news, he also saw the photo of Lev, and as he plays the guitar, he digs till he finds a memory of Wil playing for Lev on the Arapache reservation. He figures that's where Risa is and takes off to find her.

On page 252, he's found her, on the reservation. He's gotten past the gates, Wil's memories guide him to Una's house. We met Una in UnStrung. She was Wil's girlfriend. Cam finds that his hands know just where she keeps a key, hidden, and uses it to go in her house. He finds one of Wil's guitars and starts playing it.

Of course, Una hears the music, goes to investigate and sees Cam. She listens to him play for awhile, and then knocks him out with a guitar, ties him up, and carries him to an old sweat lodge where youth went to do a vision quest when they were of age. A vision quest. Safe to say all of this is another face palm. Both are common in books outsiders write about Native peoples. Both, a sweat lodge and a vision quest, are specific to certain tribes--not all of them--but they get put forth as one of those "Indian" things that has to be in ANY book ANYONE writes about Native people.

In that lodge, she ties him up between two poles that are six feet apart. The description of its size makes me wonder what Shusterman is talking about. I don't think a sweat lodge is big like this one, and they aren't made of stone. I'm thinking Shusterman is thinking about a kiva. Remember--the "Arapache" village is Puebloan in style. We use kivas, and some are made of stone. And they're big. Anyway! Moving on.

Cam stays unconscious as she ties him up between those two poles. He slumps, and looks like "a supplicant Y" (p. 256). Una leaves for the night, and returns the next morning..... with..... a chain saw.

Noting the seams/scars where his various parts have been assembled. She says (p. 258):
"Up and down and around--those lines go everywhere, don't they? Like an old shaman's sand drawings."
As with the sweat lodge/vision quest, the "sand drawings" stopped me. Here, Shusterman is dipping into sand painting (not 'drawing') most commonly done by Navajos in ceremony and today, in art. With this, we have an "Arapache" tribe whose homes are Puebloan in style, whose people scale heights like Mohawks, who use what is generally a Lakota sweat lodge, and whose medicine includes methods done by Navajos. I know that Shusterman is creating fiction, but Native and non-Native people have been, for years and years, saying "do not do mash ups of tribes" because that contributes to misunderstandings of who Native people are. Una continues (p. 258):
"The shaman's lines are meant to trace life and creation--is that what your lines are for too? Are you a creation? Are you alive?"
and
"Are you that man-made man I've heard tell of? What is it they call you? "Sham Complete'?"
Una does not like Cam. So what does this rez girl plan to do? She knows he has Wil's hands, so, she's going to cut them off with that chain saw! At the last minute, she cuts his jacket (that's what she used to tie one of his arms with) and hurls the chain saw across the room ('room' doesn't work if this is really a sweat lodge). With that free arm, he reaches up and unties the ribbon in her hair. She backs away, freaked out by that because that was something that Wil used to do. He tells her about memories he has via Wil's parts, now his. Then she cuts his other arm free and asks him to show her (with his hands) what Wil's hands would do to her. He touches her neck, her lips, her cheek, wrist... and then, she knocks him out again. And ties him back up.

Pretty intense scene, isn't it? And creepy. Very creepy and unsettling, too. It is violent, and it is a violation. It is perverse.

On page 270, Connor (he, Lev, and Grace are staying with Una) becomes suspicious of why/where she goes each day with a guitar and rifle. He decides to follow her to a structure he says is shaped like an igloo. Connor climbs on top of it, peering down as Una repeatedly asks Cam what her name is. He can't remember. They've been having this 'what's my name' conversation for a few days already. Connor can see that Cam has been urinating in his pants. He smells horrible. Her interrogation of him over, she unties him and at gunpoint, makes him play the guitar.

That, and the previous scene, are ones of torture. Una is torturing Cam. It is sadistic. While there have been sadistic acts throughout Shusterman's series, especially with regard to the creation of Cam, Shusterman has never been this graphic. I wonder if he sees that he saved up the most grotesque behaviors for the Native character? Does he see that he's created the savage Indian?

From his perch atop the lodge, Connor knocks some stones loose. Una sees him, aims her rifle at him, he falls down, she runs out with her rifle, points it at him... and then Cam bolts. She runs after him, dropping her rifle to tackle him, and Connor picks it up. Now he's in charge. He tells Cam that Risa is not there. Una wants to tie him up again but Connor insists on taking him back to her apartment. With the rifle, he's got control of the situation. Back at Una's, they see a press conference at which a spokesman for the Hopi tribe will neither confirm or deny a rumor that Connor and Lev are on their reservation. This creates the distraction that Lev and Connor need to take off. Elina arranges a car.

But, we learn that Lev doesn't want to go with Connor because he thinks he can "make a difference" (p. 317) because "they need to start listening to outside voices" (p. 318) and he can be that voice. The tribe has provided them with IDs. Both are now Arapache. Lev's name is Mahpee Kinkajou, and Connor's is Bees-Neb Hebiite Elina says Connor's name means stolen shark (he has a shark tattoo on the arm that used to belong to someone else). Connor and Grace leave, taking Cam with them.

Recall that in UnStrung, Lev's outsider status meant more to Wil's grandfather than Wil's perspective did? This is another slice of that, and it bothers me. Shusterman is making sure we all know that Lev is a white savior. He knows best.

Life for Lev, on the Arapache Rez, is peaceful and calm, but he feels compelled to do something about what is going on outside. He talks with Elina, but he finds that she has a "passive, fatalistic view of the world" that "too many people on the rez share" (p. 347).

I find that "fatalistic view" to be much like the stereotype of primitive Indians with no agency, just living life. No worries, no cares, like children.

On page 348, Lev is thinking:
There's an expression among ChanceFolk. "As go the Arapache, so go the nations." As the most financially successful, and arguably the most politically important ChanceFolk tribe, policy that's put in place here often spreads to other tribes. While the Arapache are still the most isolationist, instituting borders that require passports, many other tribes--particularly the ones that don't rely on tourism--have made their territory harder to access as well, taking their lead from the Arapache.
He thinks that, if he can convince the Arapache to do something, the other tribes will follow. But, a lot of the Arapache don't like him, so he needs a pretty good plan. A few days later, he goes into town to a concert. He gets onstage and tells people the names of the parts pirates who took Wil away, and that he's going to track them down and bring them back to face justice. Then, "in perfect Arapache," he calls out (p. 350):
"Who will help me?"
His question is greeted by silence. He repeats it, and then hears a response, also in Arapache. It is Una saying she will help him. Slowly the crowd starts to clap for Lev and his plan, and that's the end of the Native parts of UnSouled. 

Shusterman's fourth book, UnDivided, will have its own blog post. Thus far, I've found the series unsettling. I know--that's what a dystopia is supposed to do--but the use of stereotypes and the mishmash of elements of various tribes--mean the book doesn't work for me as a Native reader. There's too much wrong. In his comment to my review of UnStrung, Shusterman said he worked hard not to stereotype, but that he didn't want to be "politically correct" either, because that is as bad as stereotyping. What, I wonder, would this series have looked like if he'd been "politically correct" in his treatment of Native culture and characters?




Sunday, December 14, 2014

A CHILDREN'S GUIDE TO ARCTIC BIRDS by Mia Pelletier, illustrated by Danny Christopher

When my daughter was in college, one of the elective courses she took was about birds. It contrasted with the readings she was doing in philosophy and history. For years we'd talked about philosophy and history. Talking about birds, however, was new. She learned a lot of fascinating information that she passed on to me.

I was reminded of that as I read A Children's Guide to Arctic Birds, written by Mia Pelletier and illustrated by Danny Christopher. Here's the cover:



And here's a page from inside:



See that gorgeous art? That's one of the strong points of this nonfiction book, but so are the facts provided about birds.

The information provided for each of the twelve birds is shared in these categories: Where to Look, What they Eat, Listen for, Nest, Egg, Chick, and During the Winter. Very useful for people in the arctic, but useful, too, for kids who are doing bird studies anywhere. And the endcovers! Gorgeous! One in the front depicts eggs for each of the birds inside, and, the one in the back shows them, in scale, flying in silhouette. The twelve, from smallest to largest are: snow bunting, red phalarope, rock ptarmigan, thick-billed murre, arctic tern, long-tailed duck, common eider, red-throated loon, gyrfalcon, snowy owl, raven, and, tundra swan. In addition to double-paged spreads about each bird, there are stand-alone pages about feathers, bills, and feet.

Of particular interest to AICL is that the Inuktitut word (a dialect spoken by the Inuit people) for each bird is included on each page, just beneath the English name for the bird. Here's a look at the page above:



I love seeing Native languages in children's books! I would have liked to see another category that addresses how the bird is viewed amongst the Inuit people, or a stand-alone page about the language and people, but I do like and recommend A Children's Guide to Arctic Birds. It is a 2014 nonfiction title from Inhabit Media. 


Thursday, December 11, 2014

CRAZY HORSE'S GIRLFRIEND, by Erika Wurth

The setting for Erika Wurth's Crazy Horse's Girlfriend is Idaho Springs, Colorado. The characters in her story all feel real. Their stories, their lives? Real. Something seemingly simple, like this line, for example, is like an echo:
He came in for some coffee and asked me what tribe I was and we got to talking.
By echo, I mean that reading Wurth's writing sounds like listening to a Native person. The main character of Crazy Horse's Girlfriend is a 16 year old girl named Margaritte. As the story opens, Margaritte and her cousin, Jake, are at a party. Two guys laugh when Jake says he and Margaritte are cousins. Jake asks them what they're laughing at (p. 9):
...but he knew. We both knew. My family is Apache, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and white, but my auntie and her husband adopted Jake when he was a baby. He's Nez Perce, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, and black.
That moment leads to a fight. And a visit to a hospital. Wurth opens the story with grit and gripping characters that fly in the face of mainstream expectations. These aren't mystical Indians. With the range of her character's identities, she gives readers a look at who we are: mixed and not, experiencing good and bad of life lived in cities, towns, and reservations, with Native life affirmed, celebrated, and denigrated, too.  

As Wurth's story unfolds, Margaritte meets a guy named Mike who, like her, is a reader. His parents are white. He is Indigenous from a tribe in Columbia. Their relationship is a roller coaster of hope and pain. There's a gay character in here, too, from Pine Ridge. His name is Will. Reading about Will, there are times when I want to cheer, but the way he's treated breaks my heart.

It is easy to see why it garnered praise from leading writers like Sandra Cisneros, who said:
"I found myself wanting to cover my eyes and shout, 'Girl, don't go there' while reading."
And Susan Power said:
"Wurth made me care for everyone in these pages, singing a powerful honor song on behalf of our young people who are fighting their way through difficult times in order to survive."
n many places, Crazy Horse's Girlfriend is unsettling, but the story Wurth tells is ultimately about the perseverance of Native people in the face of great obstacles. Published by Curbside Splendor in 2014, I highly recommend it.

AICL's Best Books of 2014

Lists! People love lists. I do, too. For those of you looking for a list of Best Books published in 2014, by American Indians/First Nations writers, and by writers who aren't Native but got-it-right, here's AICL's incomplete list. A few reviews are still in-process. Links to those reviews will be added as reviews are completed and posted. If you think I've missed something, please let me know!

Age levels are always slippery. I'm using rough categories, with the understanding that older readers can get a lot out of picture books, and because what you/I deem appropriate for any given reader depends on the reader, younger kids can read books intended for middle or high school students.

BOOKS BY NATIVE WRITERS

Comics:


Picture Books


For Middle Grade



For High School



FICTION BY NON-NATIVE WRITERS 

During 2014 I read a few books that have a fleeting reference to Native culture, or, a more in-depth one, that I want to include on this post about Best Books. They are:


NONFICTION BY NON-NATIVE WRITERS 




Yes, just three. I'm sure there are others out there. If you know of one, let me know!

And if you want to add more than just 2014 titles, see the lists in Best Books.

Tim Tingle's HOUSE OF PURPLE CEDAR

Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar is one of the best books I've ever read. Here's the cover:



As is the case with Tingle's other books, his storytelling voice radiates from the printed words in his books. Here's the first and last lines in the first paragraph of House of Purple Cedar:
The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville.
The character saying those words is a Choctaw woman named Rose Goode. She's speaking in 1967. The troubled time she speaks of is the late 1800s when she was a young girl. The troubled times themselves? There are many. A boarding school for Choctaw girls burns down, killing 20 girls inside. At the train station, a racist town marshall attacks an elderly Choctaw man in front of his grandchildren, striking him with a plank, for no reason. There's domestic abuse in the story, too.

Lot of troubling things happen, but the ugliness that births such horrors does not suck the air or life from the story Tingle tells. Instead, his story is peopled with goodness like the traveler at the train station who helps that elderly man to his feet, and Maggie, a shopkeeper in town who will play a big part in the story.

There's goodness in endearing characters like Rose's grandparents, Amafo and Pokoni. Amafo is the elderly man at the train station. News of what happened to him at the train station ripples out to Choctaws for miles around. Rose and her brother get him home. People gather there. What will they do? The school is not the only thing that was set afire. Many homes were also burned down. People are angry. Others are afraid.

There's lot of talk as the night wears on. Amafo listens quietly. Rose and Pokoni have been busy all evening cooking and feeding the people who have come to help them, to be with them. After midnight, Pokoni sits to rest. Amafo gets up and makes her some cocoa. It is one of the many moments in this book, of kindness and caring, that warms my heart. Then, Amafo talks to the Choctaws gathered there in his home. He says:
"Marshall Hardwicke expects me to stay far away from town. And if I did, this would all be forgotten. But I will never forget this day and my grandchildren will never forget this day."
Amafo has a plan. He will not show fear. He will go back to town.

Tingle's story is engrossing and inspiring. His characters will linger in your mind when you set his book down and move about your day. There's Choctaw spirituality and Christian hymns, too. There's Choctaw words, and English words. Throughout, there is a confidence in humanity.

I highly recommend House of Purple Cedar. Published in 2014 by Cinco Puntos Press, it received the kind of praise that writers hold especially dear. Gary Hobson, an esteemed scholar of Native literature, called Tingle's book a "crowning achievement" of excellence amongst Choctaw writings of the last fifteen years. Saying again: I highly recommend House of Purple Cedar.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Open Letter to VoWac Publishing Company

December 10, 2014

VoWac Publishing Company
P.O. Box 75
Faulkton, SD 57438-0075
info@vowac.com

Dear VoWac,

From your website, I see that you've been developing and providing curriculum materials for schools for 32 years. I read that you take pride in providing teachers with effective teaching tools.

Katelyn Martens, a Literacy Media Specialist, shared a page from one of your workbooks that I'd like you to reconsider. Martens received her Masters of Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. She was part of the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums Project there, where she, along with a great many people, received training in the accurate depiction of Native peoples. Such programs are vitally important because they prepare young people to work with an increasingly diverse US population. This is the page she shared with me:



The bottom half of that worksheet (and the first line, too, "The Indian___...") reflect a monolithic view of Native peoples. By that, I mean that children who use this page come away associating "Indian" with a feathered headdress, a tipi, a drum, moccasins, and a peace pipe. In fact, there are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations in the US, and there is tremendous variety in language, stories, and material culture. The headdress you use, for example, is crudely rendered but similar to what Plains Indians wear, but nothing like the headdresses worn by other men of Native Nations in other parts of the country.

The other problem is that Plains men who wear such headdresses are esteemed amongst their people for their diplomatic and spiritual leadership, and peace pipes are items of diplomacy. The way that you've shown this "Indian" not only misinforms the children completing the worksheet, it demeans Native people overall by showing that Indian in this maze activity. It may be helpful to think of other esteemed leaders in a similar maze activity. Like, perhaps, the Catholic Pope, looking for his sceptre.

With this in mind, I encourage you to remove that page and look throughout your materials for ones similar to it. These are the sorts of things that a Native child may have trouble with because it throws that child into cognitive dissonance. That dissonance may cause the child to perform poorly on that page--not because he doesn't know the rule being taught--but because Native heritage is being misrepresented and demeaned. Because there is such a high drop out rate amongst Native children, I'm sure you want to do everything you can to help, rather than hinder, their success in school.

With this worksheet, you are not providing teachers with an effective teaching tool.

Sincerely,
Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature
cc: Facebook, Twitter

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Concerns with McGraw Hill's "Reading Wonders" Curriculum

Do you remember the books you used in elementary school? The ones you used for Reading? Maybe your kids are in elementary school and their Reading books are in your home, right now. I certainly remember mine!

During November, I began to hear about the McGraw Hill "Reading Wonders" series. Or rather, I began to hear about four books in that series that people in Juneau had concerns about. The four are supplemental materials in the Reading Wonders series for 4th graders. In response to concerns, the district asked Paul Berg, a cross-cultural specialist to analyze the books. He found problems in them, as indicated in his report: Assessment of Reading Wonders Publications. The book about the Trail of Tears was evaluated by education specialists, Gloria Sly and Joseph Erb, with the Cherokee Nation. In their analysis, they stated that none of the historical information is correct.

There were meetings at the school about the books, the outcome of which is that the superintendent has set the four books aside and written to McGraw Hill about them. The four books are:

  • The Visit, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Joanne Renaud. Historical fiction. Parents visit their daughter in a boarding school.
  • Continuing On, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Dan Bridy. Historical fiction. Young Cherokee boy recounts the Trail of Tears.
  • Our Teacher the Hero, written by Terry Miller Shannon, illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Historical fiction. Biography of Sarah Winnemucca, Paiute woman who founded a school.
  • History Detectives, written by Sandy McKay. Nonfiction. Students learn about the work of archaeologists at digs of Native sites. 

I've read the analysis Mr. Berg did, and, having read the books, concur with his findings.

No doubt that McGraw Hill meant well. No doubt, Terry Miller Shannon did some research and meant to provide children with information they may not otherwise have seen. To an outsider to Native culture or to someone who doesn't study it for a living (example would be a non-Native professor in American Indian Studies), the information that Shannon provides seems good. But to a Native person for whom the content of the stories is part of family life, past and present? The books rub salt in wounds that are still raw.

In their January 2010 report for the UCLA Civil Rights Project, Education professors Faircloth and Tippeconnic studied data from the National Center for Education Statistics and called the drop out rates of Native students a crisis. This, they wrote, is not new. Native students didn't do well in the 20th century either. Here's a chilling line from their report (p. 27):
As Reyhner and others (e.g. Rumberger, 2004; Brandt, 1992) have argued, the process of dropping out or being pushed out of school is a cumulative process often precipitated by academic and personal difficulties causing students to detach from school."
Pushed out. Detached from school. Those thoughts stand out for me as I think about the McGraw Hill books. These four books are supposed to be used in the 4th grade classroom. That's one year out of a 12 year education. I wonder what is in the books for children in the grades K-3?

Most people like reading something set in their home town, or that is in some way, about them, personally or culturally. If it is well done, it feels good! Makes you smile and want to share it with others. But! If it isn't done right, it is infuriating. Some will write to the publisher or author. Some people will set that material aside and move on.

For the non-Native kids across the country who are being assigned these books, they're getting biased and incorrect information. You and I might argue about bias but I think we'd agree: incorrect information is not good. Period. In a school, there is no room for incorrect information.

Let's think now about the Native kids across the country who are reading those books and asked to respond to the questions in them. In The Visit, one question students must answer is this:
What does chatter on page 13 mean? What other word could the author use instead of chatter
A Native kid who has heard stories from his parents or grandparents who went to boarding school is likely going to be working pretty hard to set aside the whitewashing in the story so that he/she can focus on the word chatter. The "paired text" for The Visit is several pages of expository text about boarding schools. Here's a line from there:
During the 1800s, the government wanted Native Americans to learn the ways of white people.
A more accurate way to say that is this:
In the 1800s, the government wanted Native Americans to stop being Indians and be like White people. 
An even more accurate way to say it is this:
In the 1800s, the government established an educational policy for Native Americans designed around an intent to "Kill the Indian and save the man."
See the difference? All three are accurate but what they convey is different. Later, the expository text reads (p. 18):
Girls learned how to cook, sew, and do laundry.
Are McGraw-Hill and Ms. Shannon telling us that Native girls didn't know how cook, sew, and do laundry?! Think about that for a moment... Does it fit with your ideas that Indians were primitive people who lived primitive lifestyles? If so, it isn't true! You were miseducated, and kids who are reading this text are learning the same thing you did.

All four of those books cast Native people in a past tense framework. As such, the four echo and confirm misconceptions that we are not part of the present day. McGraw Hill would be taking a huge step in the right direction by including realistic fiction that shows us in the here-and-now.

Is your district using the McGraw Hill series? Should it be using these four books?

The superintendent for Juneau School District indicated that new materials will be developed to replace these. I'd love to see them. I hope they are sent to McGraw Hill, too, and that McGraw Hill steps away from well-meaning writers and turns to those with expertise on the subject. We'd all be better off.

The McGraw Hill response (quoted in Alaska Dispatch News), however, to the superintendent doesn't make me optimistic. Brian Belardi, director of media relations said that McGraw Hill is:
"respectful of the feelings of the Native communities and mindful of sensitive issues raised in these books. We are confident they are appropriate at a fourth-grade level as starting points for discussion around the experience of Native Americans."
Mr. Belardi? You are wrong. The books are not good starting points. The Native community said as much. The superintendent said so, too. You really don't sound "respectful" at all.

_____________________________________

A sampling of news stories on the meetings:
November 2, 2014: Emotions high over school curriculum, Juneau Empire.
November 11, 2014: Questioned books came as a surprise, Juneau Empire.
November 26, 2014: Decision due soon on 'distorted' school texts depicting Native tragedies, Alaska Public Media.
December 4, 2014: Juneau superintendent removes 4 Native history books from 4th-grade curriculum, Alaska Dispatch News (Note: the books are historical fiction, not history books.)

Oliver Herford's THE PETER PAN ALPHABET

A colleague in children's literature, Perry Nodelman, has been sharing his collection of images of Indians in Peter Pan books illustrated by various authors over the last 100 years. If you want to see them, search twitter using #EthnographicInaccuracy.

Among them is Oliver Herford's The Peter Pan Alphabet, published in 1907. Here's the cover:



Here's the title page:



You can read the whole thing if you want to: The Peter Pan Alphabet.  I'm interested in two pages. Here's the page for the letter I:



And here's the page for the letter R:



Some of you might be sighing with relief, thinking that the 1907 publication year of this book means that such things are of-the-past. They aren't.

In the ever-popular Caddie Woodlawn a "scalp belt" figures prominently. The townspeople fear being scalped. And I trust readers of AICL are well aware of a professional football team in Washington DC that is named "Redskins." Setting aside that word, note Herbert's "What a Treat to see "Injuns" sit up and Behave!" Why did he put Injuns in quotation marks? The "sit up and behave" indicates he thought that Native people were... Lazy? Wild? Out of control? Naughty?!

Interestingly, that "wild Indian" appears in Caddie Woodlawn! Caddie is a tomboy. People ask her mom when she's going to make a "young lady" out of this "wild Indian."

My point in sharing these two pages from Herford's 1907 book? To note that those sentiments are still very much a part of today's society. 

Monday, December 08, 2014

Rebecca Heller's FALLING ROCK

Sometime in November I received an email from Rebecca Heller asking if I'd review her book, Falling Rock. What little I saw of it suggested it was stereotypical. Because it was a self-published book, I chose not to review it. But I'm hearing from others who have been asked to review it, so decided to take a look.

The main character is a boy named Falling Rock. Because there are tipis in the illustrations, I think the author and illustrator (Joyce Robertson, the author's mother) would like us to think the story is about Plains Indians. The boy loves his horse, Runs Like Thunder. But one day, the horse is stolen by men from another tribe. The boy, distraught, is told by his grandmother that his ancestors will give him a sign when it is time for him to go find his horse.

He has a dream about a coyote and takes that as the sign to go off in search of his horse. His grandma gives him a feather before he goes, that will "help guide you." So off he goes in search of his horse. As Heller's story continues, there's an eagle, and a canoe and a turtle--all of which come to mind when a lot of people think about Native people.

As he travels, more and more people hear about his search and want to help him. Here's what they do:
They wanted to help Falling Rock know where he had already looked, so they placed large yellow signs with his name in big black letters at the bends in the roads, high in the mountains, and down in the valleys--anywhere that the boy searched for his horse.
The art for that page is this (it is also the cover of the book):


Yes--that's a road sign. You've seen it before. I've seen it before. This story was in trouble before I got to that page.

As the boy continues his search he comes across a group of people (unstated, but they are Native people) traveling. Falling Rock asks them why they're sad. One of the men says:
"We are being taken to a reservation."
Suffice it to say that I'd been growing more and more frustrated with this story, and on reading "being taken to a reservation" -- well, I was appalled.

In the end, the boy finds his horse. Here's what the author says at the very end of her story:
There are many written and oral versions of the story of Falling Rock, which are often told when a sign is passed on a long and windy mountain road. This tale is told with respect and honor to all of them. 
In interviews, Heller says that she heard this story as a child, at camp, and that it stayed with her:
The concept of the story of Falling Rock is not a new one, it has been told around the campfire hundreds of times in many different forms. It was first told to me as a camper by my camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place. I don't remember if he told me any other details, but that idea always stayed with me. I love the magic of something so ordinary meaning something extraordinary. I think even at eight years old, I knew it wasn't true, but I loved the idea just the same. Even as an adult when I pass one of the signs, I still think, "Falling Rock was here." - See more at: http://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/stories/falling-rock.html#sthash.aojlceNf.dpuf
The concept of the story of Falling Rock is not a new one, it has been told around the campfire hundreds of times in many different forms. It was first told to me as a camper by my camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place. I don't remember if he told me any other details, but that idea always stayed with me. I love the magic of something so ordinary meaning something extraordinary. I think even at eight years old, I knew it wasn't true, but I loved the idea just the same. Even as an adult when I pass one of the signs, I still think, "Falling Rock was here." - See more at: http://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/stories/falling-rock.html#sthash.aojlceNf.dpuf
The concept of the story of Falling Rock is not a new one, it has been told around the campfire hundreds of times in many different forms. It was first told to me as a camper by my camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place. I don't remember if he told me any other details, but that idea always stayed with me. I love the magic of something so ordinary meaning something extraordinary. I think even at eight years old, I knew it wasn't true, but I loved the idea just the same. Even as an adult when I pass one of the signs, I still think, "Falling Rock was here." - See more at: http://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/stories/falling-rock.html#sthash.aojlceNf.dpuf
It was first told to me as a camper by a camp counselor. I was probably around eight years old, and can vividly remember hiking through the woods in Northern California while my counselor unfolded the tale. He told me that whenever you see a road sign that reads "Falling Rock" it is because a Native American named Falling Rock was spotted in that place.
I want to be kind to Ms. Heller, but again, I'm appalled. That she turned a camp story into this story, and that she's contacting Native people, asking us to read her story leaves me staring at my screen, fingers hovering over my keyboard, wondering what to say!

For now I'll say this: camp stories are often campy. And they're often stereotypical with regards to Native peoples. This one about "Falling Rock" is not campy. It is a mockery of names, and with the "taken to a reservation" page, Heller weaves horrific history into this mockery. (I found one similar to it here at a scout page, with a character named Falling Rock in a story called "The Story of Running Deer.")

How did she not know this would be problematic?

My thought? Her story, well-meaning and well-intentioned, shows just how ignorant the American public can be about Native peoples. The one good thing? She couldn't get it published. I'd like to say that editors were turning it down because they saw its many flaws, but similarly bad things have been published--and have done very well, too.

Need I say: Rebecca Heller's Falling Rock is not recommended.